Ways of Remembering

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Berlin, Germany – May 2008

I scan the tourist map, every tiny line and word, searching for the Berlin Wall. How is it that one of the most intriguing tourist attractions in Berlin isn’t clearly marked? My eyes sweep past something called Eastside Gallery. Maybe that’s it. The hotel reception confirms this, so my husband and I set off in that direction.

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It is spring, but a cold wind blows. From time to time, blue sky manages to push through the gray clouds. The dour face of Checkpoint Charlie brightens briefly and then falls back into shadow. I take off my coat and then put it back on. Then I take it off again.

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Only a few clusters of people are gathered in front of the Wall, leaving lots of room to linger and ponder. Countless autographs from visitors past are scrawled in the spaces between. Some of the graffiti has begun to creep over the artwork.

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A group of young Spaniards giggle as they scrawl on the Wall in black marker. One of the girls looks to the left and then to the right before digging into the cement with a key. A tiny chip falls into her hand. She squeezes it in her grasp and holds it close, a victorious smile on her face.

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Everyone wants to remember. T-shirts. Shot glasses. Snow globes. Keychains. Pins. Stickers. Postcards. Thimbles. Teaspoons. Those last two have always baffled me. Hey, wanna see my thimble collection? I’ve got them displayed on a special rack in my living room!

When I was younger, my fridge was adorned with colorful mementos of trips taken. However, some places were missing – Papua New Guinea and Anguilla and a couple of others. This gnawed at me. Empty spaces on the humming metal door. When I moved overseas, I realized just how heavy those magnets could be. How much room they took up in my luggage. I loosened my grasp and gave them all away.

Remember where you were. Those vibrant deviations from the system of your life.

Some leave things behind. Others bring things home.

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Some gather images in analog or digital. Or scribble impressions in a journal.

Only the very bravest can hide the moments away in the private treasure chest of the mind.

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Travels With Billy

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Munich, Germany – January 1998

My brother Billy used to always say that he would never travel outside of the United States, because “there’s nothing worth seeing”. This declaration was accompanied by crossed arms and a firm nod. So, I was amazed when he decided to accompany me on this quick trip to Munich. I had scored an obscenely cheap travel agent rate though work. I could fly from our local airport in Grand Rapids, Michigan to Germany for less that it cost to fly to the West Coast. The guest rate was only fifty dollars more. Billy asked if we could fly into Frankfurt and take the train down to Munich, because he’d heard that German trains were efficient. It was perfectly fine with me. I had traveled with my sister Penelope, and now, finally, I would be traveling with Billy.

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We have four days in Munich. It’s been nine years since I was last in Europe and it’s my first time in Germany. This will possibly be Billy’s only trip to Europe. We want to see everything. From the moment we finish breakfast until the time we shuffle back to the hotel exhausted we do not stop. We take a tour of the opulent Residenz and then feast our eyes on the art at the Neue Pinakothek. We watch the old Glockenspiel show, and then we visit the Toy Museum.

We eat dinner at the world famous HofbrÀuhaus. The waiter is incredibly rude, but we refuse to let him push us out. We linger until the Oompah band starts to play. A little girl of about five walks up to the table next to us, tips a mug of beer towards her mouth, and takes a few gulps. Billy and I look at each other and laugh. We haven’t finished one beer, but we’re both totally buzzed.

“We’re not obligated to finish,” I slur. I push my beer aside.

Billy drains the last of his beer and sets his mug down with an emphatic thud. “We can’t let them think that Americans don’t know how to handle their beer.”

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One does not have a conversation with Billy in the conventional sense. He has never been a verbal person. Although he could read the newspaper at four years old, he rarely spoke. Today, he works in IT. Code is his main language. Our communication mainly consists of looks and gestures. There are things that I’d like to discuss with him. The same things that I’ve discussed with Penelope. We’ve never had a chance to corroborate the trauma of our childhood. Does he have the same fear that Pebby and I have of inheriting our father’s schizophrenia? Does he remember the strange, dark days when we were so afraid?

I bring this up while we wander through the Deutsches Museum of Science and Technology. It’s a weekday and we’re the only visitors. He is amid machinery and circuitry and locomotion. Comfortable things.

He pauses and stares straight ahead. A quick wince as obscure corners of the database are searched. He shakes his head. Access denied.

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On our final full day, we join an organized day tour of Bavarian castles. Thankfully, there are only twelve people on the tour. The large bus is nearly empty. A fresh blanket of snow covers the landscape. Every once in a while we pass men wearing lederhosen and feathered green felt hats. Our first stop is the small, yet decoratively overbearing Linderhof Palace. The overabundance of gilt and color makes me nauseous. Then it’s on to Oberammergau with its fairy tale painted houses. Billy decides to buy a cuckoo clock, as well as another shot glass. It’s the third one he’s bought on this trip. He recently bought a special shelf for his collection. It looks like a spice rack. He doesn’t like people to send him shot glasses as gifts, though, because then he’ll feel obligated to visit the place. Pebby and I know that if we ever want to get revenge on him, we only need to send him a shot glass from someplace he’s never been.

The last stop is the surreal Neuschwanstein Castle. The guide tells us that in the summer the lines are hours long and often people aren’t able to get in. I take a deep breath and look out over the immaculate, silent panorama. I think I’ll travel in the low season from now on.

I turn to Billy. “So, are you happy that you came with me?”

He nods. “It’s nice. America is still the best, but Germany is pretty nice.”

I roll my eyes and shake my head in loving exasperation.

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