Antje’s Anniversary Present

Stuart was the first philosopher I’d ever met. At least he saw things that way. He was actually studying it in university, in South Africa I think, and could hold forth about Nietzsche’s opinions on this or that matter while as a 19-year-old hitchhiking through Europe in the early 70’s, all I could muster was a general awareness that the guy was cool for our generation because he said God was dead and dug the concept of superman…

        == 1 ==

Stuart was the first philosopher I’d ever met. At least he saw things that way. He was actually studying it in university, in South Africa I think, and could hold forth about Nietzsche’s opinions on this or that matter while as a 19-year-old hitchhiking through Europe in the early 70’s, all I could muster was a general awareness that the guy was cool for our generation because he said God was dead and dug the concept of superman. Stuart was a few years older than I. Tall, black hair, vaguely preppy looking, and with a small beard. Happenstance had brought us together in the same youth hostel cabin in a rural clearing somewhere in southern Denmark that pleasant July evening, he heading north and myself ambling south.

But it was not to be that I’d become more fully informed about Nietzschean ethics during this conversation. Stuart noticed over dinner that two Swedish girls were assigned to the cabin diagonally across the field from us, and in his academic fashion he’d begun steering the topic towards devising a plan whereby I would function as his wingman while we made a thinly disguised courting visit to them. He circled around the strategy, which was to involve beer, by first expounding upon the comparative mating traits of young women from various Scandinavian lands. “Finnish girls tend to be stupid, but they willingly fuck alot.” Maybe the ‘but’ was more like a ‘therefore’. August as his next three paragraphs doubtless were, they passed by in a white noise blur while I fixated on this morsel. At first I simply took it on faith and actually entertained the truth of the notion. I tried to recall some Finnish faces I’d seen on my travels, to abstract some image of the generic Finnish character from these imperfectly remembered physiognomies, but I could arrive at nothing, only at something wishful. How could they all be dumb and yet all like to fuck alot? And were these two qualities related? Was the chilly climate a factor? Finally my naivete gave way to skepticism and the haze cleared, but not without leaving an impression of curiosity behind as to what a typical Finnish girl was like.

Probably there existed a small percentage of suitably-aged hippie youths who had less wingman aptitude for seducing attractive Swedish girls than I did, but I doubt whether any of them were in southern Denmark at the moment. And so, make a long story short, we slept alone that night in our separate bunks, Stuart likely fuming at my ineptitude. I saw Stuart briefly again next morning grabbing some continental breakfast, but I left soon afterwards, choosing to walk the kilometer plus past rural farms to the main highway instead of waiting for a ride or sharing in plans. I was in the mood to begin early, to quickly feel that splendid aloneness and freedom again. It was always most optimistic in the mornings, the crisp air, the openness to anything which might come, the fragrance of unformed adventure garnished with destiny, walking with little in the way of agenda and no knowledge of where that night my head might lie, all in a foreign land. It was exhilirating. Even the wildflowers were new and different.

