I wore the same green, sleeveless jumpsuit two days in a row. We had landed in another temporary home, this time in a small rural town in Germany. I had survived a very long, five-hour drive from the Frankfurt airport to our new apartment in Hannover. My partner drove. I sat stiffly in the back of the rental car, attending to my cat while trying to ignore my fatigued body. She had been the perfect travel companion, sitting almost noiselessly throughout the seven-hour plane ride. I unzipped her carrier and let her round head peek out. She sat erect, staring regally at the sight in front of her.
When we arrived, I met the realtor briefly. He had just handed the keys over to my partner and they were reviewing the wohnungsgeberbestätigung. A very long German word that translates into lease.
The well-dressed man turned his attention to greet me, a display of good manners. I was too exhausted to engage in small conversation.
“Please forgive me,” I said, my voice scratchy and hoarse. “I’m too tired. I have to rest.”
I turned away before he could respond, though I may have heard a surprised “okay.” I closed the bedroom door and let the cat out of the bag. She feared the bare, unknown territory. She made a dash under my sweater and curled inside. I draped another jacket on the floor and I fell asleep on it almost immediately.
I woke up some hours later. My partner’s body was next to mine, the cat still curled in a ball under my jacket. It was only mid-afternoon. We refreshed ourselves and went out despite our rumpled clothing. When he visited in April, he mentioned an incomplete building across from our apartment. Four months later, a small discount grocery store and a bakery opened.
I stared at the display signs of the baked goods. German words seemed strange, too long with too many letters. How would I ever learn the language? I asked myself in panic. I relied on my partner, who has but very cursory skills. I whispered to him to order a large pretzel and what I thought was a raspberry cheesecake. I’d later add butter brezel to the list of things I liked about Hannover. The list is still quite short.
We were the only customers occupying the outdoor tables. Inside, a few elderly folks leisurely enjoyed their coffees and their own afternoon treats.
“Is that jello on the cheesecake?” I asked, removing my surgical mask. I poked the top of the cake with my fork. It didn’t jiggle or dance, perhaps from the weight of the raspberries. I took a small bite. The crust wasn’t made from graham crackers, the cheese wasn’t quite cream cheese, and the topping seemed almost watery.
“Käsekuchen,” my partner called it by its German name. “It’s not like American cheesecake.”
“I gathered,” I said, making a face at the obvious. “The crust is…?”
“A shortbread, maybe?”
“And is there always jello?” I poked the remains again, for emphasis.
“I think so. And the cheese they use is called quark.” Ever the curious philosopher, he had used Google to expand on his knowledge of encyclopedic trivia.
“Quark,” I repeated. “Quark, quark.”
We live in a building full of older or retired tenants. The only other younger couple live across from us. They were about ten years younger and owned their apartment. They also rented another one of the apartments to a different younger couple, in a different building. Our neighbors could speak in English.
I often gave them samples of my baking successes and failures. Successes because it was the exception when my cakes rise well. Failures because the German ingredients did not always translate well for American recipes. I offered the more presentable slices and rolls to them. Linus knew my name. I stood out amongst all of the white Germans living in the complex. He referred to my partner as Richard, a name that bore no resemblance to his actual name.
Linus once presented us with his own baked treats. It was his girlfriend’s birthday, and he gave us three slices of käsekuchen. It was almost the exact same cake from the bakery across the street. It was raspberry-flavored, complete with a raspberry red jello topping.
I looked at the slightly burnt but very buttery crust. German grocery stores didn’t sell graham crackers, one of those unremarkable items. Grocery stores aren’t universal. The more I stared at the slice, the more I thought about aspic, a relic of the past brought back as kitsch. Germany, I would learn, was not self-aware but was actually stuck in the past. The end of the second world war became the only significant event in Germany’s collective memory. Their history, so thought the white Germans, were not connected to the grammatical tenses of language. They’ve moved on because the war had ended. But neither colonialism nor racism end simply after a war.
I ate the slice slowly and almost painfully. I rarely waste food.
“You can eat the other slice,” I told my partner.
