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Montpellier, France
Writer, actor, artist, teacher, exploring the world and its levels in fiction, poetry, memoir, photography, fine arts.

Monday, May 13, 2024

Small-town life in Occitanie

Moonrise over the Cours
 It's Sunday morning, 8:30. I slept a bit late, and the sunshine is already lancing through the curtains to throw a square patch of summer promise on the wall above my bed. I need to run to the bakery to get my favorite full grain loaf before they sell out, so I hop on the bike and pedal up the deserted Cours de la République toward the town center. Around the corner I stop in front of the row house owned by my friends Marya and Bruno: I need to drop off the key to the art gallery where yesterday afternoon I took over at the front desk for Marya at the end of the afternoon. The downstairs door is ajar, and I stand my bike on the sidewalk for the minute or less it should take me to leave the key on its hook just inside the door to their apartment up one flight. On the landing, the door to the apartment is also open a crack, not surprisingly as it often fails to latch correctly, and even so they tend to leave it open so the cats can freely slip in and out.

Marya just had another chemo treatment this week and is pretty weak, though she soldiers on. She decided to stay behind as Bruno and his son and visiting in-laws left for a four-day trip to visit other relatives north of Lyon, and I assume she is still asleep in their back bedroom. I peer in just long enough to soundlessly slip the key onto its hook, then hurry on back downstairs, retrieve my bike, and pedal on.

Gallery with works by France Ballot-Lena

Most shops are closed today, but Sunday morning has its own quality of festive community life. It's quiet now, but later a few cafés will be busy, including the Café du Siècle where I and most of my social circle find one another, as in a communal living room. Right now only two tables are occupied by early coffee drinkers. I turn up a narrow lane, emerge onto the central square and park my bike in front of my current favorite bakery. 

In my first year here I began to realize one was expected, "par politesse", to say "bonjour!" on entering a shop. You don't just walk in, as I used to do till I finally twigged on the custom and the warmer atmosphere it creates. So, "Bonjour!" I announce to all and sundry: the bakerwoman behind the counter who knows by now that I will order a 'pain aux céréals' and probably one or two sweets or croissants; the three or four other customers ahead of me in line in the narrow shop with its glass-covered rows of treats along one side and racks behind the counter with varieties of baguettes and rolls and loaves stacked and racked upright in their various niches and shelves; the tall, heavy-set baker himself who emerges just then from the baking area through a door behind the pastries counter and gives me a friendly nod. A murmur of replies ripples through the fragrant air as I take my place. The line moves quickly, baguettes and croissants and sugary cakes and tarts and puffy Sunday "chouquettes" flying out the door. Shops will close at 12:30; till then it's brisk business. I take my order, just a loaf today, for 1.80€, or about $2.25 for a thick loaf of dark, soft bread, still warm, that will stay fresh for days. The bakerman deposits a tray of croissants and greets everyone with a smile. "Bon dimanche!" says the baker woman as I leave. Normally the parting words are "bonne journée" but on Sundays it's always "bon dimanche!"

Outside, the butcher shop at the edge of the square is open. The friendly British expat owner now sells meats with her son and one or two employees out of a temporary mobile trailer since the indoor market next door has been closed for over a year for extensive renovations. I wheel my bike over, park it next to the stand, and meander the length of the display of meats and cuts and patés and casserole dishes... "Hello!" we greet each other. We usually speak French in the busy times when people are waiting in line for their turn, like on Friday market days, but today, with no one there, we enjoy tossing around a bit of English. Other than with her and Marya, I rarely speak English these days. 

"Looks like the good weather is back!" I remark, because truly, it is the most remarkable aspect of this balmy, fresh morning. 

"Yes, well they say it's supposed to rain again tomorrow," she counters.

"Ah, but you told me on Friday that it was supposed to rain today, so now how can I believe anything you tell me!" I shoot back, and we both laugh. 

As I make my selections of sliced ham and brochettes of beef and of chicken that look awfully tasty, and some of their house-made herb and pork sausage, she mentions that there is a project afoot to create a bike path connecting the existing path up the hill next to the old train station to the town below and running through the town center "and it's going to go right down the street in front of your building and wind all through town, supposedly so that tourists can more easily see the town and get around." 

Bicycle activists!
This interests and surprises me, for just yesterday, Saturday afternoon, I had taken part in a little bicycle "action" with about 15 other people, cycling though town and stopping at various places, discussing the need in this place or another for bike markings or lanes, wider sidewalks, or pedestrian zones. There had been talk of a "project" but I hadn't fully understood what it was all about. That must be it, and the people behind this action on Saturday, one of the many non-profit "associations" in town, are trying to raise awareness of the project and influence it to take more into account the actual needs of residents in town, not just make a pretty path for mostly non-existant tourists. 

I'm glad of this new information. I pay, take the meat and call out "Well, bon dimanche," as I return to my bike. I cycle back down the main street by the square and down toward the "Siècle." As I pass I see Jean-Pascal, an apicultor and guitarist who sells his honey at the market and plays traditional dance music and flamenco guitar. I had seen him play with an accordianist, percussionist and violinist a couple of weeks ago on another small square in town on a Sunday afternoon, and afterwards sent him some video clips as he requested. I've been getting to know and like him more in recent months. When I first used to see his craggy, rather leathery face around town I felt he looked dark, almost angry, giving me what I took to be suspicious and unfriendly looks -- and perhaps they were -- but over time we had more and more encounters at the bar or at the market, with other people we both knew, and gradually we became friendlier. This time I almost go on past where he sits on the café sidewalk, but then turn back. I've been meaning to mention something to him and this is probably a good time to do so, this quiet morning over a coffee, which I haven't yet enjoyed this morning. So I park my bike and approach. 

