The year was 1979. I was publishing a racy, little state-of-the-art diagnostic medical ultrasound catalogue distributed to radiologists in the United States and Europe. Printed in Denver, the Clinical Ultrasound Purchaser’s Catalogue was disseminated via KLM Royal Dutch Handling Service in Holland. The Iranian hostage crisis made that a losing proposition—I had to scrap the business or do the catalogue in Europe.
Having read too much Janet Flanner (Genêt) and Moveable Feast and other glitterati, plus being a marginal businesswoman, I went to Paris. My friend Sylvie and I got an apartment at the back of the Butte de Montmarte, and I began beating the streets of the city and suburbs for printing and typesetting estimates: all impossibly high. Even as far afield as Troyes, about sixty-five miles southwest of Paris, where Sylvie’s parents lived and I had a place to crash if necessary, prices were too high.
At Christmas, we bought oysters, a buche de Noel, a pate de fois gras, and the best Camembert and wine we could afford to celebrate Reveillon, the late-night French Christmas feast. It probably was my idea to take in midnight Mass at the Notre Dame Cathedral, though I had been a “lapsed” Catholic for years. Sylvie and her Jewish boyfriend came along. The overlong sermon cast aspersions on Christ’s people—you know, the Jews—so we adjourned to Le Bossu (Hunchback) Café across the street and launched into castigating the Catholics for the Inquisition and other excesses. Listening to them disparage the Catholic Church for its Inquisition excesses, face-to-face with a Jewish man who considered them persecution, was a shock. During my fourteen years of parochial school, I’d been given to understand the Inquisition as a valiant crusade for doctrinal purity. I saw that my hard-won college education (in the sense that I had sacrificed a great deal to send myself through) had equipped me with sufficient French to understand that I had only imbibed the Catholic party line when it came to religion.
Another French, ah, friend was a guy I fancied named Alain. He worked for Centre Nationale de Researches Scientifics (CNRS) and freely billed himself as an atheist-cum-communist. Le beau Alain received amazing brain-drain offers from American tech companies. He relished telling each one “Non” and considered me too capitalist by half. He routinely referred to religion as “the opiate;” the Pope as the “le premier vendeur des drogues”—a cartel head. The clergy he dubbed “dealers.”
By New Year’s, I was in tears: not one of the two dozen printing estimates I obtained would allow me to break even, much less to make a profit on the catalogue. Pondering my next move, Sylvie and I walked up the Montmartre hill to Sacre Coeur, Paris’s second-most-famous church. It would have been my parish if I went to Mass as practicing Catholics do. We’d been there before, always observing the same handful of little old ladies praying the rosary.
“Most French people only go to church three times in their lives,” Sylvie observed blithely, “to get baptized, married, and buried.”
“Congrats! You did four!” I said. “Midnight Mass on Christmas.”
“Doesn’t count; we left before the consecration.” Well, she knew her theology too.
A Dutch client pulled my fat out of the fire and advised me to go to Ireland, which before its Celtic Tiger days was the cheapest place to produce publications that did not compete with Irish ones. Early in February 1980, I bid Paris au revoir and flew to Dublin, where if I had been half the capitalist Alain thought I was, I would have gone in the first place.
The move set me right back on familiar terra firma—as it seemed to me, 1950s Catholicism, replete with Latin Mass, which I happened to love!
Suffice it to say that I left Paris believing there was a high level of, well, if not atheism in France, at least nonreligion. It seemed that Notre Dame and beaucoup other churches and chapels were prized primarily for their historical significance: only vieilles dames et les touristes went there to pray.
Eventually I sold the catalogue business, after which I taught English at a university in Korea and became involved in a consortium translation* of a novel, The Curse of Kim’s Daughters, which featured absorbing scenes of shamanism—though the lion’s share of Koreans these days appear to be Buddhist. Like them, I loved walking the wonderfully landscaped, peaceful temple grounds. The experience was far more spiritual than religious. Nobody seemed to be trying to convert anybody.
