Pa.

Back in the summer, when Mum and Dad were over helping us get settled in the new place, planting trees and watching the kids, Pa took his tumble while trying to deliver his wife to her doctor’s appointment. 97 years old, stubborn as the proverbial mule, insistent on being his wife’s caretaker and chauffeur as he stared down a century. The fall put him into hospital and ultimately them both into a home, where Pa spent his final few months. At the time, I was doing an online writing course with the Uni of Iowa, looking at how we write about identity and social issues. My first assignment was to write a profile and examine the identity of the person I had chosen to write about. Pa was forefront on my mind – for the second time since moving to Germany, I had done the ‘just in case’ goodbye call; he was adamant we’d see each other at Christmas. So I chose him to profile, especially the German part of him that he inhabited with such pride I always assumed he was as German as the classical music he loved to listen to.

Pa was always supportive of my writing, reading it, asking after it, pushing me along with his crisp, patented ‘terrific m’ girl’.  I realise, now that I am in possession of his doorstop memoirs, that he loved it too, and my goodness, could he tell a story.

So here it is.

A part of my Pa is German, perhaps a bigger part than is on paper, certainly a bigger part than is on his passport. Even though he signed up to sail to North Africa and join the fight against Rommel, a man he has often said was an extraordinary strategist (he tells an excellent story about being the first person to undergo a surgical procedure on board the Queen Elizabeth). Even though his surname no longer belies its German roots, changed by his mother during a nasty divorce or because of post-war anti-German sentiment, no one really knows. Even though he has spent his 97 years in Australia and has never, now never will, set foot on German soil. A part of my Pa is German, so much so that as a child I assumed he was, assumed he had the language tucked up somewhere in a practical, capable, flighty mind. Assumed a bigger part of myself was German, more than the 1/8 my father would routinely, proudly, tongue in cheek – although I missed that, as a child – remind me of.

Pa was born and grew up in Sydney, in the north-western suburbs, in an Australia different to the one I was born in sixty-five years later. He was curious, capable. He still is. And stubborn as hell, stubborn to a fault. He tells the story of how, as a three-year-old, he took himself off to inspect the train-tracks that ran near his home. He planned on climbing a post but was thwarted by a concerned neighbour; ‘I just wanted to see how they worked, my girl,’ he told me. (He tells stories like an Australian, leaning back and into the yarn, adding colour where perhaps there wasn’t much before, but that doesn’t matter because what’s a good yarn without a bit of colour?) He still wants to know how things work. He got onto the internet when he was 90, emailing, joining social media. At 97, his workshop has not long been left behind, full of old clocks he has taken apart and put back together, huge pieces of handmade furniture. His 500-page memoir is complete, bound and published, sent out to family members and full of long-forgotten names and faces. He used to drive my mother crazy by finding all sorts of things to fix when he visited, things she was quietly certain weren’t broken.

Like so many other Australians, Pa’s mother was of English stock, but it was his father’s German side that he laced into his very self. He identified with being German the way descendants of immigrants identify with a motherland they know of only from stories; proudly, passionately, absolutely. He still thinks Germans do everything the right way. When my now-husband, a German, met Pa for the first time, he peppered him with questions about why Germany is so successful, and soliloquised at length about what Australia could learn from Germany. My great-great-grandfather was a first generation Australian. He didn’t pass the language onto his own children; I don’t even know what he passed onto his children, but something about the romance of coming from a village in a country on the other side of the world, lit a fire in my Pa for a country he would never see, a language he would never speak, a people he would forever see himself as one of.

