About Traveling and Being Good
There once is: The violinist is short and skinny. He looks exactly the way violinists and tailors look on the covers and illustrations in past editions of old novellas and fairytales: mustached and half-starved. He’s wearing a shabby suit – that, too, fits into the picture. He sits on the concrete bollard in front of the Sparkasse, a few meters from the intersection, and fiddles away. What he’s fiddling is not important; it’s just a few bars, an increasingly irritating, then jarring melody, repeated incessantly.
If you’re only walking from the Sparkasse to the organic food store and maybe going to the bakery, it’s not too bad. Then you listen to the skinny violinist for a few minutes, maybe a quarter of an hour. Afterwards, you can go home and listen to nothing or something else.
Kathrin Berendsen will listen to Mahler or Bernstein or to a CD of Finnish poetry. Kathrin Berendsen doesn’t know Finnish – that’s why she listens to that soothingly unintelligible CD.
Kathrin Berendsen loves Nordic countries, although recently she’s been having some trouble on her journey there. The metal toilet paper holders on the ferries are all named Katrin, and the new soap dispensers Berendsen. It’s an imposition to see your own name used in that way. The missing h doesn’t help at all in this context, only the spoken word counts.
If the lifeboats were named KATRIN 1 through KATRIN 8 (preferably with an h), if the big steering wheel, which Kathrin quite erroneously assumes to be on the bridge, or any other piece of machinery were named Berendsen, it’d be fine. But being confronted with a part of your identity – and your first and last name are very much that – in the restroom area of every ferry, and even on the equipment in the sanitary facilities at the ferry terminal on shore, is too much. It looms over the joy of travel like a shadow, eventually forcing you to go by land. The latter trip, however, leads convolutedly across Danish bridges or via the Baltics. This makes the whole business longer, more expensive, more exhausting. So, in the long run, she’ll stick to the Finnish poetry CD, caviar cream in a tube, and fat books, in which people subarctically murder and grouse.
All of this you find at home, where you can no longer hear the violinist. You can quickly walk past, move away from him – him and his sphere of power. But what of those forced to listen to him all day? You can hear him at the Sparkasse, in the neighboring shops, in the public library – on the second floor even with the windows closed.
Something seems to be brewing around the violinist: something palpable but not yet allowed to surface. Nobody likes being a monster, but nobody can listen to the same eight or twelve shrill bars all day, a melody twisting upwards without coming to an end, a screeching bolero without a final drooping resolution. Such a thing threatens civilization because it provokes sinister fantasies: snatching the violin from the little violinist, stomping on it with a derisive laugh, or smashing it against the pole with the electronic clock and the temperature display; kicking, pushing, chasing away the crying violinist, knocking over his collection cap, threatening him with the police. The latter would be the tamest variation of the suddenly seething rage, the helpless anger, the red-faced aggression.
The next day – Kathrin Berendsen needs to buy some cleaning products for herself and her overflowing household, and once more needs new stories about the ubiquity and ultimate vanquishability of evil – the violinist has moved a little farther away. A few meters closer to the intersection, further from the shops. He’s basically standing at the edge of the street. He’s standing since he no longer has a concrete bollard to perch on. His playing can no longer be heard so clearly, it even seems to be a slightly different melody; however, it’s still curving aimlessly upwards. He’s mostly drowned out by the traffic; only when the light turns red and the pedestrians start across the street does he win back control of their ears and souls.
Seems impossible that he has willingly slid so far to the edge of the sidewalk and away from the shopping street. Maybe someone asked him, threatened him – but who? How stron is the power of thought?
Kathrin Berendsen doesn’t buy cleaning products, but a travel-size tube of detergent instead. It’s time to set off. Once her dreams start swarming with people, that means it’s time for her to quickly take a few vacation days, to leave for empty landscapes, until her dream studio is washed empty again and shows nothing but rocks, lichen and loading docks for birchwood trucks. Too many people in your daily life and your dreams are an imposition; you can die from it. She read a beautiful story where somebody was afraid to die of their oversensitivity to impositions. She immediately felt very close to that somebody.
On the third day, when she buys a travel-size toothbrush and withdraws money, the violinist has disappeared. It’s quiet, at least when it comes to the violinist. The traffic, of course, can be heard, and the people are making an undefinable background noise inside the shopping center.
Kathrin walks cautiously across the intersection. There’s a big brownish-red stain on the crosswalk. She can’t stop, the pedestrian lights have already turned red. They ran over the violinist, naturally. Ran him over or beat him to death. And the splinters from his violin and the horsehair from the bow were meticulously swept up.
Feelings of shame and guilt do not fail to materialize. She’d wished him away. Just like the whistler that time on the local train, who’d been whistling a shrill, high-pitched melody, over and over again, at predictable intervals, a melody against which no reading, no earplugs, no staring out the window were of any use. The wandering old codger sitting across from her had said: You can’t do anything. That poor guy. He gets off two stops from here. But people who don’t know him can’t stand him very well.
