Mittwoch, 30. Januar 2008

Hans Glück (Promethean 2007)

My love for German food and the German language returned. Most Thursdays after therapy, I strolled down the three blocks of Sauerkraut Boulevard/ East 86th Street. Yorkville in the early 80s, before the onslaught of PC Richards, Victoria’s Secret, and Footlocker mega stores had the flavor of a German neighborhood. Restaurants, named Heidelberg, Ideal, and Café Geiger, served Jägerschnitzel, Sauerbraten, and excellent draught beer. Elk’s Candy carried the best marzipan this side of the Atlantic. In the evenings, zither and accordion players entertained the crowd. Before I started my long haul back to TriBeCa, I always treated myself to Kaffee und Kuchen, Germany’s version of High Tea, at Kleine Konditorei. Their rich Black Forest tart, almost as good as my mother’s, never failed to improve my mood.

In Germany, being German was an ordeal, a full time job. Everyday we dealt with our parents and grandparents’ guilt, the heavy load we had inherited. On American TV, my compatriots were Nazis, deranged psychiatrists, or Bavarians in Lederhosen. They were barking orders, or slapping their legs doing the Schuhplattler dance. I was no longer troubled or insulted by it. Here in New York, at Kleine Konditorei, I shamelessly indulged in my Germaness.

Kleine Konditorei, proud of its home cooking and gut bürgerlich ambiance, kept the Teutonic theme under control. No antlers on the wall, no decorative steins, or yodeling over the sound system, just immaculately clean windows and floors, red fabric chairs and sofas, starched white linen tablecloths, and fine china. New York offered a multitude of restaurant experiences, but it did not have a coffee house culture like European cities. Kleine Konditorei, a pitiable substitute for Berlin’s Café Einstein was the next best thing. I could linger for hours in a comfortable upholstered chair over a Kännchen Kaffee without being harassed by the wait staff to place another order every twenty minutes.

Anita, the heavyset Viennese waitress, was polishing the doorknob with a table napkin as I made my way in.

Schönen guten Tag,” she chirped.

Danke, ebenso,” I answered.

Ogling the cakes and pies behind the counter, I made my way to my favorite table. From my vantage point, I could scrutinize most of the inside tables as well as the outside street action. Across from me, three old ladies with hairdos resembling corrugated sheet metal, sat with gigantic portions of tort. They spoke a strange mixture of German and English. “Der Mohnkuchen is fantastic. So lecker! Please pass mir die milk und das Sweet & Low.”

I considered the special attributes of German Kaffee und Kuchen. Brewed with less Arabica beans, German coffee was thinner than Italian espresso, but superior to the dishwater that passed for American coffee. Americans never got torts right. Just like their saccharine smiles, their pastries were unbearably sweet. German pastries, like life, were both sweet and tart. As I sank my teeth into the scrumptious piece of Schwarzwalder Kirschtorte, a superb concoction of cherry sauce, flour, cream, eggs, chocolate, and Kirsch brandy, I mocked the accent I heard all around me: “Ziss Kriempuff is fäbuluss.”

As I licked my spoon I thought about my therapist’s question an hour ago: “Have you ever been with an older man?” and how I had rebuffed Vivian Deutsch: “No way. An older guy and me? You won’t see that happen any time soon.” Vivien had been adamant: “You ought to give it a try. Allow yourself to be attracted to a good kind man. A man with the qualities of a good father. It should help you move from romantic love and a fixation on sex, to sustained attachment.” Maybe she had a point. Even Freud had called romantic love “the overestimation of the romantic object.”

As I surveyed the room, a man with the handsome look of an old-time matinee idol caught my eye. His Basque cap, silver unruly hair sticking out from underneath, and red scarf tied around his neck gave him a bohemian flair. He took cautious measured steps, and then rested on his cane until Anita came to his rescue. She led him to a table set for a large group of people, took his coat and helped him into his seat.

“Who is that?” I asked when she passed by.

“Hans Glück. He’s a writer. Part of the Stammtisch. A group of old Jewish folks who meet here every Thursday. They all speak German.”

“You are kidding?”

“No. They’ve been coming here for the past thirty-five years. No one wants to wait on them. They sit forever and don’t eat much. Terrible tippers.”

I decided to stay and ordered a brandy. As I savored my Asbach, I eavesdropped on the discussion at their table. My ears perked up when I heard them talk about Thomas Bernhard’s latest book. One man with an Austrian accent didn’t like Bernhard: “How can he call Salzburg, his hometown, a terminal disease?” Hans Glück didn’t like my favorite writer either. “Who does he think he is? James Joyce? Unreadable, this relentless, repetitive stuff.” How could he not like Bernhard? In my canon of western literature, next to Musil and Beckett, Bernhard was the greatest writer of our century. No one else’s writing was so personal and uncompromising. Hans Glück was ignorant. How would he justify his position? I strained to listen. Against my better judgment and annoyance, I fell in love with the way he spoke. Like a bourgeois playboy in the final days of the Habsburg monarchy, his was a pure, upper class, turn-of-the-nineteenth-century German, untainted by any Anglicism. In an instant he transported me to an Arthur Schnitzler novel. Fortified by my third brandy, I asked Anita to introduce me. She did not waste time.

Liebe Stammtischgäste, you have to meet Anna. She’s from the Rhineland, but she studied in Berlin.”

“Oh Berlin, my heart aches for you,” Hans Glück said.