After about an hour of this buoyancy, which amounted to near five kilometers with my backpack, I got round to thinking of practical matters. The weather was slightly overcast and I periodically turned backwards to face an oncoming vehicle and hitch for a ride south. It was perhaps thirty plus miles to the German border, and I expected maybe as early as lunchtime to be enjoying some curry bratwurst with frits or something similar. I was about halfway through my two month meander now, I’d been through Belgium, Holland, neighboring areas of Germany, the Rhine-Westphalia, and to Copenhagen, Sweden and lovely wild Norway. Throughout I was impressed with the ease of travel, how quickly and reliably serendipity intervened to move my path forward, or beneficially sideways. A chance meeting here, a friendly driver wishing to chat with a wandering American there. In Belgium I’d received an hour ride to the border one afternoon complete with a free lunch stop all because a kind young salesman type was concerned that I not leave his homeland without partaking in some currant-filled Belgian waffles. And delicious they were. It had itself become an enduring theme for reflection during my alone walking time: how deliberately placing myself into an unstructured, uncluttered sea of events was beginning to exert a soothing karmic balm over my entire being. Often I’d noticed how baffling misfortunes were succeeded by thrilling joyful delights. Waves of gusty wind and precipitous salt-water slaps against my face alternating with impossibly beautiful caresses of sunlight. So often — I’d begun to expect reversals more stoicly. But always until today, I could count upon frequent intervention from outsiders. It was absurdly easy to hitchhike through western Europe in the early 70’s if you were young. But not today. No one stopped; few even glanced. There was a cloud of indifference fogging over the flatlands of southern Denmark. Was it the social mood of the local populace? Or something contagious about the dreariness of the day, perhaps I was giving off an uninviting impression? I tried various rhythms, ignoring traffic for a few hundred yards, then turning round with my finger out for exactly three cars. Stepping lively until I heard a vehicle a few seconds behind me and then whirling about to request conveyance. But soon I caught myself taking 20 minute breaks, just walking on, soldiering it. By early afternoon an entirely new perspective had taken hold of me. I’d finished off the youth hostel’s two apples and bread and cheese, and paused for a quick roadside snack of tosti, ham, cheese and mustard around lunchtime. But now I was resolved to walk unassisted to Germany, no matter what. It was a fusion of athletic challenge and contest of will: one against the threatening elements and monotonous droning of auto engines, rising and falling in a distant random cadence five or six feet away from my left shoulder. The least social day of my trek so far, and by a wide margin. Walking, thinking, pressing on. Softening darkness and a dimly sensed pressure of the approaching border accompanied one another after many forgotten hours.

Years later, sitting comfortably at home somewhere, I calculated that the distance I conquered that day entirely on foot was 61 kilometers — still an unbroken record for me and one unlikely to be threatened nowadays. I had skipped dinner, no big deal. But my muscles were weary, tired of walking and my shoulders wished to be unburdened of the backpack. I was standing in darkness at the line of cars for the border. Some European border crossings were eventless and easy, but this was a highway and I was the odd pedestrian. I estimated it to be between 10 and 11 PM judging by the darkness, and as the roadway widened into several control booth lanes I considered my tactics. I could see a forest just after the border on the German side and figured it would go on for a few hundred yards at least until some village or town interrupted it. After passing a decent distance beyond the lights and activity of the crossing I would slip casually into the trees and conceal myself perhaps on a bed of leaves, backpack for pillow, my recently purchased rust-colored Norwegian sweater for a blanket. If lucky, a nearby stream would help me freshen up my hands and face and brush the teethies. It was a little colder than usual, but I’d get by till the morning. There was a hotel and restaurant-bar at the border, all lit up, and noisy, the scene for local party gathering I presumed. It was a Thursday night, I believe. The agent was used to backpackers — the European youth hostel system was set up for them as a means to self-educate and travel about the neighboring countries — but I had a scruffy look and the hour was late so he pressed a bit as to my destination and plans. I said I aimed to reach the youth hostel in the nearby town of Flensburg and he told me it was four kilometers off and offered the hotel as an alternate suggestion. But we backpackers didn’t do hotels, our shining ideals being deeply offended by the idea of spending more than five dollars a day. He realized this and I shrugged and off I went wishing to put enough distance between my back and the border to allow ducking into the woods. Right away the lanes narrowed on the German side and I had only a slim walkway for awhile amidst the oncoming line of stalled cars waiting to cross north. Unexpectedly, one of them swerved and lurched slightly while I was teetering a bit glancing back over my shoulder, with the result being that I bounced into the rear panel of the car with my hips making an audible smack.

[ A market street in Flensburg ; Flensburg Harbor at dusk ; A 1911 painting of well-known Flensburger Emily Hennings by Hanns Bolz ; Johanneskirche in Flensburg ]

