Rhythm (or lack thereof)

Travelling long-haul with small children is quite like childbirth. (I contemplated expanding on that analogy for a while, standing in the bathroom typing so as not to wake the baby who is finally sleeping; there is a phase of general discomfort and it does crescendo at some point during a 14 hour flight that comes off the back of a six hour flight, which comes off the back of a 2 hour flight and 3 hours at an airport wrangling over-excited kids. And there is a point you swear to yourself that once you’ve landed, you’ll never do this again. There is an oxytocin rush as the plane touches down and you get all weepy and gaze lovingly at your offspring as they take it all in, faces alight. Anyway, I’ll stop because I swore I wasn’t going to continue with the analogy and yet here I am. Oh, look, one more thing: long-haul travel, like childbirth, is hard on the parents and on the kids. And you don’t get much sleep. Okay I’m done.)

I’m writing this on Friday night. Somehow, and I’m not quite sure how, we left home early on Tuesday afternoon. I can hear the ocean and the crickets and the occasional bird – and absolutely nothing else.

Thirteen days later…

Right. It’s the new year and I like new years. I like making lists of things to try and do or see. Every year, the top two items on my list are read more and write more, two things small children make slightly more difficult (slightly more difficult, but also – in my experience – perhaps richer?). Either way, it feels like only now, after the chaos of arriving and jetlag and the excitement of Christmas and the sleeplessness of settling two little kids into a new country, timezone and climate, are we starting to unwind. Unwind and read, unwind and write. Settle into a new routine as much as a lack of one, and go with some sort of flow.

It’s good to be back. I love our supermarkets. The weather has been perfect; several really hot days on the trot, then a sudden cool spell. I keep forgetting you have to turn our power points on. Some things seem cheaper since I was last here, some more expensive.

Two days later …

It’s just gone 6am and der Lüdde and I are in the kitchen. His wake up time has gone from 6am to 5am, and he isn’t a quiet child – he’ll be on stage one day – so he gets spirited out of our room the moment he wakes. Now we’re watching trashy morning TV and watching the sun get higher. It’ll be a hot one today, in fact all the breakfast TV shows are warning of an impending heatwave. A heatwave here is something a little different to your German Hitzewelle.

We beat the kookaburras this morning, which means der Lüdde is able to say ‘burra’ every time one of them starts laughing. It’s one of his many news words (another is ‘roo’, very necessary) and it feels like the kids are springing along at a rate I can’t keep up with. There is something about being out of routine and rhythm that makes it seem, perhaps erroneously, that they are changing before my very eyes.

I’m getting better at remembering to check for spiders under drying beach towels, or in shoes that have been left out. We’ve had the ‘Germany v Australia’ conversation for the 190th time and resolved for the 190th time that, yes, Germany is right place for us right now, even though Australia is so beautiful and the supermarkets – oh I love the supermarkets – are better the food is so good. Germany vs Australia is a conversation that has always defined, and always will define, our relationship and now our family. And that’s okay.

Where we’re staying is less of a beach, more of a bay, so the kids are in the water everyday, die Lüdde bobbing around. We’re getting through obscene amounts of watermelon and who knew the Quetschtüten over here were so big and pure Greek yoghurt goodness. The birds are loud and bright and we’ve adopted a baby bush turkey, or he’s adopted us. There’s sand, coffee and wine everywhere. And cicadas, always the chorus of cicadas.


The Snow Came

It seems our corner of the world submitted to the snow, and after it fell and all was white, it felt right. I don’t like snow at all, but for the short moments it is soft and clean and the world beneath it quiet, it is beautiful. And there is a weariness in December, that comes along with the hot wine and lights in trees, a weariness we all carry, some more than others; to have a few days of cold quiet felt necessary.

We lost another one last week. Pa’s wife, his partner in crime of fifty years, a woman who left an indelible impression on all of us, went off to be with him. It was quick, quite unexpected, and even though I haven’t really decided where we go when we die, and even though most likely we probably go nowhere at all, I quite like the idea of them somewhere together again, him watching soapies he swore he was going to stop watching, her reading one of the hundreds of library books she took out a year. I don’t know. We seek comfort in the abstract as much as we do the concrete.

The weekend brought with it my brother and his girlfriend, family at a time when they are much needed. We drank litres of Glühwein and managed to short circuit the house when attempting to get the raclette machine started. The kids had the kind of weekend during which anything went partly because that’s what happens when aunties and uncles visit, but also because I’m running low on energy. Really low. Low enough to advise SG to give der Lüdde whatever he wantwhen he refused to go to sleep. Low enough to look the other way when die Lüdde chose the world’s largest banana-flavoured candy cane at the Christmas Markets.

There isn’t any snow left now, and we’re off to Oz. German radio keeps playing all the best Christmas songs (except for Last Christmas, an odd national obsession) so any time I’ve been in the car over the past few days, singing along to I’ll Be Home for Christmas, I’ve felt like life is currently something out of a chaotic family comedy, like The Family Stone or something, but with added kids and long haul flights. Tja. Such is life, oder?

So, may your days be merry and bright. Have yourselves a wonderful Christmas, and see you all in Oz.



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.