Innocence Abroad: Chapter 16



The perils of high summer (I)

Kassel, Germany: July 27, 1991...




ife has taught me to be wary of high summer, the time from late July through mid-August when the year's energy is at peak, pulling me along with the swift and turbulent intensity of a river narrowing. It can be quite as high, in fact, as raft-riding a rock-strewn rapids. But, oh . . . the hell it can wreak if it gets out of hand! There's not much help from expecting it, but I'm at least left with consoling explanations for strange events otherwise shrouded in mystery. Of which this week certainly had its share.

On the last Saturday morning in July I made my way to a southbound autobahn service area on Kassel's fringe, feeling an urge to get back on the open road. I was only slightly dismayed that someone was there ahead of me, an Ethiopian Black. It made little difference, as it turned out, for no vehicle entering the freeway paused at all - not for two full hours! The longest wait of my entire summer. By the time one pulled over, there were three more hitchers lined up and waiting including a young red-haired woman traveling alone - who may very well have been the effective bait. But the ride was mine by the rules of the road, the Ethiopian having elected to wait for someone who could take him all the way to Munich.

This one was going only half the 125-mile distance to Wurzburg, my own destination, but it was good enough for me. He was a young physicist who spoke good English and drove with such a relaxed air that I seem to recall him with a leg thrown over the dashboard, which was hardly likely. It was easy conversation all the way to where he left the autobahn, and I had a half-hour wait in the sun, there, for the next stage in my journey.

A van with a couple in it, the woman driving, pulled up. The man, a bearded fellow near my own age, hopped out to engage me in a barrage of German, a one-sided discussion that I presumed had to do with where they were going, for he took the map book out of my hand, flipping pages as he continued his soliloquy. He couldn't find what he was looking for. I took it back, but didn't quickly find the page I wanted, either, and he grabbed it again for another try - all the while of which we were both now talking, an increasing fury of words in our respective tongues. It was an utterly senseless scene and I thought sure I'd lose the ride, until the woman got out in some disgust and just made room in the van for me and my stuff.

Having already reached our linguistic threshold with one another we rode in complete silence. I was seated between them, unfortunately, and they couldn't very well talk across me. In desperation, I pulled out the small 14-language phrasebook I hardly ever made use of to see if I could kindle anything at all. With its help I learned the bearded one was 61 and had lived his entire life in Wurzburg. He told me with his hands of the wartime bombing. But of the woman, much younger than he, I learned nothing. She stayed distantly silent through the entire ride, which she drove at a miserably slow pace that eventually reduced me to a state of drowsiness.

In Wurzburg at last, barely off the autobahn, I was unceremoniously dropped at a noisy wayside spot. For a moment of bleary-eyed déjà vu I was in Portland, Oregon. Only after they rolled on did I realize my 14-language phrasebook was still in the van. It was an exact year, come to think of it - within a day or two - since I'd toppled over a Portland curbstone, running the rapids of that earlier summer. It should have warned me.

I HAD BEEN LOOKING FORWARD to Wurzburg for a long time, for there was a friend here whom I hadn't seen in almost ten years. When I met Wuni he was in his 30s, doing graduate work in Theology at one of the satellite colleges close by the University of California in Berkeley. Somehow, between my impious, adventurous spiritual quest of those years and his solid grounding as a Catholic, an unlikely but refreshing mutual respect had emerged. I didn't, and still don't know enough about the varieties of Catholic experience to put Wuni into any pigeonhole, but I found his searching and open mind a stimulus to refreshing discussion, and he seemed to feel the same about me. After his return to Germany to pursue a ministry we had exchanged letters just often enough to remain in touch.

Wuni knew I was coming, but I had been no more specific about timing than a vague reference to "sometime around the first of August." I should have telephoned ahead, but it just never occurred to me that mid-summer could be as relentless in his world as it was in mine. By the late afternoon hour that my calls finally connected I heard surprise and dismay in his voice, not delight; but I had no idea how bad it was until he drove out to pick me up. I had arrived on the very weekend that they were celebrating his wife's 40th birthday, and Ilse's parents were there from out of town for the weekend. That meant his time and head were fully occupied, and his guest space as well. He had excused himself for awhile to greet me but now he was preoccupied, as I could clearly see, with the problem of what to do with me.

We drove east out of Wurzburg maybe a dozen miles to a huge Benedictine monastery that Wuni had some connection with and where he hoped to find retreat quarters for me. He explained little of this; I could only grasp the sense of it as I followed him around, listening to the unintelligible dialogue and watching his expressive features shift from expectancy to downcast disappointment. We had arrived just too late for the last available space. He drove on, then, looking for a bed-and-breakfast vacancy. Had he left it to me, I could as easily have found a Good Neighbors host in my usual way. But Wuni took it as his own responsibility and kept assuring me he'd find a spot - and eventually he did: a tiny skylight room at a small B&B, and his whole body sagged in grateful relief. Then he treated me to a salad feast and I finally glimpsed something of the Wuni I had known.

