Berlin (Always, Again): Vintage Garden and Late Night Laughter

I had never been to Kevin’s grandmother’s garden before, and was truthfully more than a little surprised when I discovered we would be driving. Life in Berlin is often a by-foot-and-train affair. We loaded things into the trunk, and I took mental note of the further usefulness of strength training–I can carry almost as much as the boys, provided the weight is appropriately distributed.

Kevin’s parents’ car, something sort of mini-van in shape and vaguely SUV in seating arrangment, is probably an entirely European shape and function combination. It doesn’t stand out in my mind at all–I cannot recall its color or make. In my mind it is the same vehicle Kevin dropped me off at Steven’s in the summer of 2004, when I asked him in German (in my infinite awkward adolesence which seemed to stretch years beyond what was necessary), if I could kiss him goodbye. I don’t remember how he responded (probably stunned silence, maybe a shake of his head, possibly a chuckle and a “nein”)–but I didn’t kiss him. In reality, it probably is the same vehicle. That was the last time I remember being in it, sitting shotgun while Kevin drove, filled with trepidation, running the–immactulately polite, from my perspective–phrase over and over in my head, “Darf ich dir auf Wiedersehen kussen?” (Yes, I scheme and carefully phrase almost anything important in advance. I do this in English, too, but it’s harder and more important in German.) My younger self, man. Poor, hopelessly sweet thing. Eighteen and completely, utterly clueless. She didn’t stand a chance, and now she makes me cringe (and laugh a little too).

This time, I was riding in the back with Julia, enjoying the drive which felt to me so much like home. In Berlin, they drive on the right side of the road. So even though Hellersdorf is adorned by apartment buildings sporting Former-Soviet-blockiness and post-Soviet bright facades, driving in Berlin feels like home. It is something about the lay of the streets, the wide roads, the overpasses, the streetlights, and the appropriate location of the steering wheel.

When we arrived at the garden area, pulling down a gravel drive lined by tall green hedges, it was discovered that Kevin had left the keys to the garden at home. Steven, who has planning skills that both terrify me and make me envious, sighed and said, “That’s just Kevin,” and popped open a can of sour cream and onion Pringles to munch on while Kevin went, on foot, back to the house. It is one of those rare places that can be accessed by foot and car in approximately the same amount of time.

Sometimes I don’t remember what language we speak in. Steven’s English is immaculate, but in front of Julia (who understands a lot of English but is nervous to speak it) we often try to speak German. It is only polite. However, since Steven, Diana, and Julia are planning a trip to the US in 2011, Steven has been encouraging Julia to speak English.

There was a picinic basket on the back dash of Kevin’s parents’ car. I pondered the word for it in German–der Picknickkorb. Why is it that I can remember the names for relatively useless words like that, and never for the things I need it for?

Kevin returned, and we walked up another hedge-lined path to the garden under the first drops of rain.

The garden itself was expansive and glorious, green and slick-wet from all the rain. A narrow path, lined on one side with a hedge, and the other with flowers, led to the patio of a tiny house. The branches of fruit trees hung low and shook water on us as we passed. A vegetable patch lay near the hedge marking the garden’s border, and a grape vine laden with green grapes crawled up the side of the house near the bathroom.

The little garden house itself reminded me of Mandy’s Shell Cottage. (Read the book Mandy if you haven’t. It’s amazing, and written by Julie Andrews!) A patio, which housed a porch swing that looked like ancient cast iron, was covered with some kind of corrugated sheeting. Inside, the ceiling was low, but the space was well-utilized. A tiny, charming kitchen was tucked into a space smaller than many American closets. The wall to the left of the door was lined with cabinets housing plates, glasses, and other things hidden from my eyes–seating and tables took up the rest of the space.

