I thought the culture I was raised in was a five-hundred-year-old version of Protestant restraint and silence, which at the best of times can be described as deeply personal. For all the baggage I drag around, I did often like it, as it was decidedly non-formulaic. But now I wonder how much of that culture is actually a modern version of Nietzche in which we are constantly trying to overcome ourselves (and when it gets ugly, a bastardized version in which we try to overcome others). I thought the Catholics were supposed to be the ones wrestling with guilt?
They said I need a union
An electrician’s union
To install a light fixture
Why don’t you do it yourself
I don’t know how, do you
No… my father did it
I look over at my daughter. She’s icing her shin, her leg propped up on a chair. Two neighbor girls sing to her in German.
I need to go to the bank before it closes
You won’t have much time
I have to try. Can you watch her
It’s no problem
I listen to the singing and push open the door without understanding a word.
I try to run and lurch down the sidewalk, feet slapping against cobblestones. The people on the street stand alert, watching me out of the side of their eyes.
I’ve memorized German bank hours: nine to noon, hour lunch, prompt close at four. With a four-day weekend, I desperately need the cash as my debit card is frozen, and my AMEX is near useless.
I’m sweating when I reach the bank. The sliding glass doors part, and instead of finding shelter, I walk into a sauna. If it’s 75 outside (whatever-the-fuck Celsius) it’s 90 in the bank.
I walk up to the youngest, and most likely to speak English, teller.
My card has been turned off
Ok, let’s see why. What’s your account number
I don’t know
It’s on your monthly statements
I don’t have those
You don’t keep your monthly statements
Here’s my passport, can you look it up
He looks to his left, staring at a white wall. I look too, expecting to understand something. All I see is pulsating white.
Yes, passport is enough
I can smell us. There’s no escape when it’s hot. They not only don’t have air conditioners, they don’t believe in them.
Ah, your card has been locked because you didn’t respond to text
Would it have been in German
I don’t speak German
Yes, but they need text from you
Can you reactivate it
Yes, what’s your pin
No, internet pin. You made it when you opened account
I forgot it
You forgot something only you would know
Yeah, I guess
That’s ok. We make you a new pin
It needs to be five lubbers
Did you say letters
I stare at the keyboard. The smell is overwhelming. I can’t tell if it’s him, me or everyone else. Her birthday. 22312.
Ok, your card will work again. Next time you get text from bank make sure you respond to it
Outside is physical relief. My sweat dries in the air as I walk. I sweat a lot more since I switched to deodorant that doesn’t kill me.
So many people are sitting at small cafés enjoying the day. I feel like I’m barreling to some inevitable conclusion, while the world stalls, everyone eating ice cream, staring at nothing.
Back at the flat I pick up my daughter and an ice-pack, thank my neighbor, and start heading for the door.
Say goodbye to the Mädchens honey
I fireman carry her to the car. She wraps her arms around my neck and kisses me on the cheek.
In the car
She goes dead weight in my arms, almost spilling onto the pavement. I juggle her into a ball and dump her in the backseat. She splays out sideways across the car seat.
I toss half a Mars bar I was saving into the backseat.
I want to pound the gas but I’m so bad with a stick that I know I would kill it. I back out slowly, letting a pack of bikers pass, and then sputter down the street. I accelerate as best I can on the straightaways while she sings along loudly to Micky Mouse.
I coast into the parking lot and see her mom texting on the phone. Three minutes late.
I had a really nice time with you. I’m going to see you again very soon
I lift her out of the car seat and hug her. She hugs me back, only for a moment, and then starts to squirm.
I set her down and she runs to the car.
I watch the car drive away. I stall the engine as I back out of the parking lot and try to shift into first.
I woke up hoping to find a new perspective, that things would seem more optimistic with sleep and the light of morning. Instead the mental vomit continues, now seeping into my extremities. I knock over a carton of milk, and walked into a doorway, my body refusing to work. There’s static in all of me: my mind, my fingers, and I’m so exhausted, but I can’t fall asleep.
