Because I do.
I like to claim that I’m a pretty independent person–picking up my life and moving it across states, time zones, or even oceans is a decision I’ve made many times, to the point where its become more of a habit than a life-altering shift.
Yet, I find comfort in community above all else. Spending long amounts of time alone makes me go crazy, and I try to avoid it at all costs. As extroverted and Type A as they come, I love meeting new people and learning about their lives, and adopting parts of their stories into mine. I see this most clearly in my eating habits–after awhile, I tend to start to eat how my friends or roommates do, for good or for bad.
Yet, when starting over in a new place, there are a few definite labels to which I assign myself. Wherever I go, I will be a Norwegian-American, ELCA-inclined Lutheran, liberal-leaning liberal arts graduate, former figure skater, quasi German speaker, and oxford-comma enthusiast from Wisconsin. Identifying myself as such has allowed me to maintain my own identity when I join new communities, and each has allowed me to find common ground with different people.
Do I claim to epitomize any of these groups? Should I be the poster child for Midwestern Liberal Arts colleges, or the Defend the Oxford Comma from the Grammatical Heathens campaign? Absolutely not. I identify with each of these things because they are important to who I am, but I recognize that there are aspects of each label with which I do not agree. Yet, everything I mentioned is a label (well, except for the Norwegian part. That was out of my control, but I’ll claim it anyway) I have chosen, or have chosen to continue to identify with, and with that choice, like any, comes responsibility.
By claiming to be part of any group, I think one needs to accept responsibility for the good and for the bad, and not to simply claim to be an enlightened member who disagrees with the group with which one continues to identify. By doing so, I can’t help but feel that one actively supports the very theories one claims to proudly contradict. Individuals do have the power to affect change, and communication across all factions is obviously important to the continued existence of society as we know it, as well as something from which I derive much joy. I don’t ever want to be a part of a community of exactly like-minded individuals, but I also think it’s absolutely fair to expect members of a community to examine which labels they assign themselves, to challenge those labels, and to allow people to change the labels with which they identify when necessary.
It’s to be expected that there will be challenges in community, and in leadership, because a group that is harmoniously static is not only boring to be a part of, but also won’t remain relevant. Great, dynamic leaders know that, and strong minded, yet passionate and multi-faceted community members are also well aware. It’s easy to get caught up in labels, honors, titles, etc. bestowed by others, but the fact is, what you have accomplished doesn’t define you.
You are who you choose to be.
“You will make all kinds of mistakes, but as long as you are generous and true but also fierce you cannot hurt the world or even seriously distress her.” -Churchill
It’s the “but also fierce” that really gets me, here.
My freshman year at Luther, we all had to take this class called Paideia, which would be more aptly described as “Adminstration-Required Rite of Passage Disguised as Lots of Books, Most of Which Are Interesting Except for That One Called Useless Arithmetic Because If The Title Says It’s Useless Then I’m Going To Agree 101”. My professor happened to teach in the English department, and also happened to have been an extra in a little movie called Animal House. Upon my class’ discovery of this factoid, he lamented that anything he taught us that year would forever be overshadowed by the fact that he once stood next to Kevin Bacon in a movie. This is relevant to my life in Germany, and this is why:
I’ve often felt that any story I tell about the work I’ve done in Germany this year will be trumped by the story of the building in which I’ve done it. The present institution with which I am affiliated was founded in November of 1946, in the aftermath of that little-discussed event some call World War II. During the war, the building (along with its twin across the street) was used as the administrative offices of the Nazi party, and after the war was used by the American army as a center for stolen art to be returned to the countries of origin before housing the art history research center that’s here today. It also happens to be right next to Königsplatz, a big square in Munich that is outlined by museums built in the 19th century, and was used for mass party rallies under the Nazis.
Now, stay with me for a minute, here.
Despite its other failings, one of my favorite histories of Germany (Steven Ozment’s A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German People) is so because it was written with the premise that “it is one thing to know the end of a story and to be moved by it to learn the whole story, and quite another to tell that story from its known outcome.” (Also, Steven Ozment is a Reformation scholar with a huge amount of respect for Martin Luther, but I digress) I get frustrated when I tell Germans what I’m here to study, because it’s very commonly assumed that I fall into the category of Americans whose knowledge of and interest in Germany starts with WWII and ends with Oktoberfest. Likewise, it’s sometimes difficult to explain to my fellow countrymen (and women) that there is so much more to Germany than thirteen years of an infamous government.
Being in this building most days a week has forced me to constantly confront what it means to work, literally, in the remnants of the war. Earlier this week, I was searching for the binders full of the records with which I’m currently working, and my quest took me to a part of the building where there exists an underground passage linking the two main buildings to the rest of Königsplatz. The passageway was covered in graffitti from the Allied troops, and desks from the party officials whose offices used to be in this building are still stacked in the hallway, unable to be discarded. Around the corner from the passageway, my coworker showed me a line of huge cabinets now repurposed as storage for the Institute’s needs but also where the Nazi party membership records were once held. Likewise, Königsplatz itself has been re-repurposed after the war, having gone full circle from a public square to propogandistic center back to a politically sterile cultural center. A few weeks ago, I walked through Königsplatz with a couple friends, and expressed that I used to think it was a beautiful little collection of neo-classicism in the middle of Munich, but now it feels almost eerie. While my workplace does not shy away from its past, even offering public tours of the building through the lens of its wartime purpose, Königsplatz itself contains one public acknowledgement of the square’s importance to the Nazi government, a sign that was erected in 2001 on the street opposite the square itself.