The driver leapt out apologizing effusively and while I was reassuring him that nothing serious happened and trying to take the blame myself in broken German I caught the distinct whiff of alcohol in his aura. He was not yet middle-aged but starting to bald a little, average height, layered jacket and sweater, kindly but with disorganized emotions and speech. I guessed he was a little tipsy. He went on awhile fussing about how sorry he was and wanted to make amends somehow. I wondered if there were some spartan laws about striking pedestrians at border crossings in Germany which I didn’t know about. He figured out I spoke English and began peppering his apologies with an American phrase or two. We calmed down and he seemed reassured but was thinking intently. He insisted upon compensating me, but with a kind of awkward grace, not aggressively. He asked me if I was hungry and could he buy me a late night ‘apology’ meal and I had to make a quick assessment. He seemed okay. Off and quirky, a little bit sad. He indicated I could get into the passenger seat and we could park at the border restaurant. My intuition decided yes. He quickly abandoned his aim to enter Denmark and drove into the hotel/resto parking lot via a side road I’d not even noticed, making some introductions along the way. His name was Klaus and he lived in nearby Flensburg and seemed pointedly pleased when I answered in the affirmative to his guess that I was an American.

We must have made an odd pair in the resto-bar: 35-year old inebriated guy ushering a seriously disheveled appearing foreign backpacker to a table. Bright place, glaring lights, strange scene, mostly men, soccer on the TV screen. The eternal party at the edge of Denmark. He chose a spot slightly isolated so we could hear each other’s conversation. It was difficult for me to speak at first, to concentrate on German, for I was tired from the day’s walk. But soon a wonderful omelet and hamsteak arrived with some potatoes and toast, and as typical for anywhere I’d seen in Europe, a tall tapered glass of room temperature beer. You practically had to ask not to receive it. I was glad of his generosity and my energy began to pick up. After some polite discussion about my background and what I was doing he became more circumspect as the subject turned towards himself. We often helped each other to find the right word. I paid attention. He was a little drunk that night for a reason, it developed. From what I could make out, he’d been driving about in despair for a few hours because he’d recalled in the evening that it was his wedding anniversary. His wife’s anniversary as he put it. And he had no gift for her — he’d forgotten. There was probably more to this story, but one thing I’ve since learned is that you cannot project your own cultural assumptions about what is normal or what is contentious or edgy onto others in a different country. You have to let things be amorphous until they shape themselves. I pitied him and wondered why this slice of life had fallen into my lap. After 45 minutes or so, his story was ending and I was thinking soon I would thank him and wish him well and encourage him to head home in better cheer — but I knew nothing about having a wife and child. A pause. Klaus was melancholy and yet politely scheming. He looked at me searchingly, finally summoning the courage to deliver the thrust of his proposal, pleadingly for a German I think, but still retaining his dignity. “Sie können die Blumen werden!” His wife had long wished for a young American visitor to come and spend a few days. American, explicitly. I’m not certain why. Maybe she admired the technical prowess (they were both computer programmers — foreshadowing my own career, strangely enough), or the open-hearted friendliness we supposedly exhibited but that I honestly never perceived. Americans had good street cred in those days. “Robert, won’t you be the missing anniversary present for my wife? It will be a wonderful surprise.” And rescue his hiney from the frying pan, I imagined. But once again my intuition said yes. I was itinerary-less after all, on purpose. It was easy to conceive of all sorts of ways this could go wrong. But it sounded more in line with my fate than sleeping in the forest. The path of the youth hosteler tramping around Europe was the path of openness and spontaneity. Klaus was thankful and relieved, though still nervous. He would have to do another sales job upon arrival at his home.

Antje‘ was the name of Klaus’ wife. I liked the sound of it. He told me by way of preparation while growing increasingly silent and maybe sleepy. He had two more beers at least while we talked and had decided to phone a taxi for us instead of doing any more driving that night. He left his car at the border — perhaps not the first time I supposed. The fifteen minute drive was just long enough for my imagination to work out the most offbeat, scary, and newsworthy scenarios which might unfold at our destination. Klaus supported my fantasies by remaining pensive and aloof in the seat behind me, even teetering towards a beery slumber: political intrigue involving the theft of my passport and it’s removal across the Iron Curtain; a kidnapping scheme targeting solo travelers; perhaps a mildly coerced sex romp meant to cater to Antje’s annual ‘hobby’. This last picture had me wondering whether I’d be deemed a worthy bouquet, when finally the taxi slowed to stop and pulled to the impeccably clean Germanic curb.

