Marrying the Platypus

Saturday, September 29, 2018 | Kassel, Germany (map)

Nina & Andrew, September 8, 2018 (photo credit: D. Michelmann)
"If you were an animal, which would you be? Which one fits your character best?"

It was August 2016, and Nina and I were lounging with our friend Tania on the grass beside a hotel pool in Algiers, chatting idly as the shadows stretched longer in the late afternoon sun. Over two years had already passed since I had met Nina one evening at the spectacularly unromantic British Embassy pub here. We had taken our first trip together (to Croatia) just weeks later, moved in together the following spring, accepted new contracts so we could stay on in Algiers, and acquired our first dog soon after.

That afternoon, Tania answered her question first—"a tortoise"—and justified her choice (entirely needlessly, since it fit her so perfectly) in her syrupy, melodious Portuguese accent. Next, I vacillated before eventually mumbling something moronic about golden retrievers and raccoons. But when Nina's turn came, she answered decisively: "A platypus."

"A platypus?!" I asked, baffled. Surely such an inelegant mishmash of a creature couldn't be the right choice. While I admired Nina most for her openness of mind and force of spirit, she was not without grace as well. "Why a platypus?"

She had already answered the same question once in a job interview, she explained: "A platypus has an awkward mix of features that wouldn't normally go together, but that are perfectly suited to its unique environment." She was a tailor-made product of her experiences, she said, and well adapted to the peculiar circumstances in which she had lived her entire life.

In 1988, when Nina was just a year old and her brother three, her father, then a young manager at a prominent German engineering firm, was offered a transfer to Egypt. Her parents had never visited the country, and at the time spoke no Arabic and only a smattering of English. But they were adventurous—before having kids, their early holidays had consisted of roadtrips from Germany to Portugal, Greece, and elsewhere, and a decade earlier her dad and uncle had driven a sputtering VW Beetle all the way to Iran and back. And so her parents accepted the offer, trading in the serenity of suburban Munich for the hubbub of Cairo.

Nina spent her formative years living in Giza, attending the local German school and riding horses around the feet of the pyramids each weekend. When she was nine, the family returned to southern Germany for two years, before decamping for another eight-year stint in India, where she spent high school at the American Embassy School in Delhi, taking field trips to the Himalayas and wearing a sari to her prom.

* * *

I love Nina not for her intriguing life story, but for the woman it has molded her into. For who is any of us, if not a product of our upbringing?

Thanks to the path she has taken, Nina speaks three or four languages (depending on how you count). She has lived in six countries and visited dozens more, but doesn't feel particularly at home in any of them (not even Germany). She seems most comfortable when living out of a suitcase, and most in her element when she's on the move. Her parents' choice—made three decades ago, mostly for banal reasons—placed her and her brother forever in an exclusive, worldly but lonely club, which sociologists call not platypuses but "third culture kids."

A world away, my own path was very different, yet I too lean heavily on my past—on the lessons, the scars, the joys, and the thousand grains of wisdom I accumulated in my own childhood back in Baltimore, and in my journeys since. And somehow that path has led me to the same place as her: to our peculiar but wonderful expat life together in Algiers.

Yet I will always have a home to go back to. Nina's path has come with a heavier cost. When she moved to Germany for university, she once told me, she felt terrified and extremely out of place. "Imagine coming 'home' to your own country but feeling like an exchange student," she said. "You're lost and totally confused about the customs, but judged like a local, which everyone assumes you are since you speak without any accent." (By comparison, I have it easy everywhere I go. Outside the US, I'm always treated as a foreigner, with the accompanying rock-bottom expectations around language skills, cultural knowledge, etc. Nina hasn't always been so lucky.)

A few months after the poolside "platypus" conversation, Nina and I were at a friend's backyard barbecue when the playlist jumped to an Egyptian pop song. Nina grew quiet, asked to leave early, and was crying by the time we reached home. "I feel like I don't have a home," she lamented to me. "This music reminds me of where I grew up, but I don't even really have a connection there. I can't even speak the language anymore." (Despite a few years of formal classes as an adult, she has never managed to restore her Arabic to the level she reached as a small child.)

But for every moment of existential crisis it provokes, Nina's unusual upbringing also prompts joyful memories. On vacation in Egypt last winter with our families, we were drinking Stella beers and sunning ourselves beside yet another pool, this one in Aswan. Nina was telling me how she remembered her dad drinking from those same big green Stella bottles during her childhood, and how she would turn them all around to find the star logo embedded in the glass. "It was in a different place on each bottle, don't ask me why," she said. ("Because of fine Egyptian quality control!" her father interjected.)

A simple glass bottle held meaning and memory for Nina, just as a Baltimore Orioles bobblehead doll might for me. Her past contains just as many such totems as my own, hers are just scattered across the continents.

* * *

Last December, Nina and I picked out a ring together in Cairo and got engaged the next day on a pier in the Nile outside Luxor, where she vacationed as a child. She asked me when I first knew that I wanted to marry her, then laughed when I recounted the platypus conversation.

After a pre-party for friends and family in Baltimore, we officially married earlier this year in a private service in her parents' sunny backyard garden, overlooking the hills of central Germany, then celebrated it with a wedding in the nearby city of Kassel exactly three weeks ago, on September 8. After a traditional German polterabend the previous evening at a biergarten beside the Fulda River, we held the ceremony and party at the Renthof Hotel, a converted 13th-century monastery. Friends and family came from across the world, while others sent well wishes from afar. (Sady, the price of having fellow platypuses with global ambitions for friends is that they are impossible to convene in one place.) Accents from our travels abounded at all the events; Nina walked down the aisle to our favorite Algerian song. For the ceremony, we eschewed religious texts in favor of readings on our favorite themes, recited by friends and family. We closed with this one from the Dalai Lama:
"Wherever you have friends, that’s your country, and wherever you receive love, that’s your home."
In one another, Nina and I have found our own little home, which we'll take with us wherever we go.

11 comments:

beeya vohra said...

Beautifully written. I remember Nina very fondly from her time spent in India. I wish you both an abundance of happiness,love and adventure in your life together.

Anonymous said...

trés jolie couple , wish you all the best in your new life together, algerians will miss you

Unknown said...

......At last the platypus has find home...
Thank you for letting us share in this joyful day and beatiful Moments so touchingly writed , wish you all the best as you embark on this wonderful union.
I also picked : "And of His signs is that He created for you mates from among yourselves, so that you may find home, shelter and tranquility in them; and He planted love and compassion between you. In this are signs for people who reflect".

Unknown said...

i wonder wich algerian song is that !!! and andrew !! there is nothing like algerian wedding !! you must throw one ! happy couple wish you the best you guys!

islam bouroudi said...

wow such an amazing love story.. lucky you both , I think you should turn it into a movie or something. I wish you all the best! ��

Dina Boug said...

Woow très émouvant i wish you a very happy life full of love, joy, peace and success

Unknown said...

bien écrit. Quel beau parcours ,preuve que notre maison n'est pas celle ou on est né mais celle ou on vit et on se sent bien longue vie à vous deux et bon vent

Jijuka Zephyrin said...

Very fruitfull article,a nd thanks for sharing such kind of educational one,
i remember oneday when we met at Car wash, plz come back for another memory,
best wishes

Houria Benloucif said...

Beautifully written, if you ever write a book I would love to read...a moving story may God bless your life together.
Ps.we got married same year ...

Unknown said...

Andrew j'ai besoin de toi svp

Unknown said...

Andrew j'ai besoin de toi svp

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