We met before, two years earlier, when my husband Bill and I made a side trip to Duisburg on a tour into Luxembourg and France. We instantly liked each other, so when plans for this sibling journey began to develop, it seemed the perfect time to introduce my German friends to my extended family.
The backyard patio of Gabi’s townhouse in Duisburg-Nord is not much bigger than my dining room and is walled in on all four sides by concrete. Around the long table covered with a plastic cloth, Gabi has arranged chairs. We’re squeezed in tight. It occurs to me later that they’ve most likely scraped together enough chairs by borrowing from all households represented here, and maybe even calling on friends and neighbors. The house itself is so small—four stories up with one or two small rooms on each level—that I can’t imagine where they’d store chairs. I try to picture preparation for this patio meal—everyone pitching in to help. Gabi has told us she called in sick today at work because her American friends were coming for dinner.
There is a narrow passage between the table and a concrete wall and, at the far end, just enough room for a homemade grill. Didi and Willie fire it up, and Gabi hands out beer: Konig Pilsner, of course, made in Duisburg.
It doesn’t matter that, besides us, no one speaks English except Jessi and Melinda and sometimes Steffi, or that our German is limited to “Guten morgen!” There is bountiful laughter over words misunderstood. Jessi shows us the tattoo on her arm that reads, in English, “Never a failure. Always a lesson,” matched by Melinda’s “Everything happens for a reason.” Gabi’s daughter Steffi wears an “I Heart NY” T-shirt.
Didi sports a green “I’d rather be fishing” T-shirt and ball cap. On a different continent, you’d think him an American “good ole boy.” We learned on our first trip that he has collected every Johnny Cash CD ever recorded, a fact I’ve shared with my brother. Edwin puts his hand on Didi’s shoulder. “Johnny Cash?” At well over two hundred pounds, my brother towers above the thin German. Didi’s face lights up. “Johnny Cash!” he repeats. He motions for my brother to follow him into the house. In a few minutes, they return with a boom box blasting “Folsom Prison Blues.” Edwin and Didi sing along, though chances are Didi doesn’t understand what he’s singing.
My sister falls in love with their peanut-flavored chips, called “Flips.” Gabi keeps a fresh Konig Pilsner in front of each of us. The dogs—Bennie, Max, and the giant Murphy, whose head is level with my hips—pad softly from person to person. Soon Didi’s steaming hot barbecue—chicken, hot dogs, sausages, schnitzel, beef, and more—is ready. Plates pass. Beer is refreshed. Sauerkraut made earlier in the day by Helga is served in large bowls.
I am as happy as I can be, delighted that my brother and sister are enjoying my German friends as much as I am. The barrier of language is no more than a thin gauze between us. The universal language of food and laughter is noisy and inviting. Midway through dinner, I send a text message to Ellen, who is sitting at the other end of the table beside Gabi. “This is who we were fighting against.” I watch as she feels the vibration of her phone, lifts it from her pocket, and reads. She glances at me and smiles.
Philippe’s story of war comes to us first through an email and then through his retelling when we meet in person.