No Christmas in Germany (12 Dezember)

Join me this month for stories of our time here in a small German village where we’re visiting with my mom. I’m experimenting with straight journal-style blogging as a ‘post-a-day’ challenge. Thanks for reading, Bill 

Lily and I went for a lunch date, which we’ve been meaning to do for a while now. We stopped in the Vietnamese restaurant that opened since our last visit, and seems odd to me, a Vietnamese place in such a small, traditional German town. But they had pho and bún on the menu and I ordered for the two of us, got Lily a coke. It was just the two of us and the cook/owner with no sounds other than him chopping and the sizzling of oil for our spring rolls. Then another couple came in and ordered, followed by the strange woman across the road by the butcher who owns a massage business, whom Dawn and I met when we first came a couple summers ago, who tried to convince Dawn and I to come see her, but seemed to have a different motive we couldn’t pinpoint, just felt odd. I saw her from the corner of my eye and turned away, but then she heard us speaking English, and bent down on my periphery until her body was almost parallel to the ground, trying to catch my eye. I didn’t say anything to Lily and luckily Lily didn’t see her either, as the woman was on Lily’s right-hand side, and her hair falls down in a wave there now, eclipses half her face.

Afterwards we decided on a walk down by the river, and Lily remembered it was the same walk we took that last day before we left in 2009. I said I had a picture of her from then and she said we should come back and take another photo from the same spot.

Lily pointed out the two swans on the far shore—did I remember when we were last here, watching the mother swan and her two eggs hatching? Maybe it’s the same ones, she said.

They want to develop part of the river shore and there’s a petition in town to block it. It would require cutting down some old trees and likely paving things over, but frankly I think it would look better: the trees are kind of gray and sickly looking, but maybe it’s just this time of year they look that way.

Eberhard asked what day we’re going back, the 28th or 29th—he needs to make arrangements to take us to the airport because his mother’s sick, he lives with her and takes care of things.

We’ll get back the same time of day we leave Frankfurt, reclaim the nine hours we lost, like getting the coin back on a deposit for something you’ve returned.

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No Christmas in Germany (11 Dezember)

“Love peace”

Charlotte and Eberhard made stress balls with balloons and filled them with flour but had an accident and it went everywhere—the cleaning lady had just come, and wouldn’t be back for a week. Eberhard demonstrated how you could get the balloon to puff up by attaching it to the top of a carbonated bottle of water and shaking it, which worked for a time before it just went limp for reasons no one could explain. Then after dinner AC/DC came on, and Eberhard demonstrated the Angus Young way of hop-kicking across the stage while playing air guitar and making a wanton face. Everyone laughed. I cooked a small chicken en cocotte on low heat with just a couple rosemary sprigs, a small onion and garlic: after the first helping Eberhard quickly went back for more and returned to the table with parts of the chicken I wouldn’t have thought to eat, sat in the dark shaking his head it was so good, licking his fingers, eating mostly with his hands. There was an argument between him and my mom about Cat Stevens’ real first name before he went Muslim I stayed out of. In the morning Eberhard only had time for a cup of tea before heading back to his mother’s. The sky went a pale color and I watched it from the sofa, then took a walk back up the Himmelsleiter. The chicken was so good we decided to repeat it with pork, but mom and Dawn weren’t sure about the right cut so I had to get it myself at the butcher (the Metzger). After drying it from the brine I cut a slit in the side that looked like a mouth and put my hand in it like a puppet. It got so dark by 3 I lit some candles and poured a red wine, gathered up Charlotte’s stress balls, and when the door bell rang I ignored it.

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Dream state of awareness, one day

We really just don’t have much time, which is why I get up in the mornings to write. I thought that walking with Benny in the morning yesterday, to the fields. He asked, now that you’re back in Seattle and settled, do you see yourself staying there a while? Maybe the mid-life crisis people talk about is the awareness of time, that you won’t keep on living, you lose the feeling you will, which we have in youth. The idea of old age and dying was repulsive to me then. But then I saw myself in the mirror for the first time with that chicken neck thing starting, the way the flesh starts to hang below the chin, and since then it’s only gotten worse. I splash cold water on my face in the mornings and go for the coffee maker, that seems to undo some of the effects. And then I walk outside in the cold, in the dark, and use my senses, and feel strong for a time, and get ideas I can use to write. I lay in bed in the morning in the dark, and Dawn’s upstairs sleeping with the kids, they’re having bad dreams. None of us want to be alone but we all are, in a sense. That’s the trick of companionship, to pretend we’re not. I had a bad dream too, and wrote it down here:

The dream started with my green knapsack on fire, in the corner of a hotel lobby. I thought, someone lit that and it’s going to blow up and I need to get it out of here now. I threw it outside but there was someone in the grass on their side with a rifle, and they saw me, and I ran but he got me in the back, I saw the bullet come out of the rifle in slow motion and felt it go through me and come out the front, a direct hit. I went down, and in that moment thought this is it, and felt my last breath and then my legs open in a yoga pose. And the dream told me, now is the chance for your last thoughts or prayers, what will they be? And I don’t remember, but they weren’t about me.

