I finally left my mother’s sister’s family in Munich. I think it was a good thing: they say guests, like fish, smell after three days. I've been there seven. Who wouldn't be fed up with me? They were so kind to take me in at my worst: in shock, tired, and ill-adjusted. Still, they fed me, showed me the sights, put up with more than occasional bouts of snappiness, and helped me relearn the same words over and over again. Elke was amazing: she cooked, cleaned, took care of the kids, and worked part-time too. I must have been an awful guest, I didn’t see how I could make myself useful until it was too late. Their children were very cute, sweet, and patient with me, and I would have felt really sad to go if I didn’t know I’d see them in Nurnberg again in a week.
I left Munich to go to Bensheim (near Heidelberg) where my mother’s brother lives. I stopped in Ingolstadt, however, to visit my mother’s cousin, who lives in a tiny town nearby called Krut. Frances runs her own publishing agency, is half French, and does it ever show. She’s tall, thin, graceful, and beautiful. She lives with a pig farmer named Georg (yes, gay-org) and they have a 1.5 year old daughter named Lydia (sounds like Ludia), Lily for short. I was so happy to have a long drive between her home and the train station: she told me some great stories.
After a divorce and a heartbreak, Frances met Georg (also divorced) through a set-up by mutual friends. She had never gone on a blind date, but decided, “Why the hell not give it a try?” They had chemistry, and started dating. After a while of weekend dating (he lived in Krut, she in the city of Augsberg), Frances declared, “I need to live with someone to know if we really fit. I don’t want to spend two years dating on the weekend to find out that we don’t fit.” Pig-farming is not a very mobile occupation, so she left the city and moved to Krut. Things worked out well. A few years ago, Frances was debating whether she wanted to have children. She was nearing forty, her biological clock was ticking, so she went to the doctor to find out if she even could have children. He said no. Frances and Georg talked, he already had three children from his previous marriage; the two realized they didn’t need to fight biology, but they didn’t have to be careful anymore either. A few months later, Frances starting throwing up - something that happened when she was first adjusting to living 50m from pigs. Then she realized she had started skipping cycles- something that happened when she had particularly stressful deadlines and such. When her abdomen started feeling full and funny, she went to the doctor fearing ovarian cysts again. Wrong! This is the story of Lydia. I think you knew where this story was going minutes ago.
I learned some things about love and life from Frances. One succinct such lesson is this: “Lieber ein Ende mit Schrecken als ein Schrecken ohne Ende,” or, “I prefer an end with shock than a shock without end.” Sorry ladies, but your next really horrible breakup I may just start quoting to you in German. If appropriate. Maybe not, I’m not so good at gauging appropriateness. Did I ever tell you about the time that I found out my cousins are really religious, so I told them a God joke?
I found their life absolutely fascinating - it was a mix of contrasting things. She’s a high powered publisher, part French, but she doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the car she drives. Georg speaks Bayerische (the regional dialect of Bavaria) and drives a fancy and sleek Audi (note: Audi’s are made in neighboring Ingolstadt, every 5th person doesn’t work for Audi, they are extremely common). He runs a pig-farm out of several-hundred year old buildings, and the interior of the house could be featured in Modern Dwelling or Sunset magazine. He spends the day in pig poop and looks like he could be a model for some obscure and very expensive suit-designer: tall, thin, tightly curled dark grey hair, great eyes. They are both divorced, not remarried, and happily have a kid together, and his mother lives with them. The two of them are extremely thin, and yet their daughter could knock out any Gerber baby.
Let me tell you about their house: the walls are at least a foot and a half thick, in some places more. I guess when the house was built way back in the Stone Age, it was easier to just mortar all the big stones from the field together than it was to break the stones into smaller pieces. The kitchen is larger than most German living rooms, half is the kitchen with counters and appliances camouflaged as cupboards, with the other half dedicated to a huge wooden table with benches all around. I am so jealous.
In front of the house is kind of a cobblestone courtyard, and other side of this courtyard the fairytale ends. The pigs reek, and the piglets scream like tortured children. My mom got the gist right when she said, “Maybe you can visit my cousin, she’s married to an organic pig-farmer in the Bavarian hills.” Married no, organic no. After reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I was so disappointed to see all the piglets had the ends of their tales snipped off. After a two-minute tour of the sow building (piglet birthing and meat rearing are two different operations), my sweater smelled like pig-manure. “A parting gift from Krut,” said Frances.
I had to switch trains in Nurnberg, and as I was searching for the WC, an extremely pregnant woman with a baby in a stroller and red marks on/in the center of her two front teeth asked for money in German. I half-pretended, half really didn’t understand what she said, so when I told her, “Ich nicht spreche Deutsch” (which probably isn’t right in German), she asked, “A dollar. Please. For food.” I know you’re not supposed to give panhandler’s money. There was a slightly dead look in her eyes that may have been drug addiction. However, this woman was pregnant, with a baby. Maybe she was irresponsible, maybe she didn’t have her life together, but who am I to judge and not share what I don’t need as badly as she? I gave her my sandwich. I wish I’d remembered I had more food and given her all that too. She wanted money though, and that I did not give her. Should I have? Maybe she wanted food for her baby, who couldn’t chew schwarzbrot and schinken well. Maybe she had enough food, but it’s hard to describe to strangers, “My last ultrasound showed that I will have a complicated birth. I can’t work anymore because of my very large stomach. My boyfriend kicked me out last month, and I moved in with my senile mother, and they just cut electricity at her apartment and it’s cold and I cannot afford to pay her back bills, and it’s starting to get cold.” What would you have done?
The train from Nurnberg to Frankfurt was extremely full, and extremely late. I started talking to a girl at the station who just finished studying industrial engineering and process design in school, and now she’s working an internship with Audi. She was really nice. We tried to get seats together on the train when the aisles finally cleared (everyone shoved on board and then we stood in the car-junctions with our luggage for over half an hour, waiting for other people to get settled), but no such luck, so I sat next to a slightly unfriendly Dutch man. Thankfully, I did my Deutsch deciphering well enough to figure out what platform my next train was on, and made it on time.
Once I got to Bensheim, I noticed that the car next to mine was offloading young adolescent males. I knew my cousin was on the same train and in the same age group, so I asked a random boy, “Ist sie mit Leo Riesenkonig?” The kid gave me a funny look, like if I was asking him in bad grammar if he was dating a boy, but pointed me toward another boy, one who looks not unlike Harry Potter. I went up to him and told him in my best German, “I call myself Kirsten!” He said, “Ja, my father will be here soon.” Damn, all these English speakers are outwitting my attempts to practice Deutsch.
We ate a late but amazing meal of tomato-basil-mozzarella salad, I in quantities never before seen by man, and something between quiche lorraine, pflammkuchen, and pizza. It was so delicious, especially after eating too many snacks and no schwarzbrot und schinken sandwich. We also drank something called “new wine,” literally that, wine made within the last month or so, cloudy, not yet very fermented. It tasted sparkly without being bubbly, more flavorful than juice, and had a higher alcohol content than you could taste. It was delicious. That was followed with Mirabella schnapps, which I could go the rest of my life without having again, but got my way through. I am very excited, it seems that the entire family is keen on helping me learn German, and will try several times to tell me slowly in German before switching to English. Patience! An excellent quality in a teacher. I must remember this.