Bright eyes that reveal her heart
There’s a new Bücherregal in Neugasse now. The old shelf was narrow and made of wood; it matched the street’s character. The new one is taller and wider, a piece of metal under slick grey paint, modern like the new Hallhuber store opposite. Even the wooden bench next to the shelf is new, a piece whose wavy back reaches the shelf’s eight-feet. The combination looks designed, not accidental. This end of Neugasse seems as though it wants to escape into the Hauptstrasse, all glitz and chic.
I cross the shelf on my walks into the altstadt, and sometimes, if my return route leads me into Hauptstrasse, I take the perpendicular Neugasse back home too. There’s always someone standing at the shelf browsing books, but of late I’ve spotted, on three or four occasions, an old woman who mutters to herself while she goes about arranging the books. Not with a librarian’s tic for semantic organisation, but a stickler’s instinct for physical order. She picks up books left behind by careless passersby, large and small volumes lying horizontally or stacked in a pile, and sets them vertically in a row, the way they ought to stand in a bookshelf. Unused spaces are anathema to her: only when a row is packed does she allow a new one. She displays the manner of an impatient mother tidying up her son’s unruly desk, and not until she is done do I gather courage to scan the titles myself.
The other day I found her standing on the bottom shelf, which is wider than the others, reaching for books on the top one. Dressed in jeans and a half-sleeved embroidered jacket over a shirt, she seemed like someone who cared about appearances. Her white hair, sightly ruffled, was held in place under two plastic hairbands and a pair of sunglasses. A black leather handbag, slung over the right shoulder, reached her waist. She was muttering as usual, and I waited, as always.
News of the incident arrived through the Internet. On Saturday afternoon someone had rammed his car into pedestrians in Bismarkplatz, a square two hundred meters from our apartment. Three people were injured. The attacker was pursued by the police and shot near the Alte Hallenbad on Bergheimerstr.
We were home, but heard nothing. A friend sent an SMS asking if we were alright. My wife posted the news on Facebook.
Earlier in the afternoon, as we walked on the Hauptstrasse, she’d observed how common it was these days to see a car on the pedestrian zone; these folks probably lived here, but vehicle access must be restricted, she said. After the incident, she recalled this conversation. People driving on the Hauptstrasse had begun to worry her of late, and now there was an event involving pedestrians on a square nearby.
Around dinnertime the Hauptstrasse carried the usual Saturday evening buzz. There were no signs of change.
Next morning, under a grey sky, I walked to the Grimminger bakery on Bismarkplatz. The car had run into the pedestrians right in front of this bakery. Two tulips and a candle lay beside a pillar nearby, circumscribed by yellow etchings on the floor that revealed where the attacker’s car had stopped. Not far from it a cameraman readied himself while a young blonde in a dark coat waited with a yellow mike.
The bakery girls were chirpy. I paid for two rosinenbrötchen and a croissant before turning back. On the way home I ran into our neighbours M and A and their two boys. Smiles and greetings followed. I told them about the flowers and the cameraman on the square. M asked if I knew what had happened to the injured. No idea, I said. The smiles had vanished, eclipsed by murmurs of concern, but they flashed back as we said goodbye.
That evening I learned that one of the three injured, a 73-year-old German man, had died. The accused was a 35-year-old German man, now recovering from the gunshot wounds. His motives were unclear. Terrorism was not suspected.
Games people play
The lines behind the REWE checkout counters were dense and busy. Christmas was behind us, but grocery shopping showed no signs of lulling. I placed my items — aubergines, thyme sprigs, olive oil, lemon, cheese, yoghurt, sambal oelek sauce, avocados — on the conveyer belt. The woman behind the counter was one of those sprightly, chatty ones who make you wonder if this isn’t the best job in the world. Middle-aged, in her early fifties perhaps, she wore her golden hair in a plait. A round face with wise wrinkled eyes. Simple stud earrings. No makeup.
When my turn came, I greeted her and asked: “Haben Sie eine papiertüte?” Do you have a paper bag?
“Ja, hab ich,” came the reply, as she scanned the groceries and put them aside.
The typical response here is to hand a bag over to the shopper. The woman did no such thing; she continued to scan my items. At one point she looked at me with a cheeky grin, and said: You didn’t ask me for one, did you? You only asked if I have a paper bag.
I laughed, and said: That’s a game I play with others!
Well, now you see that others can play it too! She smiled and gave me the bag.
