Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Two Further Thoughts on Al and Beate

I've been meaning to add some stuff to the previous post, but this has been a week of scrambling for stories and waiting for answers -- none of which have yet arrived, of course. But I'm leaving for the Netherlands and France on Friday morning, and have a few deadlines before then, so I thought I'd grab some time this afternoon to post two further reflections on the Du Bist Deutschland matter.

The first is a story, which may seem a tangent, but hold on, it should pay off.

Some six or seven years ago, my friend The Count had a birthday party at his favorite restaurant, and his wife invited me to join them. From his odd grab-bag of acquaintences he had, as usual, made a great selection so that conversation at the table was always on the highest level, and intellectually and socially enriching. In particular, I was enchanted by a young woman who worked in the Berlin art world, and, when the party adjourned to the bar next door, we continued to talk. She seemed to be as smart as she was good-looking, and she was very, very smart.

The next morning I was delighted to find her business card in the pocket of my pants, and wasted no time getting in touch with her. We spent an evening having dinner and hitting a couple of the illegal clubs which flourished on the east side back in those days, both of us marvelling at how utterly mundane they were and how the local and international media made such a big deal out of nothing: one much-vaunted avant-garde musical space/club consisted of one bored DJ putting on one record after another, and a few bored people sitting on cushions drinking Becks. She took me to a club frequented by artists which was just as stimulating, albeit more crowded. We finally left, she hailed a taxi, we agreed to do it again sometime soon, and she blew me a kiss as the cab sailed off.

Thus started the weirdest courtship I've ever had. I use such an old-fashioned word because, unless we collided at some point during that first night out, I never laid a hand on her over the course of the year this thing lasted. We'd go out to some event, hang out, and say good-night. It didn't take me long to figure out that there was something in her past that made it a bad idea to make advances too quickly, so out of respect I held back. We were also both busy: I was not only doing a lot of work for the Wall Street Journal Europe, but I was also starting a company that was going to publish a magazine, a website, and maintain a clearing house for information on the city in English, and she was involved with dozens of art projects here and in other countries, so hooking up was always a problem, but it was always fun when we did.

About six months into this, she confessed that she suffered from clinical depression, and I told her I had been given a piece of advice about that which had worked like a charm: a regimen of physical excercise, which, in my case, meant an hour's walk every day, enough to elevate my heartbeat and give myself a good workout. Coincidentally, she lived a block away from where I had lived when I'd first moved to town, so I had a path I'd worked out that took exactly the 55 minutes you're supposed to do this for, and I offered to show her. That turned out to be a particularly wonderful afternoon, and I made her a cassette of some of the music we'd talked about afterwards, as much in thanks for her turning me onto some great art that I'd been able to turn into Journal articles as for anything.

In return I got an e-mail saying "I must lower my dosage of you. Please do not contact me for a while."

So I didn't. Still, the world we moved in was small enough that we ran into each other again, and the old attraction was still there. But again, she backed off. I had to go back to the States on an emergency, and at one point I remember being in a bit of turmoil, so I took the car and drove out into the Arizona desert, determined to hash this all out or drive to Las Vegas, whichever came first. Fortunately, I came to a decision well before the Nevada state line: when I got back, I'd lay it all on the line and ask her what it was that was bothering her, because I wanted this thing to move forward.

I'm a little hazy on how things finally got to where they did, because I was busy putting out a magazine by then, as well as holding down a three-day-a-week radio show and travelling and writing stories for the Journal, but I do remember sending her an avant-garde flower arrangement done by a professional florist friend from New York and getting snarled at for it, and finally, on the telephone, of all things, the confession and explanation of The Thing In Her Past. At last, what I'd needed to know, and yes, it was pretty much what I figured it was, and this was the point at which, in my experience, you could actually start a relationship.

But not her. At the climax of her long, sad, and sordid tale, she said "Now that I have told you this, I never want to see you again. Don't try to contact me. I won't read e-mails, and if you call I will hang up on you without a word. I will never speak to you again, so don't try to talk to me!" and she banged down the phone. I knew she wasn't kidding or bluffing, either: she'd once told me of the great joy she'd had frustrating a guy she'd broken up with by hanging up every time he called. "I always have the last word," she'd said at the time, "because I mean what I say."

