"Mẹ ơi!"* I said, holding up a silver pot for my mother to look at. I was four years old, and I had just discovered this treasure in a nearby dumpster. It was during one of those summers when I spent most of the days under the blue and white Bavarian skies, summers that smelled of effluent and chlorine and that tasted like fries and salt. The air glistened and my knees were constantly bloody from playing in the gravel. When we children wanted a fright, we'd plow our way through the lush undergrowth to a witch's house. There was no witch living there, of course, but a poor old woman. Entropy had gotten the better of her house and she looked mean.
My friends and I lived in an asylum hostel, a former inn belonging to the local brewery. I was born in the early 1990s and, like most of the children, had never known any other home. There was Fitore and Besa, Valdrina and Vildane, and all their brothers and sisters. We didn't share a language, but we got along just fine all the same. Often, we would wander through the neighborhood in search of treasure. We would find sweet plums or perhaps some ladybugs – and on really good days, we might find something useful for our parents. Like the pot.
When dark shadows began to embrace the house, we would return to our rooms, exhausted. Each family had but one. Our wallpaper was yellowing; on the right was a table, a chest of drawers and an altar to our ancestors, on the left a narrow bed. A little kumquat tree was added for the New Year's festival. There wasn't room for much else. A box of food was provided twice a week: Asians received a bit of rice, a frozen chicken and lots of onions.
One day, my father brought home a sofa bed he had found on the side of the road. He slept on it from that day forward. We were happy. In my father's asylum hearing, he had said: "I want to live with my wife in Germany because there is peace. We hope to find work in Germany."
When darkness fell, the cockroaches would crawl out from behind the cabinets in search of crumbs. But they didn't have an easy time of it. Many died in our traps made of toothpicks and adhesive tape. I would look for their lifeless bodies in the mornings. "Otherwise, they'll crawl into your mouth when you're sleeping," my mother would say as she tossed the adhesive tape into the garbage.
There were only three showers and four toilets for the 100 shelter residents, so the men would simply pee on the walls in the hallway. Their sons would do the same. One boy giggled as he drew wet yellow lines on a pillar. The toilets were awful. One woman even took her life there, managing to force her way through a narrow window and plunging to the pavement below. She was from Mongolia, the adults said. They knew little else about her.
On rainy days, we children would visit each other. Fitore's family had the biggest room and even a television, where her father could often be found watching news from home and shaking his head. Kosovo was consumed by war and the bleeding victims would reach us by way of the satellite dish at the window. "That is happening back home," Fitore would say. "It’s bad, isn’t it?" Then her mother would bring us sweet cookies.
* Vietnamese for "Hey mom!"