Autumn Afternoon in the Going-Back Garden

A dispatch from the outskirts of Frankfurt

By / October 2012

Listen. My friend Lale Cicek, she makes the best sarma (rice-filled grape leaves) on the planet. So when she invited me this fall to dine with her in her flower and vegetable garden on the outskirts of Frankfurt, I agreed, heartily, reckoning that the only thing that could possibly outclass Lale’s sarma was sarma made with grape leaves pulled straight from Lale’s vines.

Lale spent most of the summer working in the garden, and not just for the sake of getting her hands dirty. The garden, she told me, made her feel as if she were back home in southeastern Turkey. Funny how we find ourselves caring about the things our friends care about simply because we care about our friends. I, for one, couldn’t wait to see Lale in her element in her new favorite place.

In Germany, gardening, that most perennial of outdoor pastimes, is a civic extravaganza. The country boasts an elaborate system of community gardens located on the fringes of metropolitan areas: Berlin, Munich, Dresden, Frankfurt.

The land is pricey to rent and, of course, far pricier to buy. Maintenance is closely monitored by finicky local administrators, who go out of their way to enforce the Bundeskleingartengesetz, a bulky, meticulous piece of regulatory legislation passed in the early 1980s and fine-tuned ever since.

In 1996, a group of Bosnian women living in Göttingen opened the country’s first garden for immigrants. Now there are nearly 150 international community gardens in Germany and another 75 are planned to open before the end of 2012. In a country where migrants and immigrants often feel ignored and bereft of community, intercultural gardens provide a place for them to connect with the land and other non-natives.

Many of Germany’s garden plots date back to the early 20th century, when world wars made fresh produce a precious commodity. German gardens, or Schrebergarten, often contain miniature huts – which, in the penniless post-war years, acted as private residences — and a landing for grilling out.

A German garden, best as I can tell, is the urban equivalent of a house on the lake, a place to swap the grind of the city for the placidity of nature and the company of close friends. For immigrants like Lale, gardening is also a way to commune with the past.

In Lale’s garden, a 10 by 150-foot plot not far from the Konigstadten bus stop in Rüsselsheim, she grows tomatoes, miniature cucumbers, banana peppers, parsley, and cherries from a tree redolent of the ones in the shade of which she grew up in Turkey.

I met Lale in the garden on a September afternoon. Black-red grapes hung from an arbor near the gate. In the beds to either side bloomed orange chrysanthemums and yellow daisies. There was a blue pump for pumping water. The garden house, dark brown, worn, had to have been a century old. Lale lamented I hadn’t been able to make it to the garden during the summer; many of the mums were now brown, dried-out nubs.

In the remnants of a chimney, Firat, Lale’s husband, had built a fire. The smoke wheeled skyward toward orange-ing trees.

The fire, the chill in the air, the changing leaves — it was a classic autumnal scene, not dissimilar from those Louisiana nights decades ago when my father would strum his guitar around a backfield bonfire while we sang corny John Denver songs.

Firat, dressed in a black shirt and straw hat, kissed me on the hand then placed his forehead there, a sign of honor typically reserved for older people, though I am twenty years his younger. Firat, an industrial painter by training, moved the family from southeastern Turkey to Frankfurt in 1994.

The transition was hard on Lale. She was lonely. She worried, constantly, about her family in Turkey. Learning the German language, a requirement for non-German residents under recent assimilation laws, as well as a prerequisite for many jobs, left her tired, frustrated.

But the garden provided reprieve and tonic for her displacement-related woes. “Two years ago,” she told me as she prepared a salad of homegrown lettuce, cucumbers, and tomatoes, “before buying this garden, I was so stressed and tense. I had constant pain in my arm and neck. Now, I have no pain. I had gained weight, but now, look at me.”

She was wearing a bulky red sweater and cerise ankle-zippered leggings. I couldn’t tell whether she had lost weight or not, but wanting to be polite, I shook my head, emphatically.

I had had my hopes set on sarma, the grape-leaf dish I’d enjoyed many times at Lale’s apartment in Frankfurt. Dinner instead was a platter of succulent lamb, spicy beef sausages, Adana kebab, and turkey, all grilled over the fire and garnished with grilled banana peppers. There was pita bread. There was tea made from water boiled over a wood stove. At one point, Lale’s four-year-old daughter, Melik, ran over to show off a baby pumpkin she had plucked from a vine.

We ate and talked until dark, then moved nearer the fire to keep warm. Stars and the harvest moon glistered overhead. “Lale,” I leaned over and whispered, “All we need now is some music.”

Accompanied by nothing but crackling fire and the feint din of insects in the trees, she started singing, in Kurdish. The song was dirgeful; the song was beautiful. It made no difference I couldn’t understand a word.


Tara Thomas lives and writes in Frankfurt, Germany.