Quickly, we set to work–applying cushions to the porch swing, sliding a table into place and covering it with a plastic, flowered tablecloth. Steven mixed dips while Julia and I chopped vegetables. I was glad to have something useful to do–idleness has never suited me. (Puritan work ethic, I haz it. Idle hands = devil’s playground) I chopped carrots into sticks with a serated knife several times too small and dull for the task, and Julia and I arranged sticks of carrots, cucumbers, and bell peppers onto plates, selecting which plate to pile the vegetables on based on the contrast of colors. She and Kevin laid the table, Julia folding the blue napkins into boats. Then, Julia and I settled into the swing (which, because it was on enormous springs, had an alarming habit of dropping frighteningly whenever someone sat down in it) to sip our drinks from glasses proudly declaring Berlin the capital city of the German Democratic Republic (astonishingly vintage and delightful), and watch the boys play with fire.

We giggled at the boys as they poured lighter fluid onto the charcoal, sending flames shooting out the top of the ceramic chimney, and then sighed in contentment. This is how it should be, Julia said. We are sitting here relaxing and the men are making food. It seems that across cultures and languages, men like to cook meat outside with fire. Maybe there’s something primal about it.

The rain plinked down on the corrugated roof, dripped into the rubbish bin full of water, and ran off into the damp, green grass. After a while, Philip called Steven, and Steven went to fetch him from… somewhere. No one ever told me. This is a hazard of my guestright and Steven’s planning skills. I think he frequently finds it easier just to take it on himself. It’s just as well, in this case–I had no clue where we were. (Kevin had just given me the GPS coordinates.)

There was some discussion of which half of the grill would be kept free of meat for the veggie folk. The cake tongs, originally the only tongs found in the tiny kitchen, were designated for the vegetarian food. Another set of tongs, longer and more robust looking, were designated for the meat. Philip unpacked tupperwares full of marinated zucchini [corgette for the non-yanks] and eggplant [aubergine], and then sliced hallomi cheese to be grilled. And so the evening continued, the boys laying food across the grill over the coals, and Julia and I nibbling on vegetables while we watched. The talk was largely in German, and I followed what I could, but as often happens the conversation blurred into the hazy evening, my memories a watercolor wash of faces, smiles, and laughter bathed in candle and firelight.


I cannot remember who arrived first, Diana or Jona. Jona came by bike, wet in the darkness, as peculiar as he always is. Steven left to fetch Diana, and I squealed with delight when I saw her. We caught up in English

The evening drew on, still raining, cooler than I had prepared for. Jona made animal faces and noises to the amusement and bemusement of my friends, and we wondered idly what had happened to Joris (who had also planned to be here). Philip, using the internet that fits into his pocket, ascertained that Joris had come earlier, but his cell phone had not been working and he could therefore not locate us, and had gone back home. Philip convinced him to come out again–we would pick him up at the station.

When Joris made it back to the east side of the city (no short trip), Kevin and Philip and I went to get him. It was dark, then, and the garden only lit by the candles on the table and the glow of streetlights by the main hedge-lined street.

Watch out for the stair, Kevin called to me over his shoulder, precisely as I tripped over it. In a novel, this is what would be referred to as foreshadowing. I did not fall: this time, anyway.

Philip called shotgun, to force me to sit in the backseat with Joris. I cursed at him. Kevin and I talked about the time in 2003 that I had ridden home from a movie in Oklahoma City in Andrew Johnson’s trunk, as there wasn’t enough space in the car. I allowed as how I had become somewhat more risk averse–and then spent five minutes qualifying that statement before finally giving up–I have no idea what I have become.

At the station, we let Philip out to locate Joris, and in that moment I also popped right into the front seat, smirking at my own cleverness. Of course, since Joris did not appear to be quickly forthcoming, Kevin and I decided to go into the station ourselves. Down several flights of stairs, we found Joris on the platform, somewhat unshaven and wearing skinny trousers well below his waist. Whoever started that style ought to be shanked–no man looks sexy when his gait is determined by its ability to keep his trousers up. (Though, in this case, maybe that works in my favor?)

Once out of the station, I called shotgun myself and began first a sprint and then an easy lope to car, which naturally I ran right past since it sticks in my memory like teflon. Kevin and I laughed as we got back in–at least I had won my rightful seat.

