en route to Nürnberg, Germany: August 3, 1991...
had to suffer a crowded compartment in the smoking section for the hour it took to reach Nürnberg. It might have been simpler had I hit the highway and headed straight for Munich. But Wuni advised me to see Nürnberg for its historic interest, and so had Bernhardt. Anyway, I wasn't ready for Munich just yet. That promised to be another challenging experience - a first-time meeting with a longtime pen-pal, young and feminine. I needed a lull between Wuni and Rachel.
I made the opening mistake of taking tea in the station, at Nürnberg, because the panelled dining room was impossible to resist - for which I paid three dollars! And then it required six phonecalls to find a host. But things got better from there on. I took a local bus, following instructions, to a mixed residential and retailing neighborhood, spotted the sporty yellow convertible I was told to look for and went upstairs to a second-floor apartment.
Quite unimpressive from the outside, it had the sensitive, comfortable feeling, inside, of a woman's touch. But Klaus, almost fifty though he looked much younger, lived there alone. He was a freelance computer engineer - as unimpressive from the outside, himself, as the apartment he lived in, but I soon saw there was much more going on inside than one might suppose from his terminally rational profession. He had been raised in Indonesia, of German parentage, and his cross-cultural outlook was flavored with subtleties of awareness not generally found among westerners.
All of this and much more came out over a pizza dinner, that evening, when he took me out to see the town. We discovered almost at once a shared interest in the right/left hemisphere relationship by which the brain coordinates body activity . . . and in some mysterious way seems to ride herd on one's life as well. Klaus had much the same view of this, and the same respect for it, as I did. While much has been written on it, no one really knows the full extent of the right hemisphere's contribution to our lives. Its activity is screened from consciousness. Yet, there is evidence at every hand of some shaping influence, once we begin to watch for it, with implications that challenge our insistence on a completely rational world.
We sparked one another with our observations on it. Klaus spoke of left-handed tennis players who seem, by nature, more agile, better coordinated in their footwork than right-handers. And I recalled for him precious moments when life had forced me to act instantly, without time for thought to interfere - and I had always done exactly the right thing. I told him of my left-hand portrait experiments, intended to open a channel for right-hemisphere expression, and how they seemed to put me in more conscious touch with that inner mystery.
His fluency in English helped a lot, for any such discussion of reality and the extent of its rational content has nuances that call for absolute clarity. He made one point in a humorous way that would have been lost on me without the full rapport we had.
"The difficult part, here, you know, is that every time we start thinking about the limits of rationality we lose the benefit of an open mind."
"How do you mean?" I asked, not sure what he was getting at.
"Well . . . imagine that we've scheduled a debate, and we invite a speaker from the left hemisphere to prove the world is essentially rational."
"Of course," I replied. "That's its natural province; the left brain would make the best possible case for rationalism."
"So it would," Klaus shot back. "The same air-tight case made by philosophers of mind and nature down through history."
I waited for him to proceed. But he sat there with a smug smile until I finally took the bait. "So then the right-hemisphere, I suppose, would take the other side of the issue, and argue against a rational world?"
"And there you have it."
"Have what?" I asked. "I'm waiting for your point."
Klaus chuckled softly, almost to himself. "You've made it yourself. The right hemisphere has no way of speaking directly to us, no voice to speak with. All of our conscious thought comes from the left hemisphere; and if such a debate were to take place - as it supposedly does, whenever we consider the question - the only speaker present would be the voice for the affirmative."
Klaus took me, that evening, on a native's guided tour through the historic heart of Nürnberg. Up alley passages, down stone stairways, between ancient walls and into charming courts - I only realized how well he knew the place when I tried to retrace some of our trail the following day, and couldn't do it, even with a map in my hands. One particularly fascinating item was a half-timbered two-story structure, its beams intricately `keyed' to each other in such a way that they locked securely into place with no use of nails or pins! The building had been slated for demolition, he told me, until a last minute x-ray probe revealed the old structure beneath an outer facing that had covered its ingenious craftsmanship for as long as local tradition or record could recall.
