LETTERS FROM BERLIN

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MY BERLIN RESOLUTIONS

By Annie Mark-Westfall

Despite my penchant for resolutions and self-improvement, this year I find myself uninspired.  Perhaps this is another sneaking sign of sleep deprivation, as the mother of an infant and toddler. Last week, I stared at the Do Not Disturb sign on the closet door of my hotel room for a full five seconds, wondering why I should not enter the coat closet; then crawled into bed for a nap, after realizing my error—the sign was simply available for my own use.

I fear, though, that my lack of motivation is a sign of the times.  Despair comes knocking on my door regularly, with each news cycle.  Most days, I keep it at bay by turning to those who inspire me—Barack Obama’s interviews and his message of eternal hope; Oprah Winfrey’s Golden Globes speech, which invoked the courageous women who have brought us #MeToo and #TimesUp; and an activist in my Ohio hometown who told me about her calls to Senator Rob Portman and what it means to Resist. 

 We were just home for the holidays, and while back in my U.S hometown, I heard from friends and strangers who read my column.  Their encouragement and interest in continuing the dialogue with me is powerfully humbling.  That, coupled with ten days with Grandma Bea and most of the rest of my extended family, who finally met our baby, my mindset is more optimistic again.  I need to remember that family time, while stressful (“home for the holidays” invokes fantastic stories from people at a bar—try it), can reboot my optimism. Grandma Bea, at age 98, reminds me how quickly and “bigly” the world can change, again. In the meantime, I have the opportunity to step back and consider what changes I would like to see, to encourage for the world in 2018.

As an expatriate, I occupy a privileged space that allows me to float between my home country and host country, without the ability—and therefore, arguably, the responsibility—to participate fully in either place.  While I can vote absentee in the U.S., quite literally my vote is not counted.  This is an extremely frustrating but also exciting and liberating spot for a writer and a self-described cultural ambassador. I am able to make observations about the strengths and disadvantages of both places, and there is somehow less at stake.  My focus is now on my little nuclear family, and the space we occupy—the literary and beer scenes in Berlin, the playgrounds, and the other families at my son’s daycare. This “shrinking” of my world is a happy and unexpected aspect of my new life.  It will change when I begin work again, but for now, I enjoy it, and guard my time and commitments carefully.

Travel has been a significant part of my life almost since birth—at first, because of my father’s job and my parents’ interest.  Later, travel intrigued me because it highlights paradigms that I take for granted.  The first time I visited Europe as a 16-year-old, I observed the simple fact that grocery stores do not refrigerate eggs or even some milk, and that, to be mildly hyperbolic, changed my life.  If eggs and milk can be warm, what other fundamental truths are relative?

This recent holiday season, Christmas Eve fell on a Sunday.  While Christmas Eve is a critically important last-minute shopping opportunity in the U.S., in Germany, the shops remained closed. Federal law prohibits most stores from opening on most Sundays during the year, with few exceptions.  Christmas Eve was not one of those exceptions.

My American mindset simply could not fathom this. The businesses could make so much money, I thought.   For an American capitalist, making money is paramount. (Also, I still needed one more gift for my husband.) I realized how deeply I had internalized capitalism as a fundamental truth–shoppers and shopkeepers alike must surely desire more opportunity to spend and make money.  In fact, reportedly 87% of Germans polled believed the stores should indeed have been closed, to promote family time for both the employees and potential shoppers.

Indignantly, I asked some German friends in their late 20s about this. Their answer surprised me. They boycott Sunday shopping, categorically. When I demanded to know why, they answered simply, “It is not necessary.”

Back in Ohio, family and friends kindly asked me about life in Berlin. I described the wonderful playgrounds, with the massive slides and climbing walls, and the laissez faire parenting approach that (stereo)typifies Germans. Inevitably, someone would ask “What happens when a child falls? Who is sued?” Heads shook in wonder, when I described the sense of personal responsibility that permeates German culture; and the lack of that litigiousness that plagues the U.S.

As I look ahead to 2018, I return to the question of resolutions.  I recall my reasons for moving to Berlin—it is the definition of family-friendly and, with its affordability and artsy-ness, almost scoffs at the notion of full-time work.  Although I do love my job, I will resist my urge to return to work too soon.  As a Berliner, I will nap with the baby; take more German classes; and attempt to write a book that tells Grandma Bea’s story.  This will be my year to redefine necessary, embrace my new paradigm, and focus on the gifts of time and family that this great city has afforded me.

Annie Mark-Westfall graduated from Kenyon College in Ohio. As a former Fulbright grantee and Robert Bosch Foundation fellow, she views herself as a cultural ambassador. Her day job is with an international conservation organization.

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