The day R turns sixteen, she and her friends take the train out while I drive ahead, a cake strapped into the passenger seat. After unloading the car I unfurl the line of brightly colored penants we bought in Vietnam, stringing them up between a branch of the apple tree and the bungalow, which makes the yard look a little like a used car lot. The pennants were all over Vietnam when we visited in April, along with an unusual flag – concentric squares of brightly colored fabric with a flame shaped border. I brought a few of the flags back as well. On a green shoot from the hazelnut bush, I fly one from a hole in the apple tree. Let the party begin!
Frau Left’s white head bobs around the corner of the fence. She’s obviously still ignoring me because of the lilac bush. I wonder if it would bother her so much if I were not a foreigner but someone from here. But perhaps if I were someone from here I wouldn’t dare to plant the wrong bush too close to a property line. Or maybe the fact is that I planted the wrong bush too close to the property line in order to make the point: I’m not from here – home is elsewhere. In that case the joke’s on me, since what I’m still searching for, after all these years abroad, is a place to call home.
Soon the kids arrive, dumping their bikes in a heap. For lunch we eat potatoes with grüne sauce, a specialty from Hessen, the area in Germany where M grew up. The sauce traditionally requires seven herbs that grow wild there, but though I scoured Berlin’s markets, I couldn’t find many of them. Everyone says it tastes good, even my daughter, who knows her grüne sauce. But I know it’s not like the real thing my mother-in-law makes in Hessen.
One of R’s friends asks, What’s with the flags? I tell them that they’re used to celebrate the annual Hung King fesitival, something I only learned after returning to Berlin. I bought them in Hanoi, from a woman who was sewing them on the floor of a tiny shop front. When I asked her what they symbolized she said party. Then I asked her if they were used for something religious and she said party. When I asked how much she said you buy ten meter one dollar.
Isn’t that cultural appropriation, my daughter’s friend says with a sly smile. It might well be, I say, but I doubt I’m offending anyone out here. Anyway, I feel more allegiance to the Hung King than the Stars and Stripes. I never thought of the US of A as home, even when I was growing up there. The place I’m from is a region of big lakes and broad accents, pot hole winters and sweet corn summers; it’s borders don’t stop at Canada or reach nearly as far south as Texas. Texas is a foreign country I’ve never been to.
At least I’ve been to Vietnam. It was also foreign at first, but then I learned the weight of the heat, the noise of the mopeds, the smell of the markets, the surly charm of the people – and I missed it all once I returned to Berlin, perhaps merely because Vietnam was a place that had begun to feel familiar.
We have all eaten seconds and there are still two pieces of cake left. I should probably take them to the Lefts as a peace offering, I grumble. M agrees. So I make my way over with the last two slices, imagining all the mean things she might say… This American cake is too sweet! That lilac bush is too close! You don’t belong here! But she smiles when she sees me at her gate and invites me in.
We sit in the sun and Herr Left tells me once again that she was seventeen when they met. She shoots me a knowing glance: his mind is going. Hers is fine; it’s her body that’s beginning to fail her, so frail and bent. I think of my daughter on the other side of the fence, young and lithe, sweet sixteen.
Herr Left tells me about the meat he used to butcher, how the West Berliners came over and bought up all the best cuts. And they took almost all the carp in the lake, he says. Unless you knew someone, Frau Left adds. If you knew someone you could get a carp, maybe at Christmas or Easter. All I can think is, who wants to eat carp?
But of course, we were used to it. We were refugees, she says. And then we talk about how the place they called home became another country after the war and they had to leave. I mention the current refugee crisis in Europe, aware that I might be rebuffed for making a comparison they would rather not draw. But Frau Left nods in agreement, adding, nothing is permanent: not borders, not homes, not bodies.
The sun is shining when we wake up so I begin packing the cooler. M is exhausted from an overly strenuous morning run and asks me to drive. By the time we hit the autobahn he is feeling nauseous. Once we get to the house he drags the inflatable mattress out onto the lawn, collapsing between the broken barn and the moldy bungalow. He seems to be suffering from food poisoning. As he shivers under a sleeping bag, regretting a dubious bowl of chili at last night’s party, the kids wander around, in search of last summer’s exuberance. The walnut tree appears to be dying.