Loren wrote, he’s depressed. I wrote back and did the best I could, but there’s only so much you can do, on email. I told him I feel the same this time of year, it will get better come January when we get more light. That’s part of my problem with violent movies or the news, why let this all in, when it’s hard enough to stay positive? When people feel alone or lonely with their grief, we need positive things.

Loren said he went outside with his phone and filmed, the groaning of the trees in the wind, the sun. And I did the same walking through the forest in the morning alone with the birds and trees. We’re going back there some day for good, and maybe all this now is just a dream.

Just as the Christmas market started so did the snow. Benny called his dad Christoph, who met us by the Rathaus around noon. The brass band started but the conductor wasn’t wearing a hat or gloves and looked cold. Christoph said we could go upstairs to Charlie’s, there was a small room where we could sit and watch the snow. Charlie said he had some orange cake that was really good and brought me a coffee and the others, Sekt. Dawn met us and we made room, and shared the orange cake with our forks. The snow seemed to stop and start again, and when we came out mom pointed at a little tree with lights by the entrance now covered in white. I would have taken a picture of it but it wouldn’t have come out right. 

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No Christmas in Germany (10 Dezember)

Join me this month for stories of our time here in a small German village where we’re visiting with my mom. I’m experimenting with straight journal-style blogging as a ‘post-a-day’ challenge. Thanks for reading, Bill 

Fake snow, film set snow, is what it looked like as it gathered on our hats and hoods as we stood by the brass band outside the Rathaus. I returned my mug to the Glühwein stand and asked for the pfand (the refund for my glass), but they misunderstood and gave me more. Benny and I went to the bakery in the morning, the only one that’s open on Sundays, that still makes bread the traditional German way, but they were out of most things, said in five minutes the pretzels would be ready, and brought us coffee while we waited. Benny’s dad Christoph retold the story of his grandfather, who left Germany for England to open a bakery but in 1914 was given two options, to either return home to Germany or remain in England a prisoner on the Isle of Man. He chose the latter (to avoid the war) and sold the bakery, but when he returned to Germany after the war and tried to get his English pounds back from the bank they said there was nothing left after the currency conversion and he only had enough money to buy a clock. Then Christoph’s dad found himself in a similar situation, having left Germany for England and told in 1939 he could either remain there a prisoner or return home to Germany. He made the mistake of returning, and for eight years served as a soldier for the Nazis, then a prisoner in Russia. We asked Christoph about the refugee housing and he said it’s the same location as last time, when they tried to reintegrate Germans who returned from Soviet territory after the Iron Curtain fell. Russia had encouraged Germans to move there to farm, but in World War II Stalin feared they’d act as informants behind the Russian front and sent them all to Siberia. After the war, the former Germans claimed their right to return to Germany as citizens but did so with Russian accents and now some are serving as informants for the Russian mob, here in Germany. Mom got teased by a German making small talk with us in the Croatian restaurant up the street. He said after living here all this time your German should be better—then he joked, after you master German you can work on your Schwäbisch.

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No Christmas in Germany (9 December)

Join me this month for stories of our time here in a small German village where we’re visiting with my mom. I’m experimenting with straight journal-style blogging as a ‘post-a-day’ challenge. Thanks for reading, Bill 

Got up at 5 again and came downstairs, turned on the heater/blower, lit a candle, made coffee, sat waiting for the right time to write. Finished editing the first chapter of my memoir (Life Before Fabric Softener) which I’ve been writing for about eight years now. Posted it, looked out at the Aldi sign, decided I’d walk through the fields by the refugee houses: traces of snow, flurries (schnee). Got on the trail in the dark and the clock started tolling 7. Tried writing the second chapter in my head but got stuck. The teacher for the memoir writing class said before you write your story, try imagining how it feels. It sounds woo-woo, but she’s right. I did a version of it in June I posted on my blog, wrote “live” each day, inspired by Chris Cornell’s suicide for reasons that don’t make much sense or have anything to do with my memoir. But I needed a trigger, and it got me 50,000 words worth. This time I’m trying a different entry point (December, 1997), the trigger the look of the sky one morning I was walking to the lake back home in Sammamish, thinking about our upcoming time here in Germany. It’s not unusual this time of year that the only sun you get is in the morning, and then it’s done. The sky had the same look those final weeks before I left Starbucks in 1997. I quit my job there twice, both times in December, and there was something funny about that. It was the same time of year, both times.

