“WAS MACHST DU?” a voice roars from beyond the bars. It’s the stablehand, suddenly angry. He wants to know what I’m doing with the horse. “Was machst du mit dem Pferd?!”
I had finally entered the stall and the big horse, Pikeur, was quiet beside me. I was running my hands along his neck, under his rough mane where the skin was warmest. I rubbed his ears, moved my fingers down past his forelock and the white star along his forehead to the pillowy, whiskered lips that nibbled the air around my knuckles. Carefully, I picked his feet up one by one and scraped dirt from his hooves. He blew out through his nose, a soft rush of breath, but he didn’t stamp or turn.
Now, the stablehand is glowering as I cradle a hoof in my palm.
“Nur streicheln,” I mutter. Just petting. But I have crossed some sort of line, broken a rule I didn’t know about. I slip past the stall and shut the door behind me. Pikeur eyes me through the bars, his eyes dark. My cheeks burn and I run back to our rented house.
I’ve been coming to the barn for weeks since we moved to Germany, walking from stall to stall, holding my palm up to the bars so the horses can smell my skin. The stablehand, tall with a worn blue cotton jacket and lopsided cap, has for the most part humored me. He lets me watch him forking straw and filling feed pails. His voice is big and round; sometimes he laughs. He knows that Pikeur, the chestnut with the white star, is my favorite.
This is the year I turn thirteen. An important birthday, my parents say. But I will not have a birthday party. The kids I’ve known since pre-school will not walk to my house, presents tucked under their arms. There will be no cake on the dining room table saved from my grandparents’ house. Instead, on the other side of the ocean, my parents will take me to this horse stable. They’ll walk with me down the path I found twisting through the field by our house the week we moved here. They will lead me to the open arena, where I’ve already stood for hours and days, watching students post delicately in circles, their horses’ necks bent and flexed. They will tell me, even though I don’t believe them at first, that I have a lesson today, that it is my birthday present. I am slightly afraid of the teacher, short and stern, with arms like beef slabs, but when he points to Pikeur, I forget to worry that the way his eyes narrow and spark might mean that, like the stablehand, he doesn’t want me hanging around.
When I swing up onto the horse, I am so surprised to feel his withers rippling underneath, to squeeze his flanks with my calves, that I forget everything else. I am thirteen, I think. I am in Germany. This is important.
I didn’t want to come, though. Not at first. When my parents told me we were moving for the rest of the school year, I cried. I scowled on the plane. I kept my eyes on the ground when my father took me to school for the first time.
But then every afternoon, my younger brother and I broke free. We ran into the woods, threw sticks in the stream, walked the edge of the dark pine thicket. I found a path leading through tall field grass to the stable. I started to like the feeling of standing at the bus stop all by myself, Walkman earphones clamped tight. I’m older now, I thought. Someone else. And this is where it happened.
I watch the neighbor girl for weeks as she rides her gray pony past our window. She has straight, shiny hair sliced in a clean line along her jawbone. Her face is calm and even. I can’t imagine her laughing, or crying, or screaming. Her lips hover in a perpetual partial smile. I am so young, really, that it is easy to imagine becoming her, strapping a riding cap around my chin, saddling a pony in my backyard, and riding away from everywhere I thought I belonged, calmly speaking new words for the rest of my life.
One day she invites me to her house. We sit across from each other in her kitchen, staring, wondering what to say. She gives me a large donut, thick and sweet, plate-sized, a slab of white frosting crusting the top. She tells me the donut is called an Amerikaner. She is trying to be kind, offering me something as close to the food I missed from home as she can. But I don’t want food from home anymore.
I turn thirteen. It’s not the only birthday I’ll spend in Germany. I’ll turn 21 drinking a single glass of wine at a bar in the Black Forest, tracing grooves in one of those thick, dark, planked wooden tables holding a candle flickering in glass. Back again at 32, 33, I’ll walk my kids through more German forests, looking for snowdrops and wild garlic.
I never came to this country expecting to grow older. Each time, I arrived homesick and even a little angry at the different forces that brought me here, parents and school and work. Caught between fascination with a new place and loyalty to the one I left, I was almost unwilling at first to accept that actual time would pass, that the world I left would continue moving, changing, without me.
But birthdays came anyway, in Germany, and by then it was always more complicated. There were horses. Forests. Children. Ways to feel at home.
We’re going to win today. Fawad and I have decided this; we know we’re fast enough. We jog in slow circles at the track, saving our energy. The other kids scowl, eyeing us with the usual mix of curiosity and contempt, but what can they do? It’s their country, but we know how to run.
We line up when it’s time. It’s a relay, and I’m first up. When the gun goes off, all the strangeness swollen in me over weeks in a place I still don’t understand dissipates and I’m left with the red oval track I’d know anywhere. I know exactly what to do. I don’t look anywhere but forward. When I finish my lap and slap the baton into Fawad’s hand, I’m already relieved. I know how this is going to end. As I watch Fawad run, cheering his name until my voice turns dry and grainy, I feel like I’m watching a brother, someone I’ve known forever. And we do win.
Fawad and I were foreigners, Ausländer. We attended the only school that would take us. Germany’s educational tracking system at that time ensured that in fifth grade, students with the most academic promise transferred to a Gymasium to be groomed for universities; others attended Realschule, while less bookish students crammed the Hauptschule, also the only type of school that held German foreign language classes.
Along with five other students working to grasp the new language, we stay tucked away in a small classroom in the Hauptschule in Wuppertal. There are no math textbooks or science lab tables, just German workbooks and a teacher with patient eyes who doesn’t let me speak English. I can’t anyway. The other students in the room only speak Portugese, Turkish, Farsi, languages I never heard back in Michigan. We all work side by side, learning new words that will bind us. Fawad is my best friend here.
The students outside our tiny classroom are not kind. They make fun of the French beret I carefully select and tilt just so in the mirror before leaving each morning. They stare hard at me, then ask if I have ever met Michael Jackson. A few boys, snorting giggles as they approach, point to another boy with slicked-back blond hair and tapered stonewashed jeans and tell me he wants to be my boyfriend. I deliberate, decline, feel sure I’ve been mocked.
Every day, I dread my walk through the concrete playground where swingsets creak halfheartedly and cold stone picnic tables rot their paint away. Fawad saves me seats and guides me through the halls. I crumple in relief to see him, to have him at my elbow as I work through my vocabulary notebook.
We’re sitting on the grass now, tired and happy. Fawad rips dandelion leaves in pieces and throws them at me, one by one. A German girl sidles up. I imagine I see new respect in her eyes but maybe she would have been nice anyway.
“Ist er dein Freund?” she asks me, pointing at Fawad. Is he your friend? I smile. I am so proud. Yes, he’s my friend. Of course he’s my friend.
“Ja,” I say. But Fawad looks down at the grass and starts throwing the dandelion leaves even faster. He’s embarrassed. I’ve done the wrong thing again, but I don’t know what yet. The girl just smiles. Freund means boyfriend too, I learn later. Not just friend. If I wanted to call him my friend I should have said “Er ist ein Freund von mir.” Fawad forgives me, though. He’s used to my mistakes.
There are many. One day I misunderstand the teacher’s directions and do not tell my parents I will need to be picked up from school at a different time. School ends and I realize I don’t know how to find my parents or even get on the right bus to go home.
“How could you forget this?” my parents wonder after they finally find me, their voices kind but strained. “Weren’t you paying attention to the teacher?”
I look at the ground, ashamed. Sometimes the German words clutter my head like bees jabbing and losing their stingers endlessly. Their sounds buzz brightly, empty of meaning. Fawad speaks slowly though, telling me what the next day’s schedule will bring. He doesn’t miss a word.
We have only the present; we don’t talk about what we left behind. I know Fawad’s father was a doctor in Afghanistan, but only because his father told my father. My father also says Fawad is a refugee, but I don’t really understand what that means. At school we live only in moments, scratching pencils on a dull page or poking each other in the ribs during recess. Only later, when headlines announce bad news from Afghanistan, do I realize what his family must have fled. He never talked about it.
Ausländer. The word is hard. I see it spraypainted on cement walls as I ride to school. I hang on to the rail as the train sways, looking over my shoulder at the loopy black scrawl that disappears when we round a bend, only to reappear on a new wall. Ausländer raus! Foreigners out!
Am I wanted? Do I want out? Will I ever stop feeling like an Ausländer? I have learned enough German to navigate the markets for my mother; yesterday I ordered her green peppers. I read a German children’s book to a little girl at the stable and got all the way to the last page before she asked where I was from. After moments like these the loneliness creeps out of me, so quietly I forget it was there. I think about how badly Fawad and I wanted to win our race, and what it was we wanted to prove. Neither of us quite fit yet, but maybe we could.
Our class has a picnic on the grass. I see a patch of stinging nettles, a new plant my brother and I discovered in the woods by our German house. The leaves looked soft at first but, studded with tiny pricks, burned our hands when we clutched them. We soon devised a method for picking anyway, grasping the thin stem between our thumb and forefinger, avoiding the leaves. When I decide to pick a small bunch of nettles and innocently hand them to Fawad, it’s not because I want to be mean. I don’t want to hurt him. I just know, after the race and the workbooks and ducking our heads as we weave through crowded halls, that we are ready for jokes. It’s a joke I would play on any of my boy cousins, at home on my grandparents’ farm.
Fawad yelps and shakes his hands. But then he laughs. We both do. I remember his mouth opening in an “O” of pain, then stretching into a smile. His dark eyes flashed and he forgave me again, running after me, nettles burning through the air. Maybe he realized how much I wanted to show him that I felt comfortable enough to play a trick, that I could finally relax enough to laugh.
One day I see a bumper sticker that talks about Ausländer again, but it’s different: Wir sind alle Ausländer, fast überall. Proud of myself for understanding the sticker, and relieved that not all Germans subscribe to the stark graffiti I see from the train, I translate for my parents: We are all foreigners, almost everywhere. The statement’s obvious truth startles me. For a moment, I grasp the world’s largeness in comparison to the tiny corner of it where I actually belong. And just as the world bursts open, rich and wide, it becomes manageably small.
If I am a foreigner almost everywhere, then it is stranger to stay forever, comfortable but closed, in the one place where I am not a foreigner than it is to push past those boundaries and feel like I do now — strange, out of place, lonely, but very much alive. Fawad and I don’t quite belong here. We wouldn’t belong in each other’s home countries either. Imagining either of us visiting the other in Michigan or Afghanistan makes me uneasy, upsets a balance built on experiences we only share because we left those places. Our foreignness, so uncomfortable to struggle through alone, has granted us a friendship we couldn’t have found without coming here, navigating new streets and strange words. We are both here. And we’ve gained something we could not have gained where we belonged.
“The Petoskey Open House is tonight,” my husband says, clicking through his Facebook feed, checking the news from our small Lake Michigan town, at home in Germany. He pauses, then adds, “Aw.” This is uncharacteristic. He isn’t prone to nostalgia, doesn’t waste time missing where we’ve been. Not like me.
I hold my breath, sensing a rare opportunity to say everything, how I was just remembering the lake today, how my friend told me last night, her voice cracking over Skype, “this town has had a huge hole in it ever since you left,” how sometimes when we finally get a day that isn’t cloudy here all I can think about is how the sun used to make the beach shine like one long ribbon. But all I say is an echo: “Aw.” I try to match his tone.
“I miss it,” I add, but my voice rolls up on the last word, like it’s a question. Besides, the moment is gone. He’s already turning around in his chair, slapping his hands on his knees, asking what we should do about dinner.
I wonder what he remembers. Maybe the snow. People’s footprints opening patches of shining pavement. Strapping our son to his chest so neither of them would feel cold. Crowding into the bookstore, watching our neighbor conduct the children’s choir. Holding a paper cup of bean soup with cold fingers. The high school steel drum band clanging in the night. Saying “hello,” “hello,” “hello,” “merry Christmas,” to so many people we knew. Wreaths on the lampposts. The dark gape of the bay behind it all. Does he miss it?
