Letter From - Winter 2012

Stuttgart: Continental Drifter

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By Olufemi Terry


 

The weather is gray the day he arrives, but there have been, he’s told, one or two recent weeks of sunshine. The fields are green and empty of cows, the clouds an unbroken line across the horizon. He enters the flat and sleeps, waking to the rushing sound of rain in the streets. A moderate rain, neither warm nor cold. Stuttgart. It’s a curious thing to walk into a new life: an apartment, unfamiliar but one’s own, partially furnished, surfaces gleaming, eggs in the fridge one has not bought. His name is already on the mailbox.

He’s 38 years old, an auspicious age. His life can be divided into tidy halves: 19 years have been spent on the continent of his birth, Africa. The other 19 have been lived overseas—that is, Europe and America. He perceives the trajectory in this way: home; away; home; away; home; and now he’s abroad once more. In all of these movements, he’s never once thought of himself as an emigrant. He’s a martlet, too rootless to settle. And he lacks the incomer’s determination to ingratiate himself, to make good. These ambiguities do not disrupt his sleep. In his experience, it is others who are ill at ease with his identity.

He’s moved to Germany—in the maudlin expression of one or two female acquaintances—for love. His partner, K, a lawyer, has found a job in Stuttgart, near where she grew up. Twenty years before, he fled Britain and the unhappiness of boarding school and has since passed through Europe only infrequently. The continent is overpraised, is the cultural monolith Africa is made out to be. European Union writ and largesse have smoothed away history’s barbed edges: feudalism, the pogroms. Europe’s tribes, never referred to thus, are defanged, and with modernity, the continent’s air has become sterile, the faces too knowing; beneath the cobblestone streets its cultures lie entombed.

Africa’s traditions, in contrast, are vivacious and unconfined to museums and opera houses. Yet, both places are akin: Europe—insular, chauvinistic—is Africa overlaid with material wealth, with an inscribed history. Beneath the surface in Germany, buried deep, he expects to uncover the tribal nationalisms of Kenya or Nigeria.

One, he writes in his notebook, meaning himself, enters the United States to puncture illusions: the American dream; exceptionalism. Whereas he’s come to Europe with the hope of coming to grips with a bellicose, deep-rooted civilization, the influence of which is felt still everywhere. In any case, he’s grateful, always so, to come from elsewhere, to stand apart and look on. Even if he’s unable to locate where elsewhere is.

Stuttgart, at first view, has attractive, sturdy monuments and buildings dating to the 19th century, but the city is not beautiful. The Neckar River flows along the town’s periphery, and the ambiance of Zurich or Hamburg, the lulling sensation of living over water, is absent. Stuttgart is affluent and stolid, home to Porsche and Mercedes-Benz. A settled class of burghers lives here: lawyers and engineers. Prosperous, courtly, they enter the city from outlying hamlets, drawn by the wine festivals, the outdoor jazz concerts, the opera. He sees them crowding the main square, the Schlossplatz, eating and talking. In the ruddy faces of the men are glimpses of cunning, the evidence of a steady, wary accumulation of means.

He cannot gather information, history, geography quickly enough. The southern states—Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg, both heavily Catholic—are broadly more prosperous than those of the north. Their largest cities, Munich and Stuttgart, are Germany’s engines. After Cape Town, after Nairobi, the city’s anonymity is welcome, and he begins to explore on foot. The narrow streets run very straight and are lined with expensive, late-model German cars. Youths cluster in the central thoroughfare, the Königstrasse. Their flightiness, the earnest way they smoke cigarettes, the trite words they shout at one another—the triteness evident despite his noncomprehension of German—these proofs bolster his faith in an essential humanity. Beneath the peeling veneer of culture, all of us are biddable, desirous of ease, facile.

He’s not entirely ignorant of history. Germany seems to enjoy a more carefree relationship to America than does France. Germans feel greater gratitude toward Uncle Sam, and less imperiled by his encroachments, his long reach. Under the endearing misconception that he’s an American, K’s grandmother, her Oma, recounts stories of generous American GIs, of handouts of chocolate and rations to hungry children in 1945. He’s avid for details—in her photograph albums are portraits of boys, brothers, cousins in the uniform of Hitlerjugend—and yet reluctant to pry into what must be a matter of discretion.

