Letters from Germany

Atypical Germans

Sridala Swami  - Foto: Goethe-Institut
Photo: Literaturhaus Villa Augustin

It was a hard landing in Leipzig after a long journey made worse by a migraine. Jan, who was to pick us up, wasn’t there, having mixed up the dates. Another gentleman waiting for a colleague not only called Jan for us but also dropped us off at the main station in his car (with our bags and his colleague’s, who had arrived from Indonesia shortly after us).

As we waited for the train to Dresden, Jan said the gentleman who’d dropped us didn’t seem like a German. “Wasn’t he?” I asked. Jan said he meant that he wasn’t a typical German, because it was most unusual for one to have gone so much out of their way to help total strangers.

There are few places in the world where I would expect a person to help strangers, much less with such generosity and good humour so I thought to myself that perhaps it wasn’t atypical only of Germans.

Later in Dresden, over dinner with our moderator Bettina and her husband, Harish and I recounted the first part of this story. The first thing they said of Jan’s mix-up with the dates was, “That’s not very German!” Then we told them the rest of the story, and – in a completely different tone – they said, “That’s not very German!”

Over that conversation and others, I realised that one way or another, the people of Germany still had East and West in their minds and hearts. Twenty seven years on and across generations, people had ideas of what it means to have been born in the east or the west.

I had been assured in Hamburg, nine years ago, that no one cared about east and west; that the real rivalry in Germany was between the north and the south. So I was surprised then and maybe not so surprised now. Bettina’s husband, who is from Lübeck, said that he would have been firmly in the north vs. south camp until he came to live in Dresden.

It’s been two days and there have been several interesting conversations. With each one, I become not just theoretically but also anecdotally more convinced that there is no such thing as a ‘typical’ German.

Sridala Swami
Leipzig-Dresden, September 16, 2016