"Salut Jean-Pascal!" He looks up; his face seems rather unsmiling but I am familiar with this. "Je vais prendre un café avec toi..." : I'm gonna have a coffee with you. I step inside and it is Nathalie running the show this morning, one of the three sisters who own and manage the place along with the rest of their family. I order a coffee and a minute later sit down at the table with Jean-Pascal and reach out to shake his hand. His fingers are lightly stained with cigarette smoke, like his teeth which, though yellowed and slightly brown in places, are pretty good teeth compared to many French men his age. I study his face as we make initial small talk, then I mention the subject that was in my head. 

"I have five or six empty honey jars at home, washed. I was gonna recycle them but wondered if they can be any use to you." 

He shakes his head no. He has so many of them already, he says; it's hard to get the old labels off... I nod, surprised but understanding. "Can't you soak them in water to remove them more easily?" He accepts my point, but demures. "It just takes time..." He lowers his gaze ruefully. 

Time. Now there's a subject I can relate to. We're around the same age, I think, Jean-Pascal and I. 

"I understand that. I think time's sort of relative, a psychological experience. You know, when you're young you think you have time to do anything and everything. A day seems so long, and a year -- forever. But as we get older, I'm sure you know this as well as I, time matters more and goes more quickly. You just realize there is less and less of it ahead, right? It all carries more weight." He nods eagerly, his keen grey eyes darting back and forth from mine and he rejoins:

"It was Bergson who wrote so splendidly about time. What was his book, the title..." He struggles to recall it, but fails. I recognize the name of Henri Bergson and am transported back to my studies of philosophy in my final year of high school in France. We read Bergson, I remember, and though reading academic or literary French was a far greater struggle for me then than it is even now, those texts on the nature of time had actually seized my adolescent interest. "I've read some of those writings, too. What was the title..." I too try to recall. "The book had a red cover, and yellow, something about fire?" Neither of us can recall. I may have been confusing Bergson with Bachelard, from whose "Psychanalyze du Feu" we also read excerpts, but I'm pretty sure it was Bergson who analyzed the nature of time, while for Bachelard it was about memory -- which is failing both me and Jean-Pascal at the moment. 

He goes on to tell me how he studied both psychology and philosophy years ago at Université Paul-Valéry, my alma mater for my Master's in Occitan Studies. He never finished his Master's, he admits with sorrow, neither of the two he started. There was a professor who made things hard for him, didn't like him or support him -- it's an old story he has gnawed over many times and holds in recollection as a bitter defeat. With a dismissive shake of a shoulder he tosses it away as not worth further talk.

I'm impressed by his knowledge, though. Say what you will about the inflexibility and rigid hierarchy of French schools and universities, a young French who completes the baccalauréat has gone through a rigorous course of study. Further university studies build on a strong foundation of material and practice, brains that have been taught to structure debate, to argue persuasively, to use abstract knowledge in practical ways. There is a wide-thrown mantle of literature, science, French language (but not much else in the way of world languages, it seems), maths and general culture that elevates many a conversation among French of all levels of society. I feel this, not for the first time, with Jean-Pascal.

I learn that he will be playing a little concert on the square of a town 16 kilometers up the valley later in the day, with the same group of people I'd heard recently, minus the percussionist. As our conversation winds down and the dregs of our coffees go dry in the cups, I say I'll go along on home, and go inside to pay my coffee, J-P having already paid for his. As I leave and pause to say goodbye, he says something like "it helps having some good social relations." I suddenly feel there's more of a message here; his usually rather grim features, which can lighten up so vividly with a smile and animated speech, seem more melancholy than angry. 

"Is there something difficult for you right now?" I ask, not sure how to frame the query but feeling this hits the right tone of supportive curiosity without being nosy or presumptive. I see at once there is; his face betrays some gratitude for the question, and I step closer. 

"It's the band," he says. "The guy who plays the accordeon, you know?" He checks if I knew who, and of course I do, I remember him from the dance concert on the square Fabre d'Olivet. "He's hard to work with. He's just really adamant about certain things and inflexible. He's done some things that just..." His words fail and become a shake of the head. 

"So that's making a bad atmosphere now?" 

"Yes, and I'm just not looking forward at all to this concert." I feel sorry for him; I can imagine the discomfort of having to go and work publicly with someone you have an ax to grind with. I may have offered a few more words of support, I don't remember, but as we shake hands, he half-standing to do so, I think to quote  the poem by Verlaine that is among the many I recall in fragments from my French studies fifty years ago : "De la musique avant toute chose!" He gives a broad grin at that and swipes his hand my way for a heartfelt shake. 

I unlock my bike and set it in the street on the other side of the iron railings, ready to head back to my apartment. Sitting at another table is an older woman I have run into many times, whom I avoided for a while because she always wanted to tell and retell her story of having visited the United States once, years ago; sweet, but tiresome after a certain point. She was one of the participants last weekend in that biking event around town. I feel a bit warmer toward her after our shared experience, and am glad to pause to say hello and to pet her little dog, a sweet-tempered old thing with furry eyebrows partially curtaining her limpid brown eyes. 

