A few weeks ago, Sean and I got back from a trip to the UK, where we went to see my best friend Anna get married in a big country house that allowed everyone involved—though predominantly, I am coming to suspect, only me—to pretend they were living in a real life episode of Downton Abbey. Afterwards, we took advantage not only of England's convenient budget airlines but also of its convenient proximity to everything else, and flew to Germany for a few days. We spent a day and a half in Munich and three days in Berlin, and on the second day in Berlin we rented a car and left it.
It was part of a grand plan, you see, to dig a few generations back and discover a little bit of my past. My paternal grandfather Bob—which wasn't really his name but everyone called him that anyway because his last name was Burns, like the poet Robert Burns, which I guess makes as much sense as anything—had been, essentially, a spy in World War II, employed by British Intelligence and posted to the north of Germany so that he could weed out Nazi sympathizers in bars.
His job—and this was a great job for him, because he was also, essentially, an alcoholic—was to sit in the pub all night and make friends. The next day he'd have these friends arrested, of course, based on what they'd drunkenly told him the night before, but this is the way they did things in the 1940s, I think: put a sociable English soldier who speaks perfect German in a local watering hole and have him buy everyone drinks all night. Boom, the next day you've got your man. My German grandmother, then a young twentysomething living in Hannover with her parents and sister, was working as a translator after the war. They met, married, and moved back to his native England. She left all of her family behind.
Now for someone like me, who has always been hopelessly nostalgic and who has always felt fairly rootless, stories like this are like precious heirlooms, treasured the same way you'd wrap a pair of pearls in an old hankie and take them out every so often to look at. Growing up, I was very close to my grandmother—probably owing to the fact that my parents were often living thousands of miles away, but also, I think, because she was only the second person to see me after I was born ("that'll do very nicely," she's said to have said)—but it's only in the last five or six years that I've started thinking about wanting to see where she grew up, where she lived and worked, and where she and my grandfather took my dad and his siblings on family holidays back to Germany in the 1950s and 60s.
Berlin is only two and a half hours from Hannover. Everything sort of just came together.
There were four stops on our itinerary: my grandmother's old apartment; a cafe in downtown Hannover with a lot of family history; the house that her father, my great-grandfather, had built in nearby Empelde after the war; and the city of Braunschweig, where I had arranged to meet an uncle—really, a second cousin of my dad's—that I'd never met before. All of this in a foreign country, driving a foreign car, on foreign roads, with a foreign GPS whose staccato commands were an instant crash course in the high school German that had been lying dormant in my brain for the last 14 years.
Exhibit A: Our German GPS showing the address we were going to.
Exhibit B: The address in question, found on my grandparents' 1947 engagement announcement, which was tucked into the back of an old photo album.
The day was frigid and rainy and we didn't see the sun once. (We didn't actually see the sun once the entire time we were in Berlin, but that's what you get for going to Northern Germany in January, Holly, think about that the next time you marvel at how cheap the hotel rates are this time of year.) We arrived in Hannover two bracing, slightly frightening hours later—someone was a little enamored of the no-speed-limit-on-the-Autobahn thing and pushed us, at one point, up to 136 miles an hour, at which point someone else screeched that she hadn't come all this way just to get into a fiery auto wreck, particularly not before trying the famous Apfelkuchen at the aforementioned cafe in Hannover—and found ourselves at the address on the 66-year-old engagment announcement just after noon.
We couldn't go inside, of course, but it was enough just to stand in front of the apartment building, to walk down the same street my grandmother would have walked down as a child and a teenager and a twentysomething, to know that my feet had touched the pavement her feet had touched, that my nose had pressed up against the same glass she'd have looked out of from the lobby door.
Her name wasn't there anymore, of course, but I liked knowing that it would have been.
Mission accomplished, we drove five minutes into the center of Hannover, grappled with the public parking situation—this is exactly the kind of thing they prepare you for at school-level German and exactly the kind of complicated vocabulary you instantly forget—and made our way to the Hollaendische Kakao-Stube, a cafe my dad had urged me to try and find if I could.
My dad's grandmother—my great-grandmother—had known the proprietor, Friedrich Bartels, back in the day, and she'd often taken my grandmother there as a child. After it was bombed in the war and rebuilt in the same style, my courting grandparents would go there in the 1940s, and when they took my dad and his siblings back to Germany in the 50s and 60s, they'd bring them here for a treat. "Have coffee and a naughty cake," my dad wrote in his email to me. "If they have Apfelkuchen with Sahne, have that. It was Omi's favorite and it's mine too."
