Finished with Finnish? Considering Future Options, pt 3

So my in-laws have come out against us continuing trying to get our kids to speak Finnish. This is a surprising development because 1) They speak Finnish 2) They are Finnish 3) They’ve raised multilingual kids, so they’re familiar with the struggle.

But, in their opinion, Finnish is a pointless language. Nobody speaks it except for the five million people living in Finland. It would make much more sense, according to them, for us to just concentrate on German and English, both of which are much more important languages internationally.

Part of me feels like this is the Finnish low-self-esteem expressing itself again. Finns have a long ingrained sense of “our country will never be as important as all those countries around us.” Their culture? “We don’t have one. We took everything we have from the Swedes.” Their language? “It’s very hard to learn.” Their food? “It’s awful.” At the 100th Anniversary of Finland’s independence party we went to, everyone had to talk about what they liked about Finland. What followed were muttered responses about the nature and, uh, the education system while the uncomfortable reality of none of the people there actually living within the Finnish nature or its education system.

But Finns do admire the Germans. My husband told me this story about a consultant he met who was in Finland consulting to a Finnish firm. All the recommendations he would make, they would just ignore and tell him that those are American ideas and they would never work in Finland. Then the consultant found out that Finns really admire Germans. So when introducing changes, he would preface it with, “I know this German firm who does this.” And the Finns would nod and agree to the change because hey, those Germans! They know how to get shit done! When Finland won independence, they originally wanted to import a German nobleman to be their King. They didn’t though; they probably realized it’d be cheaper to just be a republic. A lot of Finns are still upset the Germans lost world war 2. I’m not joking, though I wish I were. Maybe they’re just even more upset that the Russians won.

So from that perspective, it’s not exactly surprising that my in-laws are more supportive of their grandkids learning German than Finnish. But they also point out that the kids’ German is so much better than their Finnish. And it is. At this point, they will have to learn Finnish as a second language because their knowledge of it is so poor it can’t counted as a first language anymore. A lot of this is due to my husband’s inconsistent teaching of Finnish. He speaks it to them, but not enough. He doesn’t sit down with them enough to really enforce it. And even worse, when they don’t understand something in Fnnish, he’s resorted to speaking to them in German to get his point across. He’s actually put forth the idea of dropping Finnish and just having both of us speak German to the kids, which is a horrible idea. His German is worse than mine and while I’m technically fluent in German, as the kids have grown I’ve found my German to simply not have the vocabulary necessary to keep up with them. I have to use English anyway for homeschooling, but even if it weren’t for that I would need to use English. This makes my husband very unhappy because if he can’t do Finnish, he’d at least like for them to learn German. So I have to keep reminding him that German isn’t my native language. And while it may hold a very solid place in my heart, my vocabulary is lacking. It is much, much harder for me to maintain speaking German with the kids than it is for him to do Finnish…simply because Finnish IS his native language. Even if the kids don’t understand it, if he would just keep up with it and take the effort to build up their vocabulary, they could learn Finnish.

So sure, we could drop Finnish if he really wants to, but absolutely under no circumstances do I want him to do German.

Whether his parents realize it or not, keeping Finnish has a lot of benefits, aside from the fact they’re Finnish citizens. Unlike German and English, Finnish is not a Germanic language. Its grammar is so wildly different, it really forces your brain to think in different ways and they would benefit from that alone.

So in the short-term, we’re keeping all three. My husband is putting forth more effort with Finnish and has actually sat down with them twice a week to do Finnish for the past two weeks and the kids have actually used Finnish in those times. We have some other plans afoot to increase their Finnish exposure (labeling things in Finnish, copying our Finnish language DVDs so they will work in our van). And we’re keeping a short-term stay in Finland in the cards because no matter what we do, the best way for to learn a language is to live.

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Finished with Finnish? Considering Future Options Pt 2

(Find the first part here)
Our second option to improve the kids’ language ability would be to move. This is counterintuitive at first, so bare with me.

We have long planned on spending a year in Germany and Finland in order to improve the kids’ language abilities and their understanding of Finnish and German culture, though we alternate between staying half a year in one country and the other half in another or staying a year in each. But our discussion the other day opened up a few other options.
“Part of me is thinking,” my husband began, “that if Igot a job that required commuting into Boston every day of the week, we could enroll him at the German school and he’d go with me every day and I’d drop him off there.”

