Two Saturdays ago, V and I attended dinner at his colleague’s home. The coldness has been setting in here in Aalen, so we debated if we would walk or bike ride. While I love my bicycle and brought it with me from the states, I have been a chicken to do much riding here. Yes, Aalen beats Albany in regards to bike-ability, but I’ve been a bit worried about injury (there are so many steep hills, and a hill is where I had a major spill two years ago) and having my bike stolen (preferring leisure rides to using my bike as transportation, requiring it to be locked up unattended). V, always pushing me to be more, reminded me of the freedom the bike would provide us in the evening, freeing us from long, cold walks between locations. We bought a bicycle light earlier in the day, and set off on our adventure around 7 pm.
On the first downhill, I was instantly reminded of how I love biking. There is something about the activity that absolutely transports me back to being a child; I feel simultaneously nervous and gleeful with the wind in my face, picking up speed. I also spent some of my mid-twenties biking my neighborhood at dusk, getting to know the landscape in a more intimate way than in a car, but covering more ground than I could on foot. On this night, I got to see Aalen like that, and it was exhilarating.
The co-worker and his family have a sixteen-year-old exchange student from America living with them for the whole academic year. It was lovely to meet her, my first encounter with an American transplant stationed here in Aalen (V aside). A feeling of kinship washed over me upon hearing her American English accent. Over our meal, we three Americans explained some regional pronunciation (concussion as kin-kuss-shun) and slang terms (diss) to the German family. It is fascinating to notice the strangeness of our native language and remarkable to see how much understanding is nearly implicit among same-language speakers. My experience here in Germany is making my respect of and compassion for immigrants grow immensely. I am thankful to live in an age where technology lessens the heartache of longing, as familiar voices and words easily accessible via the computer.
I was also happy to learn that this family of five does not have their own car, instead participating in a car cooperative with four other families primarily for ethical and environmental reasons. I am slowly meeting the like-minds.
In the evening, we headed to our home base bar (the one adjacent to the hotel we stayed in our first two months) and met with another American, a middle-aged man V met when I was back in the US a month ago. He has lived in Germany for twenty years, but he retains an American accent. He guided us to a different bar where an open mic show was occurring. V and I have been asking about open mics and heralding their awesomeness to all of the young people we meet. We had been told that they did not exist in the town, and we imagined trying to negotiate with our bar to host one when we have been here a little longer. The bar was completely stuffed with patrons and we watched two batches of young boys play American hard rock music. I am not fully adjusted to seeing sixteen-year-olds in bars, but they played pretty well and the audience was all ages. I spoke briefly with the promoter who said the shows happen just once every two or three months. Still, this is a good indicator about the music community in this town.
I rode my bicycle home under the moonlight, feeling a stronger excitement about and connection to my new community than I have before.
One of the things that brought V and I together is our love of others. Accustomed to dating introverts, both of us express the joy we have had in finding romantic partners that are socially compatible. While we both have strong independent sides, we find it rewarding to host a successful gathering, and we define success through fun and laughter. Furniture delivered on Thursday, we decided to give it our first go here in Deutschland on Saturday.
Ever since we began accepting invitations to people’s homes, I have been nervous about hosting a dinner party here. I love to cook, and when I farmed in California I frequently prepared the staff lunches, sometimes doing this solo for as many as fifteen people. However, the German appetite is impressive in its size and it begs for meat. A newspaper quote that V’s co-worker shared with him during one of their impromptu Deutsch lessons perfectly highlights this: I would rather have lice in my cabbage than a meal with no meat. I have recently started eating meat on occasion, but I have very rarely prepared it; I certainly do not want to prepare meat for guests, as my vegetarian recipe repertoire is tested and strong. Anxiously, I went ahead and planned a moderately difficult, but hearty vegetarian menu: a roasted vegetable pasta bake (with homemade marina), garlic bread, sweet and spicy carrots, and sesame string beans.
