German Distance, American Naivety

By Michael Lederer

As an Amer­i­can writer liv­ing in Berlin, I strain to under­stand and express some of the dif­fer­ences between my two homes. So many excep­tions to any rule, no broad-brush­stroke of a short essay is going to begin to cap­ture any­thing but the most basic gen­er­al­iza­tion. Still, let me try. Here’s a sto­ry plucked from memory.

In 1998, I was walk­ing on 14th Street in Man­hat­tan. Traf­fic was thick, and I was stand­ing mid-block wait­ing for the chance to cross. There was a man stand­ing next to me, also wait­ing to cross. He looked unhap­py. A few col­or­ful adjec­tives were used in the ensu­ing con­ver­sa­tion, replaced here by the word ‘stu­pid’.

“I don’t under­stand my stu­pid broth­er,” he said in a strong NY accent.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Our father’s dying. The doc­tors want him to take one med­i­cine, but my stu­pid broth­er, he thinks he should take anoth­er. He’s not a doc­tor, so what is that? How stu­pid stu­pid can you get!”

It hap­pened that at the same time, my father was in a hos­pice in the Bronx, also dying. And I was hav­ing some dif­fi­cul­ties with my own brother.

“I know exact­ly what you mean,” I told this stranger. “My dad’s also dying now, and my broth­er also thinks he knows bet­ter than the doctors.”

“You see what I mean!” said my new friend. “So, you know!”

Final­ly, there was a break in traf­fic. And as we both crossed, each head­ing toward his own future, he flashed me a thumb’s up.

“Good luck with your dad and your broth­er,” he said.

“You too!”

Maybe I’m wrong, but I believe I could live a hun­dred years in Ger­many and nev­er once have such an inti­mate and cathar­tic con­ver­sa­tion with a stranger. I have tried. In the super­mar­ket where I have shopped a thou­sand times, the clerks still treat me as if they had nev­er seen me before. If either of us is hav­ing a good day or bad day, it’s like a state secret nev­er to be revealed.


In 1980, dur­ing a wan­der­jahr in Europe, I was on a train from Vien­na to Budapest, trav­el­ing with my Aus­tri­an girl­friend. The Iron Cur­tain had not rust­ed through yet, and at the bor­der, stern-look­ing Hun­gar­i­an guards checked our papers. I spoke no Ger­man then.

“Why are you com­ing to Hun­gary?” the guard demand­ed to know. My girl­friend trans­lat­ed for us.

“Tell him it’s because I want to have a look at their mil­i­tary installations.”

Poor Hei­de. Her face turned white. “You can’t joke with these peo­ple like that,” she half-whis­pered. Mer­ci­ful­ly, the guard’s Eng­lish was as bad as my Ger­man and he hadn’t understood.

I was indig­nant that he wouldn’t under­stand that like all peo­ple I had the ‘right’ to go where I want­ed, for what­ev­er rea­son I want­ed, and to say what­ev­er I want­ed to say.

On the one hand, I will nev­er stop admir­ing, and long­ing for, the open­ness I grew up with back at home in the States. On the oth­er hand, we Amer­i­cans hail from an island nation mind­set, unac­cus­tomed to the nuances of deal­ing with oth­er cul­tures. We are naïve. From San Diego to Maine, from Seat­tle to Key West, we expect oth­ers to think and act as we do.

The truth is that we have much to teach – and much to learn.

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Michael Led­er­er is an Amer­i­can writer who lives in Berlin. His newest stage play “Casu­al Bag­gage” is the sto­ry of the only small group of Jew­ish refugees from Europe admit­ted into the Unit­ed States dur­ing WW II. The U.S. embassy Berlin recent­ly pre­sent­ed a staged read­ing of the play as part of their Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture Series. Com­ments about this blog are wel­come on the author’s web­site: