Okay. So I finally got an Internet connection. Here are the last two days of travel bloggage. Sorry–I hear my website is down. I think Theo is on it right now. Also sorry this is long but what can you do?
I am having major Internet difficulties, which I think could be related to my Mac. Argh. It’s so frustrating. I just spent thirty minutes chasing after the hotel’s network to no avail and even went through network diagnostics, which is sort of like asking me to operate on a patient: “Hmmm, well, I think this thing over here is the pancreas…”
I’m having an “I Hate Steve Jobs” moment. Anyhoo…
Remember in my last post how I said I needed to get to bed at a decent hour in order to get up at 6:00 a.m. to get ready for my school visits? I did that. And then, at 1:35 in the morning, my cell phone went off. Now, it hadn’t rung in the four days I’d been in Germany because all my pals knew I couldn’t be reached—at least, not for $1.00 a minute. So the phone rings, waking me from a very, very deep sleep. I stumble around in the dark without my glasses trying to find the source of the hideous ringing. I reach the phone just as the ringing stops. I don’t recognize the number so I go back to bed. And then, twenty minutes later as I’m falling asleep, it rings again. It’s the cat lady calling about spaying Cocoa. I direct her to Barry in NYC, and, wide awake, try to will myself back to sleep, which doesn’t happen for another two hours.
I’m comatose when the wake-up call comes.
In a fugue state, I shower, dress, eat breakfast, and wait for Anna F. in the lobby. Hotel lobbies exist in some strange time zone all their own. Limbo would be a hotel lobby. People come and go and there’s always one person behind the desk listening to a small radio that plays a mix of really bad 1980’s American rock songs, some French chanteuse you’ve never heard of but find kind of catchy, and some knock-off of a knock-off of every pop-punk band you’ve ever heard. But sometimes you get a Duffy song and you’re happy.
Anna F. comes to pick me up at 7:50, as is clearly stated on my schedule, and not 7:15, as I had it in my head and we take a taxi through Munich to the first school. Anna tells me a bit about Munich, about what was bombed and not, about the quarter where the bohemians once lived before the war and how now it is very expensive to live there. It is very interesting to ride through a city where people live and work every day and think about the scars and wounds of its history. Would it be like living in some Thornton Wilder-esque “Our Town,” where the detached ghosts of the dead sit on the hill watching always? America is so new, with our gleaming shopping malls and bowling alleys, supermarkets and Wal-Marts, that the only history, I suppose, is what we supply, the personal: “Here is where I had my first kiss.” “This is the house where my grandmother lived.” “There is my old grammar school.”
I don’t know. I’m not able to fully articulate what I’m feeling at the moment.
The taxi drops us at the school, Karlsgymnasium Pasing, and we meet the teacher, Gaby, who is waiting for us with a big smile, putting me at ease. This will be my first school visit in another country, and I’m nervous. Mostly, I’m worried that my sense of humor, which can border on the bizarre, and my rapid-fire speech, which can also border on the bizarre and impossible to follow, will not translate. That I will terrify these poor teens. I’m actually sweating. (Maybe because it’s around 70 degrees and sunny?)
Gaby ushers me into the gorgeous meeting room. It’s pretty new and there are glass walls on both sides so that you can look out at the colorful fall foliage. There’s a grand piano, which is so tempting—“Who wants to have a Chopsticks marathon?”—but it is under its protective fabric shell and somehow I don’t think I should. The students are game for my harassment. They take my particular brand of caffeinated idiocy in stride. And, as usual, they rock at the writing exercise. Now, when I say they rock at it, bear in mind that they are not only thinking on their feet (it’s an improv storytelling exercise) but they are doing it in English. I’m astonished. Hell, I can’t even think in English most days, and it’s my mother tongue. One girl, Stephanie, says her character’s secret desire is to marry a millionaire, and in response, one of the boys, Chris, says his character’s desire is to become a millionaire and marry her character. We all have a nice laugh at this. I’m with them for nearly two hours, and at the end, they present me with a bottle of wine, and a darling painted cup filled with special Christmas chocolates that have gingerbread inside. I would offer you one but honestly, those didn’t last the day. Yum!
