I never thought the word “entschuldigung” could roll off my tongue, but it did, several times, on the streets of Paris. Narrow sidewalks, crowded streets; I was saying it all the time. I’d hear “Pardon” in return, and kick myself. I know the right word to say in France when I bump into someone, but my brain couldn’t keep track of our change of address.
It’s fall now. We flew back to Berlin yesterday and discovered that the trees had turned orange and yellow in our absence. The leaves fluttered down around us as we walked. We turned our backs and fall snuck in.
Paris is a more intact version of Berlin. I see it more clearly now that we’re back in Berlin. Paris is dripping with beauty; every corner you turn offers a new panorama of old-world charm, buildings from the 17th century, every doorway detailed with planks of old wood, every balcony encased in flourishes of iron. Even the grungiest corners have a bohemian air. The unmistakable symbols of Paris are all around you; the Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, the Pompidou Center, l’Arc de Triomphe… You can’t forget where you are. It’s overwhelming. It’s more than the brain can absorb.
Berlin is beautiful as well. It’s just more obvious to me now how much is missing, how much destroyed in the war, replaced in austere times with less opulence, more function. The street pattern remains the same, but the roads have been widened to accommodate the onslaught of the automobile, some squares obliterated into traffic circles where once beautiful fountains and squares stood, diverting the traffic around them. So much lost.
It’s hard to see what’s not there, what you never knew. It’s through the memories of those around us, and old photographs, that we pick up the thread of sorrow, the sense that something is missing, something has been taken from the city that can never be returned. There is a genuine nostalgia for the dusty wasteland that for years was Potsdamer Platz, and undisguised contempt for the American-style metal and glass structures that stand there now.
Even the weather seems to be melancholy in Berlin. I ordered a coffee at the café down our block and thanked the server with a “Merci” that should have been a “Danke,” which I followed with an “Entschuldigung, we were in Paris this morning, my brain hasn’t arrived yet,” and he understood me, ready to engage in English, or German, or French, whatever I might lob at him. He asked how the weather was in Paris, and I told him it was warm the first few days, and sunny; he said it had rained in Berlin all week.
We’re glad to be home, though home isn’t quite home, but we are pleased to spread out again in our spartan apartment.
The Paris trip behind us, M and I are talking about Christmas now. We discuss how to make it a good one for the kids, how to balance our slimmed-down life with the need for the annual presentation of stuff; what is simply a replacement of the things we already have back in St. Paul, what is a meaningful gift. We critique past presents we’ve given to the children and to each other; we admit our own shortcomings.
We install ourselves in a nearly empty apartment and we long to fill it. We are consumers, Americans, and parents, and we can’t escape any of these identities. We think ahead to next July and anticipate trading out our old and worn-out clothes for the new things we’ve acquired in our finite suitcases. We imagine shipping stuff back to our crowded house, and it overwhelms us.
We see Berlin, so much lost, bombed into oblivion, the gaps filled in with replacements, something lesser, something new. The new is never as good as the memory of the old.
We sit in our apartment and wonder who we can be if we’ve returned here, wonder when this absurd time-out-of-time feeling will end. We see the gaping holes in our lives and we long to fill them, appalled by yet drawn to Christmas as the tyrannical opportunity to fill our space with things meant to stand for love. We struggle to remember how to just be.