When I was growing up in the ’70s in the suburbs of Saint Louis, Missouri, baseball and football were king.
The Cowboys. The Bears. The Cardinals.
While other boys idolized Roger Staubach and Johnny Bench, I, however, worshipped Der Kaiser, Franz Beckenbauer, the brilliant soccer midfielder who led Germany to the World Cup.
Franz was my guy. I had posters of him on my wall. In 1970s Missouri, this was considered aberrant behavior almost worthy of psychological intervention. And if anyone had actually believed in psychology in 1970s Missouri, then I probably would have experienced a little psychological intervention.
Soccer was terra incognita back then in America. The World Cup was not even televised and I had to secretly get videotapes of the World Cup on the black market. Soccer was not American and apple pie but something foreign, something suspect.
Later, as the years piled up, I realized I wasn’t merely obsessed with soccer. What I had instead was a full blown case of Germany obsession, a malady which had not been seen in America for over a century.
At the age of nine and ten, while Three’s Company was blaring from our television, I would pore over maps of Germany and was endlessly fascinated. Depending on the day, I’d say something to my parents along the lines of:
“We eat these things called Braunschweiger sandwiches. Do you know there’s a town in Germany called Brauncschweig?”
They didn’t know.
“Hey, there’s a town called Hamburg. What food could have come from there? Huh? What do you think? Want to guess?”
I was an adopted kid and my adoptive parents had no clue what to do with me and my Germany obsession.
In high school, when I learned to my chagrin that my school did not offer German as a foreign language, I was duly outraged. To my fourteen year old mind, this was scandalous. What, pray tell, were we to study then? French and Spanish – the other languages offered?
Fuming, I thought, ‘why would anyone want to study a clunky language like Spanish when you could imbibe the mellifluous mother tongue of Kant, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche? Why would you want to spend a year abroad in Barcelona, of all places, with the food and the music and the weather when you could instead spend that time on the Baltic Sea in gloomy Kiel?
Which is what I did. I studied in Kiel and I took in everything Kiel had to offer – from the Sturm und Drang weather to the submarine museum.
All good things must end and so I eventually returned to America but soon realized that I had only begun to scratch my Germany itch. I was still obsessed with all things Deutsch and knew I just had to somehow get back there.
In New York City, when I was in the theater world, I dated German women. I even dated a woman with the Wagnerian name of Runhilde. In retrospect, I can’t believe it. My friends at the time couldn’t believe it. How do you meet a German Runhilde at an Irish bar surrounded by Marys and Colleens?
How indeed. But quite logical if you’re a homing pigeon locked on Germany.
I eventually married a German woman, not named Runhilde, and, for a variety of reasons, one of which was to allow me to continue to scratch my Germany itch, we moved to Berlin. And, after a few years there, to my amazement, my itch, instead of lessening, began to grow even stronger.
I wanted even more to know everything about the country, the history, the culture. I wanted to somehow fit in – to become German, to blend in, the meld with my surroundings, to become part of a greater whole. It was completely irrational but at the time made perfect sense. Why everyone didn’t want this was beyond my comprehension.
As I mentioned before, I was an adopted kid and, after a few years in Berlin, I was referred to an American detective who I was told could help me locate my birth mother. Almost immediately, she found my birth mother.
I flew to my hometown and met my mother. Through talking to her and her extended family, I began to get acquainted with my family history.
For one thing, my mother’s last name is Ludwig. A German name.
When I learned that my mother’s mother’s last name was Heidger, another piece of the Germany puzzle snapped into place.
Great grandparents on one side and great great grandparents on another hailed from Germany, the land I was inexorably drawn to since birth, trying to reclaim something beyond my understanding.
My ancestors spoke German at home and cooked German food.
As I listened to these tales of my roots, I began to get a little annoyed but then, soon after, I felt relief. I thought, ‘you’ve got to be kidding me. Are you telling me that this lifelong Germany obsession – the drive behind all this – has been just me looking for my mother?’
That seems to be the case.
This weight I felt for eons – the burning compulsion to understand Germany and, against all odds and hope, to fit in in Germany and somehow become German – this weighty obsession dropped from my back immediately upon finding my mother, never to be felt again.
But now I’m in Germany.
And I’m not certain anymore why.