15.03.2019 Performance im Anschluss an „Ray and Liz“ im Pontio, Bangor
About the author
Undine Zimmer was born in 1979 in Berlin. She holds a M.A. in Scandinavian studies, German literature and media science from Freie Universität and Humboldt Universität in Berlin. With small jobs at newspapers and restaurants she worked her way through to an internship at the famous weekly newspaper „Die Zeit“. During her stay at „Die Zeit“ she got the chance to publish her first and so far only cover story „Meine Hartz-IV Familie“ about her familiy-life and experiences as a member of a so called „Hartz-IV-Family“ (referring to Peter Hartz – since 2005 a synonym for social welfare politics in Germany). The article was nominated for the Henry Nannen Preis 2012 for the category Essay and was published in an extended version as Undine Zimmers fist book in 2013 „Nicht von schlechten Eltern. Meine Hartz-IV Familie“. The book received positive responses from german radio stations and TV-Shows. Since May 2013 Undine Zimmer works as placement officer at a federal employment office (Jobcenter) in the South of Germany. Her Parents are still on welfare.
About the book „Nicht von schlechten Eltern. Meine Hartz-IV Familie“
Undine Zimmer is the only daughter of a single mom. Unfortunately her mom did not make it back into worklife for many reasons and stayed unemployed, depending on social welfare. With very little money and almost no social network and family around, her mother tried to make the best out of it. Undine Zimmers first book takes the daughters perspective on a life together with her often overextended mother. The book compares her live to other so called normal family-lifes around her. It is more about describing and understanding why her mothers stayed unemployed or her divorced father was not able to live his dreams than to judge her parents or society. How does it feel to live in a normality which is distinguished by the feeling to be a little „less“ and „behind“ in almost everything, while everybody else pretends to be a little „more“ ? And how does it feel to be called on of the poor in a rich society? „Nicht von schlechten Eltern. Meine Hartz-IV Familie“ wants to ask these questions and mess with stereotypes as well as to make an honest and authentic description on what it means for a child and for his parents to be on welfare these days – when there is no perspective to get out with ones own powers.
Extract translatet during a translationworkshop at Sheffield Universitiy (Summer 2014):
The poverty of opportunities
In our society, poverty is when someone has no opportunities, or when someone sees no opportunities to actively change their life situation. My mother says ‘’it’s when I can’t fulfill my potential- in both a material and a spiritual sense.’’ And I would add to this, it’s when I can’t find my place in society. Because this is the goal that everybody has to live up to. This is the real richness and luxury of our society: to be able to realise one’s full potential. Because of this we have a catalogue with a mass of vocations which nobody could ever remember. And those who cannot fulfill their potential should at least make themselves useful and shouldn’t make demands- that’s the subtext for those who cannot afford to fulfill their potential. Or those who are afraid of filling out the necessary forms and being forced to explain and validate themselves again and again.
In the last few months since the publication of my book I have been asked in interviews: Frau Zimmer, are you an example that ‘integration’ can be successful and our society offers everything that the individual needs?
Have I succeeded?
Have I ‘gotten out’ of somewhere? Or is there something inherently wrong with this idea?
The words ‘integration’ and ‘assimilation’ have for some time now not only been applied to the debate surrounding migration, ethnic background and dual citizenship. They have long since become tools of the job market. Integration means being employable and achievement orientated. Those who satisfy the demands of our achievement-orientated society are capable of achievement, placeable, and so on and so forth
Wending your own way through and maneuvering your not entirely slick self marks you out as someone who wants to be obstructive, who doesn’t conform to expectations and who is already positioned on the margins of society. Norms assert themselves subliminally and determine who is ‘normal,’ how you have to act and what must be in place before you can get on in life- especially at the critical juncture when your course in life is being set. Norms come into effect when it is about the assessment of ‘good students’ vs. ‘bad students.’ Or when adults, instructors, employers, job advisers, teachers, institutions and people in positions of power measure who is ‘market-savvy,’ capable of integration and motivated. And what does someone who doesn’t fit these norms do? Changing direction after your course has been set takes extra energy, determination, stamina and a good deal of patience for conversations and forms.
To quote Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg, ‘’The promise of equality is not the same as true equality.’’ The promise of equality is no more likely to fulfill itself of its own accord in Germany than the promise of equal representation of women in high-profile jobs. And for those still waiting for the promise of equality to be fulfilled, it takes a lot of courage to dream when no one raises your hopes. Fighting for your dreams is so much easier if you meet people along the way who understand and believe in you, even if you still doubt yourself. Because background and heritage is suddenly important when it comes to the future. This is the case in Germany, and it’s about time we admitted it. Sometimes it takes courage to dream.