A decade's time could be expected to leave its mark. A few more pounds, but Wuni's large frame carried them easily. Patches of gray, but his hair still tossed freely in the wind, a youthful touch he hadn't lost. The remnant that really flashed me back, however, was a captivating boyish grin that emerged as we dined. The infrequency of it was less the fault - it was clear, from our talk - of his momentary anxiety over my arrival than the twin burdens he carried, of family life and pastoral responsibilities. Wuni had become a counselor to the clergy, which carries another kind of responsibility, a lonelier sort perhaps, than that of a parish priest.

As we finished the meal I laid out a hastily revised agenda for myself. I'd stay the weekend in the small B&B, as he insisted, then take a side-trip to Darmstadt and return toward the week's end, so that we could have our reunion at a more leisurely time and pace. This made Wuni about as happy as anything in the moment could, and he said he'd be back for breakfast on Monday and take me to the train.

In the circumstance, I probably got a far better weekend rest than I would have had I stayed with Wuni. Sunday was a sparkling-bright day and the gently flowing Main River, close by, offered some wonderful hiking paths along its banks. In a pair of short red pants that I had brought for just such an occasion I crossed to the sunnier opposite side and hiked three easy miles to the village of Dettelbach, to discover there a charming relic of Medieval Germany, all the more exciting for the fact that I came on it entirely by surprise. Dettelbach is an old walled town, like Conwy in Wales but even smaller. Everything, in fact, seemed miniaturized. The village had hardly grown since feudal times, and a circuit of the entire fortification could be made in barely more than twenty minutes. The buttress was largely intact and more than a dozen quaint post towers remained, some in use as private shelters, none with any sign of commercial exploitation.

The walk out to Dettelbach, free of backpack and excess clothing, was a rare experience. I had the path almost entirely to myself, and my pocket radio tuned to some German marching music that I could set a pace by - not just a pace, but drum-major gyrations as fancy as I could contrive on an instant's notice. With nobody there to see or inhibit me, I hit a stride straight out of Music Man - wheeling, strutting and twisting up the bank of the River Main in blazing red shorts and a floppy-brim hat, like John Philip Sousa's worst nightmare.

That evening I made a writing desk in the tiny room by propping a wardrobe shelf atop the porcelain sink, pulling the bed lamp over and using the toilet seat for my carcass, and wrote a few letters. In the morning Wuni relieved my minor but real concern about the cost of the weekend lodging by covering it entirely; and then he whisked me off toward an early train to Darmstadt, some three hours to the west.

Had my timing been better at Wurzburg I'd never have taken this side trip, which was a mixed blessing if ever there was. I picked Darmstadt because it was the location of the world famous Bauhaus School, and a seminal source of Jugendstil art and architecture. The city had also suffered postwar modernizing, however, and its reputed abundance of old architecture had, for the most part, disappeared. But that was the least of my problems in Darmstadt.

With surprising ease, I found GN hospitality with a pair of fellows in their mid-20s - engineering students at the Technical University who shared an apartment in the northwest part of town, a good mile or more from the railway station. Because of the distance, I had the bright idea of strolling around the inner city before going out there. I left my pack in a rail station locker, taking only a few hand-held folders and notebooks with me as I often did. But this time they included an envelope containing some of my most important papers: financial records from London and the entire list of British and European addresses I had collected up to now. The risk of loss actually flashed through my mind, in a curious bit of premonition. But for a reason I'll never know, I discounted it, slammed the locker door shut and took the envelope with me.

It was not until almost eleven o'clock in the evening, long after I'd done my walking tour, collected my baggage, gone to meet the fellows and had dinner with them, and was now arranging my gear for the night, that I realized the envelope was gone. My head raced back along the day's trail, sorting among the several possibilities, and I was almost positive I'd left it on the counter of the pub-like eatery in the station, just before returning to the locker for my pack.

I looked for Bernhardt, the one of my two hosts who had an automobile; but he had gone out for the evening. Jurgen, the other of the pair, had an old bicycle he said I could use, and in the time it took me to tuck my trouser legs into my socks I was pedaling madly through darkened streets, over tracks and around parked vehicles, caution tossed aside, hoping to get there before the place closed for the night. But that had already happened an hour earlier and all my effort gave me was a weary ride back, to pass a miserable half-sleepless night trying to remember - and trying to forget about - everything that was in the lost envelope.

