My Halle Family

Galya Bacheva

© Copyright 2023 by Galya Bacheva

Photo courtesy of the author.
Photo courtesy of the author.

I grew up in a communist country, so what we knew of the world was not much. It was apparently divided into the “good people” on our side of the Iron Curtain and the “bad” ones beyond it. But we did not know much even about the “good people”, because travel outside our country was not considered necessary. Patriotism would not allow for it, naturally. What was at home had to suffice. One needed a really important reason to go to another country.

Luckily, we had arts and there were all sorts of artistic events that we were encouraged to attend in order to manifest our skills. I for one sang in the town choir back home. From time to time a selected few of us were sent abroad to remind the world that we were still a part of it and we had talent.

The year was 1986 and I was twelve years old. Having sung in the choir for about four years, I was now well trained and old enough to be allowed a shot at being selected for a trip to East Germany. There was going to be a music festival in Halle, a town located just over a hundred miles to the southwest of Berlin. Each and every one of us choristers had to audition, before the team of supervisors decided who goes and who stays. It was a terrifying experience, as one had to enter a room where the choir conductor, her assistant and the pianist asked us to sing whatever notes and intervals they wished. But I went through it with determination because I wanted a glimpse at the world. Though I tried my best, at first I did not think I had performed well enough. Eventually, however, I was listed among the blessed few who were to set off on a journey to Halle.

Not much has remained in my memory, but I know this much – I was filled with zest for travel and tons of curiosity. This was also the first time I got to fly, so my excitement levels were through the roof. Could something cloud this experience? Not a chance!

We flew to Berlin and then took a bus to Halle. As soon as we arrived in Halle, we were lined up at the bus station, facing a similar line of people a few steps away from us. Those were families whose children sang in the local choir, and they were going to be our hosts. No money was going to be spent on hotels. Our conductor started calling out names, gradually sending each of us to a different family. I watched my peers go away, uncertain of where they, or I for that matter, would be taken. When it was my turn, I was introduced to a couple of happy looking people whose names appeared to be Linda and Willy. They had two lovely girls, a little younger than me - Diana, who was nine I think, and her little sister Silvana. Both were beautiful and looked pretty friendly. As I spoke zero German, I could make nothing of the stuff they were saying other than their names. Boy, were they babbling!

Linda and Willy had a car, but the first day I did not know that because they had chosen to walk. As Willy was carrying my bag along the sidewalk, Linda started collecting grass from the small square areas around trees. She merrily gestured with her hand towards her mouth, apparently informing me that this was meant for food. To my dismay I recognized the word “salad” among the flow of weird sounds that Linda was uttering. Willy eagerly nodded and the two of them seemed to be having a great time. My poor heart, on the other hand, was bound to sink all too soon after entering the miraculous world of a foreign country.

Finally, we reached an apartment building that was not very pretentious, to say the least. East Germany, just like Bulgaria where I come from, was a communist country where everyone lived in equally small boxes. But I was soon to find out that these people had enormous hearts!

Upon entering the apartment, I must have been shown to a bedroom, though I do not remember much of my accommodation. I believe I slept in one of the girls’ beds and they shared the other one.

But I do remember Mucky. He was nibbling on something, unaware of the turmoil my poor soul was in. His plump hairy body was still, but his ears were trembling as he was chewing at lightning speed. Linda introduced him to me and held up some of the grass she had picked on the way, producing a cunning smile. It was only now that I figured she had been pulling my leg when she said the grass was for salad. I was relieved to realize there was hope they would feed me something else. And I was so grateful for Mucky, whose business it would be to take care of the grass!

While I was being entertained with the Guinea pig, Willy had prepared a bath for me. The whole family made arduous effort to direct me to the bathroom without having to drag me there. They were motioning, beckoning and gesticulating to get me out of the bedroom and make me cross the hallway to a door where Willy was waiting with a grin on his face. Once I finally got the message, I stepped into the bathroom to find a bubbly bath surrounded by a mist of hot air. Willy looked so proud of what he had done! But I was appalled. We did not have this at home! I had heard some people say it was really cool to have a bath (though only a handful had ever seen one), but there was no way I would submerge into this absolutely obscure space. My new German friends looked mesmerized as I refused to take advantage of this wonderful opportunity to relax after my long trip. The fragrant bubbles went down the drain and I was allowed to take a pathetic shower. I now realize it must have been very rude of me to do that. I hope they have forgiven me a long time ago.

Mornings were always a hustle, as the whole family had to attend to my demanding hair doing routine. I had very long hair that I wore in two ponytails. As I believed it was imperative to have an absolutely straight line between them, and they also had to be at precisely the same height, all four of my German hosts were involved in achieving a perfect final result every morning before they took me to my choir performance. Given that Linda and her two daughters had short hair, this was a completely new experience for them. There was always a person holding a mirror in front of me, and one who held the rubber bands, ready to hand them one by one to Linda. She was usually the one to go through the ordeal of combing my thick hair and splitting it into two equal halves. Once she was done, a second mirror was held behind my back, so that I could see the final result and hopefully approve. If not, we had to start all over again. I do not know what they were saying to each other, but they never made me feel bad for giving them such a hard time. In my defense, I do not remember asking them for help and there is a slight chance they were enjoying this. Or maybe they just wanted to get it over with, put me in their miniature car, take me wherever I was supposed to be taken each morning, and go on with their day. Either way, having my hair done was turned into a ritual. And by the end of my stay they had it down to a fine art!

