Little House on the Heide
Sweet Sixteen

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.