German, My Father, and I
My Father spoke German. That was one of the very few facts I knew about my father before I actually found him. My mother had told me that he had lived in Germany before coming to Canada and had learned to speak German there.
But my knowledge of my Father’s German proficiency would have an unexpected effect on the trajectory of my own life. In my Grade 10 year, during which I spent mornings attending classes at the now demolished Laurentian High School and afternoons getting visiting teachers because I couldn’t cope with a full day of school because of my overwhelming social anxiety, I decided to do something different, something to engage me intellectually and quench my at that point insatiable thirst for knowledge. I had already attempted taking Philosophy classes which ended up being weird private lessons in theosophy that involved reading the works of the likes of Madame Blavatsky in some European man’s appartment. This would not due.
One day, well scanning the bookshelves at Carlingwood Library, I spotted a poster for German Language Courses. They were offered for free and you could even get high school credits for them, all you had to do was attend classes on Saturday mornings all the way down town at Hopewell Public School. I remembered that my father had spoken German and somehow I felt this was a sign, that I was meant to learn German.
I began at the beginning, a Grade 9 Class for newcomers to German. My teacher was a lovely Austrian woman. We were provided with a textbook which we were free to take home with us. I immediately took a great liking to German. For many people, German is just the language of Nazis and Adolf Hitler, but there was a Germany before the Third Reich. Actually, something like 1 in 4 Americans is of German Ancestry (there was even a possibility that German would have been the official language of the newly independent United States) and at the time of my taking these classes, German was the third most spoken language in Ottawa (now it’s a competition between Chinese-the statistics don’t specify if it is Mandarin or Cantonese-and Arabic). German is also part of my own heritage. My great great mother was German, a Schoeder.
I came to love elements of German Culture as well. I became quite found of Lieder, German songs by composers like Schubert, based on the work of German poets like Goethe. I also developped a fondess for Kurt Weil songs as sung by Ute Lemper. I would never have had the opportunity to develop such obsure tastes had it not been for CBC Radio.
I excelled at German. It made me realize that I was quite gifted at acquiring languages quickly and thoroughly. It gave me a newfound confidence and sense of my own intelligence, something which had been battered down so long during my years of functional illiteracy in elementary school. German also gave me a way out of Laurentian High School. I had been told again and again by teachers and guidance counsellors that I would be better off at a more “academic school” where I would be challenged more intellectually. But to get a transfer out of my home school I would have to be a Music Student (couldn’t read a single note, still can’t), in French Immersion (self-taught French) or be studying an international language that was not offered at my home school-Bingo! Because I had studied German in Grade 10 I was allowed to transfer to Nepean High School for Grade 11 where I could continue my German Studies up to the OAC Level (back when there was Grade 13, boy am I dating myself!).
I had been warned that Nepean High School as very posh and very snobby. I would be Black White Trash in an ocean of silver-spoon-fed WASPs. That was an understatement. The school was something out of a John Hughes film-Think Pretty in Pink! But, the standard of education was amazing. We were being educated to go on to university as that was what all our teachers expected us to do. It was during my first year at Nepean High School that I learned how the socio-economic class of the students who attended a school shaped the standard of education at that school and the expectations teachers had about their students, even before getting to know them. This reality made me very angry. It also compelled me to excel. And this I did, with a vengence.
My first year at Nepean High School I came top of my class in German and went on to win the annual regional German Language Contest and the annual provincial German Language Contest. I was an Academic Star. I even landed a half-page write-up in the City Section of the Ottawa Citizen (a few weeks after my grandmother was convicted and the Citizen Court reporter wrote that my family was one of the most dysfunctional families he had ever written about).
My prize for my win at the provincial level was an all expenses paid 4-week trip to Germany! I had never been anywhere outside of Canada other than Ogdensburg, New York with my grandparents in their RV. I would be flying on a plane! I would be staying away from my mother for 4 whole weeks! I had never done this before unless she was in the hospital, at which time I would stay with my grandparents. No grandparents this time-just total strangers in a strange land.
Needless to say, my trip to Germany was a life-changing experience. My mother was not happy to see me leave and actually wanted me to cancel the trip but I went without her blessing. My time in Germany really helped me gain confidence as an individual without my mother (who at that time was my one and only friend) and helped me overcome my social anxiety. I got to meet other teenagers from across Canada (BC, Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec, and Nova Scotia) and from around the world (Uganda, Kenya, Romania, Russia, South Korea, Slovakia, Mauritius). We travelled all across Germany, visiting cities like Bonn, Frankfurt, and of course Berlin.
I knew that my father had lived for some time in Munich, which was the last city we stayed in before we returned to Canada. This seemed fitting. I wandered the streets of Munich thinking that I was looking at the same buildings my father had seen, maybe even walking down some of the same streets my father had walked down.
When I finally found my father I would learned that he had lived in Munich while building the Olympic Tower (Olympia Turm) for the 1972 Munich Olympics. This was the first Summer Olympics held in Germany since the infamous 1936 Olympics that had been held under the watchful eye of the Fuhrer (which means leader by the way). The Germans were eager to paint themselves in a more positive light, to show the whole world that they had overcome their Nazi past and were happy, hopeful and open to diversity. This included a Cultural Olympics that showcased artistic talent from around the world, including Nigeria.
Nigerian composer Akin Euba premiered his piece Dirges at the University of Ife Theatre at the 1972 Olympics. This piece is a unique synthesis of African and Western musical influences. Euba also studied Lieder. In his essay “Text Setting in African Composition“, Euba writes:
The strength of German Lieder (art songs) in the nineteenth century rested partly on the gifts of the poets who provided composers with the texts that they set to music. It occurred to me early in my composition career (in the mid 1960s) that African composers might equally look to African poets for the texts of their songs.
One of Euba’s earliest settings was of a poem by J. P. Clark, “Abiku”, first as a dance-drama then as a song with a three-part chorus with five Nigerian instruments.
But the showcasing of African Classical music on an international stage is not the sort of thing most people remember about the 1972 Munich Olympics. What most people remember is the Israeli Olympic team being held hostage and then massacred by terrorists. This event is the basis for Steven Spielberg’s film Munich. My father was actually present in the Olympic Village when this all went down.
Learning German provided me with countless opportunities that I otherwise would not have had. But I never would have considered learning the language if I had not had this strange attraction to it because of my association with it and my father.
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