Now I had a chance to study him close-up. He had bushy, unruly eyebrows, and curious pale blue eyes. His right eye had a mind of its own and made him look almost cross-eyed. The enormous dark circles under his eyes held a lot of sorrow. But his lips were full and sensual. Somewhat melancholic. He must have been a good kisser. As if he had been able to guess my thoughts, he turned to me, took my hand and kissed it gently. Junges Fraülein, we must get to know each other. I’m quite lonely these days. Come visit me,” he pleaded. Then he rummaged through his pants pocket and produced a business card. Hans Glück, Writer, it said.

I became a regular visitor to Hans’ home in Washington Heights where he had lived since the forties. His neighborhood, now populated mostly by Dominican families, had become a haven for German Jews after World War II. Other Jewish émigrés called it the Forth Reich, but he affectionately called it Frankfurt on the Hudson. Hans had been drawn there for its close proximity to the Cloisters, “the most European of all places in New York and without a doubt the best place for a poet.”

For the next year I traveled twice a month on the #1 subway from TriBeCa all the way up to the tip of Manhattan. In Hans’ apartment everything was covered with dust; the furniture was tired, and the windows and curtains had not been cleaned in years. Just as I had envisioned a political émigré’s home, books invaded every space. There were overstuffed bookshelves in the hallway, living room, dining room, his office, bedroom, and even in the bathroom. Piles of books rose in stacks from the floor requiring careful navigation. One careless move could send the bastions of European thought crumbling down. We had many things in common. Our love for literature. Our loathing for the horrible bread and tasteless beer in America. Coming from Berlin and accustomed to the Berliner’s rough charm and sarcastic humor, we were flabbergasted by the friendliness of the American people.

“The telephone operators say ‘Thank you,’ ‘Have a nice day’ and ‘You’re welcome.’”

“Even the dentist called me by my first name.”

Hans helped me understand the mysteries of the American psyche.

“Why do they give you their business card, act so enthusiastic, and then never call?”

“They just can’t say no. They don’t want to hurt your feelings”

“Why do they think I am overly critical when I’m just being honest?”

“They can’t tolerate the truth. They like fantasy.”

I was falling for him in a peculiar way. But when he put his hand on my knee I felt repulsed. As if I had put my fingers in an electric outlet, a shock wave reverberated through my body. Too stunned to speak, I watched him slide his hand up my leg and caress my thigh. “Are you wearing garters and stockings?” he mumbled. “I sure hope so. The invention of pantyhose was a punishment for the male species.”

My shock waves turned to nausea. The idea of sex with a man his age was truly revolting. I rebutted his offer to spend the night. ”You are out of your mind. I’m looking for a friend, someone to give me guidance, not orgasms.” Hans, disappointed, but not defeated, insisted: “What about a man like me, aged and mellow like fine cognac? I have a lot of experience pleasing women. Anything a young man does, I can do it better.”

I had no doubt. Now my experience as a Go-Go dancer came in handy. I knew how to put a man in his proper place.

“Hans, if you come on to me one more time, I’ll leave and you’ll never see me again.”

Schon gut, I’d rather have you as a friend than not have you at all.”

Once this was settled, we kept the erotic tension at bay and for the most part got along fine. Despite our age difference, we were alike in many ways. Neither of us had found lasting happiness in love. I was married to Ernest and had started a steamy affair with Ivan. Hans had been married twice. Neither marriage lasted long. He had his reasons: “Something in me bristles at the domestication of love. The sight of the heavy oak marriage-bed repulses me. Love should be the continuation of poetry by other means.” I, brought up on tragic love stories, dangerous affairs, enchanting courtesans, and women like Emma Bovary, in pursuit of their desires, was a kindred spirit. In my love for literature, I had made a mess of my life and ended up with an unbalanced mind. Maybe it was best to settle for platonic love with Hans? A former tomboy, I had always gotten along fine with men as long as I didn’t turn them into my lovers. Intellectually stimulating conversations were gratifying. Maybe they’d be a good substitute for sex?

I could not have asked for a more captivating companion. Hans had known the best writers of his generation, both in Europe and the United States. They came alive in his anecdotes. The Parisian exile. Getting drunk in the Café de la Poste with Joseph Roth, one of my literary heroes. The cocktail party at John Dos Passos’ house in Provincetown. Playing cricket with Langston Hughes at McDowell. Langston Hughes!

I had been to Paris too. In the Pere Lachaise cemetery, I had bypassed the gravesite of Jim Morrison, the most popular destination for people my age, to pay my respects at the final resting places of Oscar Wilde and Gertrude Stein. I had been inside Freud’s study in Vienna and had touched his desk and inkpot. But most of my experiences seemed second rate compared to his.

Hans, raised in a Jewish assimilated family “more German than the Germans,” amazed me with his command of the German language after more than forty years in exile. His mother tongue was the umbilical cord connecting him to his homeland. “I did not allow Hitler to destroy my love of German.” He made me feel good about being German. “There’s no collective guilt. Not all Germans were Nazis.” When he saw that I wasn’t convinced, he cleared his throat, straightened his back, and in his most dignified speech recited one of his poems.

When I think of Germany at night

I think of Heine,



I no longer think of Buchenwald.[i]

My father, the Catholic Nazi, had tried to eradicate my artistic ambitions: “No, you can’t join the Drama Club. Forget about a career in the arts. Writers don’t make any money, at least not during their lifetime.” Hans, the Jewish Socialist, encouraged my creative desires. He came to see me play Lulu in Wedekind’s “Spring Awakening.” Like a proud father he clapped louder and harder than anyone else at La Mama that evening. When I showed him my poems, he complimented me: “Not bad at all. You certainly have a way with words.”

