The weather statistics reveal that the four weeks we spent away from Germany were the warmest in this country in a long time. On New Year’s eve, when we were near a beach in Chennai enjoying a warm breeze at 25 degrees Celsius, Munich, at 18 degrees, was not far behind. (It was a good time to buy winter jackets, which the German retailers were selling at a 30% discount.) But the weather charts tell a different story after our return. Mercury dipped as our plane touched down in Frankfurt, and since then the cold has been relentless. Shovelling snow next to my car the other day I noticed my neighbour grinning at me. He was standing by his car, watching me struggle with a large mound of snow. “The weather was waiting for you to return from vacation,” he said. I laughed with him, holding back an urge to hurl a handful of snow at his nose.
On a Sunday morning not long ago, Wife and I sat together facing the computer, peering at the Excel sheet we had created the day before. A four-week trip to India was looming ahead, and our itinerary was still open. At the workplace this activity might be called Collaborative Vacation Planning. But “Collaborative” conveys an egalitarian spirit; it hints at a balanced, amiable, and constructive atmosphere. The situation at home was different. Wife was the project lead, the chief authority, one who took all decisions; I followed orders, compiled notes, drafted the plan. All accountability, though, was mine. If anything were to go wrong, my head would be on the chopping block.
The first column of the Excel sheet enumerated dates from mid-December to mid-January; other columns contained variations of plans (titled Plan-A, Plan-B, and so on, until F) that listed, for each of those dates, the cities we would be in: Bangalore, Chennai, Trivandrum, Kochi, Trichy, Tanjavur, Mumbai. Wife and I considered the alternatives, spoke to my sister in Bangalore, and a couple of hours later we settled on Plan-B. (Plan-B: right from the start there was something inferior to it, like a compromise you’d settle on when Plan-A doesn’t work. A bad omen.) My sister consented to book our flight and train tickets across this network of cities, and we began to look for accommodation.
This, we soon learned, was the easy part. Next came the task of choosing what to do on which date: whom to call on, whom to invite, what event to cover, which place to visit. So we created another sheet and wrote down all of it: people, places, events. A ‘Priority’ column was added, some items were tagged “Must Do”, others “Important”, and yet others “Nice to do (else Mom will feel bad)”. This last set consisted mostly of visits to all my uncles and aunts in Bangalore, an agonizingly long list of siblings my mother had inherited long ago.
1. Karlstorkino, Heidelberg
At the Karlstorkino in Heidelberg, behind the counter in the tiny foyer that divides the entrance from the small movie hall, the woman with dark hair and dark eyes says she does not have a Coke. She names another drink whose name I don’t catch. It’s like Coke, she says, almost apologetically. The beginning of the film is a quarter of an hour away. I pick my drink and flip through pamphlets and cards advertising upcoming titles. Posters on the walls hold frames from movies I have never heard of, but this is unsurprising: they customarily screen not mainstream movies but obscure titles ignored by the rest. Three young men, all blond haired, enter the foyer. One of them is barefoot. The kino is close to some altstadt apartments where university students live – this man may have just crossed the street to get here. Still, it is refreshing to note this streak in a German. The hall, accomodating not more than thirty seats, is half empty when the movie begins. I sip my Coke-like drink and sink into the cushioned folds as the title flashes across the screen: Guilty of Romance.
[Continued on Page 2]
On a weekend not long ago I visited the flea market in town. It had sprung up on Schwetzinger strasse, a narrow one-way street I use everyday on my drive to work. Spots on either side where cars are parked on a normal day were now taken up by long tables spread out with odds and ends, and behind these tables sat the sellers, old women with striking hairdos watching passers by with indifferent eyes, and behind the women stood their cars, small Volkswagens or Renaults, reconditioned versions of a long-obsolete model, as though these old automobiles were also up for sale. Walking along this familiar street now flaunting an altered character was like traveling forward or backward in time, into a future or a past that was vaguely familiar and yet whose contours and rhythms I could not identify.
Last week, at 8 a.m. on a rainy morning, Wife and I visited the local police station. Wife had received a summons, and the policeman named on the letterhead – Herr Wittmann, dressed in plainclothes and not fully awake yet – led us to an office on the first floor.
The room looked like an ordinary office, with files, calenders, monitors, stationery, and except for a blue cap on a hatrack nothing about the place suggested that matters of crime were discussed here. Wife’s offence, we discovered to our relief, was minor: in a seventy speed zone she had driven at a hundred. A letter seeking the driver’s confirmation was sent home; we had ignored it – hence the summons.