Boston German School is a school that offers bilingual instruction based on the state curriculum of Thuringia. High school students can take the Abitur and end up with both a German and Massachusetts high school diploma. It also costs $18,000 a year and, with sibling discounts, that means we could educate all of our children there for the low price of $60,000 a year!

I’m being sarcastic there.

“It’s too far to drive everyday,” I told my husband. “We’d have to sell this house and buy one closer to Boston.”

“We can do that!” he insisted.

I looked up real estate prices around the Boston area and, no surprise, they were high. Really high. “It would be cheaper to move to Germany than to move closer to Boston and send our kids to the German school there,” I argued.

“Well, we’re already planning on doing that for the year, right? Or do you mean long term?”

An important question and one whose answer varies based on my mood. On the whole, I like living in the US. I like living in New England, but when I look at the future of the US, I find myself less and less optimistic, especially when looking at the current administration. It just signed a tax bill into law that has a good chance of driving the federal government into bankruptcy by the next presidential election unless spending is drastically curbed (which it won’t be). The healthcare situation is getting worse and worse. Our employer provided plan’s costs are going up by 20% next year (that’s on the premiums we pay, not what our employer kicks in) and that’s a low number among people I know. And they still don’t cover my asthma medication, which costs me $300 out of pocket every month. The US is opting out of the Paris Climate Agreement (which, while I have problems with, overall I support its goal) and seems to be trying to move toward increasing our CO2 emissions more than decreasing it. So in the best case scenario, we can look forward to living in a country experiencing more adverse weather events, more flooding, extremely expensive healthcare and a bankrupt government that is still theoretically supposed to be taking care of all this stuff, but won’t be because it will be broke and no one is interested it a solution that would get the government out of these areas so we individuals can actually make shit work ourselves.

And I haven’t even mentioned the net neutrality repeal, so add shittier and more expensive internet to that too.

Looking at all these downsides to the US, I have to echo a lot of my friends when they read articles about how great Finland’s educational system is: “Why do you still live here?”

Why not move…in this case to Germany because my husband is very much against moving permanently back to Finland.
Germany is a lot like the US in a lot of ways. Its tax system is similar to the US in that the code is convoluted and there are a lot of deductions and you have to spend a lot of time filling out your tax returns (In Finland, the system is very simple. Take your money and give the government most, but not quite all, of it). The climate is comparable to New England, so nothing new there.
But there are a lot of positive changes we could gain by moving to Germany.

Take our carbon footprint, for example. In the US, our family of six creates 484 metric tons of CO2 in a year and most of that is due to transportation. Just by moving to Germany and changing nothing but our transportation from cars to public transportation, we would decrease our footprint to 132 metric tons. And that’s just switching from driving a large petrol car to public transport, not accounting to the fact that we would actually be walking and bike riding more.

While I dislike the fact they summarily shut down all of their nuclear power plants after the Fukushima disaster (because if there’s one thing Germany should be concerned about…it’s tsunamis caused by the large and devastating earthquakes that regularly occur there except they don’t and Germans are worried about that for essentially no reason) and replacing the missing power with coal of all things, I really like their whole Energiewende. I like their environmental action. While I used to loathe the Pfand (I have an entire page dedicated to hating it in my scrapbook from my year as an exchange student), now I think it’s swell. The fact they finally made it universal makes it that much better.

I like the fact corporations have so much less power in Germany. Here the government and corporations work together so much, sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between them. I like the fact that their healthcare system is an actual system and functions fairly well –although the government finds itself insuring an every increasing proportion of society. My asthma medication and my husband’s diabetes medicine won’t  cost an arm and a leg there.

And obviously, the kids can learn German in Germany. They also have a ton of Finnish schools and we could live pretty close to one even without living in a major city, or at least as far away from one as we currently do. The difference is we could ride a train to get there instead of driving ourselves.

The downside, of course, is that homeschooling is illegal in Germany and my kids really like being homeschooled. Alpha has declared he never wants to go to school, but this isn’t really feasible anyway. And if we were to immigrate, we wouldn’t homeschool simply because other countries don’t have the highly developed homeschool networks the US has. Add to that the fact that their schools aren’t mired down by tons of standardized tests and extremely long school days and we’re actually fine with sending our kids to school in Germany.

