Claiming my existence: the Paris episode

Sometimes, travel lets us relax and recuperate, and I’m sure there’s a right time for that. But I’ve always felt traveling should help you learn, see, be surprised, and get out of yourself, or the effort isn’t worth it.

Fifty years ago, in 1972, I took my first trip to Paris. It was a puzzling, exhilarating, lonely experience. Maybe the most important thing I began to understand during that adventure was that it doesn’t matter much if you tell yourself that you love or hate where you ended up on your travels. You can learn something, be surprised, have rewarding experiences, and enjoy your life even if you dislike a place and never get comfortable there. The most important thing is that you gain distance from the familiar, because it blinds and eventually erases you until you forget yourself. Of course, discomfort can soon get tiresome if you don’t know how to replenish your energy, or your fears and hesitations take over your life. I’m still thankful that a chance encounter with another traveler at the right moment helped me let go of my dead-ending routines and make the best of the time I still had left in Paris.

That sojourn of almost three months has expanded in my memories and now feels like much longer and more colorful than it was. It still yields a bundle of recollections in which I can recognize myself. Of course, I remember much of the times immediately before and afterwards, but in comparison those feel more like watching somebody else’s life. Somehow, in Paris I entered a chamber that has a connecting door to my 2022 present.

I remember that journey to Paris very well, maybe because I was certain that I was making a big mistake and shouldn’t be going there. But I had made my decision, my parents paid for my train ticket, I was hoping to get by on my savings, and people had promised me that I was going to have the time of my life. After thirteen years of school, this summer was going to be the longest period of my life since my childhood to be completely unstructured.

One morning in May, shortly after seven, I picked up my suitcase and rode the tram to the main train station in Cologne. The ride took maybe twenty minutes, and then I was in the noisy, crowded station with its characteristic, oily smell and the frequent broadcast announcements, of which one could never understand anything whatsoever.

I had visited London for three or four weeks during the summers of 1970 and 1971. I knew English well enough to make myself understood, but I had a hard time following conversations when people spoke at their natural speeds and didn’t make allowances for me. Still, I felt I was doing much better at the end of my second visit than at the beginning of the first. Returning to London would have been a natural and reasonable thing to do. A few of my former classmates were going to be there. I loved the place and felt at home in it. Its giant size and chaotic layout never bothered or confused me. I knew where things were and what neighborhoods and streets I liked best. I could get cheap standing tickets to the BBC Proms at Albert Hall and hear some of the world’s most accomplished musicians play the music I loved.

Nobody I knew was going to Paris, and my French was stunted. At school, I hadn’t had any French classes in years. I carried on learning the language in evening courses offered by my city’s inexpensive adult education college, but soon ran out of steam. However, back then I felt that I could learn anything I wanted to very quickly, so I had no qualms about traveling somewhere where the language would be difficult. I was confident that I could pick it up. I didn’t have a map of the city, but I had read that you could get your bearings with the help of the route schemes posted in the Métro stations. That would do just fine.

As many times later, I was conflicted about traveling. Probably, what I wanted to do most was to be alone, sit in my room with the cat on my lap, reading and listening to music. But I knew that was so unacceptable to my parents and everyone I knew that I couldn’t even really admit it to myself. My parents and friends expected me to take a trip, and I felt that returning to England yet again would put me in a box or somehow shrink me. At the end of school, I was disoriented and missed having the familiar structures to guide my life. I saw that this wasn’t healthy and I should force myself to move on to whatever came next, and traveling would supply the necessary friction and suffering. Not always clearly and coherently, I believed that it was better for me to learn how to be a stranger, not pretend familiarity in a life where I usually felt I didn’t belong.

Curiosity helped a little bit, but I already expected that I would no longer experience it after a day or two. I did want to see for myself the famous, hyped locales and buildings that I had heard about. In my schools’ history classes, teachers covered the French revolution and its aftermath very thoroughly. Before that, Louis XIV and other French kings made their appearances, all the way back to enigmatic Charlemagne and his untalented, quarrelling sons. In contrast, we learned practically nothing about English history. It started with William the Conqueror in 1066, skipped to Queen Elizabeth I, rushed to the disasters of industrialization in the 19th century, and that was it.

Relatives living near Baden-Baden spoke French, had friends in the Alsace, and sometimes visited Strasbourg, less than one driving hour away. They knew where to cross the border on narrow, sometimes unpaved roads without being stopped. From them, I had acquired sweet illusions about French people and culture. For instance, the French were said to be enormously fond of their cats and dogs. They treated them well, much better than the Germans did, and even had cemeteries for them. I found that extremely attractive. Existing in a kind of utopian serenity, they were rumored to take time to appreciate and enjoy what was good about life. I was sure I could find friendly, smart, generous people my age and get to know them.

The train journey took about eight hours. Between Cologne and Aachen I indulged in a lengthy reverie about a young woman I hoped to see again, daydreaming so vividly that I still remember it. I had the second-class compartment to myself for much of the time. Customs officers silently and efficiently checked everybody’s passports shortly after we left Aachen. As we neared Brussels, commuters—grey, tired, chilled-looking people—got on the train for a short ride. They remained standing in the corridors. I saw long stretches of tiny rowhouses and apartment buildings in the immediate vicinity of industrial plants. Not far from the French border, the train stopped for way too long between flat, green fields. This time, the border patrol was more severe, although they just looked and frowned at me and my passport. Other people had to answer questions and open their luggage. On the French side, the clouds and trees seemed grey and tired, and so did the buildings. A few times intriguing, complicated buildings towered on the horizon, but they vanished quickly.

At the outskirts of Paris, the train lumbered unevenly past gigantic, hideous apartment buildings, crumbled-looking churches, and gaudy, shredded billboards advertising cigarettes and booze. With infernal squeaks, it crossed ancient-looking iron bridges over busy streets that seemed grossly unpleasant, like some kind of hell made out of dust and tired bodies. Unlike the train journey from Dover to London’s Victoria Station, where one had the illusion of imminent arrival but still rolled past what felt like millions of little brick homes clustering around parks and town centers that became ever more urban and chaotic, the last stop came quickly.

Standing in front of the Gare du Nord, I let the rough, noisy foreignness hit me and immediately regretted having come here. Voices I couldn’t understand, unfamiliar cars going much faster than street traffic did at home, shrill sirens, noxious air, rotten-looking, soot-covered buildings with ugly neon signage. Pedestrians moved awkwardly and quickly, as if blinded or with their faces turned inwards, loose in their clothes, not like the more tightly and extensively draped Germans. I had to make my way across town to the Porte d’Italie, where I would catch a bus to the suburb of Sceaux. I was going to stay in a youth hostel there, the only cheap-enough accommodation I had found in the metropolitan area. The man in charge of it had written me a couple of friendly postcards with directions.

I wanted to save as much money as possible for books and records, so I decided to walk instead of taking the Métro at the Gare du Nord. But when I checked the map at another Métro station, I changed my mind because I saw how little progress I had made. It was best to double back to the Gare de l’Est, not far from where I had arrived, or I would have to change from one Métro line to another—definitely the kind of hateful challenge I wanted to avoid. When I eventually arrived at the Port d’Italie, furious crowds rushed every which way and crammed into the buses. I was sick from the fumes and the heat.

The youth hostel was a two-story, distressed building surrounded by weedy lots and a dense, small grove of fragile-looking trees. Except for the postcard writer, who continued to be friendly in person, nobody much was around. I gave him most of my colorful French banknotes, ate the rest of the crackers I had brought with me, and slept on the lower level of a bunk bed. Eventually, I figured out that most of the other male guests spent evenings and nights in the women’s quarters, the other half of the building. The following day, I would also find out that I got panic attacks when I walked through the woodsy area at night—the shortest way from the bus stop to the hostel—and avoided it.

But I had been used to intense, crippling fears for many years. Something I didn’t expect and which was much worse were the toilets. The youth hostel only had the kind of latrines that consist of a hole in the floor, with ribbed tiles on each side where you’re supposed to place your feet. I couldn’t make that work and was constipated for days. Then I found Métro stations where you could hand a few coins to an attendant—usually, a dignified, elderly Black woman—and use an extremely clean sit-down toilet. For a little more, you could take a long, hot shower and dry yourself with a freshly laundered towel that made you feel like a better person.

A few steps away from the hostel was a gargantuan supermarket, much larger than those at home. The orange building was brightly lit inside and outside, always open, never crowded, and nobody bothered you if you needed to look at packaged products to figure out what they were. The supermarket became my source of pale bread and eggs I fried in the filthy, crude hostel kitchen until I figured out that street food in the Quartier Latin was even less expensive. It also sold clothing, household goods, furniture, and stationary. I found lemon-green plastic templates to help students draw a map of France, with perforations for department borders and the main cities, and bought a handful as gifts for friends.

I adopted a routine where I rode the bus to the Porte d’Italie, took the Métro to some distant station, and hiked through the neighborhoods from there. I found that Paris wasn’t likeable or welcoming, especially not for somebody on a tiny budget. I was appalled to be asked to pay so I could sit on a chair in the Tuileries or be hounded by a photographer who wanted to sell me a portrait of myself. The bookstores were expensive, and staff didn’t let you browse for long before they suggested you make a purchase. People my age didn’t look like me, they mostly dressed and acted as if they were twenty years older, and many seemed perpetually angry. I didn’t find any of the “alternative” and “underground” teahouses, vegetarian cafés, or bookshops that attracted somewhat misplaced, awkward, questioning people like myself in Cologne or London. Soon, I felt that being unmoored and alone in Paris was a kind of self-inflicted punishment.

It took me a long time to get a little more comfortable and find neighborhoods, parks, and streets I enjoyed or that were a little calmer than the rest of the hectic urban environment, which always seemed to be fueled by inaudible screams. When I could, I slowed down, sat somewhere and watched life go by, read, and wrote—in my journal, or letters and postcards home. I only remember one particular book I purchased and read with great love and enjoyment, a biography of Gustav Mahler, then and now a composer whose work I never tire of. His exalted outcries in quoted letters to his wife and other people evoked an almost erotic feeling of despair in me.

I found quiet spots which were never crowded and where I could shelter from the dusty, hot, hyper-charged city, including some stretches along the left bank of the Seine. When I sat on my favorite bench across from the Quai des Orfèvres, I saw men fishing next to large, painted letters on the wall behind them which read, “Laissez vivre les petits poissons.” I wished I could meet people like those who had painted that admonition, but didn’t know how to find them.

Traipsing around Paris, the long commutes to and from the youth hostel, the frustrated, oppressed vibe I got from the people on the streets, the bad air and relentless heat—it was all too exhausting. After a little over a month, when my birthday came around, I felt I had to change course or maybe go home early. It was clear to me that Paris and I didn’t care for each other. That day, I didn’t have a destination and wasn’t interested in being here. I just wanted to sit somewhere and breathe. Also, I wished I were in London, maybe visiting the Compendium Bookstore in Camden Town or walking around Hampstead Heath.

I came to an area I found particularly brittle and cold, and where I had not spent much time—a little east of the Trocadéro, not far from the Palais de Tokyo, maybe strolling along Rue Fresnel or Rue Foucault. How did I meet the tall, friendly man I spent the next few hours with? Maybe I smiled at him. Maybe he asked me for directions. He spoke very little French or English, and I didn’t know Japanese at all. It was a struggle to make oneself understood, but we persevered. If he told me his name, I forgot it. I learned that he was from Tokyo, traveling by himself, and would be in Paris for just a few days. He was a little older than me. He didn’t carry the stereotypical tourist paraphernalia—no camera, no shoulder bag, no guidebook. I can still see him in his white shirt, grey trousers, and black shoes, leaning back and seemingly at ease in the world in a way I hadn’t discovered yet.

In the laborious, difficult conversation I was able to communicate only a small portion of what occurred to me, but I did successfully share that it was my birthday. Brightening as if it were his own, he invited me for lunch. We found a café nearby, sat at the edge where the fleet of tables and chairs spilled onto the sidewalk, and spent what felt like a long time there. We drank coffee and ate croque monsieur sandwiches that looked and tasted as if they had been made weeks ago, then kept chilled. But I was happy about the company and the break from my routine.

That day was a Tuesday, peak working week. But the café and the immediate neighborhood were almost entirely emptied of people and traffic. A couple of other guests sat inside, but none were on the terrace, and the waiter let us linger as long as we wanted to. Eventually, the large sidewalk trees began throwing their shadows over us and it got chilly.

After several hours of enthusiastic, yet difficult conversation I was exhausted and needed to be alone. I thanked my companion, who paid for everything, and we shook hands. We didn’t make plans to meet again.

It’s not that I suddenly loved Paris, but this encounter helped me transform the remainder of my time there. I felt I could be here—or maybe anywhere—without feeling that everybody and everything around me was hostile. I realized that the people and their city didn’t care about me one way or another. From the looks of it, they were probably a lot more uncomfortable than me. I found other things to do than just hike around. I climbed to the top of the Arc de Triomphe and enjoyed the views. Not far from the Sorbonne, a small cinema showed all the films of Ingmar Bergman with French subtitles, and I watched many of them. I saw an entire villa populated by George Segal’s plaster figures. Several times, I visited the Archives Nationales, fascinated by the manuscripts and books on display. I found it appalling and funny that King Louis XVI in his journal recorded July 14, 1789, with just one word: “rien.” Some of the art I saw in museums I appreciated; Georges Braque, Yves Tanguy, André Breton stood out for me. One evening, in what was then a blue-collar neighborhood close to the Canal Saint-Martin, I watched a crude, heartfelt performance of a musical that critiqued capitalistic power structures, and had brief chats with people. I even visited and disliked the Louvre, back then a musty, staid, poorly lit prison for art and stolen treasures. I enjoyed the ancient Egyptian artifacts on display, but what one could see of the collection was mostly small-scale and stuffed into a few dim, low-ceilinged rooms, not like the awesome, expansive displays at the British Museum.