Mom surfaced at 10:30 but the kids/Dawn didn’t get up until after we got back from the store, after noon. Mom and I stood in the kitchen for a time giggling we were so happy, being together. At the store we got the checker who’s lost most of her hair, who speaks good English, kind of showing off when she said to my mom one-hundred-twenty-nine-and-fifty-one.

When we came outside it was hailing and there was an altercation between my mom and another driver who was trying to exit the wrong way and then forced my mom to do the same because there wasn’t enough room and the other driver wouldn’t relent, even though she was wrong. We went to the beer store and hoped it wouldn’t be the cranky guy working and luckily, it wasn’t. Then mom and I unloaded everything and sat down, both glad we didn’t have to go out again. It started snowing and I put on John Coltrane and brewed a cup of tea.

When I got back from the fields with the refugees the clock tolled 8. With the sun up and the trees without their leaves I could see the swimming pool, and it hurt to remember our times there with the kids when they were younger. You could almost play out little vignettes looking through the fence at different scenes. And it looked a lot smaller than I remembered it.

I took the side trail by the new Lidl store (they’re renovating the old one) and the moon was still out; I passed a guy who looked Turkish or Middle-Eastern and he smiled, as did I, unlike most Germans you pass, who don’t look up.

There was the athletic track where Gilles and I used to run when we first moved here in 2009. We resolved to run every day (Gilles was running barefoot, African style) but only did it once, my feet couldn’t stand it.

Even though I probably had journals I could go back to I refused, I had a ‘don’t look back’ policy: the past is probably better (more realistic, [or less]), without looking too close.

When I got up, someone commented on my blog “no more massages please” and I marked it Spam.


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“Life Before Fabric Softener” (a memoir)

Interrupting my journal-in-Germany series today with an excerpt from my new, to-be written memoir “Life Before Fabric Softener.” It starts on the 20-year anniversary of my first extended stay in Europe, in the south of France.

December, 1997
Capitol Hill, Seattle

That December was dry and most mornings I walked to work. The walk was downhill and mostly nice until you got to Pioneer Square, a stretch that narrows along an off-ramp frequented by tramps and hoodlums and their waste. I’d bus home, sit in my apartment, think about what’s next. I’d given notice at work and bought a one-way ticket back east. In just five years my mom had remarried an Englishman, bought a house in Pennsylvania, a condo in the south of France, and now they were buying another place one village over. Mom hinted I could come house-sit.

John wasn’t rich necessarily but enjoyed that lifestyle, and who wouldn’t. He was an artist/hippy at heart but a good businessman too, had an eye for collectibles, started a company with his now ex-wife, and enjoyed royalties from his record sales, TV shows, and patents. I didn’t know it at the time, but he’d won a lawsuit from a doctor who partially paralyzed him after an auto accident trying to repair his neck. John used the money to buy acoustic guitars on eBay and property in Europe.

It was two years since I started working for Starbucks. In that time, I’d opened a two-story café on Philadelphia’s South Street, moved to Seattle to run another café, then transferred to corporate as a secretary/coordinator. They hinted I could move into a new position (“roll-out specialist”) but I declined, fearing corporate success would change me. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, I just wanted to write. But I didn’t have anything to write about so I thought moving to Europe would help.

One of my college writing professors Joe Schall taught me sometimes it’s better to leave things out. Like, if you’re going to write about a crazy night on the golf course where you and your friends discover that trees are actually living things, try leaving the part out about taking acid, it might be more interesting. He looked at me when he made his point.

I thought I was pretty responsible, enough to watch over my mom and John’s house. They were doing this back and forth thing where they’d live for three months in one place, then pack up for the other.

The plan was for me to stay at the Pennsylvania house while they were in France, then live with them for a few weeks when they got back, and go over myself at the beginning of May. There were no real plans after that.

I’d just have to get some temp work in Pennsylvania for spending money—there wouldn’t be much in the way of expenses. I didn’t know how to cook and wasn’t much of a drinker then, just liked cigars. Once mom and John moved back to France I could join them for dinner every night by walking over the hill from my village to theirs.