Along the Neckarwiese
Last Sunday, late in the afternoon, P & I crossed the Theodor-Heuss bridge and climbed down to the riverside, for a walk along the Neckarwiese. This stretch of green between the Neckar and Neuenheim is a popular spot, and on this day people were basking in the afternoon sun, enjoying the first signs of summer after a cold April.
The tall poplar at the beginning of the stretch had just begun to bloom, and this state, where the tree’s inner structure shone through the thin foliage of leaves, gave it a mysteriously beautiful character, not unlike a bride’s face seen through a veil of silk gauze. We walked to the tree and sat under it. A blonde woman stood by the river ringed by four children, their attention centred on a swan with her tiny cygnets. Nearby, a gang of students sat with their speakers and musical instruments — drums, guitars, and a keyboard — while another was picnicking with a spread of snacks and beer laid out on a mat. There were families with children running about in orbits, and one Turkish group had set up a table with chairs, where they sat drinking tea and laughing. Couples lounged on the grass, and here and there we spotted a solitary man or woman, sitting or lying prone, reading or simply staring ahead.
We walked next to the water and soon reached the children’s recreation area, a space of creative confusion with a troop of boys and girls running and jumping and shouting and playing on the slides, swings, and other equipment installed there. P pointed to a seesaw, which turned out to be three seesaws connected serially, so that the upward movement of one node affected not just another but two more nodes in that chain. We stood watching this strange contraption for a minute or two, trying to decipher the logic of the ups and downs.
Beyond this section were two beach volleyball courts, both occupied by a pair of players on each side. Following the courts was again a long stretch of green, but here we saw fewer people lounging on the grass. Instead, following the pattern set by the play area and the volleyball courts, there were more instances of people playing: two red-haired girls tossing a yellow frisbee, a German boy with a Müller soccer shirt running after a dog, and a bunch of teenagers with Middle-Eastern features passing around a football. The din we had passed through earlier, in the children’s area, was replaced here by isolated shrieks and calls of players in a game.
We sat at the water’s edge, not far from a weeping willow, staring at the Neckar’s gentle flow and following the path of geese flying a foot above water and then landing, feet first, head and body angled backwards, wings spread out, and beak sticking out, all reminiscent of the Concorde.
On the walk back we chose the path that runs on the other side of the green, next to the grand mansions that stand facing the river. The benches here were occupied by people who sat looking at the Neckarwiese, and some of them were black — probably refugees, given how these young men were dressed in clothes that seemed out of character here, and how they sat in groups, or alone, watching the riparian crowd with a mixture of curiosity, awe, and perhaps longing. On the grass, a young blond-haired father sat reading to his daughter from a brightly illustrated storybook. A covey of burkha-clad women sat in a circle, like stones at a prehistoric site. Nearby, three middle-aged men with beards were playing cards. A young man in dreadlocks was strumming his guitar, watched by his swaying friends. There was a woman playing with a dog, patting and poking it with glee, and it emerged that the dog belonged to a girl passing by, who watched this scene with amusement before calling the dog back to her. A middle-aged couple walked past us speaking in Arabic, followed by a teenage girl with freckles jogging at a leisurely pace, wearing fluorescent pink shoes. Next to some groups a bicycle or a pram was parked, and in the middle of the green, almost invisible in all this visual noise, were two green garbage bins.
Back on the bridge, we stood at the edge taking in the long view of the riverine scene. From this height the Neckarwiese appeared small, merely a patch of green sandwiched between the muddy river and the tall mansions of Neuenheim, and the people gathered on it seemed like strange creatures, sitting in groups or in pairs, scurrying about with purpose or wandering aimlessly. The specifics we had seen earlier blurred into indistinguishable dots, which led, momentarily, to an illusion of timelessness: the scene had not changed in a hundred years, and would not change for a hundred more.
In the company of familiar strangers
“What a rage of life flows around us all the time, invisible, inaudible, but intense and ever present.”
— TEJU COLE, The sense in turning away
The new car arrived last Wednesday, two-weeks late. We’d returned the old one in July, before our US vacation, so for three weeks in between I rode on trams and buses and trains to work and back. The Deutsche Bahn app laid out my morning plan:
8:00 am: Walk 4 minutes to Bismarkplatz
8:05 am: Bus 34 to Heidelberg Hauptbahnhof. Reach at 8:12 am
8:18 am: S4 to Wiesloch-Walldorf. Reach at 8:28 am
8:32 am: Bus 707 to Walldorf. Reach at 8:41 am
You could call this rush hour, but while there was briskness — people streaming in and out of platforms with an energy seldom seen in this small city — there was no rush. I always got a seat. And often there were people nearby willing to talk openly, if not loudly, amongst themselves or on the phone. I could not get myself to do this in such closed public spaces, but I was glad — for once — the others were not like me. One morning, not long after I boarded the S4 in Heidelberg, a dark-skinned young man facing me began to speak on the phone in Kannada.