Americans are numerous in Stuttgart—home to a long-established army base—but he shuns them. The shared language is a superficial basis on which to make friends. And he has too much experience of “expatriate bubbles,” affluent foreigners who are incurious toward the country in which they live.

And yet he’s not severed from the world of English. On every street he finds a staggering abundance of signs in that language. Advertisements in the windows of clothing shops state: “We are hiring.” “Hi” and “sorry” are in common usage among Germans. He pities them the unresisting surrender to this sort of colonialism.

If German is more precise than English, it is less succinct also, not so malleable; a tongue of concatenations, of words welded together. Wirtschaftsprüfungsgesellschaft, meaning audit firm, is one of his favorites. That a language so proximate to English should be largely incomprehensible, less intelligible on the page than Italian or Spanish, is mystifying. The German words he’s brought with him—Bildungsroman, Schadenfreude, Weltanschauung—are worthless in everyday conversation.

He delays, with tacit encouragement from K, enrolling in a language course.  He fears he’s too old to learn a new language, and one that at times sounds unlovely. I’m settling in, he tells old friends over the telephone. I’m writing. All in good time. To learn German, as it is with French, is to prostrate oneself before a new God, to surrender a part of oneself. Not so with English, which has become in the past half-century a neutral language, a Globish. He’s a West African, a deracinated one perhaps, but the language is his as much as any Englishman’s. The first German words he learns—Käse, Gemüse, Kartoffeln, Kuchen, Schweinefleisch (cheese, vegetables, potatoes, cakes, pork)—are apt for what he is, what he’s become since the relocation: ein Hausmann. Groceries for a house husband.

He takes for granted that his foreignness, his Anglophoneness will be apparent to all—like a branded forehead. Shopkeepers however, even strangers in the sauna, address him in German. And with the passing of weeks, the inability to converse, to ask for nothing more than directions, becomes more and more shaming. East Asians, South Asians, Africans, Turks—he overhears all of them speaking the language without inflection. Without evident fear of losing something of themselves.

After several weeks, his irritation at the ubiquity of English has faded. In its place is an increasing loneliness. Feeling isolated, he is grateful to overhear Americans talking in the streets, to encounter a sentence he understands. Every week he parses the English section in the town’s bookshops and every week finds them wanting.

Still, many things he loves are present: at night, he passes with K before shop windows admiring clothes neither of them can afford; in fine weather, the evening stroll is an enduring ritual. Toy shops are filled with expertly made wooden bicycles and train sets. Here is the Europe of which James Salter has written: elegance, inscrutability, the dimming, with aching slowness, of a past both hale and cruel.

And there are sights never to be seen in America, incidents that are tokens of decay: a shabby, graying man, something Slavic in his features, amuses children with marionettes in the main pedestrian street. This puppeteer is a consummate performer, drawing passersby, even dogs, into the show to raise laughs. An archaic entertainment, of a piece with bear baiting and mummery.

Another day, he’s walking on the same thoroughfare, the Königstrasse, and comes upon an enormous chalk drawing covering as many as 20 flagstones. A landscape rendered in astonishing detail: virgin forest, cascades, the sky apocalyptic, all reds and yellows. The artist has the air of an itinerant. He sits at one corner of his labor, smoking, spent, acknowledging with nods the interest of the crowds.

He reveres the stillness of older Germans. Their lives are impregnable, austere. The sight of a woman in a public sauna moves him: a stranger, nearing 70 perhaps, whose flesh, revealed, swings loose as if it has been wrung. Her hips and thighs are Rubenesque. She is utterly unselfconscious.

And yet the aridity of the society at times resembles atrophy. What stirs beneath that veneer? His cousin, raised in Hamburg, has said of the Germans—words meant as encouragement, as reassurance—that they are a passionate, emotional people beneath the rigidity and bluff.


He becomes, by and by, more finely attuned to the currents of Germany and of this city in which he finds himself, and he’s aware, quite sharply, that all is not so ordered or tranquil as it seems. The signs are there, and have been since the day of his arrival. Every evening at seven, a brief din flares in the neighborhood: the clash of metal on metal, the parp of a trumpet.

