Friday, April 19, 2013

Last weekend: How I found out

I sat outside an Italian café in the provincial town of Schwäbisch Hall in southwestern Germany, sipping an oversized cappuccino in the new spring sunshine. Eased into a pleasant conversation with two older women, both long-time transplants to this part of the country, one from Bavaria, one from the outskirts of Berlin. One chatted about regional attractions and differences in German dialects and her knowledge about the city. The other nodded enthusiastically and smiled a lot and pointed out that while those differences are really fun to notice, ultimately it's not so important where people are from. I thought a lot about my own social anxiety that rears its head now and again and usually prevents me from getting into these kinds of situations, which is weird because I am absolutely fascinated by people, with their wild array of different behaviors and senses of style and ideas about the world and the fact that every passerby has a potential secret life - they could be a compassionate philanthropist or a bloodthirsty serial killer, but you can't tell just by looking at them. It was Friday, 11 o´clock. I didn't know yet.

I perused the local free art museum and admired works by Picasso and Warhol and Dix and Liebermann. The Bavarian lady from the café personally showed me the way to the museum and gave me an informative walking tour of the medieval city en route. I learned that the now-defunct fountain in the middle of the town was once the source of salt-laden water and fueled the town's economy during the Middle Ages. I thought a lot about how people do things purely for money and sometimes that motivation turns from money to greed and about how it would be nice if we could all just use our talents and skills to make ourselves and our communities happy instead of having to join the rat race and work jobs we don't like so that we can make money to buy things we don't need. It was Friday afternoon. I didn't know yet.

I played some fiddle tunes in a pedestrian thoroughfare as an accompaniment to the setting sun. My enthusiasm for the beautiful springtime weather bubbled out in a peppy string version of Veronika der Lenz ist da (Veronika, springtime is here!). The passerby were mostly bored country-dwelling teenagers who smirked and held fast to their pocket change as they passed by my violin case. I thought a lot about music, and how small children are right (as they are in most things) in letting themselves enjoy what they enjoy, and how if there were more small children out with their parents right now, they'd stop and watch and smile and dance to my fiddle tunes, and then their parents would be guilted into paying me some money. It was 8pm on Friday. I didn't know yet.

My cousin and her husband and two young daughters picked me up in their car and took me to their farmhouse for the weekend. We explored the intricacies of Demeter-method farming, fed their lambs and goats and chickens, planted potatoes, sang songs in German and English and cooked food together. The older daughter and I played hide-and-seek, ran through fields pretending like we were swimming towards Italy, picked edible flowers and wild garlic, read books and tried on clothes. We frolicked outdoors, away from computer screens, iPhones, and television sets. My cousin and I discussed our relationships to our parents and resentments from our childhood that somehow remain with us, though they look pretty bedraggled and petty when dragged uncompromisingly into the cold light of rational discourse. I thought a lot about how when we were small, our parents told us we could be anything and about how it was true, except not in the way they told us, we didn't have to be doctors or lawyers the way they wanted us to be, we just had to be imaginative enough and brave enough to seek out the life that would bring us happiness and joy. It was 2 sunshine-filled days in rural southwest Germany. I didn't know yet.

On Sunday night, I caught my rideshare back to Berlin so I could be at work on Monday, even though I would have preferred to stay in the south another day or two. Though the driver was chatty and spent most of the ride complaining about his ex (Canadian, very young, mother of his son, and by his account a rotten no-good floozy), it was fine because I wasn't riding shotgun and as such was not responsible for providing verbal validation to his woeful tale of bitter custody battles. And by any standard it was much less strange than the ride down from Berlin 2 days prior, a rideshare headed by two wangster muscleheads running a car transfer service and hauling a hipster couple that seemed very put out by the fact that they had to leave Berlin to visit their country bumpkin families 600km away. The muscleheads played hiphop and said things like "Ey Alter boah ist das geil" and called their girlfriends through the car's speaker system, and the hipsters tried to maintain an unimpressed visage through it all by frowning a lot. I slept for most of that ride.