We ended up in the northwest corner of the old section at the Tiergarten Platz, an open area of intimate size in the shadow of a great gate tower that pierces the old city wall here. A quiet gathering spot for evening crowds who sit and stand around as if something were about to happen - but they, themselves, are the happening. As the soft amber lighting of outdoor beer and `eis' gardens (ice cream) took over from the deepening twilight, it was a lovely scene: people in chatting/laughing/singing clusters, a pair of young women doing a juggling routine, an organ grinder and his monkey . . . and back-dropping all of it, lit by yellow floodlight, the looming Imperial Castle and its grandiose stable house - now Bavaria's most popular youth hostel - its high sloped roof raked by successive tiers of dormer windows thirstily open to the evening breeze. Altogether, a summer's evening ambience that was hard to leave, even though I was exhausted from the long day.
The rest of that weekend provided the respite from travel and summer intensity that I sorely needed.
Over a sendoff breakfast on Monday morning, Klaus told me of the Wanderjahre tradition: the wandering year of a young apprentice who has learned his art and goes out to share his skills among the people he meets along the way, for sustenance and shelter. He can go anywhere during his wander, but cannot return home until the year is done. I thought about the circumstance that my own year abroad would reach fullness in just a little more than a month. But what had been my apprenticeship . . . the rarified art of living in innocence? Had I really become a journeyman at it?
Klaus cleared the dishes away and then took me in his zippy yellow roadster for what seemed a long ride out the highway toward Munich, finally arriving at a busy service stop on the autobahn, the perfect place from which to resume my Wanderjahre.
It was an unusually bright morning and I felt singularly alive and high as I walked to the far end of the service area, picked my spot and unhitched the pack on my back to set myself for another go at the road - when a sudden momentary catch between my chest and throat alerted me to something all too familiar; but I was too busy untangling myself from the pack to make the instant response it called for. For those few seconds of delay . . . I blew it.
A tachycardia attack had taken hold! My heart was speeding off like Klaus' yellow roadster, in a race with itself, and I had lost the moment to apply the brakes.
I can't recall how long I've been dealing with tachycardia. I do remember some scary times it has put me through, going back at least twenty years. It takes over the body with a sudden flush and weakness, and one can barely keep going at minimal energy level. It might take a half-hour or the whole day to run its course - I've never had the fear-free patience to wait and see. I work at stopping it, for there is no other choice. It takes the spine out of one's being, and the mind can be turned to nothing else while it's happening.
Over the years, I've learned a few methods for snapping the heartbeat back to normal, but like a bacterium that develops a drug-resistant strain each has run its course of effectiveness and no longer works for me. The only consistently reliable counter-measure has been a response in the first few moments of fluttering pulse: to stop everything and breathe deliberately and deeply, holding the first lung-full of air for a moment and then slowly and evenly letting it out all the way, doing a mental count at the proper rhythm. But the deep and slow breathing must begin immediately - before the tachycardia gains a momentum that is far more difficult to break.
The moment I realized it had gotten away from me I knew I was in trouble. With traffic pounding all around me, people looking at me from every direction (the idiotic things we worry about!), nowhere to hide, no place to go for help - as if I even knew what help to seek, miles out on the autobahn from Nürnberg . . . What to do?!
In dizziness and uncertainty, free of panic only because I hadn't the energy for it, I sat down cross-legged beside the onrushing traffic, put my earplugs into place and tried to find the calm for a return to deep-breathing. But it was impossible, trapped between that maelstrom out there and the one going on inside my head.
I looked desperately around for a way out of the maddening highway situation. A restaurant stood nearby, but the last thing I wanted was a social setting that required any effort at normalcy. I wanted to be alone somewhere. I saw a path to the side of the restaurant going through the trees, and I followed it - into a sheltered, rustic garden area curiously graced with a small stone Celtic cross, and no one in sight. A narrow bench faced the cross, a seating for one, as if it had been ordered for the very moment. I sat down to figure out what next in this situation of no options.