By mid-morning when the eatery opened I was back at the station, only to meet with the worst sort of resistance trying to get myself understood. I think they felt I was accusing someone of theft. I cursed myself for not having left a counter tip because I hadn't been very happy with their service - quite sure I'd never be back. For all my pleas, even with a note in German from the stationmaster, I got only head-shaking denial that they had ever seen the envelope. After peering fruitlessly into every crack and crevice around the lockers, every trash bin - which had of course been emptied the night before - I reluctantly gave it up. I retraced my course around town, equally to no avail. The envelope was gone . . . finally and irrevocably, Gone.

The loss was a harsh one and it would reverberate for many weeks as I tried to understand it - for I don't at all believe in accidents - and as I worked at recovering the lost addresses, such as I could. Some of the more important I still had on letters, either with me or awaiting me in Munich. Most Good Neighbors addresses I could get again, for all the names were in my journal notes. But there were others, people I had met along the way who wanted to stay in touch or offered faraway shelter if I should pass their way. And many of the casual friends I had made in London. It cast a gray shadow over my visit to Darmstadt, despite the city's basic charm and appeal. The Hesse Landesmuseum, alone, justified the sidetrip with an exquisite display of Art Nouveau jewelry, possibly the finest assemblage to be found anywhere. And it was here that I ran into the best assortment of art books I had yet come across - Jugendstil, of course. They were not cheap in western Germany, and I ended up spending far beyond my budget limit in order to acquire a few. I passed it off with the rationale that I was entitled to consolation after such a great loss - a fresh take on the old thesis that 'living well is the best revenge.' Healing comes high when life turns contrary; and I'd hardly be surprised if it's misery that really drives our market economy, more than pleasure and need, or plain greed, ever did.

I stayed three nights with Bernhardt and Jurgen, who were great hosts in the easy-going fashion of college students everywhere. When I departed for my return to Wurzburg, it was by rail again and by way of Frankfurt, a short distance to the north, for the sake of visiting a photography museum that Bernhardt had cued me to. Like most else of this ill-starred week, it brought both reward and grief.

The reward was in a picture postcard. Long years ago, when I lived in California, I was entranced by the image of a woman captured on film by the Scottish photographer James Craig Annan, in the early part of the century. I knew little more of her than the name in the photo caption: Frau Muthesius. Only that she was German, and a distinctively beautiful woman. Browsing in one of the Darmstadt bookstores, I came across a second photo of her by yet another noted photographer. But all the further information it gave me was a first name: Anna. That this singularly captivating woman had been a portrait study for two notable photographers and then all but vanished in the mist of history suddenly piqued my interest. For she appeared to be a woman of some substance and achievement.

I had asked Bernhardt if there was a photo archive or museum in Darmstadt. He knew only of the Fotografie Forum in Frankfurt, which proved to be hardly more than a small gallery. I expected nothing there at all, but glancing through their stock of postcards for sale, I came across a third portrait of Anna Muthesius - this one by still another photographer, Jacob Hillsdorf. Realizing it must have represented a showing there, I hastened to the shelves of the gallery bookshop and, sure enough, there were a couple volumes on Hillsdorf's life and work, and in one of them I finally learned a bit about this mystery woman. Anna Muthesius was an early-day feminist, author of several works on women's clothing styles, and children's books as well, and she had been a performing vocalist before marriage to a noted architect. She lived to 91 years of age, dying in 1961 in Berlin.

It would have made an exciting fourth quest in Berlin, had I the time to return there - but I had already given it more time than I could spare. The half-day spent in chase of it cost me the last likelihood of a satisfying reunion with Wuni. Or maybe it was lost regardless; the recapture of postponed pleasures may simply be one of life's lesser delusions. Whatever the case, we got our wires crossed once more.

WUNI HAD BEEN EXPECTINGmy early Thursday return, and waited all afternoon for me - and I cannot be sure I didn't promise it. By the time I found my way through twisting streets to the newly built house in their hilltop suburban section of Wurzburg and rang the doorbell, it was well past their 6:30 dining hour. I was served a re-heated dinner, with all the forced cheer of such an occasion, and we sat together as I ate, engaging in the make-believe conversation that happens when people can't reveal their feelings. Had Ilse any disposition to regard this road-weary guest of Wuni's with anything more than simple charity, it certainly ended with the faux pas of my tardy return. She spoke no English at all, so I can only judge from her very proper politeness and Wuni's own evident discomfort.

