Details, breadth

I like families. I like being around them, talking about them, learning their intricacies. I don’t know, perhaps it is my selfish determination that I have too small of one, or the perhaps equally absurd belief that through its knowledge will I obtain the true understanding of another person. Either way, it is often when I am immersed so deeply within another’s backdrop: a dinner table, a raucous of wine and good feeling, the sodium yellow glimmer lighting up the eyes of one speaking of his/her first love, slow steps through hallways, during which I experience that feeling of immeasurable satisfaction.

And so I am often thankful when people share these details with me, invite me to their dinner table per se. Through the lens of their native environment, friends and family with whom they have spent a lifetime, I can perhaps achieve some sort of firmer understanding, some grasp of how or why a friend thinks one way, speaks one way, does one way.

Uniquely, I think of two family dinners I have had the pleasure of attending over this past year, with the respective German-speaking families of two dear friends of mine. (Might I add that I think I did better language-wise the second time around, a little less overwhelmed I think, a bit more practiced? Still a long way to go though.) Both times, I felt lucky enough to get a broader spectrum of Germany, a bit more dimension than the hustling, international, urban scene of Berlin, which outside of its salient and unparalleled recent history, felt less unique in itself and more of the hipper, darker variety of major metropolitan center. Never did I get a sense of cultural faux pas as much as when I arrived ten minutes late to a scheduled family lunch, hurrying across a wintering strawberry field, or a renewed wave of cultural vertigo as strong as when news of the CCC Congress’s change of venue showed up on the Tagesschau as the first news event of the day, when just hours before, I had been right up against the LED-lit venue, and had gone through three perfectly smooth train transactions to get to my friend’s family home in the middle of Niedersachsen. I bought that ticket from a real live person! And I had to use my German! Seems a silly, minor thing to get so excited about in retrospect, but it sure brought things into perspective at the time.

Before I get on too much of a detour, what I want to say is how much I honor the details, the often wordless gestures between individuals. A hint of pleasant surprise, a nod of appreciation, an out-of-the-way artifact: these are the subtle but often most remembered things.

A series of events

So, I’ve spent quite some time thinking about this scene. I am not quite sure I can pinpoint the exact thing that keeps bringing me back to it; perhaps it is actually a myriad of forces — layers of the onion so to speak — the rain and wet feet, bags heavy with brown glass beer, chairs in one line, slogans on sweatshirts, and the words which followed, pulled out of some deeper place only accessible during this particular syzygy of events.

It’s interesting that I observed most of the action through a veil of pseudo-comprehension. Whatever words were exchanged, or shrieked in the rain, flew by with little meaning, but the circumstances seemed quite clear: from the first tumble of that umbrella over the rails to the heavy pregnant pause at the end of a thought. It seems that delinquency is a predicament shared by nations.

I suppose I agree with the statement that the German education system makes it easy for someone to make something of themselves, not necessarily to succeed through the higher education equivalent in the States — which would be university followed by postgraduate work, industry or something along those lines, or the whole self-made man ideal — but perhaps technical or artisan work, something “with the hands.” High quality education in Germany can be obtained at incredibly low cost and enjoys widespread availability. Anyone with a mind to learn can, and should. Yet, there are still abundant youth who could care less about educating themselves or doing anything particularly worthwhile for society. They would much rather run rampant, destroying property, intimidating strangers, acting out on all aspects of the word hostility.

Now, I live in Baltimore, surrounded by all the infamous drug dangers and lawlessness it seems to be most known for (I believe there are far more interesting things, like its desperation, history, and growing pockets of scenes, but I digress). City education has been facing the same big problems for years: high dropout rates, teen pregnancy, illiteracy, suburban migration, all culminating in the loss of tax base, inadequate funding, and the inability to retain good teachers. Here, I sense a more straightforward connection between these lost youth and that which pushes them towards vandalism and crime.

The girls we ran into in Stuttgart aren’t quite so dangerous. Even as they speak in slang and toss around other people’s property without much care, I can hardly envision them doing more than throwing a few insults. Certainly, they would stop at stealing purses or pushing bikers into streets. Or would they? I don’t presume to know where people’s limits are as they become adults.

Even within the context of different circumstances and opportunities, I think the root of this issue is comparable between our two societies. Breaking out of one’s conditions is hard from within. It is easy to point and say, one should act in a particular way, and certain behaviors are clearly self-destructive, and the correct path is so obviously marked that one would have to be blind to miss it. But is that so? As one of those girls, perhaps it seemed the most natural thing in the world to behave as they did. Why worry about school until I have to? Why worry about giving back to a society that places me on the bottom rung? And here, in Baltimore, why buy into a legal system that does not give me enough monetary support to lead a decent life? Why conform to society when it will simply get me labeled a chump?

Yes, society, or at least the structure it provides, is here to benefit us, and we should make use of said benefits. But then again, when was the last time I took full advantage? I still spend exorbitant amounts of time wasting my time, in my own personal delinquent way.

Location: Stuttgart, Germany