First, drive north to Berlin in July. Remind yourself that the Wall fell only a few decades ago, that it’s vital and imperative you see the space that separated the world. Push back thoughts of your mother, her German last name. Or your husband’s Albanian last name, his US Army uniform, his Bronze Star, his deployments to parts unknown full of sand and shit and hunger and fear. Above all, don’t think about the loss of freedom and the rise of tyrannical rulers. It will only make the trip worse.
Instead, book a room in an area of the city that seems progressive. Artistic. Vegan and hipster, German-style. French architecture and pre-war buildings. Look for a space to stay that has the history of a divided people and the enthusiasm of the young. Debate between Nollendorplatz and Wittenbergplatz, but ultimately decide on Joachimsthaler Strasse because it looks gorgeous in the Airbnb photos and because the flat’s owner also runs a gallery. Book the trip a month out and forget about it because there’s already plenty to do for Americans who live in Germany in springtime.
Don’t look ahead at the calendar to search out things to do. Tell yourself you and your husband will walk the gardens, explore the ruins of a city once noble, the centerpiece of a people. Navigate through clustered streets, feel the festive zing of European summer, travelers and backpackers all with one central focus–to forget, to remember, to explore. Discover, only once you’ve arrived, your room is the basement apartment of an art gallery whose owner just happens to be one of the co-organizers of Pride.
Steel yourself to the weekend which will now not be investigative, a careful comb through of a city that’s withstood changing regimes, but instead something celebratory, a distinctive ring of liberation in the air. Celebrations are fine, but you wanted to mine away at darkness, not revel in light. Ignore the looks of the room’s host who eyes you suspiciously, wondering your cause, wondering your affiliation, wondering your loyalty. Explain you’re tourists, a half-truth that’s been working so far, and tell him you’re excited for Pride. Look away when he tells you it gets a little wild, push down your want and need to seek out something darker, more sorrowful.
Set down your bags and ignore the smell of dank nestled inside stale cigarettes. Remind yourself these are artists, your kind of people, that you should expect a little fluidity. Go on a long walk, as much to avoid returning to the damp flat because you don’t know what to expect. Find French bistros nestled against Turkish doner shops, find for yourself a little space that’s impossible to capture in the Bavarian night sky.
The next morning, you both cobble together enough caffeine to get you to the train station where you can buy a proper piece of bread and a Nespresso. Patiently cajole your husband into taking the subway instead of attempting to walk across the city. Understand his fear of confined spaces comes from war zones, actual danger, real bombings. Transfer twice to finally make it to the Wall. Flash images of 1989 television in your mind as you walk the path where two worlds collided, where two worlds separated. Tell yourself the fall is in part responsible for you being able to stand right there, in that summer sun. Examine the place markers where the government has tried to make the site less impacting and more tourist-attracting. Watch a group of school kids dutifully track the now-collapsed tunnels that once ran east-west. Wonder about that east to west movement, a migration that’s been repeated for centuries.
Watch your husband dart to each exhibit, a honey bee of freedom, his entire expanse predicated by the collapse of the bricks. Wonder briefly how his Communist life would have opened for him if he’d been forced to remain in that closed, dark country. From your perch, watch his face a mixture of apple-shaped cheeks, sad eyes, and yearning full, like the flashing of images on a screen. He lived on closed borders, same years, different countries.
Imagine the dismantling of border fortifications, both the double layers of outer and inner walls, and the patrol roads, wires, guard towers, guard runs. Berlin’s Death Strip comes to life. It’s too inaccessible, too commercialized for you to feel the impact, but your husband knows. The Wall’s 27-mile-long gash between streets, transit lines, and waterways suddenly reconnected, reformed, stitched together to begin the long process of healing. Sip your coffee now long gone cold, picturing families willing to toss children from windows, donating hours of their time to dig tunnels, refusing to believe the killing of people trying to escape the GDR would be for nothing. Wonder your own country’s exploration into freedoms and the lack thereof.
Finally, once you’ve seen the actors playing American soldiers at the most famous and now-defunct checkpoint, make your way back to the temporary weekend home. Walk instead of taking the bus or renting a bike because the city is loud, and the boisterousness makes you feel whole. Arrive in the district to discover that the area has been transformed.
