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"Sundays in Germany" by Anna Nguyen



On the days when I have miscalculated our groceries and we are unable to run to the closest store, my partner and I often decide to buy a meal at a nearby Nepalese Indian restaurant. I always order the same items: paneer tikka masala, mittelscharf, and a butter naan. The restaurant is not easily accessible by train. Before my partner purchased an e-bike, we used to walk fifteen minutes to the stop, where the wait for the train is longer than the actual trip to the restaurant, a special place for us. We might begrudgingly leave our apartment, but the destination gives us a reprieve from the problems that await us during the incoming work week, especially for my partner, a professor who holds the unwanted distinction of being a state employee. Universities in Germany are nefarious emanations of the disorganized and inhospitable state.  

On Sundays, grocery stores, shops, and general office businesses are closed, a cultural trait that makes Germans proudly boast of their work-life balance. Sundays, they will say, are a quiet day for rest—ruhezeit they call it. Yet such proclamations only describe a particular type of expectant Germans and assume a homogenized work culture, especially in hospitality. While stores are indeed closed on Sundays, there are many restaurants that remain open. Are they not allowed to rest? I ask myself when I’m on a walk nearby and see these restaurants on those purported quiet Sundays. 

Writing against Kant’s uncritical universal hospitality, Jacques Derrida observed that all forms of hospitality are based upon an assumed condition of perpetual peace, that even the idea of universal hospitality can only be guaranteed and expected under certain conditions.(1) Roles of the visitor, the host, the guest, the foreigner, the citizen, the transient, and the undocumented are classified under the cold, surveilling eyes of nation-states and countries.

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 1. Of Hospitality. Anne Dufourmantelle Invites Jacques Derrida To Respond. Translated by Rachel Bowlby. (Stanford University Press, 2000).


The banal rights discourse, then, becomes convoluted under these state-sanctioned regulations of who is allowed to stay, who can only visit, and even who cannot enter at all. Within these ethical concerns of hospitality and its roles, we can also ask, who is allowed to rest on Sunday?


~


We haven’t dined inside of a restaurant since the pandemic. In the winter, we pick up our takeaway order on my partner’s e-bike, designed for two people. Those bike rides during the early evenings can be quite chilly, but I try to keep warm by placing my hands in my partner’s coat pockets. Despite the design of the bike, car drivers and passengers must think we are a laughable sight. I see a lot of their peculiar and amused looks. I usually wave at them, unsmiling. They never wave back. Once, on a different route, we passed the police station, where a cop walking toward his car said something loudly. His tone was not kind, but he didn’t appear to ask us to halt. So my partner rode away from the ominous building. At a traffic light, we heard his voice heckle us again. We turned to our left and saw a cop car on the street. He continued to raise his voice at us. His colleague, a woman, was the driver and wore the same stern expression. When he realized we were unable to respond in German, he switched to fragmented English. One person on a bike, he said. I just stared at him, confused at what he was trying to communicate. My partner, who doesn’t fare so well during confrontations, finally spoke. When he did, it was utterly so banal and so obvious that I almost scoffed. The bike seats two people.

The cop observed the bike with a critical eye again before they drove off. I have never seen a cop chase electric scooters that held two, even three, people. Those scooters, I know, are not designed for multiple person use.

I went inside, leaving my partner to stand out in the cold. He didn’t want to spend all of the extra effort locking up his bike when I was picking up an order. Inside, there were a few occupied tables since opening half an hour ago.  The dinner crowd hadn’t yet appeared. At the bar, our young friend was speaking German on the phone. To me, he spoke English. We had been customers at his restaurant for a year now, yet we didn’t know each other’s names. Formal introductions never came up. I assumed it was a family-run restaurant but didn’t know his relationships with the other workers. Months ago, by chance I found out the older, stylish woman who almost always wears bright reddish pink lipstick was his mother. While he was busy transferring orders into the POS system, I stood silently waiting to make a payment. He looked up, startled, exclaiming that he thought I was his mother based on the silhouette from the corner of his eye. 

Your order isn’t ready, he apologized. After our usual quick chatter of how we were doing, I asked our friend if he eats butter.

“Noooo,” he said, drawing out the negative word quizzically.

I laughed at my imprecision.

“I mean, if I baked a cake for you and the others here,” I waved a hand around the bar, “will you be able to eat something with butter and sugar?”

