On Nov. 9, 1989, I must have been watching, along with the rest of the world, as the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. “Isn’t that nice?” I probably thought, or something like that. Then I went back to my own life, which had nothing to do with the forces of history in play at that moment.
Or so I thought. But then, how could I have known what was waiting for me on the other side of that wall? Enter die Muenchs.
“How do you know all these people from all over the world?” I’m often asked when I mention that I’ve just come from a wedding in Serbia or a beach house in Australia. The answer is usually, “I travel.” In this case, I met Steffen Muench in early 1995 when we were both Visiting Media Fellows at the De Witt Wallace Center for Communications and Journalism at Duke University. I was visiting from The New York Times for a month, he from the NDR radio station in Neubrandenburg, north of Berlin, for six. Sometime during my stay, Steffen gave a party in his apartment (palatial compared to Xiangtan) at Campus Arms, where Duke housed the fellows. The occasion was a visit from his wife, Andrea, and their son Paul, then 7 or 8. “We have another one at home,” Andrea said that night, in her careful, precise English, “but he is too little to come.” (Years later, she would tell me how leaving Johann with his grandmother saved her at Immigration, where she was questioned at length about her intentions of returning home.) On the stove was a big pot of German potato soup – the first of many.
At Duke, Steffen tended to hang out with Piotr Wolski from Warsaw, also recently liberated from the Soviet bloc, and together, with their twin rental cars, they ventured into the American landscape and culture. They both came to my 40th birthday party, and Steffen and I explored Duke’s primate research facility, populated by lemurs from Madagascar. After I left, they make a brief trip north, during which I invited myself along on their private tour of the United Nations. I took them to Virgil’s barbecue restaurant, where, against my advice, they both ordered the Pig-Out Platter; their Eastern European eyes popped at the variety and amount of meats on the platters, and I took home the leftovers.
A couple of years later, I received e-mail from Steffen saying that he and Andrea wanted to come to New York; did I know of an inexpensive place to stay? “You would be most welcome to stay in my flat,” I remember writing back, and a tradition was born. Since then, they have come over nearly every year, and I’ve been a regular visitor to their home since just after 9/11. I attended Paul’s wedding two years ago and recently booked my flight to Steffen and Andrea’s 25th-anniversary party next month at the 751-year-old castle overlooking their village in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania.
Late one night last week, I found a rather cryptic message on my voicemail: “Hallo, this is Paul, from Germany. Can you please call?” The next morning, he sounded mature and calm as he told me, “Steffen has died.” In my shock at this entirely unexpected news, I fixated on his use of the gentler-sounding present perfect tense – “Steffen has died,” instead of simply “died” or “is dead” — and marveled at the emotional perfection of his no doubt unconscious choice. (Technically, present perfect refers to an action still in progress, not to one that, like death, that happens once and is over and done with, thus calling for simple past.) “I don’t know the word,” Paul apologized several times as he told me the details, and I went into English teacher mode to fill in his blanks with words like “autopsy” and “funeral.” Andrea would like to talk to me, he thought, but English might be too much for her right now.
The thing about Steffen was, you could never be friends with just Steffen. With him came the whole mishpokhe, as another recently departed friend would say: Andrea, Paul and Johann. And his mother, Oma Else (who knows I don’t understand German but keeps speaking it to me anyway, and the scary part is, I’m starting to understand her). And Andrea’s parents, who took me to dinner when they came to New York. And Paul’s wife, Peggy. And the family’s many friends: Joerg and Marina (who bravely came to stay among the boxes in my new apartment nine days after I moved in), Ulli and Ulrike, Birgit and her son Benny, and any number of Germans who’ve never been to New York but have shared a table with me, in their homes or the Muenchs’. In the last few days as I’ve reflected, not for the first time, on the fragility of life, I realized how much all these people from behind the Wall have enriched my life. They have lost a husband, a father, a son, a friend. I have lost a translator, a travel consultant, a tour guide, a friend. We have all lost a fine cook and a bit of a ringmaster.
In the years since the lemur excursion, we have done an astonishing number of things together, for people who live on opposite sides of an ocean. One year I was with them to celebrate the anniversary of German reunification with a home-cooked dinner – was it the venison and dumplings that time? — and a concert. I’ve traveled with them to places as far-flung as Berlin (where we watched the Wall come down again, this time a pile of foam blocks on the stage of the Friedrichstadtpalast, the Radio City of Berlin), Weimar and the nearby Buchenwald concentration camp, Usedom Island (where they escorted me across the border for my first time in Poland), Boston on Fourth of July and, last year, the Florida Keys. Alaska was once discussed, Sweden was a near-miss, and not long ago I was told we would need a week for Erfurt sometime. Two years ago, they put me on a train to Berlin on the first leg of my railpass tour of Eastern Europe and were waiting on the platform three months later for my victory lap. Above all, we shared New York, where we saw Broadway shows, braved the Top of the Rock’s outdoor deck on frigid January days, ventured to the Isamu Noguchi Museum in deepest, darkest Queens and celebrated two real American Thanksgivings together, last year with all five of the under-50 Muenchs.
It was odd that, on the day I heard that Steffen was gone, I was flying to North Carolina, where we had first met, and odder still to be staying there with my niece, knowing that the last time I was in her house, I was waiting for a vanload of Germans to pick me up for a week on the Outer Banks. In fact, this was the first time I had been in North Carolina with no member of the Muench family present.
I’m still going to visit next month. As usual, I have a book for Ulli; I’m not sure what to do with the DVD’s I was saving for Steffen. My fantasy is that Andrea will say the German equivalent of “What the heck — we’ve already booked the castle. Let’s have the party!” But I think not. Failing that, I’d like to walk up the cobblestone street to the castle late that afternoon and, under trees turning color in clear, crisp autumn air, silently give thanks for what Steffen, in his Teutonic construction, would call “the Wall-falling-down.”
I did hear from Andrea this week, via e-mail, and explained about not being able to make it to the funeral. “When you say goodbye to Steffen for me,” I wrote, “tell him I’m sorry I can’t be there, but I have theater tickets that night — for a musical.” She answered that going to the theater and seeing a musical was “the best thing you can do to think of Steffen.” On my way home from North Carolina, I was stopping in Washington to see Signature Theater’s new production of “Chess,” Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson’s rock musical about a high-stakes match in the late 1980’s (“It’s the U.S. versus U.S.S.R. . . .”). When the arrogant American player needled a reporter, “You’ve been in a Communist country for two days and you’ve lost your sense of humor?” I couldn’t decide if Steffen would have reacted with a knowing chuckle or an outright roar, but I do know how much he’d have appreciated the line. And the defecting Soviet champion’s first-act curtain number, ”Anthem,” surely spoke for all of us:
Let man’s petty nations tear themselves apart
My land’s only borders lie around my heart.