First rolling up the pant-legs of his corduroys to his knees, then pulling on his beige windbreaker, leaving it open over his enormous stomach, and then walking, walking, walking slowly in the low-tide sands of the Northern German shore? My father looks like a royal grey heron patrolling his paradise. The soft ripples of the German tidal flats are my father’s landscape-crush. Summer in Cuxhaven by the Northern Sea with his wife and daughter, that’s his idea of prime leisure. And because he earns the money, we, his wife and daughter, go where he pays for us to go. That’s the way family hierarchy works. Always has.
I would have preferred Italy. I like waves and water better than miles of soaked sand, I like swimming better than contemplative ambling, and I prefer things I can eat with my hands (pizza) over having to use the fish-knife to operate on the herring-fi lets at our table in the hotel restaurant. I would have preferred Italy. “I don’t trust the Italians,” says my father, “their plumbing is inferior to German plumbing. I will not shit into a hole in the ground. We have come too far, as humankind, to shit into holes in the ground!” I am 11 years old, but I want to explain that just because he saw a squatting-toilet once at an Italian highway rest-stop (and clearly it was more than a hole in the ground, it was porcelain-clad and had placement instructions for your feet!), he cannot conclude that all of Italy does its business this way. I want to tell him all that, but I don’t. There is no reasoning with my father. Not about plumbing. Not about my dislike of fish fillets in sour cream. And most definitely not about the fact that Cuxhaven is a vacation destination for seniors and single philosophers and that no one here has even thought about entertaining a child. I am a child. Which is also why I have no say in things. I am not the head of household.
I scrape sourcream off my herring. “I will not entertain your insolence. I work too hard to tolerate your objections,” shouts my father, because the things I won’t say are, nonetheless, written on my face. He takes another slab of fish. My mother meanwhile looks as if she’s trying to read her fortune in the constellations of herringbones on the edge of her plate. Her gaze drifts sadly, slowly to the hotel dining room carpet (a carpet so blandly beige it can hold no one’s attention) then she lifts her left arm suddenly and orders another glass of Seltzer. That’s my mother. Drinking Seltzer to counteract tension. Drinking Seltzer to cope with our family life. Always drinking Seltzer. She even keeps a bottle of it under her car seat. My mother’s blood must be effervescent, I think. We dine in silence. “Ungrateful womenfolk,” hisses my father over his dessert-crème, which he doesn’t enjoy, because we, the womenfolk, have spoiled his summer with our foul tempers. We go to bed silently. I sleep on the foldout “extra” at the foot-end of my parents’ king bed.
Here is what I must have missed that night: My mother touching my father lightly between his shoulder blades. Him, still grumbling about my gracelessness and insisting that, if he had walked around with a long face while on vacation when he was my age (and not that he ever had the luxury of a vacation!), then his father would have personally pulled the corners of his mouth to his ears and hooked corner to ear, left and right! He would have been made to wear a grateful face, says my father. And he would have worn a grateful face gladly because, says my father, he knew his place!
Then I imagine my mother nodding and warming his feet with her feet under the cover until he softens, until, when he becomes unguarded like a sleepy bear, at the right moment, she whispers: “You know, Cuxhaven is beautiful, but, really, there are no other children here. When you were young, at least you had your brother. Maybe you could think of one little thing to do that’s fun for her?” And then she kisses him on the shoulder and drapes her leg over his…
The next morning my father wakes me by gently kicking a metal leg of my “extra.” He holds a glass of orange juice out to me. “Pick up your shoes” and “follow me,” he says as he hands the juice to me. I am not sure if this might end in me being sold to another family, Italians maybe, since I like them so much. “Don’t I have to change?” I ask, pulling at the shirt of my Smurf-adorned pajamas. My mother smiles at me from the bathroom door, motioning with her hairbrush that I should do as I am told. My father has his leather loafers tucked under one arm and he is wearing his sneakers, which look exactly like his loafers plus laces. I slip into my white Adidas classics. We leave the room. In my Smurf suit and unlaced sneakers I walk behind my father. At the elevator bank, he calls for a cabin going up. “Where are we going?” No answer. We go to the 13th fl oor. Then down a maze of more sand-beige carpeted hallways, past rooms 1301 to 1313. I still think there might be a chance that I will be traded for a walking stick or binoculars, something that comes in handier than an 11-year old daughter for a man like my father, a man part heron, part bear. We stop in front of a silver waist-high box. At the top there is a slot for coins. “This,” announces my father with the gravitas of Santa Claus, “is the shoe-shine machine!” He rummages in his corduroy pockets and slams a handful of 50 Pfennige coins next to the slot. He motions for me to feed the slot. I am not three anymore. I don’t care about pressing buttons and feedings slots, but I do it. Immediately the whole box begins to vibrate and I discover the rotating brushes at the machine’s lower half. There are brush-wheels in three colors, matching the most frequently represented leathers, and one white polishing brush. My father gives instruction. “Tie your shoes! Properly! Pick the light brush! Hold your foot under it!” The bristles touch the top of my shoe. I yelp. I pull my foot back and can already see that my sneaker has gained some glimmer. More. I hold my foot back in. The shoeshine machine rattles through my entire foot, my leg, my body. The tips of my ears vibrate. My father holds his left loafer-clad foot under the brown brush. We develop a strange dance, switching foot for foot, turning to let the brushes polish the outside edges, inside edges, outside edges, tips, heels. We look like two Gene Kellys, who tapdanced straight off Carnival mirrors: One large, big-bellied and scruffy, the other shorter, pudgy and verging on puberty. Both of us are balancing on one leg and turning against the bristles as gracefully as our bodies will let us.
“What do you say?” asks my father after instructing me to push the third coin into the slot. His voice, too, is vibrating from the constant rattling of the shoeshine machine. He looks at me and waits for my answer. There is glee behind his unshaven cheeks and his greenish eyes are wide with expectation. I give a thumbs up. He messes up my hair. I grin and swipe his hand off my head. He nudges me off balance. I nudge back. We laugh. A very proper old couple passes by on their way to breakfast. My father curtsies one-legged and says loudly “Good Day to you,” but they both keep their heads down and pretend not to notice our performance. Once they’ve turned the corner to the elevator bank and have disappeared from view my father nudges me again. I nudge back. “Switch feet?” he commands. We do.
I drop another coin into the slot. As the machine hums on I notice the dwindling reserve of our trembling coins. Only two are left…