Anna helps me drag my suitcases through the fall leaves, and we manage to accidentally rake them with the wheels. Performing my civic duty simply by overpacking. A local bookseller whose name just flew out of my addled brain (argh!) meets us with her car, and we make the drive to the next school, Feodor Lynen-Gymnasium Planegg.
In appearance, the school reminds me of a very large Swiss chalet. The doors are automatic, which momentarily stuns me, because at heart, I am only four, and I just want to play with the doors—“I’m coming in; no, I’m not! Ha! Fooled you, automatic door! Okay. Now I’m coming in—oh, psych! You fell for it AGAIN! Silly automatic door.” I resist the urge. Sort of.
The kind teachers at FLG bring me into a HUGE auditorium that is truly stunning, like some modern church, and they give me a microphone. And I think you know the minute there’s a microphone in my hand, a twinkle comes into my eye. So tempting to stage a karaoke reading, but really, how much ABBA can you take for an hour-and-a-half? “If you’re near me darling can you hear me…S.O.S….”
The students are warm and friendly and they are also willing to put up with my ridiculousness. A student named “Hot” (I’m not making this up. That was his nickname, for a basketball player named Hot Sauce.) who has read my website asks me about the influence of punk on me as a person and on my writing—does punk somehow speak to my soul. Wow. Great, great question. (The answer is yes, btw.) There are more questions like that. I am asked about the elections again, as I am everywhere. They want Obama. Everywhere: Obama. As someone says, “It affects us, too. I think we should get a vote.”
During the exercise, one of the students, Martin, says his character’s name is “Gaby.” Only he says it with a certain suggestive breathlessness that I cannot help but imitate. This becomes our running joke, that I always say “Gaby” with a sexy voice. (Gaby, it turns out, is the name of his English teacher, the one sitting to my right. Good to know. And are all English teachers in Munich named Gaby? Is it a rule?) Anyway, Martin wants his story to be political, and so there is a moment in the story where naughty Capitalist Japan is flying over the ocean, going after the fighting Communist Sharks. No. It doesn’t translate. You had to be there. But it was funny. I also meet a student whose real name, I believe, was Anne, but she will always be Reba in my head because she chose that as her character name. (She loves country music.) And she hopes to go to U.T., my alma mater, next year, and I hope she does. Gaby the Teacher who has endured our teasing presents me with this absolutely beautiful floral arrangement, and I am sad that I can’t take it with me, but there is, sadly, just no way to travel with the flowers and the suitcases. I thank her for her thoughtfulness and then I’m off to have lunch with the fine folks of dtv, my publisher.
Do you know what’s hard to say? Sweinsbrauten. Doesn’t seem hard to say, and yet, I butcher it every time. Anyway, it’s delicious and it involves potatoes on the side, so what’s not to love? I have the pleasure of dining with Anne, my publisher; Marion, who designs my beautiful covers; Anke, my editor; Stephanie, who does the Internet hoodoo; Beate, another editor; and Thomas, publicity god. We also have with us two journalists: Hilde-Elisabeth Menzel, Sylvia Mucke and Christine Paxmann. We talk books and politics and laugh a lot—and not just at my bad German. Sylvia tells a funny story about her favorite book when she was a child, which was called THE LITTLE ONION. She said her parents were communists and this was really a fable about communism, all the vegetables working together. And the tomato was sort of KGB and was depicted as being a big, fat, red-faced veggie. But, she said, it was the only storybook her father would sit and read to her, and so it became her favorite. And there you are. I remember my mother reading BREAD AND JAM FOR FRANCES to me at a young age, and the Frances books still have a special place in my heart because of it.