I tried again to meditate there, but it just wasn't happening. I tried one of the tricks I learned years ago when an attack had once driven me to a Berkeley emergency ward: holding a deep breath as tightly as possible while trying at the same time, with all available force, to exhale it. It had worked for me then, and maybe once or twice since. But it only resulted now in profuse sweating.
I considered getting someone to call for medical assistance . . . but that brought a whole other range of problems into prospect. No insurance, for one thing, and I was not quite ready to trade off my shallow funds for the riddance of my shallow heartbeat. Every avenue seemed hopeless. Must I get out on the road in this condition and try for a ride? How would I even handle it if I got one?
I'd once read a believable interview with a woman who led a hitch-hiking life, who said she'd continue to thumb when she became ill, and a doctor would pick her up. It sounds far-fetched, I know, but one rule of innocence is that the answer to any serious problem is to be found somewhere in one's immediate world. And it had always worked that way for me. I could hardly fault it even now, for this secluded glen at least gave me a measure of peace - however small the consolation. But what else was here for me?
After maybe an hour of this debilitated agonizing - which might have been a form of prayer, sitting there in front of a mystic cross, though I had no such conscious intent - a strange idea popped into my head. I recalled how medical attendants, in the case of a suddenly failed heart, would beat on a victim's chest . . . massively, with solid blows. Ready to try anything, I fisted my right hand and hit my chest over the heart as solidly as I could.
But I had pulled my punch, I thought. It's not easy to pound yourself that way with full abandon. I closed my eyes, tried to release myself to a total effort and did it again. Still nothing.
Once more, and a roundhouse swing, doing my damnedest this time to forget it was my own body I was slamming . . .
I rammed myself so hard that for a dazed moment I thought something was different . . . but it WAS different - I was breathing easily. I quickly grabbed a wrist to check my pulse and felt it steady and strong. The tachycardia was gone!
I sat there in an indescribable moment of relief, hardly daring to move lest it undo the results of that marvelous inspiration. I shall probably never know where it came from, whether out of left brain or right. Nor how I knew enough to keep trying until that successful third slam.
Back on the highway again, my spirits soared as only on a spring day. It felt like I'd been let free after standing on a gallows, or magically become a stripling despite my sixty-four years. It put me into a carefree, singing space, and when another hitch-hiker turned up not more than a few minutes later, a tall and gangly young fellow dressed in short pants and tank top with a big floppy-brim hat, I was quickly into conversation with him. From Hamburg, way to the north, and heading for Innsbruck, Austria, he spoke English easily and was a good deal curious as to how I found the hitching "at my age." (Ha! . . . If he but knew.) The implication, of course, was that drivers would hardly be stopping for an old man. And even as I pointed out, in reply, that all kinds of people sit behind the wheel, one actually - then and there - pulled over for me.
For the two of us, as it turned out. A middle-aged fellow going to Munich, and he spoke only German; but the gods, now working smoothly for me, had provided a translator in my sudden roadside friend. I saw to it that he took the front seat, while I sat in the rear. It wasn't long before we stopped so they could switch places up front - our driver apparently weary at the wheel from a long morning on the road. I silently gave it my blessing (for wasn't I now precisely at the center of Grace?).
Munich was hardly more than an hour away; and once there, we pulled into a parking area by a satellite rail station on the east side. I helped my Innsbruck-bound companion find his routing, through the transit maze on the station's wall map - I was getting good enough at this game to give assistance to a native! For me, the next stop would have to be a bank, via the subway downstairs. In good banana-peel form, I had once more let my pocket cash drop below the ten-dollar level.
I came out of the underground station literally agasp at the sudden surround of ornate and colorful old architecture. I was in the Marienplatz, the heart of Munich's downtown, with the Rathaus - the city hall - towering in front of me; yet the entire mid-day scene of lunchtime shoppers and browsers was as peaceful as if their world stood still. An incredible contrast with Berlin's hectic midtown pace.
