An elegant American woman walks into a famous biergarten flanked by her two daughters. The eldest, an overweight depressed twenty-four-year-old in a frayed gray wool sweater and a thrift-store jacket steps haltingly and gazes out over the arched vaults and the massive novelty beer steins clanked against the long tables emblazoned with the primitive scrawl of past patrons in time to the Oom-Pah band playing on a distant stage.
She might look studious to you, adjusting her unfashionable wire-rimmed glasses and scrambling to take notes in a battered black notebook, but give her half a chance and she’ll tell you she’s an indebted drop-out from a mediocre state university, who’s been living with her parents these last twelve months while her best friends are starting graduate school. The younger is a beautiful nineteen-year-old with long golden hair and four years of high school German. She takes one look at the international array of beer-drinking young men stretched out as far as the eye can see, fastens on her most confident smile and prances off to practice her feminine wiles on a table of broad-shouldered Australians.
The American woman is set upon by two middle-aged German businessmen who set about ordering rounds of drinks for all three women, despite the growing scowl on the eldest daughter’s face, initiated in part by the incessant Ein Zwei G’suffa-ing. The eldest daughter notes the myriad displays of beery testosterone surrounding her little sister (now half a beer hall away) and thinks it’s not at all surprising that this place was a launching pad for the Nazi Party. Which would be hard enough to ignore even if she weren’t surrounded by legions of shouting, fist-pumping white boys, all wearing the same polo shirt and Patagonia jacket, regardless of their nation of origin.
“Doesn’t this place freak you out just a little bit?” she asks,
Her mother turns and looks perplexed. “Why would it?”
The grinning German businessmen, seated on each side of her mother, give the daughter a couple of smarmy smiles. Smiles that seem to say go ahead, say it. Say Hitler. Make your mother and sister have a lousy time. Make them feel guilty for passing the Dachau exit on the highway without so much as a word. Make yourself feel better, self-righteous American. It’s not like we haven’t heard it all before. But the daughter just shrugs. “Guess I’m just feeling a little claustrophobic is all,” she says in a massive room of hive-shaped vaults.
Her mother pats her hand. “Why don’t you step outside for a moment? Get some fresh air.” The grabs her bag and obliges. The mother turns back to the businessmen and asks all about their new vacation homes in Florida.
The three women have been in Germany for five days. They landed in Frankfurt and drove to Heidelberg, where they spent two nights in a charming, if threadbare hotel overlooking the elaborate old bridge spanning the Neckar River. They traveled south to Bad Wimpfen, though Stuttgart and into Bavaria. Along the way, they meandered through Heilbronn, where the woman’s husband (and the girl’s father) had been based for several years in the early 70’s, when the most failsafe means of avoiding Vietnam was enlisting for a stint in Germany. They visited the village of Affaltrach, where their mother and father had rented the upstairs of a red-roofed cottage over an elderly painter and his wife. And they had driven down the road to take tea with an old woman who remembered their mother as a smiling twenty-one-year old girl on a bicycle eager to make friends with a few phrases of broken German.
So far, the eldest daughter has liked Heidelberg the best for its gingerbread side streets and dollhouse architecture. Something about the history. The Winter Queen. That beautiful wreck of the castle, still clinging to the side of the hill above town like a lazy snaggle-toothed beast evoked some remembered dream landscape, both lovely and unnerving. She took about three rolls of film at the castle. She has a thing about decay, especially decay on a grand scale. And she’s been obsessing over abandoned factories and burnt old old houses for close to a decade. “I love any town than can turn something half burnt and demolished into a picturesque tourist attraction,” she says, and snaps another picture of a pile of rubble. Her mother rolls her eyes, likely thinking that her eldest daughter is still a little bit crazy, if less crazy than she was a year ago. The daughter poses for a photograph on a high step, surrounded by pockmarked stone faces, missing noses and ears. She considers whether their real-life models, several centuries back, had ever looked so bad in life. Or if they’d managed to die young and pretty, leaving their scars to their memorials, like some post-mortem Dorian Gray.
The eldest daughter drinks a lot during the days in Heidelberg, she huddles over the bar at the ubiquitous Irish pub, just around the corner from their hotel (next door to a head shop called Head Shop and a sex shop called Sex Shop—how sad that the people responsible for “schadenfreude” must be so literal with English-speaking tourists around–and makes eyes at the angular English bartender, whose double masters in German and Economics strike the girl as somewhat amusing. “Does that mean you’re a Marxist?” she asked him early one afternoon while her mother and sister shopped at a boutique down the block. “No, it just means I’m unemployable,” he said. “Better to serve pints to American tourists in a lovely town than go broke trying to pay for an ugly flat in Leeds.” A fair point. He wiped down the bar and the daughter resisted the urge to tell him he had very nice hands and thoughtful eyes and that she would be available later on that evening to debate economic theory with or without clothes if he were so inclined.
She visited a record store and felt completely at ease for the first time since she stepped off the plane in Frankfurt, painfully aware that her lack of modern languages branded her a typical, unsophisticated American. Whenever she finds herself away from home, she goes looking for record stores. Safe havens. Asylums for the perennially awkward, their slightly dusty vinyl smell as comforting as a security blanket. The girl and boy behind the counter were helpful. The daughter buys a Kraftwerk record, and the daughter admits that it’s probably a cliché.