Having no car means that I frequently grocery shop. I am used to this, preferring to walk even when I owned a car. Additionally, living healthfully as a vegetarian means frequent fresh produce pick-ups. Still, when having a party, a car is nice to carry all the requisite items. We did not definitively decide on the dinner until Friday, so our shopping needed to be done in one giant trip on Saturday morning. V suggested we ask the grocery store if we could borrow a cart and bring it back. He also accused me of being scared when I rejected this, reasoning that the shopping carts required coin deposits expressly so that people would not remove them from the store (granted, I do often try to think of alternative solutions to ones that would include long, strange communications in German). Fortunately, I thought of an idea we both liked: we could bring our suitcases to the grocery store.
Before moving to Germany, I wondered how long it would take before we were known as “The Crazy Americans.” We both decided that we would like to assimilate well-enough, but there are also particular, externally noticeable things I refused to give up, like wearing sneakers (I walk everywhere and am prone to shin splints) and my DITC hat (my hair goes under it whenever it’s dirty, which is often since I don’t like to shower). I don’t think either of us wants to be less outgoing either, a trait that clearly marks our American-ness. Now that we have discovered the ease of carrying groceries in suitcases, I suspect that it is not long until that title actually surfaces. Honestly, I don’t know how people in my hilltop neighborhood bring their goods home, as not everyone has vehicles and so many grocery items here are packaged in heavy glass.
Our transport scheme freed us to buy everything we wanted, and as we loaded up on beverages we learned that our guest list confirmations were increasing from two couples to three…. plus a Lebanese friend… plus a Chilean (Spanish-only speaking) mother. Did I already write how well composed German dinner parties and homes are? Nearly every space that we have visited appears as though it is out of some modern furniture and interior design magazine. I never experienced this kind of intimidation in the USA despite being considerably wacky in my lifestyle choices (by the masses’ standards, at least). Yet, here there are things that provoke worry, as I do not know the full social implication. There is no way I will ever have ten chairs to put at my dinner table; will I demonstrate a great cultural discourtesy by asking my guest to eat while sitting on a drum stool?
When the dinner finally did go down, it was great. We received kind gifts from all the German couples: a traditional basket of bread and salt, rosemary and thyme plants especially for me (I had mentioned my affinity for herb gardening), and a beautiful Ginseng Ficus. The guy who provided the Ficus said in his low, lingering voice, “Oh, yeah… we fihgured you needed something green ooor something like that.” “That’s all?” I questioned, “You were supposed to tell me the story of the Japanese man who moved to Germany. He brought a special Ficus plant with him. When a German man moved next store, the Japanese man prepared a cutting for him and gave it as a welcoming gift. Now, everyone in Germany gives these as housewarming gifts because that German man lived to be 100 years old.” “You mean 110,” he added and laughed, “Oh… oh… you kiiiihhll me,” he said in that same deep voice, a statement he often makes to V as well. The conversation throughout the meal was playful. We shared a toast with our guests, thanking them for being our first visitors and for the times they had already invited us into their homes. The food was enjoyed and complimented, and second helpings were had.
After the meal, we pulled out the big gun: Rock Band. When V professed his love of this game early in our relationship, I wondered if I could actually continue dating him. I had never played it, but I doubted its worth. I was sorely mistaken: This may be one of the best party games ever. Essentially, people team up as a band to perform songs by pushing buttons on instruments and singing into a microphone that are synched to a videogame system. It’s karaoke multiplied by a thousand. Awesomely, V has a projector, so we play it big screen too. When I pretentiously thought I was above this game, how I wish I could have fast-forwarded in my mind to sitting in Germany, in a dimly lit living room, playing I Want to Break Free with people from various countries, a Lebanese guy performing the part of Freddy Mercury. Even the Chilean momma laughed and loved that rendition.
