SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2003        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Travis Richards

Germanic Immersion

   The morning was foggy, in several meanings of the word.  There was a literal fog that held itself suspended over the cow pastures, concealing most of the beasts but not their telltale smell.  Coming out of the twisty mountains that separate the village from the U.S. Air Force base my father worked at and approaching the rolling flatlands of the small farming community that we lived in.  My memories are foggy driving back to our home in the rural countryside of Germany.

   In the distance I could see a boy, older than myself but still a child, walking back to the village by himself.  I watched as we overtook him and as he looked at us he made an unmistakable gesture with his middle finger!  I was surprised by the blatant nature of his offence.  Maybe he didn’t think that we would spot his insult from our moving vehicle.

   The smell of the pasture is all encompassing but I can no longer notice it, I have been walking for some time.  I notice in the distance a large van approaching.  It is those Americans who live in town.  I don’t think they even speak German, why don’t they just go live with their own people.  It’s almost like they are showing off their privileges as conquerors.  They took the nicest house in town, three stories tall, and even own 2 cars!  Are they showing off?  As they pass I give them a farewell gesture;  hope they can tell I don’t like them, I wish they would leave us to ourselves…

   This exchange really sticks out in my memory because it was the first time that I was made to feel unwelcome while I was in Germany in the late ‘80’s.  Our transnational border in this case had been aggravated by American occupation of part of Western Germany.  There must have been some harbored ill-will towards us as the only Americans in the town.  The effects of World War II were still (and still are) lingering in Germany.  There were Allied planes flying all over Germany at the time, many of them very low and making a nuisance.  There was no way for Germans to wake up and not know that they were a beaten country, broken in two and forced to live with occupying forces.

   Early morning brought out the fog again, both the light haze in the sky and a haze over my memories of that morning’s incident.  As I walked to the bus stop the chill certainly would have bitten into my awareness, making this incident sharper in the moment, but not in our retelling.  I would walk every morning past the large bell in the center of town that would announce the time with an enormous tone.  To be standing near (as our bus stop was) to it when the bell went off was to have all sound obliterated in the singular tonality of its strikes.

   The first day of school we saw the American child and his mother again, they got on our school bus by mistake!  They stood staring at us and eventually got off.  As our bus drove off I couldn’t help laughing at the idea of the Americans trying to fit in with us.  They are so different, and they can hardly speak at all.  They didn’t even say a word when they got on the bus, just stood at the front of the bus, looking for familiarity but finding none.  I’m sure someone could have said something in English to them but we let them draw their own conclusions by our blank stares.

   This memory of Germany solidified the fact that I was not one of the townspeople.  Of course at the time I thought very little of it, having moved all around the U.S. and been introduced to new people very often.  I was not fazed by this strange introduction to the fellow school children who I was to share the bus stop with.  This was a different situation still, however, because I could not have introduced myself or asked a question about being on the right bus even if I had wanted because of the language barrier.  As we discovered the bus that came to pick me up always came later, after the German children of the town had boarded their red bus and driven away.
   Waiting in the mornings was sometimes very lonely after the other children had left because I was the only American child in town.  I was the only one waiting for the charter bus that drove the off-base children to the American school at Hahn A.F.B. where my father worked.  Once, while standing at the bus stop on of the older German kids picked me up and held me upside-down and made some jokes, which I was unable to understand.  Then some of the other children giggled but most just kept standing around talking in their own groups.

   I can remember that the boy who picked my up always rode a BMX bike around the playground in the center of town.  The bike was too small for him, and I remember wondering if he was unable to afford another.  It’s possible that there was also a class difference playing itself out in this tale as well.  It is possible that he saw me and my family as symbols of a higher class and that it was acceptable to say what he felt  about us because we were “auslanders” (foreigners).

   Regardless of the motives of the individuals I remember these events because I distinctly felt I was not include, not a member of these groups of children who would poke fun at or insult me.  It was at these times that I felt I could not fit in no matter what my accomplishments were or how I treated the other children.  These experiences stuck with me and showed me that the world was not all inclusive and open ended.  My experiences at this Transnational and Language borderlands showed me a world I was denied because I didn’t have the passport to cross over.

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