In July 2008, my parents came over England to see my sister and I (…actually, mostly to see my sister’s two babies, aged four years, and 10 months!), and to see a bit more of Europe. They were bitten by the travelling bug a few years earlier during my sister’s first stay in London, and ever since, they have been gadding about all over the world – not bad for a couple of 70+ year-olds!
I took a few days of holiday and went to Hannover with them, to visit our former exchange student and meet her parents.
Below is the account I wrote at the time, as a record for us all….rather than re-write the whole thing, I’ve decided that publishing it as it was written tells the story a whole lot better.
“in 1993, a young woman from germany flew halfway across the world to spend 6 weeks of summer – including christmas – with a family she had never met, in new zealand. since that time, her parents exchanged regular letters and cards with the family she stayed with, managing to convey everything using simple but perfect english.
skip forward 15 years to the capital city of lower saxony – hannover, pop 550,000.
three hot and tired kiwis have just arrived by train, following an adventurous (and late) evening of trying to get to their hotel in the centre of berlin. they are met at the hauptbahnhof by the young woman from 15 years before, and her parents, who, despite what they have led the others to believe, have an excellent command of the english language and are well able to convey their happiness and excitement at welcoming these people to their city.
fast forward an hour, and the six are seated in the welcome shade of an outdoor cafe. they have just toasted with glasses of water – “cheers! prost!” – and are setting the scene for the rest of the weekend. there is not a space of time that is not filled with conversation and reminiscing and questioning, and the past 15 years melt into this moment of friendship and happiness at finally meeting and putting faces to names.
it is hot – 31degC – and the ladies dawdle, stopping to look at flowers – “what do you call this in german?” “do you know this plant, in german it is…” – and the beautiful old architecture of the sadly few buildings that survived the war. the men joke and laugh, making themselves understood with a chuckle or a well-placed nudge. the young women chatter incessantly about what’s been happening in their lives, and wait in the precious shadows, somewhat impatiently, for their parents to catch up.
they have coffee by the machsee, an impressive man-made lake that is popular with windsurfers and sailboats and sightseers, and dream of dipping their toes in the cool water to be nibbled by the over-sized christmas carp. they take a curved elevator up das rathaus and sigh at the glorious views and refreshing breeze at the very top. they share the tragedy in models of the town before and after 1945 – as much as can be shared when one half were there, one half were on the other side of the world. the tears are infectious; the pain and memories are shared. they stroll through the old town, which has been transformed into a teeming mass of locals and tourists alike, seeking the shade and a cool bier or limonade, enjoying the lively sounds of a salsa spectacle. they eat dinner in a 16th-Century pub; the ladies chatter, the men drink their bier and the young ones watch the lives of people going on in the street below. they go to the home of their hosts for a “cosy atmosphere” and drink prosecco and talk of places they have visited. finally, the tourists depart, expertly navigating their way back to their hotel by bus. they are tired and their bellies are full and they are burned by the sun, but they are happy.
the next day, they visit the royal gardens of herrenhausen, built by the elektress sophia in 1682. 150 hectares of beautiful green space, perfectly planned and executed by a team of master gardeners, with plants from all over the world and sculptures depicting an endless array of figures and seasons and elements and symbols. There are water fountains – the great fountain shoots 82 metres into the air – and a restored grotto that has a picasso-esque feel to it, and winding paths that sometimes offer a respite from the heat but sometimes draw you towards it.
the time goes by much too quickly, and the farewells are tearful but bearable. the few days spent together soften any thoughts that they may never meet again – but it doesn’t matter, because there is a sense of lightness, knowing that each letter – and now email – will now come with a memory of a face and a conversation and a laugh and a hug.”