“Oh, I love your accent, where are you from, where’s home for you?” I have heard this question often in the past weeks, which I have spent away from Berlin, where I currently live, in order to travel across the United States.
I always thought this common first step into a conversation, as lightly as it comes, an awkward one but, judging from what my friends tell me, it’s only natural.
To Americans, my way of speaking sounds oddly British, sometimes followed by the much-dreaded “but not quite” — a sign that years of mid-Atlantic life have attenuated the BBC accent I proudly cultivated when I first moved to London aged 21, and tried to sound as Radio-Four-esque as possible. I took a petty delight in pronouncing “Magdalen” like “maudlin” or saying “squirrel” with the icy calmness of a Charlotte Green.
Add to this linguistic quirk the fact that in the eyes of Americans I apparently look Russian, Swedish, German or Dutch, “European” but “certainly not American” (usually meant as a compliment) and you’ll understand that I’ve become a bit confused by the question about where I’m from, which I then usually go on to answer with a lighthearted “Well, I’m from all over the place” or “Ah, that’s a long story.”
Why don’t I just say that I’m from Germany and Berlin is home for me? I had always assumed I simply liked having a nomadic lifestyle and having more than just one place where I felt I belonged would give me the most pleasant form of freedom — that of choice — and my sense of not belonging was that of an educated, enlightened, independent woman.
I had also always presumed that it had something to do with Germany, and its peculiar ways of going about its past that crept into everyday exchanges.
I realised the full extent of this force one cold morning last month in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I met Yascha Mounk, a young writer and aspiring academic who recently published A Stranger in My Own Country (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, £15.70), about growing up Jewish in contemporary Germany.
In his account, part memoir, part essay, he traces the ambivalence most Germans feel about Jewishness — they are either disempowered by a lingering sense of eternal guilt that has groups of blonde, blue-eyed people performing Klezmer music at gallery openings, or they passive-aggressively proclaim they are “ready to finally move on, enough is enough”. Germans, according to Mounk, have an “understandable, yet deeply alienating fear” of making a misstep in dealing with Jews, which quickly turns “the simplest interaction between Jew and Gentile” into “a politically correct comedy of errors”.
Mounk, whose parents emigrated to Germany from Communist Poland, describes a country still far from at ease with its horrific past — and thus stuck in its ways of dealing with the present.
The country’s much-vaunted attempts at coming to terms with its Nazi past, in particular since the student revolts in 1968, he argues, have done only so much to put Germans at ease with their history, let alone to give them an appropriate — that is, non-revisionist — sense of closure.
Germans are still ambivalent about Jews. This sentiment is all the more peculiar since the Jewish population in Germany today is, mainly thanks to immigration from Russia and the other former Soviet lands, the third largest in Europe.
However, instead of launching a full-on attack on a whole country, Mounk, a softly-spoken, witty young man, pointed out two things over coffee near Harvard Yard: that he wasn’t after an accusatory rant, but rather intended simply to take stock. And, he added, almost in passing, he truly came to peace with his identity living on America’s East Coast, simply because of the variety of identities and personal histories in the US.
In the country of his birth, Mounk remained somewhat alien — no matter that he spoke German as his native language, he felt that he was never regarded as truly German. That elusive sense of a homeland, Heimat, he found only when he was free not to feel Jewish, in other words to have his experiences defined and framed by others.
How much comfort can an outsider take in his or her own status? It would be downright wrong to compare my sense of not-quite-belonging to Mounk’s: mine is by choice; his, as far as one can tell, is not.
Still, I can’t help noticing that his journey made me aware of why I’m caught out whenever I have to answer the simple question about where I am from.
I’m no longer sure whether I still yearn for the state of being an outsider wherever I live or, conversely, whether I now long to put down roots in a place that is not my country and perhaps will never be.
At this point, I only know that I have one word for both states of mind: home.