A few years ago, I read a short article in the small local newspaper about foreigners studying German at the town nearest to my village, Nowhere. Among the nationalities and genders listed was an Australian woman, she stood out for me because she was the only native English speaker in the language course, and native English speakers are seemingly very rare (even considered exotic) in my rural neck of NRW. No photo accompanied the brief article so I had no idea what my fellow native English speaker looked like. I had no idea where she lived either, nor her name, but I guessed, like me, she came to Germany because of a German partner (or partner-to-be) and I realized she came here after I’d lived here for several years. I might be able to help her out, not just with how to speak some basic German but also with how to, eventually, survive the isolation here as well as the sudden (sometimes unwelcome!) curiosity that a non-German accent sometimes awakens in curious German natives.
Today, in search of some more books in English to read, having stubbornly given up taking eons to read novels in German for the past six years, I headed to the farthest end of the local second hand store in town, where eu de stale cigarette smoke hung thinner in the humid air, and perused the seemingly growing collection of books available in English. I’d struck gold there a month or so ago, lighting upon a interesting novel about family secrets, a camera called the Memory Keeper, and raising a child with Downs Syndrome called ‘The Memory Keeper’s Daughter.’ A somewhat worn paperback of proportions that would have put me off, had it been written in German, due to the potential time consumption of wading through so many pages of foreign text before arriving at that satisfying moment when I close a book, having read it all the way through, I bought it for 50 cents and read it for weeks of train commuting, rainy and sunshiny days and nights of lounging in bed or on the sofa.
That book took me back to my father, his 1960s black and white photography phase of life, the basement darkroom, and got me looking at his photos of Iowa landscapes, my baby and toddler aged sisters and I in mid-West America; my mother when she was younger than I am today. That book made me think about my uncle, who grew up in a home for ‘the feeble minded’ and got me researching that state funded home and asking my mother questions about a brother she rarely saw. Her mid-70s memories are vague, as is the unclear view of him in my own memory, as I sat on the floor playing Barbies with him and my older sister at our grandmother’s house. This paperback book, donated by someone else who reads English (could be a German after all), got me on an unsatisfying journey to learn more about someone I may never know much about but who remains significant in my life anyway. I will write a about my uncle in the future here.
Today at the second hand shop, I looked up to the top of the wooden shelf labled ‘English’ and noted the selection now took up almost the whole shelf, whereas a few months ago it’d been only about half full. There were hardbacks now, some with flyleaves and trashy sounding titles that reminded me of the Bridgett Jones books, but also a biography of a bohemian lady from England who published her first novel at 70 (I felt sudden hope in reading that, maybe one day I too…?), and then a book about the Australian bush ranger Ned Kelly. Say what? Had I unwittingly stumbled across that Australian woman who lived somewhere around Nowhere in Germany? Quite possibly. I took the 50 cent novel version of the Kelly family home, hoping another historical fiction paperback might bide my commuter and days off time nicely, if not even adventurously.
On the sunny autumn drive back to Nowhere, I noticed the spectacular orange, red and golden leaved trees all over the hilly landscape. I wondered if the free ‘Wuthering Heights’ I’d picked up as well, had also been in the Australian woman’s hands. In my lone wandering over this often unpeople landscape, particularly in autumn and winter, in a mind funk or daze of not enough sunshine and a lifting literal fog, I had often thought of Emily Bronte, out in nowhere Yorkshire, conjuring a novel about isolation, being an outsider, rugged landscape reflecting the rough interior life of people in rural north England of the early 1800s. My ancestors had lived there too. Maybe some tiny bit of my genetic make-up feels the familiarity of a never lived in Yorkshire (only visited once!) and, well, my village in Germany? A kind of centuries old de ja vous that makes me feel as stormy, restless, and broodingly connected with nature as Bronte’s characters are. If I ever meet the local Australian woman, I will have to ask, ‘Have you read Wuthering Heights as well? Ever feel like this place is something like that one?’
My husband is the only person I know here who has ever seen (and heard) the Australian woman. One day, waiting to pick me up at the train station, he says he heard an Australian woman yelling in a bad mood in her cell phone, in English. This would have been around the time she’d have made it through the B1 or even B2 of German language courses, by my estimation. Maybe she was in one of those ‘I HATE the German language’ phases that most immigrants here go through (at least once). I would have liked to have talked to her about that. When asked for a visual of the Australian, my husband couldn’t really describe her for some reason beyond, ‘Your heght. Should length straight brown hair. Probably 30.’ He knew she was Australian because of his many online avatar friends who come from ‘down under’ and chat in voice. I would have known she was Australian from having lived in Sydney as a kid, but only for a few months. At that time in my life, I was just getting over three years living as a shy kid in New Zealand, complete with a Kiwi accent to boot, and could tell the difference between Australians and New Zealanders speaking English. Today I might struggle a bit with that. But at least I knew, a few years back, the illusive Australian woman was still around, hadn’t thrown in the towel, packed up, and said, ‘Fuck it!’ and gone back to Christmas in summertime. Today the Ned Kelly book, not there a few months back, suggested she frequented the local second hand too, but when?
Sometimes, walking through the train station parking lot, I see a red car with a ‘Save the Great Barrier Reef’ sticker on it, along with a rainbow colored image of the Australian continent. I’ve thought about sticking a paper note under the windshield, but what exactly would be OK to say without sounding like another German off their rocker happy to make friends with a white immigrant from a seemingly Christian based land that they have golden fantasies about but have never actually lived in longer than a three week holiday’s worthin some niche of the whole massive continent? I just can’t stand the ‘celebrity status’ of that kind of German attention myself, sorry. And I only really babble in text. And I gave up on wanting to teach English to Germans when it dawned on me what economically privileged snobs Michael York’s ‘Cabaret’ tutees were, and that these are the types of Germans who look down their noses at me working at McYou-know-where and don’t really seem to believe I once was as privileged and snobby as them. Does the illusive Australian woman feel similarly? Could we share a laugh about something? Or is her partner one of the ‘von’ or ‘zu’ of the local gentry? One day, some day, I might finally know. Until then, I’m cracking open the novel about Ned and conjuring up images from my pre-puberty times of watching tv in a tall apartment building at McMahon’s Point: the 1970s handsome John Waters, complete with small scar on his upper cheek, in a gold rush series called simply ‘RUSH!‘
1850s style Sgt. Mackellar (John) in his dusty and sagging white pants, his Rod Stewart shag hairdo somehow not fitting the time period correctly, but what the heck. Then I realize, thanks to Wikipedia, that Ned existed in Australia post gold rush and therefore post Sgt. Mackellar (in a typically strange way of thinking). Never mind, if the novel is well written, I will be combing around the web to find more images, landscapes, etc. to fill my mind with as I walk around the autumnal village of Nowhere and its surroundings, with an eye and an ear open for the illusive Australian woman.