The articles found below include a sampling from over ten years of writing originally posted on the blog The Practice Room, as well as newer writing originally posted here, generally dealing with culture and history in the regions of Tyrol (Austria) and Upper Bavaria (Germany).
Summer of Cicadas
I just spent three months in southeastern Pennsylvania, visiting family. One day while raking leaves, I noticed lots of little holes in the ground – perfect little circles, like bullet holes, all through the woods, even underneath the leaves. And in some places there were also what looked like miniature earthworks — little vertical tunnels, maybe a few centimeters long, made of what appeared to be hard, dried brown mud. What on earth was going on here?
Ah, yes. I hadn’t realized. It’s 2021, and the 17-year cicadas were back!
At first I was looking forward to the experience – the first time I encountered them, in 1971, I was too young to have much interest. In 1987 I was in California. In 2004 I’d flown back from Europe after they’d already hatched. So this would be the time I could observe at least part of their lives, from nymphs through fully mature creatures. I also remembered that they were loud.
Well, loud they certainly were.
The 17-year cicada starts its life as an egg, deposited in a slit that its mother has made near the end of a tree branch. The ends of the tree branches turn brown (this is called “flagging”), die and eventually fall to the ground, allowing the tiny, newly hatched worms to burrow into the ground and stay there for 17 years, living off tree roots and probably working off the trauma from that long fall.
When the time is right, the cicadas nymphs emerge from the ground in waves over several days, crawling up the barks of the trees in the evening twilight.
They seem to have their own individual reasons for stopping their upward march where they do – some get to the end of a fern frond or a bush, and that’s that. But some stop just a few feet up a very tall tree, while others continue on 100 feet further. When they stop, they attach themselves to whatever they’re climbing – tree, frond, fence, side of house – and begin their final metamorphoses into fat, flying insects. A few days later they emerge from their dead shells and buzz off into the trees to look for mates.
The males, according to Wikipedia, congregate in choruses to entice females. The sound can be unnerving. It’s like something out of science fiction, high and eerie, like spaceships landing, and at peak periods they “sing” through the day and in the wee hours of the night.
But cicadas only live for a couple months, and so by July this entomic Woodstock comes to an end. Their noise grows fainter as more and more of their corpses collect on driveways and lawns. They’d found mates, made slits in trees to lay their eggs, and died. And the cycle beings again.
On the 13th of January at 7:50 in the evening, my father slipped the bonds of earth and left us.
My father’s first name was Joseph. People called him Joe. His parents had always called him Son. My mother called him Smitty. He was the only child of a Depression-era, multicultural marriage. My grandfather was the oldest child of Italian immigrant parents. He might have been a happier man in his youth but I didn’t see much of that as his grandchild – he was always kind to me, but he could withdraw into a cold anger, and his way of dealing with that anger was to stop speaking to you. This was a trait he passed on to my father (and in turn to all of us children, each one of us dealing with it differently). My father’s mother was a Pennsylvania Dutch farm girl who eloped with my grandfather before she was 20. The marriage was not a happy one – and ended after 50 years when my grandmother learned that she qualified for subsidized housing. I used to say that my father inherited a fiery Sicilian temper and the German talent for keeping it all inside, but course it was much more complicated than that. In some ways he was Sicilian to the core, and at the same time an affable, hard-working local boy. Not that those things are in any way mutually exclusive; it just depends on who’s on the receiving end.
My parents met on a blind date on New Year’s Eve, fell in love, got married, and had children. My mother became a school music teacher, eventually getting her master’s degree. My father had attended a military academy but not college, and served in the Navy before settling into sales jobs back home. He was a sales rep for grocery stores, driving around his territory, taking orders, checking the displays. He would bring home overstocks – lemonade mix, soap. He would do paperwork at home at his desk, just off the kitchen, filling out forms printed on pastel-colored paper. He must have had lots extra, because I was allowed to take it for drawing, something I did a lot as a child. I was always doodling, so maybe this was my parents’ way of keeping the margins of their books undecorated. Although I don’t remember Dad being much of a reader. He read the newspaper, of course, and maybe magazines. I don’t remember ever seeing him read a novel.
