I trod upon this Winter Wonderland two nights ago; perhaps you can see my footprints in the snow. This is my mother’s hometown of Regensburg, Bavaria and I am seeing it for the first time in the winter. I know it from the summers of childhood and adolescence as the place where first I splashed my toes into cool drinking-water fountains and then wandered moodily into the branches of H & M and Müller in the hope of diversion from the obligations of ‘extended family’ holidays.
The German side of my family is enormous – my mother is the fourth child of nine and at last count my cousins tallied close to thirty. My memories of the summers between about 1995 and 2007 are rooted in a certain self – consciousness about the German I spoke, which I perceived as stilted in comparison to the Bavarian twang and slang with which my relatives conversed. Aware and anxious from a young age that I had but a single afternoon to persuade each branch of the German relatives of my lively personality and engaging wit, I presented invariably an image of dullness and excessive politeness which they perceived (with accuracy) as shyness and awkward sensitivity. I had an awful lot of fun in Regensburg too though – I was particularly fond of the twisty yellow waterslide at the local pool and the vast availability of playmobil and wooden dolls’ house accessories in the toy -shops. When my Grandmother moved out of the family home and into a flat nearby, she dedicated her biggest free space to a playroom for her grandchildren. There she set up a shop (or ‘Kaufladen’) which she supplied with a wooden till and weighing scales, dried apples from the garden, miniature packets of raisins and cinnamon-topped marzipan balls; all of which could be purchased in tiny cone-shaped paper bags, which she provided for her customers. It was marvellous.
Such feelings return to me as I sit on a Regensburg and Grandmother-bound train with my boyfriend, who is not a part of these memories but who has the most incredible ability to absorb and to understand information and to remain quite silent as he does so; only to amaze me with evidence of his awesome memory at appropriate points in the future. For instance, he has recited in order the names of my mother’s brothers and sisters without ever having been formally taught, recalled anecdotes about my relatives that I don’t even remember fabricating and has learned (albeit not with great accuracy) the lyrics of the family song (yes, there is one) which is performed at the approximately bi-annual family gathering.
I would forgive you for accusing me of having notions of one day appearing on one of those ancestry-tracing television shows like ‘Who do you think you are?’ . To practise for such an occasion, I ask Andrew to take a picture of me on arrival at Regensburg train station. I attempt to look restrained and dignified, humbled and delighted (as those minor celebrities do at important and scripted moments in the discovery of their past) but it is too much for me and I end up pointing with mock excitement at the sign above my head.
The journey begins and we battle through a blizzard along the Danube on the way to my Grandmother’s flat. We are startled by a baby rat as it darts for cover under the inches-deep layers of snow by the riverbank. When we arrive, we are heaped with white powder. I am nervous as I ring the bell – it has been three and a half years since I last saw my Grandmother and at that time I was not romantically attached. She opens the door and pops her head out. She motions us in as if we were meals on wheels. It is wonderfully reassuring. She brews a herbal tea and we sip it as the blizzard outside continues. She tells me that she misses packing Christmas parcels for her Grandchildren; it is beyond her competencies now, she tells me, as the children are looking for gadgets and games she doesn’t understand. I tell her how I loved playing shop in the playroom and how I remember her paper bags and dried apples. She smiles and tells me she has found old letters that her children wrote to the Christkind (the German equivalent of Santa Clause). I ask her eagerly if I may see them. I may. She gets up to fetch them, and I whisper a few words to Andrew, who has remained mute at the head of the table (Andrew speaks no German and my Oma no English). I leaf through the letters of my youngest aunts: they have asked for an anorak and an extendable pencil and have promised the Christkind that they have been brave Kinder all year.
After an hour and a quarter, we shake hands goodbye and venture back out. We are station-bound again but have decided to check out the Christmas market by the Castle before we leave. We are ankle deep in glistening snow. Burning torches light our way to the courtyard, where stalls of mulled wine and gingerbread lure us through the cold. Four men play Christmas carols on old-fashioned horns. Beyond the glistening snowflakes and torch flames, the castle gleams. I buy Andrew a baked potato and he buys me a woolly hat. We leave our footprints in the snow. We miss our train and spend all evening in a Winter Wonderland I feel is part my own.