My Pa navigated life with a sort of slipshod certainty and a tendency to disappear. Sometimes I see him as a figure with dancing feet, the same way I see his great-grandfather, whose dancing feet carried him onto a boat and into the new world. I wonder if that curiosity about the world and the way it works and that ability to simply leave, is genetic. I wonder if I inherited it too. Pa disappeared into army service, too young but too stubborn to be told no, and nearly lost the engagement of my Nana, his first wife. He disappeared from that marriage, too, leaving behind two sons and a rift that, like all of that kind, became a kind of traversable scar tissue, helped by grandchildren and that genetic stubbornness threaded through his sons who wanted those grandchildren to know their Pa. And know him we did. One of my earliest memories of Christmas, is running into the guest room to show Pa my new ballet doll from Santa. As kids, we would sit on his lap and write ‘stop smoking’ all over his arms and legs with biro. We told him he would die if he kept going, and I can hear him now saying, ‘is that right?’. It worked, he did stop smoking. He gave up the habit in his mid-seventies, when most people wouldn’t care anymore, couldn’t rustle up the willpower. A couple of summers, we made the drive north, and visited him in the beach town in northern New South Wales that he and his second wife settled in, where a koala lived in a back garden that always smelt of mint and gardenia. Pa would make us milkshakes, taking our orders like he was behind the bar. He had a milkshake maker we were all pretty sure was the coolest thing you could have in the kitchen. Whenever we went swimming down at Flynn’s Beach, where the surf was big and rough, he would float backwards over the huge swells as if he didn’t have a care in the world. Licking the salt from my lips, fresh from being dumped by a crashing wave, I’d scream, ‘Pa! Behind you!’, certain the wave he was cresting, prone, would break on him. It never did. He always emerged the other side grinning, his bristly moustache and neat hair glinting in the saltwater.

When my parents travelled, Pa would drive the five hours down to Sydney to look after us. He made our school lunches, all three of them, drove us to and from school every day, and looked after the menagerie of animals we had; guinea pigs, rabbits, dogs, a couple of horses, budgies. He used to drive at a flat 50 km/h, rumbling down the street in my Mum’s Volvo station wagon. He wore white knee-high socks every day, and was up each morning well before any of us, moving around the kitchen like a spring. As far back as I can remember, I always snuck a look into his little black toiletry bag, to see his old shaving brush and hair cream and Brut cologne, or was it Old Spice? Maybe both. But he was always loyal to Imperial Leather soap; I think he still is. He combed his hair every morning. Sometimes, as a young girl, he’d let me comb it. I had forgotten that until now.

A few weeks ago, I got a call. Pa had fallen and hurt his leg badly. He his back in hospital now, pissed off at himself; being still, being waited on, being told what to do, all which he hates. The last time he was in hospital everyone was sure he wouldn’t come out. I called him from our apartment in Bavaria, where we were living at the time – coincidentally, just two hours from the village his ancestors came from – and he told me he loved me. I was certain, then, he would go, certain he had accepted his century goal was one he would not reach. He had never before told me so explicitly, had never before stepped so far out of the taciturn, emotion-less times and family from which he came. But he didn’t die. He left hospital and threw himself into caring for his wife who had been diagnosed with dementia. He turned 94, 95, 96. We visited them both in the beach town of northern NSW where they both still live, when I was pregnant, to tell them face to face of an impending great grandchild. Pa slapped his thigh and said, ‘how about that!’ and has not missed one birthday or Christmas since becoming a Great Pa. Not one. He is yet to meet his great grandson, but on the phone the other day, when I called because, again, I was certain it might be the last time we would speak, he told me he can’t wait to see us at Christmas. It will be by the beach, the kids will love it, and Pa will pepper my husband with questions about Germany, say ‘wie geht’s’ and ‘danke’ to my children.

My children are like him; half German, half Australian, and our family lives between the two countries, the two languages, the two cultures. It is too soon to tell which country will fill their heart, which language they will favour, which culture they will feel more at home within. Too soon to tell in which direction they will be pulled. It is unlikely they will remember their Great Pa, or know what they have in common with a man who has lived his nearly 100 years in two countries without ever setting foot in one.

 

Thread

I’ve not been home in three years. Life, here, has continued apace – another baby, a new house, a new job – and Australia has remained patiently in my heart, suspended in time, waiting. Or I am waiting for it. Or we are waiting for each other, waiting to press play again, for motion. It is a trick, I know; Australia stands no stiller than I do when we are apart. Things move on; people grow up and old, the mood shifts, trees get chopped down, houses go up, babies arrive. Change is as constant as familiarity; the two, strangely, do not fight. There is room for both. I am learning that more and more, you know – there is so often room for both.

Singapore was a midway home for a few years; die Lüdde had four Singapore stamps in her passport before her second birthday. Vietnam brought almost the whole family together for my sister’s wedding. Cousins are dotted around the globe, my brother moved to London. We see each other; we get brief, rich days together and they tide us over, they are more than many get and I am acutely aware of that. But as I get older and my own young family elbows its way into existence and takes its place alongside the others that have come before it, the notion of family reveals itself further; this big, messy, ancient organism, alive and temperamental and needy and fragile and so strong as to seem almost infallible. But we aren’t infallible, I know that. And now and then a sense of panic crawls up my throat when I think about how close we always are to loss, and how far away I will be when it happens.