At the Frauenbad
A middle-aged woman sits on a sofa, flipping through a book. A large photograph of a decaying indoor pool hangs behind her. It is a simple picture, but I cannot take my eyes off it. Why?
The photograph was taken during the launch event of Sabine Arndt’s new book, ‘Das Alte Hallenbad Heidelberg. Ein Tempel des Volkes’ at the Frauenbad. The Frauenbad, a public swimming pool for women until 1981, is now a party arena with a bar and a dance floor. We stood there on a Sunday afternoon in May, listening to speeches in German describing the building’s history and the making of the book. Later the crowd milled around the hall looking at the exhibition of Sabine’s photographs. Many stood drinking and talking. A few sat on sofas lining the walls. I was on my way out when I noticed this woman.
We know these moments. A real world scene jumps out as a photograph. It demands to be framed. Would the iPhone capture what I saw?
It did. The photograph works, although I’m not sure why. Colour gives it character and the seated woman appears striking. But there is something else: the inner photograph.
The woman stood out that afternoon among all the Germans, and she seems an odd figure in the photograph too, more a part of the inner photograph than the outer one. The colour of her skin, her dress, her hat, her handbag: they blend into the interiors of the old Frauenbad. There is an understated elegance there, in her dress, the tilt of her head, her leisurely manner of leafing through the book. She belongs to a different time, the era of the Frauenbad bathers perhaps. And I cannot help wondering if the page she is looking at holds the same photograph that hangs behind her.
There are other intriguing symmetries. The woman’s hat and the lamp, similarly shaped and positioned at the diagonal edges of the inner photograph. The large rectangle of the inner photo, the small white rectangle below it to the right, and the (partially obscured) dark rectangle above it. The semi-circle of the table and the semi-circle of the exposed pool in the photograph. The inverted dome of the lamp, and the similar arc we see in the upper portion of the photograph. The shaft of light that angles down towards the woman’s face.
I’m still not certain what makes it work, but I now understand the photograph better.
The other morning, there was an incident on the tram. A hundred meters from the Hauptbahnhof stop, where streams of passengers bound for another city pour out each day, the tram stopped. Through the driver’s cabin I saw a bus blocking our way. We waited for the bus to move. It didn’t. Minutes passed. A tram went by in the other direction, then a bus. Our driver, a woman with short golden hair, spoke with the driver of this passing bus. Then she left her cabin and walked through the tram’s length, passing word that the bus ahead had stalled due to a problem. We had to return to the previous stop. Some passengers sighed, looked at their watches. A woman standing near me said, in a distressed voice: Lass mich aussteigen! — Let me get down! I have a train to catch! But the driver had moved on. She entered the cabin at the other end, and the tram began its journey to Stadtwerke, the stop we had passed a while ago.
The woman’s agitation grew. Where is this going! Why can’t they let me out? The others sat unmoving, unmoved. No one commiserated with her, nobody vented their own frustration. The woman, middle-aged, in a yellow overcoat, clutching a black suitcase, remained the sole campaigner.
It was a rainy morning. On the street umbrellas glided past, sprinkling much-needed colour to this unseasonal grey summer day. The tram windows framed blurry outlines of stately old buildings and misty hills in the distance.
Some minutes later the driver trotted back across the tram, toward the original cabin. The woman asked again to be let out.
I can’t do that, the driver replied firmly. I’m not allowed to!
I’m going to miss my train! the woman cried. Can’t you see that? She followed the driver to her cabin, wheeling the suitcase.
We are in between two stops — I can’t let you out! The driver stepped into her cabin and shut the door.
I’m going to miss the train! I have an important business meeting! Who’s going to pay for the damages? You? Why can’t you simply let me out? You have no right to hold me in here!
The rest of us looked on, like members of an audience watching a drama unfold on stage. No one shared this woman’s urgency, but her persistence got the driver to yield. She asked the woman to get off the tram from the small door inside her cabin.
And this is at your own risk! It’s not my fault if you get injured!
Yes, yes — I do it at my own risk.
The woman hopped across the track onto the road, with her suitcase in tow. Then the tram lurched forward, swiftly gaining speed, and half a minute later we were at the Hauptbahnhof. A man sitting nearby clicked his tongue: If she had waited, she’d probably have reached the station earlier.
We carried home a story that day, the woman, the driver, and the rest of us. Each a different story.