Until that point, the other inmates of the youth hostel had been shadows I barely noticed. Now, they blossomed into colors, voices, and dimensions. I was invited for group dinners by people who were friends with the manager and had stayed here for many months already, in a kind of limbo where they were no longer traveling and had made a sort of temporary home here. With them, I finally got to talk a little. They even fulfilled my dream of the animal-loving French when I saw how kindly and affectionately they treated the cat who sometimes visited. That was a revelation; I had only seen the more chilly, top-down, clueless interactions most German people had with their animals. An Algerian poet—much older than everybody else there—showed me his work and spontaneously gave me an exceedingly accurate characterization of the young woman who sent me a letter to the hostel, based on her handwriting. Toward the end, two recently arrived Swedish women and I became friendly and roamed the city together.

I was very ready to get back on the train when it was time to leave. I knew I wouldn’t miss Paris, although I expected to come here again, maybe when I had a little more money to spend. I don’t remember where this character occurs in Camus’ writing, but an older, grey-suited man I met during the journey had the same kind of obsession with train schedules and rail lines as that figure in one of his novels. He stood at the end of the last, empty wagon, performing an endless litany of train- and rail-related details.

Much of this first sojourn in Paris was unenjoyable, stressful, and boring. But it helped me find a way of being away from my usual surroundings and find out a little more about who and what I was. This is easier and more revealing when you’re somewhere that doesn’t agree with you. You get to claim your existence and own and inhabit a place by wrestling with it and experiencing whatever’s there, horrendous and beautiful and cruel. That’s why imagined, long wished-for paradises are so frustrating and dull when you finally seem to reach them. They reflect your limitations so much that you never actually arrive. Unless some person or event confronts and benignly derails you, what you do and choose while you’re there doesn’t have the power to help you question, see, and understand yourself or anything else.

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The truth about polenta

What’s so good about polenta? In no particular order: it’s inexpensive, easy to cook, versatile, tastes good, and doesn’t sit in your stomach like a rock the way so many other foods do. Also, it’s comforting not just when it’s freshly cooked and still has that gruel-like consistency, but also when you let it cool and then steam, fry, grill, or broil it with whatever vegetables and fruits and sauces you like. When it’s good, polenta transports you to a home where things are almost simple, you can get by without cruelty, and people’s lives complement each other without needless friction. It’s a dream, but nonetheless enjoyable and possibly worth looking for.

Finally, polenta reminds me of the millet gruel my grandmother used to cook when I was little. It was a summer dish, usually served with fruit, and one of the few things that remained edible even after she was done with it. When she made this, she was usually in a good mood, unless she overcooked it, which meant it burnt and stuck to the pot, and it took lots of work to clean up. When she felt serene, she didn’t want to talk, didn’t bother me, didn’t make me go on a boring walk with her, but spent the afternoon looking at her magazines and leaving me alone. Just what I wanted.

In North American grocery stores, pre-cooked polenta in plastic casings that make it look like a fat yellow sausage has been available for many years. It is usually bland, but can acquire a kind of burned-rubber taste that goes well with the dull, mealy texture. Sometimes, these polenta products are flavored with basil, specks of “sundried” tomato, pistachios, or other things. Those add some visual appeal, but never any flavor. The only flavor in these polenta products apart from the residual plastic taste is salt. Don’t waste your money on them. The plastic can’t be recycled, so it hangs around your trash can and then piles up in the landfill.

Dry cornmeal—which is what polenta is—can be bought in many of the same places that will sell you these lame polenta rolls. Several food companies produce it in North America, and you also find it imported from Italy. At least one type of polenta by a U.S. supplier always turns out gritty and never quite sticks together, unless you cook it for a very long time and use a lot of water. You can get what’s said to be instant polenta, which is supposedly ready in a few minutes. It’s edible at that point, but not as good as when you cook it a little longer. So there’s no real advantage to purchasing the instant versions.

Standard polenta, every cookbook tells you, has to be prepared in boiling, salted water. You pour it in slowly and stir, so it doesn’t clump. Then you keep watching and stirring it until you’re happy with it. The part about the boiling water, sure, that’s true. Stirring for an eternity, like the half hour or whatever the experts insist on, no, that’s totally unnecessary. Stir it for a few minutes, cover it and let it sit over low heat, then maybe add some broth or water to be absorbed, stir it again, and so forth. You can do other kitchen work while you cook polenta. Or, read. Or do nothing. When polenta gets hot, it likes to spit little flecks of itself onto your arms and hands. You might want to stir it with a long-handled tool.

After about twenty minutes or so, the polenta has absorbed all the liquid and then some, and it has a pleasant, slightly foamy, resilient, gruel texture. You can serve it as a side dish with whatever vegetables or salad you’ve prepared. You can also pour it into a container to stand and cool before you do more with it.

Or, do this: When you like the state of the polenta and before it’s quite ready to either cool off or be consumed, you toss in the cherries, blueberries, soaked raisins, chocolate chips, thin-sliced leeks, diced Brussels sprouts, olives, capers, roasted peppers, grated cheese, small-cut greens, herbs, and additional seasonings of your preference, and give it all a good stir. Then you let the mixture cook over low heat for about five to ten more minutes. A couple of days ago, I made cherry polenta this way.

Homemade cherry polenta

The overnight-cooled block of cherry polenta before it was cut up into sections to be fried.

I removed the pits from the cherries while the polenta was cooking, and threw them in when it was ready. I added cinnamon and honey for flavor and depth. I poured the mix into a flat glass bowl to cool. The following day, I cut it into wedges, which I fried with a little butter and cinnamon, and served with a cold mix of raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries, seasoned with a little mango chutney.

When you let the polenta cool, it’s best to do it at room temperature and without a lid over it. In the refrigerator, the texture may turn sort of brittle and any flavor can fade away. And, if you put a lid over it, evaporating liquid will gather on that and drip back onto the polenta, where you don’t really want it.

Your additions should remain mostly intact even while their flavor pervades the polenta. Thus, raspberries are probably not good to use, but little chunks of pineapple, cherries, or blueberries, sure. Their juice infuses the polenta. If you add vegetables, keep the pieces or slices very small, because the dish will be more flavorful that way, and it will remain more manageable. Also, you need to watch the proportions. If you add too much fruit or vegetable matter, the cooling polenta won’t hold together nicely and will be a pain to cut, fry or otherwise reheat, and serve. Your polenta mix should probably not have more than about one fifth to a quarter of whatever foods that are not boiled cornmeal. And, be careful with the salt, especially when you make a savory polenta. Saltiness tends to become more intense as the polenta cools and is reheated, something you will not always want.

You can add cream or yogurt to fruity polenta right at the end, if you want it to have a very rich texture and flavors. If you do that, the polenta should have cooked at the lowest heat for a while, or else the cream or yogurt will simply vanish in it and leave barely a trace, but will make it harder to clean up the cooking pot. Similarly, if you add grated cheese to polenta with vegetables, do it when just before you let it cool.