I feel the pull now, towards the country that most of my family calls home. My Pa is old, old enough to have seen 97 years. We used to say he would live forever, but the three fates are running out of thread. I want him to meet his great grandson and I want to be able to say goodbye. A privilege, I know. But I want it. My Nana is old too, and her mind is tired and frayed.  I want her to be with my children, like she was with us.

I started writing this a few days ago, aware perhaps of how on the edge I stood, of change. Of how this pull is borne of slight desperation, desperation to get back before too much change, before loss. Yesterday, the thread ran out and we lost my Pa. He went quickly, tired at the end of a long life thoroughly, rigorously lived. 1920 he was born; to think of all he saw. I remember when he met die Lüdde, when he was 94 and she a mere four months old. He was at his end, she at the very beginning, and I, somewhere in the middle; ‘it doesn’t get better than this,’ he said.

I have been thinking about what one grieves when a person of great age – and 97, well that’s a bloody good number – dies. The loss, of course, because any loss is sad – to have and then suddenly to not. I am crushed we will be just a few weeks too late; that I was too late when I called to say goodbye; that he never got to meet his second great grandchild. Too late, too late – death makes everything too late. But I feel that what we also grieve, is a part of our own lives that has now been consigned to history. I am more nostalgic than ever, for a childhood in which Pa was a stalwart. My family is one less; a door has closed and we may now only look through the window.

Distance so often seems the parent of disconnect and it is connection during these times, that is the only salve. I cry as much for a loss I knew was coming, for the memories of a terrific (one of his favourite words) Pa, as I do for a ritual I cannot attend, a salve this moment requires. And so I’ll play his favourite classical music, light a candle and look through old photos. I’ll write. And home, she is waiting; not still, not unchanged, but waiting. Not long now.

We are one less; but for that, we had years of richness. The fates were generous with Pa.

Deliberately Seeking Beauty

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that the months October through May in Germany are spent sneezing, sniffing, coughing, snotting, rasping, wheezing, drinking 800 litres of herbal tea and complaining. As a parent of young children in these climes, if one is not wiping one’s own nose thirteen times an hour, then one is wiping a smaller, snottier nose, thirteen times a minute, every minute of every day from October through May. Occasionally, there are windows of respite, during which the whole family is weirdly healthy and completely smug about it. Then the next bug blows in and the Honig Fenchel** comes out and Apothekes begrudgingly sell you thimbles of pure eucalyptus oil, warning you of its potency, and throw balls of dried dandelion at you as you walk out the door.

I started this sick season off with a bang and took six weeks to shake a virus which began easing up the moment I decided I may as well go to the doctor (why is that always the way?). What struck me, this time around, was how very German I have become in my reaction to illness. I hit the tea, hard, because your body needs plenty of fluids (although I tempered it by hitting the caffeine to get through long work days, despite a colleague’s and students’ suggestions of ginger and lemon, good GOD the ginger and lemon tea obsession in this country) . I hit the supplement aisle in DM and got zinc, Vitamin C and magnesium and have been trying to force everyone I know to start taking magnesium ever since, because I feel like I have discovered the font of youth in tablet form. I took eucalyptus baths, kept my feet warm, walked around the house wearing a scarf to protect my chest. And when I wasn’t getting any better, I waved the white flag, cancelled classes, got a doctor’s note that then allowed SG to take a day off work to relieve the primary caregiver (how is that for a family friendly system?) and rested. I took a cup of tea into bed and rested. It was, really, just one afternoon of rest, but it worked.

Of course, I am now well but I have one child taking some sort of plant-based cough syrup and treating Honig Fenchel like it is oxygen and it is only a matter of time before the other one falls. But that, along with the golden leaves and the Gemütlichkeit and cupping hands around hot cocoa and rosy cheeks and woodsmoke air – all of those repulsively cinematic things that make these months insufferable on Instagram – that is simply part and parcel of this time of year. And winter (with added complaining about the cold, and extra snot and loads of sweat underneath the bulky layers). And spring (with added red eyes and tight chests thanks to pollen).