In the span of an hour I found the only bank in town providing VISA cash, and then the American Express agency where a small bundle of letters awaited. Not among them, however - and it gave me a momentary jolt - the expected packet from London that should bring my last batch of maps and GN host lists for the countries I had yet to travel through. Well, I'd be here until week's end, and it would surely arrive by then.
After taking time to indulge in the lately rare privilege of reading mail over a cup of tea, I set out for the suburb of Grafelfing, where lived Rachel and Andreas with several other college students. I'd been looking forward to this since well before my departure from Seattle, for I had never met Rachel though we had been corresponding for some ten years - ever since she was a grade-schooler in small-town Texas.
It's an interesting and somewhat unusual tale that goes back to my California years, when I was a resource person on Simple Living for the Holyearth Foundation, from which the Earthstewards later emerged. Rachel was given my name by a teacher as part of a class project to familiarize students with groups working toward a planetary consciousness. She wrote to me, initiating an occasional exchange that continued as she progressed through school, and on to college in Iowa. She was now in Munich doing graduate work toward a language doctorate. In all that time I'd received only one photo, a high school graduation picture of an engaging young teen-ager - no longer a schoolgirl. So now, at last, I was going to meet Rachel, a co-ed well into life's stream.
Grafelfing felt comfortable, like an older, well-settled American suburb. Large homes stood on quiet streets shielded by shrubbery and picket fences; a few residents worked at lawn and house maintenance . . . the usual buzz of mowers and such, but very little auto traffic. I was expected, having phoned ahead, and received a broad grin from the fellow at the door, who called behind him for Rachel.
She was smaller, it seemed to me, and slimmer than the image that remained from that photo seen so long ago . . . more engaging, actually. Especially when her hair was let loose and allowed to flow free, from the severe way it was tied back for that first glimpse. I saw a serious young woman not quite grown into her studied self-image of the mature professional, for it gave way often enough to a charming laugh and smile. Her big fellow, Andreas, had also his serious side but was even more often light and playful. No longer in school, himself, he worked as a cartographer.
The experience of getting to know Rachel in this abbreviated week, after we had known each other by mail for practically half her lifetime, was rare and unique - something to be treasured not just for its own sake, but for the inter-generational element. There had been just enough substance in our correspondence that I had felt at times like a mentor - if not, indeed, like a wayward grandfather. But I don't think Rachel saw me in either light, for she treated me like an old friend, which was really what I wanted. She and Andreas had the attic portion of the house to themselves, a pair of fairly large rooms, and I was given sleeping space in one of them. Their three housemates occupied the lower two floors. Meals were shared or not, as convenient, though they made a point of trying to eat dinner together, with a system of rotational responsibility for it. I asked to have Friday night for my contribution.
Rachel and Andreas were taking off at week's end for a holiday in Spain, which is why I had to get to Munich when I did. Amazingly, I had arrived on schedule - the unintended schedule that had been pushing me, week by week, ever since Paris. The whole five days became an idyllic retreat from rigors of the road. I soaked it in like a thirsty sponge, sometimes going sightseeing into town with Rachel, sometimes on my own, but spending most of the early evenings and late mornings just lazing my time away at the homestead. August at this point was refreshingly free of intensity or hassle - almost to the point where I wondered how I could have gotten such notions. But there was still the matter of the missing packet from London. Day by day, as often as I went into town, I'd check for it . . . and day after day it wasn't there yet.
On the other hand, there was an indication that my August woes were finally over, in a very lucky break on the local bus taking me back to Grafelfing one afternoon. I was trying to stretch my bus ticket beyond its legal limit - either as to distance or time, I no longer recall which - and just as I was about to exit, a quite ordinary looking passenger revealed herself as an inspector, asking the person ahead of me in line to show her ticket. I scooted by and out the door as they were involved. Rachel later told me that I had barely escaped a heavy fine.
My mail packet held a letter from Evelyne, my first Parisian host, whose address had been among those lost in Darmstadt. It was sent as a reminder of her August translation assignment here and contained a Munich phone number. She answered my call and we got together Thursday afternoon to re-convene our rambling-everywhere conversation, while we strolled and lolled the Isar River's grassy banks near the huge Deutsches Museum where her services had been engaged. I had to 'shape my hearing' all over again, to the strange rhythm of her accented English.
