Integration, Emotionality, and my Name Day

Written by Henriette J. Runte

In Germany, in public life, I am always on my toes, always second guessing myself, never allowing myself to fully relax. I always question my instincts first, count to ten, and then react in order to make sure my reaction is culturally appropriate. […] But where does my emotional identity come from?

Last week, while dropping off my daughter at school in the morning, I overheard two fathers speaking. The conversation was in German, but the men spoke with strong accents. One of the dads, we’ll call him Dad #1, appeared very upset and was telling the other father, Dad #2 about how his lawyer had asked him not to be so emotional in court. Dad #1 explained how his lawyer thought they had a solid case and that they were likely to win, but the attorney also advised his client to please tone down his emotions, to speak less loudly and less fast, to gesticulate less, and to appear altogether calmer and more unemotional. Dad #1 seemed very frustrated by this request from his lawyer. He said he was greatly angered by the injustice that had been committed and that he felt it would be appropriate to express his anger in court, instead of trying to suppress it and be fake. In fact, he continued, he thought his emotions would show how genuine and honest he was. Dad #2 tried to convince him that he should follow his lawyer’s advice. The two men walked away before I could hear more without actually following them and eavesdropping.

I was deeply troubled by what I overheard, because I could relate to this need to be emotional and expressive. I have no idea what the conversation was actually about, or what the case at hand pertains to. Nor do I personally know either one of the gentlemen in question. But I can understand the frustration that comes with being considered overly emotional. I have often been told here, in Germany, not to take it personally – “Nehmen Sie es nicht persönlich!” – when the situation, comment, or conflict, was most certainly personal, at least from my point of view. I have often been advised to go into certain delicate situations with less emotion, even though my instincts would have been the opposite. I have slowly learned not to show hurt or disappointment. I have learned not to express disagreement or doubt directly and bluntly. In one particular situation I was told, just like Dad #1, that the only thing that stood in my way, the only thing that could be held against me was my emotionality.

Through my line of work and by having lived and worked around the world, I have developed quite a strong sensitivity for communicating effectively despite cultural differences. I feel I can empathize with many different cultures and understand where people are coming from most of the time. I also speak several languages fluently, which allows me to actually communicate with several groups of people in their native tongue. Yet, when it comes to feeling understood, to feeling at ease and being able to be myself on an emotional level, I have a little more trouble.

In Germany, in public life, I am always on my toes, always second guessing myself, never allowing myself to fully relax. I always question my instincts first, count to ten, and then react in order to make sure my reaction is culturally appropriate. And I don’t think this is necessarily wrong. I chose to live in this country. I admire the way of life, the convictions, the ethics and beliefs held by the people here. And again, I’d like to point out that, although I have traveled extensively throughout the county, I have only lived in northern Germany, in Hamburg, so my views are based mostly on experiences in the Hansestadt Hamburg. I speak German fluently. I have a job here. We have lots of dear friends and neighbors. I even have a German family through my husband’s relatives. Our children are fully integrated. Yet, emotionally, I do have to keep myself in check.
Otherwise, I tend to speak too loudly, I tend to crack inappropriate jokes and make too many funny comments, I tend to greet people too openly and laugh too much and too loudly, and the list goes on and on.

But where does my emotional identity come from?
I have been molded and influenced by several cultures, so what made me pick and choose to feel comfortable with the set of behaviors and feelings that I call my own?

Recently, while shopping for a new T-shirt, I came across one that started a whole line of discussions with my family and friends. The T-shirt said something to the effect of: “I am not yelling. I’m just Hungarian. We speak this way!”
Certainly, Hungarians tend to be loud and very emotionally expressive, if compared to Germans or the Japanese, for example. But to everyone who has been in a restaurant in Barcelona at lunchtime, on the other hand, Hungarians must seem a very quiet people. In fact, it always depends on the register, doesn’t it?