Back in November I had hoped that by the time spring rolled around we would be rolling with it, moving forward, renovating the house, planting trees. Instead it seems as if we are sinking, entrenched as we are on either front of what is beginning to feel less like a realistic goal and more like an endless war: home and garden.
In fact, we are right back where we were a year ago: imagining a transformation, making plans. As soon as we get soil delivered, we can start planting. As soon as we get planning permission, we can start building. Is this patience or delusion?
All I know is that some parameters have shifted: Herr G has stopped returning my calls. The truckload of soil he promised did not materialize over the winter. If I want the privacy of a wall of lilac bushes, I’ll have to procure plants and soil somewhere and dig that thirty meter ditch myself. Oh, and the house? We’ve decided to tear it down and start from scratch. That is, once M is conscious again.
It feels like we’re on our own now. Frau Left has stopped saying hello since our little run-in last fall. And there’s no sign of the Rights, other than their barking dog and marauding robot lawn mower. Also, their above ground pool has disappeared. But instead of relief, its absence inspires a nebulous dread. What will take its place?
Still, the main question now is how to spend the afternoon. While O tries in vain to fly a kite, R reads a book, bundled up in scarves next to the wood burning oven in the bungalow. I stare at the tools in the shed, trying to identify the one that will release me from this limbo, endow me with some kind of agency. I prune; therefore I am!
Soon O is at my side, though. He needs a saw. Why can’t he build a tree house? No, he does not want to go for a walk or play a game. I convince him to bike into town for a soft-serve ice cream. It’s cloudy and cold now but what else is there to do? We are back to taking this place as it is because we are in no position to make demands.
When O and I return, R has finished her book and is staring at her phone. We all have that Sunday feeling, except for M, who has commenced vomiting. But with school tomorrow, staying the night is not an option, so we return the food to the cooler and load up the car again. The drive back to Berlin is punctuated by an impromptu stop in a shady forest, where we watch M retch by the side of the road.
It’s mid-November and I would like to report that planning has been approved, or that renovation of the house is already underway. Or at least that the guy has dumped a truckload of new soil on the property, the guy I can’t even call to coordinate delivery of the soil.
Don’t take this the wrong way, M said, but I think it would be better if I call him, which left me wondering what part of my identity would be hard for the guy to deal with: foreigner or female?
And I wish that Herr G were busy digging a trench for a hedge and that my rubber boots were sinking into mud as I pondered where to plant the new trees. But no. While we did harvest a few baskets of apples, a small bowl of walnuts and some stunted carrots, things have stagnated otherwise.
Herr G is missing in action. He doesn’t respond to email. I call every few days and get an answering machine. And work on the house is progressing at a similar rate. M took a week off to draw up the plans but when we sat down to discuss them an argument erupted. To me it seemed he had dithered away the week drawing up unnecessary alternative versions.
The last time we were there I had pulled him through the house, announcing exactly how it should be – tear down this wall, knock in a window here, drop a fireplace there and smack down a deck. I’m not an architect but it couldn’t be that complicated, so what was the problem?
Looking over the plans, we ended up screaming. After he stormed off I grabbed a pen and marked the unacceptable versions – all but one – with an X, adding notes to the remaining drawing and leaving the mess of papers spread out over the kitchen table. Done, I thought. In the morning everything was gone.
A few nights later I ask if he saw my notes.
“Hmm,” he mumbles, jaw clenched.
“It will never be finished if we don’t start soon,” I prod, once again testing the limits of his patience.
He sighs, looks into my eyes with a sad smile.
“It’s a process – why are you always in such a rush?”
The days are getting shorter. Soon we will hit that stretch of the year when the clouds never lift, when there doesn’t seem to be enough light to see, much less to breathe, because the lack of light affects my entire body. And our daughter is fifteen, next year she’s decided to do an exchange in South America, having located the point on the map that is furthest from home. Sure, we still have her little brother, but soon she’ll be gone!
