…for Printed magazine:
Feast of the Epiphany (which is to say: excerpts from a travel journal, observations across two days in Guanajuato.)
This will be the summer we went to Berlin and were not in Berlin. The summer we made plans and broke them. The summer we subleased a flat and never left the neighborhood.
The place we rented is white: white walls, white rugs, white leather couches, kitchen full of white Ikea plates. I lay flat beneath a tartan blanket, watching B. at his computer, his back rounded to the task of typing. I’ve not been equal to my work this week. An hour at the laptop enervates me, our walks each afternoon the same. But my blood moves, and my three keyhole wounds are healing. The stitches in the centimeter cut across my belly button are dissolving in my skin. This will be the fortnight of my convalescence.
I’m here without my camera, too, having misplaced it in the bedclothes whirlpool of our hospital retreat. So this leg of our summer must be fixed in words for want of images. Inked onto the white curtain in the bedroom. Etched once and left behind.
Is it fair to say I’m learning finally what I can’t control? To accept those things I cannot change. This is the coolest city on the continent, and here I am pacing a quiet rut around the Helmholtzplatz. Not going to the Türkischer Markt on the canal, not going to the C|O museum, though this exhibit might well be its last, not running laps around Neukölln. Not even waiting for the night bus after tango with a liter of cold, glass bottled beer. No dancing, no Görlitzer barbecues, no kuchen in the afternoon. With the exception of one trip to the Charité to have my wounds appraised, I’ve not even seen the inside of a U-bahn station.
Prenzlauer Berg is the Park Slope of Berlin. Dogs and baby strollers clot the streets. Chic and lanky stay-at-home dads take their children out for treats at trendy coffee shops. There are drunks in the park, passed out among their empties, but only three of them. Ten metres or so away, the young and hip play table tennis. Graffiti comes in kindergarten colors. We pass the same folk every day: the squat and balding man in cargo shorts, distinctive for his dandy tuftlet of a braid, the swarthy goateed guy who always carries crates of beer, and the couple at the art gallery, who smoke and drink rosé-schorle on their stoop.
Tomorrow we fly to Dublin. And Berlin recedes into this blankness, this pure stretch of hidden days. In retrospect, they look the same: the fruit and kräuter tea, the tartan blanket, the dinners on the balcony each night. Market vegetables made into soup. Evening saunters to the eiscafé. Early bedtimes, Batman movies on the laptop, sleeping away so many hours of this week. There is something pure about it, something contained and unimpeachable. Something not altogether real.
Tonight we meet some friends for dinner, just a few blocks’ walk from here. We’ll do a load of laundry and erase all trace of us. We have no wild and lyric answer for those who’ll ask about our time here. It passed in unrecorded moments. How Berlin is ever shabby, ever stylish. How in summer everything but the buildings in the street is green. How it’s chill so no one notices one couple folded in, our tortoise pace, our temporary stay, and my discreet recuperating. How we caught the last half of a Euro cup game, and watched Germany net their winning goal. And how just at that moment a cab sped by—one toot of his horn in madcap approbation, a flag flapping from his window as he passed.
I never made it to the farmers market to photograph the heaps of white asparagus and strawberries.
I did not sit at the workshop café on the Kramerbrücke for rich hot chocolate in the rain.
I did not return for tiny storefront rhubarb eis, or to find exquisite chocolate souvenirs.
I did not buy artisan mustard for my dad.
Instead, I had an appendectomy. Arriving at the HELIOS Klinikum in Erfurt in early evening, every step a wince, armed with one concerned boyfriend and a tiny Deutsch dictionary to explain my pain—and did they have a doctor who spoke English? The Unfallstation secretary shook her head, but trotted off to find someone to help.
Ten minutes later, having peed into a cup, I was whisked past triage into a dark room with an ultrasound machine. Your appendice? the kindly translator said, it wants to exit from your body. He was making alien jokes. Surely this was wrong. You see? He said, applying pressure to my left gut, that hurts? I said not terribly. He let go. Ow! I said. He smiled and shared a glance with his hot-blonde surgeon colleague. Blinddarmentzündung. Appendizitis.
