I am a trans-German. It’s not all been easy; to tell the truth, it’s been a real slog. Brexit definitely tipped me over the edge, but the signs were already there in my childhood.
Summer 1978. It began with my parents’ appreciation of the German education system. They were both teachers who took my sister and me on holiday to the Rhineland Pfalz, where we stayed with teacher friends, Rainer and Eva. In the evenings, Rainer strummed ‘Rivers of Babylon’ while Eva, wearing an Atomkraft? Nein danke badge, clapped in time. We were out in the vineyards and, although I was only 11, they let me ride their moped. My first impression of Germany: organised anarchy.
Summer 1979. Soon, my sister and I were on our way back to the Pfalz to visit our new penfriends, Eva’s nieces. During a four-week stay, Barbara, my penfriend, taught me how to ride her pony and order Himbeereis. We had no adult supervision whatsoever.
Spring 1981. Having developed a taste for independence, I wrote to Barbara’s mum to ask if I could stay a second summer. She wrote a long letter back. Her first sentence started with: ‘Es wäre sehr schön Dich zu sehen…’ It would be very nice to see you and ended ‘…aber—wir lassen uns gerade scheiden’: but we are in the middle of a divorce. ‘Scheiden lassen’ wasn’t in my school dictionary. I didn’t even know that those two verbs belonged together in the sentence. My dad, who spoke no German, asked what the letter said. I told him: ‘They’d love me to come.’
Summer 1981. And that’s how I came to be in Barbara’s living room, pinned to the sofa by Christian, her brother, who was trying to snatch the remote control out of my hand. I didn’t know he was angry because of the ‘Scheidung’ or because he’d been brought up ‘anti-autoritär’, (responding to teenage mood swings with infuriating reason and logical arguments). I just thought he wanted to watch football. Barbara’s mum came in and threw up her hands. Then we trooped into the kitchen, and she wrote a report of how the fight started. She actually took statements from each of us and drew sketches in her notepad. After looking at all the evidence, she made us shake hands. This was my first experience of German ‘Gerechtigkeit’: (justice with knobs on).
Summer 1982. I was fourteen. On day three of a ten-day trip to Berlin with a youth orchestra, I stood on a raised platform on Bernauer Strasse, looking over the Wall from West to East. My knowledge of Berlin – in fact, of the whole of Germany – was patchy, because in history classes, we were still on Henry VIII. I remember watching the figures moving behind the barbed wire and wondering what crimes those Ossis had committed. I had no context for the information the guide was giving us even though I understood the words he is saying. And no inkling that I was looking at the block of flats I would move into 23 years later, on the East side, by which time I’d understood who the bad guys were.
October 1986. Before starting my German degree in Britain, I worked as an au-pair in Hamburg. My main chores were 1) washing, 2) cleaning and 3) mich anmelden. One day the father left a note for me on the breakfast table: could I please put his socks together before putting them in the drawer? I left a note back which I hope said: Could he please put his socks together before putting them in the laundry basket? This way I learned that note-writing in Germany is a convenient way of arguing without raising your voice.
September 1988. On the first day of my German degree course in Norwich, I wore a Sankt Pauli sweatshirt, could swear like a Hamburg sailor and hadn’t brushed my hair for a year. In Philosophy, we read Nietzsche. Afterwards I was too depressed to cycle home. It took me an hour, slowly putting one foot in front of the other. Had it been 1998, Google would have told me it’s a thing when you read Nietzsche: you become cognizant of the limits to language, knowledge and objectivity. Oh, and then there’s Determinism, the idea that we don’t have free will, we’re merely simulations by greater beings. But, as the internet hadn’t been invented yet, I just went to bed for a week.
9 November, 1989. For once I was on time for my Politics lecture at a German university. But as soon as we walked in the door, the professor told us to go home and watch TV. ‘Dort passiert gerade Geschichte,’ he said: History is taking place as we speak. Back at my flat, I watched East Germans hacking pieces out of the Berlin Wall. Later, my flatmate Günther asked if I wanted to drive with him to Berlin. I said, no, because I had a dentist’s appointment to have my wisdom teeth taken out. I was so impressed by the health service that I subsequently had a few other body parts extracted in Germany.
May 1992. I moved to a punk district of Hamburg. By then, seven members of my family were living in Germany. People would ask me all the time why that was. Perhaps they hoped I’d say, ‘Because we love your democratic system, work-life balance and excellent health service.’ But they always steered me to give their preferred answer: ‘Is it because London is so expensive?’ they would say. ‘Yes, yes,’ I would reply, ‘London is very expensive.’ The Willkommenskultur was already alive and kicking and, like all Wirtschaftsflüchtlinge, I had a dream of returning home, in my case to a cottage in Cornwall.
