Living with Germanness | Nell Zink | Granta

Living with Germanness

Nell Zink

It’s not fair to generalize, even about myself. Were a team of grad students to spend years preparing a detailed sociological analysis of my life, complete with statistical tables, I would appreciate it. All I can offer in its place are snippets of experience that rubbed off on my brain as it was being dragged through a long wormhole from 1964 to the present; as evidence, they could hardly be more anecdotal or less disinterested. Furthermore, to quote Fyodor Tyutchev (1803–73), ‘A thought, once spoken, is a lie.’ An essay, which as a rule consists of two or more thoughts, is at best doubly mendacious; at worst, a big steaming heap of self-serving fantasy.

One bright day about twenty-five years ago, I caught a ride from Haifa to Tel Aviv with a famous Israeli journalist. He was fresh off his divorce and not quite upbeat on the subject of women. After a few abortive attempts at communication, he suggested I be quiet. Power lies in male hands and is exchanged in male-only spaces, he said. Women can neither travel nor socialize freely, especially in Mediterranean countries. Their experience of public life is mediated by art and culture, most of it created by males. As a result, they’re boring.

Being me – always eager to accept imputations of inadequacy – I sensed the justice of what he was saying. I felt those limits every day. Femininity is a drawstring, pulling the horizon close. Its ancient symbol is a mirror. Men I didn’t know, when I took an open interest in the things they were saying to other men, would finish their sentences and go mum. Dreaming of Yemen, Morocco and Kashmir, I had toured Belgium and Wales.

However, my first impulse was to defend myself, so I attacked his sexism. I lectured him from on high, claiming that we each generate our own social milieu in an evolutionary process. By looking down on ignorant homebodies, he inadvertently repelled the courageous adventuresses he’d like to know.

Instead of driving me home, he let me out by the side of the highway. Soon thereafter, he hooked up with a self-confident feminist, and I fled Asia for Europe. I refused to return to the US. I’d had enough of falling in love.

It would be hard (i.e. embarrassing) to do justice to the ease with which I used to get crushes on men, particularly in America, a nation of – among other things – high-minded, egalitarian Eagle Scouts earnestly struggling to make sense of life, rigorous and forthright in their pursuit of total integrity. Also, my beauty standards were more than lax. It could charitably be argued that I demanded good skin. In consequence, I was always obsessively infatuated with some dude.

But never, ever a German. I had spent nearly two years of my life in Tübingen, a lovely university town on the Neckar, south of Stuttgart, visiting friends I met hitchhiking in the summer of 1983. At home, I led a checkered existence of fateful randiness; in Germany, I never once got a crush. I can’t even claim that it’s because I generated a self-selecting sample of horrible Germans via some unconscious evolutionary process. I met uncouth, bossy motormouths through their girlfriends. I met them at events of every conceivable stripe. I met them everywhere but the women-only discotheque.

It sounds like a stand-up comedy routine, but it’s true: I moved to Germany to get away from attractive men. Maybe there are women who can get deeply involved with a loving and lovable sexual partner without it taking up most of their time and money in one way or another, but I’m not one of them. Left to myself, I don’t need a comfortable home or a varied diet, and my fixed costs go way down. I wanted to write and have shallow affairs.

A few years before my bad car ride with the reporter in Israel, when I was still married, I had joined a subset of West Philadelphia’s anarchist scene that practiced polyamory. All relationships were public, though showing off was considered poor form. Prior to sex with someone new, one would run the name past current partners, to be sure no one objected. In short order I had up to three hot dates per day. I still loved my abandoned husband desperately, but I was having way too much fun to move home. It was an emotional education akin to psychoanalysis, unraveling the fabric of my personality to see the individual threads. I became acquainted with my needs – for attention, flattery, respect, beauty, pleasure, ideas – and saw that in concert they had composed my desire for ‘love’. I swore off one-stop shopping (marriage) forever.

When I moved to Germany, I had no intention of embarking on a career in illicit sex. I thought I would continue to engage in ethical non-monogamy. But within weeks of my arrival I had a proposition from a desirable German who was not remotely single. When I suggested he run my name and those of my other partners past his partner, he graciously scoffed. Knowing about us, he said, would only cause her undue annoyance. His life might be her business, but mine was definitely not.

Nell Zink

Nell Zink is the author of six novels, most recently Avalon. She has taught at the Vienna Poetry School and the University of Bern. She first visited Germany in 1983 and has lived there since 2000.

Photograph © Francesca Torricelli

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