The first summer we lived in Germany there were quite a few difficult adjustments. After you’ve somewhat successfully navigated a new place, it’s easy to forget exactly how difficult it was during those first months. Looking back now it all seems so effortless, but I know this wasn’t always the case.
One afternoon, I had a chance encounter with a woman asking for money at my door. I had just moved into the house, I was most likely still unpacking. I was still overwhelmed by the newness of everything. The new language, new routine, new neighborhood, new friends. I couldn’t understand her, and she couldn’t understand me.
Early the following year, I participated in a writing course, using her to illustrate a chance encounter for an assignment. I really knew nothing about this woman, since I couldn’t understand her at all, and much of what I wrote was pure conjecture. But something about that meeting stuck with me. Now and again, I think of it.
Recently, we attended a performance of a different travelling circus, and I couldn’t get this chance meeting out of my mind. I was thinking about how I had judged not just this girl, but all circuses, based on this one experience. I was making a decision based on the information I had available at the time, and until we attended another circus, I hadn’t really thought about it. Now, looking back at what I wrote then, I see more about what I was feeling illustrated here than anything I could have possibly gotten from her. I was using her as a way to represent my own story. I wonder now, if she passed across my doorstep again, how different would that encounter be?
Here is what I wrote then:
I knew the woman standing before me was an “Auslander”, a foreigner, a non German. I noticed a slight hesitation in her voice, the uncomfortable thickness, always present when you communicate in a new language. Perhaps she made her way here from the Balkans, perhaps she was an ethnic Roma without a homeland. Either way, I knew we were both outsiders here.
We were fellow travelers, following different winds. I am an American, temporarily making my home here. She will always be an outsider. It doesn’t seem matter where you are from, or how long you have lived here, if you aren’t German, you are an Auslander.
The woman at my door was more like me than she could possibly know. We were both nomads. I had given up my roots and followed my spouse around America, and now to a small town in Southern Germany. She followed something here as well. She was a circus performer.
I have never been to the circus, but I always imagined it as a happy place. A place echoing with the sounds of children laughing at the antics of colorful clowns, trumpeting elephants dancing to a cracking whip, a place where elegant performers fly through the air or balance precariously on horseback. But the traveling circuses that follow the warm weather across Europe are nothing like that. They are small sad spectacles, barely bringing in enough spectators to pay for the spaces they rent.
You know when the circus is in town, even before the flyers go up or the tent is erected, because the performers begin to gather at the doors of the grocery store soliciting money. They ask for money to feed the animals, and themselves. Sometimes it is a trainer, holding a filthy hungry animal on a lead. Sometimes gymnasts or jugglers perform for spare change. They stand outside the store for days, rain and shine. It is not an easy life. It is not a life of endless laughter. It doesn’t seem like the life anyone would choose – this is not the circus you run away to.
The woman standing on my doorstep was different. She held out a paper from the most recent circus to travel through town, but she did not belong there. Her appearance was not dirty and haggard. She carried herself with an innate grace, and held her head high. Her dark eyes were fierce and sad, a naked reflection of pride and fear. Her hair was tightly pulled back into an elegant ballerina’s knot. Her light clothes did little to keep out the morning chill, but they were well maintained.
A lifetime of adversity and sadness escaped with her first words. I understood the desperation in her voice, even as I failed to recognize her words. She looked at me expectantly, then desperately as she realized I didn’t understand her. After a few more failed attempts at communication, she must have decided her efforts would prove more effective elsewhere.
I didn’t know what she wanted, and I was left with so many questions as she walked away. She was no more than 25, but had already seen so much. Had she always lived like this? How did she end up in this rundown, one tent, backwater circus? Was this her family? Had she fallen from great heights? Had war and poverty ruined her opportunities? What were her dreams, did she still have any?
I continued to watch her through my kitchen window. She hugged her thin jacket close and walked slowly down the street, her shoulders slumped and her head hung low. Only for a moment did she seem to allow herself to feel this defeat. As she approached the next house, her head was once again high and defiant. I pictured her now balancing easily on the back of a tired horse, carefully straightening the edges of her costume before she entered the ring. Her smile no longer forced as she allowed herself to enjoy this one pleasure she had in her life.
I would later learn that some of these circuses supplement their income by soliciting door to door. She was at my doorstep seeking a donation. A German friend told me some circuses receive funding from the state. These circuses are considered an important part of the cultural heritage, much the same dance and theater companies. These are the circuses with permanent tents. The small traveling circuses barely scrape enough money by to survive, and so they beg.
My heart ached for the possibilities of what had brought her to my doorstep. Life as a perpetual outsider is difficult. As a newcomer here, I understood those problems. In the year that followed, I found a community. Although it is temporary, it is somewhere I belong. She will always live on the fringe. I know that one day this lifestyle will end for me, and that gives me the freedom to see it as an adventure, an opportunity. For her, never truly belonging, never finding a respite from her nomadic life, it is no longer an adventure but a continual challenge for survival. I can’t help but think back to her visit and wonder, where did the wind carry her next?