A rural American in urban Germany

12 Aug

Der Blick von mein Klassenzimmer

If you happen to come from a place called Strange Creek, West Virginia, which is little more than a wide spot on old County Route 42 as it winds north toward the Elk River, and if you happen to find yourself in a classroom in Frankfurt, Germany in which no English is allowed, you might have to field some unusual questions.

“Mike*, wie viele leute wohnen in deine Stadt?” (Mike, how many people live in your town?)

“Zwanzig.” (Twenty)

“Zwanzig tausand?” (Twenty thousand?)

“Nein, zwanzig.” (No, twenty)

Long pause.

“Mike, wie viele Häuse sind in deine Stadt?” (Mike, how many houses are in your town?)

“Funf.” (Five)

Longer pause. Then uproarious laughter.

“Mike, bist du 20 prozent ihrer Stadt?” (Mike, are you 20 percent of your town?)

“Ja. Ich kenne alle leute in meine Stadt. Sie sind meine Familie.” (Yes. I know everyone in my town. They’re my family.”

At that, the Bulgarian architecture student whipped out his laptop and opened Google maps. The French-Lebanese wunderkind who lives in Switzerland badgered Mike with more questions, unsure of whether the strangeness of Strange Creek was due to a communication breakdown. The street-savvy Muscovite dabbed gloss onto the center of her lower lip and preened about her city upbringing. The quiet Emerati eye doctor stared, mouth agape, at the satellite picture of the forest surrounding Mike’s home. And the Kazakhi man snickered, pretending to know nothing about rural life.

Die Studenden aus die Goethe Institute sind anspruchvoll. Prosecco mit mitagessen! (This was a one-time deal for me, by the way. Burns is generous, but not THAT generous!)

Even the teacher joined in the fun. “Mike, wie viele Straßen sind in deine Stadt?” “Mike, wie viele Straßenbeleuchtung sind in deine Stadt?” “Mike, warum wohnst due in Strange Creek?”

With every answer, the class laughed…and laughed…and laughed.

So strange, the students thought.

I’ve seen some interesting cultural interactions in nearly two weeks of full-time language classes (“Topless!” automatically shouts the Kazakhi in English when someone says the word “beach”), but the reaction to Strange Creek is notable. There are plenty of tiny dorfs in Germany, but the idea of a rural community, nestled in a crevice carved out of the great Appalachian mountains, far from a city of any repute, stunned pretty much everyone in my German class.

Neun stunden in Klasse, täglich.

Inadequate language knowledge no doubt limited the questions some of the students and teacher might have otherwise asked: Why didn’t your family ever leave that place? What is the value of land to your family? What is so important about Strange Creek that your entire extended family lives – and owns all the land – there?

Homeownership rates in Germany are among the lowest in Europe – just 39 percent, according to one survey. And only 12 percent of the country’s population lives in rural areas, which account for 29 percent of the country’s land base, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. About half of those people live within a 30-minute drive to a regional city.

Standrundfahrt mit die Goethe Institute.

In the United States, 21 percent of the population lives in rural areas, which make up a whopping 97 percent of the land base. Just 11 percent of the population lives in urban clusters, which make up about 1 percent of the country’s total land mass.

That means that while plenty of rural people live near enough to a city that they can drive in when a new movie is showing at the cineplex, but lots of rural people also live way, way…waaaay out there.

I’ve been to plenty of small towns in my time, and it’s always especially interesting when I roll through on assignment for a story. If I’m turned away at the diner, which usually sits just beneath the community’s single stoplight, I head to the gas station, where the company is often on the rough side. If no one wants to talk there, I have to knock on the doors of homes at the end of long, forested driveways, sometimes marked by “No trespassing” signs. It’s then that I always wonder if I’m taking my life in my hands.

But more often than not, I find people like Mike. They’ve lived there all their lives. See that ramshackle cabin back in the woods? That’s where old Uncle Fred tanned the hides of the bears he shot when they tried to rummage through the garbage can. And over on that tree? A carved heart with the initials of grandpa and the woman who would become grandma. Yup, they’re an old logging family, but little Jimmy is in business school in the city so he can take over at the lumber mill.

Much of Germany’s farmland is in the east, where much of it was collectivized in the years following World War II. Organic farming is growing there (check out this story from a 2009 Burns fellow).

Still, there’s something special about that bit of Americana that thrives off a rural identity. Strange? Perhaps. Worth preserving? Definitely.

* Name changed to protect the unwitting subject of this post. Hey, Strange Creek is a small place!

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