One hot and, for Hamburg, uncharacteristically sunny afternoon we turn left out the door of our apartment building and head toward the Innenstadt for a bit of shopping — “downtown,” that is, and not the “inner city” of a literal translation. Down the Rothenbaumchaussee and then cross to cut through Dammtor station; up and over the flying bridge that comes down by the Holocaust memorial, past the Livotto Eis gelateria and then the opera house, through the Gansemarkt and along Jungfernstieg, the city’s Fifth Avenue promenade; past the Alster Pavilion café, in whose band Brahms’ father had played the horn. We’ve been here a week and we’re looking for sheets, and perhaps predictably we end up not at Karstadt’s or the Alsterhaus — not at the German stores — but at Habitat. Half the staff seems to be 20-something Brits speaking German; the others are Germans speaking English. We find — not what we’re looking for, but something that will do, and once outside with our shopping bags we drop into two chairs at a canal-side café for a beer.
What, I ask, with a cool pilsner tingle in my mouth, what constitutes a meaningful cultural difference? At Habitat the German sales clerk had taken my 200-mark notes and laid 19.50 in change on the counter, leaving it for me to scoop up myself instead of dropping it in my hand. And that made me remember a newspaper article I’d read just before we left the States. The reporter had asked the counter staff at Manhattan espresso bars what they found most aggravating about their clients, and discovered that they especially hated those customers who simply put their money on the counter instead of placing it into the server’s hand. It dehumanized the transaction, the baristas claimed, it made them feel that they were being treated like a serving machine and not a person. Now that had been done to me — and how should I interpret it?
My wife Brigitte hadn’t herself noticed it; she’s Swiss and moves from one set of manners to another as easily as she slips between languages. Yet perhaps, she suggested, it’s a different attitude toward money — or maybe a different sense of the relations between customers and salespeople. Over the next few weeks I noticed that in many stores there’s a little tray on the counter, and that the norm, the proper thing, is for the customer to put his money into that tray, for the sales clerk then to pick it up, and to drop the change there in turn. That’s especially true in shops that handle a great many small transactions, like bakeries and newsstands, and also at registers run by older people. Neither of you should touch each other’s hand, a notion that I can well imagine growing out of a rigid distinction between server and served; though who’s being protected from whom can sometimes seem a nice question. But Habitat had had no little tray, and the salesclerk was much younger than I am. How much weight, I wondered, could I or should I place on this? How much could it tell me about the country in which we were now living?
Thinking about such questions didn’t produce answers — I still can’t explain those little trays — but it did at least help me develop a sense of the terms on which those answers might be found. The traveler, and still more the travel writer, approaches such moments as though he were a forensic scientist, trying to piece together a culture out of a fragment or two of evidence, extrapolating from a bit of bone or a scrap of language. And what those extrapolations require above all is that we compare one scrap, one culture, to another. We may share the Herderian dream of taking each land on and only on its own terms, but though we may want to see a culture as in itself it really is, the only way in which we can make sense of a new place is to locate it in relation to those that we’ve known before. You come to understand a country not only through what it is, but also through what it isn’t, defining each new experience through its difference from those to which we are already accustomed. Such comparisons now have a bad name. Earlier travelers — and soldiers, and administrators — too often transformed those differences into a hierarchy of values. A country or a culture might be condemned, laughed at, ruled over, according to the degree that it departed from the traveler’s own imported norms; seen not in itself but only as the obverse of some other, an “abroad” defined as “not home.” Yet Herder’s belief that countries are indeed different does in fact require us to make such comparisons; the mistake comes only when we try to assimilate them to a single criterion of value, when we forget, as Isaiah Berlin puts it, that “cultures are comparable but not commensurable.”
So think not of norms but of the Rosetta Stone. There the unknown language finds itself matched not against an absolute standard but rather to its equivalent in a different tongue, and yet again in a different alphabet; matched to a range of other places and possibilities. There the process of comparison and clarification makes all terms relative, defined through each other. Hamburg’s streets are cleaner than Amsterdam’s but dirtier than Copenhagen’s. It is proportionately less multi-racial than London but much more so than Milan; quieter than Berlin but more bustling than Munich. And if young people here have more pierced tongues and noses and eyebrows and (for all I know) nipples than they do in Venice, they still wear less stuff on their faces than they do in my home town of Northampton, Massachusetts. Pizzas in Germany are a bit soupier than they are in the States, but they’re not served with a bottle of oil on the side, as they sometimes are in France; and in none of those countries do they much resemble the stuff one eats in Naples. The Germans like plates of plain white porcelain; the English prefer them painted.
