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Monday
Oct242016

Du fährst zu oft nach Heidelberg

I have often been to Heidelberg. I studied, as it were, not one hundred fifty miles away, in another small German town renowned for its university, and would travel north, west and south through Heidelberg to other, fabulous German cities. Those cities are fabulous because, in the most complimentary way possible, they are indistinguishable from one another. Surely many were razed in those dozen demonic years that converted Europe's most civilized nation into its most barbaric; but since Germans are sticklers for documents, details, and archives, many of the buildings were reconstructed according to the original blueprints. One can compare pre- and postwar photos and detect an uncanny continuity. That they were so akin in genteel beauty, in cleanliness, and in comfort to begin with is not lost on the circumspect historian, who smiles that they will now remain so forever.   

One thing I did not do that most people do in Baden-Württemberg is make use of that most basic of human vehicles, the proverbial two wheels on a stick, the smokeless, dirtless bipedal Draisine, invented two hundred years ago in a town immediately outside Heidelberg. Embarrassingly enough, I, an urban stripling par excellence, never quite mastered what was the only activity some of my toddling contemporaries (a few of whom could barely speak, much less read or write) could do well; heaven knows they practiced long enough. Perhaps had I bothered to rectify this problem I would have slipped more seamlessly into the green-hilled splendor of Freiburg, or the evening harbor lights of Hamburg, or even the artisan throb of Berlin. In all these places bicycles were replacing cars, the wicked metal boxes which a century ago had tried – in devastating portention – to annihilate them. The motorized death traps were ultimately unsuccessful in Germany, although they still reign supreme in countries more abstentious from democratic habits. Yet among Germany's moneyed stratum – a slim but robust layer, a bit like a champion arm wrestler – you will find some of the most exquisite cars the world has ever known, crafted for and in Drais's homeland. You see, despite its intellectual and economic clout, Germany prides itself on equality. It believes, and rightly so, that you may snarl and snicker all you want in the Kneipe, but in the public eye and print, you must champion the ideals trumpeted by their famous compatriot. A Moonlight Sonata may evoke the lonely, Romantic poet and his eternal dreams, however grandiose or wishy-washy they may be; but there is little doubt as to the meaning of the brotherhood of men. 

One such brother is a young German by the name of – well, we are never actually given his name. It may not be an important omission. I mean, when do we hear stories about people that don't have names? Doesn't everyone have a name, even if, as we get older and accumulate lists of names and faces attached to those names, we as readers automatically scrutinize a protagonist's identity? In any case, our nameless German seems to be a fine young man in his mid-twenties, the springtime of intellectual and spiritual development. He lives somewhere in the vicinity of Heidelberg – one of the most magnificent regions on our divisive planet – and makes the most of it: he keeps in shape with long, early-morning bike rides; sees his parents and his older brother Karl regularly, even if the three treat him as one might relate to a bright schoolchild who mistakes his reinventions of the wheel for epiphanies; studies for his exams, including an unusual minor – Spanish language; and is engaged to an equally fine young woman called Carola. We know he is serious about Carola because he picks tulips with which to surprise her mother, who, with that intuition unique to mothers, suspects he would be the type of young man who might do just that. And one day, as he is about to leave to see Carola and her parents, his father steps out towards our man's car, checks the tires, and poses what seems to be a "random, harmless" question: "Do you still often drive to Heidelberg?" Whether the question may safely be deemed harmless will depend on its recipient; but when our man's mother tells him, in that tone of voice unique to mothers, that he shouldn't "drive to Heidelberg that often," the notion of randomness loses a great deal of plausibility. That his mother then punctuates her warning with the afterthought "in that car" sounds just as dimly coincidental.

What car, you say? An old car, obliged to make "an eighty-kilometer round trip two or three times a week," which may be a lot to ask of such a banged-up lemon. Our hero explains to his father that one reason why he still drives such an unseemly metal box is because "it will be a while before [he] can afford a Mercedes" – not that it appears as if he would burden himself with such luxuries even if his finances permitted them. Indeed, although our narrative is in the third person, we have more than a hunch that the omniscient voice that refuses to reveal the narrator's name – perhaps now, we consider, to protect him – shares his character's world view:

The terrace was larger; the blinds, if somewhat faded, were more generous; the entire scene was more elegant; and even in the hardly noticeable decrepitude of the lawn furniture, in the grass which grew between the gaps of the red tiles, was something that irritated him as much as loose talk had at many a student demonstration. Such things and clothes in general were subjects of annoyance between him and Carola, who always accused him of dressing in too bourgeois a fashion. He talked to Carola's mother about different types of vegetables and her father about cycling, found the coffee worse than at home, and tried not to let his nervousness devolve into irritation. They were, however, nice progressive people who had accepted him without any prejudices whatsoever, even officially, when the engagement was announced. Since that time he had come to like them genuinely, even Carola's mother, whose oft-uttered epithet 'charming' had initially annoyed him.

On second thought, perhaps the narrator – he is supposed to be omniscient, after all – does know a few things our man does not. As the title work in this collection should we take the query, that is so much more of a warning than a query, at face value? Does our man really travel to Heidelberg too often? And what on earth might he be doing in that serene and scholarly town known for its cosmopolitan learning and library? If you recall, our man, apart from being a conscientious, hard-working, thoughtful, and caring fellow – just what the world needs more of, if you ask me – has for a while now studied Spanish. In fact, his parents frequently ask him whether he knows the Spanish word for this or that, even though one never gets the sense that they care about the response. Perhaps they are simply loving parents indulging their child's creative whims? This is unclear, although we come to suspect the narrator knows a lot more than he is letting on. And we haven't even mentioned a man known only as Kronsorgeler.

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