Allow me to generalize for just a second: Hungarians are loud when speaking with friends and family, and they tend to gesticulate a lot and to speak with feeling and spice. But Hungarians are rather shy and reserved while using public transportation or while eating out at a restaurant or during cultural activities. To continue with some of the other cultures I know, the French, and I am including French children in the bunch, will not speak loudly in restaurants. But have you ever been to a puppet show in the Jardins de Luxembourg? Not even American children scream louder at puppet shows than the French kids do. The event is reminiscent of Shakespearean times when the audience threw onions at the actors to express dissatisfaction, or hooted and hollered if the performance was good. Similarly, French children yell at the characters on stage, try to get involved in the action, express all of their thoughts and emotions during the show, and they are encouraged to do so by both parents and the organizers. In other situations, however, French children have always struck me as “bien élevés,” as very well raised, polite, considerate little beings.

In comparison, Americans, adults and children, tend to add volume to any conversation or event. There’s a confidence and assertiveness that comes across in most situations, even during church ceremonies. Actually, every time I’m in an American church, it strikes me how light, merry, communal, and loud it is. I guess this is because I was socialized in the Carpathian Basin, where going to church is more of a somber and contemplative affair.

But what about Germans? I have experienced Germans to be almost paranoid about disturbing someone. I find this to be true when it comes to how loudly they speak, or how closely they stand to one another, or the noise they make both in their homes and gardens, and in public spaces. But there are situations that call for volume in German society as well, for example, in Bavaria during Oktoberfest (where everyone dresses in traditional garb and drinks lots of beer), or in Köln during Fasching (celebrated in February by dressing in funny costumes and taking to the streets to sing and dance and be merry), or in Hamburg during Schlagerfest (the festival of Schlager music, which is a popular form of pop music in Germany), or during Hafengeburtstag (the yearly anniversary celebrations in May, commemorating the port of Hamburg, Germany’s largest).

When living in a culture other than the one you grew up with, it is difficult to know when to contain your emotions and when to let them loose. It is even difficult to know what occasions and celebrations call for just what amount of joy or cheer. Growing up in the Carpathian Basin, one of the biggest celebrations at our house was my mother’s name day, névnap in Hungarian. Unlike her birthday, which was celebrated only with members of our family, her name day brought neighbors, colleagues, acquaintances and friends of all kind to our house. My mother used to take the day off from work to be able to welcome all her guests on her special day.

My mother’s favorite flowers are freesias and carnations. On her name day, the house would be filled with these flowers in every color imaginable. According to tradition, people simply came by to pay their respects, brought some flowers and stayed for a quick coffee or refreshment and some pastries or a small bite.
In Hungary and Romania, name days are generally known and often announced on morning TV and radio programs. It is a common courtesy to acknowledge the name days of the people you know.

This week, on March 16th , is my name day, but it will be an ordinary day for me. My mother will send me flowers, and I will thank her for them. She will express a degree of sadness that no one else remembered, and I will try to console her. My name day doesn’t mean that much to me. Even stranger, my birthday is quite an annoyance as well.
As a child, my actual birthday was only celebrated very serenely with my parents. Set for a later date, there was, of course, a larger party, that, organized in a fashion suitable for an only child, included many guests, at least two or three cakes, games, presents, music, the works.

In Germany, birthdays are a big deal as well, but somehow differently. The German way to commemorate a birthday resembles, for me, more the name day celebrations in the Carpathian Basin than the birthdays I have known. In Germany, everybody calls and congratulates you on the day of your birth. People keep meticulous records of all their family members’, their friends’, their friends’ children’s, their colleagues’, and their neighbors’ birthdays. It is baffling. The birthday child is then expected to take muffins to school, or cake to work, or to invite friends and colleagues out for a drink.

I have not yet been able to bring myself to adopt the German way of relating to birthdays. I’m a bit of a birthday Grinch, I’m afraid. I do follow the traditions as far as my children are concerned, but when it comes to my birthday, a bombardment of phone calls does not appeal to me, so everyone who cares about me knows that I prefer a brief text or video message instead. My colleagues know not to expect any cake at the office from me on my birthday and that I truly do not wish to have my birthday acknowledged.