That Christmas, I flew to my sister’s place in Berlin. There my eldest niece (then age ten) played the Blessed Mother, and my youngest nephew (four) was an adorable shepherd in the Krippenspiel (Christmas pageant) in the most thoughtfully designed house of worship I have ever visited. The whole sacristy was wall-to-wall glass from ceiling to floor. It looked out on nature: the church garden. There, a donkey was supposed to transport Joe and Mary across the garden in view of the attendees, but it balked—and even with Joe pushing from behind and the niece pulling the reins, wouldn’t budge. They tied the beast to a tree, and the “Holy Family” walked to “Bethlehem” as the whole congregation tittered. Der Tannenbaum boasted real candles, and as we left the church, each of us received a lighted one. Walking home watching them flickering in the dark seemed spiritual in a sense far above and beyond crass religious myth.
Whether it was my sister and her kids or the starkly intriguing contrast between Nazi movies and my personal impressions of Berlin, after my contract in Korea expired I accepted her invitation and relocated there. I began teaching English as a Second Language (ESL).
Summers though, I would return to Iowa and the “homeplace.” Once, both my state and Wisconsin were in court over dress questions: whether Amish girls must wear shorts in gym class. As I told my Volkshochshule class, “No wonder I am crazy: I live here most of the year with all these folks naked in the park and on billboards. Then I go home, and the Amish are fighting with the state over whether the girls can wear long skirts.” Of course, it made for absorbing classes, as the Germans are fascinated by puritanical America!
At one point I was teaching ESL to a class of engineers at a company in Neukoln, on the East (formerly Communist) side of the city. This was an intelligent, subtle, and ironic group, and naturally, its members adored hearing about the Amish. A couple even professed to be members of the Frei Korper Kulture (nudist) group. Acutely aware of my Catholic indoctrination/education, I wracked my brain for safe topics, because if I did not, they were quick to concoct ones such as, “Why do aliens always land in the United States?”
As much, I suppose, for my squirming, silly responses. “Well, they always land in Arizona or New Mexico—wide open spaces—I mean, what alien in their right mind would land a spaceship on the Autobahn? Look at how you guys drive! Aliens aren’t that stupid!”
They were fond of political topics, scary territory too. So I attempted to split the difference. Once I asked them to describe how their lives had changed in the decade since the Fall of the Wall. “Bevor die Mauer Falle, I drove a Trabant. It was cute, didn’t go very fast, and my friends and I could repair it. Now, I have a big American car: it goes too fast; I have accidents, and not even the mechanic can fix it!”
It was amusing watching them one-up one another with tongue-in-cheek variations of: “I have da same wife, da same dog, da same kids, and da same apartment. Ten years ago, it cost 200 marks; now we have capitalism and it costs 2,000 marks. Nothing else has changed.”
The longer I taught them, the more I liked them; they were profoundly decent. (I ended up titling the Berlin chapter of my memoir “Commies Are Nicer People.”) Not wanting to infer that the DDR, for which the gathering nostalgia was palpable, was immoral, I said discreetly, “So tell me, religion is more or less a necessary evil, isn’t it?”
It made for first-rate ESL—the class passionately articulating ideas and the teacher silent. “Is religion moral—what money do they take from the poorest people, for centuries?”
“How much money have they taken … present perfect for history!”
“How rich is the Vatican?”
Privately, I mused that their level of contempt for religion about equaled the American public’s for Communism. “Religious excess from witch burning, to wars, to snake handling to selling indulgences (this is Luther-land), to …” Chapter and verse, as it were, they seemed to know every peccadillo and dumb move any religion had ever made. It sometimes felt like a room full of Christopher Hitchenses!
Not only was it not my job to argue, I rather agreed with them. So one day, I said, “It’s all your fault: for 500 years, from the Puritans on, you Europeans have been sending us all your wackos, fanatics, and nut-jobs. Send us more H. L. Menckens!”
