I tug my collar higher to shield my cheeks from the wind. Winter days bleed together, muddling over the edges of one to the next. There are flickers of joy, embers banked beyond commute and cubicle. There are days tinged by sorrow. We’re not meant to live in emotional extremes all of the time. Over a decade ago, I felt the wide path of my heart’s pendulum in just one day. I still remember it.
We’d backpacked and bounced from one youth hostel to the next on that trip. There were flaws in the plan, including not making any reservations before we left the States. Luckily, the central train station didn’t kick you out if you needed to sleep there.
“Nichts passiert in München!”
I remember the shape of a man hunched over us. His silhouette was dark against the glass of the modern ceiling. Bloodshot eyes glared at me.
“Gehen Sie raus!” His voice raised above the sound of my terrified pulse. Fumes of whiskey escaped the jowls covered in gray stubble. The sour odor of several days’ worth of sweat and grime made my breath catch in my throat. Maybe we were in his corner of the station floor.
“Nein,” I said. My mind only served words in English. Heather slept, curled on top of her backpack, my thick flannel shirt tucked around her shoulders. I sat up, and repeated a little louder, “Nein!” I forced my voice not to tremble.
“Gehen Sie nach Amsterdam! Das hier ist München! Hier passiert nichts!”
“Nein, bitte, wir sind americanerin” I wanted to speak German to be polite, to explain to him that we were just sleeping. “Nein, wir wandern, wir schlafen….
Nein!” We weren’t looking for drugs or parties. I thought he’d go away if I could just explain that to him. But my German was lousy.
“NICHTS PASSIERT IN MÜNCHEN!” His bellow startled Heather awake.
“GO AWAY!” she shouted at him. I flinched back from her voice before I remembered to straighten my shoulders and look confident. Heather lounged on her backpack, meeting his volume without giving him the respect of sitting up.
“GEHEN SIE RAUS!”herepeated. His spittle landed on my cheek. The security guard standing across the wide gallery faced away from us.
“YOU STINK!” Heather roared. I’d met her in German class, but she didn’t speak it once on that trip.
“GEHEN SIE NACH AMSTERDAM“ The man met her decibel for decibel. I wanted to sink through the slick linoleum floor.
“GO AWAY, STINKY MAN!” The man glanced toward the security guard, who began responding to the noise. I exhaled and wiped my face as the drunken man swayed and shuffled to yell at another cluster of young people who had also failed to get rooms.
“I don’t know why you were trying to be nice to him,” Heather grumbled at me as she closed her eyes and seemed to drop back to sleep.
“I wanted him to understand…”
“Don’t be stupid, Alicia,” she said without opening her eyes. Heather sleeps better with the lights on and the television volume turned up. I sleep like a mouse sharing a barn with owls.
I curled on my side on the cold floor and rested my head on my reeking pack. My hip ached where it ground into the hard surface. I scrubbed my fingers through my short, oily hair. The guard had sent the man away, and no one else looked toward our corner. The research I’d done made me believe that as a lesbian couple, we were probably safer in Europe than we had been in Georgia. I wished again that I’d read more.
Looking back, I can see the signs. I know how unhealthy our relationship was, how very bad it ended up being. People didn’t believe me when I asked for help. I should have been able to stand up for myself. She was smaller than me.
Only three years into our eight-year relationship at that point, I already felt like a figment of my own imagination. I’d already cut ties with family and friends. There was no one but Heather.
When her memories and mine were different from one event to the next, I fell into the habit of doubting my mind. I doubted my senses. Memory is as malleable as history, and can be as easily rewritten.
I didn’t trust myself – even now, I still sometimes question – but I started to write things down. Forty-seven journals later, I can research what I might not be able to believe.
The rain fell in a grey haze that left fine droplets on the outer layers of our clothing. It glistened in Heather’s hair, the wooly brown burr of a grown-out buzz cut. My thick flannel shirt smelled like her.
“When does it open again?” Her Doc Martens crunched on the gravel outside the gate as she stomped her feet to warm up. She huddled into her green army surplus jacket. Her T-shirt read “Hindsight is 20:20.”
“Nine. I told you we’d be –“
“It would be creepy to be the only ones wandering around in there,” she said, looking down the long row of the chain link fence line to the white tower and buildings. “Let’s wait until someone else goes in.”
The gate for Dachau was probably always open, but the museum didn’t open until 9:00. I handed Heather the Xeroxed pages from the travel book.
“I don’t know why you insisted we come here,” I grumbled, shivering in the cold.