Before I left Seattle, I met a girl at the bar who had a boyfriend in the Rainbow Family (cult), and somehow it came up he could sell me some acid so I gave him my address and one day they turned up at my door.

My place had been burgled over the summer and the cops said the problem was the shrubs, so we had those cut down and now you could see right through, which I didn’t like. It wasn’t “Capitol Hill” per se, more the Central District, a somewhat sketchy interzone they kept saying would gentrify one day but never did.

The Rainbow guy was tall, had recently shaved his head, changed his name. I never trafficked drugs across state lines but thought it would be safe smuggling them in a book, was shipping most of my things back east via train, or however they transport items at Book Rate. I put the sheet in a Webster’s dictionary we still keep in our garage, probably the biggest dictionary you’ve ever seen, that strives to include like every word ever. I put the acid in the middle of the book on page no. 666, with the J’s.

That Christmas it was just the three of us, plus a dog my mom and John rescued named Emmet who’d been badly abused, was nearly dead on the side of the road when they found him. His face was so deformed we called him Screwface, after the Dick Tracy character. Emmet would get seizures triggered by domestic unrest, and John and my mom were stressed out about having to leave, so Emmet would go down on his side kicking and shrieking and you’d have to give him a shot in the ass right away or he’d die. I wasn’t sure I was cut out for it. I couldn’t even grow a beard. Emmet went missing the first weekend after they left, disappeared in the woods through the snow, didn’t leave any tracks even, almost spirit-like. I climbed down the ravine to the creek thinking I’d find his body but slipped and smashed my glasses on the rocks and had a job interview the next day, had to borrow a pair of glasses from a friend that were almost the same prescription as mine but not really.

The job interview was for a library working nights at the local college where I fantasized about meeting a girl now that I was older and writerly, had lived on the west coast, would soon be leaving for Europe.

But they didn’t go for it and mailed me a rejection letter instead, typed, with the college logo on the masthead wishing me luck. I wrote a poem on the back of it and saved the letter, kept a pile of typed things on the table by my typewriter.

Personal computers and word processors were starting to pop up but I didn’t like the look of them, it wasn’t as substantial as something you could hold, the satisfaction of unrolling a sheet of paper I’d typed stroke by stroke, the look of it piling up beside me—an affirmation of who I was, or who I imagined I’d be.





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“Little remains”

Join me this month for stories of our time here in a small German village where we’re visiting with my mom. I’m experimenting with straight journal-style blogging as a ‘post-a-day’ challenge. Thanks for reading, Bill 

Any time someone opens the refrigerator door it smells like cheese. Cheese isn’t a smell I like generally. Charlotte commented on the fridge, the smell. We polished off most of the cheese the first or second night with mom’s famous pear salad (pears marinated in lemon juice, greens, walnuts). Mom said when Guido (her sometimes lodger) is here he doesn’t refrigerate leftovers, he just leaves them out. Guido’s a cook, he came here because the French guy’s wife has a brother Guido’s friends with who opened a restaurant in town but there was a falling out and he just walked out on the job one day, quit. Leaving the leftovers out makes me wonder if that’s why mom has problems with the mice, they think it’s for them. I thought that this morning standing in the kitchen by the light of the oven eating cold pasta with a fork in the dark. Each time I’d cover the pasta but then go back for it and eat more until it was almost gone. You can’t say “I’m full” in German because that implies you’re pregnant, the same in France. Keep eating too much and you’ll look that way, too.

We spent the day trying to stay awake, drove to Bietigheim, walked around the Christmas market. I asked in German if they had a table for five and they did, one off to the side which was good in case the kids came unglued. But our German fell apart when we ordered and it was obvious we didn’t know what we were talking about. We still got beer, schnitzel, Flammkuchen, sodas for the kids. The Flammkuchen came on big wooden trays with handles, hardly space on the table for it all. We were going to get some beer for takeaway but felt gross and bloated and decided against.

Reading David Sedaris’s book of diaries now, calculate he must be 61. Somehow can’t picture him that age, his voice will always be much younger than that for me, like rock and roll singers who aren’t supposed to grow old.

The diary entries are often just a paragraph or two, hardly a whole page. There are gaps of weeks, sometimes months in between, and in the early years (’77 to ’83 at least) you can read a whole year in about 10 minutes. I’ll start to get into the scene but it doesn’t develop or go anywhere. It’s oddly realistic that way, diaries, looking back on one’s life, and what little remains.

Photo of our oldest daughter Lily, 2009: last day of kindergarten in Besigheim, first sabbatical in Germany.

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