Tell you what, though, I am getting better at Schietwetter. With the exception of some lovely afternoons here and there, it has been drizzly and grey. But I don’t feel the weight of winter’s impending gloom and doom quite so heavily. The rain, while tedious, doesn’t make me feel simultaneously claustrophobic and rageful, rather somewhat wistful. Perhaps it is because we aren’t even in November yet and I am only just starting to wind up for Christmas madness, the best kind of madness; perhaps it is the new house with more space during the days too rainy to go outside; perhaps it is the knowledge we will be in Australia in just shy of 7 weeks, with family, on the beach, for the first time in three years; perhaps, with each passing year, I am simply becoming more and more eingewöhnt, and my wardrobe more and more appropriate. I don’t know. Perhaps it’s the magnesium. I do know it helps to not fight it. It helps to deliberately seek beauty, even on the greyest of days. I also know, come February, I’m usually singing a different tune, but then again we all are come February, even the most die-hard of Gemütlichkeit fans. No one is really singing in February; most people are curled in a ball keening, begging for sun.

But. I am not going to think about that. Yes, October is on its way out, taking with it leaves and the last of the light, yes mornings are pitch black and the long, languid evenings of summer have been all but forgotten. But the most wonderful time of year is almost here (has been here since August 31st, according to Aldi). I haven’t even had the first bite of Stollen this year (holding out for November. I figure if Christmas Markets start in November, I can eat Stollen in November too) although I did enjoy a Glühwein at 10.30 in the morning at the Herbstmarkt. Like I said, it’s all about deliberately seeking beauty and there is much beauty to be found in hot, spiced wine.

So much beauty.

** That should be Fenchelhonig. I must have been delirious when I wrote this.

Here We Are, Where Are We

Germany and I really first got to know each other in autumn. It was a cold and drizzly September when I arrived from a summer in Santorini. I was brown, Germany was grey. I had canvas ballet flats, Germany laughed at me. The seasonal change was in full swing, fitting, because as was my own change, one I was chasing with that kind of energy particular to your twenties. My first apartment in Germany was on an Allee in Münster, lined with huge trees that had turned by the time we moved in. Before winter blasted in that year, freezing and snowy, autumn was grey and gold. It was a season of my life that set the scene for where I find myself now.

Perhaps that is why I always feel quite nostalgic when autumn comes. (Although nostalgia follows me around like my own shadow these days, more so since the children were born; in them I see every second of my past, and the cruel swiftness of time. This pairing is a terrifying insight, a lovely sadness, and Vorfreude for all that awaits – a tumult of feeling that will never leave me.) As the chill and the fog creep into the mornings, and the smoke into the afternoon air, the sense of another year coming full circle is palpable. I could, I suppose, dig further back, into my childhood, when autumn meant Easter and summer’s fire regulations loosening so people could light their bonfires without worrying about starting a bushfire. I remember the cold air of the Southern Highlands, where we spent the Easter holidays for a few years running. I remember Mum pulling out the flannel pyjamas. I don’t know what it is, but there is something about this time of year that seems as if the world is giving you a few months of kindness. Perhaps it goes gently on us, because winter awaits and winter is not kind.

It seems like the leaves changed overnight this year. Driving just the other day, I suddenly realised the lush green of summer has gone and in its place are rust and olive, red and yellow. I don’t know when that happened. Perhaps I was distracted, for overnight, too, people brought a change to the way things will work from now on. As we prepare for the cold, for the slate skies and naked branches of winter, so too are we preparing to fight a particular way of thinking this country has tried so hard to leave behind. There was no kindness last weekend, or less than we thought. Less than we need. There was, simply, proof of fear, proof of resentment, proof we will always have a long way to go.

And keep going we must. People ask me a lot if we will ever move to Australia and as my children get bigger, and my roots here thicker, I always respond; life here, while the kids are young, is good. Education is better. Neither my husband nor myself need live to work; our work-life balance is healthy and the culture here encourages that. We have chosen to raise our children here because we can give them more here, even though I have days when I miss Australia so deeply it’s as if part of me is there, waiting for me to go back. We have chosen to raise our children here, because we love it here – the country, the people, the ideas, the way of thinking. The 87%.

And so, as my Dad always says, ‘here we are, where are we.’ Here we are, as this half of the earth prepares for her Winterschlaf and her people prepare to do battle with a pervasive, insidious way of thinking we thought had been left behind.

It is never, it seems, left behind.

