It was after dark, and the neighborhood was quiet. My dad had gone out with some friends and left my sister and me in the Berlin apartment that a different old friend had offered up to us for our stay.
We locked the door on our way out, making our way through the streets of Berlin as though we had lived there forever. Finally, made our stop in a local supermarket. We scoured the shelves, fascinated by how different everything was compared to America. Everything in Berlin felt exciting, fresh and new.
Speaking to the cashier in my basic conversational German, I felt like I really belonged there. We weren’t treated like tourists, but like European teenagers. My sister and I reveled in the moment and pretended to be Berlin locals. For a second, I got a glimpse of my life as it might have been: if my dad had never moved back to the U.S. but stayed in Germany where he had lived before I was born.
My grandfather’s life as a professor always fascinated me, and as a kid, I always used to ask my dad about the places they’d lived growing up and all the different countries they moved to as my grandpa had taught as a visiting professor: England, Iceland and Germany. They were Americans, Finnish in heritage, at that, but world travelers because of his profession.
I guess my dad fell in love with Germany because even after they moved away, he kept going back. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, he booked his plane ticket — one way. He didn’t have a place to stay or a job lined up, but he knew that was where he needed to be. I’d always wondered about that; I’ve never felt that — the intense need to be in a certain place so much that everything else melts away. Some day I want to have that passion.
He lived in Berlin for a long time, only moving back to America a few years before I was born. Because of this, German always played a big role in my life. I remember, when I was a little kid, maybe five years old, my dad trying to teach me some words in German, getting us to say flower and tree. He listened to German music, and I got used to the yearly tradition of making silly videos on the holidays and birthdays to send to his Berliner friends via WhatsApp. We frequented Karl’s Sausage Kitchen, a European market far out of the way, but worth it because they sold authentic German sausages and German candies we couldn’t get anywhere else.
We celebrate Nikolaustag, or St. Nicholas Day, which I thought was a typical American thing until I talked to all my friends and realized that it wasn’t. Every year on December 6, we find our shoes left out from the night before, filled with chocolates, nuts and fruits. It comes from a German folktale, and all throughout growing up, I had no idea. So many things from my childhood and my life now are pieces of Germany, passed down to me by my father, and I had barely even noticed.
And then, there was the donkey bridge situation. I spent my entire life thinking that “donkey bridge” was a common English phrase, meaning a mnemonic device or something that helped you remember information. I used it casually in conversation, in context, for years. No one ever questioned me, so I just assumed that they all knew what I meant. Then one day, a friend stopped me and asked what in the world I meant. I explained, and she just looked confused. I was more shocked than she was. I’d been using it my whole life, and this was the first time I’d ever been questioned. When I looked it up, I found out that it wasn’t English at all — just a translation of a common German phrase into English — Denglish, if you will. I’d picked the phrase up from my dad, who, when asked about it, said that he just took the German word he’d known and put it into English. “It just makes sense,” he said.
Going to Berlin was the first time I had really traveled, and it blew me away. I now feel this need to go everywhere I haven’t been and to see things I know nothing about. Seeing Germany just made me realize how much of the world I had no experience with.
Growing up, I never really understood my dad’s attachment to Germany and why he felt so connected to a certain country or to the city of Berlin. It never made sense to me. So, when we planned for my sister and I to visit Berlin for the first time, I was excited to see the place that my father was so attached to and to maybe learn something about him.
I had never understood before, but that first day in Berlin, I finally did. I feel like I really got to know my dad on that trip and understand a part of him that lives over there. As we walked past his old apartment where he studied, worked and went out, I could see his life before me. It was a different level of connection between us that I know I never would have seen if we had never gone. There was something about it that was completely new, completely indescribable to me. I was in a new city, a new place, but I felt at home.