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Aug 10, 2014

Notes from the Schattenreich: Expatriate Life

Book 1 of the Schattenreich
I realized I haven’t yet talked about the fact that two of my characters in the Schattenreich series are, in essence, expatriates. Gus and Caitie Schwarzbach were raised in Fredericksburg, Texas. Gus left while still an adolescent, but has always felt that his roots were in Texas, not least because of Caitie.

Caitie is a more complicated case. As many of you know who have gotten past Primary Fault, the first book in the series (here or hier, for example), her real roots are German. But she was born, raised and hell-raised, and educated, as an American even though she can speak the Deutsch.

My motivation for this choice was my own experience as a Texas expatriate living in Germany. Since Caitie falls for this German irresistible bad-for-her hunky baron druid guy, I thought it would be good to have their backgrounds be as different as possible. (Did I plan this? Yeah, kinda).

I’m a lifer here in Germany, and I have the anchor to keep me put: I’m married to a German. This gives me a unique perspective on life in Germany that is oh-so-different from my other American friends who are a) not lifers and b) not married to Germans. The categories a) and b) often go together. I only know of a few instances of lifers here who are not married to Germans. But I’m rambling. You want to know what expatriate living here is like. Or you already know and want to argue with me. I’m good with that.

Since I live near Cologne, an entrancing part of Germany (i.e., not Bavaria or Lower Saxony), my take on things might be different than Americans in other places. I lived for a few years in Hannover. No. Just no. Let’s not go there again. Unless we have to. And even after living for over twenty years in Germany, Bavaria still seems like a Disney version of Germany to me – beautiful and sparkly but mostly incomprehensible in terms of dialect and culture.

So now that I’ve alienated a whole crapload of potential German readers, I just want to say that both of those other places have distinctive exquisiteness and are well worth a visit. Bavaria (especially Regensburg – ah, Regensburg. I love the food and the beer and the Danube) and Lower Saxony (Herrenhausen Gardens, oh yes! And those cute houses) are well-populated and well-loved regions in Germany. But my heart was lost to the Rhineland almost the minute we moved here in 1995. We live on the outskirts of Cologne, the so-called Speckgürtel, and are only a 30-minute train ride from the city center.

A water spout on the Cologne cathedral
Even though sometimes the culture and the dialect in Cologne seem out of reach to my limited American worldview, I love it here. I love the deep history of Cologne and the surrounding areas. I love the people, who are as varied as the history. I love that everything here is steeped in fairy tale and superstition even though superficially, everything is Brav.  

Brav is one of those German words that is hard to define in English. I guess you could say conformist, conventional, or even conservative. Cologne is not an attractive city, but you forget that quickly and are deeply insulted when American visitors remark on the lack of beauty. 
The Cologne cathedral and the Hollenzollernbrücke

Look at any of the historical pictures of Cologne after the last World War.And with a little understanding (Verstand) that urban planning was shoved to the wayside in order to build housing and other infrastructure quickly, then it becomes clear that Cologne has her rough spots, but, to borrow Herbert Grönemeyer’s words (in his moving song, Bochum), Cologne has an ‘honest’ skin.

The Rhineland is also deeply Catholic, but if you scratch beneath that skin, other things will begin to surface. That makes this part of the country highly attractive to a reader and writer of fantasy.

There are things that you learn when you accept the expatriate way of life in Germany.

You learn what curly kale is. And, no, you don’t put it into a smoothie. You cook it slow with onion and some Westfalia Mettwurst and serve it with German fried potatoes.

You learn about things like escarole and endive (hint: more than one kind) and herring in cream sauce.

You learn to love that unique German television mystery series, the quintessential German krimi (as soon as you understand enough of the Deutsch to watch it) called Tatort. And if you are married to a German, you will watch it, every Sunday evening, promptly at 8:15 p.m. right after the news.

A very large Schnitzel
You learn that certain beers can only be poured into certain glasses. You learn how to make Schnitzel and Frikadellen (but with American potato salad, thank you very much).

You learn to say Guten Morgen (or, better, just Morgen) and Mahlzeit! and Tschüss! (or, locally, Tschö!) And you try to be even more polite than the Germans, especially at the meat counter at the grocery store.

You learn how to read Straßenbahn timetables and to make sure you have your train ticket punched before you get on the train, unless the train has a punch machine inside. Then, of course, you have to make your way to the machine as soon as you board. By then all the seats are taken, but, hey, that’s life.

You love balmy summer evenings when you can take the train to Cologne and sit outside near the water or in the inner city at one of the many cafés and restaurants with outdoor seating. On those days, it seems like the whole world is outside and wearing a smile.

In the winter, you may not see your neighbors for months and wonder if they have been attacked and eaten by rabid weasels. Then with the first fine day in spring, they all come out into the light, blinking and rubbing their very pale arms

And you learn to hide the most egregious (can be understood both ways) American side of your personality because, you know, as an American, you want to belong. And when some of your German friends start complaining to you about all those bad things that Americans are or do, you learn to smile and listen without comment (or shouting or waving hands). And you try to avoid complaining to your other American friends about those stereotypical things that the Germans do.

Jecken celebrating Karneval
As the native Kölsche say, ‘Jeder Jeck is anders’. We’re all different. And that's good so.

photo credits:

nixter via photopin cc

Madison Berndt via photopin cc

Eisbäärchen via photopin cc

LanguageTeaching via photopin cc

jmtosses via photopin cc