Well, just following orders, I guess.
(I also had something called "Hawaii-Toast" which was essentially ham and tinned pineapple on a slice of toasted white bread, smothered to within an inch of its life with cheese. While I ate the entire thing—out of hunger? Politeness? A momentary lapse in culinary judgement?—I will probably not be ordering Hawaii-Toast anytime again in the near future. The hot chocolate, on the other hand, was out of this world, and the cake was well worth my insistence that Sean keep it somewhere under the 136-miles-an-hour range so that I might actually be able to try it.)
Here is Sean in front of the Hannover Opera House. Our car was parked somewhere beneath it, possibly illegally.
Full of apple cake and Hawaii-Toast, we drove the 20 minutes to the nearby village of Empelde, where my great grandfather had built a house on an empty plot of land after the war. Together with his wife, Angelika, he lived on the ground floor of the house; my great-aunt Leni—their daughter and my grandmother's sister—lived on the top floor with her husband, Harald. Here is Leni standing in front of the house in the late 1940s.
And here is the house as it looks today. Gone are the fields and vacant lots; now it's surrounded by houses and shops on all sides.
While my dad had told me lots of stories about this house and shown me lots of pictures, he couldn't remember an exact address for it, just that it was "two down from the church and across from the tram station" (try telling that to a German GPS.) When we first found the house—or what I assumed was the house—I took a few tentative pictures from the front, fairly certain I was in the right place, but not completely confident and slightly wary I might be taking random pictures of the wrong thing. Then, on impulse, I took a few steps down the side street, until I could see it from the back, and suddenly—it hit me like a lightning bolt—I was sure.
You may remember the photo of my grandmother I used to make a gigantic print in my home office. In it, she is the very epitome of glamour, sitting like a pin-up girl on a sunny balcony in the mid-1950s:
When I turned the corner and saw the back of the house, there it was, right in front of me: the balcony. My god, that very same balcony.
I know it sounds silly, but it was a bit of an emotional moment for me. How many times had I looked at that balcony in grainy black and white print on my wall, and suddenly there it was, more than a full half-century later, empty but for old ghosts. Above it were the windows of the attic room my dad and his brother would stay in every summer, my dad hiding the pickled herring he hated down the side of the mattress until, weeks later, the smell made everyone suspicious.
(Man, isn't history amazing? You keep your week on the beach in Aruba, I'll get my kicks looking at the back of an old house in suburban Germany!)
Here's the back patio of the house in 1951, with my great-grandfather Heinrich, my great-grandmother Angelika, and their granddaughter—Leni's daughter Karin—standing on it:
And here's the back patio as it looks today:
Well, it's certainly a lot safer.
Our final stop of the day was the town of Braunschweig, about an hour away, where my Uncle Harald and his wife Thea ensured that we had, in this order, afternoon coffee, afternoon cake, a thorough tour of the city, and a wonderful home-cooked dinner of Currywurst—all in the span of about four hours. We also visited Harald's mother, Rosie—my grandmother's cousin—who is 86 and still lives in the same house she moved into as a child in the 1930s.
This is Harald sitting in the same room, on the very same couch—in the very same spot on the couch, as a matter of fact—as he did in 1966, when his brother Hans Peter, my dad, and my dad's brother Gordon, watched the 1966 World Cup Final together. England beat West Germany in the last few minutes of the match, which, as you can imagine, was very exciting for my dad and Gordon, and not so exciting for Harald and Hans Peter. My dad saw this picture the other day and said absolutely nothing about this room has changed in the intervening 47 years. Well, okay, maybe there was no remote control on the table back then. But ALMOST nothing.
So that was my day of nostalgia tourism in northern Germany, and it was probably my favorite of the four-and-a-half days we spent in the country. We saw other wonderful and memorable things, of course—which I'm sure I shall get around to writing about in the next, ooh, three months if my track record is anything to go by—but there was something special about this day that made it stick out head and shoulders above all the rest. It was like time travel, maybe. Like reaching back into the past and recreating it, if only for a brief few moments. Like having the magnificent power of resurrecting history, one passed-down story at a time.