In an increasingly integrated and secular society, how much does a person's cultural background matter? This came up recently when the best-looking guy in a fairly packed bar told me he was from Germany.
The music stopped. The lights flipped on. Germany.
My introduction to Germany began the year we gave my grandfather a stainless steel desk set for Father's Day. He noticed a small imprint on the letter opener that said "Made in Germany" and handed the gift back to my mother. What she later explained created a lasting aversion to all things German: the language, accent, Birkenstocks, BMWs, even this soft-spoken German guy regarding me with candid delight.
It's an ethical dilemma that had never come up before: Seeking out a German boyfriend was disrespectful, disloyal even, but not dating this guy because he was German was discriminatory. In a standoff between disloyalty and discrimination is there a clear winner?
I went with Andy Warhol's advice: "They say that time changes things but you actually have to change them yourself."
And I agreed to go out with him. When we e-mailed, I thought about the room in my grandparents' house where my grandfather spends much of his time bent under a desk lamp reconstructing a family tree. Here I was making a new Facebook friend while my grandfather was trying to piece together his decimated social network.
It may be ridiculous to wonder what someone would have been like in another place and time, but I needed to know what kind of German this guy would have been. Although, for that matter, what kind of German would any guy have been? It's not like it was in his blood to be any more vicious than anyone else? Or was it?
Over drinks when he mentioned visiting Berlin, I pointed out that I had never been there or anywhere in Germany. That in fact, I had always avoided all German-speaking countries, and really all things German. That's when it registered. He said, "I'm sorry about the stupid things the people in my country did."
Leaving an umbrella in a cab is stupid. But then, this apology wasn't his to make, or mine to receive. Except that maybe it was.
It turned out his world was full of Jews and every other type of person. It also turned out that not only had he seriously dated a Jewish girl, but he also spoke a little Hebrew. In other words, he was safe. When he walked me home that night, I had the "Cabaret" soundtrack in my head and the air tinged with life's delectable twists and turns.
But the next weekend when I felt my cellphone vibrate while visiting my grandparents in Toronto, I didn't pick up. It was one of the last weekends my grandmother was alive, when the house no longer smelled like cooking because the chemo had made her too weak for it. The German name on my phone looked cold and hostile against the photos on the wall. Had his grandparents crossed paths with mine?
I looked at a photo of my great-grandmother, Baba, who ran on sheer will until she was 95. By my age she was widowed and hiding in Siberia with two little girls. When my grandmother came down with pneumonia, Baba stood blocking the chill of the doorway throughout the night. Now here I was letting in the breeze.
After that visit, I never took his calls again.
My friend Rachel once said that the biggest impediment to world peace is that people can't let go of their grudges. It never occurred to me that I would be one of these people, I was supposed to be part of the solution. But it seems that loyalty, or discrimination, as the case may be, can preclude even the change we're fighting for.
You're better off without me, Mein Herr.