After lunch, I tour the dtv offices, which are housed in a stunning old apartment building with beautiful arched windows that look out onto gardens on one side and the street on the other. It has the feel of being up in a treehouse, tucked away. Wouldn’t that be great? To have a treehouse of an office where you read books? Obviously, they do a lot more than that, but the offices are charming and they are located in that former bohemian quarter that Anna told me about during our morning drive.
I have to say goodbye to everyone, including the lovely Anna who has been such a good companion. I’m sure she was looking forward to sitting at home and watching TV. Maike comes to collect me, and we dash off to catch our train to Tubingen.
Maike cracks me up. The first morning we had breakfast together, I asked her what she did when she wasn’t at work. She pursed her lips like she was thinking and shook her head. “Nothing much.” A minute later. “I keep a horse because I grew up in the country and I like to ride. I play violin—sometimes I play with an orchestra when I have the time.” Right. You do nothing, Maike. You’re just a lazy lay-around. I get it. So yesterday, as Maike and I make the four-hour train journey to Tubingen, I get more info: “I lived with a host family in Boulder, CO, when I was in high school.” “I got my Ph.D. at Washington University. It was on American travel narratives from 1573 to the 1700’s…” Her thesis, which she tells me about, is fascinating and, naturally, uber-smart. She draws me a map of Germany and gives me the history of the Federal states. Today, I am waiting for Maike to say, “Oh, and I used to be a Navy SEAL but the training got in the way of my studies in particle physics and I was needed at CERN.” Maike is great company, and I feel as if I’ve known her much longer than I have.
On the train, we pass the town of Kissing. Yes, Kissing! I wished I could have gotten out and taken a picture. I’m sure people must stop there just to snog. Maike tells me there is also a town called Petting. No joke. I like these Germans and their towns. ☺
The train station in Tubingen has lots and lots of stairs. Did I mention that I am hauling two enormous suitcases? Yeah. Okay. This very nice man named Hennoch takes pity on us and insists on helping us carry the suitcases. In fact, he insists on pulling the most cumbersome case all the way to our hotel. His name is Hennoch and he is from Togo. He is a translator and speaks six different languages. Six! Holy. Cow. His son is studying at UNC at Chapel Hill. Hennoch has the most marvelous laugh. It is very, very close to Geoffrey Holder’s laugh. (I would provide a link if I could get on the Internet. Sigh. Geoffrey Holder was a dancer and actor who had this deep, musical laugh he was famous for. He was also in a James Bond movie—“Live and Let Die”—and as I have seen every single James Bond movie at least eleventy-two-billion times, I know that laugh well, Mr. Bond.) We exchange cards and Maike and I have a very late dinner in the hotel’s restaurant where a jazz band is playing. It is all I can do not to fall asleep in my soup. As dinner progresses, I sink lower in my seat, my chin propped up by my hand.
“You look tired,” Maike says.
“Mmmm? Flsighjgishrrre,” I answer.
She pays the tab and I say good night and go directly to my room. I fall right into bed and I don’t even bother to take wash my face or take off my socks.
I wish you could see the view from my hotel room in Tübingen. The sky is overcast, but there is a rip in the clouds—one long scar—and light is pushing through. There are actual shafts of light coming down like you only see in paintings. Across the way is a large, clay-colored house with a pitched roof. Its evenly spaced windows have white shutters and window boxes filled with bright red-pink flowers. The street is littered with fallen leaves. And the black birds that had been perched near the flowers have just taken off, beating their wings against that bright rip in the sky. It is beautiful.
Also, I have a pink bathroom. Pink tile. Fluffy pink towels. Everything is pink. The bathtub is the size of my first NYC apartment. Yes, I soaked in it. And as I did, I sang a little song, “Who’s the girl…the girl in the pink bathroom…in Germany…Oh, it’s me!”
