Picking through some old notebooks this week, through things I wrote when I first arrived in Germany, with an understanding of neither the language nor the culture, I was immediately thrust back into the isolation I initially felt in my new home - a small Bavarian town where being foreign was in itself, foreign.
That though, was back in the '90s. A lifetime ago. Before social media and cheap airlines pulled the world in on itself, and time enough for things to have evolved. I often wonder what it would be like to arrive now, when the more globalized nature of the world would surely give me a head start in understanding my new home.
Or would it? If a play currently showing in Berlin is anything to go by, the answer would be seem to be no. Staged by the Exil Ensemble, which was established last year as part of the Maxim Gorki Theater, "Winterreise" - or "Winter Journey" as the piece is called, sees the Syrian and Palestinian cast set off on a two week January bus tour around their new country in a bid to better acquaint themselves with both it, and its people.
On the road again
To help them in this endeavor, they have Neils-the-native on board. His sometimes sorry attempts to explain the history, politics and cultural quirks of his native Deutschland involve a stop at the Munich football ground, a misjudged trip to the Buchenwald concentration camp and a jaunt to Dresden while an anti-Islamification PEGIDA protest is in full swing.
His pained efforts to explain the demonstration, which include stuttered offerings such as "It's about Muslims… not you personally, just the Muslim part of you," are flanked by the travelers' incremental revelations of what they have lost and abandoned in the name of a fresh start. The juxtaposition of hope and hatred is perfect.
As the journey, which the players really took, progresses, it offers insights both into their own cultures and the curious, often comic facets of life here in Germany. From open relationships and Wagner to endless hours of mushroom picking, the rules of sex and... the design of the nation's toilets.
When asked why German toilets have an inbuilt shelf from which human doings can stare up at the doer, Neils said he would be horrified if it were any other way, because "you can learn a lot about your inner self" through what you excrete. "It's part of our culture," he claimed. Resolutely.
That, ultimately, is what "Winterreise" is about. The exploration of different cultures and the clear fact that there is ample space for one to exist within another. The Exil Ensemble illustrated that poignant point beautifully. And in so doing, cast the rest of us in our own offstage roles. Enduring parts, all of equal and equally vital importance.Tamsin Walker