“Oh!” our friend responded in relief, smiling. “I thought you meant, if I eat butter. I can eat butter and sugar in cakes.”

I told him the next time we swing by, I’ll bring them something. I hadn’t yet decided what to bake for them, but I gave a list of the conventional baking ingredients. Flour, eggs, sugar, butter, milk, vanilla extract. 

“If you decide to bring us something, we’ll be happy,” our friend said. I heard a bell ring. The chef had finished my partner’s chicken momos and had placed the container at the window. I waved at him.

~


A few weeks later, I baked a lemon ricotta cake for the restaurant crew. It was simple and not too sweet. There was no icing, just a generous sprinkle of powdered sugar on the top surface. Using the sifter, I focused on trying to cover the slight crack in the center of the cake without clumping that area with too much sugar.

When my partner returned from another workday at the university, I placed the cooled cake in the front basket of his bike. He fastened cords around the pie container, firmly tying it down. And we set off to the restaurant, this time bearing a gift.

It was dinner time again. I rarely make it out of the apartment earlier than dinner time. I don’t have anywhere to be, no friends to meet. I spend a lot of time with my cat indoors.

Our friend and his mother were standing at the bar, smiling at us walking toward them with the pie carrier. 

“You really brought us cake,” our friend said, amazed.

“I said I would,” I reminded him. I took the cake out and gave the list of ingredients. His mother stood close to her son, looking at the cake appreciatively and softly murmuring wow. I watched her gently slide the cake off of the container and onto one of their restaurant’s white plates, the parchment paper intact. Her short, cropped hair was newly permed. Her red lipstick and beautiful gold jewelry stood out despite the dimmed lights in her restaurant. Both she and her son seemed unwilling to step away from the cake, continually speaking softly to each other in Nepalese. She looked up at me, remarking on its wonderful scent. Her son waved his hands in the air to catch more of the fragrance of the lemon.

Out of habit, I turned to the dining area and was unsurprised to see the diners looking at us. Their expressions didn’t share the exuberance and joy our restaurant friends were displaying. A woman’s fork was in the air as she surveyed the scene unfolding. It was dark inside, but I didn’t think her eyes were narrowed because of the lack of lights.

Months before, I had brought the same cake to a different family who operates a Thai restaurant downtown. When I came back to the outdoor table, my partner leaned across the table conspiratorially.

“They,” he began, tilting his head, “watched you go inside and give chú the cake.” I only ever call our older friends uncles and aunts, and he had adopted the Vietnamese terms. “They narrated the entire scene to each other. They said, ‘She gave them a cake. That’s nice.’”

“You understood their conversation in German? Is your German comprehension better today?” I glanced over his shoulder and assessed the two eating their rice dishes. “They spoke in English. One of them speaks German. Could be visitors.” He shrugged.

“Was there judgment in their observation?” I was trying to make a comparison.

“No. They seemed surprised because they probably don’t see customers bringing food to restaurant workers.”

Before we left the Nepalese Indian restaurant, our friend said he wanted to give us a gift in return. He opened the refrigerator and handed me a container of mango juice. Out of habit, my first inclination was to decline the gift, but I wanted to avoid the performance of the back-and-forth gift wars. I needed to get away from the spectators, so I thanked him for the juice.

As we walked toward the door, I noticed the woman continued to stare at our every movement. She leaned over to her companion and whispered something as I stared back at her with an arch of my left eyebrow.

~


My enjoyment of cooking in the apartment comes and goes in unexpected waves. Some days, I cook dinner consecutively for three days, making good use of our groceries. There are many other days I force myself to get up to prepare something for us. There are times when my partner returns home from the university and he winds up cooking something in haste.

I once remarked that we should buy frozen food in case of emergencies when neither of us have the energy to rise from the bed or the couch. There’s a discount store right down the street from us, barely three minutes away. He responded rather tersely, that the refrigerator space is much too small. The freezer is even smaller and can barely store one box of frozen pizza.

On another Sunday, we returned to the Nepalese Indian restaurant. For a time, my partner tried to avoid the police station, but he no longer cared. We haven’t had another encounter with another upset cop over the seating arrangements of an e-bike.

Before I could return his greeting, our friend announced the cake was delicious. They’d eaten it all.

