Friday, September 4, 2015

The Glass House

“You’ll stay with my sister,” she said instantly and that was that, settled. In the back of my mind I continued to weigh my obsolete options, balloons blown away high in the sky wafting out of sight.  I had been tentatively planning to make a free fall call for accommodation via the artistic community I knew; I had at some point worked with some lovely people who might be kind enough to offer me a bed, but I had noticed a tendency to demonstrate deficiencies in advanced conversational skills such as listening and patience is not my middle name. Sensing danger, I stayed put with the unknown, the winning lottery ticket.

The sister of my friend didn’t look anything like my friend and was just as charming.

“I keep thinking up titles of books,” the sister’s husband said. “Whenever I see a title of a book, I become instantly wary.” He pulled his chin back to demonstrate.  “Because of the title.” He confessed comically. “And I often like to think about the title of the book I would like to write.”

We were speaking German. My German is very rusty. In fact it’s never been anything but rusty. “Here,” the sister’s husband said while showing me to my room, standing on the stairs midway, “Is a closet.” He turned, “There are the doors. I started ten years ago on this project.”  The closet doors were on the landing, leaning against the wall.  The fastenings were also present and unfastened.

They speak German because of their daughter.  S. only speaks German and might have initially spoken Russian, but she was never taught in the orphanage.  S. is tackling German. My friend’s sister, English, is also tackling German, she’s been going at it for years. The only person who hasn’t been going at the language as a second language is the sister’s husband. We were all bravely tackling German. S. wanted to tell me about the wasp situation. In German of course.

“There are many types of wasps,” her father took over the topic. “Some live in nests like the one in the back of the garden.” He gestured past the tomato plants, past the sturdy quality swing set with climbing facilities. “The neighbours suggested I take it down. But it is empty.” He stated over the breakfast table. Wasps are an inexhaustible topic in August in Berlin. Every drink comes with a beer mat across the top of the glass because tankards are not in fashion these days and look nicer in museums. “These wasps,” he swatted, “Live in the ground.”

I had never heard about wasps that lived under ground. We looked at the map. “In the street,” my hosts tapped the Brandenburg Gate, “You can see where the wall was by the stones set into the road.”

I’d never been to Berlin before, nor had I stood before Queen Nefertiti. I’d been an Egypt buff as a child. I was still thrilled to be standing in front of Nefertiti. She looked like a woman other women look upon in awe.  Come to think of it three women were with me standing in awe of the bust of Nefertiti. Many guards were with us in the room with the Queen on the second floor, more than three in uniform, shaking each other’s hands for it was lunchtime. The museum was a great place, a receptacle of the objects of dreams; Schliemann’s chase after a poet’s story. If you dig in the ground long enough and you’ll come up with gold and another woman encased on the ground floor. Congratulations then on Helen too.

Ah, sniffing the air, those past summers in Germany came back to me, the familiar sights and tastes; the Nordsee sandwiches and fishy snacks, the biergarten, ice-cream -- the ice-cream always disappoints me. I’d turned over a concoction in my mind at lunch on the Spree while swatting away wasps with the menu. The menu pictured a crimson coagulated cherry in a sundae photo, heavy menstrual chunky fruit flavour on clouds of whipped cream that didn’t deter wasps.  I wanted it, but I didn’t order it.

I quite believe that I still owe the bill for a Spaghetti Eis I ate back in 1984 in Osnabruck. I think about this often, as it happens. I was young and in Germany for the first time, and it was still in a Cold War. “You can go talk to an American.” My host father suggested. He was worried I didn’t have anyone to talk to because I really didn’t have anyone to talk to and he’d noticed this problem. So I met this American on an average street in July on a day when it wasn’t raining in Northern Germany, in front of a building with grey walls and an ice-cream parasol parked outside. I sat there on the pavement thinking, was I expected to pay my share because I was in Germany or was this American boy going to pay my share because he was American, but then again would he because we were in Germany? I was very sensitive to cultural expectations and I was a silent cheapskate. I only wanted to buy shoes and I wasn’t very interested in this person and I didn’t like the Spaghetti Eis in front of me and I was bored.  Americans were everywhere in Germany around that time of the last century, all hopeful humanitarians selling Cheetos and Mrs. Duncan’s in special stores, the soft homey pitch to ease the occupation. “Gee, what a pre-packaged life we could all live, without bombs or guilt, a fantasy world of Kansas fields and lumbering automobiles.” Even in 1984 this was still the dream even though California had been taken over by economical Toyotas.

“Look,” my Berlin host said. “There’s the greenhouse.” I looked. “At the back.” I could see tall weeds in an organic barricade that was made of even taller river weeds past the first set of weeds.  Beyond all the weeds, a rectangular patch of land was obviously laid out with the expectation that the greenhouse would arrive and fertilize the air with exotica. “It’s been a couple of years now since we cleared the ground area.” The soil is sandy, nothing really grows, I was told. “We have two seasons, hot summers and cold winters.”

Berlin is still designed to challenge the inhabitants.  I started speaking German immediately upon arriving at the train station, it was sheer instinct.  “Do you have Wifi?” I asked at a café. “Nein.” Neither in the train, neither in the museum. The freedom of communication is still a bit remote. I began to suspect I might have to locate a Starbucks.

“That’s Hitler’s old airport.” My friend’s sister informed me as they dropped me off at Tempelhof Station. “Now you can…” and she ratted off a long list of sports activities, “There.” My train passed alongside the old airport via an elevated track. I gasped when the train overlooked Tempelhof Airport -- it was still clearly an airport in airport mode with runways but filled with people having fun on a Sunday. When would the greenhouse land as per the good witch’s orders?

“Do you have wifi?” I asked the proprietors of the Ferienwohnung when I reached the ex DDR countryside, the masterclass location south of Berlin. 

“ Nein.”


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