It was a rainy afternoon in Germany, cold and colorless, where your feet slip often on stranded wet leaves and your breath manifests itself in a chilly vapor when you exhale. Susannah and I had spent the morning aimlessly marauding through castle ruins and along rambling, hilly paths in a chilly drizzle, and now she had hopped in the shower and left me standing uncertainly before an electric stove, pondering an unopened package of bacon and a lukewarm frying pan. Frowning, I set down the spatula and pan and picked up my iPhone in hopes of Googling methods of bacon preparation. (I realize it isn’t that difficult, but I felt simultaneously dumbfounded and pressured by the bacon and didn’t want to screw it up. Do you put oil in the pan? If so, how much? How do you know when the bacon is done? How do you flip bacon? What happens if you eat uncooked bacon? I didn’t want to offend my host by killing her.)
Midway through a list of instructions, my phone flashed a number of texts from Loraine, who was still in Cairo for another day.
“Jesse messaged me at 6:30 in the morning: ‘I fell asleep at a club last night and I don’t know where I am. Please call Matty for me.’ Matty’s just gotten him, but they have no idea where Colton is.”
At that moment, the differences between our vacations could not have been more marked or poignant. There I was, standing contentedly in a cozy kitchen in Berlin, bacon sizzling on the pan before me, and my friends were lost in Romania. I had spent the morning traipsing through a graveyard, musing at how old the church was; they had gone straight from the airport to a club and drank until sunrise.
I’d arrived late the night before, and by the time Susannah collected me and negotiated a bus, two subway switches, and a cab, it was close to midnight, an appropriate hour to reach the boarding school that employs her. A few miles outside of Zehlendorf, Susannah’s school was tucked away in a dense pocket of forest apart from the rest of the world.
The taxi had dropped us off at the start of a long path that Susannah promised would take us to the school. Unlit and twisting through thick stands of oak and maple, the road had an eerie, Halloween feel to it – a perfect start to my search for autumn. As we walked deeper into the forest, Susannah told me a little about her school.
“This used to be a training facility for the Nazis,” she explained. “Then it was turned into a communist school, where people like Gorbachev went. They think Hitler was probably here at some point…”
“Is it haunted?” I asked.
“The kids say it is, but I don’t think so.”
Apparently, one of the buildings on the campus was blown up at the end of the war, as it harbored Nazi secrets that needed to be destroyed. The communist school only closed in the 80s/90s, after which it became the boarding school that it is today.
None of this should have been surprising to me. When I’d asked Matthias what I should expect in Germany, he had cleared up some of my unfortunate misconceptions.
“I’ll drink lots of huge beers, right?” I’d said.
“No. That’s Bavaria.”
“How about dirndls, or lederhosen?”
“Oh. Well…what does Berlin have?”
“Nazis.” (This was someone else at the table, but Matthias didn’t say no.)
Even in the pastoral wood where Susannah resided, evidence of Nazi presence abounded. The castle we explored in the morning, beautiful and overgrown with vermillion vines and bright leaves, had once served as some kind of Nazi residence. Old signposts and strange memorial plaques in the woods? Nazis.
Still, it was quiet and rustic, and we lost track of a few hours in the woods. Cold and wet from the mizzle, we detoured on the way back to Susannah’s to a little market square where we bought krullers, bacon, eggs, and chocolate from an odorless supermarket whose vegetable displays were speckled with plump gourds and proud little pumpkins. I could not have been happier.
This was how we spent the remainder of the day, drowsy with rain and breakfast food, roaming through a rainy evening in Charlottenburg. It wasn’t as exciting as getting lost in a Romanian club, but it worked for me. And there wasn’t a need to do anything that night anyway: we were off to Copenhagen in the morning.