I was still a teenager when the men in uniform first came to kill me, and when I search for the moment in my life when I ceased to be a child, this is the one I keep returning to.
I had already been away from my home and my family for two years then, but both of those years — as different from each other as they could possibly be — had structure, had people taking care of me, of my daily schedule, of my duties and my free space. They were the years of the almost unquestioning belief in the system and my place within it. They were the years of doing the same I did my whole childhood – playing games, albeit ever changing ones.
Going to the Land of the Free for a one-year respite from life as a 17-year old is as much fun and games as it sounds. But even the year after that, spent in the secluded corner of the Accursed Mountains, sharing the uninhabited patches of nature with the wolf packs and being taught by those same men in uniform how to kill most efficiently, was but a game back then. The enemy was imaginary, and every repeated fired shot, knife stab, granate throw or neck-breaking grip was as far from its murderous reality as long jumps and hurdles were in the years prior. It was a new game, with new set of rules and new opponents to compete against. It was a strange, exhilarating way to spend a part of my childhood and, when we parted ways a year later, I still, very naively, thought that was the last times our paths would cross.
I was still a teenager when the men in uniform first came to kill me, but although I ceased to be a child on that day, there would still be a long time until I would start growing up, for there is more to being a grown-up than not being a child anymore.
One cannot grow while shackled to the ponderous ball of self-pity and I didn’t start for many more years until when, on this day twenty years ago, I would finally walk through the doors of a small student dormitory in southern Germany, in an old blue navy coat, wire rim glasses and uncombed hair and say, “Hi. I’m the new guy here”.
It was just a greeting back then, but with time it almost became a mission statement. What was supposed to last six months never ended, and with each passing day and year on the other side there was a little distance gained, a little more clay available to actively shape my life. A little more perspective to acknowledge and appreciate what so many people have done for me over the years. A little sadness that the new, somewhat wiser and more eloquent me will not have the chance to say thank you to all the departed ones. A little strength to look back and remember, both good and bad.
I started my quest for adulthood on that day twenty years ago, and the gods of my voyage have been very kind to me, granting me a good job, a nice place to live and a wonderful partner. But most of all, I was granted the ability to live my life here and now, and not in the yearnings for some time and place that will never come back. I was given so much more life, so many more days than I thought possible for the longest time.
I was still a teenager when the men in uniform first came to kill me, and while they never succeeded, I didn’t quite survive, either.
But for a long time now, I have been reconstructing the pieces of my former life, gluing them together with memories of love. And perhaps the best thing that my adulthood has brought me is that I have some of my childhood back. That the smell of the fresh bread my father used to bake found its way back to me over the one of burnt flesh; that my mother’s soothing voice again echoes in my memory louder than the terrifying roar of the approaching tanks; that when I close my eyes I see and feel my fig trees and blackberry fields and not the exploding entrails being washed into the cold and dark river of death.
On this day twenty years ago I walked not only into a student dormitory, but into the beginning of my adulthood, too. It was a great ride so far, a gift I never thought I would be given. Today, I am drinking to it, literally and quite heavily, but also to my childhood, the one I have again.