Pulling into Wampen, I wanted to know it in all its seasons, to see the nearby town of Neuenkirchen with its beautiful church, and to see the bigger city of Greifswald and its university, where Katy’s husband works. But we only had about 20 hours and then it was back to Berlin and a brief dive into a very complicated history. Mostly I wanted to feel her home, the sunniness, the dampness, the cool air. I wanted to fill up on the colors, the plants, and yes, the Baltic Sea. I imagined it cold and brooding, windswept and stormy, anything but placid. Basically, I wanted to gorge myself on the sensory buffet I had only sampled through Katy’s letters.
Well, that’s a lot to ask of a place, but Katy’s world did not disappoint. I can’t express the joy that welled up in my heart when I saw her beautiful face. Climbing out of the car, though, was a vine-y affair, as anything green there grows with a mad rush, and her driveway was lined with ground cover I didn’t want to crush. But what a joy to hug a dear, long-time friend. If only we could have something like that to look forward to more often.
Katy gave us a grand tour of her microcosm. One of her degrees is in botany and her brain is encyclopedic. Some people really know their surroundings, but Katy is on intimate terms with everything that grows, slithers, cackles, purrs, or hops. She’s my inspiration– it’s because of her that I own several books on flowers and growing zones. Because of Katy (and those field guides) I can look up unknown plants by their structure and flowerings. I’ll never be as good as her, but I sure like trying. She’s like science made human…more of that, please.
The tour included:
I took a ridiculous amount of photos of bees, poppies, and the fields. After her husband came home and we had Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cake), we walked the half kilometer to the Baltic. It began to rain and we were thrilled. I’m sure the Baltic has its sunny days, but we were perfectly content with this:
That night we were blessed with a fabulous dinner, a quick tour of her front yard and green house (from which she gifted me with a perfect gerbera daisy), and an astounding sunset in Katy’s backyard:
We talked late into the night. In the morning, Katy and I had a long talk over breakfast. When the girls and Joe got up, she told them one of my favorite stories: What it was like when the Wall came down. Katy was still living in Göttingen and I’ve saved all her letters from that time. She told the girls about how everyone–EVERYONE–was out out on the streets celebrating and welcoming the East Germans. She saw a West German grandma sticking chocolate bars under the windshield wipers of all the Trabbis (the East German “papier-mâché cars,” as Katy described them) on the streets. She saw an East German family staring at all the produce in the grocery stores. They were seeing stuff they’d never (ever) seen in the East for 20-some years. As they looked at an eggplant, their child asked them, “What is that, Mommy?” The mother didn’t know, and read the little sign, not even sure how to pronounce the word. (Katy: “They never had broccoli or eggplant. They knew peas, carrots, cabbage, potatoes, and beans. Stuff they could grow themselves, nothing imported.”)
Little details like that are one reason I’m recording this here. To share a bit of what it was like to live in the Cold War, in Germany, near the Front at what none of us knew at the time was the tale end of that era. I don’t think people who were born after that time can imagine what a triumph the fall of the Soviet Union was. Having traveled a bit through it myself (Russia, Ukraine, East Germany, Czechoslovakia), I’m glad I took good notes.
Of course, these are just my outsider impressions, but I absorbed as much as I could of the stories of families divided, the chagrin of having been misled by a genocidal maniac, the cruel karma of being punished by an even crazier one. Look, superlatives are pointless here, and anything I can write is, well, inadequate. All I can do is try to show a slice of the fascination I felt over the stories, and hope that others will want to know more. I have students and children who weren’t even born until after the Wall came down, and I am constantly looking for new ways to show them a bit of what it was like then. The Germans fucked up and they know it. They have made many noble attempts to own up to their horrible crimes, and nothing they do will ever make up for it. But at least they try. In America, we have never fully owned the genocide of Native Americans, let alone atoned for it. We have yet to fully address our crimes of slavery and the brutality against black bodies that continues to this day. We are so far behind the Germans in owning our shit, and I want to learn more about how we move forward. So count this history among my obsessions.
After our breakfast conversation (communion?), which I never wanted to end, we had to head back to Berlin. Katy had a lot of family coming up that weekend for her big birthday party and we all had a schedule to keep. As we dragged our feet to the car, I tried not to feel how my heart was being stretched. Ever since I left the cocoon of my hometown at age 18, I have always wanted to be two places at once. And once I had crossed that big ocean, the tear in my heart had only grown bigger. When I fell in love with Germany, “home” had bifurcated. A part of me would always want to be where I was not, even while deeply enjoying where I was. And I had no one to blame but myself.
Unless you’ve done something similar, you can’t understand. But as we pulled out of her severely botanic driveway, as Katy waved a sad but grateful goodbye, as I tried not to cry just yet, I realized something. It is risky to care for people you can’t be with any more. It is risky to put yourself out there in the first place, to make connections and leave your home, which is suddenly, bewilderingly more than one place at a time. It is risky to love, and it is risky to leave. And that is all I can say about that.
Next up: Berlin, City of Renewal