Lauren Learns to Speak Up in Germany

Last week the Fulbright commission hosted a Thanksgiving reception with the American ambassador to Germany where we were exhorted to promote enlightened capitalism, to defend the war in Afghanistan against its detractors, and never to forget the power of the individual to change the world.

The speech reminded me that the Germans appreciate having a lot of different kinds of Americans around. I know they like me, for example, because they always ask me if I’m Dutch or French. When I blush and reply “American,” they are appreciative.

They also like me because I allow them to poke fun at me. I finally got to use my German health insurance for a check-up at the gynecologist, and it was awesome. I was able to get an appointment easily, and when I arrived the woman swiped my health insurance card and informed me that because it was my first doctor’s visit that quarter, I would have to pay ten Euros.

Then the doctor asked me a few questions about my symptoms and about whether I had ever been pregnant. He stopped before asking me more intimate details about my life, and I said “Wait, don’t you have any more questions?”

He looked up from his chart and laughed. “We’re not in America, you know. It’s not like I’m going to refuse to give you medical care because of who you sleep with.”

This was the first of three separate jokes about how terrible American health insurance is, and another one when I called a week later to get my results, this time from the nurse (“What, in America you have to pay to hear your results? Another twenty dollars?”). I played along, because I like to think my presence is so depressing that makes them feel better about whatever their own health care problems are.

Sometimes I think other Germans in my life appreciate me, too. I made a resolution to speak at least once per class in my two seminars. In one seminar this has mostly meant raising my hand and saying, “Let’s consider how the Jews feel about it…”

It only occurred to me last week that since all I manage to talk about in that seminar is the Jewish perspective, people may think I’m myself Jewish, and I’m not sure if there’s a polite way to say “I’m not Jewish, but I’ve talked to enough Jews that I feel comfortable bringing new perspectives into the discussion.” I suppose we’ll see how this plays out when we visit a concentration camp for our field trip tomorrow.

In my other seminar, I struck gold today when I got to give the “I’m American and I feel guilty about that” speech. We were talking about immigration history and Ellis Island, and nobody was mentioning the importance of family history and genealogical research. I said that maybe the Germans weren’t that into it, which got some nods, but that as an American who once volunteered at the New Jersey Historical Society, I could attest to the fact that Americans were totally obsessed with uncovering their roots.

Then somebody countered something about how family history was a very difficult proposition for some groups of Americans, and I was swift to say that I knew what she was talking about, and that indeed, Ellis Island was a problematic site to have as our main memorial to immigration because it didn’t acknowledge any of the people who were brought to American in bondage.

I swear she beamed when I started talking about slavery, like they’d never heard an American apologizing for slavery before. The kid next to me knocked on the table when I was done, which is a peculiarly German academic way of clapping.

(I didn’t want to spoil it by saying “Yeah, but it’s not my fault. My ancestors were Quakers.” )

A lot of this year has been working through my own neuroses about when I’m allowed to speak about what. At Swarthmore I always felt like I was going to silence some oppressed person whenever I opened my mouth, so I didn’t open my mouth much except when participating in journalism, with presumed objectivity.

I’m finally starting to feel comfortable with expressing opinions — about feeling bad about slavery, about the Bosniak Muslims in Switzerland, about the Jewish perspective, about lesbian history through the ages and why it’s not depicted in the world’s only museum of queer history, about a few things that I’ve picked up over the years — and I hope four years of identity politics at Swarthmore has humbled me enough that I can express them respectfully.

This weekend I have the following to look forward to: stuttering my way through a 30-minute Turkish presentation about the GüneÅŸ Dil Teoresi, which I am considering titling “The Self-Important Language,” although I have no idea how to say “self-important” in Turkish, or anything for that matter.

After that I’m off to Dresden for the first really touristy thing (well, unless you count the time I obsessively hunted down a forgetful genocide memorial) I’ve done since getting to Germany this time around: hitting the Weihnachtsmarkt with a fellow Swarthmore alum!

(Dear Swarthmore: You’re doing something right, because the first person I met and bonded with on this continent was another alum. But you’re doing something wrong when our bonding consisted almost entirely of comparing nervous breakdowns.)

I will make sure to tell you all about it.

Sevgilerimle,
Lauren Stokes