Sleep eluded me on the way back to Berlin, however, and since my iPod seemed incapable of blocking out the driver's never-ending ex-girlfriend saga, I took out my cell phone to see if there were any new messages. It was at this point that I realized it was 10 pm, we were still hundreds of miles away from Berlin, and that I wouldn't make it home in time for my 11pm weekly call with my grandmother. Since I travel a fair bit on the weekends, this had happened to me in the past, and in those cases my sister is usually available to jump in and make the call in my stead. My text to my sister went unreturned, though, so I texted my brother to ask him if he'd call Grandma for me. It was at about this time that I realized that I hadn't checked my email in 3 full days, hadn't even had Internet access at the farm. And none of my family in the States had my German cell phone number or knew that I would be offline for that long. My brother texted back asking me to call him. It was 4pm his time. I didn't know yet, but I had a feeling. I told him I couldn't call him for another few hours. He texted back immediately.

When you're sitting in a car on the Autobahn with a bunch of strangers, it's not the best time to receive bad news. I sat in the backseat, suddenly feeling isolated and stranded, because now I knew. The words on my phone's tiny screen confirmed that not only would I not be be calling her tonight, but neither would my brother, nor my sister. Not tonight, not next week. Never again. The message informed me that my grandmother had passed away 3 days ago.

It was guilt that flooded over me in that moment. Guilt for not checking my email for 3 days. Guilt for not telling my family where I'd be when I knew perfectly well that Grandma was in the hospital. Guilt for hopping in a car mere hours after her death and spending a blissfully ignorant weekend while my family dealt with the aftermath. Guilt when I realized that the situation meant I could get a few days off work, that I could have stayed in the south a bit longer like I'd wanted to if only I had checked my email. Guilt after I got home and decided, after looking at flights and agonizing at length, that I wouldn't be flying back for the funeral. Guilt for taking two days off of work even though I wasn't attending the funeral or helping to organize it. The day after getting back to Berlin was spent mostly in bed watching YouTube videos, and later at a bar where a friend was working, all of which made me mostly just feel more miserable.

The guilt approach wasn't working. So I changed it.

The next day, I biked out to Treptow and into the woods. I spent nearly an hour picking giant handfuls of wild garlic to take home from the bounty of the Plänterwald. I listened to every Coldplay album I have at least twice.  I gazed at the Spreepark Ferris wheel and out onto the water of the river Spree. I thought about Grandma's voice and how it sounded every week during our phone dates, and how we got to spend lots of time together last summer when I visited. I couldn't cry, but the guilt dissipated from my being, nesting itself into the quiet of the forest.

At home, I made pesto from the wild garlic and gave it away to friends. I thought about how Grandma always made the best pies. I went to band practice and played my violin and sang, and thought about how Grandma always played the same waltzes on her old piano. I spoke with my family via Skype and thought about how painful it is to be far away, how I won't be able to live away from them for forever. Still, I couldn't cry.

But then my sister sent me this video, recorded last summer during our visit:


And just like that, as the final notes of the tune drifted away and I watched her hands lift from the keyboard and her face break into a smile, the grief struck and the tears came. It was at once a devastating moment as well as a kind of relief. Thank you, Frankie Turner, for the music and the pies and all the little moments that made our relationship special. Goodbye, Grandma. I will miss you. I love you.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Recipe for disaster

Friends, I have a shameful confession to make. I love Cadbury creme eggs. They're something that my parents refused to buy for me as a child, so naturally when I got to high school and could make my own purchases, I binged on Cadbury eggs as soon as they showed up in the stores in February. As an adult, I buy a 4-pack or two every season and try to parcel them out so I don't eat more than a few a week, making them last until summer. Since moving to Germany, however, the only Cadbury eggs I've purchased were the severely overpriced Mini Eggs I found at the Dublin airport in February 2012 (Cadbury is a British brand and is sold in the UK and Ireland). Other than that, I've had zero access to Cadbury products.