I have to ask the woman to remind me of her name, Olga, but I now have it planted in memory, along with Mouka, the dog (not sure of the spelling, but that is the approximate pronunciation). We agree that the bike ride had been fun. I pet Mouka and enjoy her understated but evident appreciation. "Ah, oui oui elle aim-eh bieng les gens!" says Olga... After some similar harmless pleasantries and a bit more chin rubbing with Mouka, I say goodbye and head home. As I turn onto the Cours de la République, a two-block long boulevard with garden plantings and fast-growing trees replacing the old and ailing sycamores that were cut down when the whole stretch was renovated a year or two before I arrived, I pause to gaze down to the end where my 2nd floor apartment windows gleam in sunshine (3rd floor in the American system) and feel especially poignantly how at home I feel now in my adopted town in France; how close I feel to belonging here, almost French. That will be the project of another year to come: naturalization, I hope. Somehow I feel already halfway there.

Monday, August 17, 2020

30 Years Ago - Romania (continued)

Continued from December 31, 2019 (scroll down to previous post)

It was December 29th, 1989, when I reached the little outpost of Doctors of the World (Médecins du Monde) on the outskirts of Szeged, Hungary. I'd been in Budapest for two days, trying to figure out whether and how to get involved in the widespread and largely spontaneous aid effort for newly-liberated Romania. Following gleanings of information from the Red Cross office and elsewhere in Budapest, I had gambled on taking a train to Szeged and finding my way to the coordination center that was trying to organize deliveries of incoming supplies. It was an extremely cold winter; Romania had been shaken by a violent uprising and repression, followed by the execution of the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena on Christmas Day. With the border suddenly open, news was reaching western Europe of the terrible conditions faced by many Romanians, opening a vast well of sympathy and generosity. I was there in hopes of being part of this in a meaningful and helpful way. I was also there for the adventure of it.

As things worked out over the next week, I was able to fulfill both hopes. At Médecins du Monde, I met Kamel, Miroslav, Philippe, who seemed to be running things, and a few others, men and women, some French, some Hungarian, perhaps an Italian or Belge. Directions and updates came in by phone and fax from offices in Paris and Bucarest. The situation was moderately chaotic, with drivers calling in from the road in many places in Europe, asking about logistics, needs, routes, and so on. Struggles with phone lines and connections were hobbling operations; staff came and went, returning from or departing for locations in the field, offices in Hungary and France, reconnaissance or logistics trips into Romania and elsewhere. Lines of command and authority were somewhat unclear -- a source of some tension in the office, I soon observed.

I came into this swift-moving situation as a fresh face, a polyglot volunteer with earnest desire to be useful. That first evening, Philippe took me to an adjacent warehouse where several trucks were parked amidst stacks of boxes and plastic bags -- goods dropped off by donors arriving in cars, trucks, vans, buses, and even by motorcycle. We spent some time sorting boxes and loading them into trucks. The warehouse was unheated, and no one spent too long in there. A bit later, warming up in the little office, I found myself interpreting among German and French speakers, receiving and delivering information through the phone in all the languages I knew. It felt good to draw on my language skills.

Poor telephone connections in Romania created difficulties establishing where supplies were most needed, getting accurate information to people who needed it, capturing real-time, reliable information about the evolving political scene in Romania, the intentions of the army and police, the truth about events of recent days and each new day.

No one really knew how safe it was to travel in the country, though convoys had so far reached destinations and been warmly received by local officials and medical workers in various towns. However, one Médecins du Monde team had returned earlier that day from a medical delivery in Timisoara, where the first violence of the revolution had broken out, and reported that as they were unloading they had been fired on from military helicopters and had had to take refuge in the hospital. Luckily, no one had been hurt. This seemed to be an exception to the general impression that the revolution had "succeeded" -- the definition of this was very much in flux -- and to the sudden openness of the new Romania to the outside world. If it was a rebirth, it was still in its earliest infancy.

I was introduced to communication protocols: how to log calls, take information from drivers; what to tell them, what information to share. Things were evolving constantly at a hectic, ever-shifting tempo. English and French were the primary languages spoken; Miroslav and another man sometimes spoke Czech, a language then still completely unfamiliar to me. Kamel, I think, was North African. I was currently the only German speaker. A large Austrian convoy was set to arrive the next morning; I was on the phone a couple of times with one of the drivers, doing my best to translate from French and English into German, and back, on a scratchy phone line, guessing my way through unfamiliar Austrian accents. It was imperfect, but better than nothing.

Late in the night when things had quieted down enough, Miroslav called it a day, and all but a skeleton night crew loaded into cars and drove over to the university where the crew was housed. It wasn't luxury accommodations: pads and mattresses on the floor of a large room, knapsacks and suitcases spread around in various states of disarray; some tables laden with packages of chips, stale bread and cheese, cereals, exhausted-looking fruit, mini-cartons of juices and bottles of water. I was given a yoga pad, and I had brought a sleeping bag, so in short order, exhausted and heavy with the need for sleep, I was sacked out on the ground and snoring away with the best of them.