I think: It’s all going too fast.
“It’s all going too slow,” I say. “I want the house to be finished before R has kids of her own!”
M says I’m being dramatic. I tell him I can’t imagine another year in that moldy bungalow. I need to know that we are moving forward, that next winter we will be able to drive out to the house we have sunk all our money into and take walks in the woods, light a fire, look out over frozen fields and see mist lifting off the surface of the lake.
“A house in the country is just another thing,” M reminds me. “A thing won’t ever make you happy.”
There’s a house being built in the yard behind our apartment building in Berlin. It’s another story, for another blog, but I mention it here because I suddenly find myself with plants needing new homes. One of them is a small lilac bush.
Out at the house I dig a deep hole near the fence to the Lefts, hoping to block out the not-so-fabulous view of their stockpile of firewood. As I’m shoveling soil over the newly settled lilac, Frau Left hobbles up to the fence and informs me that it is too close to the property line. I point out how small it is and she says it will get much bigger.
I tell her I don’t want to cause trouble and that, in fact, I have already looked up the regulations regarding the proximity of plantings. Obviously, I’ve been anticipating this kind of confrontation, and of course there are elaborate rules: this is Germany. I thought anything under two meters could be planted right up to the border, but I must have gotten something wrong…
Meanwhile, M is raking leaves under the hazelnut bush. Frau Left tells us it’s also too close to her property. As is the Right’s birch tree. I look across the empty lot, the one we would like to buy from the Lefts. In the distance is the birch tree, a tiny thing swaying in the breeze.
I ask, “Does it really bother you?”
“No, but it’s too close. There are regulations, as you know. I have a copy hanging in the kitchen.”
I try to smooth things over by telling Frau Left we will cut back the lilac the minute it bothers her.
“Well, you’ll have to. Lilacs grow rampant,” she says, fear in her eyes. How can you be afraid of lilacs, I wonder.
On the drive back to the city M tells me my tone was not exactly the smoothing-over kind, and that mentioning the regulations sounded confrontational. I worry we are on the brink of one of those Hatfield and McCoy situations that seem so utterly trivial unless you find yourself involved. And we haven’t even started renovating the house.
“I guess we need to suck up next time,” I say.
“That’s your job, I already went over for coffee when you were away. I was stuck there for four hours looking at photo albums. Heard the whole story.” M points out the road that leads off to what was once Carinhall, Herman Göring’s hunting lodge, the remains of which are buried under the forest floor. The war is never far away.
“Frau Left’s family came from Poland,” M says. “She watched while her mother was dragged off by a group of Russian soldiers, never saw her again. You’d think she had more things to worry about than property lines.” M has lead a relatively charmed life so far. Having never really lost anything, he doesn’t understand how it works. Afternoon light flickers through the trees. Fall is here.
“No,” I say. “That’s exactly why she’s obsessed with holding on to what she has now.”
We bought a house, I wrote. Come out and see how stupid we were! Bring three bean salads, I added, thinking this was witty. When M asks, I can’t remember how many people I invited.
Around noon they start to arrive, bearing cakes and bread, flats of strawberries, tubs of humus. A table fills with meat and dips and salads – yes, there is more than one version of three-bean. We don’t know where to put all the food. One friend presents me with a package of thirty sausages, another hands me a shopping bag full of chicken thighs. We have the tiniest of refrigerators in the bungalow and it’s over 30 degrees.
There are buckets of ice in the dungeon – which is what I’ve started calling the basement – where bottles of soda, beer and wine are now joined by the salmonella-risk contributions. Even though everything Herr B left behind is now gone, the basement still gives me the creeps. Whenever I go down the stairs the sooty stench reminds me of the stockpile of coal we found stacked in a four-poster bed. The walls are painted acid green. In the half-light I expect to see the neoprene diving suit left hanging from the low ceiling.
Everyone gets a tour. I point out the coal-heated cauldron in which Frau Left did the washing, and each time I open the creaking iron door to the blackened chamber where Herr left smoked pieces of freshly butchered meat, I cackle don’t bump your head! We climb up the stairs to see old bottles and dead flies and the strange hat worn by the chimney.
