Road Trip to the West and Back

I took a trip way back in October 2008 (which seems like far longer than a mere year and a half ago) with my friend Meredith (and fellow blogger) to the wilds of Southern Germany and Austria, stopping first in Munich, and then continuing on to Salzburg and Vienna. I didn’t know enough German to really do much of the talking (and my traveling companion’s superiority in the language meant I really didn’t have to) but I remember the sounds getting stranger and stranger the farther South we went. Maybe I couldn’t understand every word, but I knew the language was different and so were the people. We weren’t in Kansas anymore. Since then I’ve been to Dresden twice, but that’s been about the extent of my knowledge of the rest of my adopted country (besides the now bi- or tri-monthly trips up to the country house in Brandenburg). Berlin has become like New York to me, a city very much apart from its country, to the point where I would sometimes forget I was living in Germany at all (if not for the language I most certainly would). I believe it is like that for many others who live there: a haven from tradition and a terrarium for the new and different, even as history seeps out of every crack. Well this week I was plucked out of my comfortable existence in the Hauptstadt and reminded that yes, indeed, I do live in Germany, this is my life now, and it’s alternately more weird and more normal than I ever could have imagined.

The week started with an epic six—no eight—no maybe nine—hour drive arching across the Northern half of Germany and ending in Trier, the oldest German city, home to Romans, Gauls, Germans, and a certain lovable jazz musician I might have mentioned a few times on this blog before. What a change a few hundred kilometers makes. Sometimes living in Berlin makes you forget you’re in Europe at all, but suddenly there I was in a town with cobblestone streets and Roman ruins, right in the center of the main shopping thoroughfare in a three-level town house with a bakery on the ground floor. Colorful, gabled buildings were everywhere, like an extended version of the Bergen waterfront in Norway, or Copenhagen or Malmø—any one of a number of Scandinavians towns I have visited or wish to visit. Yet there we were on the border with Luxembourg, only a few hours from Paris, and we hadn’t even gotten on a plane to make it there (that still gets to me, that living in Berlin, I can go basically anywhere without air travel). It immediately felt like I was entering another existence, inducted into a family not so unlike my own, complete with its own history and pictures hanging on the walls.

I once read a section of Ian McEwan’s Atonement that has stayed with me more than the entire book. It is when the main character, the little girl who ruins a couple of lives in pursuit of her own selfishness but later becomes a famous writer, is alone in the wilderness of her family estate’s backyard, reflecting on her own consciousness and wondering whether everyone else in the world is as aware of themselves—as cognizant of their own small existences—as she is. It is something, I then realized, I myself had wondered many times: does everyone comprehend their existence as I do? Is everyone as connected to a past, a family, a personal history? The answer is impossible to find for sure, but at no time in life is this the question been more relevant than when you first get together with someone and, over the course of weeks, months, if you’re lucky years, your two lives begin to fuse together. You realize that his family history is just as thick and significant as yours, his consciousness just as deep, and suddenly you are seeing everything in double: where he was and where I was at this exact moment, what my family thinks of him and what his family thinks of me, where we’ve been and who we’ve been with and what we want for our future(s). And if those two histories exist in different countries and different languages, the fusing can be even more complicated.

1. The guest room is a room that used to be his brothers’, with two single beds and a bed table between them. We immediately and, I thought, somewhat suspiciously, took the night table out from its place and pushed the two beds together, jamming a comforter in the crack so that it would feel more like one bed. His mother came in and made no comment, whereas I thought we were doings something utterly guilty that we would later have to atone for by assuring his parents in great detail that we were being good little girls and boys and most assuredly not having any sex whatsoever. In America, this would certainly be the case.

2. Since his parents speak no English, it was necessary for me to practice my German with an intensity I had never really experienced before, from when I woke up in the morning and sleepily went sloaching towards coffee to the moment I wished them “Guten Nacht” and went up to bed. We wondered aloud at the necessity of our two sets of parents ever meeting each other, since my parents don’t speak German fluently enough to really construct a sentence (my mom reads and understands it a bit, my dad just pretends to in text messages). What would they all do? Mime to each other? Make faces at each other across a dinner table? Make us serve as translators? His father, while seemingly gruff on the outside, actually has a hilariously cheeky sense of humor that can come out at odd moments. I know my father would appreciate it. Meanwhile his mother reminds me a bit of my own grandmother, but without all the bits that drove my own mother crazy. It would be good for them all to meet someday, but how exactly, would we accomplish this (geography and distance being the least of our problems)?