Too early, before light, the crew was awake, scarfing down what passed for breakfast, making coffee and tea, and then returning to the office, where new developments were afoot. The Austrians had arrived. A man named Thomas, a German-speaker and MDM staff member, had shown up and seemed to be taking charge; as the day went on this appeared as a source of conflict between him and Miroslav. The Austrians caught a few hours of sleep in their vehicles, then, with photocopied maps in hand and instructions, contact names and numbers, caveats and warnings and safety tips delivered, the three mid-sized tractor-trailers chugged off, diesel clouds black in the sharp new light of a frigid winter day. Temperatures were well below freezing, the air motionless and relatively smog-free with sun glittering on the frozen ruts and puddles of the parking turn-around.

Some long-awaited equipment arrived by van: a new telex machine that was meant to improve communications. The French driver was also a technician who spent a couple of hours setting up the new equipment, while I and others moved things around in the office to make room while continuing to field calls, respond or follow up on faxes, and a host of other administrative and logistical tasks. As the telex was switched on, it blew the fuses out and all the communication equipment went dark. The good-natured, unflappable French electrician sighed and set about restoring the electrical grid. In another hour all was up and running again. I still remember the quiet efficiency and unassuming competence of the French technician. He seemed like a person who had seen every sort of situation in the field and was ready to respond to whatever was thrown at him. I liked him immensely, and was sorry when he left later in the day.

Through that day I continued with tasks both menial and mental: sorting, packing, moving supplies; running into town with another worker to bring food; taking calls, interpreting, straightening up and sorting papers and office supplies. I was gratified when Miroslav complimented me on my organizational skills and appreciated some suggestions I made for improving efficiency. He encouraged me to stay on indefinitely, but I explained that I was a teacher and on Christmas break; I had to be back at the Ecole d'Humanité by Jan. 8 for the start of second semester. "Well, I'll put in a good word for you with the Médecins du Monde office, and if you ever want to come work with us again, you'll be welcome."

I had my camera with me, the one I had found on the ground amid the crush of East Germans pouring through the Potzdamerplatz opening in the Berlin Wall six weeks earlier (see post below: 30 Years Ago - Berlin). I had made little use of the Nikon so far, but had loaded it with a roll of Fuji slide film and had one more roll in my pack. I'd been taking some pictures; a few of the best can be seen in the first installment of this narrative, in Budapest. Here, unfortunately, my lack of skill with the camera produced some unfortunate bad exposures. Most of the pictures from those and the following days were poorly set and came out dark, much to my disappointment. Now, in 2020, I've been able to scan and lighten some of these enough to at least show some details. Below, a picture taken at Médecins du Monde in Szeged, with Miroslav in the center among the Austrian drivers just before their departure.
Médecins du Monde field station, Szeged, Hungary; December 30, 1989   Photo: Will Rose

So, another day passed. I was getting the feel of things at the office, and a clearer picture of what was going on in Romania. Desire to see Romania was an ongoing itch, and I hoped an opportunity might come up to accompany a convoy, or drive in on my own with one of the loaded vehicles in the warehouse. The following morning, that opportunity came along.

Two vehicles arrived from Czechoslovakia: a municipal bus and a small private van, as I recall, both piled high with packages of supplies collected from local people, churches, schools, etc.; the bus driver and his son, and their friend in the van, had driven through the night from a town in central Czechoslovakia. They, too, needed rest and fuel and instructions. Miroslav gave them all the information they needed in their common language. Meanwhile, a delivery truck arrived from France, the driver alone. In the early morning hours, it was decided that the three vehicles would travel together to the town of Deva, about 200 kilometers east of the Hungarian border. I suggested I might join the group as an extra driver/rider in the truck, and the idea was readily accepted by all. The truck driver was tired, and glad to have someone to spell him for a while. I was thrilled; here was the chance I'd hoped for: to get into Romania, experience first-hand the events unfolding, and do so in the context of a delivery of supplies, an aide and member of the team.

A few hours later, we departed for Deva. I rode with the trucker, following the bus, which was well-identified with medic red cross signs; the van brought up the rear. We stopped near a town called Makó, before the Romanian border, and fueled up. Sorry again for the poor quality of the picture. It's a shame I didn't get the f-stop settings right! It's so much easier today, with cell phone cameras and video...
Fuel stop in Mako, December 31, 1989   Photo: Will Rose

We drove through several small Hungarian villages -- Deszk, Ferencszállás, Kiszombor  -- where rows of tidy bungalows lined the road, ending abruptly and giving way again to empty, tundra-like expanses. After our fuel stop, we continued to the border, where, on the Hungarian side, we were virtually waved through with a look at our passports, itinerary and crossing papers provided by Médecins du Monde. Then, at a slow creep, we approached a colorless and forbidding set of buildings and barriers; a wide area held numerous vehicles in waiting, but we rolled unimpeded up to to a gatehouse where a young soldier in uniform stood with lowered automatic weapon; another uniformed guard came out and asked for our passports. We sat a long time after he disappeared into a large rectangular building on our left side. Eventually he returned and asked us all to come into that building, which we did obediently. At odds with the forbidding appearance of the structures, the guards were exceptionally pleasant, friendly, happy.

