Despite the thick layer of clouds shrouding the sun during my morning run, I feel like I’m in some sort of fantasy world. As I chug along the glistening canals that spider out into Hamburg’s neighborhoods, I understand what Germans mean when they say, “Berlin is great, but it isn’t nearly as beautiful as Hamburg.” This is Germany’s wealthiest city, and right now I feel like I’m running through the dream of every hard-working businessman this world has ever known. From the well-designed glass buildings that reflect the Porsches lining the streets to the multi-million-euro manors that sprawl along the coast of the Elbe, it’s difficult to keep concentrated on the dangers that may befall my feet. (This includes my jaw having dropped to my knees)
I can’t help but wonder how hard many of these millionaires and billionaires worked to get to where they are. How many long hours did they put in at the office – working as an intern for almost no pay, filing papers late into the night – in order to move into the big house with the nice view? (There are plenty of them.) How many of them stared into the bright light of the copy machine with dreams of moving out of the lower-middle-class (or even the middle-class)? And what was the final payoff when they finally got that nice big house in the suburbs? What changed?
As I ride the U-bahn on a similar gray Saturday morning, I come to the conclusion that the success of these Hamburger business-types has affected almost nothing at all. It’s currently 10:00 a.m., and I can’t decide whether the train stinks like booze because of the thousands of drunks that moved in and out of its doors the night before, or because of the group of FC St. Pauli soccer fans currently squishing me against the railing. They are singing, Auf der Reeperbahn nachts um halb eins, a song about buying a prostitute in Hamburg’s famous red-light and party district. They wave flags with skulls and crossed bones over their heads and scream out the lyrics as more booze wafts through the air.
This is Hamburg, a place that houses the richest of Germany; a place of the cultural elite; a place that should be, from an American perspective, a city with clean streets, family friendly parades, and signs that say “This is a Drug Free Zone.” Yet this is not the case. This is a city ruled by the underworld, one that is praised for its parties and prostitutes rather than its castles and cathedrals, and where the people seem okay with that.
When I arrived in Hamburg, I felt somewhat disappointed in its lack of “Old European” history. I wanted to immerse myself in gothic architecture and struggling artists but found prostitutes instead. As I have stayed on in Hamburg, however, this city and its people have taught me quite a bit about the many different components that create a culture, and, more specifically for me as an expatriate, how to embrace the ones I wished I could leave behind.
There are a million different thoughts on what it means to be an expatriate; what it specifically connotes, who really is one and who isn’t, but one thing is certain: they are cultural elitists.
Expats are people who have, of their own accord, decided to say goodbye to the place they called home. Why have they chosen to leave? Perhaps they didn’t appreciate the politics of their mother country, or they wanted to learn about another culture and another language. Perhaps they simply thought their lives had gone flat – looking back on the great expatriate artists of the early 20th century and saying, “I need to find inspiration too.” Regardless, like many ladder-climbing businessmen, most expatriates are all looking for a way to transcend the lives they once led.
Unfortunately, I‘ve found that no matter how badly we want to separate ourselves from the people we were when we were “over there” (in my case, America), at almost every turn we are reminded that this is impossible. We are, in fact, nothing but Americans (or otherwise, please pick a country).
One of the main reasons I moved to Germany was to learn the language. I had hoped that after a month or two I could walk the streets of Germany and blend in like the blonde haired, blue eye human being I was never designed to be (I have brown hair and brown eyes). I’m quickly realizing, however, that hopes and dreams are still the same intangible, abstract notions in Germany that they were in the United States.
Regardless of drinking age and country code, this is still reality, and, in reality, I need a job. In order to get a visa in Germany, one must prove that they can do their job better than any German ever could. What can I do better than any German? Be an American. What does that limit my job options to? Teaching English.
So I resigned myself to spend four days a week being “Mr. English,” as they call me, in a local Gymnasium (high school). I stand in front of class and advertise myself as an American. I also do research in preparation, relearning things about American history I have long since forgotten. In effect, I am spending more time being a good American in Germany than I would in the U.S. itself.
My American exploitation does not stop at the workplace, however, for reality is a beast that strikes on all levels. I am an Ami no matter where I go. On most occasions, the Germans want to practice their English as much as I want to learn German, and I find myself engaged in as many English conversations each day as I do German ones. At bars, at home, in the street: I am the resident American.
I wanted to get away from America. I wanted to fully envelop myself in the German culture. I wanted to wrap it around myself like a warm blanket and hibernate there until I decided to go home (if ever). But I have quickly discovered that I could work and live here for the next five, ten, or fifteen years, and at the end of my tenure, I will still be an American.
I think that this is the situation that many expatriates find themselves in. One attempts to leave one’s culture behind, to find a new one, to embrace it and hopefully integrate fully into it, but this isn’t generally the way it works. Instead, we’re forced to bring our culture over with us and wear it like a sign across our chest for everyone else’s benefit. Cross-culturalization.
While this act of cultural prostitution is something that I am only now starting to understand (and will probably struggle to fully appreciate until my time here is up), the people here in Hamburg have never tried to deny who they really are, no matter how dirty that culture may be. Hamburg is one of Germany’s oldest cities, but unlike Berlin, or Prague, Czech Republic or Vienna, Austria, it was never a capital city. It doesn’t have the same history of monarchy, castles, and war. Hamburg is a port. It became a working port as early as the 9th Century, and since then it has managed to hold on to those old shipping roots. It was a red-light playground for lonely sailors who had been confined on boats for weeks at a time. Now there are guided historic tours of the Reeperbahn district, which are more popular and entertaining than any church tour could ever be.
This is the city’s history, and even as it has grown into a place of wealth, art, and music, it has not forgotten where it came from. Neither have the people. They flaunt their swarthier districts here with an air of pride, and I think that this is something I need to learn as well. I can develop all I want. I can grow and expand my cultural bubble in many different ways, but I will always be an American. There are no two ways around that. I was born there, I grew up there, and even if I don’t die there, I cannot deny the fact that it produced the person I am now.
No matter how high I climb on the ladder of cultural awareness, I had better make damn sure I don’t forget where I came from. If we all did that, there would be no culture at all.