Saturday, September 18, 2004

Deutscher and Digideroos

I'd like to thank the mighty Cynthia Barnes for turning me on to this wonderful essay by a half-Irish, half-German novelist named Hugo Hamilton, which appeared in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago. I've been meaning to write about this, especially in reference to vacations, but it's a tough subject, and I always felt just a bit of trepidation about approaching it.

Hamilton's saved me a lot of the work, though, and you should take a minute to read this. The basic idea, that Germans will do just about anything to avoid being "German," is a profound one, and reaches to the root of one of my basic dislikes about this place. It's sticky, as Hamilton points out, because of World War II, to be "proud" of being German, but I think people here have taken it to a ridiculous point of self-abasement. Some of this shows up in what I've always thought of as the "Italian Restaurant Syndrome," and it also manifests itself in what I've thought of as the "World Music Syndrome."

"Italian Restaurant Syndrome" is something you observe if you dine in the sort of Italian restaurants here patronized by the sort of people who vacation in Italy. These folks don't just buy a guidebook and launch themselves into the countryside, or take a guided tour. They learn Italian, take Italian cooking lessons, educate themselves about Italian wine, learn some political history and art history, and then launch themselves into the countryside. In fact, they may have done a year abroad in school to learn the language and pick up the rest gradually, via osmosis. But when they're home in Berlin they always talk to the waiter in Italian (which causes confusion in one of my favorite joints, because everyone there is from the Sicilian countryside, where, as one Italian-speaking German I know says, "they speak...African or something"), and affect a kind of "we're all friends" bonhomie which goes against the server/served relationship the restaurant tries to keep going in order to preserve order.

In extreme cases of this syndrome, these people venture to Italy, strike up a relationship with a wine exporter, and open an Italian deli, which the husband usually quits his job to run. There, he waits morosely, leaning his head on his hands, elbows on the cooler case, in which rest the same 17 sun-dried tomatoes, 15 discs of grilled eggplant in olive oil, 250 grams of taleggio cheese, and half-salami of odd provenance as were there yesterday. There are about 27 different wines on display, all in quantities of five or six -- probably three cases apiece were ordered -- and the one distinguishing characteristic of all of these places: no customers. This is because, due to the extreme conservatism Germans show when they go into business for themselves, the deli has probably opened in close proximity to two or three other Italian delis, the thinking being "Bella Italia is doing well, so that means that people who want to buy this kind of thing come to this street," not "Bella Italia seems to have this block whipped; I should look for somewhere else." But as long as they can keep this feeling of deep attachment to a country where life is easier because it's not Germany, and as long as their life's savings don't evaporate, they exude a melancholy sort of peacefulness.

World Music Syndrome affects a somewhat younger, less affluent demographic. Since there's very little identifiably German music to listen to (and what there is, called "Volksmusik," is not only identified with Bavaria and the far right, but is also really, really bad), and since they want to reject the hegemonic capitalistic axis of the Anglo-American music industry, they gravitate to the music of other cultures. This movement is seen all over Europe, actually, and there's a lot of salutary things to be said about it, despite the large number of assholes in the industry itself, but the world music listened to in Germany falls into a couple of identifiable categories.

First is that which is motivated by guilt. The guilty fan becomes fond of Turkish music or the Balkan brass bands, not because they are interested in the former's century-old classical tradition or the latter's undeniable groove and anarchy, but because these are People Who Have Been Treated Badly -- By Us. Smart members of these minorities quickly learn to adopt a mantle of victimhood, whether or not they actually feel it, when they're around these Guilty Germans. For one thing, it's an easy way to get laid.

Of course, the real Guilt World Music is klezmer, which Germans argue is the Only Jewish Music, conveniently forgetting that Jews have always been dispersed into other cultures and have taken on aspects of their musical traditions, so that there's North African Jewish music, for instance, which dates to the centuries that the Arabs ruled Spain. But klezmer has the advantage of having been played by Jews who were forced out of places like Poland, Russia, and, yes, Germany and who had to emigrate to the U.S., where they invented a show-biz music that drew on traditional elements from the Old Country as well as the jazziness and pep of the New World. An astonishing number of otherwise intelligent young Germans really do believe that before Hitler and the pogroms, Eastern Europe was dotted with little villages filled with Fiddler on the Roof-style Hasidim, tootling on clarinets and living colorful, but persecuted, lives.

The other strain of World Music Syndrome here is that which is motivated by envy. This is why you almost never see any of the Scandinavian folk bands here, the Catalan revival hasn't made a dent, Eliza Carthy and the new Brits don't get a look in, township jive and Congolese rhumba are absent from the world music festivals, but baby, are there ever drum ensembles! You see, the audience for this stuff is the young version of the folks Hamilton's writing about, miserable because they know they can't be free and spontaneous because then they'd unleash the dragon that sits inside them because of their German birthright. They envy these handsome black men with the gleaming muscles who pound drums -- No melody! No lyrics! Nothing but elemental rhythm! -- because they're free and, uh, primitive, and have a direct line to their primitive freedom! Oh, to be like that! a German, it's impossible, I'm afraid. That there might be just the teensiest tinge of racism in all of this, of course, never occurs to them. (Nor do drum troupes have to be African all the time: numerous Japanese kodo groups come through Berlin each year).

This idea crystallized in my head in the aftermath of an incident where I'd gone to the House of World Cultures, probably to talk to someone at Radio Multikulti, probably about a job I couldn't get because I was a hegemonic capitalist American sonofabitch. Since it was during the daytime, it wasn't easy to find a way out of the building, and I stumbled on an outdoor courtyard in which an Ausralian aborigine was teaching a digideroo-carving class. Around him were a number of very earnest-looking college-age (which here means under 38) men, all working on their hunk of tree-trunk or whatever it is you carve them out of, and the aborigine was saying something (in English) about "you must carve your dreams," to one of the Germans, who was looking baffled. At that point, I must have had a wry grin on my face, because the Australian flashed me a "I can't believe I'm getting paid well to do this, and at the public expense" look, and I walked away, hoping none of those young men was a neighbor of mine. Digideroo practice is hell, and you just know those guys were gonna practice. After all, they're German.

A side-thought: the absolute antithesis of the syndrome Hamilton writes about is, of course, France. And after eleven years of living with this syndrome, I'm about ready for France. The French, far from being self-effacing and guilt-ridden like the Germans, are arrogant. So, I need hardly say, are Americans. I think one problem I've always had here is that I've had trouble dealing with this flaw in Germany. I was born and raised in an arrogant society. Better the devil you know, and all of that.

And France has much better music.

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