The seat numbers in a Deutsche Bahn carriage take a while to figure out. Walking along the aisle, you see 44, 46 on your right and on the opposite side there is 42, 48; one step further you find 43,45 on the right and the ones opposite those are 41, 47. I try not to think of logic; pattern recognition serves me better. On this journey to Brussels, when I finally sighted the number I was looking for, it was occupied by a bald man calmly flipping through a pamphlet. I checked again and it was correct: I had the window seat.
“Excuse me,” I said. “I have a reservation for that seat.”
He looked up with a puzzled expression, and said nothing for a few moments.
“Ich habe eine Reservierung. Fenster Platz,” I said, pointing to the window seat.
“Ah, you want to sit at the window!” he said, getting up from the seat. “No problem.”
“Thank you.” I said, and squeezed myself between the edge of the seat and the table.
For the next few hours I was lost in the pages of Paris to the moon, Adam Gopnik’s collection of essays on Paris, and didn’t think once about this man in the adjacent seat. Then, a little while before Aachen, on a whim I turned around and asked: “Are you travelling to Brussels?”.
“No,” he replied. “I will get down at Aachen, fifteen minutes from now. And what about you?”
His English was slow and halting; the accent was German but it had a tone unfamiliar to me.
“I’m going to Brussels.” I said.
“Do you live there?” he asked.
“No, my Wife lives there, and I usually visit her during weekends.” I said. “Do you live in Aachen?”
“No,” he replied. “I live in Zurich. My girlfriend lives in Aachen.”
“So we share the same plight.” I said.
He hesitated a bit, and said: “It is a long distance – very far.”
I let it be. Over the years I’ve learned – in conversations with Germans – to stick to constructions of English that are simple to understand, and to avoid making quips one might throw around in a conversation with a native English speaker. But sometimes such remarks slip out, with unpredicable consequences.
“So you have been travelling from Zurich?” I asked.
“No, actually I was at Kassel, for a super eight festival. I am interested very much in super eight movies”
It was now my turn to hesitate, to try and understand him. I knew nothing about the “super eight” he was talking about; it sounded like series film, and some posters of the “fanastic four” I had seen recently came to mind.
“What is this – super eight?” I asked.
“It is a kind of film,” he said. “8 mm, and it is used for short movies.”
“Interesting,” I said. “I hadn’t heard of it before.”
“Actually it is quite well known,” he said. “It was very popular some decades back, but then the video format took over.”
“So this festival was about movies made with this film?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied. “It was a festival of detective films made with Super 8 film.”
The conversation then drifted to detective novels. He was a fan of Georges Simenon, a Belgian who wrote detective novels in French. Simenon’s stories, he said, were set in common households and communities, not among middle or high-class people. It was easy to see why he identified with that; he seemed one of those “common” people, shabbily dressed and carrying a soiled cloth bag. His spectacles, large, pointy, with a thick black rim, reflected a style that probably went out of fashion decades ago. He was middle-aged, but looked like a character in the black-and-white movies from the fifties.
“So were you at this festival to watch these movies, or do you also make them?” I asked.
“Yes, I make Super 8 movies,” he said. “I also act in my movies – I do it with a friend, so when I act he shoots and when he shoots I act.”
“How long are these movies?”
“Very short – around ten to fifteen minutes.”
This reminded me of the “The short films of David Lynch” I had seen recently. I mentioned it to him.
“Do you like David Lynch?” he asked.
“Very much,” I replied. “And these early films already indicated his ‘strangeness’, and that was interesting to see.”
“Yes, I see.”
“Why do you use Super 8, and not something digital?” I asked.
“Because I can feel it,” he replied without hesitation, rubbing his thumb and fore-finger. “I can cut it, mix and match it with my hands….you see….it is physical….I can feel it. That is very important for me.”
The train was slowing down; we had arrived at Aachen. He picked up his bag, hung it over his shoulders and shook hands with me.
“It was nice talking,” he said, and gave a wide grin.
“Nice talking to you too,” I replied.