“What is that?” he asks K one evening as they cook a meal of pasta. From a distance comes the foghorn blare of a vuvuzela. It is, he learns, a minute of daily protest in opposition to Stuttgart Einundzwanzig. Stuttgart 21 or S21. And now that he’s learned them, these words and this shorthand are everywhere he turns: stickers, leaflets, newspaper articles. On the radio S21 is the first item of news.

There are, he learns, advanced plans to overhaul the city’s transport infrastructure, and these entail the partial relocation underground of the main train station, the Hauptbahnhof. The 1928 landmark building, designed by the architect Paul Bonatz, incorporates modern and traditional features and skillfully conceals the steepness of the land on which it is built. It will be necessary to demolish sections of this historic building and to fell almost 300 trees in the adjacent Schlossgarten, many of which are very old.

Following these renovations, trains will be able to pass through what is at present a terminal station. The backers of Stuttgart 21 say that 100 hectares (nearly 250 acres) of prime urban land will be reclaimed and some of this turned over to parkland. The grand aim is to situate Stuttgart at the new heart of Europe, to create a rail hub that will link Paris and Budapest by way of Vienna and Strasbourg.

What is problematic is that construction will go on for 10 years, during which time access to large sections of the city’s parks will be restricted.  Another concern, more significant, is cost: the budget for S21 is 4.8 billion euros, a sum that strikes many as excessive and prohibitive, although it includes funds for the creation of new high-speed train links.

And there are accusations of kickbacks and political double-dealing. Stuttgart’s mayor promised during a 2004 reelection campaign that the matter would be put to a referendum if there were significant cost overruns in the final budget, as was the case. In the welter of allegation and counter-allegation, one thing is clear: little effort has been made to involve Stuttgarters in the conception and approval of the project.

Once he’s learned of S21, he’s amazed that he remained for so long oblivious of it. Every weekend there are demonstrations, marches, road closings. Counter-demonstrations occur, led by a faction, a dwindling one, polls find, unmoved by arguments about excessive cost, environmental destruction, and political highhandedness.

He’s at first neutral toward these outrages, perhaps even a little derisory. Not because he favors the project—there are, of course, pros and cons. He’s especially disturbed by the need to raze ancient trees. The problem is for him one of scale. He views S21 as insignificant on the continuum of global injustice. Germany is a nation in which, surely, there is little to complain about. Are Germans so bored, so cosseted by social democracy that an infrastructure development should arouse such vigorous activism and even mutterings of anarchist action? Cynically, he decides that many of the affronted middle-class protestors he sees in the streets will be grateful one day to board a train that will convey them to Paris in two hours.

Discontent mounts to a high intensity. There’s no recourse to a referendum: the project is not to be financed solely by the state of Baden-Württemberg and thus cannot be vetoed by the state’s residents. The size of the budget continues to swell, and coupled with this is a growing certainty that S21 is a fait accompli—contracts have been signed, blueprints drawn up—that benefits politicians and large corporations. This is African-style corruption, he thinks, unsure of what his response should be at encountering it here in affluent, rigorous Germany. Glee? Empathy? We at least do not pretend, he thinks, that our politicians are not greedy, not self-serving.

At the end of September 2010, building contractors attempt to begin demolitions. Demonstrators intervene, obstructing the cutting down of trees, and police officers deploy pepper spray and water cannons. Hundreds are injured. Broadcast around the globe is the photograph of a man in his 60s bleeding about the eyes as he is ushered away to be treated. He’s been blinded by the jets of spray. In the Schlossgarten, among trees that are to be uprooted, young men and women set up tents and begin squatting.

He travels, and in the months he’s away, the opponents of Stuttgart 21 register a victory. Skepticism and dissatisfaction have mobilized resistance to the status quo, to business as usual, in a deeply conservative state. The March 2011 state elections yield an unprecedented development: Germany’s Greens, the country’s environmental party, wins sufficient seats in Baden-Württemberg to form and head a coalition government. There is, K tells him over the telephone, triumphant talk of killing S21 altogether or, at any rate, of putting the matter finally to a referendum. Talks have resumed, and a two-month freeze on construction has entered into effect.