We could even send them to private school. I looked at the International School of Hamburg and it’s 10,000 Euros a year with some additional fees and some sibling discounts…so it’s still cheaper than the German School of Boston. We could educate our kids for the much lower price of $40,000 a year! Huzzah! (Still being slight sarcastic there…).
Of course there are downsides. We’d have four kids in Germany, which is the equivalent of having 10 here. It’s a lot of kids. Housing is much smaller in Germany and the kids would have to share rooms. While getting by without a car would be easier, we would have a hard time having a car that would fit our entire family. Unlike Americans, Germans don’t buy minivans when they have 2 kids. They rarely buy minivans at all. Electricity is godawful expensive there (thanks to the Energiewende, which clearly has its downsides).

But it’s something to consider and for us to keep in mind when we do our short-term stay abroad to shore up the kids’ language abilities.

All of this may leave you wondering…what about Finnish? My husband doesn’t want to live in Finland permanently, but we would like to do a short-term, 6-month to a year stay there as well. It’s really important to me that they learn Finnish since they have Finnish passports. They are Finnish and it would be weird for them to be citizens of a country whose languages they can’t speak. It’s even more important to me that they get to know their family members there. I really want them to have relationships with their grandparents because I never had that as a kid. My grandparents were either dead or horrible people and put no effort into being better grandparents than they were parents. This isn’t true of my in-laws. They’re good people. And they constantly make us jealous by spending tons of time at my husband’s sister’s house, helping out with their kids. Ahhhh how much more relaxing would our life be in someways if we had family a bit closer?

But they’ve advised us to to forget learning Finnish and concentrate on German, which brings me to part 3: dropping Finnish.

Happy 100th, Finland

Today is the 100th anniversary of Finnish Independence. Truth be told, if I hadn’t met my husband, I wouldn’t care much about it. But I did and as such, Finland has become my second adopted homeland.

What do I like about Finland? Let me count the ways:

  1. The kebab. Okay yes, it’s a bit silly to include something that isn’t strictly Finnish on this list, but the kebab in Finland is unique. Germany has it’s Döner kebab and Finland has its rullakebab:
    rullakebab
    My husband recently told me that the EU Food administration is trying to ban kebab in Europe because it has too much salt for it. If there ever were a reason to stand up for your national sovereignty, this would be it. SAVE THE KEBAB!
  2. The bike lanes. Finns love to moan and bitch about their bike lanes, especially when I talk about how awesome they are. Maybe they just haven’t experienced the average American bike lane:

Cleveland-Bike-Lane

This is horrible. Sorry, but painting a bike in the middle of a car lane does not make it a “bike lane.” I’m sure no car will hit a bike every, at all. Finnish bike lanes, on the other hand:

finnbikelanes

Isn’t it lovely? Isn’t it SAFE? Maybe what Finns mean is that there simply isn’t enough of them and I would agree with that. But they are a million times better than American “bike lanes.”

3. Moomin. Everyone loves moomin. When Gamma started going to preschool, his Japanese teacher asked me where I was getting his moomin clothes because she remembered watching Moomin on TV every Monday night at 5pm. She was surprised to learn that Moomin was Finnish, although the animation was done in Japan. A little girl heard our discussion and told me that her Grandma gave her moomin stuff, too, from Poland where her grandma was from. Moomin: uniting the world around strange, vaguely hippo-like creatures.

moomincomic

4. Their traditional foods. Generally speaking, traditional Finnish food is pretty bad, which is what makes it so great. Finns love sharing it with unsuspecting foreigners, maybe so they can a) laugh at the foreigners b) pat themselves on their backs for their higher levels of sisu and c) cry silently to themselves over the fact Finland isn’t located in a warmer climate so they, too, could be renowned for their cuisine. When France’s president talked about how horrible Finnish food is, the Finns were rightfully offened and Koti Pizza released a pizza featuring three native Finnish ingredients: Reindeer meat, blue cheese and mushrooms. Where else can you get reindeer meet on pizza?

mustamakkara
Mustamakkara. I’ve eaten it. It’s good.

5. Their berries. Finnish berries are everywhere…in Finland. I’ve never had cloudberries outside of Finland, but they’re ubiquitous there. I always have to bring home some sort of Finnish berry jam or berry flavoring when I go there. My husband loves to talk about how he suffered through rounds of berry picking at their summer cottage as a child.

cloudberry

6. Mökki. Ah the aforementioned summer cottage…where urbanized Finns leave their cities to remember a simpler time, way back in the 1930s when they didn’t all live in cities, have running water and electricity. When a proper sauna was a smoke sauna with a lake not too far away to jump in. Where berries and mushrooms could (or had to be) foraged for food, accompanied by makkara and whatever’s planted in the garden.

mökki
Not my in-laws’ mökki.