But allow me to get back to this day last week, when I overheard the two gentlemen at my daughter’s school, talking about some legal trouble and how being emotional would not help their case. That same day, when I arrived at the school for pick up, several parents were already standing outside, some talking, others busy on their phone, or just staring into space. I went to stand with one of the fathers I know. We’ll call him Dad #3. We engaged in some social chit chat and then just stood there, awkwardly waiting. Another father, Dad #4 arrived, came up to us, smacked Dad #3 on the back, and said, “Na, du Sack!” To explain, both Dad #3 and Dad #4 are German. They know each other, but are not close friends. They are both educated and respected members of our community. And yet, Dad #4 greeted Dad #3 by saying, “Hey, you testicles!” And that was perfectly acceptable.

Straight off, they found the right tone, laughed, and chatted away effortlessly. And that is the big mystery of integration, that no one can teach you. The social morés and celebrations, the actual emotionality behind daily life, the tone of voice, the nuance of interactions is the hardest thing to understand and adapt. Dad #1 and Dad #2 in this story found common ground by both being “foreign,” but they felt great frustration in their interactions with the “natives.” Dad #3 and Dad #4 engaged in what would seem, at first sight, as socially inacceptable, controversial, vulgar, even. Yet, Dad #3 and Dad #4 were seen as perfectly appropriate, funny, and cool. You bet Dad #3 and Dad #4 won’t be celebrating any strange name days, but I’m pretty certain they will bring cake to work on their birthday and will remember to place a birthday call for all their friends and acquaintances!

I guess my point today is that true integration is very difficult. It is not enough to have linguistic and educational integration programs. For a society to truly become one and grow together, there has to be a platform of sharing. Feelings and personalities have to be respected. Perhaps Dad #1 should not have been advised to try and hide his emotions. Perhaps emotionality should not always be regarded as negative. Perhaps there could be room created for this man to be able to say, “Look, I come from a different culture, and I apologize if this might seem inappropriate in your culture, but I am angry. I feel frustrated. I accept the rules, but feel certain aspects make no sense, or are unnecessary, or unfair.” Perhaps Dad #4 should dare slap the two “foreign” dads on the back as well, and call them “testicles.” Perhaps that would break down more walls than any specific, organized integration program. And perhaps I should actually let people know that, although I try to suppress the feeling,
I am always sad on my name day, because it makes me feel detached from my
parents’ culture and confused about where the heck I actually belong.
Be well everyone, and never stop trying to connect!

Written by
Henriette J. Runte

Happy Places Change

Written by Henriette J. Runte

I sat at a small desk at the window, and even though it was late at night, I could still see out into the dunes, lit up by the moon and the star-studded sky. When I stepped outside for some fresh air, I could hear the roaring of the sea and the whistling wind. If I took a few more steps, I could sit on a small wooden bench and even see the sea with its white, majestic waves tickling the beach in its vastness.

It seems appropriate to begin the New Year with an entry about Happy Places.

My Happy Place in the Carpathian Basin has been mentioned many times on my podcast and in my latest book, Life with Coach Pop, but perhaps I should tell you about it in this blog as well.

A very good childhood friend has a cabin outside of Bálványos that I have been going to for years. The little village of Bálványos is located north of Brassó (Brașov in Romanian; Krohnstadt in German) and east of Marosvásárhely (Târgu Mureș in Romanian), cradled in the bend where the Eastern Carpathian Mountains extend into the Southern Carpathian range. The thermal baths of Sováta and Tusnád lie to the west, not far away. My friend’s little cabin outside of Bálványos has been my Happy Place since my early 20s, when I first stayed there.

Everything I associate with this cabin is wonderful, even the long, complicated way to get there.

To get to Bálványos, I always have to go through Kolozsvár (Cluj-Napoca in Romanian; Klausenburg in German), the city where I was born. I still have old classmates and some friends of my parents’ living there, and Kolozsvár is an exciting city culturally. The city takes me down memory lane and makes me feel like I know who I am.

Bálványos is less than 200 kilometers from Kolozsvár, but the trip takes between 6 and 9 hours because of the terrible road conditions.