Kathrin had moved two compartments over. She couldn’t stand him either. Actually, she couldn’t stand the idea of the whistler working every day in a sheltered workshop, shrilly whistling away at regular intervals at a high pitch, and trilling sharply and indomitably, and after work, living a few stops away, in a small townhouse with his parents. There he whistles away as he showers, eats dinner, and watches soccer, until his mother sends him to bed because the next morning he needs to go whistling to work well-rested. And over the house and the workshop and the local train hang black clouds where his listeners’ thoughts and feelings accumulate.
So, on the third day the violinist is dead, or at least gone. The journey must begin now. Kathrin finds an airport counter where you can pay cash and get a ticket from a small blond helper with a little blue-and-white striped blouse, and the little helper only gives a friendly laugh, neither derisive nor condescending, and wishes her a good flight.
In the waiting area, there’s coffee and newspapers, and in the middle of the sitting landscape sits someone whom Kathrin Berendsen has seen often in pictures and on the TV news. He’s a politician but she doesn’t remember his name and party or office. She knows that he did something stupid or embarrassing or illegal. There’s something creating a space between him and the world, something to do with money or lust or words you can’t say.
Now she can either walk past him, or she can seize the opportunity to do something good. Maybe somewhere there’s a white crow that’s watching her who will someday bring her a healing plant in its beak when a bear in the woods up north has grievously wounded her. But that will only happen if she’s done enough good.
So, she sits down beside him leaving a seat in between, sighs loudly and strikes up a conversation about the fear of flying. She improvises, because she’s not actually afraid of flying, and so she’s chatting, face to face, with the scared politician – she thinks she remembers that he’s already fallen or is still in the process of falling from grace – and talks neither about politics nor about human lapses or new beginnings in general; no, she prattles on about the annoying feeling that you get before flying, which will hopefully pass when the flight attendant brings something to drink.
The apprehension in the man’s eyes has given way to surprise, and that, too, gives way to friendly relief. Apparently, for the first time in a long time, he can talk about trivial things to someone who clearly doesn’t know him, and he’s doing so with increasing joy. Yes, the takeoff is the worst part, and that never really goes away, and then you remember that humans are, after all, land animals. It sounds as though he has to and wants to regain practice in casual conversation, and he’s on the right track when his flight is called, and he stands up nodding a friendly goodbye. Now she remembers what he did. During a solemn state ceremony, he was unable to mute his cellphone when it pierced the silence with a horrible strident schmalzy ballad, and he frantically stomped on the singing thing on the floor before every camera in the world and the eyes of all who had long been waiting for his first useful mistake.
Later, it’s not that hard to get to the small Finnish city and find the gas station with a few shabby apartments on Europastraße. It’s blood drive day; all around, grey-haired ladies sit with collection tins and urgently point the way to the blood donation center. Kathrin Berendsen walks bravely and a little self-consciously past the ladies into the small café with the reheatable pastries. Rose-printed tablecloths cover the tables, and the sofas have rose prints too. Lord, it is good for us to be here.
Over the corner table, where two older men are discussing a headline in the magical local language, hangs a TV. Should she now be surprised to see a program about the little violinist whose pool of blood she thought she saw at the intersection back home? Here he is, standing in a concert hall, skinny, mustached, in a shiny suit, giving a heart-moving performance and is – so the English subtitles say – a famous Latvian violinist who will soon tour all over Finland. Tickets are on sale.
She wasn’t even truly good, since she didn’t donate blood. But she’s here now, she understands nothing, the violinist is alive and wasn’t wounded, not even by her thoughts. It’s conceivable that her dreams, too, will soon take their proper course.
Minna von Barnhelm Was Blue
Outside the restaurant, the ice floes in the City Park lake pushed back and forth. Inside, you could hear the clattering appetizer plates being placed on the chargers. It was already time for full meals, not time for quick bites. But we were supposed to head north soon.
Everyone was sitting around the sun parlor with empty latte mugs when I joined them. I put my small suitcase down to the side and hid the envelope deeper in my coat pocket. They were assigning the rooms. Something had gone wrong. We had two houses to share among all of us. One was ample enough for the two couples, Hilde and Tom and Konrad and his new wife, but the other one was smaller than anticipated, too small for the three singles and the girl. Someone would have to sleep on the couch in the living room. Not it! said the girl, the only young person among us, and of course we all immediately glared at her with a look that said: You’re young, you can take it. She was about fifteen, and everybody was presumably blaming Karla for finding no other solution than to bring her along. So then, she wanted to sleep in Karla’s bedroom. She probably thought that this way she’d be able to keep an eye on her mother more easily. After all, Fenech was there, and he was the only one she might consider, since Anders had died and Karla, his late new love, had stuck around our circle.