Inside, the place seemed to be one great room with some desks and small offices at one end, a fireplace at the other (at least this is my recollection.) Some tattered armchairs were drawn near to the fire, which seemed to be the primary source of heat. On a wooden table, a black and white television showed a blurry image of a man at a desk, a civilian, it appeared, who was delivering what seemed to be a long official address. Several uniformed men sat watching this intently; one got up as we entered and came over to us, our passports in hand. He spoke French, which I and the truck driver could follow. The younger Czech man could speak some English and I translated for him, but he didn't get a lot of it. It was one of those European-style conversations where everyone is speaking something other than their native language, in halting, broken phrases, using hand gestures and facial expressions to convey what cannot be found in words.

I learned that the man speaking on the television was Ion Iliescu, the provisional President of the new, post-revolutionary government. He was addressing the nation, explaining the steps being taken to restore and preserve order, to care for the people, to establish a new government, to purge the military where needed, to hold accountable those who had murdered Romanian citizens and terrorized the population. I understood none of it, despite my elementary studies in Romanian. What remains etched in my memory, however, is that cavernous room, the flickering fire, the fuzzy ancient television, the calm, droning voice of the new President, and the astonished, uncertain sense of new-found liberation that pervaded the spirits of those we met here and further on in our travels.

The officer holding our passports led us to a desk and we explained where we were going, gave the names and addresses of the people that were expecting us in Deva (several deliveries had already been made there to a Romanian branch of the Red Cross, and communication had been possible, unlike to many other locations across the border, by phone.) He studied each of our passports, looking each of us in the face and nodding affirmation -- we matched our photos -- and stamping each one; then he handed the whole lot back to us and with a broad smile said, "Bienvenue en Romanie libre!" Welcome to Free Romania.

The smiling soldiers outside gave us V-for-Victory signs as they lifted the red-white crossing barriers. The Romanian flags hung stiffly on their poles, swaying slightly in an icy breeze. I don't know whether these flags, like most of the others we saw later on the journey, had a hole cut out of the center where the Communist hammer and sickle insignia had been excised, just as Nicolai and Elena Ceausescu had been summarily removed from power and existence.

Monument in Deva, Romania, with altered post-revolution flag  Photo: Will Rose, January 1990

As the drab buildings and limp flags of the border fell behind, we entered a new land. My memory and notes are imperfect regarding this leg of the trip, but in studying maps and street views, and reading my journal and other letters from the time, I think we must have been on Route 43 -- the modern A1 motorway north of there didn't exist at that time -- which became A68 after the border. We passed through the medium-sized town of Nadlac, where scenes were unfolding that I remember as a composite image from all along the route east: as our convoy marked with large red crosses on a white field passed through towns and villages all along the route to Arad, our first stop, people stood at the sides of the roads, waving, showing the ubiquitous V-signs, waving Romanian flags, cheering. Clearly, many vehicles had been pouring through into once-isolated western Romania; all knew that our western vehicles were a sign of the open border, of sudden openness to the rest of Europe. And surely, all hoped that their welcome might move us to stop and share some of the bounty.

But we had been cautioned not to stop. Not for fear of our own safety, but for concern that the goods might fall into the wrong hands and end up on the black market or seized by unspecified "brigands." This was a big part of what Médecins du Monde was trying to accomplish from the Szeged outpost: reach out to responsible organizations and entities within the country who had the best prospects for seeing to an equitable distribution of the donated goods. We kept moving, waving and V-signing back, honking the horns, showing our appreciation for the people as well as we could. I can still see their figures and faces: old women in heavy long coats and dresses, head scarves; men in fleece caps or fedora-style hats, black coats or pale blue work clothes; children bundled in thick layers of drab clothing, teenagers yelling and waving, smiles as wide as the horizon. It was hard to drive past all that excitement, all that desperation and need. But we had to stay on task.

In mid-morning we arrived in Arad, a sizeable city and county seat. We pulled into a central square in front of administrative buildings, crowded with excited, cheering locals, and were greeted by someone from the local city council, who made speech and accepted an allocation of supplies that had been designated for that place. The bulk of our delivery, though, was intended for the city of Deva, in the county of Hunadoara, another 100 km east. We handed out chocolates from the windows of the truck, and some packs of Marlboro cigarettes we had picked up in Makó. These were clearly highly prized. The scene verged on chaotic, and I could see how trying to unload anything there, if we had opened the vehicles, could have led to disaster.

In Arad, I switched places with the driver, who was exhausted and soon fell asleep with his head against his rolled-up coat. The road grew narrower and less maintained. We were on E68, part of the Route 7 highway, or DN7 (Drumul National 7), and soon entered more hilly country with ridges to the north and south as we wound along the valley of the Mures river. The sunny, cold afternoon darkened as a grey mist descended over the landscape, smelling of coal and sulphur. There were few vehicles on the road; those I saw were often farm vehicles, or small trucks, working vehicles. Once we encountered a horse-drawn wagon loaded with what looked like dirt-crusted rocks; my best guess was they were beets or turnips dug from the frozen ground and on their way to a farmhouse. The driver of the horse team sat hunkered in blankets and gave no sign as we slowed and passed. This was only the first of several horse-drawn vehicles I saw elsewhere in my trips to Romania. It never failed to stir something in me, a kind of longing for a time when people moved at a slower pace and cultivated animals as work partners -- a romanticized vision of what was surely a difficult and marginal life for people in rural Romania at the end of the Ceausescu dictatorship.