He returns later in the spring to a calmed city, one that feels to him increasingly, cautiously like home. The negotiations continue. The agreements with contractors and suppliers contain clauses like barbed hooks, and these will trigger costly payments in the event of a project cancellation; thus not going ahead may prove dearer than doing so.


At last, without conscious decision, without motive, he enters the Schlossgarten and approaches that place where the squatters have set up camp. Among the condemned trees are perhaps 10 tents and teepees. Tied to the boles of two trees are forlorn, sodden teddy bears; to a height of almost two meters the tree bark has been wrapped about with stickers of protest and handmade signs. He catches sight above his head of another habitation: a tree house wedged among branches as high as 15 meters up.

Sudden shame comes over him. The camp is squalid. The nearby rubbish bins are overflowing. It has been raining, and the spring nights are cool. He’s unable to comprehend his former contempt. No outrage he can imagine would bring him to squat, to give up life’s comforts.

A young woman appears. Her name is Katrin and she will, she tells him, sleep in a teepee for a few weeks. Afterward, she expects to return to her flat in Vaihingen, beyond the city center, and to her job. From Katrin’s manner, her replies to questions, he guesses that the interlude constitutes a sort of holiday; she is drawn as much by novelty as by the wish to make a political gesture. Ah, youth, he thinks. She is 22.

More helpful than Katrin, more perceptive, is Ulrike, who is only 19 years old and who has already been sleeping for eight months in the Schlossgarten. Ulrike has dreadlocks and a baby face, and beneath her baggy T-shirt she wears no bra. He’s reluctant, ashamedly so, to shake hands with her but forces himself to do so. He feels wonder each time he glances at her feet, which are bare in the mud, and as he listens to the answers she gives. He feels, too, his own mortality.

Ulrike has kept up with her studies at Gymnasium while bivouacking with six others, and she will attend her Abschlussball—the equivalent of a high school prom—in a few days. She offers him a surprisingly mature critique of German society. The country’s social system, she says, is not working, although determining what should replace it is difficult, an assessment with which he agrees. “The longer I’m outside the system,” Ulrike tells him, “the less I want to go back.”

A third squatter is wretched, the skin of his arms and scalp pocked with sores. He wears a Che Guevara T-shirt and expensive Nike running shoes that he admits are stolen. This boy, who appears intoxicated, ill, and excessively cheery, advises him, inexplicably, to visit a particular nightclub. In Germany, one can imagine leaving the squat for a night of dancing. It is tempting to conclude that the boy has behind him a working-class upbringing full of neglect and abuse—to dismiss him as apolitical, a mere runaway.

He speaks finally to Chris, a man far older than the other three, and one willing to take on the label of anarchist. Chris has squatted all across Germany. He had a job once, a flat, a car, and a motorcycle, all of which he says he’s given up. Chris’s teeth are brown with the beginnings of rot, but the face is handsome, unguarded, and assured. He speaks of the Baader-Meinhof militant group and German anarchists, the country’s lingering anti-capitalist fringe. Unideological talk: anarchy not as lawlessness but as a thoughtful, civic-minded exercise of individual will. Neither he nor Chris alludes to it, but the impasse over S21 is unlikely to be resolved quickly, nor in any fashion that will satisfy its opponents.

Leaving the Schlossgarten, he is struck by the idea that by comparison with the choices Chris and Ulrike have made, the precariousness of his own peripatetic, freelance life is as nothing. He’s no more than a refugee from his own bourgeois tendencies, which do not permit him to fall very far or abase himself.

What he’s encountered here in the very heart of this bone-heap continent is a singular society, one that balances anti-establishment tendencies with a sense of fair play and community. A genre of political activism, even extremism, in fine balance, and tightly interwoven, with affluence. Germany is a country, he jokes to himself, in which even anarchists wait for the light to change before crossing the road. Not for nothing, he concedes, is Europe an old civilization.

Olufemi Terry has published fiction, poetry, and nonfiction in Chimurenga and Guernica, among other publications. His short story “Stickfighting Days” won the 2010 Caine Prize for African Writing. He lives in southwest Germany and is at work on a novel.


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