You can imagine, then, the delight one would feel if one was told that one could, in fact, make these childhood sugar bombs in the comfort of their own home, using products that are available for purchase in Germany. Well, it turns out you can. And then you can instantly regret ever making this discovery. Behold, the recipe for disaster:


1. The Saturday before Easter, lazily peruse your Facebook feed. See that a friend has posted a link to a recipe for homemade Cadbury creme eggs with the comment "Well, I guess I know what I'll be doing this weekend." Get moderately excited.

2. Scan through the article, realize that while you loved Cadbury creme eggs as a kid (okay, fine, as an adult too), you probably don't need to waste time and money making them from scratch, because they won't taste as good as the original anyway. Plus, you don't really have time.

3. The weekend following Easter, look through Facebook again and find that another friend has linked to the original recipe, stating that he and his wife made them and even though they didn't look like eggs, they turned out really tasty and it was fun to do and the whole thing made their relationship better and their children stronger and the world was suddenly brighter and also cancer was cured.

4. Realize that if you have this much time to browse Facebook all day, you can use some of that time to make creme eggs. Buy the ingredients for making the eggs, including half a kilo of powdered sugar and 4 bars of Ritter Sport Alpenmilchschokolade. Dream of perfect little Cadbury eggs with a German chocolate twist. Enjoy your temporary happiness while it lasts.

Melting down chocolate as a precursor to actual meltdown.

5. Make corn syrup using a sugar-to-water ratio of nearly double, which really should have been your first clue that this is a bad idea.

6. Spend your afternoon making a creme filling that consists of 95% sugar with the rest being butter, eventually realizing that what you're making is essentially glorified frosting that you then roll into little egg-shaped balls. This is foreshadowing for the fetal position that you will later assume. Stick toothpicks in the eggs for what you erroneously imagine will later be easy-breezy chocolate dipping funtimes. Place eggs in freezer. Realize that by merely licking your fingers and/or the mixing spoon, you have already consumed enough sugar by this step to kill a baby badger.

7. Start melting chocolate over a double boiler at 11pm on a Sunday night, knowing that you still have to finish dipping eggs and letting them set before you can clean your mess up and go to bed. Think fleetingly about how the sugar in your system won't let you sleep. Push the thought from your mind.

Instead, keep your eyes on the prize.

8. Dip one egg and realize the chocolate is not deep enough to cover the egg. Get a spoon involved. Spoon chocolate desperately onto the egg, creating a giant globular mess that more resembles a bird's nest than an egg. Push the toothpick it into a halved potato so as to let the egg stand and dry and drip chocolate all over a perfectly good potato.

9. Get two eggs done in this fashion that actually look somewhat like eggs before devolving into a crazed chocolate-slinging madwoman because the goddamn eggs won't stay on their goddamn sticks and the chocolate is hot enough that it burns your fingers when it drips on you and you can't take pleasure in licking the chocolate off your fingers because it's more to prevent burn damage than anything else and you've already got enough sugar pulsing through your veins as it is and you really don't know why you're making these stupid eggs anyway because you're sure as hell not going to eat them.

10. Ponder your life choices.

11. Sluggishly wash all the dishes in a heightened state of sugar shock.

12. Call your friend in Seattle on Skype at 1 AM and look like death on toast as you explain to him via webcam that you spent all day making amorphous sugar blobs that no one is going to eat. Pause a lot during the conversation, not for emphasis but because the sugar has bored holes into the parts of your brain that control speech. Wonder if you will ever want to ever again eat anything sweet, or if the sudden-onset diabetes that you have most certainly contracted will prevent you from doing it anyway. End the call around 2:30 AM in an attempt to find the sleep that stubbornly alludes you, partially due to the sugar aftershocks but mostly due to the sweet little chocolate-covered demons that taunt you from their resting place in the fridge, calling you out on your failure to behave like a rational adult human being.

The spoils of sweet, sweet war.