Ideally, whatever you add to polenta should harmonize with it. Let it be simple. Clean flavors, not more than one or two different things. Later, if you reheat and serve the polenta with other foods, you can expand a little. But its simplicity is why polenta remains comforting. I know people cook it with expensive cheeses and other high-grade additions, and one commercial product is pre-flavored with truffles. To me, that strays too much from polenta’s origins in the plain kitchens of Italian cucina povera, and they add calories which most people won’t need.

You can let a thin film of polenta cool on a baking sheet, or slice your polenta loaf or other shape that way. Then you can use those polenta layers as the strata in lasagna-style dishes. Those, too, are best when you keep them simple. Portobello and other mushrooms together with spinach can work well in this. The mushroom juice can soak into the polenta, which could make for great flavor, or, if it’s too much, cause it to fall apart. You just have to experiment.

Another thing that’s satisfying about polenta: when it’s well-cooked, it comes cleanly off the sides of the pot, and washing the dish and the utensils is a minor chore. Some people love washing dishes and other cleaning tasks, but for those of us who want to minimize them, polenta is perfect.

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A letter to Alaska Airlines: Do right by your Spanish-speaking passengers!

Earlier this week, I was on Alaska flight 3403 from Mexico City to Los Angeles. Spanish-speaking passengers were treated poorly and unprofessionally. Below is the letter I’m sending to the company.

 

May 18, 2018

Dear Alaska Airlines leadership,

Your airline flies to several locations in Mexico, including Mexico City, the capital, Cancun, Loreto, Puerto Vallarta, and other destinations. I assume you are aware of the business value of transporting people from the U.S. to Mexico and from Mexico to the U.S. Our recent flight experience, however, made me wonder about your understanding of what it takes to deliver this international service and provide an excellent customer experience.

On May 16, 2018, my wife and I were on flight 3403 from Mexico City to Los Angeles, where we would change planes to fly home to Seattle. The Alaska representatives at the check-in desk, all of them Latinos, were professional and friendly. They spoke to passengers – a mix of Mexican and U.S. travelers – in Spanish and English, according to their preferences. They took time to respond to questions and provide helpful information regarding how to find the right gate and what customs and immigration processing in LA would be like. They did an outstanding job with an increasingly impatient group of passengers, who had been queuing up for quite some time before the check-in counters opened.

In contrast, the Alaska team members on the flight itself could politely be described as abrupt, unpolished, and disrespectful. They spoke to passengers only and always in English, even when they asked questions or made comments in Spanish, and were unable or at the least challenged to understand English. This is extremely rude behavior. Even the security briefing was only given in English. On international flights, one usually gets the briefing in the native language of most passengers as well as in English, so this was an obvious lapse. Cabin announcements throughout the flight were also only delivered in English.

As far as I’m concerned, you owe all of your Spanish-speaking passengers on that flight at the very least an apology. They were treated miserably. Speakers of Spanish missed critical safety information and were not able to learn from the cabin crew how arrival and customs checks would play out. The family sitting in front of us had problems with the English version of the U.S. customs form and asked for a Spanish one, which they never received. The Alaska flight attendant treated them in a curt, patronizing manner that would have made most anybody bristle. It’s possible that they did not understand all of her unhelpful remarks because they were in English only.

Imagine if this happened to you – you are on a flight, need to understand important safety, customs-related, or connecting-gate information, and you cannot, because it’s not being provided in your language. Now, imagine that your language is not just spoken by a small population, but by hundreds of millions of people in Spain and Latin America. Would you feel disrespected, unappreciated, or slighted? I noticed that Spanish-speaking passengers on our flight were confused and unhappy. I don’t know if any of them complained.

As you know, Mexico City is one of the world’s largest urban centers, home to millions of potential travelers, both professional and for leisure, as well as a range of leading universities, medical research organizations, and global and Mexican businesses. Mexico is a close and vital neighbor of the U.S., and Alaska Airlines needs to serve passengers well or lose business to Delta and other airlines nipping at its heels. You simply can’t have people working for you who treat Mexican travelers as if they were not worthy of respect, as if they were problems, not passengers. After my experience on flight 3403, I’m not at all sure that Alaska Airlines understands what it takes to serve a sophisticated, international audience.

I have lived and traveled in Mexico in the 1970s and 1980s, when we had excellent service from Mexican airlines providing direct flights from Seattle to Mexico City. I have never seen that any English-speaking passenger was treated as condescendingly then as the Spanish-speaking guests on your flight 3403 last week. It’s a delicate time in relations between Mexico and the U.S. and anything that can help people connect and build bridges among their families, companies, and cultures is of great value. Your cabin crew did us all a disservice in that regard.

All the best –

Chris Lemoine

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A perfect, eternal winter evening, thanks to Alban Berg

My parents made many efforts to connect with me, the distant, fear-plagued son they loved and appreciated, but just could not reach. I did not notice or understand their efforts then, but much later, long after they were gone.

Because, as a child and a very young person, I tended to avoid my father and find him difficult to relate to, they sometimes tried to bridge the chasm between us. It was awkward for both him and me, and for me it was also puzzling. As I saw it, we found each other strange and not particularly interesting or likable, so why did they insist on changing this?

When I was fourteen or fifteen, maybe the last attempt of this kind took place. I don’t remember how the conversations went or whether I was even part of them, but, right after New Year’s Day, my father and I took a regional train into the hilly region east of Cologne and spent most of a week in a small guest house, on a back alley in a tiny village. The train let us off in a town called Gummersbach, and from there we took a bus to our destination. It was deep winter, and the more I think about it, the year must have been 1968.

The previous summer, my father had spent five or six weeks in a clinic in the area. His doctor had sent him there to participate in controlled weight-loss and exercise programs. He did not cheat like the other men, who went to grocery stores and pubs to enhance their diet, but he did not lose any weight at all. Later I heard that my mother took him butter and other favorite things to eat when she and I visited every few days. I didn’t even notice. We were in a rustic, not very clean bed-and-breakfast not far away. Who lost weight during those weeks was I – unplanned, but very lucky for me.

My parents had probably found the guest house through recommendations from customers. The trip would have been my mother’s idea, and I’m sure she also bought our train tickets at the travel agency around the corner from the shoe store she owned and ran with my father. Then she packed both our suitcases. Maybe she even took the tram with us to the station and see us off. If we left on a Sunday, the store would have been closed. January was generally a quiet month, so she could easily handle the shop on her own with help from the one or two saleswomen who worked there. Until 1976, when my father had a heart attack while I was living in London, these would be the only days she had entirely to herself.