There were four of us children, spread out over eight years, with the first three coming one after the other in quick succession. My Dad came from a generation that must have felt like the rug had been pulled out from under them in the late 60s. As children, they had been shown tough love, were disciplined for any infraction, formed into adults through fear and respect for their elders. They did everything expected of them because there was little alternative, and yearned to be free by becoming adults. But they then watched as their own children grew their hair long, took drugs, dissed the establishment, took an interest in socialism, played loud rock music in their bedrooms, talked back. And no amount of iron fist was going to make things go back to the way they used to be. His relationships with his older children grew strained. The younger ones learned by watching and walking on eggshells when necessary.
My Dad enjoyed hunting, and kept a small collection of rifles and other firearms. Deer mostly, also pheasant (and once a rabbit that I remember being prepared by my Mom for dinner – his dinner, as none of us would dare to eat poor Thumper.) When hunting season rolled around he would spend evenings in the “gun room” he’d staked out in the basement, filling shells. He’d been an NRA member but left the organization when it started getting political and survivalist.
He was very adept with tools of all kinds, including power tools. With a house on two acres of woodland, you had to be. Chainsaws, wood chippers, pressure cleaners, the ATV with the trailer to haul logs up the hill and the plow to clear snow from the long driveway. And he was as strong as an ox, even into his eighties.
In retirement, he and my mother did a bit of traveling. They bought a van that was outfitted for camping and took a couple of road trips around the country, including a long one to Alaska and back. Despite my Dad’s fear of flying, they even visited Europe a few times. Looking back, I suspect that by their last trip, to Germany to visit me, the dementia was starting showing itself in subtle forms. A year later, it was noticeable in ways that I still didn’t associate with illness. My father was not one to share his internal life with us, or to ruminate about the state of the world or ask us probing questions about our lives. Like the fathers of many of my friends, if he answered the phone when I called, we’d talk about the weather for 2 minutes and then he’d say “I’ll get your mother.”
But one time he surprised the heck out of me. I was living in Salzburg in the 1990s, when cell phones and home internet weren’t things that everyone had yet, and so many of us expats had fax machines to send messages that were quicker than mail and cheaper than a long-distance phone call. One afternoon, my machine started spitting out… a love poem. One or two pages of it, and then a note from my Dad, explaining that my Mom had written it for him back when they were young. He’d kept it safely tucked away in a drawer and their anniversary was coming up in a few months, could I make a song out of it and record it for him? That he thought out this plan still astounds me today, not least that he knew how to use the fax machine without being able to ask my Mom for help, since she was the main communicator in the household.
But back to now – he held steady for several years, but the inevitable slide came over time, and in the end he died at home, cared for by my mother and my sister, two heroes to the end. Thank God he didn’t contract Covid-19, as his condition would not have allowed him to understand what was happening, and he wasn’t always cooperative with nurses.
About three days after his death, I was busy working at the computer. Suddenly, I distinctly felt that he was there, or somehow the essence of who he was, as if he had swooped down on his way out, just to communicate that he was OK, and that he loved me. It lasted for about a minute. And then he was gone.
Rest in peace, Joe.
Time Travel with the BayernAtlas
We often drive through a Bavarian village with a bypass running east-west just of north of it, created so that cars (and trucks) on the main road from the lake to the next town don’t have to navigate all those crooked village roads. On the west side, a short stretch of the older road was left intact (ending in grass), so that you can see how the current main road used to connect to it (and now continues to the left). The east side always puzzled me, though, and for years I wondered if the road we use to reach the bypass was the road that had always been used, or if that had been somewhere else.
I recently found the answer (it’s the former), and I’m only telling you about it because the search led me to the discovery of this website of the Bavarian Ministry of Finance and Home Affairs.
The BayernAtlas website has a nifty function called “Zeitreise” where you can travel through time (virtually) by zooming in to the area you want to view and then clicking on the time bar to bring up digitalized versions of maps that would be current for that time frame. This way you can see when buildings were erected, when new roads were put in or when existing roads were realigned (to bypass villages, for example). You can even play with the transparency to see how two maps line up.
Here’s an example of what I mean. Today, the site of a small patch of managed forest…
…evidently once held a complex of building structures – most likely barns or stables.