After I am thoroughly prune-ish, I go downstairs to have breakfast with Maike and Christiane Pyka from the Deutsch-Amerikanisches Institut Tübingen. Christiane is a very small woman with a very big amount of warmth and energy. She immediately takes my hand and smiles and makes me feel right at home. And as is the case with many people here, I am sorry that there will soon be an ocean separating us, because I know they would be fun to know on a regular basis.
Christiane takes us for a lovely walk through the center of Tubingen. We cross the Necktar River (I hope I’m spelling it correctly) and see the house where Holderlin http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friedrich_Hölderlin supposedly went mad and lived out the remainder of his years. The story is a tragically romantic one: Supposedly, he fell in love with a French woman who was already married. He was so poor that he walked all the way to France just to see her, and then he came back, brokenhearted, went mad, and lived like a hermit in a yellow house with a tower overlooking the river. Someone had scrawled in graffiti on the side of the house: Holderlin wasn’t mad. We walked past the punting boat and up leaf-strewn cobblestone streets that were quite steep and slick. We walked past the beautiful church and through the marketplace. Tubingen is a university town and there are many fraternities set up in the beautiful houses along the river. I hope they don’t pull an “Animal House” on any of those fabulous places. I find Tubingen to be quite charming.
I buy a few souvenirs, and then Maike, Christiane, and I haul my ridiculous suitcases, which are now impossibly heavy (though I swear I haven’t packed livestock or a dead body in either of them) to the train station and up all the stairs to the tracks and catch our train to Speyer. We have to change trains twice which is big fun with the aforementioned suitcases and wins me all sorts of friends every time I block the door trying to yank them out. Also, I am going to need to pay for Maike’s chiropractic bills for many months to come.
Our train is delayed, and so we get to Speyer just in time for the evening’s program at the library—Stadtbibliothek Speyer. The room is filled with about fifty or so high school girls who have been studying English. We have a few laughs over my mispronunciation of their names and other common German words. I let some of them take a turn at the mic to do their best rock star impersonations, and one girl named Julianne is a really good sport because she lets me tease her throughout the program. (I do my impression of Julianne as an emo singer.) Why do these nice people keep making the mistake of giving me a microphone?
The girls are reluctant to ask questions even when I threaten to fill the silence with my singing. But it’s very hard to speak in a public forum, much less to do it in a language not your own. I know I almost never speak up in such forums unless I’m forced to, so I can just imagine how difficult it is. But they do ask me questions. The teens ask me about Germany, if I like it, and I say, truthfully, that when I was a little girl and reading about Germany in Grimm’s Fairy Tales and the like, Germany always seemed unreal to me, like Fairyland. It was like it couldn’t possibly exist. Even when I was standing in the airport in NYC with my ticket, there was a part of me that thought, “Hey, I’m going to Fairyland!” So it has been wonderful to see a country that I had my first connection with through books, really.
We have dinner with Birgit Hock, a journalist, her daughter, Annika, and Annika’s friend, Klara. Klara was one of my victims for the writing exercise, so I’m amazed that she will sit at the same table with me. Birgit leads me through the menu and explains the various items that are particular to the region. She’s having pig’s stomach with sauerkraut, and when she first offers me some, I’m a little leery, but it’s good, and so is my dish, which involves spatzle, which is a hearty noodle. Mmmmm. You can’t go wrong with that. By the time the check arrives, I feel like I might need toothpicks to prop my eyelids open. It’s been a whirlwind of a day—the kind you expect to get when you start off with a bath in a pink bathroom—and much fun.
Tomorrow, I’m off to Leipzig. Auf W!
