Life on the road is sometimes not so great. You’re doing 3 interviews a day. You are fighting to sustain the intellectual elasticity on which the method depends…even as the ethnographic data grows more voluminous and various. The possibility of pilot error grows and grows.
There are smaller complaints: jet lag, the compressions of air travel and hotel life, work continuing to come from home, and the club house sandwiches that the hotel staff now know to bring you at regular intervals. All of these are beginning to take a toll.
Just when you are ready to wallow in self pity, something happens. Today, I was standing on the balcony of a worker’s flat in what used to be East Germany. The mistress of the household is pointing to the place the wall once stood, not 60 yards away. There are tears in her eyes.
"It was 17 years ago. But I still can’t believe it’s gone."
She’s deeply grateful for her freedom. Her husband is better placed in the world of work. He now seizes little liberties he was previously denied: an extravagant beard. She was able to go to Egypt, and travel the Nile. Their apartment is smart with new appliances and fashionable decor schemes.
But she misses the wall. "It used to be our enemy. And now I think of it as a friend. It kept things out." She means noise, foreign neighbors, and the commotion of contemporary life. This sounds nasty and xenophobic. But, no, her outpouring was heart felt, genuine, the expression of a thoughtful, generous, sensitive person.
It must have been the empathy (God knows there has got to be some good explanation), but I got misty eyed, too. So did the translator. (Let me know if you need a translator in Germany. Barbara is a joy.) There we were, the three of us, all on verge of tears at the fall of the wall. I may have had stranger moments as a practicing ethnographers but I can’t think of one.
Berlin has been full of surprises. I had an almost visceral reaction as we drove into the city from the train station. I’m a mid-century baby, and Berlin was a hot point of the cold war. It’s with me still, as if the "spooks" still haunted the city, as if those people who died trying to get out were still here.
The downtown was still more astonishing. Capitalism came in force. The downtown is filled with one design triumph after another…as if to insist on the contrast with the old regime. Capitalism showing off, making a statement. As if there was any doubt about who the winner was, or why the winner won.
And finally, we happened to drive by the relatively new Holocaust memorial. (I never have time on the road actually to visit anything. I see it through the window of the taxi or not at all.) The Holocaust, this was the biggest mystery of my childhood. I was 6 in 1957 and the popular press continued to try to think how to think about the Holocaust. When you are little, it is always intensely interesting when adults are shocked, wordless, tearful, incoherent.
Eventually, of course, you see what the matter is. There is no way to think about the Holocaust. There is no way to mourn it. You can try. And then you realize the scale of the horror. You understand that grief of this order will bend you till it breaks you. The Holocaust is hard to memorialize. Trying and failing, that’s, I guess, a way to remember what it was.