The first time I went to Bálványos, it was with several friends. We had two cars. We got a late start from Kolozsvár. It took us forever to get to Bálványos, and it was 3 am by the time we got to my friend’s cousin’s house, where we were supposed to pick up the keys. My friend’s cousin and his family take care of the cabin a little, so they are the ones in charge of the keys. This was in the early 90s, pre cell phones and such technological conveniences. We had no way of contacting my friend’s cousin from the road. They knew when we left, and they calculated when we should be there, and then they waited.

We felt terrible about arriving so late and thought we would find the keys hidden outside somewhere, with a little note of instructions and pointers. Instead, the entire family was still up, waiting for us. They had made beds for each of us with fresh, ironed white linen. And they set a table with bread, salami and fatback, peppers and cucumbers, butter, and milk.

We couldn’t believe it and felt we should not impose or put them out any more than we already had. We were all, except for my one friend, complete strangers to them after all. But they would not let us go up to the cabin in the middle of the night. They said it was too dangerous because of the roaming bears and because of road conditions being even worse up around the mountain hut. So, we ate and ended up spending the night.

In the morning we made our way to the cabin. We were almost immediately greeted by a pack of stray dogs. There were about 10-12 of them, big and small, young and old. I instantly fell in love with a midsized puppy that looked like a little wolf and could not have been more than 3-4 months old. My friend explained that the dogs protected the cabin from the bears in exchange for being fed. I didn’t want to think of what they did when no one was at the cabin. I wanted to adopt every single one of them.

The cabin is a very simple mountain hut with two rooms downstairs and a big attic flat upstairs, where all the beds are. There is no running water and no bathroom. There is an outhouse about 10 meters away from the hut, and the kitchen consists of a tiny underground room with two electric plates and some storage shelves. Most of the cooking is done outside, at the fire pit, where you hang a big iron skillet on chains and cook over the open fire. This is called bográcsozás, and it’s a traditional Hungarian way of cooking food. There is electricity, but the water has to be brought from a nearby fountain. It’s all wonderfully basic.

The nature around the hut is incredible. There are 2,000 meters high mountains with pine forests directing you to the peaks. There are natural sulfur baths. There’s a lake in a volcanic crater nearby, and there are exciting hikes to take, whatever direction you go. 

When I am there, I find serenity. The feeling is addictive, and I cannot stay away from this place for too long. After a while, I start craving this feeling of peace and belonging, this true calmness and oneness with nature and myself.

Already when we start out towards Bálványos, I go into this zone, this mindset, and I enjoy every single minute of the journey. Whenever I am there, I have to go to my favorite hill, the one that I have claimed as my own personal Happy Place. It is two rolling hills actually. Sheep and cows graze on it. The air is fresh. And there is nothing else. And this place has been my Happy Place, for as long as I can remember.

The last time I was there was with my husband to be. I took my husband there before I married him. Luckily for him, he appreciated my Happy Place. I guess we wouldn’t be married otherwise. With our children being born, and so many of my friends from Kolozsvár having moved to Budapest, we have returned several times to the Hungarian capital, but haven’t visited my Happy Place in Bálványos since.

Being too far away from your Happy Place isn’t a good thing, and I have been very emotional about this, especially in recent years. It has been a source of great sadness for me not to be able to retreat to my Happy Place at will. I have felt detached, uprooted for a very long time. I would even go as far as to say that I have been somewhat hopeless. If I couldn’t even manage to see my Happy Place on a regular basis, how could I hope to feel at home and to achieve a sense of completeness and tranquility.

But the title of this entry is “Happy Places Change” and here it comes …

It is very difficult to go from Hamburg all the way to my Happy Place in Bálványos. Either way you calculate it, I need at least 3 days to get there, if I plan it perfectly and everything goes as planned, which is rarely the case with a trip to Romania. First of all, there are no direct flights between Hamburg and Kolozsvár (Cluj-Napoca), so I always need to initially reach a connecting city in Germany, then fly, and then go by car to Bálványos. Going by train takes several connections and more than 20 hours, and then there is still the 6-9 hours of driving to Bálványos. There are buses that connect Hamburg and Kolozsvár, but these take about 28 hours. And don’t forget about the subsequent car ride to the mountains! It takes a lot of time for me to reach my Happy Place. It means setting out on a long, expensive and exhausting voyage, every time.