“Did you eat some, too?” I asked his girlfriend, who was drying glasses. She smiled and nodded, never pausing as she continued with her task. She rarely spoke more than a few words to us, but I always tried to include her in the conversation even if I may be the only one talking. 

While I paid for our usual order, our friend quietly asked if I could make a cake without sugar for his father.

“Your father can’t eat sugar?” 

He pointed to the kitchen window. I could see chú busy preparing multiple dishes. “My father ate a very small piece.” His thumb and index finger almost touched as he illustrated the size of the sample. “And he spent the night watching us eat.” 

All of my assumptions about the possible family tree in the restaurant were slowly crystallizing.

“Sure, sure, I can try to make an apple pie without sugar for him. I’ve never made a sugarless pie before.” I looked at my partner. “Maybe I can just make the cake or pie as I would, except I wouldn’t add sugar.” 

Even though he wore a mask, I could tell my partner was making a face at my instant recipe consideration.

“That sounds terrible,” my partner exclaimed in distaste. “Maybe you could try to use a sugar substitute?”

Our friend said any fruit could be sweet enough, that I didn’t need to add an alternative. I remembered that there was leftover mixture of pecan pie in the refrigerator. I asked if he could eat pecans. I had to look up the word “nut” in German to describe it.

“I am allergic,” he said, placing a hand on his throat. “But I can try to eat it.”

Horrified by his extreme politeness, I decided that an apple pie would be the safest bet. I’d return with a pie baked specifically for his father, I promised before leaving.


~


My partner didn’t want to eat another pecan pie, so I decided to make one for our friends at the Thai restaurant. I prepped a pie dough on Saturday to bake the next day. We rarely take the train downtown on Sunday, unless we intentionally plan to see our friend P at the restaurant. She used to work on weekdays, but she was transitioning to another job as a nurse technician and would only be at the restaurant on Sundays. She shared this update with us when we were eating outside, after finishing her own meal indoors with the staff. The outdoor tables are arranged next to the shop’s large windows, and we can hear their cheerful Thai banter. I rarely see the chef-owner eat, but he always sits with the younger staff members when there are no orders to fulfill. As I typically do, I wonder how they all ended up in Germany, and when. 

The staff at the Thai restaurant had eaten one of my pies before. On Lunar New Year, a Sunday, I gave them a festive apple pie. Instead of a top crust, I had used the cookie cutter shaped as a cat to arrange five large cats on top. It was the year of the cat after all. 

We almost didn’t make it out. News about the mass shooting in Monterey Park, California, the day before had finally circulated on my news feed. The communities there had been celebrating an all-day Lunar New Year Festival. 

The apple pie had been cooling on the wire for some time. I didn’t want to leave the apartment, the space that I hesitated to call safe but which distanced me from the rest of the world, including our German neighbors. 

“Maybe we can give them the pie tomorrow,” I said to my partner. He was already dressed. I hadn’t even taken a shower after our run.

I forgot the restaurant was closed on Mondays. And we barely had enough ingredients for sandwiches.

I finally did get dressed, deliberately choosing a red jumpsuit and wore gold bangles and gold earrings. My color choices resembled a lì xí, the customary red envelope with money I used to receive from my parents. I hadn’t received a red envelope for years. My father used to mail me one, a ritual that lasted for six years until he passed away. I received his last lì xí when I lived in Boston for two years during my master’s program.

The sun had gone down hours ago. At the train stop, my partner called in our order. I think he was slightly cross with me, at my indecision. And his blood sugar was low. 

The restaurant was packed. P was standing at the cash register when I presented the pie to her. It seemed that the entire staff had stopped working. The dishwasher peeked out from his small workspace and I waved at him. 

“Apple pie,” I announced.

“Apple…pie,” she repeated. She looked up at me with her delicate features. Her long, silky black hair was brushed into a ponytail and she wore a black top and light blue jeans, her usual restaurant work uniform. 

“Like apfelkuchen, but it’s American apple pie,” I tried to explain. There is no word for pie in German, and the best word to replace it was kuchen, the German word for cake. “It’s for all of you.” I pointed to the slightly too golden brown cats. “These are supposed to be cats, for Year of the Cat.”

“Year of cats?”

“Do you celebrate the Lunar New Year?”

“Oh! No, we don’t. But that’s okay. We will enjoy the pie.” P brought pie to the kitchen prep area and gracefully popped the pie out of its dish. “This is so nice,” I could hear her say in the kitchen. She handed the now empty dish to the dishwasher, who caught my eye and pointed his thumb upward. I nodded. 

