From Montana to Berlin: Reflections on inhabiting two cultures

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.

From Montana to Berlin: Reflections on inhabiting two cultures
The author in her adopted home of Berlin. Photo: Eva C. Schweitzer

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.

SEE ALSO: Where in Germany do all of the Americans live?

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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EXPLAINED: Berlin’s latest Covid rules

In response to rapidly rising Covid-19 infection rates, the Berlin Senate has introduced stricter rules, which came into force on Saturday, November 27th. Here's what you need to know.

A sign in front of a waxing studio in Berlin indicates the rule of the 2G system
A sign in front of a waxing studio indicates the rule of the 2G system with access only for fully vaccinated people and those who can show proof of recovery from Covid-19 as restrictions tighten in Berlin. STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

The Senate agreed on the tougher restrictions on Tuesday, November 23rd with the goal of reducing contacts and mobility, according to State Secretary of Health Martin Matz (SPD).

He explained after the meeting that these measures should slow the increase in Covid-19 infection rates, which was important as “the situation had, unfortunately, deteriorated over the past weeks”, according to media reports.

READ ALSO: Tougher Covid measures needed to stop 100,000 more deaths, warns top German virologist

Essentially, the new rules exclude from much of public life anyone who cannot show proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19. You’ll find more details of how different sectors are affected below.

If you haven’t been vaccinated or recovered (2G – geimpft (vaccinated) or genesen (recovered)) from Covid-19, then you can only go into shops for essential supplies, i.e. food shopping in supermarkets or to drugstores and pharmacies.

Many – but not all – of the rules for shopping are the same as those passed in the neighbouring state of Brandenburg in order to avoid promoting ‘shopping tourism’ with different restrictions in different states.

2G applies here, too, as well as the requirement to wear a mask with most places now no longer accepting a negative test for entry. Only minors are exempt from this requirement.

Sport, culture, clubs
Indoor sports halls will off-limits to anyone who hasn’t  been vaccinated or can’t show proof of recovery from Covid-19. 2G is also in force for cultural events, such as plays and concerts, where there’s also a requirement to wear a mask. 

In places where mask-wearing isn’t possible, such as dance clubs, then a negative test and social distancing are required (capacity is capped at 50 percent of the maximum).

Restaurants, bars, pubs (indoors)
You have to wear a mask in all of these places when you come in, leave or move around. You can only take your mask off while you’re sat down. 2G rules also apply here.

Hotels and other types of accommodation 
Restrictions are tougher here, too, with 2G now in force. This means that unvaccinated people can no longer get a room, even if they have a negative test.

For close-contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, it’s up to the service providers themselves to decide whether they require customers to wear masks or a negative test.

Football matches and other large-scale events
Rules have changed here, too. From December 1st, capacity will be limited to 5,000 people plus 50 percent of the total potential stadium or arena capacity. And only those who’ve been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 will be allowed in. Masks are also compulsory.

For the Olympic Stadium, this means capacity will be capped at 42,000 spectators and 16,000 for the Alte Försterei stadium. 

3G rules – ie vaccinated, recovered or a negative test – still apply on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, trams and buses in Berlin. It was not possible to tighten restrictions, Matz said, as the regulations were issued at national level.

According to the German Act on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, people have to wear a surgical mask or an FFP2 mask  on public transport.

Christmas markets
The Senate currently has no plans to cancel the capital’s Christmas markets, some of which have been open since Monday. 

According to Matz, 2G rules apply and wearing a mask is compulsory.

Schools and day-care
Pupils will still have to take Covid tests three times a week and, in classes where there are at least two children who test positive in the rapid antigen tests, then tests should be carried out daily for a week.  

Unlike in Brandenburg, there are currently no plans to move away from face-to-face teaching. The child-friendly ‘lollipop’ Covid tests will be made compulsory in day-care centres and parents will be required to confirm that the tests have been carried out. Day-care staff have to document the results.

What about vaccination centres?
Berlin wants to expand these and set up new ones, according to Matz. A new vaccination centre should open in the Ring centre at the end of the week and 50 soldiers from the German army have been helping at the vaccination centre at the Exhibition Centre each day since last week.

The capacity in the new vaccination centre in the Lindencenter in Lichtenberg is expected to be doubled. There are also additional vaccination appointments so that people can get their jabs more quickly. Currently, all appointments are fully booked well into the new year.