A lack of money could also lead to tears. My first carnival in Kindergarden was a disaster. I knew the other girls would come in shiny pink sarin costumes and I wanted to be a princess, too.
But even in our sundaybest I didn’t feel like royalty. So I’d rather not wear a costume at all. Discontendet I went to Kindergarden, looking at my nemesis with her crown in her long blonde hair, and my best friend in the most perfect mouse costume with big grey ears on her head. A Kindergarden teacher realized the situation and put some make up on me in the other room, put a stole over my shoulders and a bow in my hair. I looked somewhat spanish. Thus I was then able to join the circle of dancing princesses, mice and pirates.
There is a photo from that day, with me among of the hustle and bustle with tears in my eyes and the white stole over my red and blue striped velour jumper.
Since then, carnival has been a problem for me every year. Once my fathers worn out black corduroy jacket saved me. With plastic teeth it became a tolerable vampire costume.
The year I wanted to go as a tortoise was more problematic. My mother tiredly followed me through the departement stores. I bought green leggins, a green T-shirt, fabric paint and painted it with a tortoiseshell pattern and tried to make a green cardboard carapace. In the end it looked like a big chinese hat. I was also mainly green and had to explain the whole day in school that my costume was not meant to be frog.
Being a child of long-term unemployed parents can mean many things.
Being a child of long-term unemployed parents can mean many things. Definitive experiences are those that you miss out on – what a family holiday is like, how good Sunday dinner can taste and how helpful generous godmothers can be in some situations. Most of all, you miss someone being at your side, the one person who instils the basic confidence that others have been nourished with since birth. Because opportunities need courage and most also require money. Only you don’t have any of that. Violin lessons? Need a violin. Visit to a technology museum? Have to pay to get in. Broadening your horizons by travelling? Unaffordable.
Which roles are unemployed parents permitted to play in public? Mostly the role of the losers who are unable to defend themselves because they have no power or influence which they could assert. They must above all defend themselves against the prejudice of being to blame for their own situation, having missed something or, at the very least, having made a wrong decision at a crucial moment. No wonder, then, that when they at times become aggressive or despair, when no change seems possible. Because no matter how many prejudices are overcome, the next is already waiting to take its place. I refuse to repeat that here again. But coping with little money is only one thing. When you experience life from an early age as a suppliant you have other memories of your parents, when you can feel their powerlessness and sadness as well as when they try to hide it from their children. The underlying feeling of instability always lurks in the background and sometimes, although this is not the norm, it acquires a face.
not translated yet
Cars and to compare oneself
Tübingen, 2012. I’m waiting for a lift to Berlin. A black Mercedes stops in front of the station. “Were you beginning to think we weren’t coming?’ asks the man, wiry, dynamic, wearing a green fleece, silver streaks in his hair. ‘If I hadn’t come, I’d have sent somebody else’. Before I am able to answer, he has put my rucksack in the boot. I sit on the light blue blanket stretched across the backseat, next to the picnic basket. ‘There are two thermos flasks in there, one of them is for you’. His wife turns to me. Mid-length brown hair, down to her chin, subtle eye makeup. One of those types who prepares coffee and bread rolls for herself, her husband and a total stranger at seven in the morning.
They’re on the way to see their daughter who is doing an internship 700 kilometres away. They’ll make the return journey in just two days’ time. Quite a lot of effort, I think to myself, and as if she had heard this thought, she says cheerily that “it’s only half as far away as Istanbul”. That’s where her husband is from. They’re very organised travellers. With his last draw on his cigarette, the driver tells me how he used to shovel snow as a student in Tübingen. They each have their own little thing: he coaches a football team, she organises excursions for her pupils with obvious enthusiasm. They drive a big car. They’re on holiday.
They’re taking their daughter two boxes containing books written in Turkish and some other bits and pieces. Two days’ holiday. Neither of them can afford to take any more time off work than that. So she spreads the butter on the rolls, and the car pulls away.
If their daughter were to stay up there, then she would need a car. “They’ve offered her a training contract”, her mother tells me proudly. “She could buy herself a cheap car”, she says. Or her parents would get her one, I’m quite sure of that. I watch both of them with interest. They’re how I imagine proper parents to be. I can’t resist it: I compare them with my parents.
