“You came to Berlin to wash dishes in the bathtub,” teases Lijana, my landlady. She’s crouched next to the tub, elbow-deep in soapsuds. I’m a foot to her left, kneeling by the shower—the same shower in which I washed my hair this morning. As she hands me soapy dishes, I spray each one with clean water, then stack it in a plastic bucket to be hauled back to the kitchen. Above us, rain drips steadily onto the skylight.
I shrug, smile. “Es ist ein Abenteuer,” I say. It’s an adventure. We woke up last week to completely blocked sinks, and the dishwasher and washing machine aren’t working either. The plumbers have been here for hours every day, removing the toilet and bathroom sink and leaving them out on the landing while they work. I want to plague them with questions but barely have the German to say “Hello, come in, Lijana will be back soon.” I’m pretty sure Lijana is worried that I find this all unacceptable—I rented my room, after all, with the understanding that it would come with access to a working bathroom and kitchen. But plumbing problems can happen anywhere. I’m just happy that the shower still works and that the plumbers have the toilet running properly again. We no longer have to flush it with a bucket.
I don’t have the German to say all that. “It’s no problem,” I say instead, handing her back a plate that’s still a little greasy. And it really isn’t a problem. I know “month in Europe” is supposed to look like something else—wine glasses on terraces; winding, cobblestoned streets with little cafés and flirty waiters; sun warming my bare shoulders, never mind that it’s the dead of winter; and the Mediterranean Sea or the Bay of Biscay sparkling nearby. But that’s not why I’m here.
In the months before I left to spend the winter in Berlin, I dreamed. The night before a German test, I dreamed that a little demon popped out from under my bed, clutching my German flashcards. We negotiated: she gave me back my flashcards and I agreed that if she came back later, I would feed her. I dreamed that my passport had expired and I wouldn’t be able to leave for Europe. I woke up, heart racing, at four a.m. and couldn’t fall back asleep until I’d dug out my passport and confirmed that it was valid for another year. I dreamed that I forgot that Lijana was picking me up at the airport, so I found myself wandering around downtown Berlin without any way of contacting her. (“Just ask the drug dealer down that way,” said every dream-person I asked for directions.) “Don’t go to the Christmas markets,” entreated a friend, citing potential for terrorist attacks, and I dreamed that I made it to Germany in one piece only to be lost in the streets with masked, gun-toting men charging in every direction. I dreamed that my real-life German crush met my entirely fictional ex, who was somehow in Germany as well, and they went for a half-hour walk and came back engaged. I wondered what my dreams were trying to tell me. I kept myself awake at night wondering if I was making a terrible mistake, running away to a country where I barely knew enough of the language to mangle it and my new landlady-slash-roommate didn’t speak English. I got on the plane anyway.
Lijana is in her fifties, with snowy hair and two sons in their twenties. She’s a dietitian, and though she’s originally from Lithuania she’s lived in Germany for almost half her life. She treats me less like an almost-thirty renter than like a foreign, teenaged niece whom she’s pleased to have around, if a little confused by. It’s like the study-abroad experience I wanted but never had in high school.
Lijana has two friends staying with her when I arrive, and Ilse, a Latvian woman who now lives in Helsinki, comes with her to the airport to pick me up. “My Google Translate,” Lijana says, laughing: Ilse speaks enough English to help ease the transition. A friend of a friend of a friend put me in touch with Lijana when I was looking for a room to rent for a month, and I’ve been emailing her in careful, stilted, grammatically improbable German. She’s translated her replies online and emailed me back in English. We’re banking on patience, gestures, and humor to get us through the next month more than we’re trusting my command of German to do the job.
The apartment is comfortable and spacious, tucked in the eaves of a building deep in the suburbs. We get the most use out of the kitchen, long and narrow and sunny. At mealtimes, Lijana brings out raw ingredients along with the cooked dishes so that, even when I can’t understand her explanations, I know what I’m eating. Rows of glass canisters filled with beans and farro and goji berries line the shelves above the counters. I’m staying in the room Lijana’s sons used to share, with its scarred wooden floor and sagging mattresses and high, slanting ceiling, and one of my windows looks out on the nursing home next door. Ambulances come and go regularly, sirens whining late at night, but rarely with any urgency. I sleep deeply under my European-style comforter.
“You can take a shower and a nap before dinner, and then we’ll go to a Christmas market in Berlin tonight,” Lijana tells me. It’s Friday, and I’ve been in Berlin only a few hours. “Okay?” She looks at me appraisingly. “You understand?”