Now it’s rare for me to swing by a German bakery, but my curiosity led me to try baking my own käsekuchen. I looked up a recipe online, to make sure I found a recipe that used quark. When I opened the container, I was surprised it resembled a thick yogurt.
The käsekuchen baked quite beautifully, especially without the aspic, jello topping. Unlike the conventional American cheesecake, the golden-brown crust rose like a shield. It was a very dense, somewhat creamy cake. I was grateful for the lemon juice and zest, to offset the peculiar quark. But it still tasted unfamiliar to me. When I served the cake for the next few days, I always made sure my slices were smaller than my partner’s.
My partner asked his parents to send us a large box of goods from Arkansas. A box that would serve as a housewarming, Christmas, and birthday gift. The large package arrived with two boxes of graham crackers, local coffee beans, cans of pumpkin pie, baking powder from the United States, and some odds and ends. Customs must have been rough with the box. Packages were ripped and opened. Some of the crackers were already crushed. But he nearly wept in hyperbolic happiness, holding the dented boxes delicately and joyfully.
A box of graham crackers contains three packages of cookies. One package makes one crust. I could make six pies.
Some pies my partner greedily ate, declining my offer to share some with Linus. When the taste of cheesecake lost its novelty, I managed to cut two generous slices for Linus and his girlfriend. I had also spread a lovely blueberry compote, if somewhat haphazardly topped, over the lemon cheesecake. I tend to think citrus and blueberries, both acidic, aren’t as complementary as recipe developers assume they are, and always omit the extra squeeze of lemon juice for the compote. A fleeting essence of lemon is enough.
When Linus lent us his toolbox, the topic of food came up. He had spent a year abroad in the U.S. and marveled at the wonderful food he sampled. Like so many others, he lamented, with a faraway look, that he had gained so much weight upon his return home. I didn’t have a similar story about Germany, so I didn’t regale him with a disingenuous tale.
“That is the best cheesecake I’ve ever had,” he texted almost ten minutes later.
It must be the crust, I didn’t write back. I’m better at silence than offering small talk.
Brown sugar, if available, can be purchased at Asian grocery stores. He found out by enlisting the aid of Google. It is confounding that some of the more colonial grocery stores, like Edeka — the k is an abbreviation for Kolonial — considered them too exotic or a rarity for their shelves. The chain has a very small aisle for Asian ingredients, filled with small boxes of ready-to-eat curries or instant noodles written in bold and offensive, exoticizing eastern script.
Some days, brown sugar is available at the two Asian grocery stores we frequent. Other days, they may be completely out of stock. Sometimes they would have a sparing amount of light brown sugar, a product from South Korea. If the light brown sugar is out, there may be a few bags of a darker brown sugar imported from China. It’s only ever one option, not both.
At the Asia Supermarkt downtown, I think I hear Vietnamese. The family and workers speak so softly to each other. Their German is louder. The older woman with the long, straight black hair always fixates on me when I enter her shop. Her eyes follow me as I walk down the refrigerated section.
I once speculated every person bearing a Vietnamese surname spoke the language simply because I learned and grew up speaking it in Arkansas. It was a childish assumption. When I ran into the daughter of a family friend at the mall, I greeted her in Vietnamese.
“Oh, I don’t speak Vietnamese!” she answered with a chuckle.
I thought I had misremembered, but she was right. When we played together, we exchanged loud, excited bursts in English. It was the children’s language, free from the ears of our parents. They couldn’t really understand everything we were saying. Vietnamese was the language of the adults.
At the checkout line, the woman peered at me through her silver, wire-rimmed glasses, casting a quick glance at my partner. She didn’t wear a mask, but she sat behind a plastic partition. She used short phrases in German. First, a polite greeting. Then the amount. Each time she spoke, she gave me a meaningful look. I nodded at her, hoping my eyes and wrinkled forehead conveyed my masked smile.
When she said her third sentence, tschüss, I almost responded with tạm biệt. Instead, I repeated her farewell in German.
I used the first bag of German-purchased light brown sugar to make pecan pies for Christmas. A day before, I made more so-called American baked goods to give to Linus. His parents lived nearby, in a cozy home tucked away somewhere in the neighborhood. I brought over very warm apples and pecan pies, each hand covered with a tattered red oven mitt.
