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Rocks and rolls

Finding a sense of belonging at the breakfast table

Benjamin Markovits | March/April 2015

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Bread of heaven: The author (middle) and two of his siblings at breakfast in their grandfather’s cottage in Flensburg 

My family moved from California to Texas in 1975, when I was two years old and my parents, both academics, found jobs at the state university. So Austin was where I grew up, in a 1920s clapboard house with a wide front porch and deep garden. There was a shed at the back, which we called the playhouse. The black servant of the previous owner, an old white woman, used to live there, and when my parents fixed it up the builders found a nest of copperheads nearby.

Limestone pillars announced the borders of the neighbourhood. They had never had gates running between them, but that was probably the impression the pillars were meant to convey—that this was a gated community. Zoning byelaws stipulated (illegally now, of course) that no one of African descent could live there, except as an employee. My father is a Jew from upstate New York; my mother comes from Schleswig-Holstein. Hemphill Park had a history but the history seemed to have nothing much to do with us.

My parents’ marriage involved a certain amount of dislocation. No relatives came to their wedding in Connecticut. The Jews disapproved of my father’s marrying a Christian, and for the Germans it was just too far to travel. Texas was a kind of neutral territory—we could start from scratch there. But it gets hot over the summer, too hot, so my parents used to take me (above, centre), my brother and three sisters to Europe for the long holiday. First to London, where my dad had gone to grad school, and then to Flensburg, on the Danish border in far northern Germany, where we stayed in the small seafront cottage my mother’s family had moved to after the second world war.

The land had been in the family for almost a hundred years. It was my great-grandmother who named the unpaved, tree-lined avenue at the top of the hill “die Schöne Aussicht”, the Pretty View. My mother’s old nanny still lived in a little cabin in our neighbour’s garden—she gave us sweets when we visited. And the sea ran in our blood. My grandfather was a naval engineer and kept a yacht in the harbour. When we were kids he sailed the yacht to a sandbank, put down the anchor and let us sleep there overnight. Small boats lay belly-up around the garden, and our uncles and cousins spent time fixing them, dragging them to the beach, and shifting rocks on our patch of shoreline to repair the breakwater.

But the most important ritual of the day involved breakfast. Every morning we went out to buy rolls, walking along the Schöne Aussicht to a single-storey house at the end of a row. There the baker lived. “Die junge Frau Petersen”, as we called her, the young baker (she was 75), to distinguish her from her mother, “die alte Frau Petersen”—who was dead. (After the war, the Petersens had let my grandmother use their oven, to bake gingerbread houses for people with their rations of flour, eggs and sugar, as a way of making money on the side.)

The rolls we bought were called Butterbrötchen. They were flattish and pale on the bottom, with a browner and slightly crustier top, made up of irregular ridges. Cutting them open, you usually found a plug of soft, loose bread in the middle, which we ate first. Then we spread more butter on them, and a sour cherry jam we called “sauki” (short for “Sauerkirschen”), or a thick, almost white honey, which was known in the family as “aegte Dansk”—genuine Danish. We could eat as many as we liked, every morning except Sundays, when the bakery was closed.

It’s closed now for good, Bäcker Petersen—an insurance agency has taken the shop. There are other bakers, of course, plenty of them, but none selling the real thing. Where are they now, the Brötchen of yesteryear? The closest we can find is called a Kieler, but it doesn’t have the same irregular brown and buttery crust, and our friends who visit us in Flensburg can’t quite understand the necessity for buying them every morning and filling up on white bread.

But still we go each summer—my brother and his family, my sisters and theirs, my parents, and my wife and I and our two kids, visiting the house in turns, overlapping when we can. And whoever wakes first, buys rolls. The Schöne Aussicht itself has become rather fashionable and overdeveloped, and the boats in the garden are irreparable and nobody sails. The house is unchanged, the view of the Baltic, domesticated by the Danish shore, changes only with the weather, and the friendly new baker recognises us as that extended family of half-Americans. “Next year in Jerusalem”, Jews say at Passover; and every year we go to Flensburg, thinking, maybe the rolls will be as good.

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