Germans make great lemon sorbet.
I can't explain it, but it's true. The best lemon-flavored ice cream I ever had was in a sparkling-white little shop in Rostock, the small town by the Baltic Sea where I had been born. I was eleven, on a sailing tour with my parents and my grandfather, so relieved to get off that tossing nutshell of a boat that those two scoops of ice cream, eaten with firm concrete under me, tasted like the essence of a summer holiday.
My grandfather was in his element that year. He told us long stories as he steered, stories of his time as an officer in the East German navy and of his childhood in Berlin, before World War II made him a refugee. He hadn't lived there since he was twelve, but his Berlin accent (the German equivalent of a London cockney) got stronger the longer he talked. He called me 'my girl' and showed me how to hold the tiller. I saw him as a a dashing, soldierly old gentleman straight out of an old film, and I was proud to belong to the same family.
For the next few years, I mostly heard of him through secondhand news; he phoned my father, my father told me. I heard about the time he got his heart pacemaker. I heard about it when he and his younger son, my uncle, stopped talking to each other because my uncle couldn't hold down a job and, although pushing forty, still dreamed of making it big in the German rock scene. Then I heard about my aunt – my grandfather's only daughter and the only woman in the family I seem to resemble. I have her hair, her drive to write and her fascination with fairy tales. When she got pregnant by her African boyfriend, there was a family earthquake. I'm glad I wasn't there.
My grandmother was bewildered. My parents were worried about the health risks of a forty-three-year-old woman having a baby. As for my grandfather, who had once gone back and forth from Havana in a cruise ship called the Völkerfreundschaft (Friendship Among Nations) – he cut off all contact with his daughter and refused to even see the baby when it was born.
I couldn't believe it at first. My grandfather, one of the most intelligent people I knew, couldn't have done that. It seemed so petty, so small-minded – and worse, it was as if he were falling back into the Berlin of his childhood, Hitler's Berlin in 1933.
"He never used to be like this," said my mother when she found out. "It's heartbreaking."
The next time I had lemon sorbet with my grandfather, I was fifteen. We were having dinner by ourselves while my parents caught up with some old friends. The restaurant was called Zur letzten Instanz (The Last Appeal) because it was right next to a courthouse. The menu was partially written in Gothic script and the meals all had legalese names: the "Charge of Slander" was a salmon fillet and the "Evidence" was potato dumplings and pot roast. We were sitting outside on rough wooden tables, surrounded by hedgerows; the place smelled of cigarettes, a testament to Germany's relaxed smoking laws. The evening was getting cool and I had my sweater on.
My grandfather was just the way I remembered him: the Captain, in his blue blazer with the gold buttons, blue eyes flashing in his deeply lined face. His hair was all white, parted at the side and as neat as if he'd just stepped out of the barber shop. He talked and talked until I wondered why he didn't get hoarse, even with the beer he drank. He told me about the TV show he used to host on local cable; about the time he got the chickenpox on his honeymoon; about his pen-friend, who was a genuine German Count. When I could get a word in edgewise, I told him about the Japanese anime I'd been watching and my attempts at poetry and short stories. He called me 'our budding authoress' and promised to read whatever I sent him by e-mail.
I never meant to start an argument – and technically, I don't believe I did. It takes two to argue and I mostly kept quiet – but if he weren't my grandfather, I could have thrown my cup of ice cream at his head.
"You're getting very tall, my girl," he said, surveying me over the rim of his coffee cup. "Almost a young lady. Any boyfriends yet?"
"No-o … "
I sighed. My love life, or lack thereof, was one of the things I'd hoped to escape on this vacation. At the same time, however, I was glad he'd asked – for me, telling the story was like wiggling a loose tooth. It hurt, but I had to do it.
"There's this one guy in my class," I said. "His name is Raul … I really liked him, you know, but he didn't feel the same way … and now he's gone back to Brazil, where he's from, so it's not like I'll ever see him again."
I thought of him sailing paper airplanes past me, whispering to me in class, singing Beatles songs out loud during recess in defiance of our classmates' complaints. I thought about the time he had scattered a handful of candy hearts on everyone's desk, including mine. I thought of his Portuguese accent and the fierce concentration he needed to speak English, sculpting every word with his lips.
My grandfather's bushy white eyebrows drew together like furry caterpillars. For a moment, I thought he was concerned for me, until he said: "So that boy's Brazilian?"
I suddenly remembered my aunt, her black boyfriend and their cappucino-colored son. I wished I hadn't brought up the subject after all.
"Let me tell you one thing about Latinos," said my grandfather, pointing his cake fork at me. "They're shallow. All froth and bubble, just like this," pointing to the whipped cream on top of his apple strudel. "One day they're madly in love, the next day they've never heard of you."
He launched into a long tale about how, every time he went to Cuba, desperate German women would beg him to take them back home on his ship.
"It was always the same – those men came here to study, pick up a girl, give her some rigmarole about a white house by the sea, ask her to give up her citizenship and come to Cuba with them. And they went! Those brown eyes and rolling R's always did the trick."
I winced. "And there they were – stuck in some godawful tinfoil hut, beaten on a regular basis – but what could I do? I couldn't let them on board without an East German passport, now could I?"
I was a teakettle starting to boil; I might have started screaming at any moment. My grandfather was slinging mud over my feelings, dragging them down into his sordid story and making me wonder if it wasn't true – was there such a thing as a national character? Was Raul bubbly and carefree because he was Raul, or because he was from Brazil? I did not want to think like this.
"Opa," I said – not quite through gritted teeth, but the feeling was there. "No one's talking about marriage. I told you, he didn't even like me."
I was about to add that not all Latinos are the same, no more than all Germans are the same, but he started talking first.
"I'm perfectly aware of that," he said. "But while we're on the subject, my girl, let me tell you – interracial marriage is never a good idea. Don't get me wrong, I'm not a racist. I don't believe that – foreigners – are bad. Sometimes they even have qualities we don't possess. Your Eskimos, for example, in Canada, are amazingly adaptive when it comes to that cold climate. But getting too mixed up in a foreign culture will only lead to heartbreak and misunderstanding … just like those poor girls stranded in Cuba."
I thought of my aunt and her boyfriend, whom I had visited with my parents just the day before. She was a woman with deep frown lines in her face, a man's haircut and baggy sweaters, who almost never smiled. But on that day, I had seen her wearing a purple-and-white tie-dye dress and a wooden bead necklace, laughing with her boyfriend, a sunny-faced man with a warm handshake and very good German. They called their son "Sparrow" so often that the little boy was convinced it was his name.
If anyone was suffering from misunderstanding, I thought, it was my grandfather himself.
There were a dozen things I wanted to say, but I knew that if I did, the entire evening would be spoiled. We would be sniping at each other all the way back to the hotel, and I would become one more family member my grandfather lost.
"This is really good ice cream," I said instead, taking a spoonful and holding it up the lamplight. It was just as sweet and lemony as I remembered, the kind of flavor you can't get in Montreal.
My grandfather smiled. It was my dad's smile in an older face, and it almost made me forget what he had been saying.
"I'm glad you like it, my girl. It's nice to be sitting here like this, isn't it? I haven't had the chance to talk with you in so long."
It was the closest he'd ever come to admitting out loud that he cared about me. He was the sort of grandfather who shakes hands instead of hugging you, even after four years apart. I swallowed my lemon sorbet, along with a mouthful of sour words, and nodded.
"Now, did I ever tell you about the interpreter from Sweden … ?"
I leaned back and listened. It was going to be an interesting night.