At that time, most people living in the city wore the same clothes for almost everything they did. If they participated in a sport, like soccer or running, they wore what went with that. But for hiking, bicycling, kicking a ball around, shopping, visiting family, running an errand to a government office, attending church – you wore respectable, clean clothes, not too dressy and certainly not shabby. Unless you were a mountain climber or dedicated to a sport, outdoor gear and specialized clothing for certain activities didn’t come into use until much later. Day in, day out, my father dressed in a white shirt and tie, a grey or brown suit, and an overcoat and hat when it was cold. We both would have had plain leather shoes, maybe with riffled rubber soles to make it easier to walk in snow and ice, but still useless for any more ambitious hikes. He had a hat. I didn’t.

Winters in Cologne were chilly, with temperatures close to freezing for many weeks. Sometimes, it snowed, but never for longer than a day or two, and within a few more days it was all melted. But as soon as the bus let us off, we were in a white country, where snow would have begun fallen sometime in October and kept coming since then. Main roads had been cleared, but fields and buildings were covered with a couple of feet of firm, old snow. Within a few steps, our feet were wet and freezing, our pant legs soaked, and our hands frozen, because we also lacked gloves.

I don’t remember how we found the unmarked guest house. My father must have had good directions. It was a small single-family home with just a handful of rentable rooms. We were the only guests. The Christmas tree was still in the living room, and seasonal cookies and pastries piled in a large plate on a table next to it. It smelled nice and felt most comfortable. We had separate rooms, and I’m sure we shared a bathroom.

Of those days, I don’t recall any conversations. We took all our meals at the house; there was no restaurant or café in the small village. I remember the silent, dark-haired woman who sometimes spoke with my father and ran the place.

We took endless walks in the snow, with our miserable shoes and thin clothing. The hills all looked alike, and within a few steps you lost sight of the village. There were hardly any people out and about, cattle and horses were in their barns, cars and trucks coming through were few. We walked slowly, because we did not want to slip and fall. Once or twice we got lost and did not find our way back to the house until after dark.

There was no newspaper, radio, nor TV for the guests. We did find a current issue of Hör Zu, a weekly magazine with a detailed program for all the major radio stations as well as the two or three German TV broadcasters operating then. A concert listing interested me. I asked my father for an evening’s loan of his portable radio, which he used to listen to political and sports news at 8 p.m. The program started after that, so we didn’t clash.

The reception was terrible. I was fully dressed and under the sheets in my bed, because it was freezing in the room. However, I had to keep moving around to adjust the antenna and improve the placement of the radio. I forget what the first piece played by the orchestra was, but I spent most of the time tweaking the frequency dial and repositioning radio and antenna

.

When the second program item began, I was used to the static and had achieved some sort of stability. The steady rushing sound was acceptable, and I’d gotten rid of the annoying chirping and whistling. I could give my full attention to the violin concerto by Alban Berg.

This was one of the best listening experiences in my whole life. Some detail was obliterated because of the poor transmission quality, but what remained was lovely, heartbreaking, amazing music. It touched me in a way few things ever did, and until that moment, probably nothing. I clearly remember the surprise and amazement when I heard the last section, where Berg weaves a Bach chorale into his music. The piece only takes a little over twenty minutes, but my felt experience time amounted to several hours. Berg’s violin concerto was a perfect match for the dry, cold, black January evening in this room, in this January, in this life. It made for an unforgettable moment. This happened almost fifty years ago, but I can still hear the barely-there ending. I knew then that this hearing of the Berg concerto would never leave me, and it hasn’t. It will be part of me until I leave this world.

I’m sure I listened to the symphony or whatever came next, but don’t remember what it was. Maybe I wrote in my journal, or read in my book. The following morning, I returned the radio to my father and thanked him. We spent another day or two in the snow before taking the bus and train home. I don’t recall going to church during out time in snow land – the village did not have a church, but we would have made our way to another village or town to go to mass. That means we were home before Sunday. My school started again on Monday. My father returned to the store. I don’t think we ever talked about these frozen, beautiful days together.

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A beam of light shed on 1867 improves your present

As you know, 1867 was a very memorable year. If you read Intriguing Transformations of the Alien Mind, you already know a little about the main event, the public reveal of the bjoite aliens. After visiting Earth for thousands of years, they chose to end the secrecy and doubt. Their landing craft touched down in London, the visitors shook hands with Queen Victoria, and the First Ambassador soon took up residence.

One of the greatest explorers, linguists, and adventurers of the age, Captain Richard Francis Burton, was at that time posted in Santos, Brazil, where he served as the British Consul. For Burton, 1867 was a downturn. He had very little to do and was not at all pleased about having been shafted to a remote corner of the empire, where British interests were hazy and he had next to no visibility or influence. For his superiors, this virtual exile eliminated any of the past problems with Burton, who did not get along well with the men who ran the Foreign Office.

Captain Richard Francis Burton

Captain Richard Francis Burton

For the first time in their marriage, Burton and his wife Isabel had endless time to themselves. Soon, Burton became bored and despondent. In most biographies, this period and his subsequent aimless travels in Latin America are given telegraphic treatment. He drank too much and was difficult to be around. He wrote little, and there is no documentation for much of that sad episode.

Recent findings allow us to shed light on Burton’s prolonged ‘lost weekend’ and what happened in his two brief encounters with the bjoite. Maybe the aliens saved Captain Burton’s life by urging him to write a book about them, but you will likely agree that he paid a high price for this. As you probably know, Burton’s book appeared very shortly before their spectacular appearance in London, but he did not make it clear that he had actually spoken to them and was fulfilling their request in writing it.

We also share some observations from the boyhood of Burton protégé Augusto Verjeiro, the only human known to have visited the bjoite home planet. Verjeiro, of course, became famous when he returned from that world into the Europe of the early 1970s. We are still trying to substantiate some of his claims regarding his experience.

If you appreciate Burton’s legendary courage and curiosity, and maybe enjoyed his travelogues and translations, A Gateway to the Ash Dragon’s Walled Garden helps you understand the man and that time in history better. The story is now available at www.amazon.com/dp/B016962JFC for reading on your Kindle or the free Kindle app on your tablet or laptop. Your feedback and questions are most welcome!

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Saints, heroes, villains, lost souls (9): Broken teachers

One of the oldest and best songs by Jeffrey Gaines is called Headmasters of Mine. It was the closing song on his first, eponymous album. As wrong-headed as the headmasters and teachers in the song are, they are angels compared to some of the people who taught when I went to school. Some of them were so improbable and awful, it’s worth remembering them along with other lost souls in my life.

I attended a few schools in Cologne, Germany. As my mother explained later, I developed slowly and was held back from starting first grade for a year. When she had to take me to some sort of official evaluation, I brought a stuffed animal with me and apparently acted child-like and fragile enough to cause concern, even without understanding what the scrutiny was all about.

A warning to start

When no further delay was possible, I was registered at one of Cologne’s public schools. In April 1961, on the eve of the first day in first grade (back then, the school year started the Easter break), my father gave me a discouraging talk. He sat on a chair next to our sink, in his undershirt, smelling of sweat. “Tomorrow begins the serious part of life,” he said. “Your childhood is over and you have to study and work hard. If you do well, you get good grades and that’s very important. You will make friends with other boys, and will know some of them for many years.” Having heard that, I probably hid somewhere to cry a few tears, because I could no longer be at home, playing with the cat and my stuffed animals, enjoying the company of my grandmother. She had raised me, because my parents were always in their shop, selling shoes. I knew I would hate school.