Yet what do such differences mean? Or do they — need they — mean anything at all? A rectangular American pillow is for me the comfortable norm. Older hotels in the French provinces tend to have hard cylindrical pillows on the bed, like the ones you see on a Recamier sofa, with “normal” ones stowed away in the closet; but though the cylinder is traditional, they are almost never used in a French home. In Germany the normal pillow is square, 90 cm. a side, a shape that for months seemed strange to me, as though I had either to scrunch it up or risk having my head drown in all that unaccustomed upholstery. I got used to it, though, and I’m willing to say that as a difference in cultural practice, this one doesn’t mean much. Some differences in taste point to nothing beyond themselves.
|Dancing wursts. Only in Germany.
But the rest of the bed linen is a different matter. Our apartment doesn’t have a double bed — rather it has two single mattresses placed next to each other on a platform, each with its own sheets and comforter. None of the hotels we’ve stayed in has offered a double or a queen, and though I have seen double beds in shops, they’re intended for people who live alone. You can tell because they’re covered with a single blanket. Each person in Germany is meant to sleep under his own covers — and that does seem to me a meaningful cultural difference. No snuggling under a common blanket. Here the space between us not only has a crack down the middle but is also much more likely than the outer edges to be the place where there’s no blanket at all. It’s as if the bedding itself were conspiring to keep us each in our appointed place, to prevent any meeting in the chilly middle ground. At times the temptation to see this as an emblem of German life is overwhelming.
Now it happens that most of the early travel books I’ve looked at talk about bedding. For as it is one of the most intimate of things, so too it is among the questions on which different lands for whatever reason differ, as they differ in their sexual and sanitary practices or even in the way they make coffee. So the 17th-century traveler Fynes Moryson writes that “Throughout all Germany they lodge betweene two fetherbeds,” and in A Tramp Abroad Mark Twain describes the “narrow…German bed’s ineradicable habit of spilling the blankets on the floor every time you forgot yourself and went to sleep.” They notice the bedding not just because they come in nightly contact with it, but because it’s different from what they’re used to, a departure from their own accustomed norms. It is, we can say, something peculiar to the place, something that characterizes that land as it does not another one.
And that reliance on a comparison to some assumed norm can indeed be a dangerous one, though it’s not the simplistic danger I’ve mentioned above, in which that norm becomes a hierarchy. It has instead to do with our willingness to note and maybe even to revel in the particularities of each new place; a danger that lies in that word “peculiar.” I’ve taken the term from a brief 1889 memoir in which the British publisher John Murray III described the development of his eponymous handbooks, the compact little volumes that led generations of Anglo-American tourists across Europe. Murray writes that he began his project when, “on landing at Hamburg, I found myself destitute” of advice about what to see and where to stay. In consequence he “set to work to collect for myself all the facts…which an English tourist would be likely to require.” Yet rather than “cram in everything…I made it my aim to point out things peculiar to the spot, or which might be better seen there than elsewhere.” So in Hamburg he notes the damage done by the great fire of 1842, the local habit of hiring professional mourners for funerals, and the hour at which the prettiest of the market flower girls can be found around the Stock Exchange; while his 1854 Southern Germany offers not only advice about rates of exchange and the conditions of the roads between Salzburg and Munich, but also includes charming little essays on Alpine sports and the way mountain inns fatten trout for the table. But it included as well a room-by-room list of the paintings in Vienna’s Imperial Picture Gallery, and as time went his books concentrated more and more on providing such inventories. For while trout can be eaten almost anywhere, an original masterpiece — the Sistine Madonna in Dresden, Dürer’s self-portrait in Munich — is by definition peculiar to the spot, can best be seen in one place and one place only.