“I hope your family enjoys them,” I said, carefully placing them on his kitchen counter. “Have you had pecan pie before?”
He hadn’t. But it was the apple pie that he praised when I received a text from him days later.
He and I had decided to take a weekend trip to Spain, something that we had planned since the spring. A sick cat had delayed our plans. So had my fear about traveling during an ongoing pandemic. This would be the second time I’d been on a plane since the transcontinental move.
His professorial salary allowed him to find cat sitters. When the couple came over, I introduced them to the cat.
“She looks like an eule, doesn’t she?” I said, pointing to the tortoise-shell cat sitting on one of the yellow plastic IKEA chairs. Her cautious green eyes appraised them suspiciously. The cat is not fond of strangers but will become affectionate when she realizes her human roommates are away.
The couple tried to decipher that one German word they couldn’t understand. They asked me to repeat.
“Eule,” I said again. It was one of the recurring words on DuoLingo. The mascot of the app is an eule. “An owl.”
“Oh!” they both exclaimed. “Eule.”
I thought our pronunciation sounded similar.
My partner gave them a tour, pointing to her litter box and water and food bowl. They seemed shy and nodded at everything he said. It was just a job after all.
Before they left, I told them I’d bake them a pan of cinnamon rolls. To enjoy while they sat around with the cat.
“And please take them to share with your family and friends,” I urged. “You can return the pan along with the keys.”
Like gracious strangers, they insisted I didn’t need to trouble myself.
“I’m happy to,” I said sincerely. “It’s just an extra thank you for taking care of our cat.” Curious if they had something resembling a non-German cinnamon roll, I asked if they had tried one if they had been abroad. An image of Cinnabon floated in my mind. They hadn’t.
“I don’t think I’ve tried cinnamon rolls here, but I imagine the ones I’ll be baking might taste different,” I continued. “Maybe sweeter? Especially with the cream cheese frosting.”
Before they left, they thanked us for trusting them.
“We’d love to try your cinnamon rolls if you decide to make them,” the young lady said.
The day before our trip, he returned home from his professorial duties with two bags of very dark brown sugar, the Markt's only option. I cut open the bag and was surprised by the chocolatey, almost rich coffee smell of the sugar. As I prepped the first rise of the rolls, I worried about the taste. I hadn’t ever eaten cinnamon rolls made with dark brown sugar. The very strong scent of the sugar lingered on my mind as I mixed half a cup of it into the softened butter. It seemed impolite to use the cat sitters as taste testers for my experiment.
I hesitantly topped the rolls with generous amounts of the cream cheese frosting. The dark brown sugar traced the edges of the swirls like a marble effect. There were ten rolls in the white pan. I thought about trying one but didn’t want to destroy the image of a full pan.
I left them to cool. I set out the box of Earl Grey tea and mugs on the counter next to the electric kettle in case they wanted to drink tea with their rolls.
They promptly returned the key and the pan the evening we returned. I placed a mask over my face. I had been sequestered with too many unmasked people in the confined airport spaces. Some coughed, some stood too close to me.
Before gesturing them inside, I had an impulse to ask them to take off their shoes. My parents rarely had white guests over. When they did, they never asked them to leave their shoes at the door, but their eyes followed the shoes to the table or to the sofa.
I shook away the instinct. They would only be inside for a few minutes.
They thanked me again for the baked goods. Their families had enjoyed them, they said in delight.
“Is it different from the cinnamon rolls you’ve tried here?” I asked.
“It’s definitely sweeter,” the man replied.
The woman returned the empty and gleaming white pan. I held it close to my chest.
They left, and we saw one of them had tracked in a flattened dead mouse. I stared at the creature in rigor mortis. My partner, for once, acted more quickly than I did. He cleaned up the spot and disposed of the body. Wearing shoes inside a home, wearing a mask, I hoped I never again have to be the person demanding hygienic boundaries ever again.
A day later, I made another pan of cinnamon rolls. I had leftover cream cheese frosting. In three hours they were finished.