They let B. past Brunhilda at the desk. The nurse came to take some blood, just to confirm. She spoke very little English, but was beside herself that we would holiday to Erfurt from New York. She scribbled down her address so we could send a postcard from the States.
B. and the surgeon wheeled me up to Allgemeinchirurgie. The chief came by to make double sure the diagnosis. One prod of my lower right hand tummy and: appendizitis. Here was a pamphlet of risks to understand, please sign. Here are some compression stockings and a johnny, change. Here’s an incomprehensible telephone card to call your parents, (which our lovely nurse Maria fiddled with until it worked). Your boyfriend, he will have to go now.
Then came the silver elevator down to anesthesia. B. was left behind, though he refused to leave. I don’t remember much except a team of women that clucked and whistled when Maria said something something Englisch, spricht nicht Deutsch. And then to me, beaming, All is good—which is pretty much the same in German (alles ist gut), and would become my catchphrase on the ward. She wrote my name on duct tape at the bottom of my gurney, then was gone. The anesthesiologists explained some things in broken English. They spoke on cell phones, brought me an antique silver bed pan, then heaved wide the sliding doors into a darkened operating room.
From here it’s pretty standard: patient placed on tablet. Patient hooked to heart wires. Just before they knocked me out, they had a problem with my blood pressure, three or four cuffs gone through before they got a read. Germans technologie? They quipped, which didn’t add much confidence for laparoscopy.
I managed somehow to insult the Russian nurse while going under, oxygen mask clamped over my mouth. She said she was from Moscow; I said, ooh, good tango dancing! She looked perplexed. The anesthesiologist attempted a translation. She says table dance. I struggled to correct her, holding out the universal symbol for “this is my dance frame, this is yours,” as my limbs went leaden.
I vaguely remember coming to, freaking out, and jerking my restraints. It was dark; my head was draped. Someone rested a hand on my forearm and jabbed another vial into my IV drip.
Then I was in recovery—the poor table-dancing Russian lady asking where it hurt, B. striding over with his beleaguered army backpack on, a blissful shot of morphine, then another, a plastic cup of fizzy water with a straw. Your throat will hurt, they tell you, from the intubation. This I understood in Germany or in English. All I know is B. was there. He held my hand. He hadn’t left.
That first night I slept still on my back, stomach muscles wheezing and contracting as if I had been punched while running, and woke to a team of doctors standing over me—each more good looking than the last. They looked me over, my staple sutures, three incisions, iodine-yellow belly bloated up with Co2. Alles ist gut! they said, and smiled. The chief patted my foot.
The Erfurt klinikum is a lovely place in which to find oneself waylaid: stylish halls, city views, chirping birds each morning. Vases full of flowers. By eight am, I’d been visited by surgeons cracking jokes and changing bandages, the blood draw nurse, the sponge bath nurse (who stripped me naked, handed me two polyester washing mitts to put over my hands, and shut the bathroom door), the nurse who gives the thigh shots to prevent thrombosis, plus Maria, daily pills, and breakfast. It was a well-staffed, well-oiled machine.
I received a tray of spongey German bread slices, butter, pflaumenmus, and jam—and underneath the covered plate, one shiny slice of fleisch. Ich bin vegetarisch? My roommate had to translate. They don’t see many vegetarians in Thüringen. The next two days brought trays of bread and cheese and yogurt, sometimes a shredded carrot salad or a jar of applesauce. I drank endless cups of kräuter tea through a straw.
I find myself wholly touched by the experience. The kindness of the staff. Learning to need B. and knowing he’d be there. Sitting with him on the balcony at the end of the ward, the quiet green of suburban Erfurt interrupted now and then by exhibits in the countryside museum of the former DDR. Walking and wincing. Wincing and walking. Trying not to laugh because it hurts to laugh.
