The Day the Wall Fell

Church and graveyard surrounded by green hills covered with vineyards.
A whole peaceful world in a tiny valley. The town of Mayschoß in the Ahr River valley. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

Yesterday, Germany celebrated the Tag der Deutschen Einheit, (literally, the “Day of German Unity.”) It’s the day when East and West Germany came back together after World War II.

Once as a student, I visited East Berlin while the Wall was still there. I’ll never forget the eerie passage through the restricted zone. Guards armed with machine guns stood their shifts in abandoned subway stops where you were no longer allowed to get off the train.

For me, this holiday is about the falling of the Wall. The Berlin Wall was on television in the U.S. when the first people were allowed out of East Berlin. Excited people were reaching down and pulling others up to stand next to them on top of the Wall. Guards waved tiny East German cars through. The razor wire was no longer relevant. People offered each other champagne and bananas in a violent place where peace suddenly and unexpectedly appeared.

Let’s help peace along wherever it appears. There are so many celebrations I’d like to see and smile about. So much healing and pain where we could help each other up instead.

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6 ways rhythm helps us feel at home in a new world

2-day-old foal standing next to mare cropping grass in a green meadow.
New neighbor in our world. This 2-day-old foal is getting used to day and night, rain and sun, traffic and kids on bikes. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

On the weekend, I practiced a new skill and had a sudden aha! moment about learning to adapt to a new culture by finding the beat.

(1) Every culture has its own heartbeat. When I lived in West Africa for a year, the people next door talked all day every day. There are many languages in Ghana and I never learned the one(s) they spoke. I couldn’t tell if they were talking or shouting, angry or excited. But after a year of living near them, the rhythm of their voices told me when something unusual was going on.

(2) The beat keeps going. When I took my youngest to music class as a baby, the teacher taught us to pat the baby gently in rhythm to teach to idea that music is continuous. It doesn’t stop in the middle to do something else. It keeps going because music has a heartbeat like our own. When you’re trying to learn to join in the music, it’s stressful when you can’t find your place. There’s a feeling of jump rope game that’s going on without you because you don’t know how or when to jump in.

(3) Drinking coffee has its own rhythm. It’s not always the Gemütlichkeit of Kaffeetrinken in Germany or Austria where people sit down together and have a piece of cake with their coffee. Knowing “how” people drink coffee can make you feel at home.

In Sicily, people stand up at the counter together and knock back an espresso before heading out to do the things that need to be done.

A German friend who’d spent many years in the U.S. theorized just yesterday that Americans love their coffee to-go because American culture encourages busy-ness. Sitting outside in a café where everyone can see you can get you a “slacker” label. Hence few outside cafés. But she also mentioned the beloved bookstore cafés (and libraries!) where you can drink coffee and read.

(4) Every journey has a song. The rhythm I noticed for the first time this weekend was on the drive back from my in-laws’ house. We’ve used our GPS unit to find our way through the bewildering combination of highways, single lane country roads with two-way traffic (with cows), villages with traffic-calming and traffic circles to my in-laws’ house. This trip, I realized how much I need to practice this “song” until I recognize the rhythm. Looking at a map would definitely help me.

(5) Time to process. When we alternate between moving and resting, we’re much happier and less stressed when we come home. Writing a few postcards in a café or taking time to photograph something carefully helps us to process.

(6) Remember your own culture in this international world. I once invited two young West African friends for a big Sunday dinner and they arrived unable to eat. They had visited the American church in Bonn where Thanksgiving was celebrated as a huge potluck. They had eaten all they could already. I had forgotten about Thanksgiving because it’s not a German holiday!

We start to feel at home when the rhythm is familiar. It’s much easier to do things when we’re in sync. Picture books and songs with catchy meters stick in our minds. When we feel the beat, we can play instruments together in an orchestra or sing different parts in a choir. We can be ourselves and still participate in the group.

Questions for you: What have you noticed about the rhythm of your life? What happens when we internalize other peoples’ rhythms? Or if we make our own easy to follow?

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Skin-colored Felt: Doing Other People’s Cultures Wrong

Cloth doll angel waiting for wings and Joseph with black mustache, beard and wild yarn hair, corduroy palm tree with green felt leaves.
Angel awaits wings, halo and hair. Rastafarian Joseph leans against corduroy palm tree. ©Laurel Decher, 2015

Skin-colored felt is not easy to find, even if you know what color you’re looking for. My youngest and I are sewing figures for a Christmas nativity scene. So far, we’ve made the palm tree (brown corduroy).

Glue overdose means the only original figures are the baby Jesus and the Rastafarian Joseph, named for his wild, black, locks. He tends to tip over easily. The palm tree helps prop him up until we can give him a navy bean transfusion.

Skin-colored felt must have been equally challenging a decade or so ago, when my Mom made him. Joseph’s face is tweedy-beige knit. Hence the search for skin-colored felt, preferably “multicultural.”

A kindergarten teacher (of course!) told me where to find felt in all colors. The colors I took weren’t labelled.

Elementary school kids seem to craft their own names for colors. I remember a lot of “blue-ish, greenish.” Maybe kids know something about color that we don’t.

Two friendly sheets of warm, beige-ish, brownish felt went into my basket.

While I was at the store, I looked for Chanukah candles and a menorah. I wanted to light candles in solidarity with a dear friend who was celebrating alone for the first time. There were all kinds of holiday decorations and candles there, so it seemed a reasonable quest.

The first woman I asked gave me a startlingly blank look and I wondered if my German skills were at fault. At the service desk, I asked again, just to regain my faith in humanity. They had never heard of the Jewish festival of lights. Grief for my friend put a sudden pain in my shoulder.

Don’t leap to conclusions, I told myself. I might be using the wrong words or using the right words in an unexpected way. Knowing each others’ holidays isn’t the only key to cultural understanding. Chanukah is not the most important Jewish holiday, just the one nearest Christmas. Twenty years ago, I learned the words to Shalom Chaverim in Germany.

I know, from personal experience, that German people grieve over the Holocaust and their country’s part in it. The Auschwitz museum was created to help people remember and prevent the horrors from happening ever again. Many, many German students had told me about the guilt they felt that the Holocaust had happened in their country.

I said, “But evil can happen anywhere, why do you feel guilty for things that happened before you were born?”

My friends said the tragedy could have happened anywhere, but the way it happened was particularly German. If my generation had grieved half so thoughtfully about the history of slavery in the U.S., would we be in a better place now?

Much to my relief, the cashier had heard of Chanukah. (She wasn’t Jewish.) I asked if she knew where to get a menorah, but hers was from Israel, a gift from a friend. She drew a quick sketch of it on paper to show she understood. It comforted me to know someone knew what I was talking about. Grief is a mysterious thing.

It’s really easy to do other peoples’ cultures wrong. I’m likely to light my Chanukah candles wrong even though I want to honor my friend. Wikipedia tells me Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha are the most important Islamic holidays.

Next time I meet some new arrivals at the library or elsewhere, I’m going to ask what their high holidays are and how they celebrate them. If they celebrate Eid al-Fitr or Eid al-Adha, maybe they will teach me how to pronounce them. It might take me a while to get the hang of the unfamiliar names. Or they may celebrate holidays that are more familiar to me in a new way.

In the meantime, I’ll give my angel hands and a face in the new beige-ish, brownish felt and put my Chanukah lights in the window. Both are imperfect works of love.

Wishing you joyous and peaceful celebrations with people you love!

 

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