Kino stories


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.

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Family matters

At my workplace the role of a team secretary is not insignificant. Setting up meetings and workshops, booking rooms and external venues, approving leave requests, handling business-travel queries: these tasks keep the secretaries busy, and the rest of us away from administrative affairs. Their office is a hub of activity, its traffic a barometer of the team’s progression. In August, when most Germans pack their bags and travel South, the room goes quiet; activity rises in September and peaks in early December when everyone is at work, waiting for the Christmas break. The secretaries, well aware how much we depend on them, usually plan ahead and ensure their vacations do not overlap. It is a steady job, a function that sees little attrition: they remain with the same executive for years, even following the boss to other areas of the company. So when I learned, not long ago, that our new team secretary would soon leave, the news took me by surprise. Less than four months had passed since E joined us. She got along well with everyone; her relaxed mien and her readiness to smile gave the impression she was happy with her job. What had happened?

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Nietzsche at the flea market


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.

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Cap San Diego

On Friday, on board a museum ship docked at Hamburg, I met Ernest Hemingway. He was sitting inside a small cabin with a window that opened to the visitor’s path. The cabin exterior had posters detailing museum tariffs and bulletins, and inside, on his desk, there sat a few devices with earphones, audio guides to go with a museum tour. The man, portly, grey-haired, and bearded, was turning the pages of a girlie magazine, and he wasn’t pleased to see me.

I had come for a reading, and I was early: the Harbour Front Literaturfestival event would not begin for another hour. The ship, Cap San Diego, which I reached by crossing on foot the Überseebrücke, was a permanent fixture on the harbour, and despite the water all around, despite the ominous grey warship docked alongside, despite the wind and the rain and the seagulls cawing, I did not have the sense of being on a ship. There was no one around when I climbed up the gangplank, and on the vacant main deck this solitary man in his cabin was the first person I had seen since I left the shore. He looked at me with a penetrating gaze, his large forehead dominating a seaman’s face weathered by adventure: a striking resemblance to Hemingway I could not put aside.

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The zoo in Stuttgart


The zoo is a place of many surprises.

The zoo in Stuttgart is not a typical zoo. It hosts – and I wonder if this is an undeserved euphemism – both animals (mammals, insects, fishes, birds, and the like) and plants (orchids, cactuses, camellias, ferns, spice plants, among others). It is also large. In the four hours spent walking the premises we covered about a fourth of the area and saw less than a tenth of the species on display, which the guidebook put at over a thousand.

The flamingoes come first. You see them standing together, loopy-necked, swan-bodied, with a pair of pink sticks for legs, pecking at themselves or at something on the ground. They are behind a low-fenced enclosure, out in the open, yet they do not fly away. Nearby, a grey heron flies above a tree and disappears from view; although they do not belong to the zoo collection, such birds are permanent guests here.

This is a good beginning. A zoo where birds are not in a cage. A zoo that attracts visitors from the animal kingdom.

A greenhouse with tropical plants is next, but my father, who behaves occasionally like a eight-year old (there’s a running gag in the family on this), wishes to see only the animals. We head toward the great apes. Three baby gorillas, behind a glass-fronted cell, have drawn a large crowd. It is easy to see why. The young ones are like cuddly soft-toys come to life, and they swing from ropes, climb poles, hang from a branch with more élan and style than any adult gorilla can manage.

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Police stories

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.

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They’re here

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).

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