7. Äitiyspakkaus. The box that every pregnant Finnish woman gets for her baby, containing (almost) everything the baby will need for its first year. I wanted one of these so bad, I really wanted to have at least one baby in Finland. The clothes are so darn stinking cute and serve as a kind of uniform by which you can tell what year someone’s kid was born (at least until they grow out of it.

20170902162109_IMG_2486
Had Omega been born in Finland, I would have received exactly the clothes you see here.

8. The silence. Americans are loud and boisterous, and this can wear down the more introverted among us. The Finns, on the other hand, are “ein Volk, das in zwei Sprachen schweigt,” (a people who are silent in two languages) according to Bertholt Brecht. It’s almost like taking off an extroverted suit and getting to relax for a while when I go there. No need to be loud (though, comparatively, I probably still am), silences aren’t awkward, but enjoyed. It’s nice. Having said that, my kids are damned loud there.

Finland_silence

9. The public transportation. Granted, it’s not nearly as great as what you find in Germany, but Finland is a country where you don’t necessarily need a car and it might actually be more inconvenient having one at times. Turku has an excellent bus system, as does Helsinki. Cities are connected both by long distant buses and trains (some trains even have dedicated family cars where there’s a play area for little kids!). Helsinki has a metro that I’ve only used once (and I figured out how to use it without the help of my husband, who has an odd form of public transport dyslexia), but it worked and was pleasant. Things are otherwise very walkable and or bikeable within towns of any respectable size.

Bussi joukkoliikenne föli turku keskusta puolalanmäki syksy
pick a bus, any bus

10. The language. Finnish is, hands down, one of the most beautiful languages in the world. Is it any wonder that Tolkien based Quenya off of it? The vowels may look intimidating, but it’s a lulling language that moves along slowly. I’m ashamed I haven’t spent more time learning it, but I’m determined that one day I will be able to have a conversation in Finnish.

typical-finnish-k
You could just say “koira,”but it might not be grammatically correct

 

11. Their reputation. Finns are almost universally admired. Their passport ranks third internationally as far as visa-free travel is concerned (tied with the US, Denmark, Itally and Spain) and traveling as a Finn doesn’t cause the same dislike that traveling while American (due to our current unpleasant reputation) or German (due to their past war crimes) does. Having said that, Finns aren’t known to be a traveling country to the same extent as other European nationalities. Their schools are internationally admired and have caused a strange sort of “school tourism” for educators. For the most part, they’re content to stay there and enjoy their excellent reputation by reading about it in the news.

finland-ftw_o_360027
12. Gender equality. Women got the vote in 1906 –11 years before Finland got independence. There is only one word in Finland to refer to he or she (hän) and women can go naked just as much as men do without being arrested (not so in the US!). They have high employment rates, high education rates and their husbands are helping more around the house these days than in previous generations.

Finnishmaiden
This picture features Finland’s uglier language, Swedish

Alright, that’s enough. I could list more, but then I wouldn’t have any blog post topics for the future. Finland has some problems (structural economic ones, for sure), but it’s done pretty well for itself in the past 100 years. Let’s hope the next hundred are just as impressive!

 

 

I’m Happy

saatana

I’m not upset. I might feel upset, but I assure you I’m not.

Yes, sure it sucks that the friends I’ve celebrated Thanksgiving with four years running have decided to spend this Thanksgiving with other friends. I knew this day was coming, so it wasn’t really surprising, just sad that I hadn’t adequately prepared for it. It’s also sad that I had to casually ask them if we were going to get together for Thanksgiving this year again and they had to let me down gently, assuring me that they had just received another invite “a few days ago” and accepted. I get the feeling that had I not asked they wouldn’t have told. Would that have been better? I probably would have figured it out eventually as the days ticked by.

I’m trying my best not to feel too hurt. We contacted other friends to see what they were doing for Thanksgiving. Those with family in the area are obviously going to spend it with them. Other friends who joined our little group last year for Thanksgiving told me they’re planning on a “low-key Thanksgiving” this year. I did not reply that that sounded perfect and how would they like to have a low-key Thanksgiving together? Because I know that they always say that whenever I’ve invited them to celebrate Thanksgiving together; they only go when my other friend invites them. The end result from all this, aside from looking a bit desperate, is that we are now chicken-sitting for some friends who are travelling to visit family for Thanksgiving.

