Saturday, November 27, 2004

The Black Eye That Changed My Life: A Cautionary Tale

This is a long posting. Get yourself a coffee.

I was in Germany about 12-15 years ago, for a Summer of fun and educational opportunity. It was a three-month trip, arranged through university, where I would be given a job (dishwasher) for two months and then I could roam across Europe for the third month. It was fantastic. I enjoyed myself immensely. Dishwashing is really fun - if you know it's temporary - and you get beautiful skin because hanging over a steaming tub of water all day gives you pores like doughnuts. Two other Canadian girls were stationed in the same small town in Bavaria as me, at another nearby hotel, and we would join up every night after work for Weissbier and chaotic fun.

What a great time I had, and yet, it was the same Summer as the black eye. Or maybe I should say The Black Eye.

First, let me set the scene. I am not someone who swears a blue streak, but at the age of 21, the 'f' word rolled off my tongue occasionally, as it does for the average 21-year-old Boh drinker from Saskatchewan. I am also not someone who gets in fistfights. That Summer, though, odd things were happening.

A few weeks before The Black Eye, my two friends and I were walking home from the local disco. A man stopped his car, walked over to us, put one of my friends in a headlock, and started dragging her to his car! Can you believe it?? I couldn't believe it. She was so scared that she walked harmlessly along with him like a little bunny. This enraged me almost as much as his behaviour, and so I ran up behind him and sunk my fingers into his neck (the vulcan death grip, I think they call it) until he let her go. We all ran like the wind, and came away thinking we were very clever indeed. I was patting myself on the back for being so strong in a crisis. Yeah.

Weeks pass. The myth of strong, brave, young females who can drink much beer and take care of themselves magnificently grows.

One day there is a beer garden in an alpine meadow near the village. My boss and his sister take me, and we meet up with many friends including my two Canadian companions. Men are dressed in lederhosen. The beer is in gigantic one litre mugs that you have to carry with both hands to lift. I think there were currywurst sausages and a lot of other accoutrements. It is the perfect alpine afternoon for the Canadian cultural tourist.

We drink. We talk. We giggle. We practise our pathetic German. German boys practise their pathetic English on us: "Hallo. I am from Germany." The day turns to evening. It gets dark, and the party continues.

It all happened in a moment. At one point, a fellow brushes by me and grabs me inappropriately on/near the breast. I fix a beady little stare on him and say something feisty in German that I think might express 'go away, you jerk'. He grabs my arm, really tight, and like a fool (I am Gwen of the vulcan death grip, remember) I pour every bit of German invective at him that I can think of. Nothing works. He doesn't go away. He certainly isn't apologizing. And then I say it. "Fuck off!" I snarl. And pop. The Black Eye.

Boy does that hurt.

He hit me so hard that I actually flew back and landed under a nearby table. I think I screamed like a banshee. It was ugly. My boss, who had been chatting with other people 10 feet away and missed the whole thing, came running over and said to the guy, "What are you doing to our Canadian girl?!?" The guy said, "She swore at me horribly in English."

So there you go. It was a really traumatic event for me, and I have thought about it from many different angles in the years since it happened. I was never someone who got into fights, as I said, aside from play-wrestling with my sister or the odd boyfriend. Play-wrestling is nothing like the real thing. The biggest shock of all of it was the realization that I could be overpowered and hurt at any second, surrounded by other people, including my friends. I had taken women's self-defense years earlier, and I always thought I was capable of defending myself. Suddenly I felt as powerless as a tiny bug.

If I was smart (or older and wiser), I would have gotten on a plane immediately and come home. As it was, I still thought I wanted to see Europe. As I remember, we finished our jobs and got on the train - we spent two days in Vienna, and in the train station waiting to go to Greece, I had a complete fit. Crying, wailing. I concluded that I couldn't possibly do any more travelling (thank God one's body is smarter than one's 21-year-old brain). One of my friends decided to stay with me, since she was broke anyway. Where did we go for the month? Back to the German village, which at least was familiar. My boss was fabulous. He gave us a great deal on a room in the inn, and we worked in the kitchen for him, whiling away the days quietly.

When I finally got home to Canada, it didn't take very long and I became completely unglued. By this point, I viewed the whole Black Eye episode as a sexual assault of sorts, since it all happened because I had warded off an inappropriate sexual advance. I became a manic control freak first: I got three jobs (on top of my four university classes), a whacked-out roommate who kept me up to all hours telling me wild stories, and decided that I could save a lot of money if I HANDWASHED ALL MY CLOTHES. Yeah. CRAZY.

Then I started to lose it in a different way. I decided that the only male person that I could trust was my ex-boyfriend, who was by then involved with someone else. Oh the tragedy. I made his life hell. I became totally obsessed, rarely slept, cried all night, ate nothing, sank into manic despair. I lost 20 pounds in a month. I looked fabulous (aside from my wild Russian-novel eyes), but man, was I messed up. By November I had hit bottom.

And then I began to get well again.

I'd never willingly go through any of that again, but that whole experience was invaluable to me. The most valuable lesson: I have a very clear understanding of how thin the line is between madness and sanity, and how easy it is for a person to cross that line. (I also started considering that maybe I should drink less, or do it in safer company.)