“And so, we are here; this is my house. Don’t be nervous, I’ll explain you to her.” The utterance came out more slurred than before — he was barely awake. He paid the driver and we walked down a little concrete pathway lined with bushes to the door. “Vielen Dank, Robert”. He both pressed a doorbell and fumbled through his keys in the dim light. Standing this close to him I really could smell the evening’s primary activity. Antje arrived quickly, with an intelligent, not entirely unkind but efficient glance at us. She seemed to assess the situation more rapidly than one might expect, certainly outpacing Klaus’ labored and roundabout greeting and explanation. The German was too fast, and on his part mispronounced, for me to follow. Instead I watched her face for clues. She gave him a hug, part conciliatory, part dutiful, and indicated to him that she’d take over from there. He walked inside and I could gather he was heading off to bed after spending his final ounces of energy for the day in my deliverance. I caught a whispered ‘Happy Anniversary’ plus his boasting assurance that I was American. And just like that I was tete-a-tete with Antje, wife of Klaus, past midnight in their foyer.

Antje was an attractive mädchen with reddish-brown shoulder-length hair precisely framing an alert though inviting face. About 31 and still youthful, yet obviously acquainted with the vicissitudes of adulthood as compared to myself. Not too tall, slim figure, thin lips, delicate nose, light brown eyes which conveyed sensitivity and thoughtfulness. Maybe I imagined the most ephemeral acknowledgment of humor at our present situation shining through them. Tan sweater, small but shapely breasts which I tried to avert my attention from, keeping the focus on her face. Her face was speaking to me. Good English with a very pleasant accent. I liked her instantly. Whereas Klaus presented a skittish and nervous impression, her presence exuded a soothing calmness and confident propriety capable of redeeming any circumstance. On a software development team, Klaus would be the impulsive it’s-okay-to-make-errors-as-long-as-you-made-them-hurriedly seat of the pants type guy who was less than enthusiastic about design meetings but occasionally would surprise with some result because the sheer chaotic span of his efforts. She, however, was the calmly inquisitive overseer, grasping all the interlocking factors and implications from high altitude and methodically analyzing the best plan forward. And she combined this pragmatic wisdom with a woman’s graceful emotional insight. While I was entirely given over to my inner world, a mix of impressions and fantasies sprouting from them, with too little cognitive wherewithal left to discern the difference, Antje somehow rapidly progressed through deciding I was okay, ushering me to my own washroom, making polite conversation, and prepping a small but comfy guestroom for my accommodation. By the time I came to she had efficiently settled me in and intoned goodnight, closing the door softly.

Certainly she was far too balanced, deliberative, and grounded to flirtatiously slip into my bedroom with a loosely-tied bathrobe and seductively check if I needed anything while Klaus snored in bliss upstairs. Right? It was in working out the details of this eventuality, suffused with the memory of her voice and the extraordinary sensual comfort of this bed and pillow that my already questionable wakefulness seeped into a dark warm dreamscape.

        == 2 ==

Every so often, once in five or six years, I take a lovely old dark brown tenor recorder from it’s resting spot. It has migrated with me through perhaps twenty different abodes. It did not come to me because of any passionate longing or some keen fascination with it’s beautiful form through a shop window. It simply arrived by grace.

I feel the smooth worn wood with my fingers, and remember the again familiar contours of the walnut grain curling around it’s body, a sturdy two feet long. I study the placement and shape of the finger holes and test the lone metal key and it’s slightly off-white pad. I smell it to check for any traces of it’s once delightful scent, and then maybe play a few wandering notes. It always has the deepest moody-rich tones. Then I take apart the three segments, look at the cork fittings and test their snugness. And I apply a smidgen of black walnut oil with a soft chamois cloth to each crafted wooden piece and place them down to dry on some paper towels. Watching and feeling it, I let come what memory pictures will from the times I’ve had and used the instrument, and also from the time when I first received it and carried it with me.