So it’s a low key Thanksgiving for us this year. I’m not sure I see the point. My husband doesn’t really “get” Thanksgiving, not having celebrated it at all until he immigrated here. He points out that most Finns he knows in the US don’t celebrate it at all and it’s not that big of a deal. He doesn’t like turkey and, due to his low-carb diabetes management, doesn’t eat most of the food traditionally served at Thanksgiving.

In all honesty, the kids aren’t fans of it either. They like the turkey okay, they refuse to try the cranberry sauce, stuffing, mashed potatoes and any of the pie. Beta has since declared that she will try pumpkin pie this year because she saw someone on a youtube video and they really liked it because they put frosting and sprinkles on it.

“I am not putting frosting and sprinkles on pumpkin pie,” I declared stoutly. What kind of heathen is she??

“Well, can I have it with whipped cream?”
“Yes, it’s fine to have it with whipped cream. I always do.”
“Okay, I’ll try that!” I’m not convinced she actually will, but we’ll try.

In order to have a proper Thanksgiving, I like to have three pies: an apple, a pecan and a pumpkin. Missing one of these would just be wrong. But I can’t eat all three by myself. Forgetting the whole holiday sounds more and more appealing.

But I would feel bad about that. I would feel like the kids wouldn’t make the same happy memories around Thanksgiving that I did. My family didn’t fight on Thanksgiving. My dad made the turkey and we pitched in with the pies. We played Risk the whole day, moving it to the card table when dinner was ready. We got out the good China, the family silver and a table cloth. Everything was beautiful, and special.

But I can’t force my memories onto my family. I can’t make Thanksgiving mean something to them just because it means something to me. And the whole appeal of spending time with them falls flat: we spend every single day together as it is since we work from home and they’re schooled at home. What we really need is time celebrating with other people.

Barring that, I guess we can always celebrate it the Finnish way. That is, not at all, but with copious amounts of liquor.

If you give me another bag, I will stab you

This is such an American problem to have.

You go to the store and buy a few items, say a pound of ground beef, a pint of ice cream and a bunch of bananas because your 3 year old has decided that’s all he’s eating this week. You head on up to the register and have forgotten your reusable bags. Not to worry! Plastic bags are still free here, they’re not banned and you don’t have to pay a single cent for them.

And the bagger very happily puts your meat in one bag (it’s important to keep the plastic-wrapped raw meat from touching anything else), the ice cream in another (cold items should be separate least their icey coldness freeze everything else you buy), and the bananas in a third bag (fresh produce could be contaminated by all of the above, especially if not plastic wrapped).

Three fucking bags.

I used to not care about this, but in the past years I’ve become a bit more environmentally conscious. These bags are going to haunt me and the rest of humanity forever. The times I forget my reusable bags are like agony. I usually end up repeating “Oh, no thanks. I don’t need any bags” with a big smile, lest they think I’m being rude. “Oh, are you sure?” “Yes, I’m sure. I have a ton of them at home I’m trying to work through.”

This is fine at most stores, but one in particular *coughmarketbasketcough* is a tougher nut to crack. My husband always forgets the reusable bags and he always goes to this store to shop. He’s tried telling them he doesn’t want any bags. “Well, if you don’t get any bags, we’ll have to put stickers on every single item you buy.” Their way of preventing shrink is sticking an orange sticker on everything you buy that doesn’t go into a bag. So your watermelon (“Do you want your watermelon in a bag?” “What? No, I don’t particularly feel like re-enacting childbirth with a watermelon when I get home. Just put it in the damn cart already!”), your milk, your soda bottles, your 12 pack of soda cans…all get orange stickers on them.

So he usually comes home sheepishly clutching 10-15 flimsy bags that go into the drawer with the hundred other flimsy bags awaiting their turn to go into the bathroom trashcan.
A few times, however, he’s responded with “Fine. Put a sticker on every item!” And they have. And he’s stood there and watched while they pains-takingly sticker the parsley.

