- Schaumburgstr. 20b, Hannover, Germany. Age 0-4.
Fifth floor walk-up under the roof, with a toilet located on the landing and shared with neighbors. A large tiled oven in the kitchen and a second, more simple, coal oven in the living room. My parents install a square tub shower in the kitchen where they bathe me. It’s their first apartment, the lease conditional upon their “imminent” marriage. The window opposite the sloped ceiling in my room looks out over allotment gardens though at 3 or 4 years old all I can see is sky. A reddish sofa sits against the wall. I feel grown-up whenever I climb up there. I have a puppet theater. Among the many puppets, Kasper the clown, a mischievous character in German culture, with a long nose and red cheeks, is my least favorite. I let him know by banging his hard rubber head against the frame of the puppet theater as punishment.
It’s the 70s. The living room has brown shag carpet offset by white squares and yellow triangular foam chairs that can spin. On weekend nights when the noise of a party wakes me up, I sit in one of the chairs under a blanket, cigarette smoke and voices swirling around me. If it’s earlier in the evening I run laps around the coffee table at high speed, daring my parents’ friends to lift their beer or wine glasses just in time.
- Ferdinand-Wallbrecht-Str. 21, Hannover, Germany. Age 4-19.
The 5-room corner apartment on the 4th floor in a busy and desirable neighborhood is a definite step up for our family. The only person who still heats with coal is an old lady who lives, like we had, under the roof. Once or twice after school I help her carry the heavy coal bucket up from the basement and in return she lets me pick malt candies from a jar. Politely I sit with her, deciding whether I like their malt flavor or not. Meanwhile my mother is frantically searching for me since after she had buzzed me in I never appeared.
Our tall windows, three panels of glass shaped into an arch, give out onto the building opposite and a sliver of sky behind which the sun sets. That I can’t see the sun set in its elusive glory causes me real pain as a teenager. Still, I feel proud to live in this neighborhood of ornamented, turn-of-the century buildings in a city that was mostly destroyed in WWII.
There is a kiosk downstairs where I spend some of my pocket money on licorice diamonds or Haribo gummies. Next to the kiosk is a tiny tailor shop I never go into, and on the other side of our entrance a health food store opens up, which we certainly never go into. I wonder about the people buying wrinkled apples and the funny smell that exits with each customer.
Though no longer on the landing our toilet is still separate and next to a small, oddly shaped bathroom–a plus since my mom always takes forever getting ready, and leaves behind a plume of hairspray. We don’t share the elegant parquet floors of the neighbors but our white wool carpet looks alright. Pocket doors, always kept open, separate the dining and living room.
My dad panels one of my bedroom walls in blond wood, all the rage in the early 80s, on which I hang my centerfold posters of movie and rock stars at angles I consider bold and innovative. While the bright green wardrobe is an annoying holdover from the 70s, my favorite piece of furniture becomes an impossibly heavy wooden desk, handed down to us from the architecture firm upstairs. Ulf, the man who runs it, is a family friend and the person I can talk to when my parents have nothing to offer my budding intellect. I love the desk’s dark wood, the mysterious mechanism of its roll-top drawer cover and the typewriter perch that swings out.
The sloping attic, padlocked and rarely used, is sadly devoid of secrets though I search it repeatedly for signs of previous inhabitants–names penciled on the wallpaper, hidden journals, toys left behind. Nothing turns up.
- 211 Grantwood Dr, Amherst, MA. Age 22-23 and “fresh off the boat”.
The brown, wood-shingled house in a residential area north of the UMass campus is overgrown and looks a shamble. Philosophy books line the wall of my dingy basement bedroom, physics is piled next to the toilet. “Let me compare thee to a summer’s day” greets a caller on the answering machine.
In my adolescent mind, three male roommates and a septuagenarian landlord with a roaming mind and eye clearly are the better choice over a spinster’s perfectly clean bedroom.
I covet the boys’ upstairs bedrooms not only because they have more light but one could fall asleep next to the literature section instead of the philosophy wall. One morning, when I’m still at my boyfriend’s house across town, my parents arrive early from Germany. By the time I get home, Eph, my landlord, has swept papers and plants off the kitchen table and cheerfully served my bewildered mom and dad fried tomatoes and eggs.
Another time Eph takes me to the ex-Communist Fellowship Center in NH where I meet agitators and bask in the summer sun. Once in Boston he pulls some strings and we wind up on the concierge level of a hotel eating our way through a free meal. On my birthday, he writes a saucy poem for me, which I reciprocate on his 70th, by channeling my best high school Shakespeare. We’re an odd pair in a strange place, and in our free-spirited connection I feel at home.