[ St. Marien Harbor in Flensburg ; Hugo Eckener was a famous Flensburger known as the pioneering father of the zeppelin — his star fell during the pre-war years due to his anti-Nazi stance ; One of the town’s several market squares ; The Flensburg brewery has been operating since 1888 ]

        == 3 ==

My dim ingratitude spectacularly self-corrected during the next three days. A bubbling joyful morning voice came running down the hallway arousing me from a most restful sleep. It’s delighted blonde head popped into the room, forthrightly proclaiming “Good Morning, I am Willi! And soon we eat breakfast!”. He was ten, a face exploding forth with optimism and inconceivably perfect blue eyes, with a voice like pop music. I was granted about three minutes for toiletries with the subtle messaging not to be caught dawdling since he had a thousand questions for the new home visit guest. Bursting in after the flush indicated my brief privacy was completed, he gave my foreign toothpaste a curious whiff. Enroute to the dining room we stopped by Willi’s bedroom which he was much too excited not to give me a tour of. There was a guitar against one wall and I mentioned I too liked to play music. ‘Elektrische?’, his voice ascended. The question beamed with hope and joy. When I noticed his Jimi Hendrix poster over the bed, he asked expectantly if I were personally acquainted with him. I suppose my hair somewhat looked the part, and besides, in America perhaps all hippies knew one another. It was clear we were going to be pals for the duration of my stay and that Willi would serve as my guide into the land of German domestic life, a privilege for any visitor to any country. A female voice called from down a long hallway, as did a wonderful melange of kitchen fragrances. I followed my happy guide to my first official European home cooked meal.

I was introduced to the grandmother who lived upstairs in an attached apartment, smiling warmly as she made a few last moment deliveries to the communal table. It was the beginning of a long weekend; there was an air of familial relaxation. Klaus greeted me, looking quite cleaned up and domesticated. He once again assured me of my kindhearted bravery for agreeing to be the ‘guest’ and had now assumed a self-assured comfortable commitment, father of the house role, to show me the extent of his German hospitality. Antje was on board as well, and after inquiring as to my sleep she launched into a description of the assorted breakfast materials which were arrayed along the center of a dining room table, linen tablecloth and all. If this was not their usual weekend morning routine for a family breakfast, they surely did a good job of concealing it. I was placed in the most central chair at the table, within easy reach of everything. Klaus began informally by grabbing some toast and jam and slices of cheese and placing them on his plate, so I followed along. Everyone just took what they wished throughout the meal from the middle. There was a warmed bowl of poached eggs covered with a woven cloth and a slotted spoon for scooping them out. A tray of four different kinds of warmed bread which smelled of heaven, each kind more intriguing than the previous, filled with all varieties of nuts and seeds. Another tray of assorted cheeses, colorful and healthy looking. I imagined I could improve my health by 50% simply by moving to Germany. Two bowls of different kinds of scrumptious mueslix with raisins twice as plump as I’d seen from Sunmaid boxes back home. Golden ones too, and currants, and prunes. A large platter of various cold cuts which put what I was familiar with to shame. Butter, salt, pepper and cinnamon. Small bowls of colorful jams with each their own dedicated spoon: Apricot, boisenberry, dark cherry, red raspberry and perhaps one or two I did not recognize. A warm pot of hot cocoa and another of tea and coffee. A bowl of plums in syrup. Also a pot of oatmeal and a bottle, real glass, of milk. Something like cooked bacon strips but more substantial, probably ham. The protocol was you just took as you were hungry, the actual eating plates were quite small. Klaus often constructed open-faced sandwiches; Willi enjoyed the oatmeal and poached eggs and cocoa. God it was delicious after a month of hosteling.

At some point I mentioned how poached eggs were one of my favorites and how my grandmother used to make one for me atop rye toast while I watched how peering over the lid of the saucepan. This initiated a discussion of my background. They listened intently and with some pride as I described the German side of my heritage, how my grandmother’s parents on my father’s side came over to America from the Alsace and how my grandmother brought with her a wealth of knowhow blending German and French cooking. Especially the grandmother listened to this; I could tell she could partly understand English but was unable to speak any of it. Sometimes Antje translated a word or two for her. I told the meaning of my German surname and they approved, and explained that I had two years of high school German, enough to muddle through, when they asked why I knew some of their language. In fact, during this trip I was still young enough to pick up some things naturally, without deliberate study, and one time even caught myself daydreaming in German. I told them my grandfather’s branch came from Heidelberg and that having wandered about Benelux and Scandinavia already during my trip I was now thinking to spend time in Germany and head south towards Bavaria eventually. Antje seemed interested in my mode of travel and we unfurled a conversation about hitchhiking in the U.S. and also the youth culture in general, which she seemed to have a social sympathy towards, even the countercultural elements. Rock & Roll had penetrated Germany deeply much to Willi’s delight, but so too had protest movements and generation gaps.

