With An American in Berlin: How a New Yorker learned to love the Germans, Ralph Martin renews the popular genre of cross-cultural satire.
Ralph Martin’s Ein Amerikaner in Berlin: Wie ein New Yorker lernte, die Deutschen zu lieben (Dumont, 2009) treads in some large and famous footsteps: Peter Mayle fighting indigenous sloth in Provence; Stephen Clarke wallowing in the merde; Bill Bryson, Clive James, Adam Gopnik, to name but the most recent. And, of course, the one who set the bar pretty damn high in the first place – the Hungarian George Mikes with How to be an Alien. What is it about men commenting on foreign cultures? There is Frances Mayes, sweating under a Tuscan sun, but she’s not really funny and there’s too much stuff about cooking to sit easily with many readers (especially male ones) or those trawling the Italian countryside for more than just white truffles.
So – apparently it’s the phallic gaze that exerts the greatest authority. Is that because “culture”, at least in German, is female? If it is, then we have little to fear from Ralph, whose alter-ego newcomer to Berlin is a somewhat daffy specimen when it comes to asserting his newly acquired rights as a citizen-observer. Spoiled by a life of recherché dandyism and a half-hearted work ethic that has kept him more or less afloat in New York, Ralph flies to Berlin on the fragile wings of love, settles, has a child, marries and sets about a life of mischief involving food (always good for some perspicacious aperçus), Kitas (ditto), work and a strange fascination with German aristocracy not shared by his aristocratic wife. Setting himself up as the eternal loser, Ralph is unable (after some five years) to distinguish between the political offices of Chancellor and President; he hovers in a limbo of permanent infatuation with things German that range from Aldi to Munich’s party culture, and from Daniel Cohn-Bendit to Prince Marcus Eberhard Edward von Anhalt. The self-deprecation is, of course, endearing. And funny. Very funny. But is it a narrative ploy or bitter reality? How much of an ingénue was Ralph Martin really when he first came to Berlin?
I dramatize, shall we say, the extent of my ignorance about Germany when I arrived. To a certain extent this is just the normal sorting process that you use when writing anything: take the boring stuff out, play up the funny stuff. But the larger point, I think, is that Americans like me come here expecting to find something specific that they can deal with – modern Bohemia – and discover that they’re actually in a culture with its own rules, a culture they can’t just improvise and smirk their way through. That was my own bitter reality, but a maturing lesson in life as well.
Referred to throughout as “FvD” (“Fräulein von Deutschland”), Ralph’s savvy wife works well as a foil to his guileless gullibility. Stepping back from the narrative, it is tempting to see her as the Ollie to Ralph’s Stan – tempting, but not exactly flattering. How aware was the author of treading a fine line between an accurate depiction of the roles assumed by members of the Martin ménage, and the comic twist that would send sales figures upwards?
It was a piece of luck for me that the cartoon roles of Germany and America – one stern and dour, one exuberant and frilly and full of itself – were replicated in our household as well. My wife doesn’t relish being reduced, in life as in the book, to the role of having to explain why a given German custom (say, waiting at red traffic lights when no cars are coming) actually has value.
But this is a not terribly exaggerated vision of our household reality. The twist is that with time, I’ve become Germanified, allowing her to relax. So now I’m the straight man, the whipcracker, the road rager. And although it is the mark of good comedy, fulsomely demonstrated here, to take the ordinary and everyday and runs with it to comic effect, laughter can just as easily detract from the strength of an argument on, let’s say, national stereotypes. How aware was Ralph Martin of the need to keep a serious undertow beneath a veneer of comedy? Is there a message in there somewhere for the delicate and insular species that inhabits the expat oxygen bubble on Prenzlauer Hill?
If anything, the trick with this book was to avoid pontificating. Since I wrote it for a German audience, my first impulse was to bray on and on about things I found offensive or annoying here. But my first draft was an unreadable, screechy mess. I decided to redo it as a comic memoir about me flailing my way through modern Berlin and Germany, acquiring a German family, friends, a job. There may be lessons there, but they lie in the accumulation of incidents, rather than any specific intention. I’ve been tickled that most of my German readers have recognized something of themselves or their friends in the German characters in the book.