Travellers who are alone seem to share more with strangers – as if not speaking, or not having someone you are sure to speak with on a regular occasion, makes one prone to gorging on a given opportunity.
Lucy* sat in the restaurant at an inconspicuous hotel in Entebbe. The eating area built of white painted cement, tables neatly laid for breakfast. There were no windows – the weather never too warm or too cold. It looked out over flower boxes into the gardens and the gravelled entrance. A television turned to Al Jazeera news rumbling.
She had finished breakfast and was reading from her iPad when we sat down. While we ate our fruit and eggs, drinking Nescafé, she spoke of her trip. She inflected negatives, but never outright confirmed that she did not enjoy something. For example, her companion during a trek, after the guides had abandoned them, nearly ran into an elephant. “I thought I was going to die,” she said, later, multiple times, referring to altitude sickness.
It was not at this hotel that she told us about her German heritage – although I noticed that she said goodbye to another guest in German – surprising for an American. By then, she mentioned only that she had spent a significant period of her life in Vancouver, until she married an American and moved to Pasadena, California. She was born in the United States.
We went to another coffee shop in the little town so she could buy some local artwork from an Italian woman running a gift shop and café. Large circular gazebos with thatched roofs. Serving cups of sweet milky tea spiced with cardamom and slices of cake. The conversation shifted: Israel and Gaza, to selling real estate in California to Chinese millionaires, to dual citizenship. Someone had told her, while waiting in line to enter at a European port, that she should have gotten dual citizenship.
Her mother, who later became a turbine engineer, left to Berlin to study on an exchange from her university in the United States shortly before the Second World War broke. There, she met a German man and became pregnant. Someone in the family, who worked for the American administration at the time, warned her grandmother to get her daughter out of Germany. She was on one of the last boats out of the country; the war broke shortly after.
Her father was declared legally dead, but resurfaced after the war when released from a “British prisoner’s concentration camp.” He was a single child, from a wealthy family, used to money and being waited on. During the war, he worked on the Reichsautobahn, which carried its own sordid history. He built a castle and hunting lodge; with dirty money, Lucy’s mother, who refused to enjoy them, thought.
The family was reunited in Germany after the war. Lucy’s father had met someone else and wanted a divorce. His parents also wanted to see their only grandchildren. Lucy and her sister Julia* went along, spending weeks in Paris until money ran out and her father had to be confronted. The second marriage never happened, and her father found money to post a $100,000 (in dollars at that time) bond to immigrate to Canada.
“My sister thought we should ghost author a bestseller, ‘the Bimbo and the Nazi,’” said Lucy, when I asked about the history around her father’s work in Germany during the war. He was not implicated in the Nuremberg Trials, but was probably no more than a rank below those who were, she suggested. Nor did he speak about the war; it was not asked about. I asked about her father’s time in the camp, but this was also never discussed. The only remaining allusion was he could not stand turnip soup. And that, since he spoke strong English, he had worked with the Red Cross as an interpreter.
Lucy’s mother was aghast when her daughters decided to visit the castle in Germany. The family had never claimed it, and her mother protested. “We just want to see it,” Lucy said, “We aren’t going to knock on the door.” The castle was huge, forbidding (perhaps even comically so, almost self-aware of its sour history), with shutters drooping from windows or closed entirely.
Seventy-seven year-old Lucy who travelled, after the death of her husband, to so many places I could not keep count: Morocco, Turkey, Nepal, China, Burma, the Black Sea, among others. The span of history is vast; perhaps we bury what is overwhelming so as to live in the present.
* Names changed.