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.”


Thursday, August 20, 2015

Elijah's Lightbulbs

“You look Irish.” The Scotsman said to me at the coffee clutch after church in the church.  People often tell me this, but I am a pure American mongrel with partial Irish ancestry. The pastor who pronounced “pahk” for “pink” had just preached a sermon on how with one seed God creates an onion and with another seed an oak tree. This got me thinking about onions.

“See,” she said, showing me the cover of the cook book. I had been invited to a friend’s house for dinner. “I am making you this.  Without the cream.” She added. I looked at the cover of the cookbook in which a piece of salmon was placed in a yellow sauce on a white plate and surrounded by blanched vegetables, including bite sized morsels of a narrow delicate leek. Mostly I wanted to eat the leek. Maybe it was the Irish in me. The whole meal was delicious though, without fault, despite the absence of cream.  She turned over the salmon filets thoroughly and copiously bathed them with spoonfuls of crackling butter. It was beautiful to watch.

“You don’t mind if I eat the mango skin?” She asked. I had brought the dessert. “Shall I wash the mango?” This was her way of telling me that the mango needed to be washed. She had been a nurse before retirement.  I normally don’t wash mangos before peeling them, but somehow I felt I had been terribly incorrect these past 40 something years, routinely not washing my mangos.  She washed the mango. We discussed how to cut a mango.  She came from the Caribbean, one of the old Dutch colonies.  “We did sink some of those German boats. They were all out there.” She stated with pride, waiting for me to insert the knife.

“Here,” she said handing me one half of the mango without the fruit. I took the skin between my hands. We stood at the kitchen counter sucking the half mango skins. She was much better at it than me. My mango skin had a slight covering of dog hair left over it while hers was vacuumed clean. 

I told her the story of how I used to graze as a child in the garden, eating everything until I tried the corn.  It had been a bitter disappointment to me that it had been so hard to eat; I learned, unlike the carrots, snow peas, raspberries, lettuce that corn had to be cooked. She looked at me as if I were a fool. “Sweet corn milk!” She exclaimed. “Of course you can eat raw corn. We did it all the time as kids.”  She shook her heard. “We eat dem sweet potatoes too.” Every once in a while she’d slip a little Caribbean lingo in her sentences.

“Raw?” I asked impressed.

“Make yah teeth go green. Hmmm.” She stood still and remembered trying to clean the green stains off her teeth.  “Give me the pit.” She nodded at the mango pit I had attempted to strip clean with a knife. “Put it on my plate.” She suggested.

“Give us a clean heart.” The pastor had pleaded from the pulpit. I wondered about this information. Since when was it dirty? And what was immer wrong with the flesh of the fruit? Nothing can be clean without dirt.

When my friend had eaten half her meal, the salmon in the soft buttery sauce, she asked me for the jalapeño tabasco sauce, fresh out of the box.

I had divined, upon spying the box of tabasco sauce on the table, that she was making the European tender taste meal for me, her guest and non-Caribbean person, but that at heart she regularly dined with tabasco sauce. I deliberated sprinkling my food with tabasco sauce. I like tabasco sauce, but my American born Euro mongrel nerves twinge a little at the thought of a soft buttery salmon combined with jalapeno sauce and I start to fret thinking that I will mismatch the flavors and miss something important. “My great great grandfather was born in London.” She said calmly.

At church we listened to the story of Elijah and the watery fire. Sitting in the pew I couldn’t help but wonder if anyone had ever patented a product called “Elijah’s Lightbulbs” and simply sold weak lightbulbs with a clever name.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

What Men Don't Like

Last week I read an article about what men don’t like in a woman. Correction: The article was more about what men don’t like on a woman. Neon colors, as well as heavy make-up were encouraged. The piece was called “How to Turn Off Men” or something like that.

Coming out of the narrow alley in the mornings, dragging the dog with me past the puke stains, piss perfume and splashes of graffiti on the black brick walls, I step out into the raging beauty of Amsterdam. My eyes open a little wider, I always stop at that point to acknowledge the view. The dog has stopped long before me, of course, but here I let her sniff the black corner of the house by the alley to her heart’s content while I stare in amazement across to the other side. The view has expanded, a broad canal wanders in front of me filled with green murky water.  Boats are moored to every inch of the canal.

The dog can move as slow as she’d like now, I am not in a hurry. We take long pauses under each and every tree, looking down into the boats, littered with garbage in the summertime, before the plastic fades to grey. The remnants of yesterday’s pick nick on the quay. The historical canal houses are flashy but not too flashy. My eyes attempt to accept all those gifts of man and God in one panoramic scan. I constantly worry that I will not remember each and every detail on the houses, and finally after a long wrestle with my conscious every morning, I relinquish myself to the inevitable realization that I cannot memorize it all at that exact moment. “But wait,“ I think looking upwards, “Oh yes, yes, now I remember, there’s the house depicting the man standing with a lit fuse in his hand next to the canon on the top.”

We were just beginning to stand under a certain tree, a door opened, a woman emerged from the house.  A blond woman in her early thirties, wearing no makeup but well-tanned, walked towards me. “Neon,” I thought eyeing her pink shirt. Not blaring neon but see-through neon, the seams screamed a little, the body of the garment shimmered. “Was she trying to turn off men?” I wondered. “Was she all dressed and ready to get out in the world to totally not interest men? Was this the day’s occupation?” I noticed an open window in the house. The naked torso of a man in his mid-thirties was watching her leave.  She wasn’t smiling, he wasn’t smiling. She knew he was watching, he knew she knew he was watching. She didn’t look up or turn when she got to the bridge.  She didn’t wave, he didn’t wave. He left the window open, but he wasn’t standing in it anymore.

“Did she put on the shirt to have a fight, or were they having a disagreement before she selected or put on her shirt? Would things have turned out different if she hadn’t selected neon? Was there a symbolic message in the choice of shirt?” We moved on to the next tree. “Look,” I thought to myself, “There’s the door with Jesus and the lamb.” All meek and mild, in a sky blue dress.