What I haven’t yet been able to do is learn what the symbols – for example the circles and tepees, not to mention those things that vaguely resemble steam ships – represent.
A visit to the Horse World Expo
About two years ago my freelance translation work brought me in contact with the owner of a boutique agency specializing in translations for the equine sector, i.e. all things horses. She was looking for an English-speaking translator who had some experience with horses or at least interest in learning more, and I was looking for a new challenge. Our collaboration has continued and last summer I became a full member of the team. I’ve learned more about the equestrian world that I ever believed possible, and there still so much to learn. I’m still a crappy novice rider, however, and that won’t change any time soon!
Anyway, we’re adding a blog to the agency’s website and I’m permitted to cross-post my own contributions here if I wish. The following post is my first blog post for Anima Translation.
I was home visiting my parents in eastern Pennsylvania just before the United States government began to take the coronavirus seriously, and on 29 February drove to nearby Harrisburg to visit the Horse World Expo 2020.
The Horse World Expo attracts exhibitors from all over the country, however its flavor is distinctly regional. Many of the companies are local, as are the visitors. This isn’t a trade fair for horse snobs. The halls and arenas were filled with regular folks, including Mennonites (in their distinctive garb and the men with beards without mustaches) and lots of teenage girls.
My original mission had been to visit with the people running the stands and ask if they would be interested in expanding their market with translation services, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that this was not the right crowd for foreign expansion, and after getting a few bemused looks I decided to just enjoy the event and learn from it.
The Farm Show building is divided into two general areas. On one side there is the trade fair hall: large enough for hundreds of stands, with an area dedicated to the latest innovations in supersized horse trailers, a couple of seminar areas, and a (small) roundpen for presentations with horses. On the other side are two large arenas with stadium seating, and here is where the larger events took place. These included the Trail Champions Challenge, a timed competition for horse and rider to accomplish some country-themed tasks (mending a fence or shooting a cap gun in the saddle, backing up one’s horse through a U-shaped alley without stepping over the poles). The most entertaining for the audience was the last task, where the rider had to dismount her horse at a free-standing wall with a window, walk over to the other side of the wall, pick up a camera and take a flash photo of her horse, and then return and get back in the saddle. (Many horses felt that enough was enough at this point and headed for the exit, with their riders trotting after them.)
What could I take away from the Expo in general? English style riding was certainly well represented, but most people there seemed to be primarily interested in Western riding. Many of the arena presentations, such as the Trail Champions Challenge and the session on gaited horses – Tennessee Walking Horses and others – came with a heavily Western flair. The “regional” country atmosphere was mainly enjoyable (I was able to buy my parents some good old Pennsylvania Dutch Whoopie Pies), but sometimes extended a little too far into the camo crowd for my comfort, for example the stand selling T-shirts bearing Confederate flags. But that, too, was a lesson learned – horse lovers come in all kinds of packaging.
“A visit to the Horse World Expo” is cross-posted at http://anima-translation.com
The Voices of Our 1960s-70s Childhoods
Are you the kind the person who has songs running through your head at all times? I am. Not every single second of the day, but most seconds of most days there’s something playing in the background (or foreground) of my consciousness. When I was involved in opera productions there would be a whole minutes-long passage that would loop back to the beginning at some convenient harmonic convergence, so that it might not end until some other music took its place. Since I left the business most of my “ear worms” have ended up being fragments of songs from recently-played CDs (yes, we are dinosaurs and still buy CDs).
Sometimes they go way back in time, however. (For several months, “You Never Give Me Your Money” from the Beatles’ Abbey Road album switched on in my head pretty much every time I entered the kitchen. No idea why.) This past Christmas Eve, I pulled out my old DVD (like I said, dinosaurs) of the 1966 animated cartoon special “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas”, which we never missed when it was broadcast on American television during my childhood. That was nearly 2 weeks ago, and I thought nothing more of it, but then something very strange happened this morning.
I had woken up around 6:30; it was still dark so I was just letting my thoughts roam where they would, when for some reason I recalled the theme song to the early 1970s TV series “Love, American Style”. And then…wait, I thought, those back-up voices. Don’t they sound just like the same voices on the Partridge Family Album? Now, I haven’t heard that album since I was maybe 10 years old, but I remember listening to those songs and thinking that the singers sure didn’t sound like a group of kids. They sounded like adults. OK, but who were they?
