It Fakes a Village
My week in Rodelheim, Germany, had some of the feelings of stepping back into a Teutonic Mayberry RFD. It's divided north to south by the railroad and there is no road directly across the tracks for several blocks in the middle of town. You have to take the pedestrian tunnel from east to west and in reverse. It serves as the town square in a sense--people coming and going, a coffee and frankfurter stand next to the grocery on the west, a bakery and fruit stall on the east, and pubs and small take-away food shops scattered along the shopping area to the east.
Each morning dozens of people were making the brisk walk or bike ride to the train station. In the evening, folks were stopping at the markets to get a bag or two of groceries--never more than what can be carried home on foot. And from the terraces and balconies of the apartment buildings, clothing attempted to dry in the slanting autumn light. Learning the neighbor's preferences in undergarments would not be difficult nor would most other secrets, I suspect.
Of course, if one was troubled by such thoughts, he (or she) could take advantage of confession at the Catholic church two blocks east of the tracks, conveniently summoning the faithful at 6:15 on Saturday evening for the 6:30 service. I slipped into the last pew, a little embarrassed by the book bag of chocolate bars and a bargain Riesling I had picked up on my way to the apartment and then a little confused as to where to place my feet. The pews had severe wooden kneeling benches built into the pew ahead of me, and I had to decided to either bend at the knees and tuck my feet under or stretch over the kneeler, which looked too causal. I tried to achieve my most correct posture, go for the tuck under, and appear as if I belonged.
It would hardly have made a whit of difference if the service had been in Latin since it was in German, which sounded like all gutturals and z's in the stone-driven acoustics. What kept my interest was the participation of three lay women and two alter girls in the non-priestly parts of the service and the well-paced delivery of the homily by the tall, dark-featured priest who seemed to resemble more a European Cup soccer player than a padre. I wondered if this was now the norm in John Paul II Catholicism (yes, I know he's dead, but his influence will remain for years, if not decades).
Yet appearances to the contrary, it's not the homogenous, happy Mayberry of 1962. One evening I turned the corner coming from the train station to meet several Muslim women emerging from an apartment building. Evidently the weekly Koran study had just ended. Another night, I logged off the Internet cafe computer and then had to wait a few minutes while the young clerk finished up his early evening prayers and carefully folded his beautifully embroidered prayer rug, as if it were the most natural thing in the world--running the shop and keeping the faith--which to him it was.
What brought this into sharper contrast was an evening dinner conversation with a German publishing professional, who in response to my question about Turkish immigrants, began to relate his experience in another nearby town. "They don't want to be a part of German culture. They don't learn the language or pursue education. They don't gain job skills. If their children don't learn in school, then it's the schools fault." And so on. For fifteen minutes. I had obviously struck a nerve, one very close to the surface at that.
Behind my German acquaintance's stark assessment was something we hear echoed in our own immigration debate: fear. Fear of those not like us, fear and resentment of the economic demands of the poor minority, fear that the culture that is "us" will be lost by the inclusion of the "them." And for the "them" I imagine it is in many ways the same: fear that their religion and culture will be diluted and corrupted, fear for their own economic future, resentment of the tantalizing material culture surrounding yet eluding them.
And so they walk past each other, not really talking, just carrying out the routines of commerce and inhabiting the same space but not the same place. And it fakes a village.