“It’s irresponsible to vacation here and ignore these places.” Heather didn’t look up from the sheet of paper. “We need to take a moment and remember that this stuff happened.”
“Wasn’t the Jewish Quarter in Prague enough?” I asked, my voice trailing away in a whisper.
“What?” She looked up at me then, and her eyes flickered. She liked it when I argued with her. It gave her ammunition later.
“Nothing.” I sat on the wet wooden bench and tried to settle my stomach by nibbling on a few pretzel sticks. Heather paced and drank the rest of our water.
The first photo I took was of the sculpture. Looming, black, skeletal, human-like figures made of barbed wire. “Never again” was carved around the base in several languages, calling out to visitors from anywhere to understand. You didn’t have to understand the words. Tears welled in my eyes just looking at the anguished postures, trapped and silent in the cold drizzle.
“I don’t get it,” Heather said, “come on.”
The famous part of Dachau was the gate. No longer the main entrance to the camp, the iron gate sat at the far end of the facility. It was smaller than I expected and framed with trees like a country garden. The metal bent into letters that read “Arbeit macht frei.” I may have wondered, even then, whether “Work will set you free” was a lie I told myself.
We walked through the museum. Oversized black and white photographs reminded me of the PETA videos Heather always watched.
I took a snapshot of the only display in color: a blown-up memo providing a key to the patches. Everyone knows the Jews wore a yellow Star of David on their shoulders. Gay men wore pink upside-down triangles that are now a symbol reclaimed by the gay community and paired with the phrase “Silence = Death”. Fewer people are aware of the shapes and colors assigned for gypsies, intellectuals, religious leaders, anyone who might speak out against the Fuehrer.
I researched it later. Our patches would have been black triangles, labeled on the board as “asocial.” While lesbianism wasn’t a crime, lesbians “refused to contribute to the master race.”
Martin Niemöller said, “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out– because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out– because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.” I don’t think I would have spoken out. I’m bi and afraid. I’d have tried to stay invisible.
Our footsteps echoed in the barren space. The bunk houses were reduced to gravel rectangles outlined with wooden four-by-fours on the ground. We slid on the rough gravel, like sand it slowed us down. Perhaps that was deliberate.
The showers – gas chambers – still stood. Some parts of this camp were never used. I think I remember that this building was one of them. My emotional memory of this space is one of numbness. I wonder if the Holocaust is simply too much pain to hold in our conscious minds. I couldn’t tell whether Heather was reacting to the camp at all.
“Take a picture”. Heather said to me. “Take a picture of this.”
For some reason, I couldn’t. I looked at the space, and at her. My stomach clenched. I handed her the camera. It felt like I handed her my shield.
I watched my brown hiking boots crunching in the gravel. I watched her black boots beside mine, listening to the automatic shutter snap and the whir of advancing film. Rain slithered down the back of my neck when I forgot to hunch my shoulders forward.
We wandered to the far end of the gravel field, to the crematorium. Heather snapped a photo into the oven. Perhaps it was the reflection of the flash from this long cave of mortality that punched her.
I flinched as I watched her shoulders rise as if she were about to scream. Her eyes flashed and grew wide. My pulse quickened in response to her shift in posture. Her mood could shift so rapidly. It could turn on me.
I hadn’t learned yet that she looked for me to reflect the chaos she felt inside. It would take a few years before I would respond to that volatility with my own, safer, more controlled anger. Though panic fluttered in my chest, I kept my face serene.
“Let’s get out of here.” She whispered. “I – We’re being tourists, not pilgrims.”
“It’s okay.” My mouth was dry. I touched her arm. “We can leave.”
We were still so far from the exit.
The next stop on the map was the Eternal Flame. A small temple stood for visitors to seek comfort, pray or whatever else people do at temples with eternal flames. She did not take a picture. She barely paused at the arched threshold. I watched as she dipped her fingers in the water beside the door, and genuflected on the way inside. I’d seen her do that at the entrance to every church, every cathedral.
I know it was force of habit, a product of her childhood. It felt like a sham. I stood to one side. I didn’t know what emotions should show on my face, if any. The orange and yellow spires with their base of blue from the gas torch flickered in the small pavilion.
“It’s too dark,” she said. I watched her stomp back through the gravel toward the entrance, the purple pack bouncing lightly against her back.
Offering nothing, and getting no comfort in return, I followed Heather to the gate.
We were quiet on train ride from Dachau through Munich to our second destination in Bavaria. I eased the backpack off my shoulders and tried to stretch my neck. My mouth tasted sour. We had been refilling a plastic orange juice bottle with water since the hostel in Prague. The water it held had begun to taste thick.
