letting the days go by.

10 January 2008

let me tell you about ludwig.

This entry is going to be about Ludwig, and it's a story I've already told half a dozen times, so pardon me while I preface with some other thoughts that just intruded as I was sitting here, adamantly not studying for my test tomorrow.

This is all fucking crazy when you think about it - when I think about it. I'm in the middle of Germany, wandering through supermarkets where none of the labels are in my mother-tongue, eating Doner sandwiches and drinking Hefeweizen beers from .5 L glasses, going to class with a Whitman's sampler of the entire world, and I'm two weeks away from 21 years old. These pictures, like that one of Ludwig's hat, are honestly personal proofs that this is all actually happening, but even then, I don't think I'll believe it until it's over, six months from now. Heavy thinkings, I know, but sometimes it all seems so routined - class from 8 to 1, lunch, wandering, dinner, homework in the kitchen, a bar in the evening - and then it all seems completely strange and foreign and impossible.

But let me tell you about Ludwig.

In Germany, open seats at coffee shops are free reign; you can be sitting, much as I was sitting, minding your own business, drinking coffee from a giant cup and trying to write some postcards, and anyone is liable to sit down right next to you and share your table. In Oklahoma, we talk to perfect strangers in line at Wal-Mart, but it's casual, polite, distanced. On this particular Tuesday afternoon, I was stationed at the first table I saw when an old man asked me if the seat across from me was free. And I said sure, why not, thinking I'd have my coffee, he'd drink his beer, we'd sit together in amiable, quiet peace.

But he starts talking - about the weather, at first, and how it's so nice out, and how there is "first winter" and "second winter" in Germany, and I try to tell him I'm only here for two months before I go to Vienna, but he is completely deaf and I'm a little nervous anyway. Point being, he keeps talking, and he's got a thick accent in addition to a sweater-vest, a healthy head of spiky gray hair, crow's feet around his eyes, and I'm both mesmerized and terrified and eventually give up on leaving anytime soon. I figure I'm trying to learn German, and here is this German man delivering an uninterrupted monologue, so I listen hard and glean what I can.

He's 84 years old, he tells me, but he doesn't think he looks that old. His birthday is on Sunday. He lives alone, because his dog is dead. At this point, I lose track of the conversation, but then words start jumping out at me: ananas, which means pineapple. Schiessen, which means shot. Panzer, which means tank. Bombe, which means bomb.

And then it dawns on me, he's talking about WWII. He shows me a photo of his friend, shot in Russia at age 19, and a prayer card he carries around with his name on it. And in my American mind, I'm thinking of crazy, shellshocked veterans, but this man seems completely sane, just eager to relive what was probably the most terrible war in the history of the world.

Only after he's halfway through with his beer and I'm completely done with my coffee do I finally put the pieces together: WWII. A German veteran. A German soldier in WWII.

I was sitting across from a former Nazi.

Of course, he could have not been a Nazi, and I knew for a fact he wasn't one anymore if he ever had been one, but there's a pretty good chance he wore the uniform, belonged to the party, fought for the cause, what have you. And I was completely stunned - this poor old man, who keeps staring out the window as if his entire life is on the other side watching him, was what Americans believe to be the personification of evil, something so horrendous and inhuman that it's become cliche, and he was chatting with me like we were old friends. I wish I had understood more, but my German, though much improved, is still fairly flawed, but I could tell it was hurting him to think about these things, and that he meant everything he said - about plants growing and the end of the world coming, about his birthday and his friend dying as he held his hand, about terror today and the world at large - and I just wanted to say something back, but of course, I couldn't.

Then he flagged down the waitress, held out his wallet while she picked out the coins for him to pay, told her about his birthday, said goodbye to me with a grin and simply left. That's his hat in the photo, taken when he went over to the bar to return his empty beer glass.

The shadow of the war is pretty apparent in other places - Berlin is a schizophrenic city due to the damage from WWII, and Vienna had its 4 quarters - but here, in Schwaebisch Hall? I don't have any real thesis from all this, can't sum it up in a nice little moral or fortune-cookie phrase, but it did happen - both to me, and to him.


Anonymous said...

Rachel, this is why leaving home is required for everyone who wants to write. (Except ED, but she was a genius.) You're finding that the world is complicated and special and sad and not quite what you imagined it, and that's about right.

As for wrapping it up in a moral, if you could wrap it up in a moral, you would. But there's a reason why books are as long as they are: some ideas and truths can't be Powerpointed.


Julia said...

What a wonderful anecdote. Keep climbing those mountains- the lungs will catch up!