“But better than buying a beer stein or a cuckoo clock,” she said.
The male cashier laughed and asked the daughter if she intended to buy Serge Gainsbourg records in France.
“Maybe,” said the daughter.
It’s that I’m seeing the wrong things, thinks the eldest daughter as she stands in the square outside the famous beer hall, chain-smoking cigarettes and listening to a jazz trio across the street play “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Germany is castles, forests, mountain peaks. It is Beethoven, Goethe, the Brothers Grimm. And yet, she still sees spectral Nazis haunting the nooks and crannies between the glockenspiel and the gothic spires
It’s not that she is sore at Germany as a whole. The daughter went to an American high school with a not-insignificant German contingent. She spent hours with them, out of context, discussing fashion and pop music and the frustrating administrative encroachments that are the hallmark of boarding school life. She smoked pot with a girl from Stuttgart. She got teary and sentimental when the girl from Berlin told of watching the wall come down and meeting a whole city full of neighbors for the first time in her life. It’s that she doesn’t quite know how to feel about Germany. There’s some cognitive dissonance to walking around towns that look as if they were the pop-up illustrations from a child’s picture book and thinking Gestapo. Of course, fairy tales themselves are the sugar filigree constructed around dark matter. The witch’s candy cottage. The wolf in grandmother’s bonnet. The magic that requires the life of a child as payment.
It’s not that she blames anyone. She can’t. She is a white American protestant of reasonable means, whose own family spent the war years flying planes and dancing to Glenn Miller. And she is also a Southerner, a lifelong resident of place with its own intolerable past and heir to a history she’s can’t defend. There is no polite way to ask the two young German girls in front of the cafe, her age or a little younger, what their strategy is for dealing with what their grandparents could have, may have, probably did sixty years ago. Not even if she were to preface it with an if it makes you feel any better, I’m only asking because I come from white people in the Deep South and my grandparents have all been some flavor of bigot. Not even if she were to say I’m well aware that that the past is the past and it’s human nature to move on, but I’ve been pretty fucked up and guilty and miserable for much of my life and when I feel super crazy I think maybe the problem is geographical or historical or some combination. The daughter dampens her cigarette butt in the water spilling out of an ornamental gutter and lets the girls pass without comment. She returns to the clamorous interior and proceeds to drink half a pitcher of beer.
“Do you think this place is weird?” the eldest daughter had asked the English bartender, on her third (and last) trip to the Irish pub. Her mother and sister had, by that point joined her, and sat in the corner, listing their days activities on a sheet ripped from the eldest daughter’s journal. “I think it’s pretty fucking weird that there are Irish pubs in Singapore,” said the Bartender. “An Irish pub in Germany doesn’t seem nearly as strange.”
“Not the bar,” said the eldest daughter. “This place. This town.” She cycled through about two hundred arguments and at least that many qualifiers—all vague. “You know.”
The bartender shrugged. “I think Dubai is pretty weird. Also, parts of Wales. I found Las Vegas very strange. If anything, this place strikes me as alarmingly normal.”
From across the room, over the sound of amplified accordion and a synthesizer, the eldest daughter hears a peal of her sister’s laughter. Her head is barely visible through the crowd as she tosses back another glass of Riesling.
“I think your little sister is overserved,” says her mother, as the two German businessmen signal the waitress for another round.
The eldest daughter blinks at the pages of her journal, words all scrawled together in a chickenscratch script that she’s almost relieved she won’t be able to read later.
Later she’ll try to explain everything to her bewildered mother in the hotel lobby while the younger upstairs drunk dials internationally and composes an epic twelve-page letter demanding a big fat cupcake, which is not a euphemism. Tomorrow, the three women will drive into the Alps, and the eldest daughter will be so awed by the grandeur that she’ll forget to feel unsettled and ambivalent, instead she’ll run out into fields of yellow wild-flowers to gape at the snow-covered peaks rising like a giant’s crenellated walls over impossibly green, serene valleys and wonder if anything so beautiful can actually be real. The younger daughter, afflicted by a whale of a hangover, will barely register the scenery.
For now, she feels her mother’s hand on her arm. A sympathetic look. A non-verbal you okay? Any response she gives will sound like the alcohol talking and it probably will be. The last few days have been long and tiring. She’s spent too much money. She hasn’t slept enough. A wolfish man in Marienplatz called her a fat whore, which she knows because somehow fat and whore are two of the only German words she knows. She’s woozy and emotional, which might have something to do with the heroic amount of white asparagus she’s eaten in the last few days, and maybe has something to do with the fact that the only book she brought with her was “Gravity’s Rainbow” and is certainly related to the alcohol she’s put back since deplaning. German beer is, in fact, pretty good. And they sell Gin & Tonics in vending machines. At rest areas along the Autobahn. There’s no open container law, though she’s heard from two unrelated sources that the punishment for drunk driving in Germany is diagnosis of insanity. Seems reasonable.
Her mother cackles at an anecdote told in half-German, half-English. The little sister winds back to the table and gulps down a remaining glass of wine. She is heckled from across the room. She does not seem to notice.
The older daughter taps her pen against the notebook, tries to come up with the precise word for what she’s feeling. There’s almost certainly a German one, but she’s way too embarrassed to ask.