Nine Years

In August I will have been in Germany for nine years now.

Nine years. Nine years! Niiiiine! Years!

Seriously, though. Nine years. What the hell.

I did not come to Germany intending to stay. It was the easiest place to go, since I couldn’t remain in Greece (because the Greek state does not recognize my Abitur; punishment for going to the German School of Thessaloniki) and I had relatives here. I ended up in Frankfurt more or less by accident, though the universities I applied to were all in Hessen, the state my mother is from. I obviously don’t regret that, since it is here that I met my wife. And I did want to leave home. I’ve always wanted to be independent, to live life my own way. My one recurring nightmare is about being forced to go back to school.

I didn’t mind coming here. But I also didn’t want to stay. I always thought of Frankfurt as an intermediate stop; I imagined I would end up in Britain, or perhaps America. English, after all, is my primary creative language and my general language of choice (though I deeply love Greek). German, on the other hand, despite being one of my native languages, doesn’t do much for me. German culture doesn’t particularly appeal to me. My favourite piece of German culture is Gothic II. I’ll leave my analysis of German cultural issues for another day – the point is that I don’t feel personally connected to any of it. Tennyson can make me weep, but Goethe puts me to sleep, and let’s not even talk about Schiller. There is no German equivalent of William Blake. I am very impressed by Gothic II, but it doesn’t quite make up for everything that is lacking. I think what bothers me most is the lack of passion, healthy revolutionary tradition-defying passion.

Anyway. Given all that, I did not expect to be here after nine years. I don’t blame anyone – at least not any individuals. The increasingly bad economic conditions are making things much harder, though. It’s much harder these days to get published. The fiction market has changed radically. The takeover of all creative industries by manager types is also a big part of that, with the focus having shifted completely to profit and finding the next megahit. (There was a time when the great publishers and studio bosses, while definitely being capitalists, were also proud of their cultural contributions and invested in projects that they knew wouldn’t make millions.)

In the arrogance and optimism of youth, I thought that by now I would be a published writer and a working filmmaker, even if only on a very small scale. I did not think that after nine years I would still be in Frankfurt, struggling to keep a roof over my head, only just now starting to make some real headway. I knew that it could happen, I just didn’t think that it would happen. And I guess that though I fully expected the economic changes that we are now witnessing, I had not anticipated how much it would affect my creativity. The reason that I haven’t finished my novel, that I haven’t sent my screenplay out to any agents, though the feedback for both has been tremendously positive… is time. If the cost of living hadn’t risen by such absurd amounts, I could have had the time to work on all these things. As it is, I have to make games pretty much 24/7. I always thought I could accomplish a lot because I’m a really hard worker and I can spend every day working on my creative projects. I did not anticipate that I wouldn’t have any time left to spend.

I also, of course, made a lot of wrong decisions. I spent either too much or too little time at university. I should either have focused all my energy on getting a degree or just immediately focused only on making art for a living, instead of spending years and years in seminars until I realized I couldn’t bear to spend another day there, until the very idea of another insipid exam set by some idiot with no qualifications and no contact with the real world would make me sick to my stomach. I regret my choices but I don’t blame myself too much; after all, I couldn’t have known. And I couldn’t have anticipated the many strange bad things that happened to me – or the many strange good things. It’s life. I may have failed in some ways, but at least I’m fighting for my dreams. And I did make all those games.

Still, yesterday was a strange day. You see, yesterday I finally got the confirmation that the Greek military now considers me a permanent resident of Germany. The Greek military would like to draft me, you see, so I can waste a year of my life playing soldier for our glorious leaders. Like all young Greek men, I’ve had that hanging over my head since I was a child. I’ve never considered actually going; I won’t give a minute of my life to fascism. But how to get away and still be allowed to return home, at least briefly? How to avoid paying the massive fee for not showing up when you’re supposed to? How to avoid being arrested the moment you enter Greece? For years my parents and I worried about this. Now it has been solved: because I have dual citizenship and work in Germany (I am officially self-employed now), I can be declared a “citizen permanently living abroad.” I can’t live in Greece, but I can visit for six months a year. One of my biggest worries of the last ten years has suddenly evaporated.

