There is nothing like attending a young person’s birthday party to make you feel like a kid again. My rowing friend invited me to her 26th birthday party, making her alarmingly close to 20 years younger than me, but somehow her friends did not seem put off by the grey threads in my hair and the three not-so-small children back at my apartment.
Germans! They are remarkably civil. They will talk to you even if they have to switch languages to do so. They will talk to you even though you are not hip and cool and you still use words like hip and cool. They want to know what you think about what’s going on in the world. They notice you exist; they want you to have a good time. They are polite. They are interested. And they like to drink.
Let’s imagine the reverse situation. A mid-20s American woman throws a birthday party and all her friends come, around her age, and her one friend in her mid-40s attends her party. And speaks no English. Let’s see; there is bound to be one German speaker in the crowd; surely they will speak to her. But they’ll get bored with that because no one else can understand them. Others will attempt to speak English slowly to allow her to try to keep up, but when they find she can’t and just sits mute, they’ll move on, forget she’s there, figure it doesn’t matter anyway, she’s only here for a short time, she’ll go away soon enough and we’ll never see her again and she won’t be a reminder to us of how rude we were that night we ignored her at the birthday party.
Not so in Berlin. Anne was so happy I came, genuinely pleased, greeting me with a big hug and many statements to that effect, and introductions all around. And everyone in the room made an attempt to speak English, most of them quite good at it actually, and they spoke English even when talking across the table to another German, just so I could understand what was going on.
They drank a lot. I tried the free-flowing Rotkäppchen and found it went down like ginger ale; I tried a shot of herby alcohol (“good for the digestion,” I was told with a wink). I had a Cuba Libre, otherwise known as a Rum and Coke (“it’s good for you; it has fruit in it,” said someone of the chunks of lime).
Well past midnight I grabbed my coat, and Anne met me at the front door to give me a proper sendoff, as she had done with each friend as they left, a hug at the door, a few words of thanks. I couldn’t help but head off for the S-Bahn warmed by her good nature and the genuine kindness of her friends, as well as the sense of new relationships being forged.
Part of my good mood was influenced by the knowledge that American friends were coming the next day; a girl from E’s homeroom back in St. Paul and her mother would be arriving the next afternoon. Not to mention that my sister would be flying in from Melbourne on Monday morning. You can’t exactly pine away for home when home of various sorts was going to great lengths to come to see you. Or at least that was my perspective.
There were other perspectives in the flat. On Sunday morning, E was beside herself with excitement about the imminent arrival of her classmate. Hopping around, getting rammy, unable to sit still, she both charmed and annoyed us all. At first her sisters were caught up in her high-flying mood but eventually her rambunctiousness got to be too much. C pulled away from her sisters. I found her in her room with her door shut, lying face down in her bed.
I sat down beside her. “What’s wrong, hon?”
Silence at first, then a low groan. “It’s not fair. E’s best friend is coming to see her, and S has a friend coming in the spring. No one’s coming to see me. Everyone hates me.”
There is a large leap in logic from ‘my friends aren’t coming to visit me’ to ‘everyone hates me,’ but not when you’re 11. I tried to explain that it was not a conspiracy against her, but it didn’t matter. Big tears ran down her cheeks.
“I hate it here,” she said. “And we haven’t Skyped with our next-door neighbors for two months!”
“Oh, honey,” I said, rubbing her back. “They just had a baby yesterday. Give them a break. And I’m sure they’ll want to Skype soon.”
There is a moodiness in an 11-year-old that is hard to crack. My strategy is generally to give her space and let the foul mood work its way out on its own.
I reminded her that her aunt was coming Monday, my sister, that is—all the way from Melbourne! And her uncle would be arriving on Wednesday—M’s brother, all the way from the States.
“Yeah,” she said, “Your sister, and daddy’s brother.”
“They’re your family too,” I said. I reminded her that we’ll have Thanksgiving this Friday night (her sisters will both have school all week; only C, at the American school, will have the holiday from school). And next week she’ll be performing in her school play, The Christmas Carol. And in just a few weeks, our family friends from the States will join us for Christmas. There’s so much going on! Who has time to be homesick?
But I was fresh off a party with young friends; I was enjoying the renewed sensation of feeling a bit rooted and connected to people—I went out alone! I stayed out past midnight! I think I’m having fun! But here was C to remind me that my joy wasn’t transferable. Her pain was real and it hurt, and there was no chance of just brushing it aside. It would release its grip when it was good and ready.