Welcome in Halle, the German New York - Louis
When I got into this quiet provincial town, between Leipzig and Berlin, I didn’t expect I’d actually be surrounded by so many foreigners, with so different backgrounds. Neither did I expect we’d be so similar, in a lot of ways.
A friend of mine once told me a joke about going into a foreign land. “How do you know if someone is considered an immigrant or an expatriate ?” I don’t know, I replied, how ? “You’re an immigrant if, when you tell where you come from, no one asks any question. And you’re an expatriate if, when you tell where you come from, people ask : why did you come here ?”
If that’s the case, then I definitely was an expatriate. Whenever I told I came from Paris, the first question I was asked was systematically : “What the heck do you do in Halle ?” I had to reply, a bit embarrassed, that the project I was the most interested in was simply taking place here, in this little town in the heart of Mitteldeutschland, big enough to be called a town, not enough to be called a city.
When people would ask me what the main difference was with France, I had to say that it wasn’t so much the country – sure, I was going through hell every single day to understand German and to grasp the thick accent of the region, but it was Western Europe nonetheless, and the ancient communists were nowhere to be seen. The main difference was to adapt to a smaller town, where families go on a walk when the sun is shining, without any particular goal, which was quite an improvement compared to the Parisian subway and the constant flow of people there, always angry, always after something.
What I didn’t expect, however, was the quite international environment I’d lived in, in the most unexpected place. I work 20 minutes away from Halle by car, in the village of Wettin, where I make videos and news reports for a local web TV. Of course there are some Germans, ones of the finest, but also a lot of foreigners, encouraged and enrolled through European programs : one Russian, one Belarussian, one Syrian, and even Kazakhs, Iraqis, Irish and Austrians at some point. When I got to Germany, I spent two weeks with other volunteers coming from Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy or Russia. At my language course, I met people from Japan, China or Thailand. At work, I can often hear some Arabic, Russian and even some French, when the Germans are too happy to show what they know of the language – always a nice touch.
With them, I got to have conversations I never had before, about what life looks like in their home countries, their political systems or the refugee crisis. Suddenly, things I only heard about in the newspapers took a whole different meaning for me : it had faces, stories, people I knew of. I was also glad to tell them about my country. Almost once a week, my Croatian roommate and I, we would sit in the kitchen and I would tell him about the unrest in France, the yellow vests, our relation with Germany and so on. In return, he would tell me about his own country. As for my German friends, we would argue, every week, about our respective countries, throw jokes and puns at each other, all the time. I was always struck by how well France was known to others. We bound so easily, I could forget we didn’t come from the same place.
We were also bound, sadly, by sadder events. The terrorist attack in Halle was for me reminiscent of the ones in Paris, four and five years ago. The attacker wasn’t the same, that’s true : the ones in France were jihadists, the other in Germany came from the far-right. I was especially surprised with how far the Germans would question themselves, ask themselves “What did we do as a nation, to come to this ? And what do we do now ?”, while the way to cope in France was to fight back, not to dwell in introspection. But it reminded me how close we all were, how our societies were shaken by some very similar threats. I felt very European, and maybe some German, at that moment.
It all happens again, now that we are all struck by this corona horror. I was spending the weekend in France just before the lockdown of the country. I chose to stay there, to be with my family during the crisis. I don’t know yet when I’ll be able to come back to Germany, but I’d better do, since all my stuff are there ! I only have two different outfits, which I have to wash every single day ; the only luggage I’m carrying is my bag, since I didn’t expect to stay. But I’ve noticed that I often watch the news about Germany, how the virus spreads there, and if my coworkers are okay. I’m no longer just part of one country, and sometimes, my mother has to tell me we can speak about something else than Germans and Germany.
In a month or so, I hope I’ll be able to come back to Halle, see my friends, go to work again. For now, Paris is a small village, whose shape is the one of my apartment, and Halle, a promise of greater adventures. Because why would you need an other big city, when you already live in your own little New York ?