It was a peculiar feeling. Relief, but also sadness. I had never, until now, acknowledged to myself that I would be in Germany for a while longer. I always thought the current year would be the last year, that I would sell my book, or Verena hers, or we’d find some form of success that would allow us to go somewhere else – not Greece, but maybe somewhere with sunshine. Or at least somewhere where they speak English. I don’t think I’ve fully admitted it to myself even now, to be honest. To say “yes, we’ll definitely still be living here a year from” seems like admitting defeat. But I’ve been here for nine years. Permanent resident.

And I can’t go back, not to stay. Not until I’m 35 or something like that, anyway (whatever the law says by then – who knows?). When I left, I was fine with that. I loved Greece and wanted to return for the holidays and all that, but not to live. I was going to be a writer and filmmaker after all, so I would go where that would take me. Maybe even Hollywood! They could use someone with my talents there. Except of course that I’m still here, and that I never anticipated how much I would miss the sea and the landscape of my youth. I never anticipated how much I would feel the need to become involved in Greek politics, to do something, to fight. And I can’t. I’m stuck here.

I don’t mean to complain. I’m glad I don’t spend my days in an office or a supermarket. I’m glad I’m not a cog in the machine of exploitation. I’ve made games that have reached people, that have made them laugh or cry or both. I’ve entertained, I’ve pissed off. It’s all good. And I’m making progress, slowly but surely. I’m climbing out of the hole of misery that’s been the last few years.

But man, nine years. Nine years! That’s a long time.


  1. Robb

    For whatever reason, that reminds me of a certain exchange in Six Feet Under (one of only a handful of television shows I can appreciate).
    “What the fuck am I supposed to be doing with my life?”
    “Living it. And you’re doing that, so relax.”

  2. James Patton

    It’s tough when you look back over the last few years and realise things haven’t gone according to plan. When I started university almost three years ago, I set myself a goal: that I would have written a novel and got it published by the end of my degree. After all, I had *three years*! That’s loads of time.

    And of course no novel materialised. And I realised, while mucking about trying to set up my own website, that I haven’t put out a game since I arrived at uni. When I realised that I got this strange, slightly sickening feeling of everything closing in on me. Games are what I love, and I love getting down to coding, even if I’m only fluent in Basic – and yet I hadn’t made one in years. So what does that make me?

    But I’d done other things. I’d written two plays and directed one of them to generally good reviews. I’d got involved with the poetry circuit a bit and had my writing published in small press magazines, which was nice. I played Beethoven’s 7th, which was probably one of the most profound musical experiences I’ve ever had. I’ve got a (volunteer, unpaid) job writing pseudo blog posts for a fictional newspaper from a videogame. Next year I’ll be putting all the dry, dusty knowledge I learned from literature to good use by studying videogames. Yesterday I wrote an essay on the mastery of postmodern life in stealth gaming, just for fun and because I couldn’t get it out of my head.

    Sorry, got a bit carried away there. I guess I was trying to say that my plans haven’t worked out in the slightest, but I can scarcely imagine being in a better position than I am now. Weird, huh? And while a year or two ago your games were little-known curiosities and you had no chance of putting out a commercial release, you’ve now put out a really solid body of work that’s received consistent praise – so much so that when Traitor came out you were “the creator of the Book of Living Magic” rather than just some guy, proving you’ve got a track record and are entering the cultural psyche – and you’re on the brink of releasing a game which, fingers crossed, will make you a lot more money than your regular fare.

    And it’s terrible that you want to live in your own homeland but can’t. I hate it when politicians take liberties and step all over people, it’s a complete reversal of how society should work. But, at least now you can go back for 50% of the time if you want. That’s got to be a *lot* more than what you were managing before. The bureaucrats may not recognise you as a Greek any more, but they also wouldn’t recognise you as a citizen unless you became a soldier. What do they know. Maybe you’re really a true Greek taking extended holidays in Germany for work purposes. Just don’t tell them that.

  3. jonjo

    I’ll leave my analysis of German cultural issues for another day – the point is that I don’t feel personally connected to any of it. ‘Tennyson can make me weep, but Goethe puts me to sleep, and let’s not even talk about Schiller. There is no German equivalent of William Blake. I am very impressed by Gothic II, but it doesn’t quite make up for everything that is lacking. I think what bothers me most is the lack of passion, healthy revolutionary tradition-defying passion.’

