Some things just make me wimp up . . . A good hallmark commercial, the ending of Charlotte’s Web . . . or apparently, saying good-bye to Ricky (my German sister) and Thomas (her husband) at the Express Bus stop to the out-of-the-way airport in Berlin where I was catching my low-cost flight to Edinburgh on a no-name airline with ridiculous weight restrictions. Unable to speak, I shooed them away without making eye contact . . . I just couldn’t say good-bye.
And it wasn’t because I got to share yet another wonderful Easter dinner with my now 92-year old “German mother” (hadn’t done that since 1969) . . . Or that their daughters, now in their late 20s, surprised us and showed up for the evening meal all bubbly and full of funny stories –or that they then SKYPED my kids back in the States . . . And it certainly wasn’t because Thomas, who had recently acquired his flying license, decided to rent a small airplane and fly us, helmet, goggles and red scarf flailing (just kidding about the outfit part) from Bremen to Erfurt (formerly East Germany) and further to Berlin during the 3 more days we had together.
It wasn’t because we landed in Erfurt (the “cultural crossroad of Europe” where apparently everyone from Napoleon to Mozart and the current Pope can get a room for a night) in time for the Opening of an Art Expo of the father of an old friend who’s genre was Church Art . . . Not that it wasn’t special to be there, especially since the artist’s daughter (now 56) was my younger German sister’s best friend (hadn’t seen her since she was 14), and she reminded me of that sister, Tina, who passed away 6 years ago — but remembering Tina, I only smiled.
And, I didn’t wimp up — in fact, I glowed a bit, when I was introduced to a woman I’d never met before during the reception, who knew of me from a mutual friend I visited regularly in East Berlin when I was studying at the University of West Berlin in 1972 (and naively smuggling sugar, contraband books & black market money over to her each week) — and even when I was able to phone my old friend later that day, and talk for the first time since 1973, I didn’t cry.
Nope, I didn’t lose it standing at the bus stop because of the great meals, the nice hotels or because I was finally getting over the head cold I picked up in Strasbourg. And it also wasn’t because my sister covered all our expenses (and when I protested, put her arm around my shoulders and softly whispered “pay it forward”).
No. It was because of the biking. Biking with Ricky . . .
Ricky and I biked along the Vegesak River on Easter Sunday (before our guests arrived), veering off through farmland and stopped at a small, country (Protestant) church (built circa 1550), unadorned and beautiful in its simplicity. Mystical . . .
. . . And then with Thomas, too, the three of us following each other around Berlin on rented bikes for two days. Biking was our means of transportation, morning, noon and night. Magical . . . .
We’ve biked together many times, including a joint family bike trip in Bavaria 10 years ago . . . But what switched on my wimp: biking together again, now, on the other side of raising children . . . less invincible, more cautious, but still, with that familiar rhythm. From the seat of our bikes, we talked about relationships, aspirations, lessons learned, the future . . . Brief visits in the middle of our then busy lives, filled with other priorities didn’t allow for this kind of depth. We both have adult children now who live in other places — and we got to know each other again. For the first time in decades, we were just us. And it wasn’t where we were or how we got there that made it special . . . It was rediscovering who we are. That’s what flicked the switch . . . That after all these years, we’re still pretend “sisters” — and really do have a shared history; we understand each other. And it was a delight seeing her in the context of her relationship with Thomas, a perfect adjunct, pilot chauffeur, bike Fuehrer and confident, who added his two Euros on subjects that ranged from politics to mid-life dating with a much appreciated “what the frick is Shaz gonna do when she gets home??” in-between.
I heard words in German I hadn’t heard for too long in those brief visits in the middle years, and in relearning them, our conversations now were less on the surface, more real. Both eye doctors, they’re doing serious good work, building free clinics for blind children in Ethiopia… and we found a possible link with LITTLE FEET, the foundation my son is involved with, that donates soccer balls and builds soccer fields for desperately poor children in third world countries. Using those newly remembered words in German, I was able to tell my story for the first time, to Ricky and the BstU in Berlin, about being frisked, followed and interrogated by the East German/Russian police in 1972. (We filed a search warrant for my Stasi file.) . . . And it was nothing less than Devine intervention from the Universe when Thomas, standing in the rain for an hour at the Berlin Ensemble theater entrance, asking if anyone had a spare ticket to that evening’s performance of The Three Penny Opera, actually got one . . . at the exact same time I pulled the “I am a Broadway Producer” card and snagged 2 orchestra seats to the otherwise SOLD OUT performance — 10 minutes before curtain. (It was fantastic and is coming to NYC this fall.)
Tears streaming, I watched them walk off and fade out . . . and I remembered me, a teenage New Yorker with a driver’s license who wouldn’t even think of getting on a bicycle at 17, getting on a bicycle at 17 because that’s how we got to school. Years later, I bought a used bike when I rented my first apartment in NYC — and I’ve been biking ever since.
Breathing barely, I got on the bus to the airport, checked in (miraculously underweight) and walked to the gate. Still remembering, tying the pieces of my past together with my present, I boarded the plane bursting with gratitude. Gratitude for the choices I’ve made (even when they didn’t feel like choices), the life I’m living (even though I never imagined traveling solo for six months: bazaar), the incredibly interesting people in my life (who speak English and German) and all the possibilities out there (even with question marks) . . .
I’m still, after all these years, amazingly connected to family, friends and a Mein Herr I fully expect to hear from again . . . So, yep-yep-yep, I wimp up when the prodigal son tiptoes in Christmas morning to surprise his family in the Hallmark commercial . . . And when Wilbur realizes he still has a piece of Charlotte because of her baby spiders. And I cry — real and honest tears, leaving Germany, in awe of the power of love.
NOTE TO SELF: Travel with tissues.