Stories of this Canadian girl's adventures exploring Europe...join me!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

a bottle of vodka

Writing is hard. But, like running or, having a good relationship, the work I put into it and the end result makes me happy. For some reason, I feel really good, satisfied somehow, when I am finished figuring out how to put my thoughts, in a hopefully interesting way, on to paper (or the computer screen).

Comparison is the finest form of flattery, or is that ‘imitation’? Whatever. I use comparison a lot when I am trying to describe something, maybe because I’m not a good enough writer yet to paint a vivid enough picture. I’ll work on it. On the other hand, I think comparing a new thing with something which is familiar is a fast and effective way to get the point across. And, sometimes comparison can be really nice. When compared with something good it can be quite the compliment.

Last summer, as I was back in Canada for my brother’s wedding, a stranger said to me, ‘Do you know who Lauren Graham is? You look exactly like her!’ Okay, I did think she might have been crazy, but it was super nice to hear. Then there was an incident a few weeks ago, where a woman said to me, that I was as tall as the tree in her backyard, but as friendly as her sister. Okay, so not all comparison is good. In those cases I choose to filter out the not-so-good things (could that be why men hear so little of what we say?).

As I was in Berlin two weeks ago, I thought a lot about my mother while I walked. My mother was born not far from Berlin, smack dab in the middle of WWII. Decades later, as I sat in my grandmother’s tiny kitchen, at her plastic-covered, flowery tablecloth, with her bird named ‘Nina’ sitting on the window sill, I listened to her tell our family’s story, of that time.
Unfortunately, as things sometimes go, I didn’t know that those conversations would be our last, and so I didn’t write down anything that she said. I so desperately wish I had. She had a fascinating story to tell, as do so many, many people who live through, and survive a war. Especially women.

Along with my grandmother’s story, I have sat next to countless refugee women, telling me tales of things they needed to do to save their families. All these women, calmly, as matter of fact, blew me away with their courage, perseverance, and determination. But, the first story like this, I heard from my omi. Charlotte.

The way I remember the story (and I’m not sure that there is anyone left who knows it accurately), my grandfather had been away from the family, serving in the war (like all young men had to) for a couple of years. As the war came to an end and the east-west, Allied Forces-Russian, lines were drawn, my grandmother with her 2 very small children (a three and five year-old), living in her parents’ house, found themselves on the east side. For about six months she sent notes to her husband, with anyone escaping to the west, trying to make contact with him, to find out if he was even alive. One day a note came back. He was alive. He was in the west. Kurt.

With her 2 children bundled onto a toboggan, and carrying only what looked to a Russian soldier as enough for a day’s outing, she escaped along with some families. At one point the adults had to make a human chain through a river, handing the children along from one to the other, until they all safely reached the other side. Over the next many months, after reuniting with my grandfather, who had found a tiny apartment for them to live, my grandmother would often make the dangerous trip back to the east. They were dirt poor, had nothing. So, she would risk going back to her parents’ house, each time returning with some blankets or clothes, anything that she could carry. And a bottle of vodka.

Her father always gave her a bottle along, just in case she got caught – something that she could use to talk and bribe her way out of capture. I had asked my omi at that point in the story, if she ever got caught. Yes, she had, a couple of times, but the bottle of vodka had worked. Later, hearing stories about the conditions of the mostly, very young, Russian soldiers in that area, it was not surprising that they would be influenced by a bottle. They had absolutely nothing. It turns out that many german, farm families helped these young guys with clothes and food, during the years of eastern Germany. War is so crazy. Isn’t it all so crazy what people do to and for each other?

So, Berlin for me, is all the excitement of a fashion mecca (Fashion Week is happening right now), interesting architecture and museums, wide sidewalks, taxis, double-decker touri buses all hubbing around a massive, inner-city park….along with respectful, contemplative, all-consuming history. I spent hours and hours soaking up the reality of all that this city has experienced (thrilled that I had the freedom and luxury to do that)…and remembering what my family lived through. Major.
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