I watched the city slide by in a blur when Heather tapped my arm. I didn’t bother to look, I figured she was just trying to get comfortable for the next thirty minutes on the rattling light rail. She pinched my arm with a little twist.
“Take this.” Heather shoved the camera toward me. “I don’t want to take any more pictures.”
I rubbed my arm. “Just put it in your backpack.”
My daypack was half the size of her weekender, and I found extra room for every souvenir. I knew the way she tested me. I stuffed the camera in the top of my pack.
“Where is the page from the guide?” I asked, trying to remember where we were headed next. I knew we were going from the northern tip of Munich’s rail system to the southern, but we needed to figure out our connection.
She pulled the sheet of paper from her pocket, balled like trash. I smoothed the page, trying not to think about the hours I’d spent copying and pasting the guide books down so that each city on our trip took no more than a single sheet of paper.
We arrived in Herrsching just after noon. The next Rauner shuttle bus to Andechs Monastery would not depart until 2:05. We decided to wander around the village and explore.
The problem with copying and pasting tidbits of the guidebook was that it left off any details that I didn’t think would be relevant. The sections about local customs were excised. I’d read them, but that doesn’t mean I remembered every word. I forgot the part about how shops close for lunch through most of Germany. We traveled in large cities, where this custom was less common.
We walked across the street from the station to withdraw cash from the ATM. There was no traffic. No one got off the train with us. We walked down one of the side roads. After a few moments of peering with cupped hands into the darkened shop windows, we returned to the station.
We buttoned our jackets and sat together in the weak rays of overcast sunlight beside a tall clock. The minute hand edged forward with agonizing slowness. Heather paced the sidewalk then she tap-danced in fidgety shuffles. I watched her. Mania was better than depression, but it was also more likely to shift to anger.
We bought another pack of pretzels from the vending machine with the last of our change. We tested the self-timer feature on my camera, and took a photo of us, under the clock. The camera balanced on the arm of the long bench, so the angle tilted. It was the first picture we took of us together on the trip.
According to the clock, the photo was taken at 1:54 that afternoon. Our smiles are tired, but genuine. Our jackets are huge and shapeless, making us look like messy woman-blobs on the empty sidewalk. My hair is a mess. I had asked Heather to hold out an arm for where I’d stand when I aimed the camera, so we each have an arm around the other.
We tried to take naps on the long wooden benches beside the train station. I re-read the copied guidebook excerpt.
“It says this is going to be hearty food and the best beer in Germany,” I told her.
I wrote my memories of this one day because it managed to be both the worst and best day on the trip. I’m fascinated by the seesaw of the emotional extremes, because it echoes the relationship. I didn’t stay with her for eight years because it was unbearable.
A pair of teenage boys sat on the benches for the shuttle. They were as quiet and bored as we were. Two couples approached the bench to wait. They spoke German too quickly for me to be able to eavesdrop, though I’ll admit that I tried.
At 2:05 exactly, we boarded a large, plush bus with space for our packs on seats beside us, instead of having to hold them between our knees. The bus leaned a little to the left and right as it swerved through the hills.
Sharp-peaked, cream-colored houses with dark beams reminded me of Epcot Center and my book about Heidi. Brightly colored flowers filled window boxes, and murals of farming scenes were painted on the larger walls. It was everything I would have expected from winding into the German countryside.
The shuttle stopped at the base of a large hill. Signs in Gothic calligraphy pointed up. The teenagers tackled the hill at a sprint, racing one another to the top. We gamely followed, but were quickly winded. The other couples ranged behind us. The paved path was lined with trees and flowers, and little stalls selling t-shirts, beer steins and key fobs.
At the top of the hill we saw a restaurant – and stopped to look at the menu posted at the gate. The prices and meal descriptions were way higher than we’d understood from the guidebook. We were almost resigned to a fancy, expensive and uncomfortable meal when we heard familiar voices. The couples from the shuttle passed behind us, and we watched as they took a sharp right, continuing further up the hill.
Heather turned to me. I turned to her. We grinned at each other and shrugged. Tired and hungry, we headed up the hill in the wake of the couples, trying not to lose sight of the tall man as the number of people milling around on the path increased.
That’s when we heard it. It began as a quiet roar – at first –like the sea or a strong wind on a hilltop. Then it grew louder, spreading out into a variety of sounds. Dishes clicked. Flatware clattered. People laughed and talked. The noise levels were amazing – like a stadium full of the winning team’s fans. Every conversation was louder than the first, each group full of laughter. The scents of the beer, pork, sauerkraut, and fresh bread grew with the noise.
