It’s the departures that are the hardest; friends come to visit and it’s joyous to explore the city together, thrilling even just to see their familiar faces standing in our lobby next to us, but there’s always an undercurrent of urgency, knowing they have a finite amount of time with us, return flights booked and waiting. We show them around our neighborhood and well beyond, and I’m gratified to hear them say the same things I’ve said over the past few months—there’s no grid here, the streets are so confusing, one could so easily get lost; yet how livable it is here, how bike-friendly. But no matter how long their visit, there is always an end in sight.
M’s brother Geoff returned for Christmas to Berlin, his home away from home—his third visit since our arrival, and several more planned for this spring. He came two days after we first arrived in August; showed us around our neighborhood, pointed out where to find the best falafel, showed us the best wine stores; taught us which transit pass to buy, advised us to not walk in the bike lane.
His most recent visit overlapped with that of our New Jersey friends, and like me, they leaned on his unbounded expertise, his fluent German, and his role as interpreter of all cultural references, street maps, and menu boards. He’s the leader among us, and even the children recognize it; all six of our girls would line up behind him on the escalator in single file like a string of ducklings, leaving the left side free so he could saunter up to the head of their queue again, in this way demonstrating rechts stehen, links gehen, proper etiquette on German escalators.
A few days before they left I said to our friend Mike, “You can imagine how we felt when Geoff had to leave us the first time,” recalling how tightly I’d hugged him when we said farewell, feeling bereft at the thought of him walking out our front door, this last vestige of home leaving us alone in this strange place. The long months stretched ahead without his aid, his language, his wayfinding skills.
I had a similar feeling when my sister Deb left us after Thanksgiving. On her last day here she and I sat in a favored coffee shop near our house where the male servers always compliment M. She said something about having been in Berlin for two weeks and really, that was enough to see everything she’d wanted to see, and that she felt in good conscience that she was ready to leave. Which made me think that I’d been here for four months; surely I had seen everything in all that time and maybe I could be done now too? Over our cappuccinos I tried to express how glad I was she’d come, but saying so made real her imminent departure, and I dissolved in a wave of self-pity.
Now our Christmas visitors have come and gone. Mike and Larissa and their girls spent ten full days with us, running all over the city on every form of mass transit, sampling Christmas Markets and shopping at KaDeWe, drinking countless cappuccinos, saluting Checkpoint Charlie, catching a glimpse of the world’s treasures at the Pergamon, getting transported back in time at the 1936 Olympic Stadium, and though there’s plenty more to see, we all feel like we’ve done our duty, that it was enough, a job well done.
Sitting on the bed in their rented flat surrounded by suitcases before they left for the airport, I asked their eldest daughter, “Are you ready to go home?” and she gave a wan smile and said “Yes,” and I thought, I am too. But I couldn’t say such a thing. Only on the sidewalk as we said our farewells did Larissa’s hug unleash that deep sadness and my tears came out in her warm embrace, when all around me were dry eyes. I am the one bereft again, buoyed by their visit but somehow cast adrift again when they leave.
But I can’t blame it on Berlin. I take after my father in this way; happiness makes me cry. Endings bring out the sometimes startling recognition of what you’ve had and what you stand to lose. I react similarly when a favored co-worker leaves for brighter shores, and in some of those farewells I’ve forged some of my closest, longest and dearest friendships that take on new life outside their prior frame. A teary farewell where I admit, “I don’t know if I can work here without you,” or blurt out, “Getting to know you has been the best part of working here,” or “It feels like the end of an era,” or after a regatta a simple “I’ll miss you” comes tumbling out and I look forward to the future reunion with each one, wherever it may occur, knowing it will be all the sweeter for the farewell imposed and the closeness brought by the ending.
It would be easy to succumb to the emptiness, to put your coat on to go out, only to find yourself laying back down on the bed, unable to muster the energy get up again. The only thing I know to do to combat the ache is to clean. Coat off, I return to the kitchen, grab the top pot from the pile on the stove, run the water until it scalds my hands. Sweep the crumbs from under the table. Vacuum the white (white!) rugs with the inadequate machine that one would only give to impermanent renters. Find more to straighten and rearrange now, our restraint of the fall months cast aside in the face of Christmas, and now there are bracelet makers on the floor and Froebel star makings on the table and stuffed reindeer on the carpet and marzipan currywurst on the shelf collecting dust. An amaryllis bulb awaits its pot. I throw the uneaten leftover duck in the trash and carry the bags of refuse, the overflowing compost and the myriad empty bottles to the communal garbage area, and I feel lighter. Music is playing, my short playlist of favorite songs from A to T, never completed yet full enough of songs evoking past moments, and I make this place familiar again, scrub it clean until I recognize it as my own.