Their family life sometimes included sports and athletic games. We spent a couple of hours at a nearby municipal activity center playing ping-pong and electronic pinball. Because it came out that my favorite traditional German meal was Sauerbraten, I suspect, it was served for Sunday dinner next afternoon with red cabbage. They called upon the grandmother’s expertise for this. I recall the smells wafting outside the house as we were all kicking around a soccer ball in their small but serviceable back lawn. The food scents impaired my skills as much as my lack of familiarity with using the feet so deftly as athletic tools. I was used to hands: baseball, American football, frisbee. Klaus and Willi were pretty good however; and even Antje.

Another time I was sitting with Willi looking for something in my backpack, and he saw me moving around a silver flute I had brought along, entirely impractically as it constituted a fair percentage of my carrying weight, to Europe, with a mind to play a tune as it struck me in a train station or a city park somewhere. I wasn’t very good technically and had almost no formal training, but I could manufacture a short melody expressively when in the right mood. Willi’s eyes popped out of his head and he excitedly asked if he could try it and then immediately ran off to show Mom und Dad no sooner than I had nodded. This led to a long discussion about music and a demonstration of a couple of Donovan tunes. They seemed genuinely pleased with this and Klaus went upstairs to fetch a gorgeous wooden recorder from a dresser drawer. Now it was my turn for the eyes to pop. It was a tenor, one of those nice thick and lengthy ones. I had never tried one before, only the typical light wood sopranos. This one was a rich dark brown and in three segments. Klaus assembled it, explaining they’d had it for years but no one knew how to play it, and suggested I could perhaps give it a try. “Really?” Willi and Antje watched with interest. I handled it respectfully, looked it over and put it to my lips. It felt pleasingly substantial. I made sure my fingers were all in the correct places above the sound holes a blew a long tone letting it modulate a little towards the end. Then I followed with a few trills and tonguings up and down the scale before lingering at a chosen closing note. It was so pleasing and deep. Beautiful to hold and to play. They applauded my talent though I knew I had little; mostly I think they were impressed I was able to coax some musical sound out of it, permitting them to hear what their long fallow instrument sounded like.

One day Antje was sitting in her living room reading a pamphlet as I walked in waiting for Klaus. She honestly thanked me for taking time from my adventurous travels to stay with their family. I took this in with an amusement she detected, as I hardly felt put out by this powerful combination of generosity, warmth, and the chance to witness unguarded German social interactions close up. I asked her why it was that she had long wished to host an American visitor. The slanting afternoon sun glistened on the soft brown of her eyes and reddened the highlights of her hair. She thought a moment and told me of how an American soldier had given her a candy bar in the street when she was a little girl, only four years old. This was just after the war, a difficult time of rebuilding both infrastructure and psyche. That’s what started her interest. She had wanted to visit America as a student but it never materialized; working life and motherhood came unexpectedly soon. She still hoped one day that Willi would get to go when he got older.

