"Do you also wear these traditional costumes? What's are they called again?", Kate (American) asked me when we met for the first time. Kate is my work colleague and has lived here in Norway for a long time. She will become one of my best friends in the years to come.
"You mean dirndl?" I answer. "No, I haven't, I've never had anything like that. Only people in southern Germany wear that."
"Okay. I always thought that was so typical for Germany".
"I love Germany, you know. I've driven through it with my children several times. The trains are wonderful. The "German Autobahn"! I was in Munich then. Oh man, the beer gardens, the beer! And everything is so cheap and clean. The food. Delicious. Sauerkraut and that pasta with cheese ... "
"Spätzle. Yes, they are good. But if I have never cooked them, I don't even know how to do it, to be honest."
"Yes. It's not that typical for the region I come from."
"Why, where are you from?"
"Well, I come from the north, and Spätzle are more typical for southern Germany. To be more precise, I come from the northeast. Well, the east. I was born in the former GDR."
"Wow. I didn't know that. I didn't even think about that, you know. It's been a long time since the reunification. It's quite special that you were born in the GDR. You have to tell me more about that. "
Yes, that's kind of special. Sure. But you don't brag about it. At least not me. Being born in the GDR is not necessarily the first thing I answer when someone asked me where I come from.
To someone who doesn't come from Germany, I usually say something like "Well, I come from a place near Rostock. Rostock? Yes, that's by the Baltic Sea? Well, south of Sweden. You know where is Berlin? Hamburg? So east of Hamburg and north of Berlin. "
If the historical knowledge of your counterpart is then sufficient enough, her or she might asl: "Isn't that the former GDR?" And then, sporting a cheeky smile, I nod, because somehow a more relaxed discussion path has now been paved, just because I am talking to someone who remembers this division.
Most of the time, however, my description that I come from somewhere in northeast Germany is simply accepted as a confirmation that I come from Germany. Which is of course true, in a way.
However, I sometimes wonder how many people are out there feeling like me. So why do I actually answer the question "Where are you from?" not with "I was born in the GDR" but with "I come from Germany", because actually I am not from Germany, even if I have a German passport.
Do I shy away from the frown of the other person and want to avoid unnecessary explanations and questions?
Am I you still a little uncomfortable with this origin?
Is it the negative comments, the stigma of the GDR citizen, the twitching eyebrows and the associated memories that we East Germans all made in the last 30 years?
But, should we not just say after 30 years of unity that we come from Germany?
There is probably no clear yes or no answer to it all, because I feel you can and must adjust to your counterpart. Not everyone can be expected to be well versed in German history. For example, I have little knowledge of the division of Ireland into Northern Ireland and Ireland and I suspect that a few years ago I would have mistakenly called someone from Belfast Irish, who would then have pointed out to me that he is Northern Irish and is from Northern Ireland, not from Ireland.
What I mean by that is that for people who did not grow up in Germany and have only read about my history and the division of the GDR and FRG in books, my story of being born in the GDR and my experiences and stories feel alien to them, unusual and exciting. Then I suddenly and more often than not become the focus of a discussion and begin to develop a little pride in my identity and origins. It is not a lie that the GDR was a totally different country from the FRG. Just as Northern Ireland is different from Ireland.
On the other hand, it may well be that the knowledge of the person you are talking to is fortunately no longer manifested in this East and West problem. For this person you are simply a German, whether an East, West, North or South German. Which, of course, is somehow nice for me as well, because then this East-West mindset that has shaped in my own identity and that create so many ambivalent feelings for my, does not even exist in the thinking of my counterpart.
No matter where the discussion goes, it is a win win for me, just because I can be both - German and East German, depending on how I feel.
And that in fact is kind of special.
But also pleasant.