Ich bin ein Berliner

30 10 2010

Our visit to Berlin has also been a bit of a personal journey into my roots. My father grew up here, until he immigrated to Canada to start a new life, and marry a new wife, my mom.

I think I first got it into my head that I wanted to see Berlin about ten years ago. When the wall had come down in 1989, I watched it all happen on television, a lump in my throat; I had visited the divided city as a kid, but the blood of a Berliner coursed through me and I felt a remarkable connection to those historical scenes of triumph and joy.

My dad passed away six years ago, his parents a few years before that; an aunt and uncle still live in the city, but they are kind of estranged from the Canadian branch of the family. So unlike our visit to Katie’s kin in Belgium, this trip to my roots would be more about walking the same streets, breathing the same air as my father had as a boy and young man.

The old water pump on Schlossstrasse still works!

On our third day in the city, we set out on the U-Bahn to the other side of the Charlottenberg district from where our apartment is located to the neighborhood where my dad grew up. After a pleasant stroll up the tree-lined Schloss-strasse, leaves crunching under our shoes, and a pause to see if an old water pump still worked (it did!), we made a pause at the Schloss Charlottenberg. Then it was on up the Spandau Damm Str. to Soorstr., where I remembered my grandparents lived in an expansive white apartment.

The walk felt vaguely familiar, although I’m sure much has changed in the 36 years since I last did it

After another pause for hot chocolate at a corner cafĂ© (nowhere near as good as the chocolat chaud we’d experienced in Belgium!), we ambled down the Soorstr. towards #78. Somehow, I could feel the spirit of my dad looking down approvingly. Katie squeezed my hand.

At #78, we took some photos; I tried to remember which balcony belonged to my grandparents, but could not. I stole a look at the buzzboard to see if perhaps nobody had bothered to remove their names, but that was so long ago. And then I suggested to Katie we peek around the corner as I recalled my grandfather walking to a bakery a bakery for fresh bread and buns every morning when we visited.

The apartment where my Oma and Opa lived and dad grew up.

Alas, no bakery, but our curiosity was piqued by the little lunch room tucked into the building’s corner; the board in the window promised a lunch of schwienegebraden, rot koll and stuffing for 6.50 Euro, a deal that seemed too good to pass up. Inside, a handful of communal tables filled one alcove, while in the other three women cooked up the limited menu and managed the orders in a spotless kitchen, the ham sizzling in an open fry pan, rot koll roiling in a pot.

The "kitchen ladies" making lunch.

Katie ordered the soup of the day, I ordered the delicious-looking ham.

As we ate our tasty, and cheap, lunch, an elderly couple who looked to be neighborhood regulars sat down at the table across from us. They were likely in their late 70s or early 80s. Old people don’t move house much; perhaps they knew my grandparents?

Getting ready to dig into my roast ham and rot koll, and screwing up my courage to speak German.

I debated in my head whether I should unleash my halting German on them; I grew up in a German household, I could understand it well enough, but I’d always been shy about speaking it. This trip has challenged that comfort zone, and so far I’d managed to step up, translating menus for Katie, ordering in restaurants and bakeries in German well enough that the people didn’t immediately recognize me as a foreigner and begin speaking english back to me. But firing up a conversation with two strangers who likely didn’t know much english? That was a whole new frontier.

Alas, it turns out they’d only moved to the neighborhood about 10 years ago, so they didn’t know my grandparents; but we enjoyed a pleasant conversation about their travels to New York City and Florida, their nephew in Canada, how much Berlin has changed since the fall of the wall, the cold weather and other pleasantries. For the most part, I held my own, dipping into english words only occasionally.

As we carried on with our day, I felt pretty proud of myself; now part of me can truly say, “ich bin ein Berliner.”