Herr Wittmann opened a file with Wife’s name on it and pulled out sheets of paper. Among them was proof – a photograph of the offender, caught in the speeding act by a camera – and penalty – a fine of eighty Euros, and three points to her name. Herr Wittman tried to play down the seriousness of those points. They’re nothing, he said, avoiding eye contact; wait for a couple of years without further points and they’ll go away – so don’t worry about it.
My parents arrived last Sunday. At Frankfurt airport, waiting outside gate E of terminal 2, I watched a parade of ethnicities and colours walk past like a Benneton ad. Mom and Dad, trailing this bunch, stood out in my line of vision. They appeared tired but sounded enthusiastic, excited to be in Germany after four years.
On their last visit, in the summer of 2008, Wife was still living in Brussels; their stay was split into three parts, two in Germany, one in Belgium. It was also a short vacation. Dad later noted, as a reflection more than a complaint, that the trip had seemed hurried, with too many places packed into three weeks. This time they’re here for nine weeks, and Dad says he wants to see more of Germany.
The initial days trace a familiar pattern. Dad observes everything keenly, and compares what he sees here with its imagined Indian counterpart. On our drive back from Frankfurt, he marveled at the greenery on both sides and added that this could never exist in India: “they would have chopped off all the forests in no time, and built apartments or hotels in such areas.” (The irony here, which he missed, is that as an engineer he’s frequently involved in such construction projects.) This morning, crossing a telephone booth on a walk to the local supermarket, he praised its elegant design and added that back home “street urchins would have smashed such an unmanned booth in no time.” Mom, following her nature, reserves all attention for her son. When she’s not trying to feed me she wants to know about my health, about that mark on my forearm (a mole, really), about the redness in my eyes (too much time in front a computer, of course).
Yesterday at the hair-dressers I ran into Frau Brecht, an elderly neighbour at my previous apartment. I hadn’t seen her since I moved out two years ago. Now she stood a few paces away, hanging her coat on the stand nearby, but showed no signs of recognition. It was unlikely she hadn’t seen me, and I wondered if this was a practical response to avoid being ignored. We often pass the elderly by without noticing them – was this instinct not to seek attention their defense mechanism?
When I greeted her, she smiled and came forward to sit next to me. I asked how she was doing. Quite okay, she replied, given that I am not getting any younger. Her eyes looked smaller, but there were no other signs of change: the same small frame, drooping shoulders, stubby feet. What about Herr Brecht, how is he? I asked. He’s getting by, she replied. He has problems with his hips, probably due to his long years as a metal worker, but he’s already eighty so that is not surprising.
The Putzfrau comes home each week, to vacuum the floors, hardwood downstairs and carpet upstairs, to polish the hardwood floor panels, to clean the shower, toilet, and occasionally the windows. She is a Russian woman, in her late forties, with a quiet manner and a child-like smile. In her loose-fitting clothes she looks like a colourful bean bag, and although she moves slowly through the apartment, shifting from one room to next, her movements do not appear lethargic but suggest a steady force at work. At the end of three hours the apartment is transformed: no trace is left of the previous week’s disorder.
She has a key to the apartment. On Thursday afternoons, at around 1 p.m., when both Wife and I are away at work, she enters the apartment and leaves three hours later, carrying with her the money we place at the agreed spot on the kitchen counter, next to the Nespresso machine. On the days we forget to place the money, we return in the evening to find on that spot a sticky-note, or a paper napkin, with a message in clear letters: Geld!! On such days the apartment is as clean as on other Thursdays.
Thursday mornings are a stressful affair. Wife insists on getting the house clean before the cleaning lady arrives — to her there is no contradiction in this, it is just an “employee satisfaction measure” — so we load the dishwasher, gather clothes lying around, throw the garbage out, all this to make our home look “presentable”. The result, then, on Thursday evenings is a cumulative effect, due in part to the lady and in part to our exertions. Sometimes we are unsure who has assumed the larger burden.
In the last ten years or so the Christmas and New Year week has, for us, acquired a particular significance, shaped by a culture-driven consciousness that this is a period of renewal, a time to take stock of the year gone past and to prepare for the new one ahead. Renewal, old giving way to new, is conveyed through a total shut down of commerce (workplaces are empty; business slows to almost a halt; stores are closed from the afternoon of 24th until the 27th morning, and if you do not stock up earlier only the kindness of neighbours or friends can save you), and all the year-end lists in magazines and newspapers send home, unequivocally, the message that this is a changeover period. In all, a sense of ending, an intimation of a beginning.
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.