She’s been blogging at The Wednesday Chef since 2005, just recently she published her first book, My Berlin Kitchen: A Love Story (with Recipes), and had her first baby. Novelist and Berlin Stories for NPR host Anna Winger caught up with Luisa in Berlin just as she was heading off on her U.S. book tour with little baby Hugo, and her German husband Max, in tow.
Your memoir begins with your experience going back and forth between Berlin and Boston as a child. I was especially moved by your descriptions of chronic longing for one place when you were in the other. Do you still feel caught between the US and Europe, or now that you are settled in Berlin has that feeling subsided?
The longing I describe in the book has definitely subsided. It was absolutely the right medicine to move back to Berlin. But part of my human condition, I think, is that I’ll always be missing one place or the other. Like every fall, I remember how lovely autumn is in New York and how it’s too bad I’m missing it. But it’s not the painful longing I used to have for Berlin.
Is it possible for children to straddle different cultures without feeling conflicted? Your mother is Italian, your father is American and your husband is German. How do you imagine incorporating your many cultures into your son Hugo’s world?
I definitely think that it’s possible to live in different cultures without being conflicted. In fact it’s a privilege. I am the child of divorced parents who chose to live on different continents and I think most of my struggle had to do with their separation and my ping-ponging between the two continents and my two parents. The most important thing for Hugo growing up is for him to know that his home is where we—Max and I—are. We are his parents and if we can be his grounding force, then his exposure to our different backgrounds won’t be conflicted, but rather positive and enriching. I hope!
You speak (at least) three languages fluently, maybe more?
I speak English, German and Italian fluently. French a little less so.
Which language do you speak with whom and what do you all plan to speak with Hugo?
I speak English with my dad and Italian with my mom. Max and I speak German to each other. He often wants me to speak English with him so that he can practice, but that seems strange to me and I always revert to German! I speak English with Hugo and Max speaks German, and my mom speaks to him in Italian. Because Hugo’s growing up here in Germany, I’m assuming that German will be his strongest language, but we’ll see.
How about schooling?
I’d like to send him to the same school I went to, a bilingual and bicultural German-American school called the Kennedy School. I had the happiest high school experience of anyone I know because the school was such a loving, friendly environment. It didn’t hurt that I was surrounded by so many people, students and teachers who, because it was an international school, naturally understood the experience of growing up all mish-mashed. Elementary school in Boston was difficult because the other kids didn’t really get who I was or where I was coming from. I felt isolated there.
As a parent with bilingual children, I am curious how your parents approached your language development at a time when bilingualism was less encouraged.
A lot of my friends in the US who grew up with an immigrant parent (or two!), who were under pressure to assimilate, never really learned to speak their parents’ language. I’m lucky that my parents never wrestled with that question. They each only spoke their native language with me from the get-go and they spoke Italian and English with each other. And although they both speak German, it was always the language of the outside world for us, never the home. Now, in the case of my husband, Max, and me, it’s the opposite.
There is an incredible scene in the book, the first time you go into Max’s Berlin apartment and suddenly recognize specific relics of your childhood everywhere, including a print on the wall of his kitchen. You aren’t sure if you’re seeing things, or if it’s actually happening. I will leave the mystery open for those who haven’t yet read the book! But it made me wonder: do you think it’s coming home to Berlin that has been so grounding for you, or is it just this new phase of marriage and family life?
My marriage to Max has been a huge factor in my happiness. But coming back to the place of my childhood, a place I was made to leave before I was ready, has been really crucial for me. Berlin is an incredibly special place. The city has a certain pull and I’m definitely not the only one who feels it. Funnily enough, a lot of my high school friends from Berlin who went to the States for college and work have since moved back too and are starting their families here.
I agree! I moved here myself from New York ten years ago. What do you think makes it such an especially good place to settle down?