Evelyne always had a look of quiet amusement about her, not residing in a smile but in her features as a whole, as if she secretly knew that the world was nothing more serious than a place to enjoy . . . and was content to keep the secret of it to herself. She knew of a modest, not very crowded cafe and we went there for dinner and more talk, late into the evening, mainly about the adventures I had come through. She still thought it possible to pay me a winter or early spring visit if I found sufficiently roomy quarters for myself on some sunny Greek isle.
I finally had to accept that the expected packet of onward travel resources was not going to arrive. Whether by error or outright loss, it had just vanished, like my addresses in Darmstadt. And maybe for similar reasons in the scheme of things - something I had better take into account. A second piece of awaited mail hadn't come, either, which fit right into the picture. One of the lost addresses had seemed critical: that of Georghe in Romania, for he was practically the key to my easy passage through the Balkans, getting ever more significant as the Yugoslavian conflict continued to roil and boil. So I had written immediately for it to Tom, in Amsterdam, whose address I had on a booklet he'd given me. But no reply from Tom ever arrived.
The circumstances seemed to present a clear pattern. It was August, the year's energy was at peak, and I was getting the prompt that my journey was just about done. Or should be, at any rate, for I could not much longer ride nature's own energy crest. Like a surfer who has lost his wave, I'd just be struggling to stay afloat. Never mind that my plan was to search out a winter's haven in Greece. Never mind that Evelyne might even join me there for a week or two - something for fantasy to play with - or my promise to Georghe. Or that another longtime correspondence friend awaited me in Budapest.
I couldn't help wishing that Klaus was there to talk with. It was a clear contest between the urgings of left brain and right. My conscious side had an agenda too rich in promise and potential to set aside; but the right brain, in its characteristically silent but insistent way, was telling me to let it go.
Well, there is beauty in living by innocence - taking the measure of things as they come and adapting to their requirements. There is also beauty in taking one's own reins in life and charging through obstacles. I have strong convictions about which is the better way to live, but I am not without the urges to glory and love and plain old self-gratification that from time to time can overpower the most dedicated convictions. In retrospect, I might have paid more heed to those messages - which I'm sure I correctly understood - but . . . I chose to ignore them. Even as Freud is said to have once observed, "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar," pointedly ignoring the `Freudian' implications of his habit (but neglecting to add that one chooses the left-brain perspective). I sent an urgently worded letter to Europe's top coordinator of Good Neighbors, in Denmark, asking her to send the host lists for Romania, Bulgaria and Greece, as well as Austria - to mail them to me in Vienna, in time for my arrival there.
For Friday evening I prepared a favorite eggplant dish in a simmering veggie-rich tomato sauce and completed the dinner with a special dessert known only to me (up to now, at any rate). I call it a Black Hawaiian: chocolate ice cream topped by chunk pineapple in its own syrup and finessed with a touch of cream sherry or marsala. These folks in Munich could not know it, but I was celebrating a twentieth re-birthday, though the proper occasion for it was yet several days away.
Refreshed completely, by Saturday morning's departure time, I bid my two young friends a happy holiday, had a brief last rendezvous with Evelyne, and resumed my own further journey - heading this time northeast toward Czechoslovakia. I had originally intended to go south into Austria, but the lack of a host list argued against it. Besides, I had promised myself another visit to Prague after that flawed first time with Albert. If I went directly, however, I'd be back in a weekend situation there, so I decided to linger awhile in Regensberg, an hour by rail from Munich.
There wasn't much of a host list there, and I ran entirely through it, connecting on the very last one - a couple living a few miles out of town. Roland, a teacher in his mid-30s, came out to the station for me, and we were quickly back at their cool, white-walled villa-style home high on a hill. Ute, a journalist, greeted me there with an immediate spread of tea and cookies, but warned me that her time was mostly taken up by work on a doctoral thesis. It had to do with women's support of Germany during the first World War - a subject I naturally knew nothing about, yet our brief exchange somehow led me into a conversational entanglement over general feminist issues, and I found myself unaccountably cast as a male apologist. It wasn't in any real sense a confrontational discussion, yet it felt like each of us was defending territory and somewhat barbing the tips of the points we made.
