Familiarity

Hauptstrasse_1

Last evening I drove to Heidelberg. I’d spent the morning alone; Wife had moved to Brussels a couple of days ago, and I guess I wasn’t used to the emptiness yet, having spent the last two months together. The sun came out late afternoon, and the drive along B3 took me through empty meadows and clear views of the nearby hills. I parked at P4 and walked to the riverside. As always, the view was beautiful. I took some pictures from the bridge, and then walked along Hauptstrasse, stepping into every bookstore that came my way, to look at the English sections inside. As I walked the length of the street I found myself immersed in the surroundings: snatches of conversations in German, people dressed elegantly in various styles and shapes, bakeries with a warm glow within, trendy hairdressing saloons, expensive watch showrooms, the corner selling vintage signboards, the painter sketching portraits. At the end of it I felt as if I’d always be in love with this place – its gloss would never fade, it would never stop being interesting.

I couldn’t immediately explain why I felt that way. Perhaps it was because the foreignness of this place would always remain, because it was so different from the world I’d grown up in. The dullness that comes with familiarity had not set in, and I wondered if I’d ever feel so familiar with these surroundings as not to notice them.

Why had I not grown familiar with my surroundings? Since six years I’ve walked the same route to office through the cobble-stoned streets and corn fields and yet, last week as I was walking one morning along the same path observing the landscape partly obscured by mist, I felt that this was a view I had not experienced yet – there was a newness to it that I could attribute only to the weather: everything else was the same. The weather here induces dramatic changes in one’s environment – not just the landscape, but the clothes people wear, the cars they drive, the spring in their step and the hope in their voice – and that is one reason why one cannot easily grow too familiar with the surroundings.

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Actvity is another reason. It is a culture that encourages – and rewards – doing things, filling up your day with “life-enhancing” activities. A colleague I had lunch with the other day was telling me about his eleven year old daughter who was learning the piano, taking karate lessons, experimenting with drawing and using her spare time to create Power-point presentations. At work things have been mostly dynamic for me, and what little spare time I get quickly fills up with one activity or another. There is no time to feel bored and no cause to blame familiarity; six years have passed by in a flash.

Language perhaps plays a role as well. Although I can understand a fair amount of German, my expertise has not reached a level where I can understand it all and immerse myself fully into the culture. This keeps things unfamiliar, keeps me curious and puzzled.

Then there’s cross-cultural variety. Across the border people speak a tongue I cannot understand and do things that surprise me now and then; the architecture reveals new elements of aesthetics and engineering; the signs on the road take a while to get used to, and the traffic (in)discipline keeps me guessing; getting vegetarian food – asking for it – remains a challenge.

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Even if I were to grow familiar with it all one day, Europe will not lose its charm. This strikes me while watching movies that show Europe in the previous decades, like Steven Spielberg’s Munich: the essence of that Europe of the Sixties and Seventies still remains, and will continue. I am unable to define what is behind that charm, what creates it; perhaps I shall take that topic another day.

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