By GEOFF KRONIK
Because I had a roomy exit-row seat on a full plane to Berlin, I sent a photo of my gloriously unbent legs to my wife. A petty triumph, the frequent-flyer’s tame version of sexting. My seatmate was a small, physically non-intrusive man, but troublingly prone to coughs and sneezes.
The day after, in November drizzle, I walked from my hotel past the street where my great-uncle used to live. I never saw his home, but was intimate with its address from legal briefs and bank statements. Continuing to the historic KaDeWe department store, I paused before its tinsel-garroted window mannequins. I felt a familiar temporal shiver, a generational shift into events I longed to understand but had not lived in the first place. Jean Améry wrote “no one can become what he cannot find in his memories.”
When I was in my teens, my great-uncle worked at the KaDeWe in the men’s department. He sat before customers and helped them buy shoes, but I did not know this until my mother told me years later. He had returned to Berlin in 1975, when I was twelve, forty years after he fled Hitler, and I never saw him again. A lifelong bachelor, with few friends and no children, he died in Berlin in 1998. He and I had no relationship that I knew of, until his death revealed a contractually binding one.
Today, ten minutes east of the Brandenburg Gate by subway, I own a small piece of land. It came to me with the shock of impenetrable mystery, in my great-uncle’s will, and the best I can do is to project upon him a desire for legacy of some kind. I run the property as a parking lot now, and after leaving the KaDeWe that morning, I took the train at Wittenbergplatz and went there. Standing between cars whose owners I have never met, I bent and felt the lot’s earth surface, which always feels like the dirt of my forefathers to me, because it is.
The next day, waking with a gathering storm in my head and chest, I unhappily recalled my seatmate on the plane. In fifteen years of visits to Berlin, I had never needed cold medicine. I went to a nearby shopping center and found a Drogerie, whose white interior and rows of packages looked like relief from the outside, but inside it I imagined Cornelia, my former German teacher, wagging her finger and tut-tutting in her most German way.
Cornelia had included cultural lessons along with conjugations and modal verbs, but I had forgotten that sniffling Deutscher do not visit a Drogerie. Imagine a Walgreens with no pharmacy—personal hygiene, beauty aids, diet needs, cosmetics, supplements, and snacks—but no medicine. Not unless the nips of Jägermeister by the mints at the checkout lanes qualified. Buy Jäger on lunch break, do a shot, chew mints, return to work with a smile. I understood the concept, but what I needed was an Apotheke.
I found one a few stores away, and soon learned that American-style self-service would not even get me the German version of Sucrets. Chewable vitamins, mentholated bath oils, restorative teas, and herbal bonbons were over the counter, but anything stronger was behind one guarded by four lab-coated pharmacists. I waited in line by a sign which requested going no further, for the privacy of other customers, and tried to recall what Germans say when they become ill.
The pharmacist with whom I consulted was cheerful, in her late twenties, and had accessorized her white uniform with a smiling purple-monkey brooch and matching earrings. She struck me as either the wrong person from whom to buy drugs, or exactly the right one. In my competent but not-quite-proficient German, I explained to her that I coughed and sneezed, and had a headache and throat pain.
“Haben Sie Schleim?” Her question stopped me. I was unfamiliar with Schleim, but it had a darkly alarming sound. It seemed to come from the lexicon of worrisome one-syllable German words—Sturm, Drang, Angst—that lurk in the long shadows of their famous compound cousins. I asked what Schleim was, and when she translated, I learned I did indeed have it. She sold me Schleimlöser, a word whose conclusive echo seemed to guarantee more relief than “expectorant” would have.
Back in my hotel, I took my medicine and turned on the television, but my thoughts drifted to the mystery of my great-uncle. My mother told me he never adjusted to life in the U.S., and had returned to his native Berlin under an official program that gave expatriated Jews discounted housing and help with employment. The year he went back, according to the American Jewish Year Book, there were an estimated thirty-three thousand Jews in Germany, out of a total population of seventy-nine million people. From the frying pan and into the fire, this seemed to me, but perhaps it was a home fire. Or maybe, unhappy in his adopted country, my great-uncle enjoyed disappearing into his parent one, an anonymity that may have soothed him. I will never know.
But sick in bed, far from my home, I began to feel the stabilizing intervention of context. At the Apotheke, I had capably described my Krankheit in terms my grandparents would have used to describe their maladies a century earlier. I owed this to my great-uncle, without whose bequest I would not be able to get around Berlin without a map, nor would I have learned the language I now speak with his niece—my mother. Through the syllables of her Muttersprach, as she calls it, our relationship has gone beyond its previous borders, into a collaboration between history and the future whose result is a new sense of community today. When my mother and I speak German, it seems a conversation not only with each other, but with ancestry.
The disorderly thoughts of the febrile, perhaps—the disappointment-prone fashioning of connections where none exist. But there in my hotel room, I did not believe that, because no contrary signals landed in my mind. A transfer of property purchased by my great-uncle’s father, and ninety years later, the passing on of a virus on a plane. A dotted line, at least, because decades earlier, in the dark years of the 1930s, the heady Weimar times, and under the Kaisers before that, my forebears had Schleim, and now so did I.
Geoff Kronik lives in Brookline, Massachusetts and received an MFA from Warren Wilson College. He recently acquired dual American-German citizenship.