I consider myself to be a libertarian and as such, I agree that people should be able to have bags if they want. But I also know that TANSTASAFL. Someone, somewhere is paying for that bag. It’s not free. It’s also a huge tragedy of the commons since no one is bearing any of the costs of that damn bag. I also know that when countries have introduced a small fee for these bags, bag usage plummets. England now charges 5 pence for carrier bags and reportedly the denser among them mistook it for a second Battle of Hastings — but bag usage has dropped. And I bet no one tries to put three items in three separate bags, either.

So why can’t we? Why would it be so unlibertarian of me to suggest we should all pay 10cents for these shitty bags so that hopefully my grandkids aren’t still using my plastic bags to fill their wastebaskets?

And why for the love of god can’t we actually fit everything into one bag?

Love it or [try to] leave it

“If Trump wins the presidency, I’m moving to Nova Scotia,” one of my friends told me during the last presidential election.
“Oh, you have Canadian citizenship?”
“My grandfather was from Nova Scotia! And I’ll do a DNA test even to prove it to them!”
I didn’t see the point in explaining to her that that would do absolutely no good, unless the Maritimes are actually so inbred they’ve developed their own genetic markers. “Oh so you guys kept up the citizenship?”
They hadn’t. But she wasn’t going to let her stop her. If Trump was elected, she was leaving.

A few weeks later, Trump was elected. Almost a year later, my friend is still living here. She hasn’t made anymore comments about leaving the country, but she does occasionally make outraged Facebook posts.

It’s a weird thing how everyone seems to think that it is really just that easy to move to another country. Protesting against the government? You don’t respect the flag? Fine, if you don’t love it, leave it!

And go where exactly? Most people, like my friends, seem to think all they need to do is declare their intent to immigrate in order to so. Pick a country and go there!

As it turns out, it’s actually not all that easy to emigrate. First, there’s the whole issue about getting an immigrant visa, or a work visa if you qualify. If you happen to be really rich, you could always buy yourself a visa! But presumably you’re an Average American who doesn’t have $50,000 to blow investing in another country in order to move there.

Then there’s the whole issue of actually adjusting to a new culture. Most Americans assume they’ll immigrate to Canada. It’s like America, but not America. It’s all the advantages of being similar to America, but actually a different country. It’s like leaving the US, but still staying in America. But it’s those tiny little differences that will eat away with you as you try to adjust to living there. A wholly different country you would be prepared to experience differences, but Canada?

They use Celsius. They use metrics. They sell their milk in bags. Summer is that time of year when there is no snow on the ground.

Then there’s the bigger problem: networking. Or rather, rebuilding your entire social network from scratch once you’ve immigrated and left all your friends behind. If you’re like a lot of immigrants (expats, for the upwardly mobile), you’ll end up just hanging out with other Americans. Who else will understand what you’re going through? Who else will also feel angry at those stupid little things people in your new country do that don’t make sense? Honestly, if that’s what you’re going to do, you may as well just stay in your own country and save on all the moving costs.
But that’s okay because most people never get around to actually moving to another country after something happens they disagree with politically. They threaten it. They may even google moving to Canada. But they never actually go, which is probably fortunate because all they’d end up doing is exporting our problems to another country.

They’d probably also just come back.

Aside

What does it mean–rape?..It sounds like the absolute worst, the end of everything–but it’s not.

 I just read the book “A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City” and I keep turning around in my head. It’s an unbelievable account of mass rapes perpetrated by the Red Army at the end of World War 2. The anonymous author worked as a journalist before and after the war and spoke passable Russian. It’s unbelievable this book came to be at all, especially when one considers how well-written it is. Republished in 2004 after the author’s death, it’s disturbingly relevant today:

I look at the 16 year old girl, up to now the only person I know who lost her virginity to the Russians. She has the same dumb, self-satisfied look she always had. I try to imagine how it would have been if my first experience had come in this way. But I stop myself–it’s unimaginable. One thing is for sure: if this were peacetime and a girl had been raped by some vagrant, there’d be the whole peacetime hoopla of reporting the crime, taking the statement, questioning witnesses, arrest and confrontation, news reports and neighborhood gossip–and the girl would have reacted differently, would have suffered a different kind of shock. But here we’re dealing with a collective experience, something foreseen and feared many times in advance that happened to women right and left, all somehow part of the bargain. And this mass rape is something we are overcoming collectively as well. All the women help each other by speaking about it, airing their pain, and allowing others to air theirs and spit out what they’ve suffered. Which of course doesn’t mean that creatures more delicate than this cheeky little Berlin girl won’t fall apart or suffer for the rest of their lives.