I do, or well enough. I’ve read a little about the European Christmas markets, or Weihnachtsmärkte in German. They’re open throughout December, drawing both tourists and locals who drink mulled wine and buy stocking stuffers and wander among revelers full of holiday cheer. I want to go, to see what all the fuss is about. I also know that the US State Department has warned travelers away from the Christmas markets in Europe this year due to concern over terrorist attacks. I consider my memories of the Boston Marathon bombing a few years ago, when I lived in Boston. I was safe with friends outside the city that day, but it was too close to home for comfort, and I’ve been nervous around crowds ever since.
“Okay,” I tell Lijana. “That’s good. I understand.”
I trail Lijana and Ilse and Jadranka, Lijana’s other visiting friend, through the market, my eyes wide. It’s packed. Lijana warns me to keep an eye on my wallet, nodding approvingly when I relocate it to an inside coat pocket, and points out a statue where we’ll meet up if somehow we get separated. We wander through a maze of wooden stalls. Flammable, I think uneasily, and then I push that thought aside. It’s a beautiful night, cold and crisp. I catch snippets of conversation in English and German and French. Two beaming women wrapped in white furs and feathers walk through the crowd on stilts, angels bestowing goodwill on slack-jawed children. Adults carry mugs of mulled wine through the crowd, and when I examine the menus at drink stalls I see that the mugs require a two-Euro deposit, returned in exchange for the mug. There are twinkling lights everywhere. Lijana treats me to a cup of hot chocolate while her friends get spiced wine, and we all squeeze onto a rough wooden bench to savor our drinks. It feels like Christmas. I relax enough to stop considering emergency exit routes, and later, in the car on the way home, I drift in and out of a jetlagged doze.
The attack comes three days later, on Monday. It’s evening in the quiet suburbs. Ilse and Jadranka left earlier in the day, and I’ve taken an early shower just for the pleasure of slumming around in pyjamas for a while before I go to bed. I pull up a news site out of habit, and there’s that red breaking-news symbol that I have come to dread.
Lijana pokes her head through my open doorway a few minutes later to ask about something else. “There’s—” I say. I don’t have the German for this. “There is a man with a…big car,” I say. I don’t know the word for truck. “At a Christmas market? In Berlin. One person…” I run out of words and draw a finger across my throat. It’s a developing news story with barely any details, only that at least a dozen people are injured and one killed.
“In Berlin?” she says. I nod. “Are you sure?” she asks. “Are you sure?” I follow her out into the living room, where she turns on the news. Red and blue lights flash across the screen.
“Tot?” I ask, listening to the unfamiliar wash of German.
“Died,” Lijana says in English, drawing her own finger across her throat. The body count is rising.
“Is it the same market?” I ask. I have almost no concept of Berlin’s geography. I’m remembering the bustling little stall where we drank hot chocolate and mulled wine, the narrow corridors packed with people. But Lijana shakes her head. “Farther west,” she says. We sit for a long time in the living room, long enough for the German news station to start recycling its footage. Sirens wail onscreen; next door, yet another ambulance arrives at the nursing home.
“Why do you have to be in Berlin this winter?” my German professor asked me that fall.
“Oh, I don’t,” I told him. “I just want to be somewhere other than here.” I yearned for somewhere bigger than my small town, somewhere with museums and history, somewhere with dozens of languages and hundreds of coffee shops and mile after mile of sidewalked streets for me to explore. I yearned for somewhere new. I could have gone to any number of unfamiliar cities in the US, but I wanted a bigger challenge, somewhere that buying postage stamps would feel like an accomplishment because it had to be done in another language.
My classmates in Introductory German thought I was studying German because I was going to Berlin, but it was really the other way around. I picked Berlin because I’d learned a little German and thought it would be fun to test it, to improve it, and to despair at how little I actually knew. I was studying German in the first place because I was impatient for the unknown; and because German was hard, and hard was fun; and because I had a crush on a German friend and figured that picking up some language skills wasn’t a bad outcome for an unrequited crush. For better or for worse, I also had a bad case of rational thinking, so when “learning German” spiraled into “making a European escape,” I chose a city on the other side of Germany from where she lived. I wasn’t looking for a winter romance—or a winter “unrequited but painful in its close proximity” crush—just for the unfamiliar.
Even more than that, though, there was this: I looked at the month-and-half-long block of my winter break and thought wide-open space. I had nowhere to be. Berlin held very few risks that I wouldn’t encounter elsewhere. My parents understood wanderlust and wouldn’t mind me missing Christmas. And I was more afraid of not going, of getting stuck in a small-town rut, than I was of all of the unknowns that might happen.
