It was one year ago this July when C and I flew home from Berlin while M stayed on one last week with our two other daughters: playing a few recitals, saying a few more goodbyes, wrapping up our affairs. M walked through the apartment with the landlord one last time; he returned borrowed items to the neighbors: mattress, floor lamp, patio table and chairs. And he asked our friend Doris to drive him to the post office to ship home a few boxes, the odds and ends of our accumulations in Berlin.
I picture Doris pulling up in front of our yellow apartment building in her small hatchback, waving to M up on the balcony. I can see her climbing the red carpeted stairs up to our flat once, twice, to help him carry down the three heavy boxes he’d prepared to send—boxes packed with our family’s winter coats and boots, the handcut wooden puzzles we found in Paris, hiking boots, stuffed animals, and other random items too cumbersome to fit in the remaining suitcases.
There was one last box that wasn’t quite ready to be sealed up and put in the trunk of the car when Doris arrived. I’m thinking it will have been sitting on the dining room table. I imagine its contents spilling out the top, not yet taped shut for shipping. The faded Scrabble game I’d picked up at a garage sale decades ago will have been in there, along with a CD-ROM of the complete works of Verdi. But more important was the stack of yellow legal pads filled with M’s tiny writing, a year’s worth of thoughts carefully captured in pen. He’d take care of that box himself, he will have told Doris; don’t worry about that one.
The three boxes he and Doris shipped from the Kreuzberg post office that day reached us by late last August without a hitch. One, then two, finally three boxes were delivered to our doorstep over the course of a week. But that fourth box, the one with all his notes, has yet to appear.
M tells me he shipped the fourth box from the bakery. Seems he didn’t want to bother Doris for yet another favor, one more trip across town. Instead, he carried the box himself the two short blocks to the Glückskäfer (Lucky Beetle) convenience story on the corner. Convenient, yes. Lucky, no.
The bakery is a certified postal station. The shop proudly bears the signature DHL symbol on its window, the black horn on a yellow background announcing the bakery’s status as an official Deutsche Post packet shop.
I mailed the occasional letter from that very counter myself on occasion through the year, stuttering my way through each exchange with the kind husband and wife who would smile and crinkle their noses when I’d ask for the correct postage. They couldn’t produce a word of English to help me out. Their packet shop is little more than a postal scale wedged in between the streusel and the newspapers. A few padded envelopes are offered across from the cappuccino maker, near the wall of self-serve gummi candies. Stamps are in a drawer behind the extensive selection of Ritter Sport chocolates.
Lottery tickets? Croissants? Latte? Ja, ja, natürlich. But international shipping? Oh, honey.
If that box had only had our girls’ winter boots in it, that would have been fine; they would have outgrown them anyway. Puzzles gone missing? Just another reason to return to Paris someday.
But all of M’s notes? Taken so diligently from the innumerable books he had pulled from the brimming stacks of the Gedenkbibliothek (the library built under the Marshall Plan, a gift from the Americans)? All year the library had been a treasure trove for a Verdi scholar like him. Obscure biographies, music histories he’d never heard of, extensive recordings of every opera he could imagine. He’d read, he’d listened, he’d taken reams of notes. And they’re all in the missing box.
Ten months later, we received this cryptic email from the German post office:
“Geschätzte Kundin, geschätzter Kunde,
die Warensendung 221147004570 wurde soeben intern bei DHL gebucht und wird aller Voraußicht nach am 18.05.2015 zugestellt.
Freundliche Grüße sendet Team Versand bei der DHL”
“Dear valued customer,
Package 221147004570 has just posted internally at DHL and all materials will be delivered after May 18, 2015.
Friendly greetings from Team Shipping with DHL”
We had a moment of excitement. Then confusion.
Delivered to whom? Returned to sender, to our Berlin apartment, with a stranger’s name on the door? Or all the way to St. Paul? And when might this delivery take place?
Two months have passed since that email arrived.
For most of July M has been writing an article about two new opera productions of King Lear. He would have liked to refer to the notes he took about the Lear opera Verdi worked on all his life but never completed.
“If only I had those notes!” he laments, shaking his head.
I shake my head too. But I don’t know what to say. I’d packed my six journals in my suitcase, unwilling to be parted from them for any longer than the plane ride home.
But with time and rereading, scouring for notes I was sure I’d written down, I find I come up short again and again. I’ve begun to think that even 60 journals couldn’t have done the year justice. There were too many details I didn’t manage to capture. Too many questions left unanswered. Too many days without an entry, leaving hiccups in the narrative.
The missing box suggests to me that maybe you can’t take it with you. Sure, you can live anywhere you want for a year, you can walk a city’s streets and ride its trains and eat alongside the locals, you can even have too much time on your hands, but in the end none of that can be boxed up and sent home to be unwrapped like a present later.
I should reassure M that it’s okay, that it’s not the notes that matter, but rather the time spent accumulating them. It was the U-Bahn trips across town, the impromptu lunches at Meisterburger under the train station, the moments lingering in the stacks, happening upon a new find: those were the achievements, as important as the notes compiled over the months.
And perhaps if I could convince him of that, I could also reach back in time and shake free my homesick self still rattling around in my journals. Maybe then I could remind myself, then as now: Just be present, be here in this moment. Just be.