When I was ten years old, my parents announced that we’d be moving from Washington, D.C., to Frankfurt, Germany. To soften the blow, they took my brother and me to our favorite Italian restaurant, where we wept fat tears into our plates of gnocchi. “I just wish you’d given me some warning before deciding to ruin my life is all,” I hissed, before blowing my nose on a white-and-red-checkered tablecloth.
My parents tried their best. I was allowed to call friends from home, but the time difference (plus the continental drift of cliques that inevitably occurs along adolescent fault lines) meant I was often left with a dial tone. So I was forced to immerse myself in Germany, which seemed (to my young American eyes) to be impossibly fucking weird. There were good changes — we got cell phones (boxy little Nokias), in case we got marooned by the public transportation we’d now have to take. But we couldn’t buy peanut butter, only a chalky substitute called Erdnusscreme located in the “American” section of the grocery store, along with dusty cans of salsa and radium-yellow popcorn. Milk lived on the shelf, not in the fridge, and purple candy wasn’t grape-flavored but black currant — a strong, bloody taste I never got used to.
And nothing could have prepared us for the porn.
In the arrivals area of the Frankfurt international airport was a red-and-white-marqueed shop called Beate Uhse. Backlit photos of women with overlined lips and arched backs met our jet-lagged eyes as we stepped into our new country for the first time. I fumbled for my Game Boy so I wouldn’t be caught staring at mannequins with breasts as big as my head who modeled crotchless lingerie and strap-on dildos. Ironically, it was the only location in the airport where you couldn’t smoke (another unexpected German quirk, as we’d been warned they were all health freaks), and so my brother and I — with our pink, soft, American lungs — ducked through the omnipresent clouds of cigarette smoke and sought refuge under the looming nipples and hooded eyes of Beate Uhse.
Sex was everywhere in Germany, and I was obsessed. I was horrified, fascinated, pinned to the wall. In the local newspaper’s TV guide — without even seeking it out! — you could see people locked in erotic couplings, advertising that evening’s after-hours entertainment. Huge, pepperoni-size nipples shared column space with advertisements for SpongeBob Schwammkopf and an eight-part series on the coal canals of Bremen. After 8 p.m., German television was a softcore sex buffet. I was particularly fond of Série rose, which featured chambermaids spying on louche bathing gentlemen, or bi-curious nuns discovering eye-opening uses for rosary beads. I decided it had educational value because most of the fucking took place by candlelight or in libraries.
Driving to church took us right through the heart of Frankfurt’s red-light district, where oversized neon vulvae fluttered open and closed, like butterflies, in the windows of every erotikshop. Even at our local stationery store, a simple carousel rack of postcards carried the most exquisite tortures: snuggled between a cartoon of a defecating sheep and a “Frankfurt bei Nacht” skyline, one could find a veritable Whitman’s Sampler of dicks. Real penises, photographed wearing sunglasses, donning propeller beanies, or with googly eyes adhered to the balls, so that they resembled floppy pink Muppets created for the amusement of Catherine the Great. The Germans around me couldn’t care less. The male sex organ was no big deal, worthy only of a 99-cent postcard and a quick chuckle. In Germany, sex was like food or sleep or going to the toilet. It was an ordinary biological function. That’s not to say it was ignored or unimportant — the option to be a freak was there if you wanted it, but most people just went about their business. In America, the topic of sex was a surefire, universal panic button; in Germany, it was as ordinary as currywurst.