Well, here we are in 2020 and Wikipedia is indeed a wonderful thing (and I need to make a donation to them!) Get this: it’s the same constellation of singers, concentrated around the brothers Tom and John Bahler, here in a group called The Love Generation but more often generally part of the Ron Hicklin Singers, a group of studio singers who were hired to record pretty much everything we late Baby Boomers – the generation portrayed in the old TV series “The Wonder Years”, actually – heard on television during the sixties and seventies. Commercials, theme songs, you name it. Along with the Beatles and the pop artists on WFIL and American Bandstand, these singers more or less sang my entire childhood.
Here are some examples of where you can hear the voices, collectively or individually, of the Ron Hicklin Singers (courtesy of their Wikipedia entry): the theme songs for the TV shows Love, American Style, Batman, Flipper, That Girl (Season 5 opening), Happy Days. There they are backing up lead vocalist Cyndi Greco in the theme song to Laverne & Shirley . They recorded songs for the show The Partridge Family and the cartoon spin-off The Brady Kids, songs for the Monkees, including “I’m a Believer” (!!), for Paul Revere & the Raiders, and probably about a thousand other songs and jingles that flowed out of TVs and into American ears during the 60s and 70s. Of special note: Thurl Ravenscroft, the brilliant and unmistakable bass voice of “You’re a Mean One, Mister Grinch” from the above-mentioned DVD and Kellogg’s Tony the Tiger (“They’re grrrrrrreat!”) was a Ron Hicklin Singer. And Jackie Ward, the group’s alto, was by her own accounts “the voice of Rice-a-Roni” for 20 years.
The Bahler brothers allegedly can be heard in the song “MacArthur Park” (there were male back-up singers on that? I pulled it up for a listen on YouTube. I didn’t notice any. Unless they sing those super high notes at the end?) and “Suicide is Painless” from the 1970 film M*A*S*H*.
And especially Burt Bacharach’s swinging “South American Getaway” from the 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Listen to this song on YouTube. Listen with headphones or earbuds if you can. They’re terrific.
And there’s Thurl Ravenscroft, of Grinch and Tony the Tiger fame, singing bass, PLAIN AS DAY. [Wait, stop the presses: the soprano on this song, Sally Stevens, recently commented on YouTube that it’s herself, John Bahler, Jackie Ward, Sue Allen, Ron Hicklin and Bob Tebow.]
It only took me literally 50 years to realize this. Sure, it all sounded similar. As a kid, they all sounded like a bunch of grown-ups to me. I never realized they were the same singers, doing it all.
In Via: Milestone, Via Claudia Augusta
It’s not an original, of course, but a replica, with historical information written in German. This milestone is placed next to the route of the Via Claudia Augusta, here an unassuming gravel road, where it crosses Bahnhofstrasse near Leeder, west of the Lech (The Bahn in question is the old rail line between Landsberg and Schongau, which is only used for special tourist trains a few times in the summer.)
Via Claudia Augusta
The Roman state road was built in 46/47 A.D. by Emperor Claudius and ran from Northern Italy through the provincial capital of Augsburg and [to] the Danube
To Augsburg: 34 miles
In Via: The Keltenschanze near Utting
Having read Zeitspringer’s recent post (in German) about the earthworks in Holzhausen near Fürstenfeldbruck, I felt inspired to tell him (and you) about a patch of farm country that has become one of our regular walking routes. It’s got beautiful scenery, crosses through fields and woods, often has lots of horses (from the stables at Achselschwang) and – to my enduring delight – features two ancient landmarks: a section of the Roman road to Augsburg and a pre-Roman earthwork, known as a Keltenschanze or Viereckschanze (the red line and the red square in the image shown below, in a screenshot from the always interesting Bayerische Denkmal-Atlas).