We argued about literature like lovers, made up like lovers, except we weren’t lovers. We had a great relationship until I lost him to another woman. He met Hannelore at an event in honor of his life’s work at Goethe House where actors and actresses recited his poems and prose. At the reception Hannelore, in a tight navy blue suit, a glass of champagne in her hand, buttered him up. “I am so impressed with your work, your talent. I have read all your plays and can’t decide which one is my favorite.” I hated her instantly. She was a provincial school teacher in search of luster for her boring life. Maybe befriending writers would do the trick. I tried to signal Hans my disapproval. He, smitten with her big tits and long blond curls, totally ignored me.

I was thirty-two; Hannelore was fifty-seven; Hans was eighty-eight. His two-volume memoir had just been published in Germany. After a hiatus of fifty years his plays were performed again. His German publisher had invited him to a literary talk show and a book tour, but he was not able to board a plane by himself and visit his homeland. His eyesight had deteriorated to near blindness. Hannelore offered to help. When she suggested that he could live with her in Tübingen, Hans answered: “Only if you do me the honor of marrying me.” She accepted. “Will you help me shop for a wedding suit? He asked me. “She won’t let me wear my old tuxedo, the one I bought for my second marriage. She thinks it’s bad luck.”

The Nice Guys Livery Cab service took us downtown. As we rode along the Westside Highway, Hans swayed along to the Spanish music on the radio. I felt attacked by the romantic words: There was no amor, vida preciosa, no futoro and no afeccion for me. The spectacular views of the Hudson River left me cold. Hans clearly enjoyed himself. “Should I go for a black or navy suit?” he asked. I shrugged my shoulders. I didn’t care what kind of suit he got.

“Don’t you think black is too funeral? I want an upbeat suit, one that shouts optimism and joy.”

“Let’s go for navy then,” I said, trying not to sound weepy.

“What a marvelous day, made for poetry,” he raved, puffed his chest and started to recite:

Wie soll ich meine Seele halten, daß

Sie nicht an deine rührt? Wie soll ich sie

Hinheben über dich zu anderen Dingen?[ii]

„Don’t you love Rilke?”

I used to, but now I hated him. I was glad when we finally reached Trinity Place. Syms, housed in an ugly utilitarian building, boasted to hold the largest selection of off-prize clothing in America. We made our way to the men’s department where hundreds, maybe thousands of suits were awaiting adoption “I’ll sit down. You go and pick the right one for me. I’m a 40 Regular, the same size as when I arrived in New York in 1944,” Hans said with pride. I roamed the canons of male formal attire, the rows of suits with orange, blue, green and yellow tickets and finally found his size. Mad at Hannelore for taking Hans away from me, for not letting him wear his old tuxedo, the one that could have bestowed bad luck on his third marriage, I searched the racks for the ugliest suit. Why should Hans look handsome for her? Then a pang of guilt struck me. Who was I to jinx this marriage? Hans deserved to be happy. I picked out three elegant, distinguished looking suits and brought them over. A salesclerk nodded his approval, took them from me and guided Hans behind the black curtain to the dressing rooms. I sat down and studied the signs for on-site tailoring. The place was depressing. Hans, in his socks and chic Calvin Klein suit, was helped by the salesclerk to the platform covered with sad red threadbare carpeting. I watched the measuring tape swing from the salesclerk’s neck. Hans moved as close as possible to the mirror, then turned around and scrutinized himself from every angle.

“Don’t I look elegant,’ he exclaimed. “I swear this suit takes years off my life. I feel sixty again.”

“Your father looks marvelous,” the salesclerk said. “I hear the wedding is in two days.” He knelt down, took a pin out of his mouth and started to cuff Hans’ pants. “You are lucky that we do rush tailoring.”

I didn’t feel so lucky. In fact, I tried hard not to grind my teeth. When Hans came back out in his old cloths, he sat down next to me. We would have to wait to have the pants hemmed and the suspender buttons sewed on. Hans turned to me. Even with one blind eye, he could tell I was upset.

“What’s the matter, Anna? Aren’t you happy for me?”

“I’m happy for you, but I’ll miss you.” I tried hard not to choke.

“You can always visit us.”

“That’s not the same.”
”There are telephones”

“I know. But I’ll miss our Kaffeeklatsch. Your stories.”

“Look, this is my last chance to feel young again, to be celebrated for my talent. After all the wrong women, I have to take a chance at love.” Hans lifted up my chin. “You’re not crying, are you? Don’t be sad. You’ll find the right one too, I know.”

I swallowed hard. Why would I want anybody else?

I had attended plenty of green card weddings, including my own. Elegant affairs staged in downtown lofts, East Village rooftops, or trendy Japanese restaurants. Gay American artists hoping for an easier life in Berlin or Hamburg married Germans with expired tourist visas. Hans and Hannelore’s wedding, however, was the real thing.

