Thursday, June 24, 2004

Expat Blues, First In A Series

I got an e-mail yesterday from a friend who reads this blog, and it got me thinking about some stuff I believe lots of people don't consider when they fantasize about moving abroad.

This friend was expressing severe disenchantment, both with the small village he'd moved to originally, and the mid-sized city in another country than he'd originally though he was moving to. (This is because his wife, in order to take early retirement, has to do a couple of years' service abroad). He was saying he'd rather be back home, or in Amsterdam, or in Montpellier, the place I'm fantasizing about moving to, a mid-sized city with a large university in a country with decent food.

Now, I don't know what's really eating him, and I won't til we sit down and actually talk it out, so let me just tell him that the following comments aren't aimed at you at all, dude: don't take 'em personally.

The fact is, though, that unless you're someone who's spent lots of time in another country and then decides to move there -- and I mean lots of time -- then you're in for some surprises. Chances are, they won't be pleasant ones, either. For instance, after I moved to Germany, I discovered a number of interesting things people never talk about. There's no free speech, for one thing. What that means in practice is that you can't espouse Nazi positions in public, give the stiff-armed "heil Hitler" salute, possess a copy of Mein Kampf or any number of other pieces of memorabilia. Nor can you belong to a number of banned political parties, many of which are on the left. I actually perpetrated a hate crime, I was told, when in perfect innocence I said on my JazzRadio show that I found Chick Corea's proselytizing for Scientology obnoxious. At the time, Scientology was recognized by Germany as a religion, and it was the same as if I'd said I found Jews obnoxious. Or Catholics, for that matter. More insidiously, there's no civil rights law here. When Karen and Michael had their restaurant, their kitchen help was mostly Bangladeshi (this is true in many fine restaurants here, incidentally), and she tried to get them apartments. Karen called one ad in the paper after another, stating that this was for her kitchen help, and was told, cheerfully and straightforwardly "We don't rent to black men." Sorry.

These are things I have to live with, just as I have to live with registering my address with the police. That law is absolute, as much an infringement on my privacy as I, as an American, may feel it is. But I did it. I had to. Likewise (although an order of magnitude lesser) I put up with the absurd store-closing laws, enacted, it was claimed, to keep families together: if people have to work on Sundays, well, who knows what might happen to society?

One thing that I know bothers my friend is the lack of black and other non-white faces in the street. I've tried to explain to him that he's in Europe, which is, like, where white folks come from, but I can't stop his visceral reaction to it. (And, true, it's not nearly as much the case in Berlin). When the number of these faces reach a certain tipping point, you wind up with frightened people electing virulent right-wingers like the ones who've taken over the Danish government. The German CDU, the conservatives, play on this fear in very insidious ways, especially in the days just before the elections.

But then I think, hey, someone from here who emigrates to the U.S. is going to get some rude shocks, too. The fact that you can espouse Nazi opinion in public, for instance. Or the absurd liquor laws: no, you can't walk down the street drinking a beer or have an open container of alcohol in your car, even if you haven't had any of it and it's just a bottle of wine in the back seat that you're bringing home from a friend's house. You can't take your clothes off to sunbathe in the park, either.

I think the solution to this is to find a balance. You find the different things that are good -- the farmer's markets, the art, the music, the holiday traditions, the soccer fever -- the things that are excitingly different, and you concentrate on them. Or you leave. Because just as you're not going to stop the people where you are from speaking their native language and you have to learn at least some of it in order to cope (although I've got a friend who's been here five or more years and still has literally learned not one word of German), you have to deal with the society you've chosen to live in. I don't know anyone at all who's trying to change the free-speech or civil rights situation here, and, maybe because I'm not a black Nazi, it's not such a big deal to me. If you're in the right place, the trade-off won't seem so onerous. If it seems like it is, it's time to figure out which you'd rather change, society, yourself, or where you live.

No comments: