dachau-ex-maintenance-buildings

If you don’t know where you are, it’s almost a pretty place.

On my first visit there, I was on a whirlwind bus tour. My itinerary long since misplaced, our bus wended its way past fields punctuated by hay bales and scattered copses of oak and poplar. It was open country, and the scenery didn’t look all that different from what I might have seen back home in the Midwest.

Jeffrey Lewis is the author of Meritocracy: A Love Story (2005), Theme Song for an Old Show (2007), The Conference of the Birds (2007), and Adam the King (2008). He has won a string of awards, including the Independent Publishers Gold Medal for Literary Fiction for his novels, and two Emmy Awards and the Writer’s Guild Award for his work as a writer and producer on the critically acclaimed television series, Hill Street Blues.

Susan Tepper is co-author of the novel What May Have Been: Letters of Jackson Pollock & Dori G (with Gary Percesepe), the collection Deer & Other Stories and a poetry chapbook Blue Edge.  She conducts the Monday Chat Interview on the Fictionaut blog, and writes a satirical advice column, “Madame Tishka on Love & Other Storms” at Thunderclap! Press.  FIZZ, her series at KGB Bar in NYC, is a popular reading venue.

From the Umberplatzen is a collection of 48 linked flash chapters that submerge us in the visuals, the smells, the colored vibrancy of love in all its facets. Kitty Kat and M had a love affair in Germany. This slim and evocative novel is told in flashback, a journey that takes us through their memories and intimate snapshots, relived through the letters and gifts that M sends Kitty Kat through the mail.

Documentary filmmaking and the new wave of digital 3D technology make for a natural marriage, as 3D has the ability to submerge the viewer in the world of a nonfiction subject in ways that 2D rarely can match. As more filmmakers of note test the waters of 3D nonfiction features, the technology may prove to be even more of a revolution for documentaries than it has been for the studio blockbuster.

Money: it’s not the Mark anymore, obviously, but the Euro. It comes with a slew of coins, of which I have countless every evening, because I’m not used to coins anymore. Having lived in the States for fifteen years, I’m also not used to the different-color-and-size bills, which my memory doesn’t accept as German. The other Germans do however, and once called the Euro the Teuro (the Expensivo). They don’t use that nickname anymore. Starbucks Latte starts at $4.50.

Toilets: Few of the truly Teutonic bowls remain, but I happen to have rented one with my apartment. New bowls don’t swirl water the American way but push it, dump it. But they do look pretty much the same. Old bowls however have a step, a throne, on which things rest until the flush. “Good for taking samples,” a friend remarked.

Sports: If you don’t like soccer, you’re out of luck. There’s a bit of tennis in the news, a bit of Formula One (see above; hey, a German is the reigning champion), and the rest is soccer. Oh, there is also handball (soccer with the hands). Every other sport in any other country is dutifully ignored to talk some more about the dismissal of the Bayern Munich coach and the re-hiring of one of his predecessors. I’d rather watch Clippers games.

Cars: I thought I loved Audis. After five weeks in Germany I’m looking forward to seeing Crown Vics. Imagine a school full of Little Princes.

Speech: There’s a strange wordy meekness in colloquial, and now even written, German. What in English would be a hearty “Let’s do it,” becomes a “Ja, das könnten wir schon auch noch mal machen.” It expresses weariness and the not-so-secret conviction that things will not be possible. It’s the same pattern used for complaints about life and work.

Recently, while scouring the sports pages for reading material (I’m not a soccer fan), I came across this sentence, describing the problems Ferrari is having with its Formula One team, its small steps of progress, and the fans’ impatience: “Für einen so vorsichtigen Aufwärtstrend wie Ferrari ihn mit dem Brasilianer Felipe Massa auf Platz fünf und dem Spanier Fernando Alonso auf Rang sechs in Malaysia andeuteten, findet das in größeren Kategorien tickende Temperament Italiens tatsächlich keine wirkliche Nuance.”

Translated, the sentence means, “Ferrari fans were not impressed.”

Heating: It’s hot and dry in German houses, hotels, galleries, and apartments. In the 80s and 90s, old apartments still had large, tiled coal ovens to heat the rooms. They kept rents affordable and every surface dusty-red. If you came home in irregular intervals, you found your home icy-cold and it took two hours for the oven to heat up again. Windows were crappy too, and my flowers always had fresh air, even after I had sealed the frames and cracks for the winter.

Nowadays, central heat rules even the German capital, and only the staircases remain as dark and damp as ever, emanating the dank smell of Protestant churches. Inside it’s hot and dry. In bathrooms, the heaters are ladder-shaped, great for drying towels, socks, etc. The windows are new and airtight. When I wake up in the small apartment in the geriatric district of Steglitz I feel as though I’m having a nosebleed. My tongue can only be removed from wherever it’s stuck with force. I hang wet laundry everywhere. It dries in mere hours.

Complaints: Not even Germans like Germany. Many of the people I talked to have plans on leaving, dreams of leaving (I heard those same comments in Buffalo, NY. Most of the ones who left ended up in North Carolina).

Germans love to complain about life and their country. It seems in bad taste not to take life hard. I fit right in. It’s as though complaining is a way of showing that you’re in on the joke, even though and because you have no idea what that joke might be. However, they do seem certain that there is one. If you don’t complain you’re either an arrogant asshole, or you are just showing how superficial and gullible you are. Saying you’re enjoying yourself is as bad as admitting that you have three nipples or a second belly button.

Berlin: it’s hard to embrace a city that was 70 percent destroyed and rebuilt on a smaller, uglier scale after World War II. What remains of pre-war Berlin is quite beautiful, yet it feels impossible to fully embrace it. You might find a particular building beyond the park fascinating, even beguiling, until you find out it housed the Nazi court that sent political dissidents to their death. The feeling is close to finding out your beloved grandfather was a war criminal. Here, your whole family turns out to have been war criminals. They’re your family. You love them, especially in the spring, which is always fragile and seduces young couples in parks and by the canals. You love them. They are war criminals. You love them?

Language: It’s difficult for me to speak German, it won’t fit into my mouth correctly. People comment on my accent. Then there are sudden bursts of language, old channels opening and releasing idioms, sayings, and TV jingles I haven’t heard or used in fifteen years. These come with discomfort, as though I’ve sworn or eaten a bag of candy.

I love to think that I love Berlin, but there comes a moment when what your eyes find again is not what you remembered. And when I put the old images on top of the new they won’t fit anymore. It’s a delicious moment, full of hidden longings. I’m trying to see how my lover has grown. But maybe the gap between old and new has widened too much, my mind refuses to fall in love again. Maybe I’m in love with my memories of fragile and seductive springs. Maybe that’s what Berlin has become for me — a place without a present.

I do have coffee a lot in Berlin now, since I’m in Germany for several weeks and have chosen the old and new capital as my base camp.

I lived here for eleven years, fifteen years back. That might explain why I can’t see to get a grip on the city. There are places I don’t recognize anymore, renovated, restored, re-done, over-developed. Those are the easiest, since they are merely new. But there are also tons of places that haven’t changed one bit. Not at all. Or, to be more precise, the places haven’t changed, and according to the circular laws of fashion, the outfits of the people who inhabit these places (take, for example Kottbusser Tor, a major hub in the still somewhat cool district of Kreuzberg, which looks as ratty and lost and crowded as ever) have reverted to 80s Berlin chic – black, short jackets, black boots, asymmetrical and bleached or dyed hair. Nothing looks new or clean. It’s enough to creep me out. I have aged, whereas Berlin has remained the same. None of my life has happened. It can’t have. I’m Pamela Ewing’s dream of Bobby.

Germany produces what are arguably the best cars in the world. Germany also makes some of the best kitchen appliances money can buy. You’d expect flying Minis or VW Polos by now, and they might come soon, but free wifi is another matter. Forget free wifi, internet connections are dreadful in general.

In the free world coffee shops are there to provide wifi and barely drinkable java. Not here. And even if you get wifi, it’s bound to break down at regular intervals, about every 15 minutes or so. I’m drinking a lot of Starbucks for that reason, because they are “experimenting” with free wifi. It’s slow. It’s freaking excruciatingly slow. Do you remember dial-up?

Germany also brought you the tear-free onion-hacker. Try to buy one, though. Half the businesses don’t accept credit cards. Instead they use EC-cards, Euro-Cheque cards. Kinda like debit cards but the money is always guaranteed, even in case of over-drafting. But of course that EC business excludes foreigners, American or otherwise. And I can’t shake the feeling Berliners like it that way.

Why? Well, when I arrived I tried to buy a Handy (the, umh, German term for a cell phone). Turns out, pre-paid phones need to be registered to an owner, and in order to become such an owner, you need to have a Personalausweis, the German ID card. I pulled my passport, it’s truly German, but that wouldn’t do. ID card or bust. With pride, the young sales clerk said, that this system ensured that terrorists could not make anonymous, unregistered calls, the way they can in America. He was beaming. I was not. But our faces were both red. My friend bailed me out. I do have a handy now, and if I should use it for stalking people (the clerk was also happy to prevent that), or try terrorizing Germany, my friend will get busted. I tried to pay with credit card.

Germans love soccer and the newspapers’ sports pages are devoted to soccer alone. Well, okay, there’s ice-hockey (yes, they call it that), handball (another sport without an American future), and tennis (but only if a German player defeated a much better foreign player. The devotion to soccer extends to the fitness club I joined here on a very expensively temporary basis, but where they do serve a mean coffee. The urinals sport small goals (yes, down there), with tiny soccer balls dangling from the goal post. You aim, and, if it’s strong enough, “Goaaaal.” If you drink a lot of coffee, as I do these days, you score a lot.

Jesse had brought a rock-hard, stained futon mattress into the marriage. It took me two years to convince him to buy a new one. In what proved to be a last attempt to save our crumbling marriage, one Saturday morning we found ourselves at one of Bushwick’s few furniture stores. Next to the elevated railroad tracks on Myrtle Avenue, across the street from where the MTA once left 50 poisoned rats to decompose on the sidewalk, royal red polyester couches competed with golden vanity tables and rococo bed frames. As we curved our way past particleboard TV stands, a beer-bellied man with a comb over approached us. The salesman swiftly led us to a mattress adorned with a royal golden pattern against a shiny black background. He praised the mattress as if it were his first-born son. There’s no better quality for the price! It’ll last ten years at least! Maybe 15, he added, sensing my doubt. A special! A real special! Just as I wondered if he was paying for the mattress to go to college, I noticed that it had inner springs.

In Germany, innersprings went out with the Kaiser, or whenever it was that they invented foam. The last time I slept on an inner spring mattress was as a child at my grandmother’s house, and the bed still reeked of mustard gas from World War I. The springs poked my back and my chest was weighed down by a two-foot thick down blanket, so heavy with feathers that I felt like Leda gang-raped by a flock of swans. My Nazi grandmother put me up in her guestroom, a large, dark, wood-paneled space cold as a morgue. After tucking me in under the suffocating blankets, she sang Guten Abend, Gute Nacht, a lullaby based on a German folk poem. Provided with roses / Covered with flowers / Studded with nails / Slip under the blanket / In the morning, God willing / You will wake again.

Despite its funereal overtones, I requested the song frequently. I felt that if I considered the possibility of never waking back up, death might spare me. Catastrophes don’t happen if cautiously considered. If I only continued obsessing about the possibility of death—my own and the death of the people around me—I might be let off the hook.

Twenty years later at the furniture store in Bushwick, Jesse and I helplessly decided on the black innerspring mattress with the golden flower pattern, the one the salesman had called his best. I can’t claim that the mattress hastened the end of my marriage, but it certainly didn’t help.

After only three months the mattress began to sag, and for the two years that followed I slept on an incline with a continuously increasing slope. At first my left leg was wedged against the wall, only one inch higher than my right leg. But over the course of the next few years, the slope’s angle gradually increased to 20 degrees. With the advancing pitch, my marriage declined.

After Jesse finally moved out, I decided to buy a new mattress, opting for a larger one this time. If I got screwed again and the mattress sagged after only a few months, at least I would have enough space to disappear into it with my future boyfriend. But disappear where, exactly? Never again between innersprings. Coils and box springs are for losers. It’s the 21st century! When I think of coils and box springs, I think of straw and fluffy little baby chicks covered with potato sacks; I think of barns and alternating sleeping shifts.

Tempurpedic™ and its Swedish, (but puzzlingly) NASA-designed memory foam technology had caught my attention long before I considered buying a new mattress. Staying up late on my saggy incline while Jesse was out getting drunk, I felt oddly reassured by Tempurpedic’s infomercials. I still felt like hanging myself, but knew that one day in the future, I would be able to rest in peace.

According to Tempurpedic™, the mattress’s visco-elastic foam completely adapts to your body contours, releasing pressure from your spine and the heavier parts of your body. “This phenomenon,” Tempurpedic™ explains, “is similar to pushing your hand into the surface of a bowl of water and feeling the water flow to fill every contour and curve of your hand, then return to its original shape once your hand is removed.” Sounded like a dream to me. Never saggy, never sore! Completely resistant to permanent change! My heavy heart floating in a bowl of water—what could be better?

I knew I couldn’t afford a $2000 Tempurpedic™ mattress, so I tried to satisfy myself by taking the announcer’s advice and calling for an information kit. The package that arrived a few days later contained a video—which I never watched—and a memory foam sample the size of a teeny-tiny pillow, just big enough for my cat to rest her teeny-tiny head on. I briefly considered ordering enough 10 square inch foam samples to build my own mattress, but abandoned the idea after Tempurpedic™ kept bombarding me with intimidating brochures. The envelopes read like little death threats: “Open this envelope right now, Sabine Heinlein! This is your last chance!” What would’ve happened if I had ordered a few hundred samples! (Or if I wouldn’t have opened the envelope.) Covered with flowers, Studded with nails, Slip under the blanket… I wanted to burn those thick brochures, but instead started to use them to line my pet rabbit’s litter box.

Mr. Rabbit has certain preferences when it comes to his litter: It mustn’t be too soft, it has to be highly absorbent, and God forbid if I don’t arrange it neatly. My rabbit and I had both come to appreciate the thickness of the Sunday Times, but we were thankful for the little extra absorbance the generous mailings from the Tempurpedic™ folks provided. That is, until he began acting a little nervous. Was it the aggressive tone of their pitches? Or dreams of drowning in space-age foam? Whatever the case, I went back to using just the Times.

Rather than purchasing the Tempurpedic™ with funds I clearly don’t have, I decided to follow a more modest route and visit Sleepy’s. I entered my first Sleepy’s in Midtown Manhattan through an elevator that took me up to the show room on the second floor. Strangely, the worst thing about buying a new mattress isn’t the wealth of choices; it is the mattress salesmen.

Of all the salesmen I encountered on my mattress crusade, I liked this first one the very best. He did the store’s name some credit for he was actually asleep when I arrived. If he had been peacefully snoozing on one of the memory foam mattresses it would have clenched my choice. Unfortunately it was his office chair he was snoring on. Being a considerate shopper, I sneaked back out of the store on tippy toes. From there I went to another Sleepy’s just a few blocks down.

“Welcome to Sleepy’s! My name is Steve,” a wide-awake young professional greeted me. He asked what I was looking for and swiftly led me to one of his cheaper memory foam mattresses. He urged me to lie down. But naptime was over when I told him that I didn’t need a foundation because I already had one. “How high is your foundation?” he wanted to know. I pointed about three feet off the ground. His eyes widened with incredulity

“Noooo! That’s too high!”

“It’s worked for me so far,” I responded.

“But how you gonna get up there?” What did he mean by that? I’m not obese, I wasn’t using crutches. My feet and hands are beautifully shaped, if I may say so.

“I jump,” I said. He shook his head in disbelief and asked what I was keeping under my bed, a question I found a bit inappropriate. Who knows what some people keep underneath their mattresses? The space under one’s bed is nobody’s business. It is reserved for nightmarish creatures, undeclared earnings, useless crap and sometimes bunny rabbits. Before I could respond he added, “Drawers?”

“No drawers,” I said. “It is a hollow wooden structure. I store things underneath. Anything I don’t need on a daily basis. Suitcases, my ironing board, a surfboard.” I lied. I don’t have an ironing board or a surfboard, but I wanted to say something that made me sound neat and athletic. I also wanted to spare him the details about a rabbit who considers that space his own kingdom and turns into a monster if anyone reaches under the bed without knocking first. I proudly added: “I built it myself,” which clearly had the opposite effect I intended. I detected pity and deep sympathy in his eyes.

I quickly realized that it was hard to endure any mattress salesman for more than 10 minutes at a time. I decided to expand my research territory. After all, like 7-11’s in the rest of the country, Sleepy’s lurks on every corner in New York.

But before I moved on I noted down the first three conclusions as follows:

1. There are numerous companies producing memory foam mattresses for less than $2000, and they all have slightly incestuous names like Posturepedic, Therapedic, Posturetemp, etc. etc.

2. What the memory foam does is always the same; what varies is its thickness and the thickness of the supporting conventional foam layer underneath.

3. Mattress salesmen are curious people, sometimes asleep, sometimes awake.

The next Sleepy’s was located only a couple of blocks west. Again, a clean-cut gentleman rushed towards. “Welcome to Sleepy’s. My name is Jerry. How can I help you?” I briefly explained my situation, and he unexpectedly informed me that it was Father’s Day. “Really?” I said wondering what that had to do with my choice of mattress. He continued, “For our Father’s Day Sale everything is 30% off.” Father’s Day Sale! Noticing my skepticism, Jerry added, “And since you are my first customer today, you can get this mattress here for—” He punched the big keys of his old-fashioned calculator. “For $750, taxes and delivery included.” He looked up from his calculations with the eagerness of a child at Christmas. His excitement lessened when he saw that I was still not completely convinced. Where was I? On a souk in Marrakech? I was once forced to buy a carpet on a street market there. What started as a friendly negotiation ended with a knife on my ex-boyfriend’s neck. Ever since then, special, special offers make me very, very suspicious. But the mattress salesman had another trick up his sleeve: “If you leave a $25 deposit today, we will hold this offer for you for 60 days. Your $25 are fully refundable if you decide not to buy the mattress.”

Every day is Father’s Day for a measly $25! Or at least for the next 60 days. And of course after that there will be Easter, then Chanukah, then Labor Day, then Christmas, then Memorial Day, then Mother’s Day, then Kwanza and then, once again, Father’s Day (not necessarily in that order, though). What it boils down to is that you could be getting your fucking mattress any day for a reasonable price; and on those rare days that celebrate no special occasion you would be paying far too much.

After some fretting from me and some reassuring talk from Jerry, I laid down the deposit and decided to sleep on it. My old coils and the mattress salesmen had worn me out, and I simply didn’t have the patience left to make a choice. The next day I returned to Sleepy’s, where I encountered yet another mattress salesman. Where did Jerry go? “I laid down a deposit for a mattress, but I have one more question…” I started. “Yeah, what is it?” the new salesman growled as he pulled up my file. “Oh, nothing.” I gave up and handed my credit card over. The man, who never introduced himself, continued to sigh and moan.

I felt appropriately sleepy when I got back home.

There was a voicemail waiting for me from Sleepy’s. “Hi!” the salesman said cheerfully. “My name is Paul. I wanted to thank you for shopping with Sleepy’s, the mattress professionals. If you have a moment give me a call back and let me know how you experienced shopping at Sleepy’s.”

I apologize for not calling you back, Paul, but your mattress professionals exhausted me. But if you must know, Paul, I really like my new mattress. It is as comfy as a bowl of water, as a cloud, as… I’m sorry, but I’ve run out of metaphors for the moment. I need to lie down and rest.

Epilogue: Paul wasn’t the only one who made an effort to keep in touch. A few days into my new mattress experience I received more mail from Tempurpedic™. Hesitantly, I opened the envelope. “I hope you’ll understand why I’m so disappointed,” Dany began despairingly. (Dany made it sound like I had promised her love but then, with no warning, kicked her out of bed.) Evidently she is so disappointed because I have not yet bought my Tempurpedic™ mattress. She helpfully lists what might be jeopardizing our once promising relationship:

1. Inadequate description of the advantages of Tempurpedic™ mattresses.

2. Misunderstanding over the money-back-guaranty.

3. Insufficient communication about Tempurpedic™’s real affordability.

A fourth possibility never occurred to her: I had been cuckolding her with some mattress salesmen.

Mattress professionals are eloquent, utterly persistent, yet vulnerable people. Dany, Paul, Jerry and Steve, this is to all of you: Live your life on or under your own mattress, be it visco-elastic, box spring or latex. As for me, I have to go find the right pillow to rest my tired head on.

I’ve decided to post this list after having kept it scrawled in notebooks over the years. The inspiration for it comes from one of my favorite people on this planet, Tom Rhodes. He has a list of over 1000 things he simply calls “Happiness”. I started keeping my own list a few years ago – which has been edited and updated and deleted from sporadically over time – but still serves as my own reminder that there are far more good things than bad on these little paths we all stumble down.

My mother was as moody as our weather, which, in our small town in Lower Saxony, could be cold even on an August day, and often sent dark rain clouds over our garden and house. She could shrug off the loss of a scarf in school, hug me and tell me we’d get a new one. But an ink stain on my homework could make her tell me how much of a disappointment I was, and opening a box of liquid-filled chocolates on the wrong side and breaking the thin, lemon and orange sticks on our kitchen floor could contort her face and end all conversation.

She was a good-looking woman, short and plump, with brown hair and eyes and a pretty face. Yet her silences were hailstorms and barn fires, and I was grateful for days when she only berated my stupidity. Even my father knew of no way to change her violent moods. Once he had loaned a record to his friend at work and received it back after a few days. My mother played it instantly, claiming it skipped, claiming there were scratches on the vinyl, new scratches, never-been-there-before scratches. My father talked to his friend – he hadn’t even played the record, he said, hadn’t found the time. But my mother wouldn’t have any of it. She requested that my father go back and ask for a replacement. And he did, and he did get a replacement, and he looked terrible when he got home that night. It was a 45, and he did not play it again.

***

Our house was the only one on the street behind the factory and set into an old warehouse that had held ammunition before and during the second war. Sacks of sugar and chocolate powder were lifted from trucks one day and driven to the factory by forklift another. The other side of the street was forest, and forest began right behind our house. Looking up and down our street, it was hard to believe that this was our town’s industrial suburb.

We had moved to this street when I was four, and when I started school at age six, there was no one living nearby with whom I could have ridden my bike into town but my sister. She was two years older and I don’t remember much of her. She was always there and we fought or played with her dolls or watched a children’s show after five in the afternoon. Yet when I try to remember her, there’s nothing left, just a vague feeling that she and I were not of the same parents.

I had two friends in school, Thomas and Thomas, and to keep them apart, and also to emphasize their different qualities, one of them, a blond, gentle, befuddled boy, remained Thomas, while the other we called by his last name, Cramm. Thomas was well-liked, though not very popular. He gave me two of his eggs we had to bring for making Easter decorations, and I took his only white one. I had forgotten to bring any, and Cramm wouldn’t let me have a single one of his.

Cramm was an altar boy, the only Catholic in the classroom, and a good friend because not many people liked him. His clothes were cheap and worn, and his pant legs were always too short. Yet he was fierce, and he never believed that anybody was stronger or smarter than him. He died at age twelve, collapsing at the altar during mass, hitting his head on the marble and not waking up again.

In first grade, Thomas, Cramm, and I hung out in the schoolyard with two of the girls who didn’t mind that we weren’t the popular kids. They weren’t popular either and I think we all knew in some half-conscious way that we had no other choice. We pretended to take pity on one another.

My mother had lost her teeth after my birth and what she believed made her a woman, to hysterectomy. She hardly ever played with me and my sister. Rheumatism, low blood pressure, a bad back, those were the things that kept her from playing ball in the garden, or from swimming with us on hot summer days.

Her ailments didn’t keep her from cleaning the toilets every day, cleaning the shower, washing and ironing our towels every day. They didn’t keep her from ironing bras, panties, and socks to get rid of the germs, and she washed the windows every week, standing on a rickety chair outside in the flowerbeds.

She kept the refrigerator and giant freezer stacked. There was always too much food on the table and nothing was thrown away. She begged us to take second and third helpings, begged dinner guests to reload their plates. “Have some more, please,” she’d say. “Don’t you like what I cooked?”

She’d been born just before the outbreak of World War II, and her mother had escaped with her two daughters from East Prussia in January of 1945. After the war, they were outcasts in the West, poor devils, unwanted, harassed. Over dinner, my mother told us many times about moldy pasta, moldy bread, and sour yogurt, then asked us to eat more food.

She experienced one of her worst humiliations when, at age five, I had to take a test to prove I was fit for attending school. I passed easily, but before I was allowed to leave, the doctor who had weighed and measured me and checked my throat, heartbeat, and temperature, said to my mom that I was underweight. “He’s awfully skinny,” he said.

My mother did not reply. She cast her eyes around, as if all the other mothers tending to their small girls and boys were ready to point well-manicured fingers at her. That day, after lunch, she made me eat half a bar of chocolate, and every day at school, there were cookies, chocolate, lollipops, or mint wafers in my lunch bag, and I was not allowed to bring any of my sandwiches back home and too afraid to throw them away.

***

One gray afternoon in May or June, when I was in second grade, the doorbell rang, and Thomas and Cramm stood outside, asking if I would come out and play.

I shivered, my throat tightened and I squeaked, “Mom,” and kept staring at my two visitors. My friends had come to see me. They lived two miles away in downtown Wedersen, and Cramm didn’t have a bicycle. They’d walked all the way to the candy factory to see me.

I boxed them in the chest, I jumped up and down in our hallway, ran outside in socks, then came back to put on my old playing clothes and shoes. I took a coat, then brought it back because it was too warm to wear one, and my mother said, “Calm down,” in a voice that stopped me cold. “Can I?” I asked, because I had forgotten to do so.

“Leave your clothes by the door when you come back in. I just cleaned everything,” was her answer.

I was out of myself that afternoon, walking ahead of Thomas and Cramm through our garden. I wrestled Thomas to the ground, tripped Cramm. We played soccer, took penalty shots, looked for long, straight willow branches and sharpened the tips with Cramm’s knife and went hunting in the surrounding woods with our spears.

We climbed an old oak and let us fall to the ground as dramatically as we could, just like our favorite Western stars. That cowboys didn’t climb trees was of no concern to us.

When it was already turning dark, the gray sky changing to a slightly more merciful color, Thomas, tied with invisible ropes to a tree, died an especially gruesome death being tortured by Apaches for stealing their horses. He writhed in pain from countless arrows piercing his body, but with no cowardly moan coming from the lips of this one tough paleface, when, without warning, he crapped his pants.

Thomas opened his eyes. He stood still and opened his mouth slowly without saying a word. We continued firing our arrows and spears, yelling in our highest voices. Yet when Thomas took one tentative step away from the tree, Cramm and I knew something was wrong, and after approaching Thomas and asking and asking, he finally told us what had happened. Cramm and I didn’t laugh.

It was a long way to my house and Cramm went ahead, through trees and underbrush to clear a way for his friend, and I trailed them, out of a sense of responsibility and apprehension.

My mother opened the door, and her face was calm, composed, and I knew I had a chance. I went up to her and explained in a hushed voice what had happened.

“Why are you whispering? I can’t hear you,” she said. “And stop fussing around.”

I explained again, this time louder, loud enough to make Thomas blush even more, if that was still possible.

With her quick, brown eyes she scanned the two boys, then let her curious gaze linger on Thomas’ red face underneath wispy, blond hair. “And what am I supposed to do about it?” she said.

“Maybe,” I said, trying to come up with as clear a thought as possible, “Maybe we can give him one of my undies.”

“You can’t come in,” she said, shaking her head. “Look how dirty you all are.” And I looked down at my mud and grass stained pants and at the equally soiled clothes of my friends.

“He needs to go home,” I said. “He needs…,” my voice trailed off.

Our sky-blue Opel Kadett stood in its garage at the other end of the warehouse, yet I never dared consider asking my mom about driving Thomas and Cramm home. It would have taken all of fifteen minutes to drive to town and back, yet that thought was too horrifying to be thought. All I wanted was a new pair of underwear for my friend.

“I can’t give him any underwear. That’s out of the question. I’m sorry, Thomas, we can’t spare any.” My mother was serious, there was no need to yell and shout. “And Stefan, you have to come in soon, it’s dinner time. Your dad will be home in ten minutes.” Then she closed the door.

We stood in front of my house and looked at each other, Thomas, Cramm, and I, and nobody said anything for minutes, it seems. Finally Cramm said, “Let’s go,” and they started walking down our street toward the candy factory, Thomas making awkward, tentative steps.

I didn’t have to ring the bell again. My mother opened the door before I had made up my mind. She walked to the curb and looked at the boys walking slowly down the road.

I erased the memory of my friends’ visit quickly and cleanly. I didn’t dwell on how easy it would have been for my mother to help Thomas clean up, take the car and drop him off at his house. All that I didn’t imagine, and only a sense of guilt lingered, guilt over having asked for help in the first place and causing Mom trouble.

At dinner, it was Mom who told my dad about the boys’ visit. “You should have seen him,” she said, meaning Thomas. “He walked as if he had a brick in his pants.” She laughed, and my father laughed, and I laughed too, happy that Mom had left me out of her tale. Laughter made me one of them, laughing kept me safe. Childhood was still a new thing, I couldn’t hold my breath for it to end.




When my sister and I were still young, our dad would sometimes take us on a long walk through the woods that started right behind our house in a small industrial suburb in Northern Germany and seemed to stretch forever, even though forever ended at the road to Frankenbostel, a village that was important only to its farmers. I can’t recall how long these walks really lasted, but they seemed dominated by silence and small whispers, so as not to disturb the animals and the overall atmosphere of making our way through brush and over small, secret meadows, where small prints on the ground told stories we were unable to read. We knew they were stories, we’d read all the Wild West novels by Karl May, and were familiar with noble and not so noble Indians reading the ground in front of them, but we could only guess. Still, we didn’t realize how little we knew, and felt just like our heroes Old Shatterhand and Winnetou, the Chief of the Apaches.

I was two years younger than my sister, and sometimes given to imitating bird calls, mostly owls, whether or not that was appropriate. My sister was a calm girl, matching my dad’s solemnity on these occasions. I however did not fit in. I wasn’t able to keep their peace – I was bubbly, impulsive, and irrevocably they would start to shush me and cast angry looks at me.

As a young man my dad had wanted to emigrate to Australia or Canada. He never got farther then looking at pictures of endless forests and the wide open desert, yet he treated every forest as though it could lead him to the Bering Strait, if only he would walk long enough.

On better days we found that small ditches running through the woods – who had dug them and when? – had filled with water, which was running clear and shallow. “A stream,” I’d crow and imagine that I could some day catch fish. I wanted to live by a river, be able to go on canoe trips, but the closest river was three miles away and too shallow in the summer to allow for canoe trips.

Sometimes we’d find a freshly dug foxhole, and my dad would cautiously approach us, waving us slowly closer, with a face that expressed awe, interest, and importance. And on other days we found colorful bird feathers and collected them in our pockets.

These were the early 70s and people often got rid of their trash by dumping it in the forests. We saw our share of house trash, savaged by raccoons and other rodents. My dad always tried to find a letter with an address, in order to call the police about it, but he never did. Those trash heaps we found close to the road to Frankenbostel. Whenever we got there, our expedition reached a point of crisis. It was a letdown to reach ‘civilization’ again and there were only two things to do: turn back and march home, a disappointing prospect; or cross the road and enter the area of the small landfill.

The landfill, though surrounded by trees, bordered on farmland. It was an open space, the seclusion of the woods was gone, and yet it had its own special joys. When it was first dug, the pit seemed like a canyon in a rugged and remote mountainous region (Zeven was as flat as you can imagine it. The highest elevation was about 90 feet). You could enter it and watch the heavy machinery like some relics from a long lost civilization, you could climb the large heaps of yellow and reddish sand outside the pit and imagine to be near the beach, on a dune. I was a cowboy, trapped by vicious Comanches, I was an archeologist digging for skeletons, I was reaching the ocean to become a whaler.

Soon, water collected at the bottom of the pit, and strangely, it seems that when the first trash was deposited there, the water levels rose. The water turned a strange, intensive blue-green, opaque and reminiscent of laundry detergent and shampoo. Refrigerators sometimes broke the surface, little white, rusty islands, and we would throw small stones at them. In the winter we skated over the frozen surface here, trash covering the sides of the pit, a barbecue trapped in the middle of the ice.

On one of the walks we found trash of a different kind. It was an overcast fall day, winter announcing itself with a certain chill in the air. We were dressed in dark colors, in our outdoors clothes, which looked nothing like the fancy lifestyle clothing that is so popular nowadays. Back then, at least in my memory, nobody wore trekking gear and bright-colored trail shoes. Hikers had hiking boots, and that was that. Our outdoors clothes were our old clothes, not good enough to be worn to school or church, but fitting okay to be still worn.

Only oaks still had their browned leaves on their branches, and we fought our way through some scratchy underbrush and dying pines, when we came, in the middle of our forest, onto a small clearing. A bit of moss was left of the ground. Yes, there was trash, but these were not household items, but clothes. Mostly women’s clothing. And magazines, which my dad opened with the tip of his shoe to reveal gigantic, large-nippled breasts, and men with sideburns, long hair, no clothes and long penises.

My sister knew she wasn’t supposed to look and didn’t, and I gawked until my father closed the pages again. The ground was soggy from recent rain, and so were the colorful magazines. Soggy too was a book which lay among the pants and bras on the ground, it’s title Süßes Flittchen, Sweet Hussy.

It was very quiet among the trees and I was awed by our find, and my dad paced about, lifting a jacket here, panties there. There were so many clothes – how many people had gathered here, and in what state had they left? Even shoes, high-heeled yellow sandals lay on the ground. What had happened to the feet wearing them?

We breathed in the cold air, stood, giddy with our find. My dad must have been thirty-five, and he examined what I didn’t dare touch, and then we left. The woods though changed that day, and the lonely adventures of trappers and Indians began to fade. My forests became populated with people who parked their cars by a landfill, and dragged their friends into the trees, to clearings where no one else could hear the rustling of clothes being discarded.

Although I am loath to admit it, I am a prude.  I never would have thought myself to be uptight before now but being faced with the Freikörper Kultur has brought me up to speed.  I am 100% American prude.  What is the Free Body Culture, you might ask?  Why it’s the Society of Naked Germans, of course!  And with the advent of summer, the parks and lakes are overflowing with frolicking, happy nudists.

I have never before been even slightly weirded out by the thought that anyone would want to lie naked in the sun.  It sounds rather naughty and delicious, actually.  That being said, I have rarely been faced with an entire city of people who can’t wait to publicly shed their clothing at the slightest opportunity.  Summer is here or at least June is and even though it hasn’t been anything even approaching warm enough to be called bathing suit weather, anything above 60 degrees Fahrenheit is apparently warm enough to bare it all.  Nobody worries about shrinkage.  One day I was happily cruising around Berlin admiring the greenery and suddenly the next, the view had changed entirely.  One might have fancied oneself in a veritable Garden of Eden were it not for the tattoos and lack of strategically placed fig leaves.

In truth, this year I was well prepared.  Last summer on a visit the boyfriend took me to a lake to replenish our vitamin D deficiency.  He had warned me that everyone would be nude and that was fine, I’d said, but it wasn’t going to be me.  I’m not sure what I was expecting but it certainly wasn’t what was.  We were surrounded by everyone and anyone you could imagine, as long as you could imagine they were all white; Germany not being the most color diverse country in the world.  There were tall, short, fat, thin, old, young, beautiful, those not traditionally considered good looking, some obese folks, someone going through chemo, someone who’d undergone a double mastectomy, someone who was clearly anorexic, spider veins abounded, cellulite glistened in the sunshine, waxed and unwaxed, shaved and unshaved, if you can think of it, it was there.

As I looked around I was overcome with admiration for the group of people so comfortable in their own skin.  So unashamed of their bodies as they existed; a foreign concept for most Americans, let alone New Yorkers who are constantly under pressure to stay at the forefront of the fashion and body beautiful trends.  And I realized I was more conspicuous as the only one with clothes on than I would be if I just let go of my Puritanism and freed my body from its spandex confines.  It was elating to lie naked and unnoticed in a park full of people doing the same.  But I didn’t kid myself either.  The only reason I could do this at all was because other than my equally naked boyfriend, I didn’t know a soul.  There is courage in anonymity.

This year for my birthday, he took me to a spa to relax a little.  Once again I was prepared ahead of time for the lack of clothing.  Given the park experience, I no longer felt the need to take a suit.  But when we got to the spa and into the co-ed dressing room I found I was a little bugged out.  I mean, yeah it makes sense.  We’re all about to be naked together anyway, why separate us for the donning and removal phase?  But regardless of the rationality, I somehow felt more exposed fully undressing that close to strange men.  Then in walked the Swedish bombshells who parked themselves directly next to my boyfriend and proceeded to disrobe.  Wait, what happened to all the every-bodies I saw at the lake?  Where were they?  Why was I wobbling my sizable nether parts next to Sweden’s Next Top Model?  This wasn’t what I’d signed up for.