The 16-year old girl was raped by 3 Russians and afterwards proudly declared that they all immediately went for her and didn’t even glance at her sister.

It’s strange to think of a situation where rape can be so normalized that it can be joked about and taken lightly or even seen as a matter of pride:

It seems he left [the widow] with a compliment. At first she didn’t want to reveal it, but finally she told us: “Ukrainian woman–like this. You–like this.” The first “like this” he illustrated with a circle formed by both his thumbs and forefingers, the second “like this” with a single thumb and forefinger.

The widow still hate nightmares about it later, but she felt free to discuss it with everyone. Usually, rape is dealt with silently. It’s simply not discussed. I was attacked and nearly raped two weeks shy of my 16 birthday. Afterwards, I emailed one friend and told her about it, but she was the only one and even today so few people know. How do you bring that up in conversation? And yet, among the friends I have told about it, a surprising number of them have similar experiences. One of my high school friends was raped at a party. She woke up feeling pain ‘down there.’ Another friend had something slipped in her drink at a bar. Another was molested by a family friend as a child. They say that one in three women will experience some sort of sexual abuse in her lifetime. Detractors say that these numbers are highly inflated and include women who regretted having sex and decided to ‘cry rape’ later. I have no difficulty believing they’re accurate.

The women in the book run the entire gauntlet of emotions after being raped, from disassociation:

I remember the strange vision I had this morning, something like a daydream, while I was trying in vain to fall asleep after Petka left. It was as if I were flat on my bed and seeing myself lying there when a luminous white being rose from my body, a kind of angel, but without wings, that floated high into there air…Of course it’s just a fantasy, a pipe dream, a means of escape–my true self simply leaving my body behind, my poor besmirched, abused body. Breaking away and floating off, unblemished, into a white beyond. It can’t be me that this is happening to, so I’m expelling it all from me.

To disgust:

I’m constantly repulsed by my own skin. I don’t want to touch myself, can barely look at my own body. I can’t help but think about the little child I was, once upon a time…

To despair:

 Judging from their speech the two women behind me were well-bred ladies. One said: “You know, I was completely numb. I’m very small there, my husband always took that into consideration.” Apparently she’d been raped repeatedly and attempted to poison herself. Then I hear her say, “I didn’t realize it at the time, but I later learned that your somach has to have enough acid inside for the stuff to work. I couldn’t keep it down.”

 “And now?” The other asked quietly.

“Well, life goes on. The best part was over anyway. I’m just glad my husband didn’t have to live through this.”

And then acceptance. The author realizes early on that it’s better to have “one wolf to keep the rest of the pack away” and works her “way up from supply train to major,” the major being wounded and surprisingly sensitive, for a rapist:

Please give me your hand.” I stare at [the major]…He takes my hand and clasps it firmly with both of his, then says, with pathetic eyes and trembling lips, “Forgive me. It’s been so long since I had a woman.” He shouldn’t have said that. Next thing I know I’m lying with my face in his lap sobbing and bawling and howling all the grief in my soul. I feel him stroking my hair…A little later in the dark I tell him how miserable and sore I am and ask him to be gentle. He is gentle and silently tender, is soon finished and lets me sleep.

This is perhaps the most important thing that most people miss in discussions about rape. It isn’t about the ability to say yes to sex. It’s about the ability to say no. If someone is passed out and they can’t say no, you can’t assume he/she is saying ‘yes’ because they aren’t capable of consenting, one way or another. Annonymous could not say “no.” She was going to be raped whether she wanted to or not. The only power remaining to her was the ability to choose who was going to do the raping.

In spite of what they’re gonig through,  the author and other women she encounters seem to concern themselves with their men’s feelings more than their own:

While Ilse and I discussed the subject, her husband stepped out to visit their neighbor, as he put it, to get the latest news for me off a crystal set. As he left, Ilse grimaced. “Yes, well, he can’t really bear to hear about that.” Her husband is tormenting himself with reproach for staying in the basement and not doing a thing while the Ivans took their pleasure with his wife. During the first rape, down in the basement, he was even within hearing range. It must have been a strange feeling for him.