At the Munich airport I try to board a flight to New York. They tell me I’m at the wrong gate. I stare at them glazed, on the verge of tears, until I realize what they’ve said. I run across the gates until I reach the Denver flight. No one is there. I hold my ticket up to the machine and the doors slide open. I run through, bounce off of a glass wall, and nearly fall down the escalators as they restart their movement under my feet. At the base of the jetway, the last people are boarding the flight. I walk past my seat and then double back to it. It might be the last open seat on the plane.
I felt so strong in the morning before court. I took my time: meditated, worked out, ate breakfast, reviewed the documents, took my time, arrived early. By the time I got home I couldn’t even think straight. I couldn’t even watch a movie or read a book. A high-speed fly apart of someone’s psyche.
It’s nothing bad so to speak. More of the same with small concessions. But I’m the one that wants change, that’s why I’m there. And so more of the same feels like suffocating. I knew things could go well today or they could go poorly, but my blind spot has been stasis. You cross your chest and tell yourself you’re prepared for whatever comes, only to find that nothing coming is a devastation you hadn’t prepared for.
There are some mistakes you carry around with you for a long time. And yeah you can learn from them, and you don’t have to call them regret if that makes you feel better. But in your heart you know if you could go back you would do it differently. Letting my daughter leave Denver without a formal custody agreement is that unequivocally.
The feelings in preparing to walk into a court hearing are unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. As a I sit outside the door, waiting to be ushered in, there’s a screaming in my ears so that I can’t hear or think of anything else besides what’s rushing towards me. And yet everyone and everything in the room is silent and austere.
Not having control over your relationship with your child makes you feel like a caged animal, penned in and frantic. For me, it manifests in blistering headaches and a state of mild, but near constant, unease. Like I’m trying to sprint on gravel. And yet as upset or desperate as I become, there’s very little that I can do about it, besides return to this place that I said I would never go to in the first place.
I cry on most of the flight home and I don’t know why. Not weeping, just eyes watering, falling on the pages of the book I’m trying to read, or caught subtly in my sleeve.
I can’t say for certain why it’s so hard for me.
This isn’t a new trip for me. But this time it feels different. There are realizations that come to me now. Facts and realities that I didn’t know existed, and that I don’t know how to confront.
I’ve felt frustrated for a long time. But now in seeing her, it goes beyond my own frustration, and verges into pain… and with pain naturally comes empathy. She’s older now, and in her I see so many things that reminded me of myself when I was young. Or am I projecting?
Yes, it could all be a mental creation, a manifestation of fear. But what if I’m right? I want more than anything to help that little girl, but we can’t even communicate. I quietly meltdown as I listen to her have conversations with strangers that have more depth than anything she can say to me. Her English will one day improve, and my German slowly accumulates, but it’s not enough when she needs me now.
My hotel, the Schloss Wilkenhedge, is a “water castle”, which is a small castle surrounded by a moat in the countryside. After dinner, usually around 9 or 10, while the sunset is still intense, I go for a walk through the forest near the hotel. The trees in the forest are tall and thin, stretching a hundred feet in the air, and remind me of the trees in the parks that surround Portland. There’s a road through the forest that’s heavily trafficked, and as I walk the road I imagine if a car were to jump the curve (which isn’t a curve, but a painted line) and were to punch my ticket, how in many ways it would be a more natural way to go then if the same thing happened back home.
Until a hundred years ago, everyone in my family lived and died in a place like this. Not in this exact place, but not far from this place. Probably a little colder, more continental, but something close to this. In a very literal sense I was built for here, and this place will be what my daughter thinks of as home. And so how strange would it be for this to be home for me? As culturally far away as I feel, I can also recognize the many innate things that draw me in.
I’ve made the trip to Germany so many times, that the whole process has become akin to muscle memory. I board in the late afternoon in Denver, and fly to either Frankfurt or Munich (depending on the day). I work for the first couple hours and watch a movie when the meal is served. If I can sleep for a couple of hours in the short fly-through night, that’s a victory. I spend the last hour staring listlessly at the seat in front of me or the other confused passengers, as breakfast is served, and morning bursts through the raised windows. There are no thoughts, and I focus on not becoming impatient and claustrophobic.