The following day, my grandmother took me to the school. It was only about ten minutes to walk from our apartment building and I had been past it many times with her, but it was expected that new students be escorted and handed over to the school on their first day. I remember it was over very quickly—I sat in a classroom with about 40 other boys at 10 a.m., and shortly after noon, I was back home for lunch.

Almost unbelievably, the first school I went to in Cologne still exists.

Almost unbelievably, the first school I went to in Cologne still exists.

Mourning with Mary

Ernst Eul was probably in his early thirties, but his demeanor, dark brown suits, and baldness made him look—to me, at least—much older. I did not know that was unusual; later, we all spent hours trying to guess what a certain teacher’s first name was, because they usually never disclosed it. Maybe Eul introduced himself with his full name because his last name was so short.

Eul taught us how to write, how to read (or pretend to read what we had memorized), and how to perform simple manipulations with numbers. Twice a week he made us run around the schoolyard. The structured environment and being made to learn things appealed to me; I did reasonably well except for the running around, of course. Day after day, from 8 a.m. until noon and sometimes until 1 p.m., there was Eul. He was sometimes angry with pupils who were absent-minded or loud, but he mostly seemed uncomfortable, as if he could not breathe well.

With one exception: religion. At that time, everybody I knew was Catholic and went to church on Sundays. At home, we prayed before and at the end of meals, and I also prayed before I went to bed. Our school was public, part of the city’s school district, but it was a Catholic school. There were Lutheran schools as well, and, later, I spent some time at a school where a white line across the schoolyard separated Catholics and Lutherans.

Eul lived and breathed a certain aspect of Catholic religion: The agonies of Mary, mother of Jesus, when her son was arrested, whipped, nailed to the cross, pierced with a spear, taken down, and laid in a tomb donated by a disciple. Sure, he talked about the manger and the shepherds and Jesus’ miracles and the Sermon on the Mount, but he always got back to Mary and how she suffered along with her son. Nothing could withstand Mary’s miseries. From something as joyful as the miracle of the loaves and fishes, he would be back in Jerusalem on the day of the crucifixion, within a handful of words. He was so skilled at manipulating our emotions that most of us were in tears when he went on about Mary. He usually closed out the school day this way, which meant most of us were sad and sniffling when we left. He covered the same territory from many different angles. He explained how betrayed and disappointed Mary, too, felt when Peter denied knowing Jesus. Or, he would make up a story about Pontius Pilate and how she prayed for him. As the school year went on and we became used to his Mary stories, he kept returning to her standing under the cross, watching her son die. When every other element of the narrative was sucked dry, this still had the power to make at least a few boys cry. I was not among them. I quickly tired of Mary and was glad when Eul was no longer our teacher in second grade.

A grouchy drunk

When I was in third grade, we moved and I went to a different school. One of the teachers there was an older man with teary eyes who kept using idioms that were not common in our area. Much of the time, we had no idea what he was telling us. My grandmother translated them for me at home. He came from the southwest of the country, not far from the Black Forest, where she had spent her childhood. This man, Knauf was his last name, was very moody. He never seemed to like anybody. When he was fed up with us, he stopped the class ten minutes early and kept us in the room, so we could think about our shortcomings. He also had a habit of disappearing during class while we were supposed to read, write, or draw something. Much later, it occurred to me that he was probably an alcoholic who had to get his drug from somewhere. Knauf was unpleasant, but harmless. One almost felt sorry for him.

Raging screamer

Far more dramatic were a few characters who taught at the Realschule I visited in grades five through nine. This type of school was meant to prepare you for specialized professional colleges, and after that it was work. My parents didn’t feel the Gymnasium or high school was right for me. They wanted me to take over the shoe store, and learning Latin and other useless knowledge was not required for that.

At the Realschule, some teachers appeared to be mad, or at least in permanent distress. I remember Mr. Palutke, a short, broad-shouldered math instructor who always dressed in blue suits, silver and gray ties, and shiny black shoes. He had wavy brown hair and a large, almost cube-shaped head. His small, grey eyes peered out of an always tanned face that we found puzzling—how did he manage to look this way? Palutke was always impatient when students did not catch on immediately; when he was impatient, he often became very angry; when he was angry, he would scream. His words were unremarkable: He told us we were stupid, useless, a waste of resources. But his delivery was extraordinary. Palutke shouted so loud that in summer, when the windows were open, you could hear him rage in a classroom at the other end of the building and two floors up or down. His face turned fiery red, his voice broke, and often he stormed out at that point, sometimes throwing a book or a ruler or a box of chalk against the wall. We were all afraid of him, but he never hit anybody. However, when he marched up and down the aisles between our two-person desks and scream at the top of his lungs, he was frightening. We didn’t learn much from him, because he was too distracting. Rumor had it that he ranked quite high in the Nazi military and spent many years as a prisoner of war.

Tossing books, eating animals

A teacher named Reuter, another short, but fat man with white, yellowing hair, always in the same rumpled-looking gray suit, also had an anger problem. He taught biology, or rather, he had us read aloud or copy from the textbook. To us, he was a comical figure, and we were bored. We talked amongst ourselves, played games, or read comics. We quickly figured out how we could set him off to prompt one of his displays. He did not scream, but he waddled through the classroom, grabbed books and pencils and fountain pens and whatever he could find on our desks, and tossed them around the room. Sometimes, he threw books and stationery out of the windows, and we picked them up in the schoolyard afterwards. “Be quiet, just all be quiet,” he sometimes moaned, but often he did not speak at all. He just threw things.

After one of these episodes, Reuter would become quite friendly, giggle to himself, and tell anecdotes from when he was a prisoner of war in the Soviet Union. The equivalent of his suffering Mary was a train ride through Poland and Ukraine that he described dozens of times. The prisoners were extremely hungry during that transport. Sometimes, that brought Reuter back to his subject, biology, as long as the creatures being discussed were edible. In that case, he would go on at great length about the joys of preparing and eating carp, boar, lobster, deer, or other animals that were mentioned in the textbook.

Bushman

I have often wondered how war-broken men like Reuter and Palutke maintained themselves in their jobs, but they were civil servants, which, at that time in Germany, meant lifelong job security unless you committed a serious crime. Also, the principal at that school was in no position to reign them in. He was close to 80, a fragile, trembling, sometimes incoherent man who for some reason had not retired and still taught math. After Palutke, he was a relief. But he had a nasty way of calling on individual students and calling them names when they did not perform well. “You are a bushman,” he would say—that was the worst insult he could muster, and our nickname for him. He never did this to me, and some of the mental calculation tricks and shortcuts he taught us I still recall. But I don’t remember his name.

