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Thursday, June 24, 2010

Last impressions, first impressions.

My family and I moved yesterday. After spending my entire life in the American West, living the whole time in an area with a radius of about 200 miles in Colorado and New Mexico, I now live in Berlin, Germany.

We don't have jobs. We don't speak the language. We don't have a trust fund. We are here, in large part, because Wendy, my wife, and Elena and Lydia, our daughters, are German citizens, though this is the first time they've ever been to Germany. Long story (I'll fill you in later).

Two days ago now, in the space/time warp that occurs when one travels by jet over oceans and through time zones, we left our friends' house in Boulder and drove our overloaded car down the freeway to the Denver airport. My final impression of America was not necessarily of the airport, because an airport is not really of a country, but of the predominant view from the toll road which skirts Denver's suburban edge. There was the odd view of hundreds of houses, each almost identical to the one next to it, sprouting from the rolling, grassy hills as if they were geometrically-correct weeds. It was an appropriate last impression, I think.

Just a day earlier, we went to the Boulder Apple store, which is located in one of those newfangled outdoor mall sorts of things meant to resemble a downtown, I guess. My daughter, Elena, looked around and insisted we had been to this mall before: She vividly remembered the same Apple Store, the Anthropologie, the Jamba Juice, the AT&T store. We hadn't been there before, though we had visited an identical mall in Tucson a year-and-a-half earlier. I tried to explain to Elena that there were probably many other malls just like that one all over the country. But for her, the whole idea was maddening. She couldn't get over the notion that she had been to THAT mall once before. America.

Americans are masters at obliteration of place -- I don't mean the literal destruction of a place, although there's also that, but the voiding of any sense of difference between one place and another. We find comfort in the fact that we can feel like we're in Boulder even when we're in Tucson; we like to know that McDonalds in Paris is just the same as the one in Grand Junction. The houses with which we cover the grasslands of Colorado are no different than those we assemble on the edges of Reno, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, Phoenix.

This happens all over, of course: I won't be surprised if I find the same mall here in Berlin. Yet the Americans certainly have perfected this art of erasure of place. After all, home delivery of the New York Times at our house in tiny Paonia, Colorado, was a piece of the same phenomenon, as is the tasty Nepalese restaurant in downtown Grand Junction. These are means of transcending the local. Also, efforts to preserve "place" can get all tied up with efforts to preserve culture, which in certain contexts can look a lot like xenophobia, chauvinism, racism, ultra-nationalism. Thank goodness the Germans didn't try to preserve their place by instituting a German-only law or something.

Flying into Germany, I noticed this: A huge flat green plain. It's carved up into fields, and villages. Interspersed here and there are thick, dark forests. The villages are all tidily contained, and don't sprawl out into surrounding fields. Giant wind turbines sit at many a town's edge. Unlike the Wyoming wind farms, these are more frequent, though they appear to each be of a smaller scale.

On the outskirts of Berlin, a huge forest. Lakes, rivers, canals. A barge hauling coal. A nuclear power plant.

Our apartment for the next five weeks has three rooms. High ceilings. White walls. A view onto a tree-lined street and an old building across the way with flower-filled balconies. It's not unlike neighborhoods in Paris. Except everyone is speaking German, which sounds nothing like French except that it, too, is quite foreign to my ears. But it's that very foreignness that ensures me I am in a place. A different place. Out of place. Now I must try to make this place mine. It is terrifying and exciting all at once.

1 comment:

Bob Berwyn said...

Looking forward to following your adventure. Let me know if you need some quick help with German - you can use Twitter (@bberwyn) for a quick response. I grew up over there as an army brat. How fun to be there for the World Cup! My son and I were in Germany during the 2006 WC - here's a story that includes some cultural/political comparisons:
Enjoy and ... Prost!