I’m sitting in the balcony of our new apartment. Ahead, five rows of near-identical sloping roofs are followed by a line of trees: the beginning of a Wald. To my left, two church spires compete to dominate the view,
and in the distance I see vineyards on low hills, clusters of cottages, arcs of electric wires. On the right there’s a three-storied cottage with a rose vine coiled around a pillar that mirrors, turn for turn, the adjacent metallic spiral staircase. Next to the cottage and just above the line of trees, a dipping sun forms a perfect circle of crimson .
We moved in on the 16th of June. The moving company from Brussels had hired a couple of local hands who arrived in the morning at eight-thirty, an hour after the agreed time. One, a tall German with a brusque manner, went about his business swiftly and efficiently; the other, an overweight Turk, walked about lazily (like a Turkey, Wife said), smoking a cigarette every ten minutes, talking about how to do something instead of doing it. A manager, one would have thought, watching him from a distance. The real manager, the Belgian who had hired these folks, seemed to be doing most of the work himself.
An ‘elevator’ was setup in the garden below. A simple pulley-based machine powered by a motor, it would transport all heavy items – including the piano – almost effortlessly up to our 2nd floor balcony. By eleven-thirty they were done, but this was only part one: my old apartment in a neighbouring town was waiting to be emptied. There, the packed cartons were loaded onto the truck, the furniture dismantled, the fragile items carefully bubble-wrapped, and when all this was going on a few neighbours dropped by to enquire about the move. Frau Jeager – in her nineties and with a memory that is growing more unreliable each day – expressed sadness all over again (She had already done this twice when Wife and I had, on independent occasions, talked about our planned move.) After hugging us both she went into her apartment and brought back an off-white table cloth with a fine lace border. “This is for you,” she said, in German. “I’ve nothing else for you right now, only this cloth I embroidered some years ago.”
This was the Frau Jeager we had always known. Nine and half years back, when we moved into that apartment, Germany was a new place and we barely knew the language, but that didn’t stop her from telling us all about her life and the happenings around. She would go to the Friedhof every weekend, where her husband was buried. The first time she mentioned this we missed the meaning of Friedhof and kept smiling through her description; I still remember the shock I felt later, when I saw the word Cemetery staring back at me from the dictionary. Of late she seems to visit the Friedhof each day – sometimes even twice, forgetting the earlier visit – with a spade in one hand and a bunch of flowers in another, more hunched than before but with the same vigour and purpose.
I’m going to miss her, and also the other “cast of characters” that E.B.White refers to in his essay ‘Goodbye to Forty-eighth Street’:
“I look out onto Forty-eighth Street; one out of every ten passers-by is familiar to me. After a dozen years of gazing idly at the passing show, I have assembled, quite unbeknownst to them, a cast of characters that I depend on. They are the nameless actors who have a daily walk-on part in my play – the greatest of dramas. I shall miss them all, them and their dogs.”
There are no dogs in my play, but the variety of human actors makes up for it: the Russian couple with their two daughters; the unemployed man who runs errands for his wife; the boy next door who was just a toddler when we first arrived; the Brechts, always dressed in their best suits on their way to church each Sunday; the upper-class couple and their high-society dinners – the list goes on. These no doubt will be replaced by others in the new location, but their place in memory is anchored to the old apartment like satellites around a planet.
Later that afternoon, around half past four when the movers had finished and left with their equipment plus a few beer bottles (“We cannot drink now”, they said when I offered the drink during a break, “as our boss at the office may get the smell. But we don’t mind taking them along with us.”), we walked around the apartment, taking stock. No damages to the furniture, a couple of brushes against the newly painted walls, tons of cartons for us to unpack in the days ahead. We were not done yet, but we had crossed a major milestone.
// May be continued…//