He finds it strangely soothing, peeling his morning hard-boiled egg. From the initial crack to the slightly obsessive game of trying to remove the rest of the shell in one large piece, the process helps him forget.
His fingers burn slightly at the touch of the hard shell, fresh out of the saucepan that sits, still steaming, on the gas stovetop while his grandmother butters a slice of black bread.
It’s one of his favourite thing, a hard-boiled egg, lightly salted, mashed on to a slice of schwarzbrot, its dark heavy texture highlighting the golden yellow of the yolk, like an abstract painting, Gelb auf Schwarz.
The first mouthful is always the best.
He tries to think of other favourite things, and almost all of them involve his Oma.
He recalls seeing a photo of her in a book once, about the war, when she and thousands of other German-Lithuanians packed up everything they owned and walked the 1000km from Memel to Köln to escape the advancing Russians.
She is pushing a wagon, loaded with her four children – including his father – and as many possessions as the cart can hold. Decades later, and from the comfort of his own home, he can’t conceive of the fear and uncertainty of that journey, undertaken as the world descended into chaos.
He can’t imagine the will of effort needed to move that wagon, step by step, one metre at a time for a million metres. Ahead lies a future unknown, behind a once humble home now being picked over by the Red Army, the scraps of a life left behind.
Looking at his Oma now, tall and straight-backed and elegant despite the hardships she endured, he knows with certainty, she would have maintained her dignity and honour, treating each tired step, each heaving push of that laden wagon, as if it was the first.
She lived her life like that, every step she took seemingly the first, filled with hope.
He watches her now, buttering the pumpernickel and tearing off a corner and stuffing it in her mouth, her chewing slow and deliberate, savouring the simple flavours. Her back remains straight, his grandmother sitting strong and tall on a simple chair. Life hasn’t cowed her.
Later, as part of their morning routine, he will go down the street with 50 pfennig in his tiny hand to buy her the morning newspaper. The paper costs 40 pfennig and he is allowed to spend the remainder on his favourite treat – Flummis – little sealed UFO-shaped of rice paper filled with fizzy sherbet.
He usually gets six of them, even though he only has enough money left over for five. But the man at the kiosk knows him, so he always slips an extra one into the brown paper bag that feels empty with its lightness. He clutches that bag like his most-prized possession, as if it could float away with the lightest breath.
When your life is small, even the littlest things, like pillows of sherbet, take on significance, he thinks to himself.
Sometimes, there’s snow on the ground, but it’s not the snow of picture postcards, pristine and coloured a white that burns your eyes. The snow of Kölner Altstadt is grey, swallowing up years of soot and desperation. It’s the same grey he sees on the faces of the old people here. His Oma’s face, too, the lines filled with dust and memories.
And yet, it’s a kindly face, despite the sorrow it holds on to, and she smiles at him as he steps through the door, Zeitung in one hand, brown bag of treats in the other.
‘Danke, meine liebling,’ she says, taking the newspaper from his hand, a gentle smile lifting the shadows that live under her eyes briefly.
He knows one day he will leave, grown and ready to make his own way in the world, a world she has made a little safer for him. He knows one day in the future, she will eat breakfast alone, the same hard-boiled eggs mashed onto the same slices of schwarzbrot, a cup of coffee from the stove-top percolator sending its wisps of aroma and steam into the kitchen.
He can see her reading, her head close to the page, glasses resting on the tip of her nose, fingers stained ink. He wonders who will buy her the newspaper when he’s gone and if the kindly old man at the kiosk slips an extra Flummi into the bag of another young boy like he was once.