Week 30: Childhood Memories

As I get closer to becoming a parent, I find myself thinking back to my own childhood. For a relatively young person who hasn’t killed off an excessive number of brain cells, I remember shockingly little about the past. But now and then, certain memories emerge.

When my brother and I were small, my family lived in a small town in Germany while my father was on sabbatical from his teaching job. We lived in an old stone house ringed with grapevines and other exotic foliage. We slept under fluffy featherbeds instead of blankets, and you had to pull a chain to flush the toilet. Grocery shopping involved going from store to store downtown. The shopkeepers would sometimes slip us slices of bratwurst or tiny, exquisite animals made from marzipan. (This pre-dated my vegetarianism.)

I’m told I picked up the language quickly, as children tend to. My father likes to tell the story of the first time I taught him a German phrase. On the walk to kindergarten one morning, I pointed at a splat on the sidewalk and said, “Look, Papa, fogle ah-ah!” Roughly translated, that means “bird doo-doo.” What can I say? I was a child prodigy.

Then there was the humiliating incident with a street vendor. They would sometimes push their carts through our neighborhood, calling out in guttural tones. One afternoon, my mother handed me a few francs and told me to run outside and buy a loaf of bread for dinner. Together, we rehearsed my lines several times until I had them down. I approached the man alone, with hands that shook only slightly. “I would like to buy one loaf of pumpernickel bread, please,” I said in my childish German. His reply was along the lines of, “Kid, I don’t have any bread. I sell fish!” Hot tears snaked from my eyes as I turned and fled home, furious with my mother for embarrassing me.

Maybe that’s when I started to think this whole multicultural upbringing wasn’t so great after all. But when we returned home to the States, my parents were determined to retain some vestiges of our life abroad. A new rule was implemented: On Saturdays, only German would be spoken in our house. It didn’t work. My brother and I were loathe to do anything different than our friends’ families.

So my father tricked us. He invited over a colleague from the college. Though she was American, we had met this woman for the first time in Germany, so naturally we assumed she spoke only German. I’m not sure how long my father kept up this ruse until we figured it out.

But the thing is, somewhere along the line, my parents rubbed off on me. I ended up majoring in French in college and spending a couple semesters abroad. I listen to reggae music and prefer pungent ethnic food. For the baby’s room, I passed up Disney characters in favor of the worldly French elephant, Babar.

This poor kid’s not even born yet and already his parents and grandparents are making sure he’ll never fit in with his normal, American peers. It won’t be long before we’re teaching him to say “bird crap” in several languages.

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