Friday, May 16, 2008

Hamburg, 16.2.99: Cultural Exchange and Coptic Fallacies

At breakfast this morning, a German couple (or so we thought), unpronounceable names. They enter the room where Steve and I are already eating, at either end of a corner. They look suspicious: what do I do? Where do I sit? Who are they?

Steve gets up and offers his place to the woman, who takes it so she can sit beside her husband. She has dark hair unartfully arranged to fall flat and limp around her ears, dark and rather expressive eyes, a pronounced mustache, and a bent but snub nose. One sees the mustache before the nose. She has on a heavy forest green sweater, and her neck is swaddled in a green and brown paisley scarf arranged to make her head seem as if it arises, a vision, out of her shoulders.

He has a nondescript, very formal, gray suit and tie. Up to the point where they choose places, we’ve all spoken German. We speak it so poorly—and they, evidently, likewise—that we don’t realize they’re not German.

Steve introduces himself in German and says he’s American. At that point, the man switches to English, heavily accented and rather labored. He has an interesting scar running from the bridge of his nose about half an inch onto his forehead, in a curve, as though he’s been hit (tortured?) there. His face is very beety, his eyebrows bushy, his brown eyes suspicious. He is teaching at Mainz, he tells us, and the couple are from St. Petersburg.

A comic, intense, at-cross-purposes conversation ensues, with the Russian professor lecturing and Steve and me listening. The wife interjects extraneous humanizing comments in very rudimentary English. I can tell that she understands little when I speak.

He explains he’s here to talk to Prof. U. about a journal, C. O. which he evidently edits. Says prior to the Revolution, it focused on Christianity in the Caucasus. Now that Christianity has been resurrected in the East, he wants the journal to have a more inclusive focus, drawing in areas such as Ethiopia.

I mention that Coptic Christianity is interesting. This gives him an opening for a rebuttal, a lecture: “Um. One must be careful with term Coptic. Ethiopia was isolated from Alexandrian patriarch. It has its own rituals.”

I: Yes, many are very ancient, aren’t they?

He: Um. Ancient, but one must be careful. They often have no prototype, but were developed there (as though I’d implied that ancient meant handed down from elsewhere).

Then somehow a long discourse on why Christmas occurs at a different time according to the Eastern calendar than according to the Western one. Like a prisoner who willingly puts his head on the block, I naively mention Epiphany. That elicits a long lecture (Um—one must be careful) about the two calendars, and how the Eastern one places Easter in the historically correct place after the Jewish Passover, whereas, in the West, Easter sometimes coincides with Passover.

Then on to the danger of the new religiosity in Russia, which he’s against. It’s all too quick. You can’t be communist one day and Christian the next. No immediate change is ever good. (How dare they think that this religion for which I suffered all those years can now open its arms to them when they come running?)

Steve now tries the chopping block, with wild statements about how the revival movements in America are right-wing and fascist. I groan inside, and my guts wrench: is he oblivious to the political makeup of people such as this?

A passionate rebuttal ensues: fascism is an ideology, a good one; the cruelties it practiced aren’t part and parcel of its ideology. It’s wrong to equate fascism with those cruelties.

Not having had enough, Steve moves on to the fact that we teach at a black college founded to offer educational opportunity to former slaves. Um. One must be careful. Liberal sympathy for the oppressed overlooks that the oppressed always make bad masters when they gain power. Man raised to rule is good master. Women and Jews somehow figure into the equation.

We all politely bid each other adieu, good day. I can’t wait to get away. I’m screaming inside, guts wrenching; have I said that? We make to pick up our dishes. The Russian wife says it’s not done. We tell her we think they expect it. She then tries to stop me from removing my dishes; I do it. This is not for man to do.

So endeth the first lesson, cultural dialogue of this day of the year of our Lord 1999.

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