Much easier to reach is Denmark. An unexpected turn, I know! 

The first time I went to Denmark was when our twins were 4 months old. My husband’s family rented a house there. The vacation was wonderful, filled with great food and family around, but I hated Denmark. The beach was cold and windy, even in the summer, and the people seemed grumpy and snippy.

We returned one more time in the summer with my husband’s family, and then I started exercising my wifely veto on the matter, and we didn’t return for a while.

One year, when our third child was still a toddler, and I had been very sick for a long time, and we didn’t have the energy to plan anything else, we ended up renting a house on the beaches of Denmark again, this time in October. The house was an absolute disaster, moldy and stinky and truly horrible. Thankfully, we were able to switch houses, and the new one was acceptable, but nothing amazing. Still, we had each other. The dog was still alive. And we settled in to our little house. We took long walks, went on bike rides, played games, and recharged our batteries a bit.

One day, on one of our lengthy walks, we discovered a beach with breathtaking dunes. The beach is several meters wide (about 50 meters at high tide and more like 70 meters at low tide). It is a soft sand beach with beautiful, scattered shingles and cobbles. In the morning, you can walk in either direction for hours without seeing a single person, with only the sound of the crashing waves and the North Sea breeze to keep you company.

And then there are the dunes! To reach the beach, you walk through rolling sand hills covered in grass and shrubs. It is difficult to convey the beauty of these dunes to someone who has never experienced them. The landscape is almost surreal, like something an artist has dreamed up. The hills are often quite high, and you have to endure the climb. When you are in one of the valleys, all the surrounding sounds are blocked out and you are left alone with the little birds chirping. You often encounter deer grazing along your path. If you are lucky, you can see the occasional fox. And oftentimes, you will see a squirrel, a bunny, and frogs scamper by. From the top of the hills, you have a panoramic view of pure nature.

I often turn slowly 360 degrees to take it all in, the blue and white of the horizon, the green and yellow of the dunes, and the explosion of pinks and purples of a sunrise or sunset.

After our discovery of this pristine beach, we decided to return to Denmark the following year. This time, we rented a house closer to our favorite beach. It was wonderful. We could sit in a hot tub heated with firewood outside, overlooking the dunes. We could eat breakfast on the glass-covered, wind-protected, sunny porch. And we could reach the dunes and the beach without having to see another house or another person. Please don’t think that I am antisocial, but this feeling of seclusion and oneness with nature is something I do enjoy very much. And it is a feeling that I rarely manage to have, since we live in a big, cosmopolitan city in Europe! We have sought out this type of serenity on other vacations, to Norway, Argentina, and Croatia, for example, but since all of those destinations are also quite far away from us, we have never been able to return regularly.

Denmark became our vacationing place for the fall holidays. Our kids grew up expecting to go to Denmark at least once a year, usually in October, when Hamburg typically has two weeks of school holidays. We got to know the area around our favorite beach and we have rented one house after the other until we found what we consider the perfect house, a very modern construction, with comfortable rotating chairs and a cushiony, soft sofa in a living and dining room that allows for a view of the dunes in every direction through the multiple floor-to-ceiling windows that make up two of the outside walls. The house is cozy with its fireplace and little corners where you can read, write, or settle in for a chat or a game of cards. The modern kitchen and bathrooms provide for contemporary conveniences and comfort. This house in the dunes has become our little October home in Denmark, and we return with enthusiasm year after year. 

We look forward to going in to town by bike to buy bread for breakfast. Rundsykker (breakfast breads; Brötchen in German) and valnøddebrød (a type of Wallnut bread) are personal favorites. We are always delighted to buy the Danish potatoes, sold on the side of the street in little huts where you just take a bag and pay into a metal money box – left up to your conscience and sense of honor to pay the right amount. We crave ahead of time the rullepølse, a traditional Danish cold cut, the leverpostej, a Danish liver pate, and the rygeost, a Danish smoked cheese we particularly enjoy. Interestingly, it is also in Denmark that I find some of my favorite American treats, Twinkies and corn nuts as well. And we always go to the same restaurant for a round of the best burgers the North has to offer!