Though it’s not just guidebooks that emphasize the peculiar — which in any case isn’t only found in museums. All writing about travel does this. Flaubert in Egypt, Bruce Chatwin wandering through Patagonia — they need, they stress, the peculiar as much or more as Murray does, whether it lies in the particularities of the prostitute’s trade or the details of local history. For travel is a form of digression, a digression from daily life. We travel for difference, and so we concentrate on those things — the buildings, the food, the people — that distinguish this place from that, and not on what they have in common. On the one hand that lets us see what the inhabitants themselves no longer can, the things they take for granted, bedding perhaps, or ways of giving change. On the other, it ensures that we not only highlight but even exaggerate the differences between places, for what most strikes us are the exceptions to the normal run of our lives. And in consequence nearly all travel writing depends upon metonymy. Or perhaps upon cliché. It identifies those aspects of a country or a culture that differ from other countries, other cultures, and then identifies that part with the whole. Nobody writes about Italy, for example, and notes that many telephones do work, except against a background assumption that most of them won’t and maybe even shouldn’t; not if they’re proper, pre-cellular Italian telephones. No, the writer concentrates on those that don’t work because that’s what tells him that he is indeed in Italy and not Illinois. Weisswurst is typical of Germany because it isn’t found in Thailand, and in Germany it’s typical of Bavaria because it didn’t originate in Schleswig-Holstein. In fact Bavaria is a Weisswurst, unless it’s also Lederhosen.
The traveler presumes that the spirit of a place lies in such details, in the way in which it differs from other lands; so in Hamburg one notes the club where the Beatles once played, or the waterside warehouse that holds Mitteleuropa’s entire stock of bananas. Yet that reliance on metonymy — on that which seems typical precisely because it is so peculiar — ensures that the traveler will see and value different things than do a place’s inhabitants. Some of that difference may, of course, be enforced by one’s guidebook. Henry James wrote that in Italy the “streets and inns are the vehicles of half one’s knowledge,” but his contemporaries would never have known it from reading Murray, whose guides to the peninsula suggest that an Italian journey is almost exclusively a matter of ancient monuments, an inventory of the past, of marbles, mosaics, churches, pictures, palazzi, the relics of saints and of empire.
In consequence, as James Buzard has written, such guidebooks work to naturalize “the separation of ‘tourist attractions’ from the details of an ongoing quotidian life.” They suggest — they require — that one’s interest remains fundamentally different from that of the local populace. Barthes puts it well in one of his mythologies, writing that in the Blue Guides “the human life of a country disappears to the exclusive benefit of its monuments.” Or so at least the traveler might wish. Take, for instance, this passage from Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice, in which he excoriates the present-day city for having allowed its inhabitants to set up shops around the doors to San Marco: “up to the very recesses of the porches, the meanest tradesmen of the city push their counters…vendors of toys and caricatures…a continuous line of cafes, where the idle…lounge, and read empty journals.” The Venetian need to make a living — off visiting art critics, if necessary — conflicts with his own desire to see the church as it might once have been, in the days of its putative purity. It is in his way, this ongoing quotidian life, and indeed Ruskin suggests that, precisely because his interest is not in the quotidian, he himself should stand as the place’s proper custodian. Venice would be better off if it contained no Venetians, no one whose pesky private concerns might conflict with the values the visitor wishes to place upon it.
But let me offer a more mundane example of the way in which a visitor’s interests differ from those of an inhabitant. In Berlin I meet my friend Karin in a long narrow restaurant off Savignyplatz. It’s Saturday noon and I eat a late German breakfast of cheese and wurst and rolls, while she contents herself with a glass of champagne. She’s an agent and I’m a hack, and so mostly we talk books, what we’re reading, the things I’ve reviewed, the German novels she’s lately sold to American publishers. But we talk about Berlin as well, and she gives me a tip, something I should look into, something about Berlin that’s both new and not obvious. Golf courses. West Berliners weren’t really the kind of people who played golf, not before the Wende, or turn, the 1989 opening of the Wall; and anyway, there wasn’t all that much land. But now, with the capital having moved to Berlin, with more international companies opening shop, with the pretty Brandenburg farmland lying open all around — now, she said, developers were carving one golf course after another into the soil of the former German Democratic Republic.
Well, I’m not a golfer, and though I couldn’t summon up a Ruskinian sneer I didn’t see why I should be any more interested in a German fairway than I am in an American one. Yet clearly Karin found them a new and curious feature in the landscape of her home city. It might be a salutary development or an appalling one — nevertheless it was worth noticing, commenting on, a mark not only of change but of the change. To me, however, the presence of suburban golf courses made Berlin appear as though it might be less interesting, because less different, than it had been before. They might make the city seem to differ from itself, but they also made it more closely resemble other large cities, American ones in particular. That had a curiosity of its own; but it wasn’t what I wanted from this city. Golf courses were not peculiar. They weren’t the Pergamon Museum or Sans Souci or the food halls at the KaDaWe department store. There may for all I know be 10 million German golfers, but I couldn’t see the 18th hole as a metonymy for Germany in the way that it is for Florida.