This was an experiment. In theory, we all knew each other, had celebrated holidays together, and some had already gone on vacation together. This past year, New Year’s Eve hadn’t panned out: there’d been too many regroupings, break-ins, illnesses. We’d been unable to integrate this new chaos into the familiar procedure. But everyone had been in favor of spending a few days way up north.
I’ll take the couch, I said hastily, recalling the old hotel at the end of the road, and during the whole drive along the slow broad Danish freeways, I thought about the hotel and contemplated what explanations I would need to give to switch over to its silence and comfort after the first night. My back, a need to go to bed early, the smell of food, sleep disorders in general: all this I would gingerly put forward over breakfast.
It was dark when we arrived, and our houses were deep in the back of the resort, on the right side of the long village road that poured itself and the cars seamlessly onto the beach at the end.
Stop here, I said to Fenech, who had driven the whole way in silence. Wait. I want to get my suitcase. He stopped and let me out. I’ll join you later, I said, or tomorrow morning.
It was fine that I slept in the safety of the hotel, under a down duvet and two woolen blankets in a green room. A little lamp on the windowsill was beaming out comfort, in unison with the other little lamps in the houses at the end of the road and the two old lanterns in the courtyard.
It was fine that I had breakfast there as well, drinking an entire pot of coffee and observing couples, couples and families, an inexhaustible spectacle, dainty men and sturdy women and only a few annoying children. Brightly colored parkas hung on the coatracks. They’d already been out, diligent as they were, on the beach, in the wind; they’d earned their eggs and coffee and herring.
The breakfast room was green like my bedroom, with green tapestries like the Hamlet Hotel in Helsingør, green like the first Danish café of my childhood, just across the border, where the coffee, to my parents’ surprise, never ran out.
The breakfast room was a joint effort by Ibsen & Strindberg: thick curtains, pillows, glass cabinets. I imagined inviting a theater group to perform among the tables and oaken sideboards: Nora, joking around among the breakfast guests, or Andersen’s life pleasantly dramatized during brunch. Harrowing dialogues, rustling dresses and the first smell of gravy wafting in from the kitchen.
I put on my coat, felt for the envelope with the pictures inside, went out, felt the cold hit my face, walked over to the vacation homes, found Bogfinkevej, saw the cars parked in front of the houses, walked toward the larger of the two.
The porchlight wasn’t on, but they were home, still having breakfast. They handed me a cup of coffee and asked why I was staying at the hotel. Well, you old only child, Tom teased me. I said they didn’t need to worry, I’d pay my agreed share, plus hang out with them until bedtime and participate in the group activities.
Why don’t you leave the porchlight on? I asked. That’s what the Danes do. It tells people that you’re home. In case someone gets lost in a snowstorm.
They’d been thinking more about saving energy.
The beach was almost empty when we started our walk, there was no snowstorm, only sandstorms, small, shallow sandstorms that suddenly rose as if God’s presence had dawned, as if God were a huge jumping sheet flapping toward us. I turned and pondered who I could say that to, because I thought the idea quite beautiful: God, a jumping sheet swelling and whirling in the sandstorm. But I didn’t. I had the feeling I’d already set myself apart too much.
Small cars approached from afar, driving through the water, speeding over the beach; the wind was so loud that we couldn’t hear them, couldn’t smell them, either – they were just there, crappy, old, multicolored, driving through the water, parking right at the water’s edge.
Hilde and Tom agreed, that was not right. You didn’t drive a car on the beach. Just like you didn’t leave the vacation home’s porchlight on.
Karla’s daughter watched the cars with envy and shivered even more conspicuously. Fenech gave her his scarf, which seemed to annoy Karla.
Wondering about Fenech was pointless. Though he was on the homicide squad, he was never called in when he was with us. Maybe he only worked on cold cases. He only seemed like a changing enigma. He was simply quiet and polite, considerate and a little boring, but as a single man, he dragged a somewhat crumpled myth behind him.
In the midday sun everybody looked beautiful in front of the ocean, almost unrecognizable at that distance, bravely facing the wind, a little otherworldly, like in an austere French movie.
At some point we all walked off in different directions, as if the wind were blowing us away from one another. I sat down against the rear wall of the blue-painted coffee stand presumptuously called Polarkiosken, where the wind was quieter, and pulled the envelope out of my pocket.
I’d done it again, and this time, too, it had been easy. I’d told the cashier: Oh, I forgot to bring my claim slip, but these are my pictures. And then I very confidently recited the name and the address from the envelope, looking the cashier straight in the eye. It worked, and I had a whole envelope full of pictures that didn’t belong to me. Of course, it only worked once in each drugstore.
