Even before I start factoring in cousins’ spouses and cousins’ kids, my family outnumbers Nellu’s family by about 4.6 to one. Nellu is an only child. He has four cousins. I am one of four kids with 35 first cousins.

Growing up, playing with these cousins was a highlight of every holiday and family visit. It still is. They are true partners-in-crime. As children, we planned elaborate annual Christmas pageants together. We counted down the New Year long after the adults put us to bed. And we got hopped up on Lifesavers to keep ourselves from crying at my grandfather’s wake and ran around the funeral home shocking mourners with static electricity. As adults, there are still plenty of ways we can get into a little good-natured trouble and it’s even more fun now that many of the younger kids are old enough to join in.

I’ve always missed that when it came to Nellu’s family. Over the years, we’ve visited relatives in Romania. But his cousins on both sides live in Germany and our trips to the motherland don’t usually align. His aunts, uncles, and close family friends have been generous and open to me. But there are so many barriers to communication between us: language, culture, generation…I’ve sat through hours of family parties surrounded by strangers all speaking a language I don’t understand with few words of English in between. Nellu is a wonderful translator, but he can’t babysit me the whole night. And I don’t want to cut into the only quality time he’ll get with many of them for the next year. I’ve learned to cope by drinking as much as I like, at least then it feels like we’re communicating.

But when it came to our trip through Germany, it was partner-in-crime recruiting season. We planned extended visits to make up for lost time with the cousins.

We started in Wietze at the home of Nellu’s cousin Alex, her partner Eric, and their new baby Stella. Nellu and I would become Stella’s godparents in a ceremony a few days later. Also visiting was Alex’s sister Edith, known as Frueppi (pronounced: Fru-pee); their younger brother Eduard, nicknamed Edu; and their parents, Harry and Catrinel. I think Edu looks like a younger, blonde and slightly timid version of Nellu. Sure, I know it’s hard to picture a blonde and timid version of Nellu, but he exists.

We pose with the proud parents at Stella's baptism.

We pose with the proud parents at Stella’s baptism.

Everyone calls Nellu “Nelluţu” (The swiggle on the ‘t’ gives you the pronunciation: NEL-lu-tsu), which basically means little Nellu. This is funny because he is actually bigger than everyone in his family.

Frueppi said Nellu looks a lot like their grandfather, Nellu’s mom’s dad.  I love that. It was glimpse into a shared history that I know very little about. And they agreed with me that the family speaks exceptionally loud when conversing in Romanian. (Seriously, I was beginning to think it was me. What is it about that language!?)

All of Nellu’s cousins speak English brilliantly but there were still  plenty of language hijinks for a sitcom. At meals, Nellu would speak to his cousins, aunt and uncle in Romanian; the family would speak to each other and Eric in German; and everyone would speak to me in English. Every once in a while, someone would get confused and speak to me in German or Eric in Romanian and only realize the mistake when they got a blank stare in return. I felt so badly for the priest at Stella’s baptism who performed the ceremony in Romanian, spoke to the guests in German, and tried to instruct me in English. He probably went home and took a nap.
This is when it started to occur to me that just because people speak English well doesn’t mean they understand me. I speak fast and mumble. But what’s worse is that I use slang, idioms, and big words. I’ve never grasped the need to simplify my speech because I have never been able to effectively communicate enough in another language to recognize this as a problem. A Norwegian friend tried to tell me once. “You use a lot of big words,” he said. “Well, English is my primary language,” I thought then. But now I get what he was really trying to say.

During our visit to Wietze, I would often say something and Alex would respond with a sharp, “What!?” I would repeat, slowdown, and simplify and Alex would respond with a decisive “O.K.,” as if she was reinforcing that my message received. Nellu and I still get a chuckle out of those exchanges.

When we visited Nellu’s cousin Cristina in Hamburg a week later, she told us that she didn’t understand what we were saying when we spoke to each other. I’m sure she’s not alone. After spending almost every waking moment together for more than a year, Nellu and I have surely developed a private language like twins.

Hamburg, riverfront

Nellu, Cristina and I on the Hamburg riverfront.

I first met Cristina, affectionately called Ava Ava, at party celebrating the anniversary of Nellu’s godparents in Bucharest, Romania. When Cristina saw Nellu they shouted loud and excited greetings at each other, gesturing wildly. I stood a step behind Nellu, waiting quietly and patiently. After about a minute of this, Cristina turned her attention to me.

“You don’t understand a word of this, do you?” she asked with a knowing, gregarious smile.

“Nope,” I replied frankly and gratefully. I’ve liked her ever since. The time we spent with her as she tour-guided us around her corner of northern Germany was just icing.

~ Molly