Some people departed, but six of us remained to eat the delicious tiramisu prepared by one of our guests, S. A gentle, smiling, vegetarian woman, S attracted me upon first encounter. She does not live in Aalen, but will soon when she finishes her PhD in a few months. She even prepared some tiramisu for me without coffee as I mentioned that I do not like it much. I never was able to fully enjoy this dessert because when it was placed in front of me as a child I was always simply enduring the coffee taste and now I just do not choose it when offered final course selections. It’s delicious. After this, V and I taught the late-stayers the card game Asshole, which they picked up fast, including the whole bit about bossing around those lower than you in the pecking order. Then, of course, we could not help but to get in another few rounds of Rock Band before calling it quits around 2 AM.
While we may look silly in our sneakers dragging grocery-filled suitcases up a hill, no one would say The Crazy Americans don’t know how to throw a party.
The cooperative concept is something dear to me, but I have never considered or encountered a movie theater operating under this business model. This particular venue has over five hundred and thirty co-owners. It runs by a team of eighty volunteers, the majority of whom are owners. To my knowledge, there is only one salaried worker, and that is the bartender.
Yes, there is a bar at this theater.
Last Tuesday was our first evening there. One of V’s co-workers, M, invited us to a show about the north coast of Germany. This is a film where the visuals did most of the speaking, so we decided it would be appropriate given our limited language comprehension. After purchasing our tickets, we each grabbed a half-liter beer that we were permitted to bring into the theater. I was completely excited. In my younger years, I had tried smoking joints before entering the cinema, but given the length of previews in the US, the majority of the high was gone before the movie even began. There was also the time I wound up sneaking beers into a movie, but the bottle clanking and associated nervousness made me vow to never attempt this again. Now I get to sit with a beautiful beer glass and drink openly with all of the other patrons? The novelty of this alone made me blissful.
I liken this facility somewhere between my hometown independent movie theater and the bookstore slash casual theater of my favorite fictional town. The auditorium is quiet small, with perhaps eight rows of normal theater seats, with just six to eight chairs per row. In front of these are two rows of leather couches. The row closest to the screen is a collection of beach-style chairs that lean back to save the customers from pain that stems from being too close to the screen. Before the film started, a volunteer (to whom V and I spoke before M arrived) introduced not only the feature, but also the two American transplants to the audience. The theater is definitely a comfortable, community space.
On Friday night, we decided to return. The location rarely shows English language films, but I really liked the vibe and I was curious if the bar hopped regardless of the cinema schedule. Plus, the bar is quite beautiful in that it is all wood with a large outside area. There was a good crowd of primarily middle-aged patrons. I was able to check out the bulletin board and noticed that musicians sometimes played. Sitting at the counter, V and I spent our time talking with the barkeep and a volunteer owner, J. J was amazing, sweet, and someone I would like to be. She professed her hate for having only one job, and is currently employed as a social worker helping the disabled in their homes and as a German language teacher at the local technical college. She invited us behind the scenes, where I promptly shushed V’s loud talking since a film appeared to be running. “Hey, it’s okay! We only have one today and he asked for an intermission smoke break,” the young, male projectionist told us in near perfect English. We meet the old projector, Emma, named after a children’s book train. Commenting on its durability, J said, “They don’t make them like this anymore. If they did, they would never sell any new ones.”
J and the young projectionist spend a bit of time lightly arguing about the value of Emma versus the new digital machines that the co-op is considering buying. We ask about the economic state of the theater, given that it is a Friday night and there is only one customer, “Sometimes there are shows like this. We always break even, but we could not do it without the volunteers.” I learned the Deutsch word for volunteer earlier in the evening as I asked J about opportunities: ehrenamtlich, a word with the root honor. As much as the English word volunteer suggests acting of one’s own volition, I know the concept is often tied up with the drudgery of requirements for high school students or corporate employees. Having honor directly in the word elevates the status nicely. “Alright, paying customer is back!” the projectionist remarked, shooing us away so the lone patron could get his money’s worth.