Aug 12, 2009

On Tübingen silence

I didn't anticipate the silence. Tübingen is quiet, everything very still. The people are quiet. The place is quiet. Even the parties, quiet. There's a big, obese and shaggy man I always see at bus stops, who's always sweating and drinking vodka from little bottles about the size of his fingers, and he always sits there drinking in silence. On the bus, people don't talk. In the stores, there's often no music, in the houses, no air conditioning, and on the streets, even near the university where there are always mobs of students, things are hushed.

I feel like a deaf man here. In America, I had this sense that I could always hear everyone talking. People in the next room, people in the next house, the radio and the TV and the billboards and newspapers, court papers, college papers and e-mail spam, people preaching and thinking, composing opinion pieces and bad poetry and raps, rehearsing arguments and come backs that came too late, I heard all of these voices all the time. The noise was always mounting and mounting, until I was lost like a lone row boat in the vastness of it. For me, the world was only silent, only peaceful, when it rained and sometimes in the middle of the night when even those people who were awake were too tired to think and were silent in their own minds. But it's not like that here.

Germany is a quiet country. That's part of it. Tübingen, specifically, is a quiet town. But it's more than that, I think. I know the language only a little, and I can't hear it unless I concentrate, focus, focus and watch the way a German speaks, trying to hear and distinguish the guttural sounds and do the grammar in my head. It requires a focus like chess, like math without paper, and I often find that after a few minutes of doing all this to hear someone say "nice evening" or "would you like a receipt" it's too much, too hard. I stop concentrating and the world lapses into stillness again.

It's okay. It's not a bad thing. It can be quiet peaceful. The only problem is that sometimes I overhear English, exchange students talking or tourists looking for a castle, and it sounds like inanity shouted, aggressively stupid and offensive and blaringly banal and I want to shout shut up, shut up, shut up!

There was a man with a mustache on one bus, a while ago, talking about the truck he drives in Texas. His accent was broad and muddy and shallow, like a flooded farm, and he kept saying the truck he had is Texas had two tanks. The bus was crowded, hot, and silent except for the Texan talking about his truck and how it had two gas tanks. The German man he was talking to didn't understand and kept asking things like, "why not one big tank?" and, "is it hard to find fuel in Texas?" And the Texan kept talking through his mustache, talking obscenely loud and saying, no, "it's better, it's two tanks!"

I've never seen anyone quiet as alien as that Texan. He was out of place. Uncomfortable. Desperate. Out of place and off balance, he was talking and talking and trying to reorient himself, trying to reestablish his place, trying to seize on to something with his words. In Hunter S. Thompson's first book, Hell's Angels, he talks about how the sons of the Oakies and Arkies, these losers and outsiders, mechanics and minor criminals, used their gangs and their motorcycles to shift power, to tilt the balance of things their way. We all do this. Aliens, though, are always trying and failing. They're always trying to tilt the balance but only falling over, ending more alone, more alien, more ridiculous and isolated as they shout out about their truck's two tanks on an almost silent public transit system in Germany.

What's really disturbing about the Texan, though, this unnamed man who I hated for half a bus ride, is that he's no more alien than I am. He's no more obnoxious, desperate, panicked, insecure or insanely isolated than I am.

I'm guessing this doesn't make me special. I'm guessing that this doesn't make me different from the old man who lives above me, whose wife yells at him mercilessly while he never says anything, who rides off on his bike unsteadily and goes and gets drunk. I'm guessing this doesn't make me different from the crazy, long-haired poet who stands silently on street corners in the Aldstadt offering to recite a poem for eight euros, who stares off vacantly while no one asks for his poetry. I'm guessing I feel the same as the adjunct professors whose classes are canceled for lack of interest, as the students who are overtaken with a frenzy of trying to connect at the end of every semester, and as the woman at the bakery who is always angry at the Americans who mispronounce the names of the loaves of bread she makes. We are all of us desperate, desperate, desperate and lonely. We are all encased in space suits of silence, encased in insolation only occasionally relieved. This is the point of literature and love, music, religion and education -- that we might feel less alone, that we might feel there is a "we" even though life is this vast and empty, but even then the isolation is only alleviated for a moment, a moment like a millennium or an exhale, and then it contracts again, crushing our chests.

There is a complex of student housing, in Tübingen, up on a hill, called the W.H.O., where these skyrises cluster all anonymous and industrial. All the students don't live there, in the concrete shells that are stacked up 13, 15, 23 stories high, but the foreign students mostly do. Many of the families do too. In one building, at least, it's all families. Men from Korea and Pakistan, Iran and Turkey and Botswana are here to study at the university and their families, wives and children, live up there in that building. The children run and play, scream and do children things, but the women, the student's wives, seem to be in a shocked silence. Many of them live in this space of neither/nor, where they are neither traditional women nor modern ones, neither at home nor away from it, neither needed nor not needed, neither allowed to take control and learn German, nor allowed not to. I have seen them: silent women watching empty swings swaying; silent women watching children and making foods that smell of a home that is not here and not anymore more than a out-of-place memory; silent women who cannot speak the language of their neighbors; silent women who do not understand what their husbands are learning, what their children are learning, what anyone says; silent women watching TV and trying to learn grammar, silently growing sprouts in boxes on the stairs and hanging laundry in the windows and always, always seeming to be waiting for something like a brave boy waits for pain. I see them, in their silence, and I wonder if they anticipated this.