I didn't see much of Ute after that except for dinnertime and its considerably more subdued conversation, and I was a bit concerned that I might have been more offensive than defensive in the afternoon's lightweight joust. As I turned in that evening, in a very comfortable upstairs room, I wondered why some feminists seem to draw that sort of response from me while others do not. Some claim their ground by making an issue of it, even if only in tone of voice. While others - and I thought of Evelyne once more, and Simone, too - are simply being themselves, in some easy, sure sense of who they are.
Sunday morning, up before anyone in the house, I set out on foot to retrace the route Roland had driven and to see what I could of the town. Like a rabbit warren, it was ribbed and crossed by narrow stone-paved streets, each hemmed between tall pastel-tinted walls, so similar in general appearance that it called for constant attention to a map, to avoid going in circles. I had my first glimpse of the Danube River here, too, marking the old town's north boundary and split by lenticular islands, here, into several channels. One of the bridges I walked across that morning was a narrow stone structure dating from 1135 - said to be the oldest original bridge still in use north of the Alps.
Off to the right, just before reaching this crossing as I came toward town, was a narrow path bordered with greenery and sheltered by natural arbors. Unable to resist its pull, I hiked up to a poster-perfect Bavarian setting: a little hilltop church that stood alone in a meadow, edged with bright flowers and etched against a deep blue sky. At right angle from my own path to it was another, much steeper, coming directly from town and bordered by a hewn-rail fence. On alternate fence posts were small wood-carved scenes of the stations of the cross. Church-goers, some of whom labored up this path with all their aged energy, completed the picture. In a parking lot near the church were automobiles that had come by some other access road; but a few of these villagers seemed to prefer the long, difficult pathway to the top.
That evening, as I sat outside with Roland in the still warm air, both of us silently watching stars blink into view in the deepening purple of an unusually peaceful twilight, I thought about the interesting conjunction of perspectives at that little church on the hill. For some people the automobile is just transportation. For many more it's the most presentable way to get to church. For still others - and maybe most - it's sufficient power not to even need a church. But there are yet a few who choose the strenuous walk over the easy ride. They radiate a strange aura of contentment, even cheer, though they tend to say very little of such things as these.
Roland drove me into town early Monday morning. I drew a week's worth of VISA cash: two hundred deutschemarks that I could exchange as I went, taking my chances as always that I'd find another VISA-honoring bank the next time I needed one - a little the more risky in the unpredictabilities of eastern Europe. My sheltered time in Munich had been easy on the budget, the week's expenses amounting to only $83.88. It took me a bit back from the brink, to a nine-week average of exactly $96.
I wasn't sure until the last minute, which of two possible train routes I'd take. The schedule decided it and I went for a pleasing little village called Furth-im-Wald, three miles shy of the Czech border. I deliberately spent the last of my German coin there, somehow making it clear to the woman behind the pastry counter that I wanted as much as it would buy. It bought cherry cheesecake with tea, savored at an outdoor table while I wrote a postcard to Terry. Then I set out along the meadowed, rolling countryside at a good stride toward Czechoslovakia and eastern Europe, once again.
"...barely escaped a heavy fine." Many times in Europe, I didn't even pay for local bus passage. But it was more often a matter of simple expedience - not knowing how the system worked - than any intent to cheat. In most cities, a ticket has to be purchased in advance and then validation-punched on the bus, so that pasengers commonly enter and move right on by the driver. But you have to know the system - where and how to get tickets - in order to use it. It was often far easier just to ignore it.
"...youth hostel..." I couldn't have stayed in this hostel if I had wanted to. Bavaria is one of the last remaining holdouts for the original idea of youth hostels, where note but the young are welcome.
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