My parents could never bring me boxes of stuff, nor advise me on buying a car. My parents would themselves need help with such things. They wouldn’t come to visit me either, and certainly wouldn’t travel so many kilometres there and back just for the weekend. I look out of the window at the landscape. I can hardly see anything because of the swathes of mist. I can’t sleep; the radio is turned up too loud. We’re listening to the station SWR playing pop songs and other hits. The schoolteacher sings along with a chorus. I find it endearing. My mother would never sing along to songs so cheerfully. I remember for the first time that they are at least ten years older than this couple. Cars do have a habit of making me sentimental.
Cars have always taken me to places that I would otherwise never have reached, or that my mother would never have driven to with me. It’s a luxury to be able to travel to your destination straight from your front door without having to catch the underground or have to choose your footwear with cobbled streets and the distance between the destination and the railway station in mind.
As a child I never wanted to arrive and have to get out of the car. Friends of ours drove us home in their car a few times. I remember the lights. I always wanted to fall asleep, so that they couldn’t get me out of the car once we were there. Only I couldn’t sleep, because I didn’t want to miss a moment of the journey. And so I ended up pretending that I was asleep. I always had to get out in the end.
When I was seventeen and abroad, I cried secretly in a car. A car is just big enough for an entire family. A car creates a close-knit community. Whilst I sat in the car with a family I was suddenly a part of something that was rather foreign to me. Something that I had missed. That is why it made me sad. I felt happy and out of place at the same time. Throughout my life I have sat with many families in their cars. As long as I sat there I belonged to something. People who have cars exude authority. They pick you up and take you back home; They make things possible. And they smell different. They smell of upholstered seats, air fresheners and car stereos. They have thick black keys. They are independent. They don’t need to ask anyone for anything and can drive their mother around with her bad back. They can take a piece of ‘home’ along with them or transport big, heavy things and do a lot of shopping. Cars are confidence.
A black Mercedes, like the one I am currently sitting in, is real self-confidence.
My parents are not a bit as self-assured as these parents. But unlike some other parents, who, in both a material sense and generally speaking, have more to offer, my parents were always there for me.
Normality, what is that?
My mother said: “I would have so liked to lead an honest life. And to have always done the right thing.” And yet the great tragedies of our literary history are about people who have failed at that. They were also often poor: Keller’s Romeo und Julia auf dem Dorfe, Raskolnikov from Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and many more. Poverty has many dimensions, four of which I find particularly relevant: the financial, the social and the educational. Another is origin or family status, not forgetting residence status. If I were to describe myself then the following categories are statistically relevant for my background: I am a child from a divorced family, raised by an unemployed single mother which obviously entailed having little money and which also entailed – although this is not obvious but also not unusual – a limited social environment and being without a role model to prepare me for the competition and the dos and don’ts which govern the struggle for position in this society. These are the so-called risk-factors. Also typical but not so common in this context: my mother, described in categories of statistical relevance had average educational achievements and had completed training as a nurse. But it was a job that – and here we have again the typical risk factors – she could no longer do after a couple of years for personal reasons and also for structural reasons because at that time in this profession no part-time work was available for single mothers. A dilemma which remains unresolved on the job market.
All further knowledge and interests that my mother had such as opera, sophisticated world literature and the works of philosophical, moral and religious thinkers, which she had read and which should have placed her at a higher level of education, were not certified and therefore not measurable and so were never applicable in job hunting. So there we have a typical scenario that structurally will almost inevitably result in long-term unemployment if nothing is done to compensate for the four dimensions. In the book I write:
“The dimension of poverty which had the most impact in our particular case was social. Other than the fact that we couldn’t go to many cultural events, that we never went to restaurants, to the hairdressers, to drink coffee and that when we were out and about we avoided toilets with a charge, we had no acquaintances or social environment that would have provided helpful contacts. I sometimes ate crackers with mustard because that was the closest I could get to a burger, but I never went to bed hungry. We lived in a tidy flat and we always had hot water and electricity. But we could have never afforded one of those 2 euro 30 bottles of water at the train station. And we would have only bought a cake or a cappuccino if it was a special occasion and it would have to have tasted good to be worth 3 euros. We always needed a good reason to allow ourselves something out of the ordinary. Our presents were wrapped in napkins and held together with packaging tape and for us that’s fine. Where others may hang posters in frames, ours were stuck into the wallpaper with pins and my mother crocheted our first curtains in loose stitching. And if someone was particularly dear to us, we didn’t lay out our best dining set, but we ate with them out of the pot. We lived in a bubble, in our own world, with our own rules, separated by a glass membrane from the everyday life and “normality” known by most German families, with supper and Spreewald pickles.
Normality, what is that? It always begins with a comparison between myself and others.