It was an envelope with pictures going from Christmas through Easter and stretching into fall. Old people with grandchildren, bare bushes in the garden with glinting Easter baskets, a young couple who’d clearly photographed each other constantly, an empty living room, a view from an upper floor onto a residential estate. Like many times before, I was only half-satisfied, a little disappointed. It was life, and then again it wasn’t. No corpse, no sex, no birth, no moment of decision. People are more harmless than you’d expect. I put the pictures away. It was an immoral pleasure and not justifiable by any means. Only a private indulgence. Maybe I should take photographs myself – of these jellyfish, for example, lying around the beach in all colors and sizes, like the eyes of dying cats.
It got even colder, the sun garishly melted away in the water, and night fell, and I remembered we were meeting for dinner. The village road was already empty: you could see into some living rooms and kitchens; in the corner house next to the small supermarket beautiful-to-look-at old people were sitting and raising their glasses as if a director had asked them to do just that for me, so as to test my resistance to tears.
The two old sisters who ran the food stand by the post office had put out candles and fresh flowers. The menu listed two kinds of burgers, fish and chips, sausages, and fat potato salads. We ate slowly and with great care to make sure we properly honored the beauty of the locale.
At some point, we began a conversation about sleep and dreams. We’d already exhausted other subjects, touched briefly on types of oil and wine and vacation homes and growing old, and someone had talked about the need for a new communitarianism – with less emphasis than around the turn of the millennium when the topic was still fresh, and the name Amitai Etzioni rolled off everyone’s tongue like a good medium-bodied wine.
I always dream such crap, said Fenech as he sopped up the last of the ketchup on his plate with his bread roll. I’m always late, racing to catch trains and ships and getting lost in unfamiliar parts of the city that should actually be familiar. He fell silent and finished his beer.
Everybody seemed to have similar dreams, except Karla and her daughter, the latter of whom just sat there disgusted and silent. We quickly worked our way to a plausible theory: they came from the escape stories from the postwar days. Parents and aunts had ladled out the myth broth and created images in our young heads about endless trekking, overfilled trains, missed meeting points. And it didn’t matter at all if someone had actually lived those stories or was just passing them on, because, after all, they couldn’t tell us the other stories. We’d all heard it, been forced to hear it: how they’d left their luggage behind and flung themselves into roadside ditches because of low-flying aircraft. And they’d only managed to rescue their pocketbooks and a few letters.
Minna von Barnhelm was blue, I said to contribute something. A blue pocketbook with a hard cover.
I could’ve drawn a picture: my mother in her tight dress that accentuated her hips, grabbed by attentive Wehrmacht officers by precisely those hips and pushed into the last possible train from East to West. And in her small handbag, the gleaming blue Minna von Barnhelm was her only provisions until Würzburg.
The sisters set new beer bottles on the table for us, cleared away the empty plates, lit new candles. The conversation wandered around, just as we wandered around in our dreams.
Someone should do a study on that, said Konrad’s new wife. So, there are generation-specific dreams? For every time period?
Nobody answered her because people rarely ever answered her because she always said things everybody’d already thought of anyway and because she was Konrad’s new wife and therefore didn’t really count. You just can’t join in late, like Karla, who’s so much younger, which is why she’s still hauling around this obstinate daughter. And Konrad’s new wife also infiltrated our circle too late to understand all the little games and rules.
I needed to go outside. I wanted to go to my green hotel, so green was my Denmark, so blue was my Minna. I was blue too – quite drunk, really – and wouldn’t have minded leaning on Fenech now, just down the road to the beach and then back to the hotel entrance. Sleep well, sweet dreams, Fenech, I would’ve said, no murders at Bogfinkevej.
Both couples kept talking but Fenech was already by the coat rack and wrapping himself in his coat and wrapping Karla and her daughter in their parkas and he said: I’ll take you two.
And then to me: You’re not too far, are you?
No, I replied, I’m not too far.
It’s all fine, I thought on the way back to the hotel, into the rushing of wind and water: I am an old only child, I have fought valiantly in groups and partial families and now I can be an only child once again and close the doors behind me. I will dream, like always, that I’ve missed the train to Paris and all trams are going in the wrong direction.
I went to my green hotel and wrapped myself in every available blanket and decided to take some photographs over the next few days, my own pictures instead of ones stolen from strangers: of the gleaming jellyfish and the blue polar kiosk, blue like the pocketbook whose contents I had read again and again as a child but never understood – where did the ring come from, where was it now, what was the Frenchman doing in that play?
I didn’t dream that night. I slept deeply and without images and awoke early, saw the lanterns going out and the day breaking, put on my shoes, and feeling hungry, I walked along the beach, against the wind, circled the glistening jellyfish, beseeched them to keep lying there until noon, and from afar looked over to the last two houses before the dunes, where everybody was still asleep. And I watched over their escapes and wanderings until it was time to go over and join them for breakfast.
From Susanne Neuffer, In diesem Jahr der letzte Gast. MaroVerlag, 2016.