The next day we go to the Esslingen Christmas Market just outside of Stuttgart. No snow, but the gray sky holds the feeling of it. It says maybe soon. Wait. Crossing the bridge, we see that the river water roiling underneath carries wisps of ice. Little white lights strung on lampposts make it seem colder than it is.
We walk slowly, steering the stroller over cobblestone, and I’m not thinking about home anymore. I’m thinking about how happy I am to be in Germany for Christmas. I love these markets. In November they haul little wooden huts in on trucks and line the streets. People stand there with hammers and pine boughs, building a world. The huts fill slowly with all the things that start to mean Christmas. Candles orange and red and purple, burning into melty pools. Cones of candied almonds and sweet toasted cashews. Racks of combs and boarshair brushes made with Black Forest wood. Smoked fish turning on spits. Ornaments: little straw stars and nutcrackers and painted stockings. Slippers made of boiled wool, skeins of yarn. Vats of dark red Glühwein, hot eggnog and whipped cream. Spätzle sprinkled with parsley, thick with cheese, and Maultaschen, pockets of dough holding ground meat and vegetables, floating in broth.
“I wish we had this kind of thing back in the US,” my husband says. “You know, like, actual culture.”
We duck out of the aisles into a courtyard ringed by stones, playground at one end, trampoline at the other. My son makes straight for the trampoline, a pit in the ground covered with black rubber mesh, and crashes, yelping, onto the thick braids. Our friends’ daughter joins him, first teetering cautiously on the edge, sticking her toe over as if she might wade into cold water, then smiling after all and jumping on.
People passing by stay. A boy, about ten, with a full face and soft eyes, leaps onto the trampoline and bounces counterpoint to my son, hard enough to make him shriek, careful enough to let him stay on. White-haired men, cameras swinging at their hips, break away from their small tourist group and hop on too, laughing gently as my son bounces against their legs. A young woman in sharp high-heeled boots and a gray wool coat pulls a chocolate bar out of her pocket and gives it to my son with such tenderness that I forget to worry whether she’s laced it with poison or whether he’s already had enough sugar today.
I looked at advent wreaths all afternoon, smelled pine and burning candles and sticky cinnamon rolls, touched dozens of wooden ornaments rattling on their strings. I dreamed of home, hoped for snow, wondered tiredly where I wanted, really, to be. But it isn’t until I sit in the courtyard, watching my son and the way he leaps again and again into the air, holding nothing but drawing people close to him, that I finally start to feel Christmas is coming.
I’ve stopped speaking German to the midwife. For nine months it was my only language with her, but now the pain sends it away and she doesn’t seem to mind. I forget everything I say anyway. I mostly just feel.
I’m in the room at the women’s clinic alone, riding the waves. I clench the counter, stare out the window where shadows lengthen. My husband has gone out for food; he hasn’t eaten since the morning. The midwife rushes away from me, through the hallway, to help the doctor with an emergency C-section. There is blood on her shirt. I am relieved to be alone. I look at the walls. At the heavy cotton cloth hanging from the ceiling. I pull it. Pain comes and goes.
The pain is not new. It feels just like it did before, an ocean away, when my son was born. The familiarity of its pulse knits up the distance between home and here and I begin to forget the difference. “I’m home,” I think. “No, I’m here.” Here. Home. “I forgot how much this hurts,” I told my husband before he left. But I know what to do.
I am alone, except for my daughter slowly working her way down, heart steadily beating. When my son was born they had to cut him out of me, twenty hours in. But the midwife has said it won’t be like that this time. She’s prescribed me primrose oil and tea. She gave me a cocktail in a fancy glass — apricot, almond, verbena, castor oil, vodka — to help the contractions along. She is telling me not to be afraid.
“I can’t believe you’re having a baby in another country!” my friends back home sometimes say. “You’re so brave.” But now I see it’s all the same, and it always starts with pain.
One day when I was still pregnant, I took my son to the playground near our apartment. I started talking with a black-haired woman whose son was about the same age as mine. She said they were from Iraq.