This made me reflect about how much I admired the European spirit of cultural cooperation, and that they had the vision to set up a continent-wide youth hostel system to encourage youths to self-educate and travel about each other’s countries. In Germany it was considered a rite of passage, an item of equal footing with say physical education as part of a citizen’s well-rounded upbringing. I felt a prick of cultural shame about how such an arrangement would be a long way in coming to the U.S.; the individualism and geography there seemed to work against it. Even now as I think back, it is amazing that I was able to set off to Europe, Brussels, with literally no plan, $200 in traveler checks, an international youth hostel card, and an open-ended round trip ticket allowing me to return back home from Zurich simply by visiting an airline office and giving 7 days advance notice as to my intent. The youth hostel system, Jugendherberges auf Deutsch, (five luscious syllables) was crucial to this European vision. It cost me around $12 to obtain a membership card for one summer’s worth of meandering, and I used it in nine different countries but could have applied it to many others. The overnight cost was always nominal, often a dollar or two. There were several thousand hostels across Europe, so many I had stopped using my guidebook list of them. You simply arrived in a town or city and began looking for the international YHA symbol; there were usually several nearby choices. Hostels varied from approved little cottages and farmhouses to small student hotels and larger dormitory style buildings in cities, but they were rarely without charm and you were sure to meet people your age from all over the world during each night’s visit. The constants were: you received a bed, a shower, and some kind of morning breakfast sendoff. In France this might mean a croissant, a piece of cheese, some tea and a banana. But in Germany – ooh la la – they believed in ‘hearty’. Of course no hostel approached the heartiness of Klaus & Antje’s youth hostel, and that was the other aspect of this post-war inexpensive European vision. It was a way to meet people from all walks of life, cross generationally. My two months in Europe featured perhaps ten or twelve nights where I happened upon some situation other than a youth hostel for lodging, and these were always occasioned by something interesting, usually the generosity of strangers. (As with this story.) Alas, this sort of thing seems to be on the decline nowadays in the world, and I am much the sadder for it.

[ Elvira Madigan, born in Flensburg, was a famous circus performer and tightrope walker. In 1889 she met her tragic end in a double suicide with a Swedish nobleman whose heart she captured, their affair doomed because of incompatible social standings ; Flensburg aerial view ; Cobblestone streets at Willy Brandt Platz ; Nightfall at Flensburg’s Nordmarket ]

After a typically sumptuous lunch on the day of my agreed upon departure, Antje came into the living room and pulled me aside for a moment. She presented me with me a piece of cloth from an old towel wrapping a small bulky object. It was the disassembled walnut tenor recorder; she and Klaus had decided to gift me with it. I was overwhelmed by this gesture though I doubt I exhibited sufficient maturity at that age to also not display my enthusiastic joy. I recall protesting that maybe one day it could be passed on to Willi, but she said they thought it through, that he really preferred more modern sorts of things, and that they believed it should reside in the hands of someone who could enjoy using it, and that they could think of no nicer souvenir of my stay. I made it clear how thankful I was for this, and for everything, but to this day I still cannot convince myself that I didn’t get far more from the experience with their family than I gave them. It was clear that good fortune shone down on that ‘chance’ encounter at the border crossing half a week before. We exchanged addresses and it was mentioned that Willi would someday have a contact available to him in the U.S. should he ever manage to visit. Although this never came to pass, I still feel strangely connected to them to this day and wonder how their lives unfolded.

        == 4 ==

The plan was for Klaus to drive me to the Flensburg train station. I was standing by the door of his car fastening the ties on my backpack, having made my warm farewells to Antje and Willi, when the grandmother suddenly came outside beaming. She’d barely said a word to me during the visit but always smiled kindly. She came to me now arms extended, handing me three perfect apples. I could tell that to her this was the gift of life itself and was intended with incredible warmth and love. I began to thank her when she stopped me and said earnestly “Alle is gute, gute, gute!” It was a gesture the sincerity of which only a young child or an elderly grandmother can make.

Driving off in his car for the final time together across his small city, I noted how contented and comfortable Klaus’ face appeared, in contrast to the nervous agitation it bore when we first met. There was no further need for us to say much. Each would think about this according to his own perspective in future weeks or years. We passed an autobahn entrance ramp with signs for Munich, south, and I noted it’s location. A kilometer further on Klaus deposited me at the station, and after our goodbye handshake and watching him drive off, I determined to forego the trains and instead walk, retracing the route back to the autobahn ramp. It was a sunny afternoon. Freedom.

Re-spirited once again by the unconscious riches of half-digested experience, and also by the conscious riches of new treasures in my backpack, I gladly walked. Remembering again why I had come — for that feeling of open road in an unknown foreign place, and to resume once again that subtle negotiating between happenstance and proclivity and providence which would determine my destinations and meetings. I felt not in the slightest way upset or even upsettable; I was chasing nothing.

Preferring not to crystallize what I wished for, I departed, I departed, not knowing where I was headed except south.


You can read another adventure about hitchhiking in Europe at age 19 here.

Handy INDEX — scan through all available ||SWR|| articles

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