The taste is almost like the smell. Too potent. We had trouble polishing off the pan, each uneaten roll drying out. I wished Linus was home. He’d probably take half of the pan. He and his girlfriend had left for a year-long European trip. I wondered where they had parked their RV this time. I only hear about their adventures through my partner. I don’t keep in touch with them.
I haven’t used the dark brown sugar since. It is tucked away in one of the cabinets. Perhaps when the holiday season came around, I’d bake a few more pecan pies or make caramel sauce. If I could remember in time, I’d just use less brown sugar.
September was a long month. It also marked our first year living in Hannover. I was unhappy here. My university had neglected me. The same university had made my partner reassess if he wanted to remain in academia. The university made our lives hard in different ways.
I lost some joy in cooking and baking. I preferred to clean or do laundry, mundane tasks over creative ones. When it was time to go grocery shopping, I vetoed the thirty-minute walk to Edeka. I didn’t want to deal with the crowds, didn’t want to deal with maskless people, didn’t want to hear the guttural sounds of the German language. I didn’t want to witness yet another curious glance from a white German, either their eyes on my tattoos or indulge them in their game of guessing where I might be from. In line at a coffee shop, a man, eavesdropping on our conversation in English, had stood too close to me and asked if I was Vietnamese. In Germany, too, I heard men yell out “me love you long time!” when I pass them. In English, not German. For a country obsessed with maintaining its own nation-state and upholding German citizenship, its inhabitants parade their ignorant allegiance to American culture in the worst possible ways.
We began relying on the discount store nearby. Every week, we made sandwiches. My partner became obsessed with the soft bread from the shop.
“It really reminds me of Wonder Bread, you know?” he said, one night when we made a stack of sandwiches for dinner. “It’s like sweet white bread.”
I didn’t grow up eating Wonder Bread, but I could easily conjure the white packaging with the solid circles in primary colors. The bread he buys from the discount store is wheat with grains. It must be the texture of the breads he is half-heartedly comparing.
When he left for his conferences, I relied on the packaged loaf of bread. I didn’t have the energy to cook a meal for myself. I didn’t even want to go to the grocery store, the one barely two minutes away. But I did have a schedule. I’d wake up, make coffee, write or read for my supervisor-less dissertation, run, and continue my writing. In between these tasks, I let myself be distracted by the cat. Maybe I would snack on toast or make myself ramen.
With my partner away, I rarely had an appetite. I’m not sure why that is. I have never relished the act of cooking and feeding him. I don’t consider myself domestic. But I could go hours without eating when he’s gone. Maybe it’s the solitude that fills me. We spent too much time together in our shared living space.
I forced myself to eat a slice of buttered bread. Finishing it took a couple of hours.
The apartment was quiet for a few days. I’d call for the cat. If there was noise, it was from my DuoLingo app. Bier oder wein? I heard constantly. Those words were from the first lesson. I have never actually heard a server ask if I wanted bier oder wein when I sat outside for a meal. “Etwas zu trinken?” I have heard. Rarely do language classes capture everyday living.
I did hear bier oder wein uttered once in Germany when we were summoned to the police station to give a witness account of a neighborly dispute. Linus had been assaulted by a tenant downstairs, over an ongoing argument about the noise ordinance. On our way to the grocery store, we found him, shaken and pale, standing outside in front of the building. A large blue bruise was forming atop his right eye. The tenant had attacked him in the garage. Linus was waiting for the police, holding a bag of shattered glassware. He had dropped it when the neighbor headbutted him.
Months had passed since the incident. Before leaving for his road trip, he told my partner he may be contacted by the police station. He wanted to punish the neighbor, he told us in a cold voice.
He must have misspoken. We each received an ominous, official letter with appointment times and dates in early September. Not attending, the letter threatened, was against the law.
At about seven thirty in the morning on the designated day, we walked to the police station, ten minutes away from our apartment. I’ve never been inside a police station before. The door to the reception was locked, and we had to be buzzed in for permission. We could see one of the officers pick up the phone and ask, in German, what we needed. In English, my partner answered that we had appointments.