I won’t suggest a specific circuit because the route we usually take starts at the parking area off of Landsberger Strasse, and may not be the best for visitors coming on foot or by bicycle. Those unfamiliar with the area using a combination of public transportation and their own two wheels might consider alighting at Geltendorf and riding through St. Ottilien, continuing south to Utting. One can also catch the Ammerseebahn at Geltendorf and take that train directly to Utting (but be aware that it’s a long uphill climb to the main road. Alighting in Schondorf and taking the cycle path along the main road will be easier on the legs, and probably no longer.) If you really want an adventure you could take the S8 regional rail line from Munich to Herrsching, cross the lake by padde steamer to Holzhausen or Utting, and then pedal from there.
There is a sign with information about the Roman road posted just south of Achselschwang, and one in front of the Keltenschanze.
Afterwards, pedal down to the water’s edge in Utting, where you’ll find a nice restaurant (visitors) near the boot landing as well as a lakeside beer garden (locals). From there it’s only about 100 meters uphill to the Utting rail station (or a boat ride back to Herrsching).
The PDF found here (in German) contains a good introductory description of the Roman road as it passes west of Utting.
Older posts on the Via Raetia and the Keltenschanze:
The Antiquarian Life: Frau K
It is time to write about Frau König. (Kindly note that all names and places have been changed)
Several years ago my husband, a bookseller, got a telephone call from an elderly woman who lived in a nearby town. She was looking for someone to buy her small private library of books, and he had been recommended to her. This, in itself, is fairly normal in his line of work. In fact, the people who call him with such requests are 90% elderly women from the area. They are moving — often their husbands recently passed away, and they are downsizing to an apartment in the city or a senior residence, and it’s finally time to get rid of all those old books, but of course no one can bear the thought of throwing them out. This is where my husband comes in — in a profession that calls for him to be part antiques dealer, part funeral home director, he has an assuring and knowledgeable manner from which they infer that their old books will be respected and will “go to a good home”. Most everybody understands that it’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, because no one wants to hear explicitly that their beloved, worn-out 1980s bestseller paperback with the parts underlined in red pen is going straight into the Altpapier container.
But back to our story. Frau König was planning to sell her apartment and move into a posh senior home on the other side of the lake. On the phone, she emphasized to my husband that she had some rather valuable books, and invited him to come to her house so that he could make an appraisal. When he got there, she sat him down in a chair and presented him with… three somewhat underwhelming and altogether worthless old books from the 1950s. He didn’t lie to her, but neither did he jump up and leave, and maybe she was just testing his reaction. She hinted at more treasures in her office downstairs. Frau König didn’t have a date set for the move, nor a buyer for the apartment, but she must have felt that she had someone lined up to take her books. And so began a somewhat weird business relationship, where she would make lists of the books she was ready to part with, and my husband would drive over and pick them up, sometimes in little paper gift bags she’d had lying around. Virtually none of them had any worth to speak of, but somehow we felt that it wouldn’t be right to wave her off now. At some point, after a couple of years of this, I began to tag along, and she would make us mediocre coffee and chat about politics.
Unlike the other widows who were unloading their deceased husbands’ collections, Frau König had never married. She’d had what sounded like a pretty interesting career working for German embassies, though, which had her traveling to places like Russia and Ethiopia. She’d had connections with Africa and some mildly interesting art on the walls, and a lovely old grandfather clock (probably inherited). Her taste in books ran to travel literature and romance novels. She seemed lonely, although we couldn’t say for sure, as we weren’t that close. Our visits to Frau König were often preceded by a good measure of reluctance and eye-rolling, but often we’d both agree, in the car afterward, that we felt happy to have done a good deed, and that maybe we’d done ourselves a good deed in turn as well. It’s hard to explain.
When she finally had a moving date and the sale of her apartment taken care of, Frau König summoned us over to settle accounts regarding the price of the books. My husband had struggled for several months with a bad feeling about this, because he didn’t think she was going to be happy with his price, especially after that first “presentation” of her treasures. It turned out surprisingly well. She was taking a heavy old bookcase with her to the senior home, and the books that she wanted to keep with her were placed “just so” inside it. But she didn’t have anyone who could note their current order and put them back that way after the move. “That’s no problem” said my husband, while I whipped out my smartphone to photograph each shelf. In the end, she offered to settle our accounts that way – instead of payment of the books we had taken off her hands, we’d come to her new place and put her bookcases back in order. Thinking back on this, I am fairly sure she could have done this by herself. But we were happy to oblige (and relieved not to have to break the news to her about the low market value of her library).
