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Lily Mae: Language Barriers, History, and Distance

Editor’s note: I’m delighted to introduce you to Lily Mae Martin, a wildly talented artist, mother, and prolific blogger living in Berlin. Please join me in offering Lily Mae a warm Studio Mothers welcome! You can “like” Lily’s facebook fan page, too.

My name is Lily Mae Martin, I am an artist and writer from Melbourne. I’ve been living overseas for almost four years now. I had a long, lonely pregnancy and birth experience in Wales, and I’ve been in Berlin since my daughter was just six months old. I exhibit my art internationally and began my blog, Berlin Domestic, as a way of bringing my passion for art and writing together, as well as having a space to explore the complexities of being a parent and living as an expat.

Raising a child abroad is not something I had planned for; it presents many challenges I have to take into account in my day to day life. It’s one of my biggest learning curves. Being a mum changes you, but this lifestyle has given me perspective on life that I find invaluable. I am part minority and I am part of the gentrification of this city, and therefore I experience a combination of mockery, scorn, and curiosity from the people here. I’ve been yelled at by old people, as well as questioned. I’ve been shoved by young men as well as been flirted with. I’m ignored in most social situations, as well as forming strong, intellectual relationships.

Being in a country where I do not speak the language limits me greatly. It hinders my ability to socialize, my confidence as a woman and a mum. I struggle to communicate what I need. Everywhere I go there is a wall of sound that I do not understand. It’s a familiar mumble now, but a mumble all the same. I can’t get little insights into peoples lives and conversations. I have to observe and understand people by their body language, tones, and facial expressions. The other day I had messages on my home phone and couldn’t check them because I didn’t understand the prompts. Simple things like that, which I would never given a second thought to, are now big challenges in my day. A letter from the hospital in regard to my payment is something that will take Gene and I two weeks to understand and sort out, as opposed to a glance and a phone call.

Berlin, like Melbourne, is multicultural, so I get by.

The physicality of living in Europe, in Berlin, makes me understand the people here better. The winter is long and harsh. This place is, for 7 to 8 months of the year, freezing. To explain the European cold to someone from Australia is almost impossible. I had to speak firmly to my mum to bring her big warm coat with her. In Melbourne winter you may get by without a coat, but here, you will freeze. There is no negotiation. So having been through the winter, I now understand why people are almost, if not completely, naked as soon as the sun comes out. I now do it too.

We all live in apartments here. All living above, beneath, and side by side one another. We do not have lawns, backyards, or hills hoists for men and women to propose to their girlfriends and boyfriends under (as Gene did with me). The recycling is a huge chore; often being left for weeks, resulting in five trips up and down eight flights of stairs, dividing things up: glass, paper, bio, packaging, rubbish. When I go to the toilet I can see straight into two kitchens, and they can see me. This feeling of always being heard and seen is inescapable. I can hear people partying, cooking, sexing, talking, playing video games, making music, I can hear their washing machines. I know there is apartment living in Australia, but this is it here. It shapes the city and the people and makes the physicality of a city different in big and little ways.

History is another big thing. It sounds obvious but I think it is an important one. History does shape a country, a city, people. When I go to shops and a store owner goes through the motions of you don’t speak German, oh you speak English *suspicious eye* are you English? No. American? No. South African? No. Canadian?? No. I’m Australian. Oh, OK then have nice day. This doesn’t happen everywhere but it does happen regularly enough for me to notice the release in the conversation, when it is worked out that I come from that place far, far away — where we have no cities and we all live in the bush. (Doesn’t sound too bad to me!)

I even notice terms that I once used in Australia, but I wouldn’t use here: “Nazi,” for example. The word “Nazi” has been adopted into our slang, used to describe people who are strict or militant about something — e.g., feme-Nazi, vegan-Nazi, cyclist-Nazi. Here, I don’t use it at all; it’s flippant and it really means something. I can’t help but cringe when I hear friends say it or write it on their facebook pages, but they are not here having my experience. I relate it to my friends’ collections of religious iconography — it’s cool and kitsch in Australia. When visiting Italy earlier this year, that imagery was everywhere and it really struck me how different the meaning was. It’s also imagery that is a great cause of pain to people. So again, I wonder if this is to do with distance and history. If my friends had their religious iconography on display here, people visiting would perceive them quite differently and some people might be deeply offended by it.*

I think in regard to these things when I say I am an Australian in Europe and I am raising my daughter here. She speaks a different language than I do and stairs are just apart of everyday life, as is the enormity of this city. Sometimes this scares me. What if we have nothing in common? But I calm myself, take it day by day. Perhaps her experience of living in different countries and knowing all different kinds of people will give her insights to mine, or perhaps she won’t remember a thing about this place and it’s just me, over-thinking everything.

*These are observations, I’m not passing judgement.

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4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Reblogged this on Berlin Domestic and commented:
    My words & pictures shared on the amazing Studio Mothers website!

    June 20, 2012
  2. Hi Lily Mae, congratulations on your lovely daughter and on your interesting life in Berlin. I thought I’d comment to share a similar story to yours. I’m from Barcelona and have now a beautiful 21 year old girl and a 14 year old boy from my first husband, who was Chinese Malaysian. The kids and I live in Sydney but we spent many years in Malaysia and Singapore, as you very well described, immersed in very different cultures, lifestyles and languages. Although at times it may seem extremely difficult and lonely, in the end, the kids benefit tremendously from growing in a multicultural/multilingual environment and the become extremely open to travelling and respectful and understanding of different opinions and lifestyles. So, hang on there, enjoy it, make the most of it and keep on sharing! Teresa

    June 22, 2012
  3. Very interesting insight. I can tell by the character you’ve exhibited in this post that you will get along just fine in the long run, and your daughter is and will be lucky to have a mother like you.

    June 22, 2012
  4. 4pam #

    Lily Mae, I am so pleased to have found your post, and I hope we get to hear lots more about your experiences as a mom and an artist in a foreign world. I am in the process of becoming an expat American in France, following my husband’s work and bringing my youngest son, nearly 13 (and hoping the other adolescents will find him interesting and exotic, not different and avoidable). I am an artist, too, and wonder how the new environment affects your creativity, both process and product. I immediately empathized with the wall of mumbling you describe! Language acquisition seems SO SLOW! Be sure I will be eagerly waiting to hear more about your experiences.

    June 23, 2012

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