As we were ushered into an office, I glanced at the posters and photos of weapons tacked on the long rows of white walls. There were also black-and-white photos or sketches of wanted people. Many of them had dark hair.
The young officer motioned for us to sit down. I took the chair across from him. He was very blond and muscular. Unlike the officers at the front desk, he didn’t wear a uniform. He wore tight jeans, a grey t-shirt, and a light jacket. On his feet were spotless white tennis shoes. He had gelled his hair so that not one strand was loose. He began in German, his face serious. I glanced behind my chair so I could safely roll my eyes. Had Linus not informed his lawyer we couldn’t speak the language? That seemed to be a vital piece of information.
When the cop finally realized he couldn’t interrogate us in his language, he guffawed and mumbled something to himself. This will be interesting, I think he said. He began his line of questioning, using names I didn’t know. His cadence changed when the language changed.
“I’m sorry,” I interrupted. “Who are these people?”
“It’s who you have been referring to as Linus,” he answered, confused. The other name was the name of the accused.
“Oh, that’s their surnames?” I hadn’t known.
We tried to recall the events. We hadn’t actually witnessed the ordeal, we emphasized. We saw the assaulter enter the front door sometime in the afternoon, but we hadn’t seen the two of them together. Their hostile history was only passed down by Linus.
I watched the cop make short scrawls on a notebook. When he tried to communicate and couldn’t find an English equivalent, he relied on Google translate. It was clear he didn’t treat this interrogation as formally as he should have because he couldn’t do his job in English.
Our statements and any additional questioning took about fifteen minutes. He asked if we had any questions.
“I do,” I piped up. “If you were to contact the assaulter for questioning, would he know that we talked to you as Linus’ witnesses? If there’s a history of violence, I don’t want him to know we spoke to you. I don’t want him to put us on his list.”
We had seen the assaulter a few times, our interactions never amounting to more than a simple hello at the front door or in the laundry room. He and his wife seemed to be well-acquainted with the other residents. They all looked to be in the same age range.
“I don’t think you should be worried,” he answered, after a pause. “I don’t know these people, but this is just a small dispute between neighbors. I’ll ask Linus’ lawyer.” This did not assuage my fear. He took my concern of possible assault too lightly.
He then asked why we were here in Hannover, a question of interest directed to non-German speakers. My partner said he was hired as a professor at a nearby university.
“I’m a beamter, too,” my partner responded, much to the cop’s interest. Their jobs were both classified as employees of the state. They held the same titles.
“How long do you think you’ll live here?” When the interrogation stopped, we should have been allowed to leave.
I couldn’t help myself. “Yes, for how long?” I turned my attention to my partner, staring him down. It was a double question.
The cop’s eyes lit up. He must enjoy gossip. “Did I start something?”
My partner laughed nervously. As much as he tried to deny his upbringing in white Arkansan culture, his parents had encouraged small talk with people of a particular rank. They also tried to avoid looking rude, mainly to other white people, for networking reasons. He hadn’t yet unlearned this habit.
The next question was about learning German. I didn’t join the conversation. I didn’t have a reason to. I sat with my hands folded in my lap.
My partner mentioned that he wanted to learn more than just bier oder wein, brot und wasser. The cop laughed and said that bier oder wein was in fact a useful question. I made a face behind my mask and pretended to pick off a piece of invisible lint on my blue polka-dotted jumpsuit. I didn’t want him to see me roll my eyes. Maybe he was trying to practice his English.
We were finally allowed to leave. He wished us a good day as he walked us out. I didn’t return the salutation.
“He seemed more interested in talking to you than in hearing the details,” I remarked to my partner as we walked home. “It seemed like he didn’t want to do his job.” I was trying to reprimand him for indulging the cop.
Aside from a follow-up telephone call from the cop, who discussed our testimonies with Linus’ lawyer and ensured our anonymity would be protected, the case went dormant. On our end, at least.
In late September, I spent a few nights alone. As I was finishing up a slice of buttered toast, another dinner, the doorbell rang. I froze. It was rare for someone to ring my doorbell at all. The person was already in the building. They hadn’t buzzed from the outside.