In the remaining light of day, Wuni took me to survey the sights worth seeing. It was the tour he intended had I returned at an earlier hour, but in the circumstances it seemed almost designed to cover the scars of an unpleasant passage. At any rate, nothing of the tour, not even a stop for ice cream, managed to spark the old rapport we'd once had, and I'm sure Wuni was as painfully aware of it as I.

Ilse was a strikingly attractive woman - blue-eyed, blond with an abbreviated hair style that did the most for her strong neckline - yet, attractive in a self-possessed, cool way that suggested high standards of excellence in her world. It was apparent in their home, allowing for the likely limits of clergy income: furnishing that was spare but comfortable, a house run with orderly precision - meals on schedule, everything planned. I could easily see Ilse's appeal for Wuni, and that their home life was geared to his professional needs. But the up-scale style contrasted with the Wuni of student days that I recalled, and I wondered if he, himself, had changed or if his world was pushing him into ways he wasn't entirely easy with.

Their guest room was an open half-level above his study, and he could surely have been under a strain, being displaced from his private retreat for the better part of a week, at least, first by Ilse's family and now by me. But there was a weariness about him, or a want of joy that seemed to go deeper. The sunshine burst through whenever he played with little Dorothea or her tiny brother, but it only made the general overcast more apparent by contrast. Four-year-old Dorothea was a delight, my only unalloyed pleasure in the household. Even at the ungodly morning hour, long before their 7:30 breakfast time, that she dragged me back into the world with a steady, soft babble of German at my bedside. It was amazing how beautifully we got on with each other without a single understood word between us.

Friday, I was on my own and I used it to explore a great old fortress on a high hill, the Festung Marienberg. An ancient stone bridge with statuary figures of saints atop its massive piers took me across the Main River, and I climbed successive levels of long stairways, moats, and high walls, seemingly without end, before reaching the ramparts of this redoubt - itself many tiers high and the size of a small village. The city of Wurzburg spread below like a fiefdom reinforced the glory of this high prominence. Later, on a postcard, I found a painting of the fortress done in 1835, a riverside view with the multi-arched bridge in the foreground, hardly any different than the scene looks today. Where, in America, is there a place so readily in touch with its past?

I made damn sure of getting back to Wuni's before 6:30 on this night, though it didn't much change the feeling of pro forma hospitality; and I couldn't help but reflect on the contrast with a Good Neighbors household, where one is not merely a guest for a night or two, but - even on the shortest of notice - a cause for enthused conversation often lasting long into the evening. Here, sad to say, I felt almost like an intruder except for the joyful attentions of little Dorothea. The really sad part is that I know they were working at hospitality - Ilse even did a wash of clothing for me. But the heart knows what the head refuses to acknowledge . . . and actively denies.

A DAY LATER, on the train to Nürnberg, I reviewed the whole business - everything that had happened during the week, though most of my concern still focused on the lost envelope of addresses. As I looked at the messy jumble of events an oddly consistent pattern began to emerge. Even given summer's madness, when chaos strikes in a life that relies on the grace of the Universe there is a pretty clear implication that something has been done wrong: a path not taken or one mistakenly taken, or some cue missed along the way. What I suddenly saw threw some illumination on what might have been happening all week long.

The loss of the address list could easily be a metaphoric statement that I really didn't need the baggage I carry from the past. It was certainly true: I have a tendency to 'collect,' in ways that are not always material but can be just as burdensome, maybe even more so. I collect friends, and I hate to see friendship's path split and diverge so greatly that a friend is lost. But friends follow separate trails, and once-touching worlds lose their points of congruence - in which event neither one's life is enhanced by maintaining the connection.
When I came into Wurzburg, the ill-timed 'accident' of it should have told me as much - for there are no accidents. Instead, I colluded with Wuni to try and salvage something not really there any longer. Then in Darmstadt, my guiding spirit alerted me to the particular difficulty I have with loss of friendships, even as they begin! The twinned phenomena, on both ends of the friendship spectrum, made the point so sharply that I hardly wanted to look at it - yet could hardly avoid it.

Other ways of seeing it would come to me, in time, for truth is like a cut jewel: it shines anew as it is turned this way and that. But this was good enough for now. Friendship should neither die nor be dismissed. But it shouldn't always be pursued, either, for it lingers most richly in memory when its embers are not raked. I salute you, Wuni, dear friend of other times, and wish you well on your life's course . . . and I apologize for attempting to impose the past on your present world.

The cost of my indiscretions, in purchased 'consolation' (more books), pretty much blew the budget credit I had accumulated up to this point. My Jugendstil indulgence took the week's expenditures up to $150.58, and my weekly average was now very near the borderline, at $97.52. The rapids had yet a week or two to run. I could only hope that their worst had been done.



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