I tried to pay for my tofu massaman curry and his tofu pad Thai, but P said chú wouldn’t allow the transaction. I insisted so much that chú stopped his cooking and came over and said in English, “no pay. Next time.”

I heard his wife say something from behind me. I turned to her direction. She was sitting by herself at the table directly across from the bar. As always, she was immaculately dressed in designer clothes and heels, and her hair was pulled back into a bun. Not a strand of hair was out of place. 

“Pay next time. But don’t bring another kuchen, then we let you pay,” she said, laughter in her tone.

I grumbled my acquiescence and placed my debit card back into my wallet. As we waited for the order to be packed, I saw a man with grey hair move his eyes from the aunty and to me, back and forth. He wasn’t even trying to be discreet. He mumbled something to himself, shook his head, and drained his beer. His entire expression was neither curious nor happy, but one of ambivalence that bordered in disgust. 

All of their clients were white Germans, seeking hospitality in a Thai-owned restaurant on the designated day of rest. They were allowed to be raucous and loud. I wasn’t. They made the rules. I had to follow them. The invasion of whiteness in non-white designated spaces makes the space even more unbearable. 

I felt suffocated by them, in this space that I appreciated and adored. I needed to leave, to grieve.


When we returned to the apartment, I spooned some rice into a bowl and some of the massaman curry onto a plate. The food had cooled significantly, a usual trait of our takeaway orders. On another plate, I cut a small slice of apple pie. I chose only my bright red melamine plateware, hoping to add some festive spirit onto the black cooking range, my makeshift altar table. I placed three pairs of off-white melamine chopsticks at the center of the food and clasped my hands in prayer. I had remembered to include the spirits of my elder sister and brother.

Ba, chị hai, anh ba, the year started badly, but I still wish for a better year. I hope you enjoy the food. The curry was a gift from a restaurant. 

I usually kept my prayers short. I never knew what to ask for and how much from my family, especially from my sister and brother. We were strangers, having never been fortunate enough to meet in this lifetime. 

We didn’t see P for many months since that Sunday in January, until we arrived with the pecan pie. It was lunchtime, and the restaurant was packed, indoors and out. Chú enthusiastically greeted me without stopping his cooking.

“Pecan pie.” I thought better of it. “Kuchen mit…nuss,” I tried to translate.

“I’ve never had anything like this,” P said gazing at the smaller pie. The crust was misshapen, some of its sides were more prominent than others.

“It’s one of my favorites,” my partner endorsed. He seems to only ever call pies I make during the winter holidays as favorites. 

P dropped off the pie at the kitchen prep and I saw one of the dishwashers taking it out of the pan. I knew he’d wash the glass dish, so I waited. His peer stepped out and we communicated with our usual gestures. He gave me his approval, holding up a piece of the pie. 

“Do you want to eat here?” P asked. She surveyed the outdoor seating, and I followed her gaze. All three of the outdoor tables were occupied.

“Not today,” I responded. “Next time.” 

P nodded her understanding. “See you next time!”

I haven’t seen P since that busy Sunday.


~


The night before I left for London, I baked both a sugarless apple pie and a pan of spinach lasagna. A few months ago, I had agreed to be a panelist on a writing workshop aimed at Ph.D. students writing their doctoral theses. At the time, I had officially left my Ph.D. program in Germany and, with the support of my mentors, was looking into other options. I tried to keep my CV active. The pan of lasagna should last him for a couple of days if he didn’t want to leave the apartment or even cook for himself.

He came home upset, after enduring yet another infuriating meeting. The pie was done. I hadn’t researched any sugar alternatives and had decided to keep it simple. I had omitted all sugar and prepared the pie as I would. The top crust was a lovely golden color from the egg wash, but it lacked its usual sparkles from the sugar and cinnamon mix. 

But dinner wasn’t finished. The lasagna had only been in the oven for about fifteen minutes when he came home and recounted the meeting. He spoke louder than usual. I have heard it all before. Cruel professors. Unsupported students. A messy bureaucratic system that enabled administrators to treat their work casually while harming students desperately waiting to hear back. The students were on a tight schedule. The university workers were not. Both sides were buried in paperwork, but only one category of people did not have to worry about days and months. 