Right now, I am on a train from Speyer to Leipzig with two stops (changes) along the way. I’ve just had a very interesting visit to the WC. Finding your way in a foreign bathroom is always a comedy. If there had been a short film, it would have gone something like this:
Woman tries door handle twice but door does not open, so she stands staring at it politely as if it will take notice of how politely she is waiting and say, “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t see you standing there. Would you like to come in?” Eventually, woman tries again and discovers that door is not so hostile, it simply requires pushing. Once inside, woman is baffled by the lack of the familiar—handles, in this case. There is not one for flushing or for turning on the water that she can see. Woman stares at wall, perplexed. To her left is a small button that reads, WC. The button is red. To her, red is the color of danger, of “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” If she presses that button, will a poor employee of the Deutschebahn come running with the jaws of life and a medical team ready to extract her from the cabinet? Will she launch nuclear missiles? Will an alarm sound and protective metal doors descend? Woman remains perplexed. Woman is also perplexed by water faucet. She peers under it. Moves her hands quickly back and forth to activate a sensor that does not exist. She looks for something to twist, manipulate, turn. The faucet is a model of sleekness with no extraneous parts. There is another red button behind the faucet, but it is underneath a drawing of water drops coming from what looks suspiciously like the faucet in front of her. Risking death, she pushes the button. Water flows over her hands. Ah! This is like discovering a new world! I bring fire back from the mountain! Feeling brave and with newly clean hands, woman dares to push the red button marked WC. Toilet flushes. She emerges victorious and promptly walks past her seat and nearly into the next car, tripping up the man trying to push the coffee trolley down the narrow alley.
This morning, Maike and I took a little walk in the rain through the old medieval gate that used to guard the center of town and now mostly keeps watch over several coffee houses and shoe stores and make our way to the Speyer Cathedral. The Cathedral is quite famous and is 1,000 years old. Its architecture is Roman—very plain. Inside it is enormous with huge arches. It is surprisingly warm, which feels pretty good after our walk in the chilly rain. We also step into a camera store and Maike helps me buy an additional battery for my camera. This one is fully charged and so I am once again able to play tourist and take photos. Huzzah!
(Note: We just passed a Volkswagen dealership. I don’t know why I find this amusing, I just do. Maybe it’s because my best friend used to drive an old VW when we were in high school. There was a hole in the floor of the car in the back, which we covered with a mat, and when people would accidentally step through the hole, we’d gasp and say, “OMG, look what you did to the car!”)
The sky is overcast so that when the sun tries to break through, it looks like the moon is out too early. In the distance, beyond the green fields dotted with barrel-like hay bales, a chemical factory belches two enormous plumes of white smoke, which I mistook for clouds at first. There seems to be a little more industry in this region, and it reminds me a bit of driving from the DFW airport to my hometown in Texas, those long stretches of no-man’s land occupied only by the things that always live on the outskirts of towns. It lends a certain loneliness to the landscape.
Maike and I have lunch in the café car. It’s incredibly civilized. I feel as if it is the 1930’s, and we are spies traveling into the shadowy heart of some secret intelligence mission, which will require us to wear fedoras. But first, we must eat. The café car actually has a waitress, and we order a hearty lunch and share a piece of chocolate cake. As we are traveling east into the former GDR, I ask Maike about what it used to be like. She tells me about going to visit relatives there when she was a child. The border patrols would force them to unpack everything in the car, everything in the suitcases, to make sure they weren’t smuggling anything in. It would take hours. She tells me that one way the government used to silence critics was to take their children away from them and give them to regime-friendly families to raise them. I, of course, think of my own child and want to cry. She says they used to smuggle blood pressure medication and the like to their relatives by putting the pills inside Smarties candies. Wow. She recommends “The Secret Lives of Others,” a German movie I had wanted to see when it came out. I will bump it up in my Netflix queue.
We’re now in the former GDR. It seems quite rural. Quaint houses. Fields. Abandoned buildings, the shattered glass in the windowpanes like broken teeth in a guarded smile. A man walks alone down a tree-lined lane near a small house. Graffiti tags pop from the low walls that border the tracks. This makes me smile: Taggers are universal. A fleet of trucks sit in a lot with their back doors open, exposing their empty bellies. An old stone wall is built so into the side of a hill that it has been reclaimed by the land; the vines wrap their spindly arms around it, pulling it in. Great wind turbines turn lazily in the distance in a modern Busby Berkley contagion.