I left for a visit to America just after that, and thought it would be nice to send a postcard congratulating Frau König on her new home. I include this just to show that we had started to become a bit fond of her, like an elderly neighbor who doesn’t get out that much any more. Plus she had moved to our side of the lake, so visiting was an actual option now and then.
My husband had arranged to see Frau König a few days after the big move (which happened while I was away). He found her in the lobby, asleep in an upholstered chair, so he quietly took a seat and waited for her to wake up. When she did, she didn’t recognize him. “And who are you?” she asked. But then her senses returned and she suggested a coffee in the residence’s cafe. She was distraught at the chaos in her apartment, she said; “everything is a mess!” He offered to help, but when they went to her apartment he was surprised to see everything in perfect order. She had even had her pictures hung on the walls. After chatting a little while longer, they agreed that we could come back when I returned from America, so that we would get her bookcase in order and maybe invite her out for a coffee. A week later my husband was at her old apartment, picking up a small sofa bed she had offered us. For some reason we had agreed, thinking it could serve as a day bed in the office. Honestly, I don’t know what we were thinking. Anyway, when he got there the new owners were already fully underway with renovation, and just wanted that pile of her stuff gone.
Three weeks later, after my return, there was no answer when he called her new telephone number. But we were busy, and just thought we’d try again later. You already know where this is heading.
The news arrived through an email from her nephew, Herr König, from up north in Bremen. Frau König had passed away in her sleep at the senior residence, just three days after my husband’s visit. She’d been in her new home for a mere nine days.
Our initial shock and genuine sadness were cut short by our encounter with the nephew, who had contacted us because he thought we might like to take those remaining books and the bookcase as well, as the apartment had to be cleared out in two weeks. Herr König, the executor to her estate, turned out to be a decent model for a Sackville-Baggins. We met him in his aunt’s nearly empty apartment, where he immediately starting complaining about the trouble and the timing of both her move and her demise, and then he complained pointedly about his aunt, despite our having just having shared warm and friendly stories of having gotten to know her. He suggested we could pick out what books we like, because “the recycling container is right at the end of the hall” and the rest could be carted there. My husband set aside a small pile of books, which seemed to irritate the nephew. In short, he expected money, and the fewer books we were taking, the less money he could expect. He also requested an offer for the bookcase, and when I gave him one (quite low, as we had not understood his intentions earlier, and had thought we were doing him a favor by helping to empty the apartment), he suppressed a laugh and replied that he’d just as soon have it taken to the dump. “Then you should do that”, my husband tersely interjected, and then he took the high road (and I love him for doing this) and explained to Herr König the value the various items he had set aside (“this may be something, in any event, don’t throw it out”) after which we wished him luck and departed – empty handed but utterly relieved. Back outside, we looked at each other and exhaled. “No wonder she seldom mentioned her relatives.”
Rest in peace, Frau K. I am sorry you couldn’t enjoy more of your new life, but I’m glad we had a small part in it.
May 5th, 1988
The postcard arrived in his mailbox on the 4th.
This was it. It was now happening. The last few years might have been like a dream, but the months leading up to this moment had been like the day of a storm, when the clouds are gathering and the air pressure has dropped, and you know something’s brewing, and you welcome it but at the same time it makes you nervous. There had been massive preparation involved leading up to this moment. And here it was, the postcard.
He knew in the back of his mind that, under what one in the West might call “normal circumstances”, it wouldn’t have been a sure thing that he and she would stay together. It wasn’t a sure thing as it was, but they were in love, and there was so much riding on the decision now that there really wasn’t room for second thoughts. The decision had been made and they were sticking to it. They’d met a couple of years before, back when she had come to his hometown to visit a mutual friend, and sparks had flown from the start. He not being allowed to leave the country, they met regularly in Prague. They spoke for hours on the phone, knowing full well that the Stasi was listening. Eventually they decided that the only way they could be together would be to marry, so they got all their paperwork in order, including the application for permission to emigrate for personal reasons. This last point had required some careful thought – he would have done anything to leave the GDR and emigrate to the West, but this could jeopardize a relative’s chances to be accepted to university or be promoted at work. The state tended to hold things like that against your family if you demonstrated your desire to leave*. They determined that there was no immediate danger to anyone’s career. They arranged a modest wedding and reception. He did most of the planning, as it had to take place there in East Germany. Her parents came over, as did several of her friends. His friends were there. His parents refused to come. Afterwards she drove her car back over the border, packed with more of his things. And then the waiting began.
