Written by Tami Sulistyo
I never wanted to study the German language. But I am half German by heritage, so I felt obligated. After learning French for five years, which was music to my ears, my preconceived notion followed the stereotype that German was guttural and rough sounding, quite uninteresting. Of course, I fell in love with German as well once I dove into it my junior year of high school, because all languages have their own beauty.
The following summer my relatives in the German towns of Bremen and Neustadt, whom I had never met, invited me to come from Minnesota to spend the summer with them. I jumped at the chance. One evening while sitting in a lawn chair at a backyard barbeque in Germany, I remember that out of the blue an indisputable feeling of total certainty and knowing deep in my pores washed over me – some sort of oneness with my ancestors who came from here. I was of this country of Germany. I never felt it again, even in Minnesota, where I grew up and spend most of my time. It was a striking experience to feel utterly tied to a land, almost Scarlet O’Hara like when she came to feel her forever roots to the family property called Tara.
For a 17 year old, since the drinking age back home was 19 at the time, having my German uncle invite me to have warm beer for breakfast with him as we ate sausage, cheese and bread, as though that was the most normal thing in the world, was the ultimate excitement. I felt so grown up. He was retired, the former head of a large police training academy, and had time and interest to tell me stories and wile away the hours together.
At one point he asked me if I had a boyfriend back home. I said no, but described to my uncle the boy I had dated two years earlier who I still truly believed I would marry one day. As I talked, my uncle listened carefully and as he realized that this boy came from a much wealthier family than mine, he looked me squarely in the eye and told me not to marry him, that it would be difficult, laden with challenges, and that it is not wise to marry someone from a different socioeconomic class. I was stunned that anyone would say such a thing.
Another time my uncle observed me closely and out of the blue told me I would have fit the physical characteristics of an ideal German girl back in the time of Hitler. I of course was even more stunned by this remark. I had no idea how to even respond, so I simply sat there in dumbfounded silence.
I was a jogger, loving the freedom and independence of exploring the area around me on foot. One day during my run, I passed by a park. Upon further examination I realized there were gypsies, many of them, camped on the green. They were cooking, socializing, working, caring for children, not paying me any mind. I was captivated.
I remember my mom had made me a red and white checkered dress that I wore with my hair tied back in a bandana, imagining and fantasizing that I was a real gypsy. That was my Halloween costume of choice that I would slip on all year long to play make believe. That’s why I could not believe my luck, stumbling upon an entire community of actual gypsies busily going about their daily routine.
I stayed somewhat out of eyesight but actually had my eyes glued on their every move for a long time, trying to picture myself living and traveling with them. They were of course like people everywhere, with smiles and kindness, worries and joys, hardships and hopes. I loved getting a tiny glimpse into their lives for a short time. I later shared this with my uncle, who sternly reprimanded me and instructed me to not go anywhere near them again. He told me those Romanian gypsies were coming to Germany in droves, and that they were a problem for the country and he didn’t want me to interact with them. He worried they could pose a danger to me. Yet again, I was so shocked that such remarks would be uttered by anyone that I was surprised right into silence. I was embarrassed and ashamed that people I knew, who were my own flesh and blood, would say such things. I wish now that I would have verbally countered more often with my own differing views that summer, but I was young and not sure how to handle these chasms between us.
Of course I still ran by that park every single day so that I could watch the gypsies from afar, still dreaming of being one of them. I just didn’t say anything more about it. I got in really good shape that summer! I had a wonderful time exploring Germany those three months and was thankful to be given the opportunity. I did not condone my uncle’s views, never pretended to agree with him, and did engage in debate with him at times. He did not change me and I did not change him. I embraced my relatives for who they were and they did the same for me. They were kind and generous hosts. The lasting effect on me from that summer was that my eyes had been forever widened, opened to the fact that we are all influenced by where, when and with whom we grow up in terms of our outlook on things such as class and ethnicity.
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