Well, on the one hand Berlin’s a huge place that offers everything you need from city life, but on the other hand the city’s made up of a collection of neighborhoods and each feels a little like its own small town. Berlin isn’t a busy urban metropolis, like New York or Paris. London is similar in scale, but is so much more sprawling and anonymous. With only 3.5 million people spread out throughout Berlin, it manages to still feel pretty cozy. There’s a huge array of things to do with children, parks and playgrounds abound, and there’s plenty of culture and art for the adults. Add that to the fact that it’s still an affordable place to live and you’ve got a recipe for many happy young families.
You paint a lovely portrait of multicultural Berlin. As I was reading your book, I was really struck by the fact that both your mother, who is Italian, and your ersatz German mom Joan, who is actually American, represented Germany to you, when neither of them was born here.
I think about that a lot, actually, how weird it is that I feel such an attachment to a place where I have no ethnic roots. In the U.S. it’s normal for first generation kids of foreign parents to simply feel American, but it’s different here. Germans don’t exclude newcomers to be spiteful, but they are still figuring out how to incorporate different kinds of people into their society. Although I love it here and feel at home here and would like to grow old here, I do not feel German. I love and understand the Germans, but I feel separate from them. This might have something to do with the fact that when I was a kid and the Wall was up there were so many Americans here and it was totally normal to live your life in a kind of bubble, with little pressure to integrate.
It was interesting to read your descriptions of island life in West Berlin when the Wall was up. A lot has been written about the East, but less about the West. Do you think it’s changed a great deal since you were a kid?
The west side of the city doesn’t feel so different. It’s definitely the least changed part, but it’s quieter than it used to be. I live in Charlottenburg, which used to be the city center of West Berlin. Since most of the action moved to Mitte once the Wall came down, it’s pretty sleepy here nowadays. But I like it like that. My neighborhood reminds me of the old West Berlin.
Have you ever lived in the East?
No, but I like to go there and visit! I still feel like a tourist over there, though. Max and I will set out for an adventure in the East, walking around and taking pictures and trying new things. Yet when we come back home again, we somehow still think of it as spending the day in another city. It’s really special, but it’s not Berlin to us.
Your descriptions of German food in the book are wonderful. As with the Berlin Story about New Year’s donuts that you wrote and recorded for our show on NPR, I learned a great deal about things I have eaten many times in this book but had never had explained to me. It made me think that German food is due for a comprehensive American cookbook, something like Diana Kennedy’s books on Mexican cuisine. Any chance you’re going to write it?
You know, it was such a struggle to get my German friends to write down recipes for me when I was putting this book together! A comprehensive German cookbook would be too big a project for this moment in my life. But I agree that there is a lot still to be said about German food, and also about the relationship between American food and German food, and about Jewish food and German food. It’s a life’s work!
In your book you often describe yourself cooking certain meals as a way of anchoring yourself culturally when you were traveling, your strong associations of certain recipes and smells with people and places. Do you have any specific plans about feeding Hugo as he gets bigger?
I am definitely planning to cook for him and make my own baby food, but first I have to figure out what to feed him. I’ve got three cultures bearing down on me at once, after all! Germans introduce puréed carrots for two weeks at first, Americans do rice cereal, I think, and Italians an elaborate vegetable broth. Luckily, I still have a little time to figure it out, since he’s still breast-feeding. I haven’t had a lot of time to cook since he was born, but when I do get into the kitchen, I tend to make the things I know to make well, my standbys like spaghetti and frittatas, so he’s definitely getting used to the smell of onions and garlic cooking in olive oil already. I love to think about which smells he will associate with me and with home as he grows up.
On your blog, The Wednesday Chef, you write about food, but it is also a chronicle of your life. When you moved to Berlin you added a blog specifically about eating here. Now that you are a mother, do you plan to blog specifically about motherhood?
I don’t know yet. I think that’s a wonderful way to keep track of a baby’s life, which goes by so fast that the details often go unrecorded and unremarked upon, but I am not sure not sure if that’s what I am going to do next. Maybe something totally different.
Can we expect as a sequel to My Berlin Kitchen?
No, it’s a stand-alone for now. Actually, I’m thinking about writing a novel next. If i can find the time!