Honorable Mention in the Privilege & Identity Abroad Narrative Writing Contest. See the announcement for all of our winners here.
“A Schwarzer from Brooklyn who can speak German—you’ll be the most popular person in Munich!” A friend saif this shortly after my move abroad, and he was more-or-less correct. Germans I met at work or while enjoying a beer at the bar did not disguise their curiosity about me. The conversations often went something like this:
“You speak such good Deutsch!,” they would say and I explained that I took courses in university and enrolled in a language school when I arrived here.
“Prima! And your last name—you realize that it’s German, right?” And then I told them about the months my father and I spent researching our ancestry, only to reach a dead end— a record at Ellis Island stating only that an “R. Ludwig and Wife” arrived in 1882 from Germany. All prior family history—and with it, our connection to German culture—had been lost somewhere in the mists of the Atlantic.
“Ach so! But you’re a Schwarzer. Is your mother African?” To this, I would politely reply that she was born on the tiny Caribbean island of St. Lucia
I rarely explained that it was on a sweltering day in St. Lucia that I had decided to come to Germany. Strolling alongside the Port of Castries, I noticed a cruise ship docked on the other side of the water. As I walked towards it, it emptied itself of its German-speaking cargo. They descended from the deck onto the waterfront, noses pressed into maps or pointed towards the spiced rums, pepper sauces, and breadfruit displayed on booths sprawled across the sidewalk.
I knew that my ancestors must have also spoken this language that sounded as though it emerged from a deep pit in the stomach, but as I listened to it rise above the sounds of the Caribbean port I felt as though the ship and its passengers had descended from another planet. It was this other world—their world—on which I belonged, I told myself.
It was thus easy, when I arrived in Munich several years later, to feel like the prodigal son returning to the Heimat after a prolonged exile. With a Maß in my hand and wearing stained Lederhosen, I danced on benches at the Oktoberfest and sang “Ein Prosit!” I read Goethe and Hölderlin, understanding why Germany was the land of Dichter und Denker. Stepping through Dachau’s gates, I even felt ashamed that my culture could erupt into genocidal hysteria. Simply, I saw myself reflected in all that was beautiful and ugly about Germany.
This illusion quickly dissipated, however, when walking home one evening I felt a pair of eyes staring at me. When I turned, I found them set like stones in a grimacing face that was no more than two feet away.
“Where are you from?” he asked, shoving me before I could respond. Not that it would have mattered; all German had sunken deep into some inaccessible hole inside of me.
I walked away, and when he followed, I walked even faster. I wanted to ask those I passed for help, but was unable to draw the words to my lips. I reached my street and turned around, expecting someone to sling themselves onto me—but nobody was there. I was completely alone.
The next day as I walked to the subway, searching the passing faces for those eyes cold as polished stone, I remembered that ship docked in Castries. Once again, I felt as though Germany was a strange planet. Although I could wear its clothes, speak its language, and sing its songs, I did not— and could not— truly belong to it.
Jason Ludwig was born and raised in Brooklyn, and studied History at Drexel University. He currently lives in Munich where he works as an editor.