Last week, when Wife was away with the car on a visit to Brussels, I took the 707 to work. The bus passes through Wiesloch, and the daily trip from my stop at Schillerpark to the Industriegebiet via the Bahnhof took about twenty minutes. The connection to the physical world these bus rides forced drew a sharp line of contrast to my usual trips to office, boxed inside a car.
At this time of the year, with a handful of warm days left, life appears to be at its limit: grass has broken through gaps in the pavement concrete; creepers have climbed over walls in a doomed bid to escape; insects everywhere lay claim as first-class citizens of the planet. They all will soon retreat. A faint clatter of hoofs is audible: winter’s cavalry is steadily approaching. The street that leads from my home to Schillerpark has begun to show traces of yellow; on my first walk I found yellowing maple leaves fallen uniformly along the footpath edge, matching the orderliness all around. The trees here are German too.
On the bus ride signs of daily routine were mixed with unexpected occurrences. At Schillerpark a serious-looking middle-aged German waited each day, alongside me, for the 707. He wore dull colours – a light brown jacket over grey pants – and carried an aging leather bag but his shoes, polished a brilliant black, were striking. He stood still until the bus arrived, not moving an inch, and it was easy to imagine him behind a desk at his workplace, mechanically going through his chores and returning by the same bus each day. The bus arrived sharply at 8:07 a.m, and among the host of white faces inside there were some Indian men, sitting in twos or in threes. On the first day two Indians behind me began, without a warning, to sing a bhajan. It was a low-pitched song, and their rhythm suggested previous practice. Soon their incantations rose above the low background chatter. It is hard to convey the impact of hearing chants of lord Rama inside a bus full of Germans. At first, I was amused. Then, when it struck me that I probably look like these odd men sitting behind me, I began to wonder how to signal to others that despite the colour of my skin, I had nothing to do with “them”. This feeling soon gave way to a grudging admiration for their guts. (It was a gutsy performance, there was no stupidity or naivete there; at one point, during a pause, one of them asked the other: shall we sing a little louder? And then they laughed.)
On the second day I heard a pair of familiar voices nearby. They belonged to two girls, aged fifteen or sixteen, who talked without pause until they stepped off at the Bahnhof. They sat on the same adjacent seats each day, the bespectacled girl at the window, the curly-haired blonde next to the aisle, and in this everyday routine of traveling together I saw the outlines of a friendship growing between them. Amidst the din – chatter from inside, traffic from outside – I caught snatches of their conversation in German. In the beginning I got only the tone, which was mild and respectful. The general mood and nature of the conversation – with soft voices, each without interrupting the other — indicated a simplicity of character so common in these parts. The topics they chatted about — getting money from parents, choosing subjects at school, shopping for jeans, a hairdressers appointment — were not unusual, and the ease and openness in their conversation was visibly different from the manner adopted by adults in the bus, who seemed to carry an invisible wall around them. We are more open as teenagers, and more vulnerable. Later, as adults, we turn more guarded, protecting ourselves, not plunging into a friendship with an open heart.
On day three I began to listen more closely, and a curious pattern emerged. The two girls were still talking amiably, not interrupting one another, but each one was going on with her own topic — they were simply talking through each other. One responded to the other only when a question was asked; on other occasions, each carried along her own thread, pausing only to let her friend get through her (unrelated) topic. So there was no real conversation, only an exchange of sentences and an attitude of respect. Perhaps the attention span at that age makes focused and sustained listening difficult; it takes time and experience to become patient, to understand empathy. Or maybe it was a simple case of unfamiliarity: if their acquaintance was new, either would first want to establish a position before really listening to the other.
These rides brought to mind my first trip to Germany in January of 2000. I was here on a short two-month project, and the company had assigned me to an apartment in Mannheim. Each day I took the 7:00 am tram from Neckarau West to Mannheim Hauptbahnhof, then a train to Wiesloch-Walldorf, and finally a bus to my office. The cold cut through my veins, but the Germans went about their business nonchalantly, giving no thought to the icy weather. Winter accentuates the foreignness of a new place: I was awestruck by the automation, the orderliness, and the speed I saw all around: the city was set in a distant future. That feeling of wonder is now irretrievably lost, but every time I enter a bus or a tram, a shadow of those early days flashes past, too faint and fleeting for a distinct impression, but a memory nonetheless.