Now we’re in Berlin. We’d already rented an apartment for the week, which turns out to be idyllic (after the four-train journey of course). We’ve four airy and pleasant rooms all to ourselves, and another leafy balcony onto the courtyard. B. and our mothers have forbidden me to work, so I lay on the white leather couches watching Mad Men, drinking kräuter tea (of which I’ve become quite fond). In the afternoons and evenings, we go for very timid strolls.
There’s a warm breeze on this balcony in Berlin, and I’m thinking the world has a funny way of slowing a body down. I’m still on pain meds, albeit not very effective ones, and I’ve been watching too much Mad Men on iTunes (at $2.99 a pop). But the sun is peeping over the hinterhof for the first time today and, despite the protestations of my abdomen upon attempting any kind of movement, it sure is nice to be alive and here and smelling German June.
There’s a lanky kid down in the courtyard playing videogames on his phone. He looks a little like the Berlin version of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air: pearl earring, brand-new sneakers, and a purple collared shirt. He seems to be suffering from some kind of seasonal allergy—or snorting like a wee pig, as B put it.
And with that, I will attempt a walk.
Erfurt. What do I want to say about Erfurt? It was warm here; now it’s cold. I bought a sundress I can not afford.
And so concludes the second fortnight of the summer. In exit rain. We all know I love rain.
Thüringen is a place of impossibly charming architecture, pastel colored, preserved alongside former DDR bleakery. Heavy forests, fields of wheat and wildflowers, rostbratwurst and weißbier.
The almost full moon appeared above an up-lit Mariendom last night, as we walked off the überweird fourth act of Gürbaca’s Die Zauberin premiere, and it felt painted on. To tell the truth, it looked a lot like this (a photo I took in Disney World three years ago).
Our host, Herr Doktor S. showed the whole town to us in a two night tour—loops around the concentric circles of the city center and the Juri-Gagarin-Ring, then left us to our work.
I’ve been especially unproductive this week, full of doubts and structure angsts, so I also took myself to Weimar for a day-date (to Buchenwald, to Bauhaus, and to Goethe’s haus). B met me later for dinner in a pizza garden, plus a sneaky jazz club schwarzbier before the train.
We’ve had charming evenings on the Wenigemarkt platz and the Fischmarkt platz, tiptoed through the twin cathedrals, scaled the fort for rhabarbarschorle on a sunny afternoon, sat nursing milky lattes in cafes, and spent many an afternoon strolling around the Krämerbrucke, be it for sinful chocolate or Augustiner lagerbier. I found a Lebanese place that serves thymianbrot falafel wraps for 3 euro, and we had a picnic on the canal: the boys with their döner, the dogs chasing sticks, the ducks beak-down in the stream after their dinner.
It’s all very civilized here. Quiet. As S. has said: the perfect ratio of people to place. Ice cream cones are carried at all hours. Things shut down on Sundays. The trains run fervently on time. I take ages in the grocery store parsing German grammar, and can say with confidence that I understand the difference between kraut and kräuter.
We spent last Saturday in the hills around Haarhausen, tramping through the Drei Gleichen woods to find the Veste Wachsenburg, which we’d thought was a monastery, but turned out to be a converted castle/three star hotel. This time: johannisbeere schorle, and a walk back to the deserted train depot through rapeseed fields (still green). Past a strangely bourgey town built up around an incredibly old church. Past a rodeo as well, where ranchers dressed in sequined hats and chaps and rode around a dirt arena listening to Vince Gill.
Nobody whistles. Nobody crosses the street against the light. This is polite society. Space-age-quiet trams speed through the cobbled streets, so close they graze the sidewalk. Respectable ladies sit with hands in lap and listen to an after dinner organ concert for Pfinstmontag.
Then again, sitting at the An der Krämerbrucke biergarten, hipster violinists and a firespinner come so close to your table you can see their sweat. Waitresses in pigtail braids dart past with steins aloft to keep from getting singed.