On this particular Saturday, the 25th of July 2009, I woke up from the right side of the bed, as usual. (This may seem like an irrelevant detail, but it tells you how things all began normally: there were no signs of what was to come later that day.) The light through the half-shuttered window suggested a sunny day ahead – perfect, I thought, for spending the afternoon outside. After a late breakfast I drove to Heidelberg, taking the B291. There was nothing unusual about the drive; traffic was moderate, there were cyclists on the road, and Radio Regenbogen played its usual mix of popular numbers. Now that I think again about it, perhaps there was something different: I do not remember stopping on the way, so all traffic lights must have been green. Merely a low probability event, you may say; nonetheless, given how events played out in the end, there may be something to this after all.
At Heidelberg I parked as usual in P4, below the Darmstädter Hof Centrum, climbed three flights of stairs (the elevator did not arrive for a few minutes), and walked into Hauptstrasse, full of people. Ahead, at Bismarckplatz I saw a gathering of sorts, which was quite normal: the square is an ideal place to attract attention to a cause, and it wasn’t uncommon to see one or more organizations with stalls and banners, spreading their message, be it for peace, for smokers’ rights or for the environment. On this day I did not bother to see what it was all about; I was in a hurry to go to the library, which would close in less than an hour.
At the library I saw Dr.Ahmad talking to another staff member. He waved when he saw me, which was a bit surprising, given the dignity he usually conducts himself with. He has the air of a university professor, a scholarly presence, but on this occasion I observed in his movements something I had never spotted before: nervous excitement. It was as if he was getting ready for an important performance. I didn’t think about it further: the new arrivals section, stacked with titles I hadn’t seen before, had caught my attention. There, hidden between books on American politics, Global warming, and World finance, I found not one but two books on Leo Africanus: a historical novel by Amin Maalouf (whose Samarkand I had enjoyed very much), and a work of non-fiction by Natalie Zemon Davis. This hadn’t happened before; I do not recollect ever reading, simultaneously, a book of fiction and non-fiction on the same figure (or topic, for that matter). Pleased with this coincidence, I decided to check out the books immediately. At the counter Anne was very cheerful; she was leaving soon for New Mexico, she explained, for the break in August when the library would be closed.
Outside, by the time I reached Hauptstrasse, the gathering at Bismarckplatz had grown into a protest march. People – men and women of all ages, with their children – carrying green placards were marching in silence; the Hauptstrasse crowd moved to the margins, making way. The column moved by quickly, and before the next batch arrived (I saw them coming in the distance) I crossed to the other side and took a side lane, Sankt-Anna-Gasse, that joined Plöck.
Plöck runs parallel to Hauptstrasse. It is a quiet street, a stark contrast to the activity on Hauptstrasse, and I like walking here, looking at shop windows on the way. There is an art dealer who sometimes keeps a painting or two outside – I’ve seen people walking by stop to have a look. Next to it is an antique shop whose windows display chess-sets of exotic shapes and texture. A little further, hung along a wall that seems part of an apartment block, are black & white portraits set in elegant wood frames. In the beginning I was always surprised by them – I used to wonder why anyone would choose such a location to display those beautiful photographs – but now-a-days the exhibits are just a pleasant distraction: on this day I again found myself slowing down as I walked past them, taking in the tentative happiness of a bride in white, the child-like innocence of sisters – twins – in front of a tree, the relaxed attentiveness of a woman reading a book.
I was heading for the English bookshop near the street’s end, but when I had about two blocks to go I crossed an opening that made me stop. I had seen it before: the arched entrance led to a courtyard, at whose end a bright yellow-coloured wall had a door carrying a sign, in white with black letters, of a Yoga institute; a creeper that ran up the wall hid part of the sign. I do not know if it was the combination of colours on that wall, the curiously shaped curls of the creeper, or the pattern of stones on the ground – something made me enter the courtyard. I found myself drawn into the enclosure, not knowing why, with little idea of what lay ahead.
The courtyard was deserted. To the right, hidden in view from the street I had just left, a low fence separated the courtyard from a clump of trees. It was a strange place for what seemed like an entrance to a densely wooded area, right in the middle of the altstadt, the old city. Walking closer to the fence I saw that the wooded area was actually a graveyard – a few graves with small letters were visible nearby. In the darker interiors I could see outlines of crosses, their sharp edges jutting out of a jumble of undergrowth. I climbed over the fence and entered the woods.
To be continued…