Emeryville Amy

This blog will be a combination of my favorite places in the Bay Area and abroad, memoirs, recipes, restaurant reviews and travel experiences.

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Location: Emeryville, San Francisco Bay Area, CA, United States

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Cousin Bina

I am planning to take Amtrack around the country for a month this fall. In anticipation of this trip I was thinking about other travel experiences I have had. Here is one of those memories...

Cousin Bina lived in the ritzy resort town of Baden-Baden, Germany. Bina is the first cousin of my maternal grandmother Rosemary Gansneder Porter. During World War 11 my mother remembers sending over clothes and toys and supplies to Bina and her husband Gerhardt. Bina became pregnant and delivered her only child, a son named Freidelin in a bomb shelter during an air raid.

The city of Baden-Baden is known and celebrated for its healing mineral waters and the spas that have built up around them as well as for the fancy Monte-Carlo type casinos. It is beautifully designed with expansive, manicured parks interspersed with grand hotels, restaurants and casinos. Although they lived in this expensive place their family was not wealthy. Both Gerhardt and Bina worked; we always heard about how Bina danced the Can-Can in the casino shows until she was almost 60.

My parents went to visit them on their first trip to Europe in 1964. Bina was thrilled by their visit and eager to show them her hometown and to shower them with hospitality. To say that Bina is in good shape and thrifty is to not do justice to those words. As tour guide, she ran my parents all over the city for hours and hours, refusing to take the bus because it was a “waste of money” and insisting that they go to the other side of the city to get some free mineral water from a fountain rather than pay a few pennies for one close by.

When they finally returned home my mother winced as she eased her shoes off her now swollen sore feet. Bina saw her expression, exclaimed something unintelligible and hustled into the kitchen. A few minutes later she returned with a basin, some salts and boiling water which she placed in front of her. She put the salts in the basin, poured in the steaming water and then grabbed my mother’s feet and dunked them in. The hot water burned my mother’s feet and she tried to pull them out but Bina with her strong arms held them in place while indicating that she knew what she was doing. Next she pulled out a WIRE scrub brush and started to roughly scrub the skin off the bottom of her now bright pink feet. Mom cried out in pain, but there was no stopping Bina once she started something. Eventually mom gave in and just sat there moaning with tears streaming down her face.

I don’t know if my mother would have been able to avoid this situation if she remembered a little bit more of her high school German or if Bina had spoken English, but I kind of doubt it. Bina was determined to do everything in her power to demonstrate the depth of her gratitude towards Mom’s family, even if it meant drawing blood. I’m sure that dad was glad that he hadn’t indicated that his feet hurt as well. We are always grateful to learn from others’ mistakes in our family.

Having heard this story growing up, we were all prepared to NOT complain about anything in the least when we went as a family to visit on our European trip in 1986. This time there were 7 of us, my two brothers, Stephen and Thomas, my sister Lynn, my cousin Jim and my parents. Although the three of them lived in a tiny one bedroom apartment with a common bathroom for the entire floor down the hall, Bina insisted that we all stay with them. My parents agreed because they couldn’t figure out how to say no to her without hurting her feelings.

We arrived in the VW minibus which we had rented for the 5 week trip. Bina, Gerhardt and Friedelin greeted us enthusiastically with huge bear hugs, cries of delight and tears of joy. Friedelin, now 40, was a policeman who taught English at the local college in his spare time. Having a translator was a blessing, especially when Bina asked about the health and whereabouts of every family member in the USA that she knew of. Generally though, Bina and her husband were quite expressive and we could decipher from their charades the gist of what they wanted to communicate.

