Friday, March 9, 2012

Double, Double

Once, as a student in Berlin, I saw myself. Or someone very like me. He was standing above the subway entrance outside my favorite cafe. With an ever-growing sense of the uncanny, I noticed that he and I were the same height and weight. We had the same curly brown hair. We wore similar glasses, tweed coats, blue button-up shirts, jeans, and tan suede shoes. Oh, and our faces were identical. It was terrible.

“I maintain that terror is not of Germany, but of the soul.” This was the defense of Edgar Allan Poe against those who accused his horror works of being too Germanic. I can’t completely agree with Poe.

One of the classic German horror tropes is the Doppelgänger, the “double walker.” No less than the great German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe claimed to have seen his double on horseback as he was riding to Drusenheim. Goethe looked on the encounter with fondness. For a long time, I couldn’t understand him. A Doppelgänger is often an omen of impending death and doom. As one who has actually had a run-in with a Doppelgänger, I can testify that it is, at the very least, unsettling.

My encounter with my double sparked a fight-or-flight response in me. Our eyes met, and we held each other’s gaze for an uncomfortable length before I plunged down the stairs to the subway platform where I hid in the crowd and then behind a pillar.

Then he came darting down the same stairs. At first I thought I was paranoid, but it became evident that he was not there for the train—he was looking for me. He was weaving between pillars and people right up until the train came. I jumped on, still watching him through the window. Our eyes met again. He waved. The train rolled out of the station.

I’ve spent some time thinking about that encounter with my ghostly other and my varied experiences as a student in Berlin. If I may be allowed to wax philosophical, I’d argue that when we spend enough time in a foreign land, we become our own “double walkers.” We are still ourselves, but we’ve gradually changed the way we speak, dress, act, eat, and live. We aren’t who we once were. Initially that process can be jarring, humiliating, and terrifying.

But this is a gift. How often do we get to live a second life? Well, there’s a French proverb, “Apprendre une langue, c’est vivre de nouveau.” And I have found that language and culture are inherently linked. When we’ve spent enough time with a place that we start to speak its language, we’ve lived anew. When these opportunities present themselves for us to see the world and ourselves from a new perspective, we shouldn’t run from them.

As odd as it may sound, I deeply regret fleeing from my Doppelgänger. I hope to go back to that corner just south of Potsdamer Platz, outside Balzac’s Coffee. On some looming autumn evening, I hope to see him again. This time, I’ll offer to buy him a steaming mug of Belgian orange hot chocolate. I’m sure it’s his favorite.

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