The Lefts stop by, looking overwhelmed by the hordes of marauding children, the exorbitant number of guests, the mountains of food everyone brought. I introduce Frau Left to a couple seated on a bench next to the barn, a portion of which we recently tore down before it could collapse.
“They’re in the pigsty,” she laughs, explaining that the bench sits on the foundation of the trough in which she used to toss buckets of slop.
“Another time,” Herr Left says after I offer coffee and cake. “You have your guests.” Before leaving they present us with gifts – a flowering bush, chocolate and money for the kids.
Late in the afternoon everyone goes swimming. I stay behind to clean up a bit and catch my breath. The fifteen or so people who return from the lake will stay the night. M fires up the grill again – there is still so much food – and tents sprout on the lawn like enormous mushrooms. Candles flicker on the long table and kids run around with flashlights, tent walls glowing when secret stashes of candy are retrieved. In the morning I’ll find the wrappers everywhere, but right now no one cares. We look up at the stars and pass the bug spray and open another bottle of wine.
It’s after ten when the Rights arrive. Frau Right hands me a tiny loaf of bread sprinkled copiously with salt and tied with golden twine to a wooden board, explaining the German tradition of a gift of bread and salt, which is meant to evoke a prosperous connection to the new home. With a warmth I’ve never felt from my neighbors in the city, she kisses both of my cheeks, takes my hand in hers and says simply, Welcome.
In the paper bag I’m holding there are two dry-aged sausages.
Across the fence, Herr Left points to Frau Left with his thumb, and says, “Seventeen when I first saw her!” We know this already. He repeats himself.
“Her too,” M says, pointing at me and catching my eye. He knows that under normal circumstances I would bristle to be so objectified. I shoot him a smile, agreeing that it’s all part of the plan. We are good at playing the roles of man and wife. Our performance is calculated but not without real warmth. We know the Lefts will feel at ease seeing their own version of normal. Our version of normal looks similar but is so different from theirs. Of course, this belief might be the bedrock of all romantic relationships.
The sausages are from northern Hessen, like my husband. For some reason this seemed like an appropriate gesture, but now I’m not so sure. Should we have brought something American? Or maybe wine or cake? I imagine the Lefts trying to chew through the peel of the sausage the way I did the first time I tried it.
“You have to remove the casing,” I say.
“Oh, I know,” Herr Left says, grinning through straight teeth that have been ground down to stubs. He jabs a finger at his own chest and adds, “I was a butcher!”
Frau Left says demurely, “I don’t know if we can accept – I don’t think we can ever repay the kindness.” She slipped and fell over the winter and walks cautiously now.
“Nonsense – no need to,” I say, feeling the guilt percolate. Today we’ll say nothing about the vacant lot because what could we say? Here’s your sausage, now can we have that land? But that is, essentially, the plan. And we have to act soon; they’re both over eighty and who knows how long Herr Left will still remember that Frau Left was seventeen when they fell in love?
I hand over the sausages with a heartfelt smile, wondering if, when we finally pop the question, she will think back to this moment and doubt my sincerity. I hope not. I like them, this old couple that has stuck it out together on this piece of land for so long. But I am afraid to become them, afraid I’ll lose my mind or my balance out here, afraid I’ll be trapped by a marriage or a little town. I need to be able to disappear back into the city.
We haven’t slept in the bungalow yet but we’ve cleaned it up enough to use. We don’t have a refrigerator so we fill the bathtub with cold water to cool drinks. Friends arrive and we drag out the long table Herr B left behind, eating an improvised feast in the setting sun: grilled meat and vegetables and crusty bread. We wear straw hats and drink wine. The kids have gone feral, jumping on the roof of one of the cars and hanging four at a time from the spindly branches of the walnut tree, which bend to the ground under the weight. I’m afraid they might snap. There is the sound of birds, a light breeze, the silver slice of lake in the distance. I am charmed by it all and yet somewhat disturbed at our sudden arrival in this lifestyle brochure.