Rainbow everything, everywhere. Too simple as all that, but it’s the first and most visual indicator that there’s been something happening here, too, while you were away. Thirty years after the Wall was dismantled, each brick representing a hope lost, a life won, Berlin’s Pride Festival is one of the biggest in Europe. Called Christopher Street Day since 1979, an entire decade before the city was prepared to stitch itself together once again.
The circularity isn’t lost on the attendees. Held in memory of the Stonewall Riots only a decade prior, each decade building on its development, its own act of contrition only to remember, to be present, and to keep moving forward. The year the Wall fell, cities across America held their first Pride festivals; Berlin’s CSD took place as it had been for the last decade, a proclamation, a parade, a voice.
Watch with awe as you’re watched, letting the throng of people push and pull. Stop at stands and chat with politicians, all of whom want to convert, recruit, assemble. In broken Bavarian German, try to explain you’re only visiting. Wait in long lines for lukewarm beer. When the crowds feel too thick, walk to Edeka for a bit of air, a moment of stillness, a chance to be.
Remind yourself that all of this, CSD, the gnarly scar from the Wall, the search and demand for rights, everything seeded long before you began to examine your own space. Recognize that the distance between you and your husband is a chasm, this deep, wide gorge that’s growing further and more expansive by the minute. Recall some abstract physics theory where you learned the universe continues to expand forever and ever. Pull your husband in tight; try to remind him that all of this is because of and for him. Don’t tear up when he pulls away too quickly.
Second, drive east to Budapest in the heart of winter. In January, the most reasonable research you can muster is to explore the city separated by a river, watch an opera, run along the Danube. The drive is long and argumentative. There’s no reason for the tension except for distance, which comes as a result of long nights and short sleep, the sort of drive-on mentality that all soldiers experience. It takes six hours to get from Bavaria to Budapest, and each one of those minutes feels like an awkward ride-along with a half stranger, a former lover turned friend turned possibility who might still want to keep going.
Listen to podcasts to fill the space. Try not to pick at the wound that’s been building the last eighteen months, but when it gets to be too itchy under the skin, remember not to shout. Speak calmly because shouting only seals the infection in place. Lay out grievances like you’re setting the table, one piece of flatware for each sad day, a charger of real loss, and a plate of broken promises laid on top.
Ignore the flat conversation while sitting for a beer in the city center. Don’t check your phone. Placate the need for conversation and examine more ways that you’re not connecting. When he suggests eating pub food as a snack and sitting near the drafty front door, don’t object. Shrug, push your mind elsewhere, imagine you’re just mentally training for another long stint when he’s silent; when he’s away; when he’s in theater. Deployment is the worst word in the English language because it can never quite begin to examine the ways to eat a heart. There is no fullness of that work; it’s flat and dull, an opaque reminder of what could have been if this weren’t the profession; if this weren’t the call to duty. The notes of Revielle and Retreat are not exactly music and certainly not Brahms, but still always like clockwork because they are the yearning markers to escape garrison and live with purpose. Let him meander through thoughts, barely hiding the edgy excitement. Watch his shoulders move, his biceps strain against the thin cotton of his t-shirt that’s completely out of season but the only thing available since everything is once again, packed and filed, TA-50 the only thing worth taking.
Know that he’s trying when he suggests you stop off at the Central Market Hall for your favorite chitlins this side of the Atlantic. Purchase them dutifully and eat several with perfected glee. Snap an image to remember the moment later, when you’re not so surly, and the world seems more forgiving. A beer because this is supposed to be a vacation and then the long walk across the bridge back to Pest, a bag of sausages, bread, and cheese in tow. No one thought to get some wine.
Sleep poorly on the low bed, night sounds full of unfamiliar Hungarian, the early call of birds you can’t recognize with chirps that sound exotic. Thank the planning of the Airbnb hosts for refilling the coffee tin. Struggle to assemble the coffee; there’s only a jezve, and that’s your least favorite way to drink anything in the morning, the grounds like pebbles inevitably ending up in your mouth.
