In January I moved from Scotland to Frankfurt, where I’m living with my partner in a rented flat. Now we’re both working from the kitchen table, which is also the dining table as well as a catch-all storage facility. It’s a curious bubble-like existence. From the windows of the flat we can see the city but we can’t explore it. We’d like to study German but we can’t attend classes or meet people, so we sit on the sofa (the table is too cluttered) and read our textbooks.
We’re instructed to ‘Bleib zu Hause’ and this is what we are doing. Paradoxically this is the only way we can play any part in German society, by remaining apart from it in some sort of limbo – neither here nor there. Every time I hear the phrase ‘Bleib zu Hause’ it reminds me I’m in a short-term tenancy almost a thousand miles away from the place I normally call home.
I find I’m spending a lot of time looking out of the window at two trees whose names I don’t know in either English or German. Many birds seem to use these trees as a sort of staging post, a convenient place to stop and sing. This morning a bluetit stood on a branch and sang his two-note song ‘dee-DEE, dee-DEE’ for about half an hour, and with almost no traffic or airplane noise to compete against, the birdsong seemed almost hallucinatorily loud.
The view from the window has taken on a peculiar significance for me. We don’t have a balcony but the apartments in the adjacent building do, and on sunny days people appear on their balconies as if summoned onto a series of theatrical stages. Although they can’t see each other, I’m able to watch these people airing laundry, drinking coffee, strumming guitars, patting their dogs, or just sitting and apparently doing nothing. I am too embarrassed, too British, to contemplate waving at them or acknowledging their collective appearances. Really I should thank them for making my life marginally more interesting.
We only planned to stay in this apartment for a few months while we looked for a more longterm home. Now it’s very difficult, of course, to go and view potential places to live. More and more landlords are creating virtual tours of their apartments so you can click on a button and wander through a video. This has a feeling of the uncanny about it. It is easy to drift through someone else’s home not accompanied by anyone, not even your own body, as you pass (as if by magic) into the bathroom, noting the towels hanging from the radiators, and the kitchen implements lined up ready for use as if the real occupants are hiding from you – both they and you are invisible.
In spite of the virus, I have learnt something about my family’s past, thanks to a small jug. When I first came to Frankfurt, I was astonished to see grey and blue pottery jugs everywhere (they’re called Bembel and they’re used to serve the apple wine that the city is famous for – very bad photo taken by me of one below). I hadn’t seen one of these since I was a child, in my grandmother’s flat in north London. Then, I never made the connection between north London and Frankfurt. The jug of my childhood simply belonged to my grandmother, was not obviously part of my family’s history in a way that the German novels or the old photographs were. It was only when I saw the jug in the Frankfurt café that I realised the earlier one was a refugee, and had made the difficult journey with my grandfather from Frankfurt to England in the 1930s. I only now figured out part of the story of the jug, helped by the one I saw in the present day.