After the friends leave I let the water drain out of the bathtub, fishing beer labels out with my hand and using the shower head to spray away bits of dirt. One speck won’t go down. It keeps swirling away from the drain. The speck turns out to be a mosquito, one of those wispy ones that hardly seem capable of life and are yet so persevering. Another mosquito joins it and even when I aim the spray right at them they somehow manage to stay out of the hole, rising up into the damp to continue their limping flight through the mist. Is there something here that’s worth the risk they’re taking, or are they just too dumb to escape?
Over gung-bao chicken, M and I exchange updates on the progress we’ve each made in our designated realms: his is the house, mine is the garden, because I’m not an architect and he doesn’t know anything about plants.
“Herr L is going to rip down the asbestos siding next week,” M says, a peanut sliding from his chopstick back into the little bowl.
“Good. Herr P said we need to decide what we want by the end of next week. They can still dig up the trees but they will have to be planted immediately, so we need to wait to hear back from Herr G. We’ll definitely need his help for bigger trees.”
A devilish look sparks in M’s eyes. “If we had the other lot we could plant the trees there…” We smile conspiratorially as the dishes are cleared away, thinking of the vacant lot. We are hoping that the land might not be too expensive, that the Lefts might want to sell.
“But we would have to make sure we don’t block the Rights’ view too much,” I say. “We don’t want to piss them off.” Home-ownership is starting to feel familiar to this child of divorce. Like navigating a life in joint custody, negotiating a place in the middle between Left and Right is a delicate business.
I pay the check and we crack open the fortune cookies. Try a new path, I read. Oh, great, I’m on the wrong path again, I think. I shouldn’t get comfortable here, I shouldn’t have bought a house, I’m trapped, I need to run away… If I let the thoughts continue they will bring on the urge to disengage, to let someone else take over – say, a father figure or a crazy woman. So I think about which trees to plant. Birch or Aspen? Apple or cherry? The choices seem endless.
Last August we bought a falling down house outside of Berlin, in a biosphere reserve called the Schorfheide. The house moldered through another winter while we holed up in the city, and now that the siberian gloom has lifted, I’m pondering a stack of birds’ eye photos of the plot of land. There are also plans noting the exact location of the various structures we now own – barn, garage, bungalow, house. Could this be home, the treasure I’ve been chasing? X marks the spot. I guess you start by digging.
At night I leaf through a catalog from BBB: Barnimer Baumschule Biesendorf, falling asleep wondering how to best block out the view of the neighboring houses. The catalog was supposed to cost twenty euro but was free of charge after I told the lady at the register that I wanted to talk with Herr P, the nursery’s head honcho.
Herr G sent us, I added. This felt slightly illicit, or at least as close to illicit as I get these days.
In the morning, after a first sip of coffee, I’ve got the catalog in my hands again. I pore over pictures of obscure hardwoods, deciduous shrubs and climbing vines. When I get to the roses I begin shouting out the fantastic names: Fairy Dance! Little Artist! New Dawn!
M begs me to stop but I can’t because he hasn’t heard the best one, yet: Super Dorothy!
“Who doesn’t need a little Super Dorothy in their life?”
He gives me a weary look.
“Fine, but I want a cherry tree. A Regina. Or maybe a Kordia or a Karina…” The names roll off my tongue in a vaguely exotic accent. I drool over the pictures like some creep choosing a mail-order bride. I’m a little obsessed, but not quite as much as I pretend to be.
M is not amused, perhaps because he understands what having a cherry tree means to me – that it’s about conjuring something that was lost long ago – and because he probably knows that I’m pretending to take everything lightly when in fact I am, as usual, way too serious. I use a permanent marker to draw circles on the plans, jotting in the Latin names: Tilia cordata, Pterocarya fraxinifolia, Forsythia suspensa fortunei.
After a late, cold winter, spring has finally come, abruptly, in mid-April. Everything has to go very fast now if we’re going to plant trees. I want to jump ahead and order some stuff called Grazers – I’ve heard it can keep the deer from eating the tasty young leaves – but I’m starting to understand that garden logic flows backwards. Roots first need to be yanked from the place they’ve grown. Holes need to be dug.