But we wandered down to the sauna anyway.  Walking through the rooms filled with spa-goers, I felt awkward and uncomfortable.  I couldn’t understand why at first.  It shouldn’t feel so much different than it had the last time, after all I didn’t know anyone there.  But as I took a seat in the very crowded sauna, I began to be conscious of the people around me.  These weren’t the naked folks I’d been at the lake with.  Nearly everyone there was under 40, somewhat toned or put together and were all painfully, horribly, nakedly close together.

I am a natural voyeur, a people watcher.  I love to openly gaze and wonder at the happenings around me.  But when you’re sweating together in a small room packed full of fellow nudists, you somehow lose the freedom to do that.  If you spend too much time looking at someone, you could be quickly labeled a sicko letch and excommunicated.  So there we all sat, carefully avoiding each other’s eyes, peeking out of the corners of our own to somehow get the bearings of our surroundings and not talking.  It was awful.

Today I went to a beach with some friends and was shocked to see the sand bursting with colorful bikinis and trunks.

“Where are all the naked Berliners?” I asked.

A fellow sunbather indicated a sign that said in big, black lettering, Freikörper Kultur, and pointed down the beach.  In that moment I knew.  I knew I was a prude because I was relieved.  I was so relieved not to be faced with the pressure to be naked with my friends.  I knew I couldn’t do it.  As they say, some things are better left unsaid, but there are an equal number of things better left dressed on my body and I decided to agree with my friend Juan’s assessment.  There’s something sexy about a little guesswork, even if it is just a little.  So although I may again lie naked in the sun it won’t be anywhere I might run into someone I know and you can rest assured my blanket will be far enough away from the next guy so I can take in the beauty of a park full of everyone basking in their own glory.  Just don’t tell my mother.

Dear Wine Guys,

While I can honestly say I have few regrets about leaving New York City, in all sincerity the loss of you is one of them.  German wine sellers don’t understand me.  This is a culture centered around thin, white wines, perhaps dictated by the Berlin demographic.  But as you well know, I am a red-blooded, robust American woman, complex and full-bodied with hints of sweetness largely overshadowed by my dry sense of humor.  You seemed to sense all of that immediately and I felt a kinship with you that has never been equaled the world around.  Oh Wine Guys, don’t at least one of you have a desire to learn German?

I so fondly remember the bygone days when I strolled in after work and with but a look, one of you accurately assessed my mood and began collecting bottles you knew without a doubt I would enjoy.  So rarely were you mistaken and each visit promised something fresh and exciting or simply comforting when I returned home, ever a reminder of your careful attention to detail and knowledge of my innermost self.

It has been a trail of tears for me here in Berlin traversing from one store to the next, ever hoping for the connection I felt with you.  I have tried every wine dealer in my district, daily venturing farther and farther afield, ever hoping for that certain something.  Time and again I am disappointed.  Each night I return home with wine described to my liking on the label and yet lacking in flavor, body and levels.  I am a coloratura soprano, after all; I need as many notes in my wine as my music.  Thus far, it is not to be.

Tonight was the worst of all.  The storefront showed promise.  Inside a wine tasting was in progress.  The clientele seemed by all outward appearances to be educated, cultured, and true wine lovers.  The wine selection was displayed beautifully and the patroness, ah, the patroness, she was like a beacon in a storm.  We spoke of colors; she used words like Kraftig and Trocken, music to my ears.  I felt a spark, something I haven’t felt in months, not since you.  I was certain she could be what I had been searching for, the connection, the understanding, the chemistry.  I followed her through the shop in a haze, nodding and smiling as she expounded on the large, round flavor contained in this bottle, yes only a little more than I wanted to pay but it would be well worth the expense.  I admit, I may have been too easily swayed. Can you blame me, after such a drought?

I rushed home, bottle in hand and a smile playing at my mouth.  This was certainly the beginning of a beautiful relationship.  The corkscrew, the perfect wine glass, the pop as the cork came free, 10 minutes to breath although I was finding it difficult, the pour, the swish and finally the sniff.  I knew immediately something was wrong.  Where was the assault on my nose?  Where was the flowery beginning, the tobacco, the raisin, the smoke, the oak?  I swished again only hoping I had not been aggressive enough.  Another sniff and the following sip with the bouquet, if you can call it that, still in my nose.  I rolled it over the tongue front to back and nearly spit it back out, it tasting bitter with my disappointment rather than what it was, simple and boring, far too thin to be interesting and singing John Cage instead of the Rachmaninoff I needed.  And with that, the earlier ember that burned only moments before, died.

And so dearest Wine Guys, it is with a heavy heart and a bland palate that I sit down to write you this futile letter.  I feel a fool hanging on to what cannot be and wish so fervently that I might be writing in victory rather than defeat.  It is always most difficult to be the one left holding a candle as others move forward and ever farther away.  I wish you no ill, certainly.  Our parting was void of malice, after all.  And I hope desperately you will welcome me back into your loving embrace when next I am home.  I can only hope that by that time I have found again what I lost not so very long ago and can appear in your doorway head held high, carrying a bottle you don’t recognize.  A gift from a thin, bland, white woman you no longer recognize.  Ah well, at least I’ll be thin!

All my love,
C