    Go read Nietzsche.

  4. Read Büchner. Read Novalis. And even Schiller and Goethe had their moments. But to be able to really savour them you might just have to be at home and possibly even been raised in German. And that may not include German school in Thessaloniki. Whatever.

    Anyway, life for a Greek in Germany must be pretty demanding these days (oh boy, f*ck austerity). So, no hard feelings about the culture. 😉

  5. And, by the way, most important “literature” ever written by a German (in my eyes): the work of Erich Fromm. Except that, being a Jew, he had to flee Germany to the US in the 1930s and in effect wrote all of his books in English. So there’s another case of multiple cultural identity for you. Anyway, “The Sane Society” and “Anatomy of Human Destructiveness” are seminal works still valuable today. Where was I heading again with this comment?

  6. I don’t know, there are obviously people from all over the world who enjoy Novalis or Rilke or others. (The Greek publisher who is publishing our children’s book has published translations of both, and they sold quite well. Greece has an audience for poetry, even German poetry.) But it doesn’t really do it for me.

  7. Hm. And what do you think of Herman Hesse?

    Would have to read more to have a detailed opinion. What I’ve read (Siddhartha) didn’t really move me deeply.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying all German writers are bad – most of them simply do not manage to affect me on that powerful level where other writers sometimes do. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced that, well, revolutionary transcendence you get from truly great writing. Not in German.

    Partially it may be a linguistic issue. I often feel that German lacks a certain flexibility that allows language to be genuinely poetic. It always seems to be locked into the same tone, with few exceptions. That’s a purely personal feeling, of course, and nothing more.

    I can remember one book I liked, though: Theodor Storm’s Der Schimmelreiter. There was something wild in there, something of madness. Not a perfect book, but one that felt more alive than most. (I think I can also say that I generally prefer pre-war German works. The annihilation of the genuine left during World War II thoroughly damaged German culture, in my opinion.)

  8. So it’s down to a simple matter of taste. For me, the Schimmelreiter didn’t do anything – had to read it in school. And neither does contemporary German literature of the likes of Kehlmann or Kracht. On the other hand, I do adore Henry Miller, the Ameriocan author who, surprisingly, actually “sounds” better (in my opinion) in the German translation – perhaps, I tell myself, because, being the son of German parents, he had the “German” way of thinking (the free-mason, Novalis-like way, not the other sort) despite writing about this very thinking in English.
    Plainly a matter of taste, was what I wanted to say.

  9. lin

    Been meaning to write a comment to this post, and it’d have been really self centered and long-winded. But I think the main points can be made a bit more painlessly.

    a) Airing an annoyance: I love the german language. Just love it. My linguistics background and a very gifted teacher might have had something to do with it. That makes it much easier for me to appreciate german literature, exactly for the particular way in which it is poetic. However, defending that opinion would be a huge waste of arguments that I could use for a real discussion, I think. Like you say, it’s a personal feeling, a preference. It’d be like defending why I like cabbage over lettuce. Which is why it’s so perplexing to me when someone tries to attack other people’s preferences, especially in blog comments. If you like lettuce better, I can go on preaching and forcing you to eat cabbage for years without changing your opinion. We all have personal histories and sensitivities that consciously or unconsciously form our preferences. And reading about the preferences and influences of a person whose artistic work one is interested in is interesting, because it might reveal something about that person.

    In other words: You were not making an argument over one language being de facto more poetic than another (now that I’d have actual arguments against), you were telling us a bit about who you are behind your work. Which is why I’d assume one would be reading your blog to begin with. I find the “go read X, go listen to Y, go study Y” line of bickering so useless.

    b) I so feel this post. The moment of “holy fuck, what am I (still) doing here (in this country/job/relationship/etc)” is one of those milestones in life. I’ve yet to meet a person in my circle not having one of those somewhere around their 30s, irrespective of their particular situations. Mine was about two months ago. I’ve persuaded myself that the people I see being most plagued by it actually still try to make their dreams come true – they haven’t resigned into mindlessness. So I consider it a good milestone, kinda like a savepoint.

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