Getting off the elevator on the ninth floor, I was shocked to find crates of books stacked up in the hallway. Was Hans moving out? Inside his apartment the piles of books were gone, the chairs and tables were freed of them too. My nose led me right to the living room. His desk and dining table had been pushed together to create an enormous buffet, weighed down with his friends’ contributions to his potluck-wedding feast. Leo Blumenthal had brought his famous Würstelgoulash, Elfriede Goldberg her chicken paprika and Nicole Edelmann her Buletten. There were Lachsbrötchen, Rouladen, and even my childhood’s beloved Heringsstip, the dish I had eaten on my first outing to a restaurant with my father. I unwrapped my contribution to the party and squeezed two loaves of Zabar’s apricot strudel, Hans’s favorite, into the tiny space left on the table. I thought about all the times in my life when food had been my solace. A great meal had often provided a much superior experience than most sex, so often mediocre and disappointing. I feasted my eyes on the Central European delicacies in front of me. I had not seen such quantities of scrumptious foods since my First Communion. Why wasn’t I tempted? Why had I lost my appetite? I consoled myself with Henkel sparkling wine.

Leo Blumenthal, who fled Vienna in 1938, sat down at the piano. The guests decked out in thirty-year-old tuxedos and faded Cocktail dresses were giddy with excitement. When Leo started the first beats of Zwei Herzen im Dreivierteltakt, Hans walked with careful measured steps toward his bride, bowed, took her hand, kissed it, and then pulled her close. He looked like a young man escorting his sweetheart to the debutante ball. They danced an elegant waltz. Some of the wedding guests formed a circle around them and sang along the schmaltzy tune.

Ein Viertel Frühling und ein Viertel Wein,

Ein Viertel Liebe, verliebt muß man sein.

Zwei Herzen im Dreivierteltakt,

Wer braucht mehr, um glücklich zu sein?[iii]

When they stopped thunderous cheering and clapping erupted. Hans, overcome with emotion, took a handkerchief from his pocket, wiped the sweat from his forehead, cleared his throat and addressed his guests: “Liebe Freunde thank you for helping me celebrate the happiest day of my life.” Dapper in his navy suit, pink tie and rose pinned to his lapel, he looked like a professor emeritus, a distinguished scholar of philosophy. Hannelore had even trimmed his nose hairs for the occasion.

“Earlier this morning we were at City Hall. The most marvelous place in all of New York City. Every single person in the room was filled with hope. I’m so glad you came to send us off. Hannelore and I will be leaving for our honeymoon on Wednesday. I won’t be coming back to Washington Heights or New York City.”

“Let’s have a toast to the Brautpaar,” Leo said.

Everyone chimed in. Hoch solln sie leben. Bride and groom blushed to a thunderous applause.

Leo Blumenthal sat down again and started to play a slow, melancholy tango. Mrs. Goldberg, in long black gloves and a too tight bottle green satin dress that revealed a lot of wrinkled cleavage, positioned herself in dramatic fashion next to the piano and started to sing

We sat

in der kleinen Konditorei,

had coffee and cake.

No need to say a single word,

I understood you right away.

It felt as if a soccer ball struck my stomach. This was our song. Die kleine Konditorei, I had met Hans there. Mrs. Orenstein, a holocaust survivor, who had lost her husband to cancer three month ago, turned to me and said: “Isn’t it marvelous to find love at his age?” Trim and petite, she nibbled on her strudel. I stared at her thinning bluish hair, at a loss for words. A lady in a crimson suit came to my rescue, pulling Mrs. Orenstein to the dance floor. It was my chance to run off. At the buffet, I quickly downed two glasses of champagne. I had to get away from the radiant Brautpaar, the happy guests, the joyous laughter.

Careful to avoid anyone who might engage me in a conversation, I made my way to the back of the apartment. Between the coat rack and the bathroom, I sat down on the floor and gave myself over to a brooding unhappiness. How did people fall in love and stay in love? They had to be born with that knowledge that eluded me all my life. I wondered if I’d ever find lasting love and grow old with a man. Someone who’d walk a mile to get me hearty black bread for breakfast and remembered that plum butter was my favorite spread. I sat for hours, and only snuck out to fill up my glass. I felt like a suitcase abandoned at the airport’s conveyor belt. Full of treasures, but unwanted and forgotten. Bestellt und nicht abgeholt. No one to retrieve me.

© 2007

[i] Hans Sahl: Denk ich an Deutschland in der Nacht

[ii] How shall I hold on to my soul, so that

It does not touch yours? How shall I lift

It gently up over you to other things? Rainer Maria Rilke, Lovesong

[iii] Robert Stolz

Samstag, 12. Januar 2008

Muttersprache ( taz 17.2.2007)

Liebesspiel mit Ehemann

Sprache kann Heimat sein. Und ein Stück Identität. Doch das merkt man erst, wenn man sich von seiner Muttersprache entfernt

Vor fünfundzwanzig Jahren lief ich meinem vertrauten Leben davon - und verliebte mich. Es war ein Samstagnachmittag im September; ein heißer Tag, wie es sie in Deutschland nur im Hochsommer gab. Der Himmel über dem Washington Square Park strahlte. Deutsche Städte waren grau. Samstags nachmittags wurden sie zu Friedhöfen. In New York dagegen tobte das Leben.

Drogenhändler, Feuerschlucker und Musiker warben lauthals um die Gunst des Publikums. Hyperaktive kleine Hunde kläfften und rannten um die Wette. Hunderte von Blockbuster Radios kreierten einen ohrenbetäubenden Soundtrack. Menschen aller Rassen tanzten zu Parliament Funkadelic. Sie verständigten sich in einer Vielzahl von Sprachen.