 

 

Beach Days

September has been kind, apologising perhaps for the months that preceded her. We have managed to squeeze in a couple of truly glorious beach visits and even just a few hours on the sand, watching the water (or the kids flipping about in it) does wonders for the soul, doesn’t it. When we lived in Bavaria, and before that, when I was in Münster for eighteen months, I always felt slightly claustrophobic. The places I lived were truly lovely – have you seen Münster’s Prinzipalmarkt– aber trotzdem, I never could shake this feeling of being stuck. When it rained, or snowed, that darkness was entirely oppressive, unshakeable, inescapable.

When I moved home for six months in 2012, I went to the beach with my mum a week or so after landing. It was the middle of winter but the sun had shone every single day since I had arrived. (I remember counting fourteen days straight of blue skies and sunshine, in August, our winter, and wondering how I was going to go back to Germany.) We had some things to do up at a house my Nana used to own on a beach called Macmasters, one of my favourite spots in the world, and so we drove up on morning. I went down to the water while Mum did some things up at the house, and standing there, as the surf crashed and thrashed, I realised I had failed to identify one thing my life in Germany didn’t have; water. I knew I missed my family and friends, I knew the scarcity of work in our town had killed my sense of purpose. But I didn’t know how profoundly I had missed water. Lakes don’t cut it for me, as lovely as they are to visit when there isn’t any other option. I missed the coast, I missed that sense of utter openness, the width of the world spinning out from the shoreline.

It helped, then, very much that I was in love with a Kieler, and he missed the coast as desperately as I did. I don’t know what we would have done if his application to be moved back north hadn’t been granted. I do know my life in Germany is what it is because we are near water.

In my humble opinion, the best beaches are east of the city, backed by sweeping countryside. When we lived in the city, for a quick Ausflug, we usually hit the closer beaches. Smaller, more crowded, not as beautiful, but quicker to get to – plus there was the novelty of the cruise ships going out to Norway and Sweden, and passing weirdly close to the beachgoers bobbing out in the flat water. But it’s worth the longer drive because the beaches further out are truly something.

We stuck die Lüdde in the water at four months old. It was a hot summer up at Macmasters Beach and so began her love affair with water. Der Lüdde is as fearless as his sister; both of them could stay in the water for hours. Indeed, die Lüdde kept running away when it was time to go after an afternoon of swimming and ice cream last week, despite shivering and being suspiciously blue of lip. I think she knew she had to enjoy it while it lasted; beach days this summer haven’t been plentiful and we are beginning to, albeit slowly, hunker down for the cooler months. She won’t know herself in Oz over Christmas.

Let’s hope the slide into Autumn is a kind one. And please, not too much rain.

 

Autumn Lurking

There is an approaching postal vote in Australia (regarding marriage equality, because no, Australia hasn’t quite been able to gather its shit on that issue). I can’t vote in it, because despite being a citizen, I have not been a resident in Australia within the last three years. There is an approaching federal election here in Germany. I can’t vote in that one either, because despite being an employed, tax-paying resident of this country and raising two little Germans to boot, I am not a citizen. Ain’t life funny.

I thus find myself in a purgatory of sorts, but not one that doesn’t befit the ordinary state of things as an immigrant anyway. (We inhabit the in-between as a matter of course.) I have no say in what happens in my country of birth, nor my country of residence. I could, of course, apply to become a German citizen and relinquish my Aussie citizenship, thereby earning the right to partake of democratic processes here, but forever be a tourist in my own country. I haven’t quite unpicked that knot; perhaps I never will.

You know what else has been a purgatory of sorts? Summer 2017. Save for a few lovely, hot, sticky, sunny days (full of ice cream and sprinkler runs and barbecues) we have hovered somewhere between sort-of-cold and sort-of-warm since a rather lovely June. It has been wet and windy, occasionally humid, sometimes a bit hot, slightly stormy, quite often really, really rainy … but mostly not really anything at all. It’s like summer, real summer, just failed to get off the ground. Failure to launch. Summer, a season I so often associate with yellow and blue, has been, this year, very green and quite grey.

And now, now autumn has crept into our mornings, stealthily and possibly wearing a cloak so we don’t recognise her and wonder why the hell it’s 12 degrees on an August morning. It was foggy and cool this morning, and I felt the overwhelming desire to light a candle which I always want to do during colder weather (a coping mechanism that gets one through months of winter grey). The fog burnt off and we had ourselves a warm, sunny summer’s day and I thought, oh August, you sly old fox – hobbled as you are, you’ve still got a few tricks up your sleeve.