I originally started writing this entry while we were in Denmark on this year’s fall vacation. My whole family was asleep after a long day of playing in the dunes, running up and down in the sand, flying kites, and breathing in the crisp, iodine-filled air of the North Sea. I sat at a small desk at the window, and even though it was late at night, I could still see out into the dunes, lit up by the moon and the star-studded sky. When I stepped outside for some fresh air, I could hear the roaring of the sea and the whistling wind. If I took a few more steps, I could sit on a small wooden bench and even see the sea with its white, majestic waves tickling the beach in its vastness.

Right now, I am sitting in front of the fire at our house in Hamburg. It is January 1st in 2023. My family is still asleep, and I am trying to finish up an entry I can offer you in celebration of the beginning of the new year.  

If I closed my eyes and try to conjure up an image of my Happy Place, I see my children running in the dunes of Denmark. In my mind’s eye, they are in turns toddlers stumbling over rocks and almost teenage giants passing me on the paths with long strides. Memories of our dog who shared the dunes with us in his lifetime and still joined us in spirit this past Fall flood my mind. I smile at the thought of my husband and I on our morning jogs that inevitably turn into us goofing around like children, or our evenings of binge-watching our favorite series, a sinful pleasure we only allow ourselves in Denmark where the abundance of time spent in nature during the day justify such sedentary activities.

I remember particularly one day this past Fall when we were walking back from the beach and I was suddenly hit by the realization that Jutland in Denmark had become my Happy Place.

The kids were running around, giggling, and telling stories excitedly with pink cheeks and foreheads sweaty from all the playing. My husband was telling jokes, relaxed and carefree. Tiny, perfectly round spider webs lined the shrubs on the path. The grass was leaning backwards, engaged in a romantic dance with the wind. And the sun was caressing my face. Everything was picture perfect, like a drawing in a children’s book. I turned around in a circle, as I often do in beautiful landscapes, and I realized that there was nothing I would have wanted to change, not in what I could see or smell or feel. I was at peace, in my Happy Place.  

But how could this be? How could Denmark have become my Happy Place? And had Denmark replaced the Carpathian basin?

I am Hungarian, by blood, by ethnicity, and by ancestry. Much of my cultural identity is marked by an upbringing anchored in the Carpathian Basin. History and family link me to the area. I carry the Carpathian Basin deep in my soul. But we are meant to develop over time, and to adjust to new conditions and circumstances.

My father made a bold move when he fled Communist Romania. His decision severed our official ties with the country, and made a connection to the people and the places there more difficult to maintain and almost impossible to develop further.

I cherish the close friendships I still have in Hungary and Romania. I am proud to still be able to speak Hungarian with native fluency and to still have working knowledge of Romanian. I absolutely insist on teaching my children about the area I am originally from, and I try to instill in them an appreciation for the writers, musicians, and artists of the region. I raise them to understand the delightful humor of Transylvanians. I give them the tastes of the cuisine. I teach them the history and the mentality.

But happily, I too have moved on. I would like to begin the new year with this realization: that my cultural identity crisis is perhaps slowly finding its way out of confusion and panic. Together with my husband and our children, I think I am creating my own history, and I am starting to instate my own traditions and cultural markers. Although I have found a new Happy Place in Denmark, the Carpathian Basin and the house in Bálványos will never be replaced.

But it is perfectly all right to be happy in more than one place! In fact, you know what? I’m not that unhappy sitting right here, in my living room, right now!

Here’s to Happy Places around the world and why not also to being happy wherever we are! 

Recommended artists

  • For paintings of the North Sea Dunes, Reiner Würz and Lothar Struebbe, two German painters
  • For paintings of the Carpathian Basin, the Hungarian painter from Csíkszereda in Transylvania, Imre Nagy.

Written by Henriette J. Runte