And so I listened as we stood in the kitchen, leaning on the counters. When there was nothing left to say, he stopped talking and stared into the oven. Apologetically, I asked if he could bike to the restaurant and give them the pie. I had miscalculated the time, and I had to watch the lasagna. And perhaps the trip would cool him off.

“How’d you make the pie?”

“No sugar.” Before he could protest, I quickly added, “The apples were very sweet. I sampled a slice from every apple.”

He left. Fifteen minutes later, I received a text message.

“I think we were just invited to their wedding.”

I responded with a row of question marks.

He came home with a Styrofoam container of chicken momos. The chef had boxed up a dozen dumplings that he deemed as unpresentable to paying guests. In between bites of the dumplings, my partner recapped what had happened. He found out our friend’s name was B, that his wedding was soon and was planned spontaneously.

“When he took the pie to his father, he said he considered us his family.” Barely half an hour had passed, and my partner’s cadence changed. He seemed happier.

“Pies make us part of their family?” I laughed at the oddly framed gesture to kinship. “That’s nice.”

“The wedding will be at their restaurant, later this month.”

Their celebration coincided on Pfingstmontag, the seventh Monday after Easter. Germans celebrate many religious observances. We know a holiday is the only possible answer to explain a seemingly random closure of a store’s usual operating day. There are no signs on the windows or doors, but the knowledge is assumed. My partner once came home after a quick walk to the discount store empty-handed on a Saturday. It was another holiday.

“I was standing outside with some of the Turkish families who live across the street. We just stood in front of the door staring at each other. Only Germans would know that stores would be closed,” he unnecessarily commented.

I wondered if our friends picked May 29 for their wedding because their friends would be off of work. Monday, too, was the day their restaurant closed. I assumed they would be open on Sunday as usual, another workday for our friends.  


~


I returned to Germany from London on a Sunday. Ruhezeit must not be observed on the Hauptbahnhof. Noise traveled with me, beginning from the bustling London Underground to the airports to the Hauptbahnhof in downtown. Excited travelers, or excited Germans returning to their homes. Something changed when I finally sat on the train toward Lahe, my stop. As we crept closer to my stop, the noise ordinance seemed to be put in place. The few passengers in my cabin grew silent, even those who came in chattering. 

It was a couple of hours before midnight when I entered the eerily noiseless apartment building. I pushed the button and grimaced when I heard the elevator come to life loudly. 

As I unpacked, my partner told me about a procession that took place earlier that day, in the afternoon. Across the street, a Turkish family celebrated very loudly, very joyfully, and very colorfully. Musicians were banging on drums and playing traditional instruments as they walked to the wedding ceremony. He described the array of bright colors the wedding party adorned, in contrast to the usual neutral palette we tend to see on the streets.

“Everyone in this complex was looking outside, to see what the commotion was,” he said, almost gleefully. “Some of the neighbors opened their blinds to poke their heads out. They didn’t look happy. Even the cars on the street were driving slowly, trying to make sense of what was happening.”

“No one shouted at them, did they?” Germans expect others to follow the rules while they themselves are exempted. There have been many Sunday nights when we hear tenants on the first-floor party for hours into the morning. They had loudly blasted AC/DC on repeat. 

“I didn’t see anyone do anything. But you know what they were thinking.”

“If B’s wedding is at the restaurant, it shouldn’t be a problem,” I said thoughtfully. Our cat had decided to sleep in the now empty, unzipped suitcase. “The location is in a business outlet.”

“You know people here are unreasonable.”

I had walked by the apartment building before crossing the street to my complex. Even in the dark, I didn’t see the remains of a wedding celebration from residents in Germany. No flower petals, no confetti, nor no signs of the color my partner had witnessed. Everything had looked the same as when I left the neighborhood and the country a few days ago.

There’s a common misreading of Derrida. Readers cling to his aspiration of a universal hospitality, a traveler’s world, that hospitality is borderless. But they ignore his underlying complaint, about the state-enforced asymmetry faced by those who are not welcomed.



Anna Nguyen abandoned her Ph.D. studies and is now an MFA student in Creative Nonfiction at the Stonecoast Program at the University of Southern Maine. She likes to blend theoretical creative non-fiction while thinking about food, science, and the mundane without enforcing academic conventions. She hosts a podcast, Critical Literary Consumption.

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