This leg of the trip seemed long. The road wound through side valleys, curved up long hills, through tiny hamlets of battered stucco and brick, where ochre tiles and thatch served as roofing, dogs slunk away from the approaching roar of our vehicles, and still the occasional flag waved or group of locals raised their hands in greeting and surprise. The day lay dying under a shroud of haze. Miniature mountain ranges of ice-capped snow demarcated the sides of the road and eddies of crystal powder whirled across the cracked asphalt; bristling forests clothed the passing hillsides in a threadbare mantle of ice and snow. The river valley offered occasional dim vistas of winding river, icy banks, meadows and fields ribbed with extruding tooth-like fenceposts, trees bent under sheathes of ice. The world outside the cocoon of the truck cab was remote and forbidding; it was tempting to imagine grim mountaintop castles, vampires, wolves howling on wind-swept uninhabited stretches. There was very little light, no neon signs or street lights in the villages we swept through. 

I was intent on careful handling of the truck, using the gears to climb and descend the slopes, watching for ice, for obstacles, for anything unexpected, keenly aware of being deep in a strange country, a place where fear and oppression had reigned for decades, longer, perhaps; fear and want were etched into the land like the grooves in the faces of the old people peering up at us as we rumbled through their little towns in clouds of snow and unattainable hope.

About 20 km before Deva, Yves, the French driver, woke up and said he'd take the wheel the rest of the way into Deva. I flashed my lights for the bus ahead, and the convoy pulled off into a siding. I was glad to hand off the responsibility to Yves, who had made the trip once already to Deva and knew the route and the location of the administrative building that was our destination.

Deva appeared huge to my eyes as we emerged from the last dark hills and saw its hazy lights stretching across a valley below. It was around 5:00 pm on December 31, 1989, New Year's Eve in Romania, as night settled in full over the last day of that revolutionary year: 1989.

To Be Continued....

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

30 years ago - Romania

It was New Years Eve, and bitterly cold in the town of Deva in western Romania, about 100 miles from the Hungarian border. I was staying at a hotel in the center of town, as a guest of the Romanian Red Cross, along with other aid workers from various contingents. I had arrived that afternoon as part of a small convoy of three vehicles bearing supplies of food, medicine, clothes and more that had passed the Doctors of the World coordination point in Szeged, in southern Hungary, where I had been volunteering for a couple of days. I had joined on as a rider to accompany the delivery truck that, with a small bus and a private car, had arrived late on the night of December 30th from Czechoslovakia, all three vehicles crammed full of donations from charities and private persons and destined for the people of Romania, who were just emerging from a violent overthrow of their decades-long dictator, Nicolai Ceausescu.

As news of the uprising, and then overthrow and execution of the Ceausescus spread, reports had also been emerging in the last week of December, 1989, of the terrible plight of the Romanian people. In that extraordinarily cold winter, people were freezing without fuel or electricity; hungry with little access to food; lacking services, paychecks, basic human needs. The political situation was still sorting itself out; reports of retaliations and violence were in the news.

From all over western Europe came an outpouring of support. At that point in the year of revolutions and changes in Europe, Romania was the last remaining outpost of tyranny, neither a Soviet bloc puppet state nor a western democracy, but a unique fortress of despotic nationalism under the increasingly unhinged leadership of the dictator Ceausescu and his cadre of military and police supporters -- his iron grip on power maintained through demagoguery, complicity, fear, surveillance, and complete control of media and information. As Europe still reeled and celebrated revolutions and changes in Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and the Soviet Union, many eyes, including my own, had been turned to Romania, wondering if it, too, might fall to the Zeitgeist of change. When it did, support was copious and immediate; in many countries, supplies were loaded into cars and vehicles of all kinds and driven to the borders of Romania, in hopes of it reaching the needy.

In Switzerland, at the Ecole d"Humanité where I was in my final year as a teacher, I was staying on campus as the Christmas holiday began. On December 17th the first news came of an insurrection in Timisoara, in western Romania, and a bloody response from the army and police. Then, on December 21, Ceausescu gave his fateful speech on the steps of the Central Committee Building in central Bucharest. Apparently shouted down by demonstrators, the speech was cut off. The next day, newspapers carried the memorable image of the helicopter taking off from the roof of the same building as the Ceausescus and close aides fled. They were making for the border, but events on the ground were happening swiftly. The army turned against the dictator; the helicopter landed in Romanian territory; the dictator and his much-hated wife Elena were captured and held for two days, subjected to a swift, irregular trial. On Christmas Day, 1989, the pair was executed by firing squad and their bodies shown on Romanian television.

It was at this time, and against this backdrop, that I decided to use my winter break to go to Hungary, possibly Romania, and try to join somehow in the effort to bring help. I was also motivated by my usual curiosity and desire for adventure. Having just been in Berlin a month earlier as the Berlin Wall was opened, I was still ringing with excitement and enthusiasm for the possibilities suddenly opening up in Europe. I wanted to be there, to see and take part -- but not as a bystander, a tourist. I wanted to get involved, and hearing about the inflow of aid, I thought there must be a need for people like me to help.