In meiner Liebesblödigkeit entschied ich mich zu bleiben. Ich ließ mein altes Leben hinter mir, meine Freunde, meine komfortable Wohnung, meine sichere Aussicht auf Rente - und meine Muttersprache. Hier in New York würde ich neu anfangen ohne die Trübsal meines bisherigen Lebens. Ich war zuversichtlich, die englische Sprache in kürzester Zeit meistern zu können. Wie schwer konnte das schon sein? In meinem alten Leben hatte ich schwierige Bücher wie Kants "Kritik der Urteilskraft" gelesen, eine zweihundert Seiten lange Diplomarbeit, Essays und Gedichte geschrieben. In meinem neuen Leben schrumpfte mein Vokabular auf das einer Zehnjährigen zusammen.

Mit Ach und Krach quälte ich mich durch das Äquivalent der Bild-Zeitung, die New York Post. Kleine Alltagsfreuden trösteten mich. Ich war fünfundzwanzig, wohlproportioniert, und Männer liebten meinen Akzent. "Sprich weiter, egal was. Erzähl vom Wetter", bat ein Verehrer. Auf dem Weg zu einer Verabredung platzte mir der Reißverschluss meines Kleides. Ich rettete mich zu Woolworth und fragte die Verkäuferin: "Do you carry security needles?" Sie starrte mich verständnislos an. Ich blieb beharrlich. "Für wenn man es zusammenhalten muss!" Sie starrte noch verständnisloser. Ich leistete Schwerstarbeit, doch ohne das rechte linguistische Werkzeug war kein Entkommen aus dieser Sackgasse. Zu guter Letzt nahm ich meinen Füller aus der Handtasche und malte zwei von einer Sicherheitsnadel zusammengehaltene Stücke Stoff. Die Verkäuferin grinste breit: "Okay, I get it. You want a safety pin."

Was andere lustig fanden, war mir peinlich. Der Buchhändler im Spring Street Bookstore und seine schönen, gutmütigen Cockerspanielaugen hatten es mir angetan. Ich nahm meinen Mut zusammen, pirschte mich an den Ladentisch heran und fragte: "Die Granta, bitte?" Im Schaufenster hatte ich die dem Neuen Deutschland gewidmete Ausgabe gesehen und war durch den Umschlagtext des Magazins neugierig geworden: "Krauts: What is it about the German people that produces a nation so - what? So ugly? So dangerous? So predictable?" - "What issue are you looking for?", fragte der Verkäufer. Issue? Issue? Was war das? Unfähig, ein Wort herauszubringen, floh ich mit rotem Gesicht. Zu Hause zog ich meine besten Freunde zu Rate. Doch Langenscheidt's New College German Dictionary und Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language ließen mich im Stich. Webster's wartete mit neun Bedeutungen für issue auf: "a point of debate" oder "a discharge of pus"? Pus? Was war das? Nachschlagen: "Eiterausfluss!" Ich saß allein in meinem Zimmer und brüllte: "Ich bin doch kein Idiot." Niemand hörte mich.

Humor verschwand nahezu ganz aus meinem Leben. In einer Gruppe von Menschen, in der einige vor Lachen brüllten und andere sich prustend auf die Schenkel schlugen, saß ich als humorlose Ausländerin dabei und bemühte mich, die Scherze und Pointen zu verstehen. Bei so subtilen Bedeutungsnuancen konnte mir keiner Aufklärung verschaffen. Ich tröstete mich mit der Buster-Keaton-Retrospektive im Film Forum. Bücher bereiteten mir kaum noch Freude. So viele Wörter, die ich im Wörterbuch nachschlagen musste. Jemand empfahl mir "The Crying of Lot 49" als Thomas Pynchons zugänglichsten Roman. Frustriert gab ich nach dem ersten Absatz auf. Ich gab das Schreiben auf. Ein Schriftsteller, so Kant, brauchte angeborenes Talent und Genius. Ich hatte Talent, war aber kein Genie. Gab es überhaupt Menschen, abgesehen von Samuel Beckett, Joseph Conrad und Vladimir Nabokov, die in zwei Sprachen schreiben konnten?

Musste ich Nachrichten auf Anrufbeantworter hinterlassen, versetzte es mich jedes Mal in Panik. Wörter wie vegetable, refrigerator und schedule schikanierten mich. Wie brachten es Amerikaner fertig, ihre Zungenspitze hinter die Schneidezähne zu quetschen, um den richtigen "th" Laut zu produzieren? Senkte ich meine Zähne in ein Stück Nusstorte, dann hörte sich das so an: "My gutness, ziss is wanderfull."

Kinder erlernen ihre Muttersprache ohne formale Unterweisung. In unserem Bewusstsein prägen sich Laute und Grammatik unserer Muttersprache so tief ein, dass nach der Pubertät keine andere Sprache an ihre Stelle treten kann. Was heißt das für die armen Seelen, die die Zweitsprache mit dreißig, vierzig oder sechzig erlernen müssen?

Heute ist Englisch für siebenundvierzig Prozent aller New Yorker Zweitsprache. Meine Fußpflegerin ist eine Diplomsoziologin aus Usbekistan, der Taxifahrer ein Ingenieur aus Senegal, der Pförtner im Hochhaus meiner Freundin ein Anthropologe aus Kolumbien. Damals beneidete ich meine New Yorker Mitbürger. Sie hatten ihre Familie, ihr Viertel, ihre Zeitungen und ihre Fernsehstationen, bei denen sie sich am Feierabend in ihrer Sprache entspannen konnten.