3. I am very fascinated by this idea of Abendbrot, although really it’s no big deal at all. It comes from the conviction that eating a big meal or a lot of heavy food right before going to sleep is not good for one’s digestive health, and I have to say I probably agree. Meanwhile, they eat their biggest meal in the middle of the day, which can consist of meat, potatoes, veggies, and all the things that, to me, represent a hot dinner. After dealing with many embarrassing instances of food coma during my time working in offices, which started with longer-than-normal eyeblinks and ended in full-on snoozes, I can’t say I agree with this custom either. But Abendbrot is exactly its translation: an evening bread you eat in place of dinner to tide yourself over until breakfast, which is basically just more of the same (that is, bread with a variety of jams, cheese, meat, butter, and honey, and perhaps pickles and olives as well). Fortunately, these are all of the things I love most in the world anyway, and coupled with a glass of wine or a schlückchen of schnapps it’s near heaven. But really I think the only reason Abendbrot is even necessary is because the alternative is so outlandish. The dinner my parents make consist of a plate of pasta or a chicken or lamb dish and then a small salad; not really all that much more than what I consume at a normal Abendbrot anyway. Still, there is something about the dedicated evening rituality of taking out the bread, the cheeses, the meats and laying them all on plates, even if it is only for your own family, and even if you just put away half of it again later, that is kind of comfortable, and kind of cute.

4. Visiting your boyfriend’s hometown brings the differences between your two childhoods starkly and amusingly into focus. Granted, our childhoods happened twenty years apart and on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean, so the idea that they would be in any way comparable was always absurd, but I still felt overwhelmed when he told me about playing ball in the streets with other Trier street kids (Harlem in the 1930’s?), being the leader of his own “gang” in school (keep in mind he meant grade school), sneaking into the Roman amphitheater without paying only to be chased out by the proprietor, going up a small mountain whose foot lay at the edge of the city to sunbathe in his own meadow that no one knew about on the brink of teenagerhood, grilling eels from the river with families in the Luxembourg town of Echternach just over the border. Going on bike tours, sleeping in tents. First experiences with alcohol, first time being recognized as a member of a “local heroes” jazz band. Growing up in the shadow of roaring planes from a nearby American military base, growing up with family secrets that he still doesn’t know. When I think back to my own first ten or twelve or fifteen years, only a few things come into focus, and they help to sharply clarify how different we are. I went to school and did my homework. I went horseback riding on weekends. I didn’t really go anywhere on my own until I was eleven or twelve, from what I can remember. I had no gang, I was the leader of no group. When I wasn’t reading and writing and drawing, I spent my time with the few friends I had building forts in our New York apartments, maybe sledding in Central Park on very special occasions, jealously hating the popular kids at our school, talking about the boys we’d never get. My experiences with the outdoors consisted of the parks in New York City, my grandmother’s backyard, and the summer camp I went to for eight weeks starting when I was ten. Trier is a village, New York City is a megalopolis in comparison, and now we both have this life that exists somewhere in between.

5. Football really is as big a deal for the Germans as the Americans think it is, but the Germans think the American are weird and “spiritless” for not caring so much about it, even when the World Cup takes place in gasp! their own country. The boyfriend’s older brother actually reports on football for the radio, and his two sons, aged 9 and 11, are both on teams. On Saturday morning we rushed out to a game for the 9-year-old’s league, standing on the sidelines in the cold as parents and coaches alike shouted admonishments at a bunch of kids who were actually playing quite well from what I could tell. The boyfriend and I decided that we both wanted to have “intellectual kids who didn’t play sports,” and I decided that I only wanted to have girls (something I decided a long time ago when I realized you can’t go clothing shopping with boys after the age of ten). But really, watching the game reminded me a lot of the team sports I was forced to play throughout school, and how bad I was at them. After trying out nothing less than three normal sports offered by my school (lacrosse, swimming, and volleyball), I finally hit on fencing as my sport of choice. It was still competitive, and still exercise, but since it was only ever one on one, you had to rely solely on you to win or lose. And there were no shouting parents on the sidelines making you nervous. When they all got home from watching the older son’s game in the afternoon, the football viewing continued on the television, as they watched the game with both the television announcer’s commentary and the extra commentary of the boyfriend’s brother. “We are a football family,” they announced proudly. I tried to add to the conversation with my pathetically limited knowledge of the sport, which basically consists of the facts and observations I gathered four years ago when, over one summer in 2006, I became obsessed with watching the World Cup, which fittingly, was taking place in Germany. But my attempt at showing off fell short. I didn’t know names, I didn’t know moves, and I couldn’t seem to figure out how you pick a team to root for if neither side is from your hometown. Is it just whoever is better? Do you switch mid-game if the team you liked starts doing badly?

6. Heidelberg is the city Americans love most. While I am admittedly no expert on Germany, I tend to think that Berlin is the place everyone wants to go to, just because I’m here. But no, apparently Heidelberg is high on every American traveler’s wish list for its fairy tale romanticism (a castle high on a hill, cobblestone streets with old buildings). I’ve never seen a more touristy part of Germany (except for maybe Kastanienallee on a Friday night, or Unter den Linden all of the time). As soon as we set foot in town, we heard not only English in all its incarnations, but also Greek and Russian. The groups wandering up and down the main streets were all American or Italian teenagers of the worst sort: badly dressed and unbelievably loud. How did they all know about Heidelberg and I didn’t? Sure, it is perhaps the oldest university ever (or at least claims to be) and is where students have gone for years if they want to have that perfect European schooling experience. But maybe I’m just annoyed because I seem to be the last person to have found out about this. In regards to the famous song that begins “Ich hab’ mein Herz in Heidelberg verloren,” I have to disagree. My heart is still firmly planted in Berlin, where it shall always be.