Autumn 1996. My Hamburg flatmate Thoben and I were not getting along, despite my strict observance of the cleaning rota. He also left me a lot of notes. It’s quite amazing how much we actually avoided talking by writing instead. When we did get into a discussion, he said things like ‘Das ist ein Denkfehler’. Up till then, I had never heard of a Denkfehler. But he was an expert on them. My faulty logic was pointed out all the time. When I handed in my notice, he told me I had to paint my walls back to white, seeing as I painted them orange when I moved in. I wondered if it was a Denkfehler to tell someone who hates your guts to paint your walls.
Spring 1997. I moved flats in Hamburg. My new flatmate, Gesine, studied marine biology and was away on a ship most of the time. My new flat was sandwiched between the motorway and the graveyard; the building was full of elderly people whose children visited via the motorway and whose spouses departed via the cemetery. Frau Schmidt downstairs visited her husband’s grave every day. She always said ‘Guten morgen’ to me on the stairs. One morning at 4 a.m. after clubbing, I ran myself a bath. Later that day, Frau Schmidt saw me and asked: ‘Sind Sie das?’ pointing to my name on the letter box and smiling. ‘Ja,’ I say, unsuspectingly, smiling back. Two days later, Gesine received an ‘Untervermietungserlaubnisunterlassungserklärung’: a really nasty letter telling her that she was illegally subletting. It took me a while to put two and two together.
Autumn 2005. I moved to Karlsruhe because of my husband’s job. Mothers there are often stay-at-home mums because kindergarten closes about an hour after you’ve dropped the kids off. What’s the point in trying to have a job when you only have three hours a day, half of which you spend in a car trying to get to the day-care centre? everyone rightly thinks. Because the truth is, Germany’s provinces are stuck in the 1950s. The mother who lived downstairs had four children, a PhD in Chemistry and is a real pro at putting the little Playmobil letters into the Lego postman’s trolley.
Summer 2012. Before Brexit was a twinkle in David Cameron’s eye, I decided I want to vote in the country I’ve lived in for nearly a quarter of a century. I wanted to become a German. Half an hour before I sat the German citizenship test, though, I realised I didn’t know the words to the national anthem – a question that ALWAYS comes up. ‘Quick,’ I said to my daughter, a huge football fan, ‘how does it go again?’ ‘Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit!’ she yelled as I was putting on my coat. ‘Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit… Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit…’ I muttered under my breath all the way down Prenzlauer Allee. I entered the exam four minutes late, left 20 minutes early and scored 32 points out of 33. I really wonder about that one point.
December 2014. I went to the anti-Bärgida rally with a friend. We met up near Podewil in Berlin. I was struck by the nonchalance of the demonstrators, who didn’t seem panicked that the AfD was gathering so much support. They were just taking things in their stride, doing a little demo, like you do on a Monday night. Banners were unfurled that look as if they’d been carefully stored in a cellar box marked Demozeug, next to the box marked Kinderzeug. It felt comforting to be surrounded by such well-organised lefties. A right-wing party won’t get elected to the Bundestag again, I think. Nah.
September, 2015. I threw a ‘schwarz-rot-gold’ party to celebrate my citizenship. Someone gave me a twenty-volume collection of German poetry. ‘How does it feel to be German?’ everyone asks. I smiled and said ‘It feels great!’ Because I will always be too English for brutal honesty.
Thursday 23 June, 2016. To get over the shock of the Brexit results, I went for a swim. I was glad to be in the pool because that way, no one could tell I was crying. Afterwards, I dried off and defriended several members of my family on Facebook. The door on my cottage-in-Cornwall slammed shut. The Uckermark started looking like a real alternative.
May 2019. Germans, on the one hand, ask me what the British want. I tell them: it’s as if all those people at school you didn’t like are suddenly having their moment. You always knew they were there, but they knew they were unpopular and so kept their mouths shut. Now, they’re even running the country. English friends, on the other, ask me when I’m coming back, and I tell them: it’s not as easy as that. Yes, they have ‘Denkfehler’ and ‘Untervermietungserlaubnisunterlassungserklärungen’ here. But there’s no going back. I am trans-German: a non-binary, citizen-queer binational who’s into soft, not hard borders.