Walk down the hill and cross Szabadsag Bridge to arrive at Gellert on Kelenhegyi and pay for the inclusive thermal baths package. You need all the steam and salt and dark caverns to think and wonder what he’s thinking and wondering. Inside, notice you’re the only woman covered in ink, but that’s nothing too unusual. Next, notice you’re the only woman with a back the size of a man’s. Slender Hungarian and Russian women with blonde hair and fake tits, perfect noses; their faces arranged just so with contoured makeup and pouty lips stare at your shoulders, biceps, quads. Sink deeper into the water as you watch them watch you; watch him watch them and wonder if he’d love you more if you were like that instead of like this.
Head to the roof to sink this bulky body into heated mineral water and watch breath form clouds of constellations on deep, restorative exhales. Sit there, backs away from the photoshoots by young Italian girls wearing knockoff designer, looking out over the Danube. Try to root yourself in the idea that you’re here for a weekend because you live on the continent; because your spouse is a defender; because you’re attached to him, your life moving and ebbing in the ways of the army. Try to recall that you’re not alone, you’re not at the whims of poverty and loss, that just by being here for your birthday weekend, you’ve escaped the braided ropes of generational poverty.
Being back in Budapest is weird, but beginning a descent into memory feels ungrateful, so you try to focus on him, at this very moment, on this exact experience. But it’s impossible not to recall the frivolity of that first trip two decades ago, twenty and young and unmarried, back when the world felt fresh and new.
Later, a trek around old town to scrounge for breakfast and finally, finally, home again. Restlessness, the kind of nervous energy that comes from not moving limbs and breath, overtakes you. Lagged from shit coffee and lack of sleep, but needing to move, you suggest a run. His feet are swollen, tired legs from the walk, heels still raw from ill-fitting shoes. All guises, all costumes, all pretend, and make-believe that he wears to avoid the conversations you know are ready to burst.
Instead, dress too warmly for a run and head out for a few miles. Realize while dodging tourists and smoking girls and boys dressed like they’re on the way to a ska show in the 90s that you’re achieving a life dream. Recall that book of Communist propaganda from childhood that taught you all about Lenin’s children, and remember wondering where you fit in. Make a loop and head back, but first hill sprints on Iranyi Street because returning means facing, means speaking, means interacting, and you’re just not ready for that. Circle back and return, breath deep, full, still lodged between words unsaid. He is still sleeping. You’re careful to be quiet as you make afternoon coffee, regretting not stopping for an espresso.
Sweaty and thick with that feeling which accompanies achieving something and the wide space its accomplishment creates, look in on the shower and discover there’s a tub and a handheld spigot, and no curtain. The bathroom has doors on either end, and even without the water on, it’s drafty. But your hair is greasy, and the plans for the evening are fancy, so you struggle through trying to amass some collection of ritual in this cold-tile space. Slink on the red ball gown worn the night you got your medal for St. Barbara’s Ball, patron saint to field artillery. You haven’t worn it since. Look at him for approval. He’s watching a show on his phone, face oblivious. The ball gown doesn’t fit around the middle and bulges at the arms, and you don’t know what that means.
He puts on a suit, uses a shoehorn to press his feet into shoes with narrow toe boxes and heels that make clicks on marble floors. Together you walk toward the car and try to chat. The show is supposed to be good, a ballet about loss and social mobility. Circle four blocks two times each until a parking spot opens. The district is old and feels forgotten, especially backdropped against the rest of touristy Buda. Skip paying for a parking slip because it’s evening on Saturday, and the show won’t take too long. Together, you two look like you should be attending a show. That ball gown making slinky shimmers against your legs, a faux fur wrapped around shoulders broad and solid. His shoes clip-clap, steps heavy enough to be heard, light enough to be forgotten. Round a corner, following the map illuminated on your phone screen to come full-face with twenty cops in full riot gear. Look beyond the line to a crowd gathered around a shoddy wooden platform. On stage, two women and a man, arms raised, faces angry. The cops look at the two of you, toe to head and back again. One of the women yells something in Hungarian and then shouts in English, “We are Antifa.”
But you are not. You look bougie, you look elitist, you look separate. Realize this kind of demonstration, the pinpoint judgment is exactly what’s been happening in capitals and cities and countries for generations. You want to shout that you’re like them, maybe not exact, but right-wing ideology has never helped anyone. And yet, you know they’ve judged, they’ve determined, they’ve decided. The cop line becomes tighter against the crowd. One of them motions for you to turn around. So you grab his hand, the first showing of affection during the entire trip, and squeeze it.