Before setting out, I tried to gain some information. I called the Red Cross in Switzerland, asking about opportunities to volunteer. I had driven trucks and all kinds of vehicles, and thought perhaps they would need drivers or helpers. I didn't get far; I was assured that the Red Cross had all the professional drivers they needed at that time, and that it was impossible to arrange volunteer positions at short notice in Hungary. My best course of action, they said, was to go there and contact local Red Cross or other aid groups. I left the Ecole on December 26 or 27, by train, heading into regions of Europe entirely new to me: eastern Switzerland, Austria, and then Hungary. It was a long ride, through the night, and I arrived in Budapest tired and disoriented. I had no idea where to go, but one of the first sights I saw in the center was a Hungaroton record store, where I went at once and bought some cassettes of Hungarian folkloric music. I still have them.

Next order of business was to find lodging, and eventually I was able to locate a private hostel for not too much money, and accessible by bus. Once that was settled, I did some sight-seeing around the old city of Budapest, learning that the town was once two towns -- Buda and Pest, on opposite sides of the Danube. Memorials and plaques commemorated various wars and historical figures, mostly unknown to me. I wandered up and down streets, climbed to the tops of rises, saw the bullet-pocked buildings in the high old part of the city where the final battle for Budapest in World War II played out, and wore myself out with walking and riding buses and looking for information.
Budapest on the Danube  Photo: Will Rose 1989

Budapest street scene    Photo: WillRose 1989

I found the office of the Red Cross and spoke to someone there, who told me that in Szeged, in southeast Hungary near the Romanian border, an aid organization had established a network point and was trying to organize and coordinate incoming donations. This seemed like a place I might aim for; surely with my strength and experience and language skills I would find some way to be helpful, I thought. And yet -- now that I had a destination and a relatively clear path ahead, I suddenly suffered doubts about the whole enterprise.

I wanted to be useful; I recoiled at the thought of going to Romania like a rubbernecking tourist. If I were to go, I wanted to be part of the effort, part of the lives of people. But how would that happen? How could I be sure? I had no specific information to go on; all I knew was that an aid group was in Szeged trying to coordinate incoming supplies. It wasn't much to go on, in freezing winter in an unfamiliar country, with no knowledge of the language. Getting a train ticket in those days in Hungary was an uncertain and very trying enterprise. The station was crowded with long lines of people waiting to buy a ticket or get a passport or visa; there was a lot of jumping through hoops and uncertainty in even this most basic of commercial transactions.

And there were other options beckoning. I was very curious about Czechoslovakia, where the Velvet Revolution a month earlier had toppled the socialist government and brought the dissident playwright and philosopher Vaclav Havel to the pinnacle of power. I knew almost nothing about Prague or Czechoslovakia; my only experience of it had been a year or so earlier with a German acquaintance I had met through some sort of connections at the Ecole, with whom I had traveled to his hometown of Deggendorf for a weekend. He drove me across the countryside northeast of there into the Bayerische Wald Park where we stopped at a gate blocking the lane that led deeper into a forest on the other side, indicating the nearby Czech border. I had already hesitated somewhat about whether to go there rather than to Romania; in the end, altruism had won out. Now, suddenly, with such uncertain prospects ahead of me and my vacation time dwindling, I was racked with doubt.
View from Buda    Photo: Will Rose 1989

After wrestling again and again with the decision, I chose what seemed to me the safer, more fun route: I would hitchhike up to Prague. New Years Eve there, I thought, would be wild and memorable as people celebrated their newfound liberty. I left the train station with its masses of dispirited would-be travelers, and found my way to the the road I needed in order to start my adventure in Prague -- first, of course, the adventure of getting there.

And then, as has happened to me before, doubts rose up again. Was I betraying my calling? Hadn't I set out to do some good in the world? Why was I giving up so easily? What was the right thing to do? Torn and confused, I sat on a bench overlooking a little canal, and tried to figure out what to do. It was hopeless. Back and forth I went, imaging one scenario or the other ahead. Several times I thought the decision was made, only to then annul it and find myself in the same state of increasingly desperate uncertainty.

Then something clicked. I'd experienced similar states of indecision in the past. I remembered the value of silence when confronted with dueling inner voices. I remembered my experiences with meditation, and finding insight and answers when I allowed my crazy-busy mind to stop battling itself. I remembered the silence of Quaker Meetings I had attended in Seattle, New York and Switzerland: that place where I would sink into deep quiet. I said to myself: "Just listen!"

I closed my eyes and slowed my breath and put my feet on the ground and tightened my jacket and scarf and cap against the biting cold air, and sat, silencing my head, opening my heart, or some other organ of sense or intuition that I was now suddenly remembering as if returning from a long absence. A familiar state settled over me: sinking inward, a physical sensation of dropping like a stone into a deeper part of myself. It didn't take long for an answer to come. The answer was "trust." Trust that you came on this journey for a purpose; trust the source of the intuition or impulse that started you on this path; trust that God (I thought more in terms of God in those days than I do in these years of my life) sent you this idea and brought you this far and will continue to take you to the right place. Just don't lose faith in the calling you experienced!
Archway on Buda Hill   Photo: Will Rose 1989

It was suddenly easy. I was reconnected to a greater part of myself that wanted to trust and wanted to believe in the possibilities that might unfold if I persevered and relinquished needing to know how it would all work out. I went back to the train station and was eventually able to get a ticket for a train to Szeged leaving that evening. I stoked up on some food supplies and other things I felt I might need, including a Romanian language "Assimil" method book that I located in a bookstore -- in French -- so that I could study a little on the train and maybe learn a few phrases before.... whatever happened.