The day after the attack at the Christmas market—details are still in flux, but it’s being treated as a definite attack rather than an accident—I take the S-Bahn, Berlin’s light rail, downtown. Remembering the shell-shocked feel of Boston after the marathon bombing, and the “shelter in place” directive later that week, I’ve checked German and English media for anything that might tell me to stay in the suburbs. But I find nothing.
I’m not sure how worried I should be this Tuesday. I would trust my instincts, but my instinct is usually to fear the unknown, and I’m trying to throw that to the wind this month, or at least to put it far enough downwind that I can get on with it. Too, I am in a safe city, in a safe country. I’ve crunched enough numbers that I know to worry more about lightning strikes than about terrorism. I’ve also done the math on Berlin’s dozens of Christmas markets, on the month or longer that they run, on the small window of time in which it was potentially deadly to be at a specific one of those markets. My unfamiliarity with Berlin—it will be weeks before I can place where the attack occurred—makes me feel distant from the attack, cocooned. I choose not to be afraid.
The train car is quiet on the trip into Berlin, but I haven’t been here long enough to know if this is normal, and I understand only a few words here and there—none of them helpful—of the other passengers’ muted conversations.
I’ve been to Berlin once before, in summer, and then I fell in love with the Berliner Dom, a cathedral that sits on Museum Insel, a slip of an island packed with, yes, museums. I’m not religious, and I can’t really figure out what denomination the Dom is associated with—it hasn’t been Catholic since the 1500s—but when the light pours in through the windows, the wooden pews seem to glow. That’s enough of a reason for me to go back.
The crypt feels sterile and cold, coffins of kings laid out in neat rows, everything orderly and well dusted. It bored me last time I was here, and it bores me now: I like my crypts dark and dank and laid out like rabbit warrens. When I climb the stairs to the dome, though, and step outside onto the narrow walkway, the wind buffets my face and clouds loom endlessly over the city, and I know I’ve done right by coming here. I have next week and the next and the next to come back to Berlin proper, to find museums I’ve heard of and coffee shops I haven’t. I’ll have time to wander. I’ll stumble, again and again, upon the Christmas markets tucked into every neighborhood I explore, and sooner or later I’ll find the one with wreaths and candles and photos laid out in memorial for the twelve people killed yesterday. By then the city will feel, if not familiar, comfortable. By then most of its residents will be back to their daily lives. By then it will be almost time for me to go home.
Lijana hands me another mug, and I rinse it and tuck it into the last free space in the bucket. I stand, knees creaking, to haul the bucket into the kitchen and lay the dishes out on towels on the counter. It’s almost midnight. This is my Berlin, I think: bathtub dishes at the witching hour deep out in the suburbs.
Back in the bathroom, I take my place by the shower. Lijana turns to smile at me. “It’s fast with two people,” she says. I know she wishes the sinks hadn’t gotten blocked up; I know dealing with plumbers and repairs was not on her wishlist for the New Year. It’s infinitely easier for me, a minor and temporary cog in the household machine. But I savor the moment. I’m a Canadian-American cog in a Lithuanian-German machine just now, and I fit. Somewhere deep within me, a little flashcard-wielding demon child wails in frustration.
Before I left for Berlin, I dreamed irrational fear after irrational fear and, waking, worried that fear would cripple me before I even began. In Berlin, though, my worries fizzle into nothing. I don’t get lost. I don’t understand at least seventy-five percent of what goes on around me—I sit through a four-hour dinner party during which I understand only the conversation about the dog biting off the cat’s head and the conversation about how bright-pink dresses are not appropriate for interviews—but since I’ve expected to understand even less, I take that in stride. A man drives a truck into a crowd, and I ache for those whose loved ones will not come home, but I gather my own fear and I let it go.
In Berlin, I am truly afraid only once: on New Year’s Eve, alone in the apartment as fireworks explode in every direction. I planned to join a million others downtown at Brandenburger Tor, but when people in the neighborhood start setting off fireworks in mid-afternoon I have to remind myself with every whistle and crackle and boom that these noises are good and normal and fine, and I know I can’t stomach crowds on top of explosions. I wasn’t afraid of fireworks before the Boston Marathon bombing. Finally, when the sun has disappeared from the sky and my neighborhood is lit only by pyrotechnics, I will myself to relax. I am not the person who leaps, fearless, from one adventure to the next, but I will be a person who tries anyway. I turn out the lights and pull the curtains back as far as they will go, and I watch the sky shimmer and burn.
STORY IMAGE: Courtesy the author.