Of course having written that sentence I’m afraid that I won’t be able to get those golf courses out of my mind, that without my ever actually laying eyes on them they will in fact become for me an emblem of post-unification Berlin. Our image of a place is composed of such metonymies. Sometimes they’re nothing more than the assumptions we’ve brought along, and if a place doesn’t conform to our expectations we may in fact be disappointed in it. Others we pick up along the way, a late addition to our carry-on baggage. And often we construct that image by adding those metonymic bits together, which we take as coextensive with the country itself. Germany equals the sum total of the ways in which it differs from France or Denmark or even Burkina Faso. Yet that’s not enough. We not only want those pieces to add up, to aggregate, we also want them to fit, we want those peculiar bits to make a whole, to go together like a puzzle, one tongue sliding neatly into one groove. Like the bits and pieces of bone that the physical anthropologist pieces together into our ancestor’s skull. No empty spots, no pieces left over at the end. No contradictions.
| The Speicherstadt: Hamburg’s
waterfront warehouse complex.
And no chance at all that that might really be so. “Anybody ever tries to tell you,” says the German-Jewish refugee Otto Cone in Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, “how this most beautiful and most evil of planets is somehow homogenous, composed only of reconcilable elements, that it all adds up, you get on the phone to the straightjacket tailor…The world is incompatible, just never forget it: gaga.” It is an equation without an answer, in which every term is a variable, a human circle that cannot be squared. I take Rushdie’s words as a gloss on Isaiah Berlin’s passionate attack on the belief that “all genuine questions must have one true answer and one only,” his argument that the facts of a culture not “necessarily commenurable, either within a culture or (still less) as between cultures.” I know — I believe — that that must be true. Yet in Germany I find myself resisting that belief even as I’m drawn to it, and resisting it with something more than my normal traveller’s strategy of resolving contradictions through the simple act of noting them. That’s what I’ve done in India — taken contradiction as providing in itself the norm. In Madras the conjunction of a bookstore with a computerized inventory and a painted cow loitering by the door becomes an emblem for the postcolonial nation, for the collision or at any rate the coexistence of Western technology and traditional life. Here, however, I seem to shy away from such resolutions. As perhaps the Germans themselves do, at least insofar as they accept the Herderian notion that, to quote once more from Berlin, “the ways in which a people…speak or move, eat or drink, their handwriting, their laws, their music, their social outlook, their dance forms, their theology have patterns and qualities in common…belong to a cluster which must be grasped as a whole.”
So I want the country to add up, want some way of making it all cohere. Or do I? One typically German thing belies another. The long green bottles of the Mosel, full of a wine so light and elegant that it seems not a liquid but the airy essence of flavor itself — how can that fit with the stodge of Bavarian liver dumplings? And how do those dumplings match themselves to the buoyant creamy stucco of an equally Bavarian rococo? The small bow with which many German men, even young ones, seem to shake my hand? Can that be compatible with the sharp elbows of the old ladies pushing their way through a department store, banging their walking sticks down on your instep — the only Germans left who still believe in lebensraum? It’s tempting to rationalize this all away, and I could do it, some of it anyway, by talking about the country’s very real regional differences. The North is mostly Protestant, the South mostly Catholic. Some regions make wine and others make beer, some were Prussian and some weren’t, some cities belonged to a bishop and others ruled themselves. In Hamburg I have been told that a Saxon accent is objectively ugly and that Bavarians don’t speak German. A history of fragmentation followed by a late unification and then the country’s postwar partition — you can see how contradictions might multiply, making the country seem even today as motley as a map of the old Holy Roman Empire. Yet I could conversely say that though liver dumplings and a Mosel Riesling seem opposed, each nevertheless represents a kind of extreme. Each within its category pushes the envelope of the possible, and this is in itself metonymic of Germany as a whole, in everything from the rigor of its philosophy to contemporary kitchen design. I could put that case — but I wouldn’t believe my own argument, and it makes more sense to ask myself why this issue nags at me so. Why does one even bother trying try to make these bits and pieces of the typical, these epiphenomena of a culture, fit so tightly together? What are the stakes in accepting — or rejecting — contradiction?
The belief that Germany does not add up, that it remains incommensurate with itself — such a belief may be tremendously reassuring. It tells us that the past is not a monolith. But it is also frightening and for some of us it is perhaps unbearable, for it entails as well the belief that the past is or rather was contingent, that it wasn’t inevitable. That it could have been avoided. • 9 April 2008