I waited, hoping the person would go away. There was a loud knock. I took off my slippers and approached the door as quietly as I could. I heard some angry words. Or maybe German just sounds angry. It’s not a very beautiful language. I stood without movement for some time before I gathered the courage to open the door. No one was standing at the door. I heard footsteps on the second floor, the one below us. A door slam shut. The person lived on the same floor as the person who assaulted Linus.
I shut my door quickly, turned off the living room lights, and fled into the bedroom. My hand gripped my cell phone. I called my mother. I had already spoken to her two hours earlier. I rarely call her more than once a day, our allotted time together. She answered on the third ring.
“An-nah?” she answered. I grew up thinking this was the only way to pronounce my name, the first syllable a memory of her forgotten Vietnamese name.
A wave of foolishness swept over me. I was now in my mid-thirties and called my mother when I was frightened. In my own apartment. All of the anecdotal stories about my unhappiness in Germany led my mother to believe the country was damaging to my livelihood. She concluded every lament and complaint with “don’t leave the house without him” or “come back to the States.”
“I’m waiting for him to call,” I finally said, trying to keep the panic out of my voice. “I’m just bored. Will you talk to me?” Quickly grasping for a different topic, I asked, “Have you been summoned to a police station before?”
“Still thinking about your visit? Have you seen that man since?”
“Yes. Mainly in the laundry room, in the basement.”
“Never speak to him.” Her voice was stern.
“Have you been to the police station?” I repeated.
“I have been arrested and sent to jail.”
“In the United States?” I screeched before reminding myself to keep my voice low. When we moved in, we had been informed the concrete walls were soundproof. Germans took pride in this architectural design, highlighting it as a remarkable feature. No one had informed us that it may just be a result of ruhezeit, the designated quiet times Germans expected every day.
“No, no!” she quickly responded. “I never got in trouble in the United States. It was in Vietnam. I was very young. A soldier wanted my chicken, my pet, to cook for their happy hour.”
I wanted to laugh, as I usually do whenever my mother offers these glimpses of her previous life in Vietnam without warning. She was a little girl, not yet ten years old, when the war began and would see the ravages of it for another twenty years. She grew up in and with violence.
“You were in jail because you refused to give your chicken to a soldier?” I repeated, more for my own understanding.
“I was raising the chicken! It was just a couple months old!” my righteous mother exploded. The soldier had requested the police arrest my mother in the afternoon, where she was held captive for a night at the station. She spent another night in a jail cell. Her uncle had bailed her out. Soldiers would retell this story to other villagers, changing two nights into six months of imprisonment.
“Did the cops say you were in jail for six months? Is that why the soldiers repeated it?”
“The cops don’t care,” she muttered. “The soldiers just wanted to frighten and threaten the others into giving them whatever they wanted.”
“Did you have a record?” “No record. But some people were surprised to see me at the markets. I was supposed to be in jail. They thought I broke out of prison.” I thought her last sentence was an appropriate place to laugh.
She and I talked for another half an hour. She probably sensed that I was withholding something from her but didn’t push.
“What have you been eating while he’s gone?” The topic of food only ever fills up space.
“Sometimes ramen, sometimes bread.”
She didn’t seem surprised by my underwhelming meals. “Just eat something that fills you up. Sometimes making elaborate dishes is tiresome.” Most of her work now involves feeding her four young grandchildren.
A mother and daughter can only hold a telephone conversation for so long. We eventually ran out of things to say to each other. Before hanging up, she again advised me not to leave the house.
“I know you say it’s quiet in your neighborhood, but quiet doesn’t mean friendly,” she said. “Or safe.”
I stayed up for hours that night, the unknown person keeping me awake. I even tiptoed into the kitchen to feed the cat without turning on the lights.
Since that unresolved incident, no residents or neighbors have rung the doorbell or knocked on the door. If there is someone behind the door, it’s a delivery person handing us a package. The only occasion I do see people in the building is when I am walking downstairs. The residents stand outside of their doors, engaged in conversation. They grow quiet when I pass them, barely returning my nod or a “hallo.” When I’m no longer in sight, they resume their chats in a language I have stopped trying to learn.