With a summer running out of tricks, and autumn lurking, I found myself writing a nesting to do list the other day. There is spring cleaning, there is autumn nesting. Autumn nesting ensures that, when winter comes, the kids’ jackets are big enough and stockings and boots fit. It ensures the cellar and shed are cleared out and the car is cleaned of its yoghurt smudges and sand. Red wine slowly replaces white, summer clothes that should fit this Christmas in Oz are stored, and anything der Lüdde has outgrown is put in a pile for other babies.

Semester starts soon, which means it’s back to work for me. And die Lüdde, well, she starts Kindergarten. My little girl. So it isn’t just the leaves that will change around here and, like I always am when change initially looms, I feel simultaneously resentful and excited, at once ready to jump in but also desperate to stall the march of time.

It seems, even in purgatory, there is progress.

 

 

Long Read: A Cup of Tea

I wrote this for a writing course on identity and social issues I took part in a couple of months ago. In the original, the names are printed in full. I changed that in publishing this piece. It’s long – you may want to get a cup of tea. 

***

They arrived a little before the wave. A brother had already moved to Kiel with his family, and had helped with their application. It would have been Spring 2015 when they arrived, taking up residence in the spare rooms of the Evangelische Kirche, which owned the apartment block behind it in which I lived. I remember speaking to the Hausmeister one cold afternoon, a tiny man from Bavaria who never stopped talking. He had asked the church if he could use those rooms for a refugee family; he had always wanted to do something good, and here was his chance.

They came with their young son and quickly, proudly, stuck an A4 piece of paper on their front door with all their names in huge, neat lettering. (Months later, a friend of mine would refer to that sign as the sign with the ‘strange names on it’ with no malice to her words. But still, the word ‘strange’ caught me by surprise.) Every morning, the father, A, would walk outside and stand on the front pavement, looking around, his hands in his pockets and shoulders raised against the chill. He always smiled, he always said hello, he always seemed to be taking in the world around him. In the afternoons, he would stand and watch his son cycle the length of the street and back, over and over again. I would learn later, that it was a form of therapy for the boy, who walked with a severe limp. On the bike, though, there was no sign of the limp and he looked as free as any other child who cycled their bikes up and down the pavement, on the way to school or the playground. As the weather warmed in the Baltic sea city they now called home, the family would sit outside in the small, hedged-in courtyard, smiling and waving at passers-by. Our upstairs neighbours, a Pakistani family whose children had been born in Germany, sent their young son with his Syrian friend to have a cup of tea and make them feel welcome, just like they had shown up at our door when we had first arrived, with gifts for our new baby. As summer ended, the family downstairs began a German course, a requirement if they were ever going to find work. Their son, a quiet, polite boy, started at a special needs school. The bus picked him up in the morning, right outside their front door, and dropped him home every afternoon.

It was early Autumn, a few months after they had arrived, when I noticed she was pregnant. I was too, and one afternoon we met in passing outside their front door and gesticulated at our growing bellies. She didn’t speak German, nor English, and I hadn’t a word of Kurdish in my arsenal, but judging by our roundness we were due around the same time. She asked me in for tea, but I didn’t have time and I promised I would drop in soon. Her name was H.

The wave came that Autumn as the world’s walls collapsed and hundreds of thousands of desperate people streamed into Europe. The boats were relentless, humans washing up on Greek shores, children face down in the sand. The Greeks were going out in their boats and hauling people to safety, taking food from their kitchens and passing it out to the shell-shocked people squatting on beaches. It seemed their islands would sink with the weight of the world. People marched across countries, undeterred by fences, the promise of a quieter, more fruitful life pushing them north. Germany’s Chancellor opened the doors to her country. Wir schaffen das, she said, all too aware the last time humanity had moved in such numbers, was as a result of a war her country started. It startled her country, this flinging open the doors to their homes without warning, but Germans gathered at train stations to applaud the newcomers, the streams of relieved, exhausted, bewildered faces. Posters appeared in the windows of Kiel, ‘Refugees Welcome’ and the Willkommenskultur was named word of the year. It was chaos. Government offices were overrun, overworked, understaffed. Deutsch als Fremdsprache courses were full, backlogged, the Foreigner’s Office could only offer appointments months in advance. My own visa came up for renewal in the midst of it all, and I was granted a thirty second appointment in which we organised a piece of paper indicating my status as a working resident so I could leave the country and return legally; there was no time to organise my new visa properly. Germans were in turn proud, determined, frustrated and scared that their leader had bitten off more than she could chew. More than they could afford. Europe was already shaky; there was the issue of Greece, there were terror attacks, there was the slow and steady ascent of right wing politics. Nevertheless, we watched from the comfort of our warm apartment, my belly growing and my toddler safe and fed, as shipping container villages sprung up to house the refugees, and old buildings were repurposed, as the promise of a cold winter nipped at everyone’s ankles. I will never forget that Autumn. I will never forget the feeling of being part of a country able to dig in, roll up their sleeves and offer hundreds of thousands of weary human beings a safe place to rest their head. There were clothing drives and food drives and book drives. There was doubt and hatred and misunderstanding and fear. But there was also a tremendous amount of heart.