One of the first things Friedelin did was to bring out the 40 year old teddy bear, obviously worn and loved but still in one piece, that grandma had sent over to him when he was born. He had saved it all these years, keeping it as a reminder of how the family in America had cared for them when they needed help. While Bina was getting dinner ready Friedelin offered to take Stephen, Jim and I in his impossibly tiny car out to his garden plot. We said “great” and went off with him without question. I don’t know how we all squeezed in, but somehow we got the door shut and Friedelin sped off. He recklessly drove through town explaining that because he was a police officer he could drive fast. Our knuckles whitened as we grasped whatever we could find to hold onto as he careened through town talking rapidly, laughing and gesturing while taking corners on what felt like two wheels. On the edge of town he swerved onto a mere path that zigzagged through the gardens until he reached his designated patch. He screeched to a stop and we piled out, shaking and glad to be alive. He proudly showed us around and we picked some produce for dinner. The return trip was much the same though this time at least we knew what to expect.

Dinner was an amazing German feast. Bina made all of her special holiday dishes to honor us. We ate and ate and laughed together and told stories, regardless of the language barrier. Full to the brim with heavy German food, we helped clear the table and Friedelin announced that now it was time for music. He said that he could play 5 instruments and proceeded to get them out. He wasn’t kidding. In fact he could even play more than one of them at once. To our amazement he strapped on an accordion, attached a harmonica to his head and put a small drum kit in front which he could play with his feet. And then he let loose. Bina and Gerhardt smiled proudly and burst into song, enthusiastically clapping to the beat. We joined in on the clapping and helped raise quite a ruckus.

I think that mom was the one who inquired at one point whether or not we were possibly making too much noise and Freidelin just smiled and said that even though there was a strict 10:00pm noise curfew since he was a policeman he could make as much noise as he wanted. I guess there are a lot of perks to being in law enforcement in Germany.

One of the neighbors, an elderly woman in a housecoat, came over to join in the festivities. She stood just inside of the doorway and began to do a version of the chicken dance, flapping her loose fleshy arms all about. The sight of her was enough to make us hysterical, but we really lost it when Gerhardt (who had a wooden leg from an old war amputation) walked behind her and started to imitate her, exaggerating his movements as he stiffly danced about trying to make us laugh harder without her catching on to him. She did happen to see him but it didn’t stop or embarrass her, rather she motioned us to join in as well.

At some point they decided to call it an evening and Bina tried to explain to us where we would all sleep. They graciously gave mom and dad their bedroom and they slept in Friedelin’s single bed in the study. He drove back out to the garden plot and slept in the little shed out there. Lynn and I had the tiny love seat to share and the boys filled up the floor space in the living room. All night Lynn and I lay smashed together so we wouldn’t roll off the couch onto our brothers.

Before going to sleep Bina came into the room with a pot in her hand. She said something in German and we gave her a blank look. Then in an effort to be completely clear she put the pot on the floor squatted over it and with sound effects said, “Piss in, piss in!” That was plenty clear and more than a little disturbing and funny to kids who had never even considered using a chamber pot. I guess they didn’t want us to have to go out of the apartment in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. We all nodded our heads to let her know we understood and then looked at each other with huge eyes, trying not to explode at the thought of using it there in the middle of the room where there wasn’t even room to walk. Despite all that we ate and drank, all of us exhibited amazing bladder control and none of us used the chamber pot that night.

The next morning we got up and ate a huge breakfast even though we were still full from the night before. Thankfully we were allowed to use the toilet down the hall. Bina planned on taking us on a tour of Baden-Baden. Still as frugal as she had been 20 years before, she was determined that we would walk everywhere. So we got dressed (no showers, they only had a washtub in the common bathroom which had to be hand filled with water) and started on our tour. Bina was in her late 70’s and still in fantastic shape. She charged on ahead at such a fast pace that we had a hard time keeping up with her. Glancing behind her, she noticed that some of us were jogging to keep up with her. She got it in her head that we wanted to go FASTER and she started to run. So there we were, the seven of us Americans, sprinting through stately Baden-Baden, chasing an old German woman. We were all laughing so hard we could barely breathe and were completely exhausted by the time she stopped. But we knew not to complain for fear of the dreaded foot treatments.

