Nellu Mazilu, Berlin, DEU, Germany, Reichstagsgebäude Plenarbereich, Reichstagsgebäude, Reichstag, Reichstag dome, mirrors

Inside the Reichstag’s new glass dome. Photo by Nellu.

One of the consistent themes of our travel is a realization of how little I knew about the rest of the world—what went on just before I was born and even during my lifetime. Sure, I had a general awareness about events but when it came to the gripping details, it’s scary how clueless I am. And I read a lot when I was a kid.

Berlin was one of the places that highlighted my relative ignorance.

If you’re like me, your grade school and high school history classes skimmed over modern history in the final weeks of the academic year, when your sights were already set on how you were going to get a better tan this year thank your little brother. East Germany, West Germany, East German swimmers, “Mr. Gorbechev, tear down this wall,” buy your piece of the Berlin Wall. Sure, I got it. I knew Berlin was a central character in the Cold War.

But I never really grasped the urgent necessity of the Berlin Air Lift or the implications of a divided Germany. Here’s a map of the occupied country circa 1945 that lays it out pretty clearly:

Germany

Yep. The little multi-colored spot in the middle of the USSR territory is Berlin, divided. Pic courtesy of Wikipedia.

That tiny multicolored spot right in the middle of the USSR territory, aka East Germany, is Berlin, divided into all of its little pieces. I don’t know whether to blame our education system, our American-centric culture, or my rambling mind but a hugely critical part of this story never registered for me. I can’t remember ever thinking about where Berlin was or how West Berlin was cut off from the rest of West Germany and what that meant for the people living there.

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gummy bears, Haribo, original gummy bears

I was nine or ten years old when my addiction began. My dealer: a strict, devastatingly sophisticated, Russian ballet teacher who walked with grace and commanded obedience in ever glance.

The candy was a break, a treat, a reward for finishing a particularly grueling set of exercises or mastering complex choreography.

Sometimes they were gummy bears. Sometimes they were jelly beans. I preferred the gummy bears, specifically the white ones. I think they taste like pineapple.

“You can take one,” she told us, subtly reinforcing the idea that sweets should be consumed in moderation.

One!? I didn’t want one! I wanted a fistful.

When I was old enough to buy the 99 cent bags myself, I would gorge sometimes. I could eat half a bag before my stomach would protest. But so often though those gummies would be stale. Seriously, it was like I was the only person who bought gummy bears from the drug store.

But not in Germany. No siree. Germany is where gummy bears come from. Haribo, the company which makes the original gummy bear (and the only one that matters), was born in a suburb of Bonn.

My cousin Grace spent a semester there. I am surprised she made it out alive.

gummy bears, Haribo, the original gummy bear

I allowed myself to indulge during the few weeks we spent in Germany, buying two bags at a time of the freshest gummy bears in the world.

~ Molly

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!?) Read the rest of this entry »

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