Um meinen Lebensunterhalt zu verdienen, verkaufte ich Nüsse von einem Handkarren und putzte für alte jüdischen Damen, die schon vor Jahrzehnten aus der Ukraine, Polen oder Russland nach New York gekommen waren. Am liebsten war mir Mrs. Rabinowitz, 82, aus Odessa. Ihre Kinder lebten in stattlichen Häusern mit großen Gärten in Kalifornien und New Jersey, aber sie weigerte sich, zu ihnen zu ziehen. "Du wirst schon sehen, pulsiert New York erst mal in deinen Adern, kommst du von der Stadt nicht mehr los."

Wie die meisten großen Lieben wurde auch meine Liebe zu New York vom Alltag eingeholt. Immer häufiger hatte ich Sehnsucht nach Deutschland und der deutschen Sprache. Von Heimweh geplagt, spazierte ich den Sauerkrautboulevard - die East 86th Street zwischen Second und Lexington Avenue - entlang und gönnte mir einen Besuch in der Kleinen Konditorei. Die Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte erquickte meine Seele, denn sie war fast so gut wie die meiner Mutter. Heute gibt es die Kleine Konditorei nicht mehr. Sie musste wie fast alle deutschen Geschäfte den Megastores von Victoria's Secret, Footlocker und Barnes and Nobles weichen. Im Lokal saß ich zwischen Rentnern, Damen mit Wellblechfrisuren und Herren mit Tirolerhüten, die eine absonderliche Mischung aus Deutsch und Englisch sprachen. "Willkomm, mei ladies. Du lukst wanderfull mit dein neuen hairdo. Try den Mohnkuchen. So lecker! Pass mir die milk und das Süßstoff."

Nach fünf Jahren las ich die New York Times, nach sieben Jahren dachte und träumte ich auf Englisch. Ich heiratete und nahm eine Stelle als Psychotherapeutin an. Der deutsche Akzent war kein Hindernis. Nach zehn Jahren büßte ich Eleganz und Redefluss meiner Muttersprache ein. Englische Idiome unterwanderten meine deutschen Sätze. Sprach ich Deutsch, musste ich jedes Mal mein Gehirn umschalten. Sonntags beim Telefonieren mit meiner Mutter sprach ich bestes Denglisch, das den deutschen Emigrés in der Kleinen Konditorei alle Ehre gemacht hätte: "Meine Arbeit ist stressful. Ich brauche unbedingt vacation."

Ich war unglücklich, aber nicht allein. Willkommen im Verein der zweisprachig Behinderten. Um den weiteren Verlust der Muttersprache zu bremsen, entschloss ich mich, in Deutschland Fortbildungen für Lehrer und Sozialarbeiter anzubieten. Beim ersten Besuch schockierte mich die Invasion des Englischen in die deutsche Sprache. Ich zerbrach mir den Kopf nach passenden Wörtern. "Du weißt schon, diese Maschinen, wo man die Folien drauflegt. Man schaltet das Licht aus und projiziert auf eine weiße Leinwand." "Ach so, du meinst Overheadprojektor", war die Antwort. Als ich nach den großen Papierblättern und der dazugehörigen Staffelei fragte, lernte ich, dass das deutsche Wort für flipchart Flipchart ist. Meine Landsleute streuten nicht nur cool, okay, hip und happy in ihre Sätze; sie hatten obendrein die irritierende Angewohnheit, deutsche Endungen an englische Verben zu hängen. Die Menschen liebten das Fighten, Joggen, Piercen und Skaten. Die Verwendung oder gar Erfindung englischer Wörter, wo es auch ein deutsches getan hätte, war nervenaufreibend. Das cell phone wurde in Handy umgetauft, aus workplace harassment wurde Mobbing. Mob steht in den USA für "Mafia".

Der film editor war eine Cutterin. Ich musste bei dem Wort jedes Mal an meine sich selbst verstümmelnden jugendlichen Klienten denken. In New York fand ich Trost bei einem sechsundachtzigjährigen Wiener Künstler. Leo Glückselig lebte seit 1940 hoch im Norden Manhattans, in Washington Heights, von jüdischen Emigranten das Vierte Reich, von ihm liebevoll Frankfurt am Hudson genannt. In seiner dunklen, staubigen Fünfzimmerwohnung hatten Bücher alle Zimmer erobert. Es gab zum Bersten vollgestopfte Bücherregale im Wohnzimmer, Schlafzimmer, Esszimmer, auf den Gängen und sogar im Badezimmer. Auch auf dem Fußboden stapelten sich Büchertürme. Ich musste vorsichtig einen Schritt vor den anderen setzen, denn eine einzige unachtsame Bewegung ließ diese Bastionen europäischen Denkens polternd zusammenbrechen. Stundenlang saß ich inmitten seiner müden Möbel, auf seinem abgewetzten Sofa, hypnotisiert von seiner Sprache. Im Gegensatz zu seinen deutschsprachigen jüdischen Rentnerfreunden, die trotz bester Intentionen Denglisch oder, weil es einfacher war, nur noch Englisch sprachen, redete Leo wie ein bourgeoiser Playboy aus den letzten Tagen der Habsburgermonarchie, ein reines, aristokratisches Deutsch, unberührt von Anglizismen.

