So I told the ladies in my writing group last night that I’m married to a German Count and the inevitable happened:
“Wait, are you serious? You’re married to a Count?”
I told them, as I always tell anyone when this comes up, “It’s really not as impressive as it sounds.” German aristocrats were stripped of their official status after the war, but they were allowed to keep their titles as part of their name. “It’s just a fancy name, nothing else.”
As usual, they didn’t believe me. “So does this mean your two daughters are countesses?”
“Well, yeah. Officially they are, but it doesn’t really mean anything.”
What can I say? I guess it does sound kind of bad ass. But again, it’s not really what it seems.
My husband grew up in Königstein outside of Frankfurt, any area which is basically the Connecticut of Germany, or at least what I know about Connecticut from the movies (yes, folks, I’m so West Coast it hurts!): Lots of Izod t-shirts, chinos and boat shoes for the men, tasteful cashmere twin sets and pearls for the ladies, field hockey and tennis lessons, a fair amount of wealth combined with a whopping dose of modesty and a stringent code for proper, polite dinner time conversation. In other words, your average upper middle-class WASP (although in this case a WPP=White Prussian Protestant).
If it weren’t for the name, no one would say, “Wow! You’re married to an upper middle-class WASP? That’s amazing!” But add an aristocratic title into the mix and people start to gasp. “Holy shit, you’re a princess!”
When defending the normality of all, I have sometimes said, “I mean, it’s not like his family has a castle or anything.” However, this isn’t entirely true: My husband’s family actually did have a castle, but it burned down in the early twentieth century (sometime in the mid-20s I believe). The family castle was in Schlieffenberg, the tiniest of tiny villages in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, a state in the former GDR. We went there on a lark a couple of years ago, although I had to talk my husband into it because he is most definitely not into his family history; he’s still scarred from grade school teasing along the lines of “Why isn’t the little count wearing his velvet britches today? Ohh la la.” He also associates the name with his grandfather, who was an ignorant, mean-tempered, unrepentant Nazi. The only thing the man had going for him was his hoity toity name, and to this day memories of him make my husband feel ashamed of his heritage.
Anyway, Schlieffenberg is made up of about fifteen houses in the middle of nowhere near a pretty lake. The place would be picturesque if it weren’t for the giant pig farm a few miles down the road which fills the air with a definite whiff of eau de pig shit (if you’ve never smelled pig shit, imagine your average manure smell times ten.) The village also has a beautiful church up on the hill. We hiked up to it and there they were, my husband’s relatives, many a Graf and Gräfin (count and countess in German). Their graves were next to the church while the commoners were all buried down the hill. When you go to a tiny village in the former East, you’re always a little worried that the stereotype might be true and the place is crawling with Neo-Nazis. But, with Schlieffenberg, this does not appear to be the case. Right smack dab in the village square we found a large Zen Buddhist retreat center.
When we got back home, again on a lark, I looked online and found a house with an extra cottage in the garden in great shape for sale in Schlieffenberg for only 45,000 euros. The house was right next to the Zen center. Coming from California, I can tell you having the wanna-be enlightened for neighbors can be annoying in its own right, but it is still vastly superior to a compound of skin heads. “Oh my god, we have to buy this place!” I told my husband. “You can tell the village folk, “Glorious news! The Lord of the manor hath returned.”
But we didn’t buy the house. For one thing, Schlieffenberg is nearly three hours from Berlin, which is just too far away for a weekend home. But the main reason is, although 45,000 euros for a house is a steal, it’s still not something we can really afford.
My husband is a criminal defence lawyer, which means he could probably call in a few favors from the Hell’s Angels, which has value in its own right. Still, for the most part, his branch of law is not the kind that gets you TV lawyer stereotype rich. He may have been raised upper middle-class, but his life choices (which he’s happy with, by the way) have meant that the “upper” has been replaced with “getting by ok”.
As for me, I’m a copywriter/content writer at the height of the slave wage gig economy. I’ve had two short stories accepted to non-paying online magazines and I sometimes publish personal stories on this blog which I’m pretty sure no one actually reads. That should tell you everything you need to know about the state of my finances.
But our family still has the name, and my daughters are beginning to understand what this means.
We send them to a normal, ethnically and class diverse grade school here in Kreuzberg; a little over half the students in my older daughter’s class are on some form of welfare. Although she luckily doesn’t get bullied, she does often get told things like, “You’re a countess, so you’re obviously rich.” In comparison to some of the families of her classmates, I guess you could argue that we are relatively “well to do.” But that’s not what they mean. When they say “You’re a rich countess” they’re imagining family treasure chambers and castles that haven’t burnt down. Like my husband, my daughters will have to get used to people hearing their name and automatically thinking all sorts of things about them that simply aren’t true.
But that’s not to say the name won’t also have it’s advantages.
Like NYC, getting into a good public high school (Gymnasium) in Berlin is very competitive indeed. My older daughter has to go through this process at the beginning of next year. She has a good grade point average and does lots of extra curricular activities (completely of her own free will, as she doesn’t seem to have inherited any of my laziness…), but that alone is not necessarily a shoe in to a better school. But when the admissions board compares my daughter’s application to the application of another student with the same GPA and extra curricular crap, most likely they’re going to go with the one who is also a…countess. The same will likely go for college, jobs, whatever.
Part of me feels like this is extremely unfair, but it is what it is: A name which is both a burden and a blessing, a privilege and a curse.
My dear phantom reader, as I am well aware, you are indeed astute. Right now you’re probably thinking, “If you’re married to a German Count, why is your name still the average meat-and-potatoes Rebeccah Dean?” Well, my friend, there are basically two reasons.
The first is a practical one: We got married in the US, and somehow it didn’t make sense to change my name there or maybe I forgot to ask, I can’t remember. About a year later I called the Standesamt office here in Berlin and told them that I’d like to take my husband’s name after all. “Ach, Frau Dean, that’s going to be very complicated,” the woman told me. If I’ve learned one thing in my nearly twenty years in Germany, it’s that if a German bureaucrat tells you something will be “very complicated” this means you’re really, really in for it.
That said, I could have still waded through the bureaucracy and claimed my chance to legitimately tell some commoner, “You may now kiss the ring.” But I didn’t do it and don’t plan to either. Call it my kooky California soul if you will, but some part of me digs the irreverence of saying, “Nah. Thanks but no thanks. I was born of peasant stock and of peasant stock I shall remain.” 😉