I know a lot of people who are very passionate about guns and a woman’s right to bear arms–the great equalizer, and “when seconds count, cops are only minutes away.” But in this situation, any action by anyone to defend themselves with firearms would have been construed as a counterinsurgency under martial law. So the men did nothing because they were powerless to do anything:

These days I keep noticing how my feelings toward men–and the feelings of all other women–are changing. We feel sorry for them; they seem so miserable and powerless. The weaker sex. Deep down we women are experiencing a kind of collective disappointment. The Nazi world- ruled by men, glorifying the strong man– is beginning to crumble, and with it the myth of “Man.” In earlier wars men could claim that the privilege of killing for the father land was theirs and theirs alone. Today we women, too, have a share. That has transformed us, emboldened us. Among the many defeats at the end of this war is the defeat of the male sex.

When Alpha was 3 months old, we went to Finland for my husband’s grandfather’s funeral and rode in the entryway on a severely overcrowded train. With us was a really drunk Finnish guy, who wanted to talk to DH the entire time. At one point, he approached Alpha and me aggressively and I swear, I have never seen my husband move that fast–to protect me and his son. It crazy, but comforting to know that he would totally stand up for me. What reaction would you have knowing that your husband couldn’t?

The baker comes stumbling toward me down the hall, white as his flour, holding out his hands. “They have my wife…” His voice breaks. For a second I feel I’m acting in a play. A middle-class baker can’t possibly move like that, can’t speak with such emotion put so much feeling into his voice, bare his soul that way, his heart so torn.

An Ivan grabbed the bookseller’s wife as she was coming back with water…The woman shrieked and her husband came running out of the apartment, making straight for the Ivan and shouting, “You damned bastard! You prick!” As the saga has it, the Russian piped down, shriveled up and backed off. So it can be done after all…I’m convinced that this particular woman will never forget her husband’s fit of courage, or perhaps you could say it was love. And you can hear the respect in the way the men tell the story, too

The only other story the author recounts where a man tried to protect his wife, he ended up getting shot and dying. Even more tragic, his wife was Jewish and the author explains how he had such a hard time during the war because of it, but refused to divorce her or leave her because he knew what would happen to her. So much of what happens in this book is senseless, so easily avoidable. So many people who poison themselves, a woman who runs out of a building and dies trying to evade Russians, others who get blown up waiting for water:

Beauty hurts. We’re so full of death.

Then her fiancé returns home and it’s interesting that, although she mentions all women will have to pretend she in particular was spared or their men will never want to touch them again, she does precisely the opposite with Gerd:

If I was in a good mood and told stories about our experiences over the last few weeks, then he got really angry. “You’ve all turned into a bunch of shameless bitches, everyone one of you in the building. Don’t you realize?…It’s horrible being around you. You’ve lost all sense of measure…”

I gave Gerd my diaries (there are three notebooks full). He sat down with them for a while and then returned them to me, saying he couldn’t find his way through my scribbling and the notes stuck inside with all the shorthand and abbreviations. “For example, what’s that supposed to mean?” He asked, pointing to “Schdg.” I had to laugh: “Schändung” of course–rape. He looked at me as if I were out of my mind but said nothing more.

Gerd only echoes society’s opinion the first time this book was published in the 1950s, when it was roundly condemned as “shameful to German women.” In a scarier way, Gerd’s words echo those of many Americans today. Remember, if it’s “rape-rape,” you won’t get pregnant! Your body has a way of just shutting down! Or those who claim “she was asking for it” or get annoyed when women get raped and actually want the perpetrators brought to justice instead of keeping quiet and letting it all go away. At least here, that can happen. The bigger shame for Germany in the 1950s if you ask me isn’t the way the women behaved, but they had to shut up about it afterwards and pretend that nothing happened so as to spare the menfolk’s feeling.

The author confesses she herself doesn’t know how many times she was raped. I guess after a while, you lose count, but I make a rough estimate of at least 15 times. At least. It’s darkly amusing how after a while, her concern is less with the rape itself than with the fact the rapist just ripped her last pair of whole underwear.
I don’t think this book shames German women at all. If anything, it shows how amazingly badass they were to go through all that they did. They endured the carpet bombing (by Americans, hence the saying “Better a Russky on top than a Yank overhead”), the deprivations of the last few weeks before the Soviets invaded, the rapes of the last few weeks of the war, then got up, brushed themselves off and became the infamous Trümmerfrauen, moving mountains of rubble with buckets to clear streets and rebuild homes. They were tough as nails. A German guy I knew in college told me German women scared him. After reading this book, I can understand why.

“A Woman in Berlin”: A Review