Leos charmanter Akzent versetzte mich in das Wien Robert Musils und Arthur Schnitzlers. Kein Mensch in Deutschland sprach noch so. Ich war Ohrenzeuge linguistischer Geschichte. Nichts machte mich glücklicher als seine Bemerkung: "Von Hitler lasse ich mir doch die Liebe zur deutschen Sprache nicht rauben." Leo war Welten entfernt von den Deutschen, die ich Downtown bei Vernissagen und Partys traf. Die waren so international, dass sie selbst mit anderen Deutschen Englisch sprachen. Was war los mit meinen Landsleuten? Warum schämten sie sich für ihre Muttersprache? Hatte ich deren Qualitäten erst im Ausland schätzen gelernt?

Englisch ist für mich heute eine leidenschaftliche schnelle Nummer mit einem aufregenden Liebhaber, Deutsch dagegen der vertraute, zarte Liebesakt mit dem Ehemann. Wörter wie "Weltschmerz", "Promenadenmischung", "Fernweh", "Habseligkeiten" und "mutterseelenallein" beglücken mich. Ein gutes deutsches Buch erzeugt Wonnegefühle, wie es kein englisches Buch kann. Verliere ich meine Sprache, verliere ich ein Stück Identität. Wenn Deutsch mein Ehemann und Englisch mein Liebhaber ist, so kehre ich nach jeder Eskapade immer zum Deutschen zurück. Ich werde ihm treu bleiben.

taz Magazin Nr. 8204 vom 17.2.2007

© Contrapress media GmbH
Vervielfältigung nur mit Genehmigung des taz-Verlags

Sonntag, 6. Januar 2008

Ich bin ein New Yorker (The New York Times 9/9/2007)

Twenty-five years ago, I walked out of my old life and into New York.

I was an earnest young German who had just earned a master’s degree in social work from a university in West Berlin and was here on a brief vacation. But from the moment I first stepped out of the Hotel Earle, at Waverly Place and MacDougal Street, and into Washington Square Park, I was smitten with the city.

It was a Saturday afternoon, a time when German cities turn into graveyards. But in the park, blasting radios battled one another for dominance, elderly men played speed chess with youthful contenders, and dope peddlers, fire eaters and aspiring folk singers competed for the public’s attention. Children on the swings shrieked with delight, while hyperactive small dogs engaged in rough-and-tumble play. I was 25, love-struck and delusional, and I decided to stay. Ignoring all the illegal immigrant’s red flags (no health insurance, no green card, no work, no savings), I cashed in my return ticket.

In New York, my vocabulary was that of a 10-year-old. I could barely read a tabloid like The New York Post. But I was confident that I’d conquer the English language in no time. I decided on a strict immersion regime: no hanging out with Germans, no German books or movies.

Men found my accent mysterious and my errors endearing. “Just continue to talk, go on about anything, even the weather,” one admirer pleaded. I was often the funny foreigner. En route to a dinner date, the zipper of my skirt broke and sent me rushing to Woolworth’s. My question — “Do you carry security needles?” — drew blank stares. “For when you need to hold it together!” I insisted. More blank stares. Finally, I took out my pen and drew two pieces of fabric held together with a safety pin.

But if my 10-year-old’s grasp of English was funny to others, it was often mortifying to me. I was enamored of a handsome sales clerk at the Spring Street Bookstore. Mustering my courage, I stepped up to the counter and asked, “Do you sell Granta?” I had seen the magazine before and remembered the edition devoted to Germany.

“What issue are you looking for?” my heartthrob asked.

Issue? Issue? Unable to understand, I blushed and fled. At home, I scavenged my dictionaries. Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language listed nine definitions of “issue.” What was it: a point of debate, or a discharge of pus? Then again, what was pus?

Humor almost completely disappeared from my life. Imagine the anguish of sitting with a group of people, all of them roaring with laughter, while you, the oddball foreigner, struggle to grasp the jokes. I consoled myself with Buster Keaton silents at Film Forum.

Reading, too, deserted me as a source of pleasure. Someone recommended Thomas Pynchon’s novel “The Crying of Lot 49”; flummoxed, I gave up after the opening sentence. In Germany, I had published some poetry and personal essays, but here I stopped writing. Who, other than Samuel Beckett and Vladimir Nabokov, could compose literature in two languages?

I grew terrified of leaving telephone messages. Words like vegetable, refrigerator and schedule tortured me. And how did Americans manage to press the tip of their tongue behind their front teeth to produce the proper “th” sound?

Children learn their first language naturally, without formal instruction. But what about those of us who must learn a second language at 20, 30 or 60? Today, almost half of all New Yorkers speak a language other than English at home. I don’t know what the percentage was 25 years ago, but I recall that my manicurist, from Uzbekistan, had a master’s degree in sociology; a livery cabdriver had been an engineer in Senegal; the doorman of my friend’s high-rise was an anthropologist from Colombia.

To make a living, I sold nuts from a pushcart and cleaned houses, mostly for elderly Jewish ladies from Poland, Ukraine and Russia who had lived in the East Village for decades. My favorite was Ms. Rabinowitz, 82, from Odessa. Her children lived in large houses in California and New Jersey, but she refused to join them. “You’ll see,” she told me. “Once New York gets into your blood, you won’t be able to leave.”