When the postcard came, informing someone that he or she was now permitted to leave the country forever, you then had to quickly collect the relevant papers at the relevant government authorities in order to receive an official exit visa which was only good for 24 hours. He’d already sorted his belongings in anticipation of its arrival, assigning everything he couldn’t take with him – record collection, furniture, housewares. When his postcard arrived, he called round and let his friends know, and they convened that evening for one last night of drinking, smoking, and reminiscing together.
It felt permanent, and sad. He wanted nothing more than to get out and experience life in a free country, but it was painful to look at his friends and wonder if he would ever see them again. He was leaving 27 years of his life behind, locked away forever behind an iron curtain.
A few of his closest friends stayed through the night, and crashed at his place in sleeping bags. The next morning, bags packed, he was accompanied to the train station, where they all said their last goodbyes. There were tears. He promised he would write. What a feeling it was, the finality of it, as the train pulled away from the station. He was leaving his country and the only home he’d ever known, and even though he’d hated it and couldn’t wait to get out, it still came with a measure of unease. What would happen to him now? Would he even make it out? The border police were not above playing games with those bearing exit visas, if they were feeling ornery.
There were three older women in the train compartment with him. Two looked past retirement age – retirees had more freedom to travel in the West, since the GDR half-hoped they’d leave permanently and would have to stop drawing on their pensions. The third probably had a temporary travel permit. No one spoke. This train served as a normal regional train with stops along the way, people getting on and off until the last town before the border.
There, at the border station, the train was stopped and the customs officials summoned him to alight and join them for questioning in their administrative building. They made him unpack all his baggage and identify everything while the train sat in the station. They searched all his things, examined his customs forms, asked him questions. After an hour, they were satisfied and allowed him to board again, and then the police came through to see everyone’s travel papers. The train moved again. He stood in the aisle outside his compartment, smoking cigarette after cigarette and watching the land roll by. They passed through the death strip, something he had naturally never seen before with his own eyes, and recognized it as the furthermost boundary of his entire world until that moment. Beyond that point, the other passengers suddenly became cheerful and more talkative. A member of the Bavarian border police appeared – Grüss Gott, where are you traveling to? Ah, Munich? You’re moving to be with your wife? Very nice. He had never heard someone in uniform speak to him in such a friendly manner. The atmosphere inside the compartment turned palpably lighter. He was in the West. He was out.
She was waiting for him on the platform when the train pulled into Munich. It happened to be her thirtieth birthday, and so she’d made reservations at a nice restaurant in town. He still remembers everything about that day. It was a beautiful spring evening, the sun was shining, and he was riding through his wonderful new city in the passenger seat of his new wife’s Citroen. He was indescribably happy, with a feeling that his future – their future – fanned out before him, seemingly without limit. Hinterm Horizont geht’s weiter. They would travel. They would start a family. There was no way to know that within two years they would split up, that the Wall would come down, that his old country would cease to exist, that he’d start a new career – after it was clear that his East German diploma, from the best of universities, was somehow suspect – and that neither the career change nor the divorce would be his last.
*From Wikipedia’s entry on crossing the inner German border: “The process of applying for an exit permit was deliberately intended to be slow, demeaning and frustrating, with a low chance of success. Applicants were pushed to the margins of society. They were demoted or sacked from their jobs, excluded from universities and subjected to ostracism. If the applicants were parents, they could face the threat of having their children taken into state custody on the grounds that they were unfit to bring up children. The heavily politicised East German law code was used to punish those who continued to apply for emigration despite repeated rejections. Those who repeatedly submitted emigration applications faced charges of “impeding … the state and social activity”. If they sought assistance from contacts in the West, such as relatives or West German state bodies, they were guilty of “illegal contact” or “traitorous information transfer or activities as an agent.” Criticising the political system was a crime of “public disparagement”. Over 10,000 applicants were arrested by the Stasi between the 1970s and 1989 on such charges.“