We made it finally to one of the fountains providing the famed mineral water and she insisted that we all drink a cup. It smelled like rotten eggs and tasted worse, but we did as we were told. We are not total wimps, even though we must sound like we are. We were just caught up in the incredibly strong force of this woman who truly loved us and wanted with every fiber of her being to give us everything she could. It is hard to turn down anything when someone is knocking themselves out for you like that. Because of the language barrier there was no chance to communicate anything subtly, actions were everything and we reciprocated our thanks by trying to graciously accept her love, even when it hurt.

A couple of times during the day she asked us if we liked “cucumbers.” She said cucumbers in English and we politely nodded and said that we did. She did some more shopping for dinner that night and we helped carry the groceries home, thankfully at a brisk walk rather than a run. Back at their apartment mom and I helped her cook another HUGE meal. Again we sat around, eating way beyond our comfort zone and then some more at Bina’s prodding. When we got to the point where we couldn’t eat another mouthful she asked us if we wanted ice cream. We tried to beg off saying we were too full, maybe later. A couple minutes later she asked again. We said something along the lines of “Thank you, maybe in a little while.” So, less than five minutes later she asks, “Now?” How could we possible put her off again?
Bina quickly went to the kitchen and brought out a melting 5 LITER tub of ice cream and a huge box of ice cream cones. I had seen earlier how tiny their refrigerator was; basically the size a college student would have in their dorm, but failed to notice that they didn’t have a freezer. I don’t know why she had bought so much ice cream, but I knew we would have to try to eat as much of it as possible.

Normally we kids would be thrilled at the prospect of eating as much ice cream as we wanted, but this was not a normal circumstance as our bellies were stuffed with pork and potatoes and bread and kraut. We gave it a valiant effort and each managed to eat 2 or 3 cones. When Freidelin realized we had truly reached our limit he decided that we should go outside and offer it to the neighbor kids before it melted. We all agreed that this was a fabulous idea and struggled to our feet to follow him. It soon became a little party outside as the children enthusiastically took up where we had left off.

When we came back inside Bina asked if we wanted cucumbers. We all looked at her in a daze and she went into the kitchen and came back with the hugest jar of gigantic pickles that I had ever seen. Somewhere she must have heard that Americans really love pickles and eat them all the time. She had confused the words pickle and cucumber so we hadn’t understood what she had been asking earlier. They actually didn’t like them but she had bought them especially for us. With that she had finally crossed the line of what we could bear and we politely refused to eat another bite.

After a fitful night of churning stomachs and no toilet we got up to face the day and one last meal from Bina. Breakfast was laid out: hearty breads, cheeses, sliced meat, jam, fruit and coffee. We once more stuffed food into our enlarger stomachs. Bina hadn’t forgotten about the pickles and proceeded to bring them out and insisted we eat some. Jim was talked into seconds and then thirds. Jim, my hero...

As we were leaving she tried to shower us with gifts. The day before Stephen had admired a large bow and arrow that they had hanging up in the study. Before he knew what was happening Friedelin had taken it off the wall and given it to him. Stephen tried valiantly to refuse but he insisted. We all realized that we would have to be very careful about what we complimented because they might just give it to us. Good thing that no one said anything about the full suit of armor that was in one corner. It was crazy enough hauling around a large bow and arrow through Europe, let alone a suit of armor.

They all walked us out to the VW minibus and watched us pile in. Tears were streaming down Bina’s face as she told us how much she loved us. They waved as we pulled away from the curb and then Bina ran down the street to the corner where we had stopped at the sign. She ran alongside of our car for a few blocks, waving and waving, until we turned onto a main street. We were all overwhelmed by her love and hospitality. It was hard for us to understand how she could love us so much when she had never seen most of us before. Never in our lives had we seen anyone give so much of themselves away. This extremely frugal woman who had very little money and lived in what we would consider close to poverty had spent a huge amount to lavish blessings on us every way she knew how. I have never forgotten that outpouring of love and hospitality. Now when I have been visiting at my parents’ home and am pulling away from the curb, my parents run to the corner madly waving and I know what that means. They are saying that they love me with the abandonment of Bina and are willing to look a little silly to let me know. It also is a reminder to remember the fun and adventures and life that we have shared together.


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