I land in the late morning, German time. The layover’s short, and the time is consumed with passport control, putting credit on my German SIM card, and using a second wind to write a little. For the final leg, I take a puddle jumper to Munster. I pass out end-to-end on the 45-minute flight. Waking when the plane hits the tarmac. I rent a car, and drive to my hotel, where I take a post-international travel shower, which is one of the most satisfying feelings in the world.
By this time it’s nearly 4 pm, roughly 8 am Denver time, and if I’m lucky I’ve had a few hours of sleep. I’m puffy eyed, and running on coffee fumes. I get back into my car and drive into the North Rhine-Westphalia countryside, and to my daughter’s secluded home. But it’s easy, as soon as she’s with me. She runs to me and wraps her arms around my legs. It feels like nothing is lost.
It’s only after I drop her off that my body starts to collapse. By the time I drive back to the hotel, it’s nearly 8 pm. I eat a heavy German dinner, take a Xanax, and if I’m lucky, sleep the longest sleep in two months. It’s startling to sleep for more than eight hours, when you normally get five. And in the morning I feel what I almost never feel in my day-to-day life, groggy. It translates to opaque thoughts and stunted motor skills: I wander around my room looking for nothing, bump into door frames, and trip on invisible steps. How much of this is the Xanax, and how much of this is the displacement, I have no idea. It’s surreal, and would be frustrating if I lived in it for too long. But it’s welcome, because it’s a novelty and a distraction.
Even writing this is a creation of that half-lucid state. And as I drink coffee, it slowly brings me back. That’s the best use of coffee that I’ve ever found: an easy return to reality. Maybe that’s why most people drink coffee in the morning, to clear away the cobwebs. Considering I wake most days in a panic, it’s a pleasure to have the opportunity to feel the fog slowly lift.
I watch the table in front of me bark orders at the waiter. He scrambles backwards into the kitchen. After he’s done filling their requests, he circles to my table. He bends over to clear the plate in front of me. I’ve eaten everything, there’s barely any indication that there was food on the plate.
“How was the meal?” he asks, in clear English.
“Terrible. I want my money back,” I respond jokingly, before I can realize where I am.
A look, not of horror, but resignation crosses his face. Shit. My mind goes to an Economist article that talked about the difficulty in conveying sarcasm in Germany.
“I’m kidding, I’m kidding,” I say quickly. “I meant it as a joke because I ate everything.”
There’s no light of realization that crosses his eyes. It seems to still be lost. I try again.
“It was really good. Thank you.”
“It’s the house specialty,” he says quickly as he clears the plate. He leaves in a hurry, which doesn’t seem sheepish, but an escape from the conversation.
I can’t blame him. Despite my best efforts, I’m probably as much work for him as the table that’s been snapping their fingers at him all night.
Every time I open the door, I’m drawn to pictures of someone else’s life. An AirBnB, they’re everywhere in the apartment: friends posing, drinking, celebrating, mostly all young attractive girls. Oddly, none of the pictures are of the boyfriend who let me into the flat. All of the pictures are hung high on the walls so that they hit me almost exactly at eye level. There are so many, I have to start taking them down so that I don’t become depressed by comparison. It’s the same reason I rarely go on Facebook. It’s an idealized life, and one that can’t be reconciled with my current situation.
Other than the pictures, the flat is a mostly pleasant. Everything is white and cream colored (an odd choice for a place that is shared with strangers), the bed is large and comfortable, and it’s small enough that the heater can keep it warm. The Internet is temperamental, but that seems to be the case wherever I go in Munsterland. The coffee shops don’t have it, the other apartments drop it, and whenever it does work, it interrupts itself with spikes and crashes. Even with these flaws, being in the city of Muster is better than being the countryside. This is already a lonely country, the last thing I need is to be surrounded by cows and cut off from what little human interaction exists.