Let six months lie fallow. There will be international visits from family members who don’t understand the lingo and can’t begin to know the life. Shouting matches where you both go silent, you struggling to make it clear you need him to come back. His eyes, blank and dull because he’s reliving mortar fire and patrols, or hungry days in Albania, or homeless nights in Ohio. Dig a trench and put into it all of your seeded hopes for something more than this. He is enough, life is enough. Try to shout that into him. Together, dig a garden and try to make things grow from scraps and seeds.
Miscarry, but don’t tell anyone about it because it wasn’t meant to be.
Then once the visits have stopped and the Fest Season has started, drive north. As north as you can in one full day and arrive in Hamburg after three separate traffic jams. Fried, eyes burning, voice lost. You drove half and he drove half and the drive was like all the other drives where he acknowledged how much he could come back but tried explaining again that he’s far away for a reason. Almost start to cry at a rest stop when you realize he’s going to be perpetually sad, and now it’s on your shoulders, still broad and now stronger than in Budapest, to make sure he sees his own light. Recognize that in accepting this, it displaces your own focus.
Dump travel bags and head to the water. Walk through Alter Elbpark on the way. Stop to talk about St. Christopher, even though neither of you is Catholic; you’re both a little bit believers. The tourist season is almost over; it’s easy to smell autumn in the air. Forget the car conversation and just try to enjoy the trip. Sit at the water’s edge and drink a beer. Remark that it’s less than amazing compared to Bavarian beers. Wonder about American beers and if you’ll be able to drink them. In the evening, find an Italian restaurant with four tables and twelve outside spaces. Crowd into a table with a gorgeous couple who both look Nordic, their long legs accentuated by perfect-length skirts. Remark to yourself that their shoulders are broad, too.
In the morning, he is attentive. Charming. Present. Walk to St. Nikolai Memorial. The Gothic Revival cathedral, first built in the twelfth century, underwent various restorations for centuries as the Hamburg residents learned how to lean into their faith, learned how to make themselves feel small or mighty in the face of their god. The builders, the parish, the townspeople, refusing to suspend belief, rebuilt their church’s tower multiple times, only to have it collapse on itself over and again.
He tells you this history as you stand in weak northern sun, shading your face with your hand. When is the last time you’ve seen his eyes so light?
Finally, a tower to withstand the pressures of itself, 483 feet tall, finished in 1874, making St. Nikolai the tallest building in the European world. Imagine that kind of pressure. So visible and such an easy marker, the spire stretching toward the heavens – an easy marker for Allied bombers. Raids started in 1943, engulfing the city in flames that lasted for days.
You wonder if he’s reliving his own war until you realize he’s reliving something else – clarity of a mission, a glory that’s only pronounceable when you’re sure of an outcome. Watch his wonderment. Later, he’ll take your hand while you sit at a chain burger restaurant along the Esplanade, watching tourists watch themselves in reflections of selfies. Know that he wants to, needs to, is willing to change. A short siesta and then plan a date night out of google reviews and searches for something to do. First, stop off for a bottle of champagne and listen to a family of Turkish travelers laugh and tell jokes. Realize soon you’ll be learning to speak their language. Perk your ears and pay attention to the inflection, the addition of suffixes and syllables; know that soon, this too will be your next project. This isn’t the language you’d choose to learn, but here come your husband’s next set of orders: learn his fifth language and be prepared to move to any country where Turkish is spoken. When the Turkish from the other table sounds too thick to be unraveled, wheel your attention back to your table. See your husband seated across from you. Steak and wine and that kind of steadfastness that comes when he looks at you with open green eyes and finally, fully, says he’s sorry for the year. Accept. Breathe. Hold your shoulders. Move on.
Wander into the September night, drunk on love and full of wine. End up at Rathausmarkt, joining hundreds of others listening to Brahms’ Symphony No. 1, Op. 68 – a favorite piece for you both. Nestle against the wall of the Rathaus and let the music’s current sway and guide you. Reach for his hand, your callouses fitting against his. The last two years, moving in waves. Remember that your love is your love, and it’s going to take on the shape and form of breaking and mending.