- “Oh, we’re probably not supposed to like each other,” she said when she found out where I was from. “Our countries, you know.”
“I guess not,” I said. But we laughed it off and kept talking.
“Do you like living here?” I asked. “Do you miss home?”
“I miss people,” she said. “But it’s safe here. I don’t have to worry for my children.”
We stood there together, thousands of miles away from what we knew, speaking a common language learned just a little too late. We struggled to find the right words. Our children played unknowingly, freely. There was no home for them elsewhere, nothing to miss.
Now I am supposed to push. The midwife’s hands hook around my daughter’s head and it’s almost finished. Once she’s slipped out and lifted to my chest, it’s amazing, the forgetting. I forget all pain. I forget how afraid I thought I was supposed to be. I forget what I’m supposed to miss. I forget where I am, what language to speak. I forget maps, suitcases, tickets, dictionaries. My daughter finds my breast. My husband cries. The world is exactly the size of my arms.
My son starts school. It’s just a little pre-school near our apartment, two mornings a week, in the same building where he will go to Kindergarten next year if we stay.
The first day, I stay the full three hours with him, the baby strapped to my chest. I watch him play with wooden trains, sing songs and rhymes in a circle, pass a plate of apples and cucumbers around the table, drink a glass of tea when the other children do, dig in dirt.
When I try leaving later, he sobs, but his teacher holds him close and tells me to go. Walking down the sidewalk towards our apartment I hear him screaming, but when I return for pickup he just smiles and the teacher says he had a great morning. “He told us all kinds of stories today,” she said. “He laughed and sang.”
“Mama go away, and I cried,” my son informs me earnestly. His lips turn down and his voice almost shakes, as though the recollection of it is as bad as the reality.
“But I came back, right?” I say. And each time, each leaving, is better. I watch as he begins to grow into himself, a boy who won’t always need me. He runs to help the teacher pull their wooden wagon down the hill to the field. At home, he sings songs from school. He is part of something.
Now at the playground, people ask me if my son is in Kindergarten yet. He must look older than he used to. “In September,” I say. And it gives us something to talk about. I take a deep breath. I have made real plans, signed forms, partly because I have to, for my son, and partly because it actually feels right. The piece of me that aches for somewhere else steps quietly back. Not gone, just tucked away. For now.
I can see how easily it could happen for my son, and later my daughter, how quickly early tears can give way to acceptance and then even joy. I think of the trajectory my life could have taken if, at thirteen, I’d stayed just a little longer in Germany.
“You could even study in the Gymnasium,” the wife of one of my father’s coworkers had told me, shortly before we left. “Your German is good enough now.” Could I really have done it? We stayed just long enough for me not to want to go back home, to begin mourning forever, in small ways, what I left. And I catch glimpses of us staying now, working our way in somehow through the normalcies of life in a neighborhood, birthday parties and play dates with friends from school.
“It might be strange for you though,” one mother tells me on the playground. “Your son would go to Kindergarten here, and he would start to become German. But you wouldn’t.” She’s right. For me, now, it’s too late. What does it really take for a place to become home? I wonder. I don’t know yet.
I think about Fawad. I imagine riding a city bus with my children on my lap and suddenly seeing his face, maybe out the window, recognizing it even after decades in a blur of other faces and banging the glass with my palm so he will hear me. There is no reason to believe he is still in Germany, or even if he is, that he’d be this far south. I don’t remember his last name or anything else about him. But even so, I imagine pointing him out to my husband and saying “there he is, that boy from my class.”
Twenty years ago, we walked side by side at school, ran lap after lap to prove we could beat the German kids, found nettles in the fields, cracked languageless jokes. His face in the only picture I have is set in weary lines, his gaze stormy, his mouth half worried, half angry. But I remember his teeth, blazing into a grin one day at the track. I remember the way the sun burned his skin golden-brown, turning him into a boy with no cares. I remember how it felt to forget, finally, everything I came from, to feel free somewhere else. And I remember the wind, cold and sweet, whipping our legs as we ran together, speaking the same tongue.
[Note: This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program, in which writers and photographers develop long-form narratives for Matador.]