As the years passed and I got more distance from the event, I have changed the way that I think about The Black Eye. I was not hit because I warded off a sexual advance. I was hit because I aggravated an event that I could have diffused. I could have remembered that I was standing with two friends who couldn't get themselves out of a life-threatening headlock, and so weren't likely to assist me in a moment of trouble. I could have told him firmly that I did not appreciate his behaviour, and if the situation got worse, I could have called my boss in to help me. (My women's self-defense motto now is 'why try to break his collarbone yourself, if you have a 200 pound friend nearby who could do it for you?')

And the funniest thing of all of it? He hit me because I said the 'f' word.

I should have known the 'f' word was a bad idea. The Germans have an 'f' word of their own - I think it's 'ficken', but no one uses it as an oath. It's just a vulgar and coarse verb. All that Summer, if any of us said the 'f' word in English in mixed German/Canadian company, someone German would appear shocked and appalled. They think that the 'f' word is the worst possible thing you could ever say. And yet, all this knowledge escaped me, when the 'f' word was what I thought would really express what I meant to say. That night. In the alpine meadow. With the cows lowing in the background, the strings of party lights, and the oompah band doing its finest.


Blogger liz said...

Ah, you are completely right about the line between sanity and madness, whatever that really is (as I invariably hasten to say). A typical first session for anyone is when they are really unhappy about something in their lives and they have begun to fear They Are Crazy, and half the treatment battle is won when we can convince them that everyone feels that way from time to time, and especially in that situation (whatever it might be).

Having lived in other countries and spoken other languages, I find this guy's reaction very curious. Of course the feminist in me is outraged that molestation is trumped in offensiveness by swearing, provided one is large enough to enforce it. But this thing with foreigners being so bloody offended by the f-word is strange.

It's just very difficult to get that same knee-jerk response about a word one is not raised with, no matter how fluent one is. I am thinking of The Worst Word (or rather, phrase) in Norwegian, and while I might not post it out of respect to any possible Norwegian readers, it simply doesn't make me feel the same as a home-grown Anglo-Saxon invective would.

This makes that kar's behavior especially shocking.

7:54 am  
Blogger Eileen said...

Hmmmm, interesting that you neglected to mention your Aunt Frieda's unsupportive response to your experience when you phoned her shortly after. How did she put it exactly? "What did you doooo [to deserve The Black Eye]??" Nice.

I still need a few more years of distance from my Crazy Time before I can talk about it. But I think everyone goes there sooner or later and if they don't, they're missing out somehow. When I'm not mortified or pissed off about it, I like to think it was an excellent way to learn empathy.

11:31 am  
Blogger Gwen said...

No, no, it was even better: "What were you wearing that he came up to you?" Like what I was wearing would make an inappropriate sexual advance more appropriate or understandable. Grrrr. Ooh that made me hoppin' mad.

I left the Aunt Frieda detail out because sometimes I get bored with everything ultimately being about Aunt Frieda. Sigh.

And you're right about the empathy. Once you've been there, you never look at other people in the same way as you did before. Sorta like parenthood: some days every person I look at reminds me of a baby, or I wonder what they looked like as a baby. It's very amusing.

12:47 pm  
Blogger argotnaut said...

"He hit me because I said the 'f' word."

Oh, my, no -- he hit you because he was a fucking asshole. Another shocking case of blaming the victim!

And Dr. Lizardo is exactly right -- one doesn't develop that visceral reaction to second-language swear words. Ever, apparently. So that is no excuse. In any case, swearing does not merit beating.

Someone recently told me a funny story about saying "sacrament" (??) in a Canadian home after spilling his coffee, not realizing what a horrible faux pas (or as I like to say, "fox paws") that was.

2:53 am  
Blogger Gwen said...

You're right of course. He should not have hit me, and violence is inexcusable. I know what you guys are saying about swear words in other languages, but I think there's something different about the status that American culture has in Europe. Perhaps the 'f' word has some magical status because it is part of American culture - status that goes beyond being a swear word in another language? I can only speak from my small-town Germany experience, but the fame of Madonna, etc., seemed to come up way more in conversation than any talk about German cultural icons. It was very weird, at any rate. And mildly depressing (thank God for Canadian content regulations in media here, or 'Can Con', as we like to call it).

11:55 am  
Blogger Gwen said...

Jim said my last comment left the impression that I was slamming American culture. I didn't mean that. I just meant that I was trying to learn about German culture while I was in Germany, but R.E.M. and Madonna, e.g., were just such strong figures. Canada is chock-a-block with American influences, and it doesn't bother me so much because I already understand Canadian culture and can find it when I need to. It was harder as an outsider in Germany.

12:46 pm  
Blogger argotnaut said...

Oh, by all means, go ahead and slam American culture. I do it constantly. Usually with furrowed brow and ranting-old-bag-lady gesticulations.

5:30 pm  
Anonymous Ahnold said...

AGGHHHH! I am da German guy that hit you. You should have let me touch your boobie then you would not be saaad.

3:13 pm  

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