So I was sitting here at my desk, half glad it had resolved itself, half wondering what the hell had happened when the phone rang. Naturally, I answered.

"Hi, Ed, it's Albert!" said a merry voice on the other end. Now, Albert is a guy I barely know, a sometime journalist who checks in with me about every two or three years. He is actually so crazy he spends his summers in Florida, where it's too hot to walk on the beach, and his winters in Berlin, where it's cold, dark, and miserable. "What's happening?" he fairly chirped.

So I told him. Hey, he asked.

There was a brief silence on the other end, and he said "Ed! Don'cha know? German girls all hate themselves!"

There followed one of those moments when thousands of pieces of experience all tumble into place and form a picture. A theory has made order out of chaos. And this Albert was no Einstein, believe me.

But over the next couple of days, I kept sticking my failed relationships with German women into the template, and found that I didn't have to force any of it. Compulsive sexual experimentation? Check. Inability to find a career suited to your intelligence? Check. A long string of abusive guys? Check. Preference for guys with half your IQ? Check. And more. Oh, so much more.

A couple of weeks later I was in Copenhagen doing a Journal story, and, as usual, I had dinner with my pal Scandigirl. "So are you still going out with the Art Babe?" she asked. (She'd seen her picture in German GQ and had been much impressed). No, I said, and told her the story, right down to Albert's phone call. "Oh," Scandigirl said, "I don't know if I agree. I think German men hate themselves, too." And, since she had some experience here, I had to defer to her.

Okay, see how that fits into Du Bist Deutschland?

But there's something else. When the dancer read my post on Du Bist Deutschland, she said "Oh, Beate Uhse is a hero!" and then said something about how there had been a law that was only taken off the books in the 1970s which had stipulated that women had to have written permission from their husbands to work outside the home, and many other things. Once I asked for details, she backpedalled a bit, but we're still looking into this so-called "alte Familienrecht," which also regulated under which circumstances one could get a divorce.

And so this fits into it, too: feminism, as we know it in the United States, at least, never really happened in Germany. Like many new ideas, it came into public discourse through academia, of all things, and so by the time it hit the average woman, it was tainted with connotations of elitism and extremism, which its proponents in the universities never bothered to challenge. Feminists were often rightly accused of being man-hating lesbians, and lesbians weren't part of the common experience of the average Hausfrau, sheltered as she was by the Familienrecht. Getting a job was illegal unless the Herr (the word also means "lord" and is the one used to address God in the Bible) allowed it. The sort of gradual feminism, the Ms magazine kind, the kind gently introduced into the womens' magazines, that we got in the States -- where there was still a lot of opposition, and still is -- never happened in Germany. True, feminism grew apart from its academic/theoretical beginnings, and true, there are plenty of women in places of power (including the Chancellery, of course) in some parts of German society today, but its landing in the mainstream was more a belly-flop than a graceful three-pointer. There just have to be ambiguous feelings. Residual ones, perhaps, but they just have to persist.

So I'm contemplating a society that doesn't like itself, a population of self-hating men and women, men who hate women, women who hate men, and everyone hating themselves. A portrait drawn with far broader strokes than is realistic, of course, and one verging on a cartoon. Yet, if there's a kernel of truth there -- and I believe there is -- then a part of the malaise has been diagnosed.

I got an e-mail from The French Guy, a regular reader, when I posted my travails with Bewag/Vattenfall a couple of weeks ago, asking me if I really thought that the French fonctionnaires were going to be any different than the German Beamte, and I had to confess that no, I didn't. But to move from a society that doesn't think highly enough of itself to one that thinks far too highly of itself ought to feel like a homecoming: I am, after all, American.

I'm just hoping that the rioting which has resulted from excessive self-regard causing disregard of others will have cooled off some by the time I head down to Montpellier on Saturday. But stay tuned.

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