They loved it, but I liked them too much to go into the gory details of a German couple I’d read about who had relocated to Kentucky just so they could homeschool and not expose their children to evolution. (In Germany, evolution is prominently taught as part of the Deutsche equivalent of Science Common Core.)
My dearest German friend/mentor—more accurately my ersatz mom—was Eva-Marie Welters, a retired German teacher who hosted me for breakfast each Sunday morning. I would ride my bike both in frigid winter and on balmy summer mornings to Kleinmachow, just outside the Berlin city limits—where the Wall ran—to the kindest, warmest welcome I had ever known. What a contrast from my own mother, a decent, sweet woman under such duress from illness and poverty that as her eldest, having to prop her up made me an adult well before my time. Showing the same sort of functional decency Germany displayed toward refugees from the Syrian Civil War, the nation treated its widowed women like my mom with some R & R at a resort and free childcare from time to time. All of which probably did more to protect children than it did their frazzled mothers—though it certainly kept them from contracting tuberculosis, as my mom had.
Initially, Frau Welters and I read a kids’ book in German (Der Eisvogel). As my German improved, we would translate the letters of a hometown friend, whose relatives in Flensburg had written her father Hans auf Deutsch. No one in the American family had learned the language, so after the father died nobody could read the letters. The two of us were reduced to tears the day we translated the last letter informing the American branch of the family that Hans’s last sibling had died.
Because it seemed so completely natural, I never even asked Frau Welters why she always had a Christmas tree, an Advent wreath, and all the rest of it when she never darkened the door of a house of worship—but for a tour of Baroque churches we once took together. We know what she did Sunday mornings—may she be compensated in kind. Summer mornings she would cycle to one of the many lakes around Berlin for a swim in the buff.
Years later, I asked Frau Welters’s daughter Angelika, about this dichotomy between her mother’s actions and her apparent beliefs. Angelika told me her mother had left instructions she be buried with the Evangelical service. She even requested services on the anniversaries of her death and other occasions. “Ob man religios ist, ist nicht daran zu messen …” she wrote in answer to my query. Whether an individual is religious cannot be measured by how often he or she goes to church, but rather by how a life is lived and how well one helps his or her children to live theirs.
My nieces and nephews—to whom Frau Welters was an in situ functional grandparent, confirm that she never missed their Krippenspiel performances, their music concerts at the Berliner Dome (a cathedral), or any other such milestones. Tradition and being there for family were the operative motivations, one must conclude, not religious obligation.
Another of my German friends, Christa, tells me she does attend church periodically, but her husband, a committed atheist, has filed papers so he does not have to pay the church tax. (If you identify as a Catholic when you file taxes, Germany levies an extra tax that goes to the Catholic church. Identify as Lutheran, an extra tax goes to the Lutheran church. Identify as neither, and there is no added tax.) So it seems that the Germans, like the French, have arrived at a place where they have the freedom to be as religious or unreligious as they please, without having their personal liberties circumscribed.
Ironically, here in the United States, despite our highly touted “freedom, liberty, and justice for all,” many individuals have their rights circumscribed by religion and the religious: rights to use a drug such as marijuana, even for its medical benefits; to be other than masculine or feminine in gender; to have an abortion; or to request euthanasia, even when that is clearly required. Uniquely, we Americans lag behind the more enlightened, sitting passively while the religious co-opt the freedoms of the rest of the population by forcing their version of belief on us, which, in the final analysis, is seriously lacking in the decency, kindness, and plain old respect for an individual’s viewpoint (and the right to hold it) that most Europeans enjoy.
Consortium translation is done by a group. In the case of The Curse of Kim’s Daughters, the group comprised three Koreans and myself, never mind that my Korean was minimal.
The year was 1979. I was publishing a racy, little state-of-the-art diagnostic medical ultrasound catalogue distributed to radiologists in the United States and Europe. Printed in Denver, the Clinical Ultrasound Purchaser’s Catalogue was disseminated via KLM Royal Dutch Handling Service in Holland. The Iranian hostage crisis made that a losing proposition—I had to scrap the …