Heather turned to me and smiled. She had a wide, pretty smile with small straight teeth. “This sounds like a family reunion.”
“No, it sounds like a community pancake breakfast at the fire station.”
Her grin widened as we tried to find seats in the open pavilion out of the drizzling rain. “Welcome home.”
She huddled down into a chair to shiver and save us seats at an empty end of one of the long cafeteria style tables.
As usual, I ordered the food and dealt with other people. I stood in line, perplexed by the menu. I’m pretty sure I just ordered the “Number one combo” – or its equivalent. Plastic cafeteria trays held white plates heaped with roasted pork, sauerkraut, mashed potatoes, and bread. The cost was about half of one of the meals at the restaurant we had almost entered.
“Oh my God,” Heather breathed as I slid the heavy, steaming trays onto the table in front of her.
“It’s like grandma food,” I said, grinning at her.
“About twice as much as grandma gives me though,” she giggled.
Next, I fetched the beer. Through our entire trip in Germany, I appreciated the efficiency of the German lines, and the fact that everyone knew how to keep it moving. In Italy, people crowded the front and sometimes elbows were involved. In Germany, it was a proper queue.
The German on the signs confused me – there were two kinds of beer, but I didn’t know how to distinguish that we wanted the more familiar pale ale. I recalled, just before I got to the counter, that my German teacher had once described me as dunkel, in terms of my dark brown hair. I extrapolated from that that we needed “swei hellen und klienen bier.” Though I correctly ordered “small,” this yielded enormous mugs of pale honey-colored beer.
I felt like a medieval barmaid swinging these two mugs back to the table where Heather warmed herself by holding a hot roll. My ears adjusted to the clanging of glass and silverware and to the laughter and chatter of the people who filled the pavilion.
This may not have been the best beer in the world. I might have been starving and in need of the warmth. But as I remember it, the smooth, easy draught was indeed the best beer I’ve ever tasted. I didn’t learn until after I left Heather that I prefer dark beers. I would love to go back and try the dunkel.
We both grew up in Pennsylvania Dutch country, in families with German roots. Until we reached Andechs, we really hadn’t realized how much influence the “mother country” had on our cultures growing up. Heather and I marveled around full mouths of comfort food, how much this place felt like home.
In retrospect it’s harder for me to look back on the happy moments, like this one, because it feels like it is wrong of me to have enjoyed any of our time together. It creates cognitive dissonance to accept and remember the good parts. It would be easier if it were all bad, but it wasn’t.
I never knew whether she would be happy to see me when I got home from work, or if she would be covered in blood because I hadn’t hidden the razor blades. I learned new ways to cope. She physically hurt me a few times in our years together. There was a five year gap between the day I told her she needed to get help and the day I left.
The night I told her I was leaving, Heather threw me across the kitchen. I feared her violence every day for five years, and I didn’t see it coming when she proved me right.
Now, the easy thing is to mold every memory into a bad one, to make it rain every day for eight years. The harder truth is that we really loved one another.
I don’t want to forget the comfort of a warm meal, good beer, and someone I loved. I don’t want to forget the way she would squeal with delight when I gave her a gift. I won’t forget how her whole face lit up when she smiled. She was silly and spontaneous when I was serious and responsible. The unhealthy parts of our relationship took too much of a toll.
By the time we reached the city center, we were ready for our Munich adventure to come to a close. Our second night, we made reservations. We walked back into town in the late afternoon and found our way past the glowing neon lights, flashing the international language of sex. I glanced away from our reflections in a darkened window where we could see a semi-nude woman dancing inside. A plain brown panel door nestled in this unlikely place.
We rang the bell, and the woman behind the counter buzzed us into a women’s-only hostel. Once we were in the lobby, the sound of the city faded away. We were given a room key and the directions to the shared bathroom down the hall. We would have hot showers, clean sheets, and beds behind a locked door. The food, the beer, the unexpected sense of belonging cocooned into our last stop in Munich, a quiet, safe refuge.
I repacked my back pack while Heather took the first shower. I re-rolled my shorts and summer clothes because it was chilly in Germany. We were headed to Vienna next, so I moved that Xerox page to the top of my pack.
I offer this day as an epitaph for the eight years we spent together. I find it, perhaps most telling of all, that I did not want to check this memory against hers. This is my memory of the events – over a decade later, and thousands of miles away.
This is how I will choose to remember our day in Munich, where according to the drunken man in the train station, “nothing ever happens.”