Slow, drunk, distant

These were the extremes, but there were others. The English teacher who only got through five of the year’s 24 textbook lessons, morbidly going over the same matters. The arts teacher who was often so drunk that she reeked, could not stand up in front of the class, and sat at her desk napping after she told us to draw whatever we liked. The English teacher who preferred to leave her fur coat on and never looked at anybody. All of these people were clearly unhappy and did not enjoy the company of their students. Why did they teach in schools? I believe they enjoyed a highly structured environment with a level of control over other people, and they felt they had a certain skill they could rely on. They probably never were fired, and eventually retired from teaching without finding a replacement for the activity of so many years.

Later, I did go to a Gymnasium and graduated with Abitur at the end of grade 13. Fewer truly awful teachers were on the loose in the higher grades. In fact, some of them were extraordinary, resourceful people. I will write about them another time.

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Springtime is great for travel. The bjoite are on the move.

I finally finished, rewrote, rewrote, revised, rewrote, and published the third bjoiteria story. Intriguing Transformations of the Alien Mind is the first time my historical research into those aliens finds its way into a story. There will be more historical episodes, because there’s a lot to discover. I also still think that well-written, literary science fiction is having a moment.

Clockmaker Johannes Rinzerberg, who opens his Baden-Baden workshop in 1867, comes into contact with them and enjoys decades of visits and conversations. It didn’t happen to Dostoyevsky and other famous gamblers and society figures in Baden-Baden, but Rinzerberg was lucky. And he knew how to keep a secret. He never talked about his alien encounters, but left several volumes of journals full of rapturous descriptions and recollections of exalted states. His grandson Paul Rinzerberg tracks the journeys of the bjoite to Santa Barbara, California. Paul, also a clockmaker, settles there shortly before the 1925 earthquake. As his grandfather already learned, bjoite shuttles often touch down in the Santa Ynez Mountains behind the city. The local Chumash Indians have oral traditions about them that go thousands of years into the past. Paul is particularly curious about an incident in 1251, when a bjoite shuttle crashed into the Pacific Ocean and all travelers died. When he finally makes contact with the aliens, his bjoite mentor directs his explorations of Chumash art and helps him understand how the bjoite experience death and life. Paul is not given to raptures, but finds himself changing through his risky explorations. With the help of the bjoite and a woman he loves, Paul overcomes barriers imposed by his deafness and muteness, meets his future wife, and finds himself connected to a far larger world, full of miraculous awareness and bewildering, vibrant life.transformations cover 1

Intriguing Transformations of the Alien Mind finally opens the curtain on the aliens’ inner world and sense of reality at least a little. If you have not read the earlier bjoite stories, this is as good a place as any to start learning about our guests.

Transformations costs $1.99 plus tax. Speaking of, I just paid my annual and quarterly income tax, so I need the money. I’m sure you’ll understand.

You can buy and download the story from two resources:

You may have seen the earlier blog entries about the other bjoite stories. The first bjoiteria story is The Ambassador’s Last Recital, available for Kindle or the Kindle App and for the Nook or the Nook App. The second one, Return from the Hunt, you can also read on your Kindle and in the Kindle App, or on the Nook and in the Nook App.

Thanks to each of you who read and reviewed any of the stories. You are the best! Because of you, I can believe that my continuing research is worth the effort. I hope you enjoy this episode; your feedback and questions are welcome.

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Enjoy a fine new SF story for Christmas: Fast-forward to December 2036, when a former huntress may get another chance and relations between us and the bjoite are much improved

Earlier today, I published the second story in the bjoiteria series after a few people read it, provided feedback, and I made some adjustments to it. Return from the Hunt is thematically related to The Ambassador’s Last Recital, which you might have heard about or even read, but these stories are really designed to stand on their own. I’m still confident that it’s a good time for literary, high-quality science fiction. Some of what’s been published this year by SF as well as mainstream literary authors is excellent.

Return takes us to December 2036, which—doesn’t time fly—comes very quickly. That’s when Ruth Polyansky stands in a long soup line in Seattle’s Pioneer Square, graced by an automated Christmas tree. Ruth is a former nurse, a one-time resident of Olympia, Washington. She’s hungry, it’s cold, and homelessness doesn’t get any easier after two decades. Finally, when she’s almost about to get her meal, Ruth sees that the volunteer serving the homeless is one of the hated, disgusting bjoite aliens. She can’t stomach that. She’d rather starve.

Ruth’s shadows are catching up with her, and she must relive memories from a time when she bow-hunted and killed, passionately and skillfully. Ducks, rabbits, bjoite. Her recollections focus on a dinner she cooked and served one long-ago evening. That fateful meal also meant the end of the line for her husband, a bus driver.

Other aliens approach. They seem intent on confronting Ruth. She’s not looking forward to this, but she’s unable to tear herself away. Ruth is in a by now permanent fog and cannot even recall what started it. Can she make a new beginning in a time when humans and bjoite get along so much better than today? Where will the next meal come from?

Find out in Return from the Hunt, the second story in the bjoiteria adventures. It’s available as an e-book from these sources, at the sensationally low cost of $1.99:

As ever, your correspondent needs cash. Especially at this time of the year. Remember, you don’t need a Kindle or Nook reader to enjoy fine fiction. You can simply download the free apps from Amazon or Barnes & Noble, and away you go!Return from the Hunt cover 4

You can find the first bjoite episode, The Ambassador’s Last Recital, in the same channels. It’s on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00O86T0PI and in the Nook store at http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-ambassadors-last-recital-chris-lemoine/1120548880.

In future reporting, we will also investigate past events involving the bjoite, who have been on Earth for many centuries. They revealed themselves to us for the most time in the late 19th century, when they approached a well-known celebrity of those days. More about that later.

Enjoy the story and your holidays.

 

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Journeys into the alien minds among us: Beginning the bjoite series

The bjoite have been here for hundreds of years and revealed themselves well over a century ago, but my stories about them are new. I just recently published the first one in three e-book venues. There will be more to come. People have been asking about the back story and other details. Also, I think it’s a good time for literary science fiction. Or SF-extended literary writing.

Humans and bjoite have not had an easy time together. In some parts of the world, especially where overfishing has depleted marine life, bjoite are still being killed and eaten in what used to be traditional seafood dishes. In the United States, they have the same status as farm animals in most states—not to be abused, but fine to slaughter and exploit.amb cover 2

The fourteenth bjoite ambassador, stationed in San Francisco like all of his predecessors, really wants to do nothing more than play the piano and enjoy classical music, the one thing he likes best about our culture. Instead, he has to fend off assassination attempts, listen to insults, get distracted by pop tunes, and waste time with bureaucratic busywork. Still, he manages to organize for himself one last piano performance in San Francisco’s Symphony Hall and prepare for it. The concert will happen just a couple of days before the ambassador ends his assignment and leaves our planet. Fully aware of the danger to his life, he looks forward to playing some of his favorite compositions. He even invites a special guest.