My groups of friends have never particularly meshed well. Philip seems to get along all right with everyone, but Jona weirds people out, and tonight Joris seemed awkward and exhausted. Even then, though, across the table in the glow of the candles and the haze of the rain, his smile is as heart-achingly beautiful as always.

Kevin mixed me a drink, a mojito, and I reminded him of the first drink he ever mixed me.

It was 2004, and my first day in Berlin. I had arrived at around 9:30 in the morning, after an overnight flight on which I completely failed to sleep. Steven and his family had picked me up at the airport, and as we drove through Berlin to their flat I fell immediately and irrevocably in love with the city, in a way I have experienced with no other person or place. They had prepared a beautiful breakfast for me, broetchen and cheese and butter, sliced cucumbers, warm soft-boiled eggs and caviar. The rest of the day is a blur of exhaustion and dehydration (though I’m sure my journal from the time records it in excrutiating detail). I spent most of the day in the car, as I recall, following Steven on errands and not sleeping. That was Steven’s painful, if highly effective, way of dealing with jet lag. That evening there was a party at their guidance counseler’s house, where I got in my first of many fights with a locked European door and had a shot of herb liqeuor in the garden before darkness forced us into the house. There, Kevin mixed me a rum and coke–my first ever experience with liquor, my first rum and coke, my first day in Germany. I watched him make it (I aspired to be a world-class bartender at that time in my life), and remember the crystals of demerra sugar and the muddle of lime. The next thing I remember was him removing it from my hand as I lay in a corner of the living room, underneath a chair.

It couldn’t have been that strong, Kevin grinned at me, or you wouldn’t remember it so clearly.

I didn’t actually drink much of it, I don’t think, I told him. I was asleep under the chair because I had been awake for thirty-six hours.

Diana, Steven, and Julia paid their respects and left, all very much interested in sleeping, Julia seeming somewhat out-of-sorts. Kevin took Diana’s place next to me on the porch swing and the four boys talked nerd in German. I caught little of it, other than a joke about Apple products. It was, as I recall, something along the lines of,

“Why do so many people love Apple products?”

“It’s not love, it’s Stockholm Syndrome.”

A second (or was it third?) mojito, and then the boys from the West needed to catch the last train home. Noting my yawning and lethargy, Kevin offered to drop me back at his house to sleep after he dropped Philip and Joris off at the station. No way, I said, was I going to leave him with all the cleanup from the party–I think it was one or two am by this point, and there were lots of dishes to be done.

And so we returned to the garden together, his English becoming more frequent either from my lack of understanding his German, the incredible linquistic loosening abilities of alcohol, the restorative powers of familiarity, or some combination of other factors. He asked me if I had endure his father’s questioning, teaching me a new German verb: ertragen, to endure.

I washed dishes in cold water in the ridiculously low sink, a task I had chosen because I’m a good ten inches shorter than Kevin; if it was annoying for me to bend over the sink, which was almost as small as a child’s play set, I cannot imagine how irritating it would have been for him. It was, however, slightly too tall for me to wash dishes kneeling, so I stooped.

I commented on the perceived miniatureness of garden house; I know that, historically speaking, people are taller now than they used to be. Still, it seemed strange for it to be so much smaller than could be easily used by Kevin after only two generations.

He told me that it wasn’t just two generations–his great grandmother had bought the little garden house. The ancient cast iron porch swing was a creation of his great-grandfather, a blacksmith.

He dried the dishes as I finished washing them, and I cracked jokes about religion and children and whatever else I could think of to make him laugh. I have almost no recollection of what we talked about, unusual for me.

When we were done cleaning, he drove us through deserted streets, as we talked about his Master’s degree, and what came next–of which he kind of has no idea.

It was three am when I finally fell asleep, in Kevin’s sister’s old bed, utterly and completely content.

Berlin (Always, Again): Vintage Garden and Late Night Laughter

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