And the trains pass by.
And the trains pass by.
And the trains pass by.
Everyone of us trying to get somewhere.
A Jacob’s ladder of electrical wires overhead announces our arrival at another station. Two big power plant silos mark the distance. They turn the horizon foggy with their smoke. It reminds me of the oil refineries in Corpus Christi when I was a child except that I can’t smell this.
I’m watching all of this while liistening to Bob Dylan on my iPod. It seems strange seeing these very old German houses in the countryside and communist bloc colorless apartment complexes fly past the window while listening to the musical poet laureate of America in my headphones singing about being tangled up in blues. The stories should be incongruent, and yet, they feel joined.
For a moment, I catch my ghostly reflection in the train window. It is as insubstantial as I feel, just a traveler passing through. And this is also a valuable part of journeying. Being the foreigner. The observer. Taking everything in. Having a chance to stand so far outside of ourselves that what we see staring back at us is startling and new. It’s a reminder that we take with us some sort of existential loneliness that crawls into every suitcase we ever carry. I look out at these hilly green expanses and I may as well be looking through to the flatlands of north Texas where the sky is so wide it is like an impenetrable border crossing of its own. When I was a little girl—four, five—I used to climb up on top of the toilet each night while my mother ran my bath, and I would stare out the bathroom window in the direction of the sea. I don’t know what I was looking for. Something. Something to carry me away. Something to bring me home again. Can’t say, really.
Right now, I am the writer traveling through the German countryside on my way to Leipzig. I am the American who does not know the language. I am the little girl gazing out the bathroom window. And I am the teenager heading her car for the edge of the blue horizon in a game of chicken. I am a constant traveler, searching for what, I’m not certain. Maike and I exit the train at Leipzig and go to our hotel.
Okay. Funny story. I can’t figure out how to turn the lights on in my room. I push everything four or five times. There is something on the wall which says, “kartenschalter.” I don’t know what it means, so I push it, too, fearing that I’m about to be electrocuted at any moment. Finally, I knock on Maike’s door. She opens it to reveal she has lights.
“How do you DO that?” I ask in awe.
“Oh,” she says, spitting out her toothpaste. “You put your card in the slot that says ‘Kartenschalter.’” Oh. Sure. I knew that. You’ll be pleased to know that now I have lights.
We head to the café for an interview with the lovely Roland Kruger from Deutschlandradio and his wife, whose name is something like Annegoethe (Argh—the spelling is killing me) and their daughter, Paula. (that one I know.) We sit in the café and have a few laughs. Roland asks me some questions about myself, about how my car accident at 18 shaped me as a person and as a writer, about Germany. His wife and I share our love of David Bowie. I find out that Paula is an accomplished gymnast. It’s a good time, and then we are all off to the bookstore for the night’s event.
Maike and I meet up with an actress named Karine who will do the German translation. So I read in English and she reads in German, and when she finishes one passage, there is a gasp from the audience, and I think, “Cool!” (It’s the Poppy Warriors scene from REBEL ANGELS.) We read from all three books, which takes the hour. The reading is filmed for the Internet, and I should be able to give you the site: http://www.leipzig-fernschen.de (it is also possible that that “c” is an “e” in “fernschen.” So if it doesn’t work one way, try the other.) There is a girl named Nina who gets stuck in the women’s bathroom at the beginning of the reading and is stuck for an hour-and-a-half. She misses the whole reading but makes it out in time to get her book signed. I think about making up some FREE NINA! T-shirts. Poor girl. Can you imagine? At least she had plenty of soap and paper towels to make some weird art collage.
After the reading, Maike, Karine, and I have dinner and head back to the hotel. Maike heads to the sauna. I hate to sweat so I head to my room to call home on Skype and see the boys, which makes my heart happy.
Good night from Leipzig. Tomorrow, I fly to Vienna. I intend to eat my weight in chocolate and drink lots of coffee. I’ll need it.