My grandfather and I, on the occasion of his 86th birthday, have taken a trip together, to an island in the former GDR. It’s just the two of us, this time, which gives the house, and us, a slightly rattled feeling. Perhaps we’re a bit wistful, too. The rest of the family is at work, or at school, or both. Most of the time, he does the talking. He has things to say, and I, it turns out, know very little. Sometimes, I make valiant attempts at interjection, sliding sidelong a comment into a conversation—no, a monologue—I know nothing about. War, for example, or communism, or West Wall cement.
We ride our bikes very slowly through the seaside savanna: pines, oaks, sea buckthorn bright and heavy with orange berries that are too tart to eat before the first frost (though I try, anyway). I compose letters in my mind, or small poems about sand and wind. Erosion. How difficult is it to ride a bike and write, at the same time? (Wasn’t there once a man who could bike backward while playing the violin?)
Somewhere along the way, we curve toward the coast and end up among a handful of other people who have stopped here. Nearly 5 kilometres of tumbling evidence faces us: blocks and quarters and raised up ziggurats, slotted windows with steel bars across them, a battalion of broken glass and doors as far as the eye can see, everything sinking into the beautiful, fine sand. The ocean is less than 100 meters away, and has already consumed the most obvious leavings of former inhabitants. People, all of them of a certain age, are milling about, taking pictures and putting their hands to their eyes, tilting their faces up to try to take it all in. They ask each other, “Where were you, when—?”
How much of a place should we know in a lifetime? Or should the question be, how many places? The book I dropped unwittingly into my backpack for this trip is all about Ecuador, the Galápagos Islands. So I sit in the Ostsee sand reading about green sea turtles and Johanna Angermeyer. All the while, it seems like my very soul is engaged in some kind of a sparring match with reality. Where the heck?, it asks, and all I can meekly reply is, I don’t know, either. It’s the kind of sparring match that involves broomsticks not swords, because it isn’t a battle so much as a push against the settling dust: somewhere in the corners of my mind, beneath bits of twigs and stones, somewhere under notes written by people I do remember, toenail clippings, plum pits, there is a tilting stack of place memories (not all of them my own). Where was I, when—?
Are our memories evidence like bricks and mortar? Years of my grandfather’s stories have made me weary of history. Not history as in stories, his stories, our stories, but history as a fully-formed, decisive thing. Unchanging, unmoving, unyielding. I think, now, that history is a soft and supple creature. Sometimes, when it lives in edifices and tumbling rows of apartment houses, it seems to speak for itself and we perhaps fool ourselves into thinking we understand. But trees are better witnesses to history than many people. Emptiness, the absence of something, sings history, too.
My grandfather suffers no fools, but because we’re related, he’s familially obligated to put up with my unknowing. My questions tap, tap into dark corners: I simultaneously want and don’t want to know about the war because every story unleashes another one, and another one, and after a while it hurts to listen. I try sticking to small questions, like a map-maker, attempting at a bigger picture by way of bloodless detail. This rarely works. I ask practical questions, like How and Where. In the end, though, what I want to know is Why. But for Why, there are no answers that satisfy us. We comfort ourselves, and each other, by asking, over and over, “Where were you, when—?”