Will the ambassador survive and get to go home? Who is after him this time, and why? What are bjoite like, anyway? Find out in the first of the bjoite stories, The Ambassador’s Last Recital. I promise it’s unlike anything else you’re reading this year. Also, it’s only $1.99, and your correspondent needs cash to continue his research and documentation of all matters bjoite.

I didn’t much like the SF magazines I explored or else the story just didn’t seem like a good fit. You can find it as an ebook in different formats:

If I add any publishing venues I will post about that on the usual social media and might add to this blog post as well.

If you give the story a good review or rating, thank you, that is very helpful. If it’s truthful, even better. No, I won’t tell you how it ends. Enjoy a couple of hours of time off from your regular day!

I’ve been busy doing lots of other writing in addition to what I do for paying clients. But this is not the huge big, reality-swapping, murder-happy kitsch extravaganza that some of you heard about. That’s currently being queried to a number of agents. I’m still hoping that one of them might be totally disgusted with the sample materials, loathes the whole thing after reviewing it, and sells it to a publisher because it will surely appeal to certain people.

To be continued. Thanks for listening!

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Saints, heroes, villains, lost souls (8): Cruel man of mystery

Late in the 19th century, Hans Schaefer was born in the Saarland region of Germany, an industrial and coal-mining region where many people spoke French as well as German. As a young man and World War I veteran, shortly after the war, he had a brief relationship with a young woman who hired herself out as a nanny and house cleaner. I wrote about Maria Kohler elsewhere in this blog. That affair didn’t last. It was obvious that Hans and Maria had nothing in common. As he later told everybody who would listen, he was glad to be rid of her when he moved to Cologne for a job in a cable factory, where he spent twenty years or more.

One day, Maria appeared on his doorstep. She was pregnant, broke, and hoping he would take her in. She had left her home in Bühlerthal, in the Black Forest region of Germany, under a cloud. This was her first visit to a big city. Her dialect would definitely have made her a figure of ridicule, and her 8th-grade education would not have helped.

Maria and Hans were married. “I was sorry for her,” he told me. “She had nobody and nothing else.” In 1927, Maria gave birth to my mother, who spoke often about her father when I was growing up and both she and I had our problems with Maria, my grandmother. She adored Hans Schaefer, who was also her best friend. According to my mother, Hans was a genial, kind, good-looking, cultured man who spent most of his free time with his daughter. He took her on walks around the city, taught her how to roller-skate, helped her understand and appreciate classical music, and removed her from the vicious confusion of her mother’s furious, violently changing moods. Sometime in the second half of the 1930s, Hans and Maria were divorced, and you can read about Maria’s story in the other blog post. Hans, who had already started another relationship, was out of the picture. My mother grieved and never heard from him. Through people who knew others who knew him she heard that he was not drafted into the military to fight in World War II because of an injury from the first war. He remarried. He left the cable factory and ran a greengrocery store together with his wife. During the first years after World War II, my mother tried to contact him through the mail, but was never sure she had the right address. She never received a response, and eventually concluded that Hans Schaefer was no longer living. He had probably been killed in a bombing in the spring of 1945, just before the war ended.

That’s how she left it until the spring of 1971, keeping her father alive in her stories. But then, after decades without contact with my mother, one spring afternoon Hans Schaefer walked into the shoe shop she and my father owned and where they worked six days a week. My father greeted him and asked how he could help him. “I am here to see my daughter,” Hans said. My father called his wife. “I almost lost consciousness,” she told me. “He had cut off all contact, never responded to a Christmas card or anything else, and I had stopped hoping for him to get in touch with me many years ago. I thought he had passed away, and remembered him as I remembered him from before he divorced my mother.”

Apparently, she asked Hans a few questions to make sure he was who he said he was, because she did not trust her eyes nor his words. She was still in shock when she came home that night and told me about the encounter. Hans had asked for her forgiveness and given some hazy explanation, something to do with him thinking his ex-wife had turned his daughter against him and he would not be welcome. “But you sent him all those cards,” my father said. “I know, it doesn’t’ make any sense,” my mother answered.

Still, she tried to make the best of it. For several months, she visited him every other week or so, usually on Saturday afternoons. She took the bus to his part of town when the shop closed at two, and came home around eight p.m. or so, which was quite late for her. She never said much about these visits, but she seemed happy to be able to have a relationship with her father.

One Saturday, she gave her time with Hans Schaefer to me. She had arranged for me to visit him. I couldn’t tell you if that was her idea or prompted by his request. I had no idea what to expect. I remember the long walk through wealthy, green neighborhoods on that early summer day. My grandfather lived in a small row house off a busy arterial. He was small, limped, wore thick glasses, smiled much, and made me feel at home. He talked about his ex-wife, my grandmother, and how disgusted he was when he learned she had come out as a lesbian. He was down on the Catholic church and religion in general, which mortified my mother. He had cooked some chicken and vegetables, cut a couple of baguettes into slices, and told me the French were so healthy because they always ate bread with their meals. At an age when I knew most of everything, I found him naïve and poorly informed, but I enjoyed his company. Except for when he talked about my grandmother, whom he despised, he was funny and warm. I could imagine that Hans Schaefer had been a wonderful dad to my mother when she was a child. He made coffee. We ate some dry cake, even drank a little wine. When I left him, I felt I had made a good friend and looked forward to seeing him again. At the time, he was no longer working; the greengrocery business had been closed or sold.

My mother saw him the following week and reported that he had also enjoyed meeting me. Some of his ideas and opinions were a strange mixture of Marxist and nationalist concepts, and his judgment of current affairs and the state of the world was clouded. There were no books in his house, and no classical records, either. He only read a sleazy tabloid paper, nothing else. But so what. I liked him and thought of him as a good man.

When another Saturday visit came around, my mother was greeted by a young woman who said she had been Hans’ girlfriend. Indeed, Hans had mentioned a girlfriend and how proud he was to have met her. His wife had left him or maybe was no longer living, I can’t recall. The girlfriend told my mother that Hans had suddenly died a couple of days ago. She did not let my mother into the house, because he had instructed her not to. She even produced a note in pencil, written by Hans hours before he died, telling her urgently not to let his daughter inside the house, not to give her anything of his, not to engage in conversation with her, and not to invite her to the funeral. My mother recognized his handwriting. She left, devastated and in tears.

When my mother was sad, the turned very quiet, pale, and distant. It took days and days before she was ready to tell me about that last visit. She was horribly confused by her father’s note, and offended that the girlfriend would have followed his wishes without any compassion for her. Something broke in her then. Her memories of the good, kind, caring father had been obliterated. Soon, Hans was no longer talked about. But I don’t think she was ever able to forget him. Soon after, I went my own way and was estranged from my parents for some years, so I don’t know how she dealt with what had been done to her.

I can imagine why Hans sought his daughter out, that day in the shop. But why he saw fit to cause her such pain when his end was near, I have no idea. I remember him as a cruel man who could be very loving and friendly when he wished to. You can argue whether it would have been better for my mother never to have seen him again. She learned some sort of truth about him and maybe herself and the world, but at enormous cost.

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