Breakfast was a must, as any decent adult would consider. It was also a time when I could just have a sandwich or something, as opposed to trying out the local cuisine, which I was quite unfamiliar with. Although I am sure Linda and Willy were good at cooking, I sometimes found the meals hard to swallow. But at breakfast things were alright.

Boiled eggs and toast one morning. I slowly cracked the shell of the egg with a spoon and then carefully peeled it off, happy to eat something of familiar taste. In the middle of it I halted, however, because everyone was staring at me. They had not touched the eggs in front of them, still snug in the eggcups with their shells on. It was now my turn to be astonished and I waited to see what happens next. Making sure I was watching, Linda picked up her knife and carefully aimed at her egg. She held the knife horizontally, slowly pulled it away from the cup and then suddenly cut the egg in half with a single blow. The beheaded egg lay wide open on the table, looking quite happy to be devoured. Linda merrily put salt on in and started spooning out parts of it from the shell, making a funny face. Linda always made funny faces. Meanwhile my jaw had dropped, while the rest of the party seemed utterly delighted to have educated me how to deal with a boiled egg.

In retrospect, I realize that they probably wanted to give me a little thrill and make me smile. I must have looked miserable most of the time, having been submerged into a different culture with nobody and nothing familiar around, apart from the singing rehearsals and performances. Once they were over each day, however, I was back to the German craze. But though a foreigner in this wondrous land, I was embraced with love and treated like family. I wish I could communicate to them how much that meant to me.

Day after day rolled by and my new German family wondered how to entertain me. One day they sat me in the living room and asked me what I wanted to do. I have no idea how I got the message, or maybe I was insolent enough to have started the conversation, I do not have a clear memory of it. But I remember I told them I wanted to go to the zoo. In English, too. I had studied English for about a year and had fallen in love with it. It had not proven very helpful up to that moment, but I never gave up. So “Let’s go to the zoo”, I said. Blank stares. A few attempts later I started imitating animals, hoping to get my message through. No success with that, but at least they laughed a lot. Starting to feel desperate, I looked around for help. Luckily, most of the cupboards had glass doors, and I soon figured out a way to explain “zoo”. I started opening the doors and picked every animal figure that my now dumbfounded hosts had displayed on the shelves. Having two children apparently meant that Linda and Willy collected toys from chocolate eggs and who-knows-where-else. So soon I was holding a bunch of plastic animals in my two palms, almost shouting at everyone: “zoo,” “zoo!!!” “Oh, zoo!” – Linda exclaimed, pronouncing only the first sound differently from me. Or so I thought – who knows how I actually said the word. But at the time I was pretty indignant that they could not get such a simple one.

So we went to the zoo. There is no zoo in my home town and it is quite likely that I had never been to one before. The pictures that I still keep remind me that we had ice cream and saw elephants. In one photo Diana and I are holding hands - we had made great friends. I am not sure exactly what animals we saw, but I have this really vivid memory of petting the goats.

We were allowed to walk into the goat enclosure and pet whichever animal allowed us to. It seemed to work somewhat, but they were mostly moving and hard to keep still. Willy was taking lots of Polaroid photos, and when we later looked through them there was one that particularly stood out. I clearly remembered that animal, which moved forward as I petted it. So Willy had managed to capture the moment that buck had almost evaded my caress. I was standing by its rear with a hand on its rump. It was not pretty, but of course everyone had a good laugh. Those people had an astonishing sense of humor.
Gayla petting goat. Photo courtesy of the author.
Photo courtesy of the author.

To this day I treasure the memory of my German family, and I still keep a picture of Diana and Silvana, on the back of which a diligent hand had written: “Diana + Silvana. Zur Erinnerung aus Halle. 1986”. Yes, I do remember, my dear family! I also keep the Meister Brau Spezial beer glass that you gave me. It might have been meant for my parents, but I never let go. It survived thirty-seven turbulent years of my life, though I travelled a lot and lived away from my home for over twenty years. I suppose the reason why it is unscathed is that it has always been precious to me, so I made sure it was well taken care of at all times and nobody was ever allowed to touch it. Today the glass is displayed on a shelf in my own living room cupboard with glass doors.

These are the highlights of my stay with my Halle family. When I think of it, I am overwhelmed with nostalgia for those uncanny for me, but remarkable times. I can still feel the warmth, care and patience that I was embraced with and I will forever cherish the memories of my unforgettable days with Linda, Willy, Diana and Silvana.

Because within just about a week they stole my heart.

Galya Bacheva is from Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria. She has an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Archaeology. She is fascinated by cultural interactions, human behavior in general and how it affects our world. She currently works as a teacher of English and enjoys writing alongside. Her published works so far are Archaeology - related papers.

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