Once upon a time, there was an only child, a skinny girl with bad hair who never once dreamed of a big wedding with all the hoop-la. In her senior year of college, she met a young man from Germany and in short order they decided to get married. She had the wedding of her dreams--a small ceremony followed by a wedding breakfast. Everything was good.
The following summer, the new husband took his bride to Germany to introduce her to his parents who had not been able to come to the wedding. The girl had studied German for the past year, and could now speak “survival” German, although with a slight Viennese accent from her Berlitz teacher. The young couple took a German steam ship from New York to Bremen and the girl mastered menu German.
The boat docked and she was amazed at the sight of so many red-tiled roofs and the little vegetable gardens that grew all along the railroad tracks. The old world was a new world.
The train that carried them from Bremen to Goettingen arrived and the young woman met her all her in-laws. The first faux pas she committed was to stub her cigarette out in a little snack dish that was not an ashtray. Oops!
Her hostess overlooked this gaffe, but it was the beginning of things going not badly, but also not well.
The skinny bride was freezing to death. She had no idea that there were places, especially in Northern Europe that had cold, wet summers. Her suitcase, a very large suitcase, was full of clothes for hotter climes. She and her husband combed the local stores for warm clothes, but the girl was too skinny and the clothes didn’t fit.
Finally one rainy morning (there were no other kind), her mother-in-law took her by the arm and they returned to a large clothing store. The mother-in-law marched her downstairs into the children’s department and in the girls’ section; they found a skirt and a warm gray sweater that fit. The skinny girl was mortified to have to wear children’s clothes, yet she never forgot her mother-in-law’s practicality and kindness. It was also nice to be warm.
This girl was not only skinny and a smoker with an impossible wardrobe, she had bad hair, especially in the rainy damp weather. Everyone was astounded when she went to the hairdresser one day and the following day, she looked like she needed a return trip. Badly. But what can you do? Bad hair is bad hair. She learned the German words for thin and oily and limp.
But her in-laws were invariably kind and except for the fact that she was too skinny, and smoked, with bad hair and the wrong clothes, all was well.
The time of day she liked best was when her two sisters-in-law came home from work and two young female cousins came over. They sat around and smoked, laughed and gossiped, and even drank a glass of wine and she felt accepted into her new family.
The skinny girl and her husband rented an old Opel from a used car dealer to drive south for a vacation. They drove along the Rhine, to Switzerland, and to San Remo on the warm, sunny Italian Riviera. Now the young woman could wear all her light summer clothes.
One night in San Reno, a man named Domenici Modugno sang his old hit song, Volare, so loud he could be heard all over town. All night long. Next morning, they saw him at the breakfast table in their hotel, drinking a beer for breakfast. The old world was still new.
The time in San Reno was wonderful with lazy, relaxing days. Sometimes the couple ate at a beach restaurant, other times at a bustling trattoria in town and evenings at a pizza parlor near the Russian Orthodox Church.
The young woman was beginning to have bouts of nausea associated with mealtime. The waiters in the restaurants took sympathy and offered Fernet Branca, something called bitters. It tasted awful but settled her stomach.
At last they left the Riviera and drove north through Italy. They stopped for lunch at a restaurant they always called, the Italian Howard Johnson’s. That night, in a hotel in Bolzano they experienced a terrible bout of food poisoning. It was the kind of night where, at first they were afraid they were going to die, and then afraid that maybe they wouldn’t.
The next morning they crawled into the Opel and drove into Innsbruck, Austria where they ate lunch at an outdoor café. The skinny girl (even skinnier now, after the previous night) felt like the Ugly American as she ordered and downed three bottles of Coke, one after another. Glug. Glug. Glug.
That evening, they rolled into Munich, still more dead than alive. The inhabitants were staggering around with red faces. It was the hottest day in Munich history. They got a room in a big ugly hotel with the sole window in the room opening into an airshaft. But there was no air. And no air conditioning.
In the middle of the night, in a desperate search for relief from the heat, they took off their pajamas and covered themselves in wet towels. They also opened the door trying to get some cross ventilation. Nothing helped.
The next morning the young husband left the hotel at 7:00 in search of cold beverages. He discovered that it was a religious holiday and all the stores and restaurants were closed, except the bar at the main railroad station where men were drinking beer for breakfast. Must be a European thing.
After a breakfast in the hotel, the waiter ran after them, waving his arms and shouting repeatedly that the orange juice was “not included.” “Nichts compris.”
Still somewhat the worse for wear, they made it back to Germany for the father-in-laws 60th birthday. Birthdays in Germany are events with a capital E. The skinny daughter-in-law with bad hair and the wrong clothes helped the women in the family cook and prepare for the daylong birthday party that involved serving three different meals to three different groups of people. By now she could even crack a few simple jokes in German, which everyone appreciated. She really felt like part of the family.
In the last week, the skinny girl with bad hair and the wrong clothes had developed another remarkable trait. She threw up every morning after breakfast.
She and her husband announced that they thought the first grandchild would make an appearance in the spring. Everyone was ecstatic with joy. Her father-in-law thought it was the best birthday present ever.
Many happy trips to Germany followed, with many more birthday celebrations, eventually with two grandsons in tow. Now the skinny girl knew enough to pack warm clothing and a hair dryer. She ditched the gigantic suitcase. She never put her cigarette out in the snack dish again. Years later, after she stopped smoking, she wasn’t even skinny anymore. And everything was good.