All of this, to me, begs many questions, most importantly being: if we follow the logic that most people will be more interested in the history of my office building than of the actual work that goes on there, how does that play out for the larger story of Germany’s place in the world? And for me, personally, does that mean that I now place much more emphasis than before on 1933-45 in my own interpretation of Germany, one that I like to think has been more fully informed both by studying German history that occurred long before the 20th century and by living in present day (or post-war, hats off to Tody Judt**) economic-and-engineering-powerhouse Germany?
I don’t like it, but maybe it’s true.
*This would again be the time where I say that nothing I say on this blog represents the opinions of any of the organizations with which I am affiliated. We good?
**Seriously, if you are at all interested in the massively interconnected, messy, and unlikely story that is Europe since WWII, please, please, read Tony Judt’s book Postwar.
Y’all? I think I hate winter.
But, you might say, “Rachel, winter is when all sorts of happy things happen! Christmas! Ice skating! You don’t have to sweat just from walking out of your house! It’s socially acceptable to wear lots of clothes! Warm food tastes so good!”
I’m not a peppy person. I’ll never win any awards for being the most energetic person in the room, but lately, I haven’t wanted to leave my bed. I’ve been working longer hours because 1) classes are over for the semester and 2) if I’m not at work, there’s an excellent chance I’m curled up in my bed watching 30 Rock. I’ve had to bribe myself to go on the few runs I have (18 miles total in January, holla–not), and I’ve bailed on plans with friends in favor of instead spending the night with my hot water bottle.
I blame all of this on the fact that Germany is somehow even more disgustingly, bone-chillingly, soul-crushingly cold than all of the Midwestern winters I’ve weathered in my day.
That’s all, folks. Regular programming will resume when temperatures approach a liveable level.
This semester, I’ve been attending a lecture course on Wednesday afternoons pertaining to late medieval and early modern art history. I say attending, not taking, because I am in no way getting credit for the course, nor am I planning to sit for the final exam in a couple of weeks. Despite my (perhaps) lack of real commitment to the class, it has nonetheless become one of the more compelling parts of my week.
Liberal arts child that I am, I’ve never been part of a class larger than, say, 40-50 people, and I had also never before taken a class conducted in German that was not designed to teach me German. So, when I first took my seat in the massive, anonymous lecture hall and my Prof. Dr. Whoever (side note: if you are an accomplished German academic, how many of your titles do you choose to include on plane ticket forms? Just curious.) opened his mouth and started to spew in German with the occasional contrived Italian accent, I was convinced that this class was going to be a miserable experience.
But, I stuck it out, and while I haven’t understood absolutely every word of each lecture or agreed with everything the professor has said (call me crazy, but if you’re going to call your class “art history” it should include some historical context for all those Gothic buildings and Donatello paintings you’re showing me), there’s something about my time spent in Lecture Hall B210 on Geschwister-Scholl Platz that has consistently reminded me why I feel so strongly attached to the humanities.
In Germany, it’s very common for retired individuals to attend university classes, maybe for credit, maybe not. Out of the probably 300 people that attend this lecture on (sometimes) obscure art every week, roughly half of them are at least three times my age. Looking around the hall yesterday afternoon (as I am wont to do once its been an hour and my attention span has therefore expired) I loved that I was seeing first-semester students in the same row with people who probably knew Michelangelo when he was a contemporary artist, and all were taking notes with the same vigor. Even though at least half of them will probably never take a test on this material, and even fewer will pursue a career related to, say, Brunelleschi’s work in Florence (or, as my professor says, Flo-hrenz.), I like to think they all appreciate that studying this material will either change or open up a different way of understanding the world, and isn’t that what we’re all after, anyway?
A favorite lecture (ok, TED talk) of which I often think speaks about how society has become a place full of experts, zealots, and spectators, and how liberal arts education can work to remedy that. The world has enough experts, there will always be zealots, but I will never stop applauding individuals who refuse to be spectators of the world around them, and I have loved spending every Wednesday afternoon in their company.
1) Wait for the light to turn green before crossing the road. Lesson learned.
2) Think that 3,50 Euros for half a liter of Bier is expensive. Keeping in mind that I gladly handed over upwards of $5.00 for pints of Yuengling at some of the finer establishments in the District of Columbia, this is especially strange.
3) Memorize train schedules. Because there is no way I’m going to spend one more second waiting for a train in the freezing cold than needed.
4) Have an insatiable need to consume as much spicy food as possible. Classic, right? Always want what you can’t have.
5) Not care what I wear. I have willingly left my house in combinations of clothing in this country that I would laugh at myself for even thinking of wearing in the US.