Winter came and it was cold. I could still zip my own winter coat over my belly, and we wrapped ourselves in scarves and jumpers and counted down to flying away from the depressing drizzle of Europe in January. After Christmas, during which my daughter was showered with gifts, her Oma and Uroma offering to buy her next pair of winter boots, we flew to Asia leaving behind the wet, icy days and the close to a million people unprepared for them. Before we left, I collected bags of children’s clothes, raincoats and jumpers – my daughter had, from birth, been given so many clothes, some she only wore once. She had four raincoats. She had gift cards for shoes, waiting to be spent. I gave the clothes to a clothing drive organised by a student of mine.

I didn’t have time for that cup of tea with H for a long time. Life with an 18-month-old, a young marriage, part-time work and keeping up some semblance of a social life – it was busy. We’d wave at each other in passing, as I pushed my toddler past her kitchen window, en route to music class or playgroup, or ran for the bus to get to work on time. She got bigger, I got bigger, a pram appeared outside their front door and A began locking the gates every evening to keep it safe. I would see her cleaning the church windows in the afternoon, or welcoming her son home from school, standing in the front door wearing Hausschuhe but I rarely saw her outside. In the meantime, her husband had taken to exchanging some commentary on the weather with me, when I passed him in the morning. ‘Kalt,’ he would say, rubbing his arms, or I would roll my eyes and point at another rain-filled sky. We both came from warm countries; this port city with its cold, grey winters and brisk, crisp springs would always be too cold.

My son was born in the late Spring, at the end of a gloriously, unseasonably warm May. He was late, but came quickly, and as it always does when a new baby arrives, our world shrunk to include just the four of us. Five days later, H and A’s son was born. I knew this only because my midwife, who came to check on me daily during the first ten days after my son was born, had also been enlisted downstairs.

My midwife was small and sprite, always immaculately dressed. She drove a glossy red Mini Cooper and came to us fresh from a holiday down in Switerzland. Although she could speak English, she chose to speak German with me, an unspoken signal she wasn’t going to cater to my foreign whim, and that I was perfectly capable of conversing auf Deutsch. Germans are like that. She would gossip with me a little, about clients, even about colleagues. I had delivered two babies, now, at the hospital she worked at and we would tell me bits and pieces about staff I was familiar with. Nachsorge, after care, is something trained midwives do as a side job, on top of their regular work delivering babies at the hospital. All women who give birth in Germany are entitled to daily Nachsorge house calls for ten days after the birth, paid for by their health insurance. My midwife’s English skills meant many of the mothers she did Nachsorge with were foreign. There was the young mother whose own overbearing mother was getting in the way of her milk coming in. My midwife would shake her head crossly as she cradled my son and checked his belly button, telling me of the mother’s insistence her daughter bottle feed. ‘You have to keep the baby at the breast, otherwise the milk won’t come’, she would say, or, ‘stress can stop the milk, but they won’t listen to me.’ There were stories here and there of her time living in Florida, or tidbits from the staff at the hospital in which I had given birth. And there was H.

‘I am working with your neighbour,’ my midwife told me one day, deftly weighing my tiny son and making notes on a chart. ‘The lady from Syria downstairs. She is doing well, but it is her third, so she knows what she is doing.’

‘Her third?’ I had only ever seen the son.

My midwife looked at me, her bird-like eyes bright. ‘They had a daughter, she died in the war. She was asleep in her room when their apartment was bombed. They all survived, but she didn’t.’