When I felt truly homesick, I traveled to East 86th Street, then the heart of the city’s German community, to visit the Kleine Konditorei restaurant, which served Black Forest torte that was almost as good as my mother’s. The customers, elderly men in Tyrolean hats and ladies with hair resembling corrugated sheet metal, spoke a strange mixture of German and English. “Willkomm, mei ladies,” one would say. “Du lukst wanderfull mit dem neuen hairdo.” “Try the Mohnkuchen,” said another. “So lecker!”

It took five years before I mastered The New York Times, seven years before I started to dream and think in English. By then I felt confident enough to work as a psychotherapist, one profession in which a German accent was no hindrance, and began a three-year training program in Gestalt therapy.

But only after a decade did I feel wholly comfortable speaking English, an achievement I paid for by a gradual loss of fluency in my mother tongue. Now, whenever I spoke German, I had to switch my brain from English to German. “Meine Arbeit ist zu stressful,” I used to say on the phone to my mother, just like the émigrés at the Kleine Konditorei. “Ich brauche unbedingt vacation.”

Samstag, 5. Januar 2008

Willkommen! Welcome! Zwei Sprachen im Kopf

Liebe Leser und Leserinnen,
in diesem Blog stelle ich Euch meine veröffentlichten und unveröffentlichten Texte, Übersetzungen und Texte zur Zweisprachigkeit zur Verfügung. Ich freue mich auf Eure Kommentare.
Anna Steegmann

Dear Reader:
In this blog, you'll find my published and unpublished writing, my translations and texts about bilingualism. I am looking forward to your comments.

Anna Steegmann

„Zwei Sprachen im Kopf zu haben oder vielmehr keine.“

(Georges-Arthur Goldschmidt)

Für das Englische habe ich nur Liebe. Es ist nicht besudelt, nicht zwiespältig. Die Sprache der Kindheit ist die Sprache der Angst, die Sprache des Grauens.

Ich bin zu deutschen Worten verdroschen und gedemütigt worden. “Aus Dir wird nie etwas, “ sagte der Vater. „Du bist der Fall von einem Viertelliter Kännchen, in das ich versuche einen halben Liter Milch hineinzuschütten,“ sagte die Deutschlehrerin.

Englisch: James Baldwin, Bob Dylan, Easy Rider, Woody Allen, Talking Heads.

Deutsch: Eichendorf, Brecht, Hildegard Knef, Fassbinder, Karl Valentin, Biermann.

Englisch ist das strahlende Blau des Himmels, das New Yorker Abendlicht. Der Himmel über Provincetown. Deutsch ist grau und Nieselregen. Die Münstersche Tiefebene. Der melancholische Niederrhein, Pappeln, die stramm stehen wie Soldaten.

Deutsch ist innerlich, verschlossen, gewissenhaft, pedantisch -- eine verschachtelte, eingekesselte Sprache. Deutsch sind Glück, langjährige Freundschaften und tiefe Gespräche.

Englisch ist äußerlich, oberflächlich, unzuverlässig, unkompliziert. Englisch sind Spaß, flüchtige Bekanntschaften und Small Talk.

Die Matrosen der Gorch Fock in der New Yorker U-Bahn. „Wo steigen wir aus wenn wir zum Central Park wollen?“ Heimlich lausche ich ihren Gesprächen. Wie schön das Deutsche klingt. Wie vertraut. Nach Spekulatius und Glühwein. Hier in New York darf ich mich hinzugesellen, mich in ihr Gespräch einmischen. Die Matrosen sind aus Versehen in den Express eingestiegen. „Wenn Sie nicht bei der nächsten Haltestelle aussteigen, landen Sie in Harlem,“ sage ich. Der junge Mann aus Heidelberg strahlt. Ich spreche seine Sprache.

Rita, eine Psychiaterin aus Berlin, ist zu Besuch. Wir sitzen in der U-Bahn. Rita, sichtlich aufgelebt, beflügelt, schwärmt von New York. Die zerfurchte, alte Dame uns gegenüber rutscht nervös auf der Sitzbank hin und her. Sie zittert, ist schrecklich bleich. Angst steht in ihren Augen. Sie durchbohrt uns mit ihren Blicken. Plötzlich steht sie auf, baut sich vor uns auf und brüllt: „Don’t you dare speak that bastard language in my town. Get out! Get out now!“

Der Stern Redakteur ist traurig. Er will nicht zurück in sein schönes Haus in Eppendorf. Ihm graut vor der Rückkehr. Seine Frau und Töchter wollen auch nicht zurück nach Hamburg. Die Fünfzehnjährige ignoriert, daß sie bald wieder in einem deutschen Gymnasium die Schulbank drücken wird. Sie nimmt den PSAT Test. Das Ergebnis entscheidet über Universitätszulassung und evtl. Stipendien. Keine Frage, sie wird in den USA studieren. Der Vater weiß nicht wie er das bezahlen soll.

Die zwangsweise nach Europa Zurückgekehrten: was sie an New York vermissen. Die Leichtigkeit des Seins, die kleinen Überraschungen im Alltag, die grundlose Freundlichkeit, den Humor. Precious New York moments.

Die New Yorker U-Bahn hat mich und eine deutsch-rumänische Schriftstellerin zusammengebracht. Meine Freundin Liz sprach Carmen-Francesca Banciu an und erfuhr, dass sie in Berlin lebt und Schriftstellerin ist. „Then you have to meet my fried Anna. She’s from Berlin too. She’s a writer too.” So mühelos und einfach stiftet man in New York Freundschaften. Hätten wir uns in Berlin oder Bukarest auch so kennengelernt?

© 2008