From Montana to Berlin: Reflections on inhabiting two cultures

From Montana to Berlin: Reflections on inhabiting two cultures
The author in her adopted home of Berlin. Photo: Eva C. Schweitzer
When author Donna Swarthout moved to Berlin with her family in 2010, she was not expecting to still call the capital home eight years later. From a lack of smiling in public to plentiful public transport, she describes the aspects of German culture which still stand in stark contrast to her home state of Montana.

When I step through the U-Bahn doors and drop into one of the blue-red-grey leopard print vinyl seats, the moment is almost as familiar as slipping under the covers of my bed at night.

Like the magic of sweet slumber, I surrender myself to the movements of the little yellow car that hurtles along the tracks of a public transit system that whisks me to points near and far, traversing the game board of Berlin through a series of interconnected routes and signals.

I was born to parents who came to America as German Jewish refugees and had no desire to share their German roots with me. Germany seeped in through the cracks in whispered conversations and boiled tongue and potato salad on the supper table.

Unlike many of my American friends in Berlin who are married to Germans, I’m married to an American and we speak English at home. I speak German with an American accent and smile too much to pass as a German. My world is the nether space between the twin cultures of Germany and America.

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Daily cultural pleasures of life

From my seat on the train, I watch the live show dished up by my adopted city – a fast forward spin through humanity in all its forms, a place where the destitute and mentally ill peacefully co-exist with the masses en route to work and school. Whether above or below ground, this communal melting pot is united in motion until the car doors swoosh back open and its occupants spill out on to the platform.

An U-Bahn passes over Berlin's Oberbaumbrücke. Photo: DPA

Back in Montana I’d be gassing up my SUV to make the drive to Target, a routine four-mile trip to stock up on necessities and throw a few unnecessary items into my cart. I have fond memories of the times when my kids used to play hide and seek amidst Target’s seascape of clothing racks and wreak havoc among the shoppers.

We don’t have many big box stores in Berlin and I rarely venture into those we do have because I don’t have a car to schlep my stuff home. Besides, like most of my fellow Berliners, I’m a daily shopper now, alternating between the best bakeries and markets within walking distance of my apartment.

The daily cultural pleasures of life in Berlin haven’t worn off after eight years in this city. My ecstasy when asparagus season (Spargelzeit) arrives in the spring makes me feel a little more German, though I lack enthusiasm for the transition to chanterelles in the fall and brussel sprouts in the winter. Montana’s comfort food culture has just the right parallels here too.

A nice hot plate of Käsespätzle on a winter’s night in Berlin is as comforting as a bowl of mac and cheese back home, not to mention the mouth-watering shawarma and kebab to be found in every corner of the city. The sounds of Turkish, Russian, Arabic, and German have become the sounds of home.

Most cultural adaptations have been easy to make. We keep quiet on Sunday mornings, no recycling or practising instruments so as not to disturb the other residents in our building. I’ve learned to shake hands with the parents at my son’s soccer games, something I wouldn’t normally do in the States.

I don’t make many cultural faux pas, though I’m occasionally met with puzzled looks when I pronounce words with an umlaut in the wrong place. When we moved from our apartment just off Görresstraße, it was such a relief because I never could pronounce the name of that street quite right.

A wide-open space between cultures

But how integrated am I really? Do the habits and customs I’ve embraced make me something more than an expat? When I was younger and learned how to play the flute and saxophone, I reached a plateau that I couldn’t seem to surpass. As my learning curve flattened out, so too did my motivation to practice. In Germany I’ve reached a similar plateau, a wide-open space through which I comfortably navigate without pushing myself to become more deeply integrated.

The 'Bierpinsel', a futuristic piece of architecture built on the main street of Steglitz in the 1970s. Photo: DPA

My neighborhood of Steglitz has an abundance of little old ladies who shuffle along on their daily errands with a walker.  It’s very peaceful and quiet in this part of Berlin and I smile to myself when I think of all the sceptics who question how safe it is for a Jewish family to live in Germany.

My elderly neighbours appear too harmless to be neo-Nazis, though one day I was shocked at the bus stop to hear a couple of them complaining about the noisy immigrants who lived in a nearby building. I got in their faces and told them “Berlin ist eine Stadt für alle!” (Berlin is a city for everyone!) and then boarded the bus and silently glared at them from my seat. But such incidents are a rarity in my experience.

Smiling again

I’ve come to enjoy inhabiting the space at the nexus of German and American culture. Globalization doesn’t require of us that we become fully integrated, but rather that we are culturally intelligent and sensitive to our diverse neighbors. Curiosity is the fuel that powers the expat experience, pushing us to understand what’s unfamiliar and tugging us out of our prescribed and all too familiar cultural domain.

This summer I’ll trade my usual hikes around the lakes and forests of Berlin for strolls on the beach with family in California. I can’t wait to have some real Mexican food and stock up on my favourite American products.

I’ll smile and say hello to strangers just like I do in Montana. I’ll embrace the familiar just as I embrace the unknown in Berlin. When I meet new people I won’t describe myself as an expat, just someone who happens to live in Germany.

Donna Swarthout is a writer based in Berlin. Her book, A Place They Called Home. Reclaiming Citizenship. Stories of a New Jewish Return to Germany was published by Berlinica in December 2018.

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