We’d meet on the street after that, H, A and I, crossing paths as summer took off. I’d wave at her through her kitchen window, or as I passed her pegging washing in the small courtyard.  We compared babies and checked in on each other, using the handful of German words she had learnt from a class she’d had to drop once the baby was born, and from her husband who was still studying, or her son who had picked up German in that effortless way children acquire languages. Her baby, R, was tiny and always well swaddled. She’d cluck over the courtyard fence when she’d see my son without a hat, or outside when it was too cold. I realised, one day, that she rarely went outside because she was always too cold. Once, I saw her preparing to take R for a walk in the pram. It was around 14 degrees, I was considering taking my jacket off. She was wearing a winter parka and a beanie and didn’t look at all pleased with the notion of being outside. She must have thought I was mad, whenever she saw me pushing both kids through the winter sleet to playgroup.

When the babies were nine months old, I ducked downstairs one afternoon for that cup of tea. It was blustery and cold and I left my husband with our daughter so I only had to bring the baby. I was welcomed at the door and given slippers, something I had grown accustomed to after years in Germany. Ad gave me a tour of the rooms; the kitchen, their bedroom, their son’s room, the bathroom and the living room. The long living room with its linoleum floor had three mismatched sofas forming a U around the coffee table at one end, and a TV sitting on a pine TV bank at the other end. Their older son was still at school. R was rolling around in a walker someone had given them. Their daughter smiled from a framed picture.

H had brewed tea and there were bready, chocolately German treats, Nutella stuffed croissants in individual wrappers. She apologised for her German as she poured tea, and A took his seat and pulled a small desk towards him. On it, was his German homework. He read it out to me asking for my help with pronunciation. I assured him my German was sub-par, but helped him where I could. A had been going to German class daily since arriving. He needed his B1 certificate before he could look for work. Fifteen months of a daily German course had not yet yielded a B1 certificate. He wanted to work, anywhere, he could have worked, he should have worked, it would have helped him learn, helped him grow a social network – but without his language certificate, he was stuck. So he kept going to class, kept doing his homework, kept watching his son cycle up and down the street, kept engaging passers-by in conversation to practice his vocabulary. He had a funny habit of hitting his forearm when he couldn’t remember words. We muddled through, tripping over grammar, making countless mistakes, but we got the gist of it. Germany was wonderful, German was hard, the weather could be better. But look at what they had, look at what they had been given. All I could think of, was look at what they had lost.

He was a lab assistant in Syria, and H was a teacher. They had a daughter and a son and an apartment. They had family, an education that meant something in a system they knew. They were part of a world and a language they understood. I had left my family and the world and language I understood, willingly, for that luxurious thing called adventure. They had left to escape the bombs that had killed their child, taken their apartment, and rendered their education null and void. Of course, they were good refugees. Educated and grateful, like they all should be. I see the bad refugees, too, the sullen men who hang around at the bus stops, resentful and frustrated. You hear about the bad refugees, the ones who follow women, who harass women, who assault women. The ones who bring plans of fresh terror. But A and H and their boys, they were quiet and beautifully behaved. They went to class and did their homework.

We moved before I could get down there for tea again. We found a little house with a little garden, a place to raise the kids that was safe and green and quiet. As I packed up our apartment, I put aside toys for R, and found a German textbook I no longer needed, for H. I gave the textbook to A one afternoon and he thought I was just showing it to him and tried to give it back. The day we drove the moving truck from our city apartment to our new village home, I put the toys on their front doorstep. No one was home, and I didn’t have a pen or paper with me, so I simply left them on the doormat and hoped they might know who they were from.

R would have turned one last month, like my son. He is ein Deutsches Kind. They have been in Germany now for just over two years. There are still some signs in people’s windows but the shipping container villages have gone, and Germany is wading through the long process of settling hundreds of thousands of foreigners. The language courses are still booked solid, but the government offices have quietened a little. There is still doubt and fear and people setting fire to buildings. There has been fresh terror from people who hid amongst those simply looking to live. It is still muddy and messy and exhausting and the world has shifted shape. Aber wir schaffen das. A and H may never speak perfect German, but their son will. They will fold into their generation of Germans, along with my children, and they will tell their stories and remember their daughter, and we will all talk about the horrors of war and how it must never happen again.

And one day, humanity will move again; it always does, the world endlessly shapeshifting.