That’s the question I often get asked by my relatives and other locals who are puzzled by my peregrinations (left 28 years ago) and nationality changes (two). After all, it’s not a bad country. It has more than its fair share of culture; of great writers, composers, artists, photographers. It’s clean, people are reasonable, landscapes can be amazing, the wine and beer are lovely.
My desire to leave Germany started early; I’d say when I was around eleven or twelve. I still have my very first atlas, an atlas which happened to contain detailed maps of major global cities. I marked up both the New York and London maps with a view to where to settle in the future. (While I have in fact managed to live in both, I never actually could afford to live on Green Park and on Central Park West, but never mind).
So, why? It wasn’t just a case of getting away from my family – that could have easily been accomplished by moving to Hamburg or Bremen.
I think I never really like the German language in its spoken form. Many of my favorite authors – Sebald, Bernhard, Klemperer – write in German. But spoken German has always sounded harsh and unmelodic to me, with little wit or elegance. A language particularly well suited to giving orders or filling in forms. I’ve never found it easy to express affection or be funny in German. I am sure this is just a deficit on my part. But it’s why I’ve always loved Yiddish, a language I discovered at the age of 13 and that I started studying in earnest last year. It’s soft, generous, witty, tender, wistful and melodic – everything German isn’t.
And while Germany has produced wonderful classical and serious music I’ve always felt that its “people’s music” – it’s children’s songs, radio hits and other mainstream music – was an abomination. What you hear played on TV and radio lacks any kind of subtlety, there are no minor keys, no complexity, no beauty. It also has a complete tin ear. A lot of German popular music in the 1960s and 1970s was sung by supposedly exotic singers with foreign-sounding names about locations far away. I guess it was a way of reconnecting with the world after the thirties and forties. But how could anyone sing along to “Theo wir fahr’n nach Lodz”, “Das Polenmädchen” or “Moskau” and not feel a shudder?
German children’s songs are all the same few notes in the most predictable sequences. It is then not at all surprising that Germany has so miserably failed to produce any popular music of world note. Appreciation of complex melodies and complex emotions are never developed unless a child happens to get exposed to classical music or music from other countries and cultures.
Rock ‘n’roll, punk and new wave music from the UK and America were a revelation to me – they lit a spark in me, opened new worlds and made me determined to leave Germany behind.