It was after dark when the train pulled out of the Budapest station, and much later when it pulled into Szeged. It might have been around 8:00pm or so. The station was virtually deserted. Thick fog hung in the air, the station lights shrouded and colorless. The air was frigid. Leaving the train, I wore my small backpack like a space-suit -- my one connection to life or hope.

In front of the station, a couple of idling taxi cabs emitted rising exhaust clouds. I approached the first one; the driver rolled his window halfway down and spoke to me in Hungarian. "Sprechen Sie deutsch?" I asked. It seemed a surer bet than English or French. But no, he shook his head. No French or English either; he grinned as I tried each one to no avail. How could I possibly explain what I was looking for, when I had so little idea myself? Then an idea hit me; I pulled my journal out of my bag and with my pen drew a square cross on a sheet of paper, held it up for him to see. His eyes lit up with understanding. "Ahhhh!" He jumped out, opened the door for me and I got into the welcome, tobacco-laden warmth of the interior. He drove me through downtown streets of which only hazy memories of wide boulevards lined with trees remain in my mind, and pulled up in front of a row of apartment buildings, and ushered me inside and up a flight of stairs. A heavy wooden door gave the name of the occupant, and underneath, on a small plaque, was the sign of the Red Cross and the words "International Committee of the Red Cross." The driver rang the bell.

He swiftly explained things to the older, kind-looking gentleman who answered the door. The man spoke either English or French; I was able to explain that I was looking for an aid organization that was helping to organize aid shipments to Romania. He knew exactly what I was talking about, and after a little more conversation and some good wishes, he gave the driver directions and we went back to the cab. I was driven across a bridge and out into an open, dreary-looking industrial area, lit by tall, dim lamps, up to a complex of warehouses and smaller buildings, and stopped in front of a small half-wide temporary structure with a generator and other equipment and vehicles around it. I had found my way: it was an outpost of Doctors of the World, an aid organization somewhat smaller and lesser known than Doctors without Borders; a rival organization, one might say. The driver dropped me off with what were clearly expressions of good will, and refused to take any money for the long trip he had given me. As I said, there was a spirit in the air at that time of solidarity with the people of Romania. For all I knew, the driver had family there, or Romanian ancestry; or was simply happy, as I was, in some small way to be part of the movement toward a better world that seemed at that time so palpable.

To be continued...

Monday, November 25, 2019

30 years ago - Berlin

It is Thursday night, November 9, 1989. Night falls on Hasliberg, Switzerland, where I am a teacher at the École d'Humanité, an international boarding school perched high on a verdant alp above Meiringen, just east of the Lake of Brienz. Barbara, my German co-teacher, tells me she had a call from her parents in Berlin, and the city is "mad with joy." The wall has been breached, the west and east are opening to each other. I am 35 years old, with an adventurous streak as wide as I can reach, and am seized by an ineluctable resolve to witness this historic event.

Barbara agrees to take care of our student "family" over the weekend and cover my Friday morning classes -- very generous of her. I hastily consult the Swiss almanac of trains, a book like a small dictionary kept in the library and fully reliable. A train bound for Luzern and the north leaves Brünig at 6:45 a.m. Given the complicated connections to reach West Berlin, even this early train will not have me in Berlin before nightfall, and to get back to Hasliberg for Sunday evening requires a Saturday night departure from Berlin. The twelve-hour trip each way will give me just twenty-four hours in Berlin. The adventure seems fraught with opportunity for disaster, but I have heard the call and cannot turn away.

First obstacle: the earliest post-bus from Hasliberg on Saturday morning runs later than the train at Brünig Pass. I don't own a car; few people do at the school, and in any case, though I have covered my basic responsibilities thanks to Barbara, my journey isn't exactly sanctioned. I'll have to slip out under cover of darkness, as it were, before the morning wake-up gong, and ride my bike the 9 km of winding mountain road along the flank of Hasliberg to Brünig. I'm confident that forgiveness will be given upon my return, but less sure of the outcome of a conversation with the school director requesting permission.

I wake early, stuff a small bag with my journal and a scarf and a book or two for the train. I don't have to worry about phone chargers or cables -- this is 1989. I don't even own a camera, let alone a portable phone. My journal will be my documentation. I don't want to be bothered by a large pack, so no sleeping bag or other camping gear comes along for this ride. I'll figure it all out in Berlin.

The view from Twing, at Wasserwendi. (Hotel Twing)
As the eastern mountain peaks sharpen against a pinkening sky, I hop on my bike. The wooded slopes and meadows where no cowbells toll in this late season of the year whisper past as I toil up the first long slope to Wasserwendi. There's no time to pause for the extraordinary view -- the lights of Meiringen twinkling 900 feet below in the Aare valley, a ruddy glow now on the peaks of Schwarzhorn and Wildgärst across the valley, the dim grey film of the Lake of Brienz taking shape in the distant widening valley. I race along the downslope to Hohfluh, the road smooth and dry and nearly deserted. Working up a sweat, I sense I'm behind schedule; the hands on my watch seem to have sped up. I pedal harder, racing now along the final winding, dramatic stretch of road -- cliffs above and below, a sheer plunge to the miniature buildings far below in Meiringen -- aware of the emerging possibility that I might miss my train and lose the whole adventure.

As I reach the bridge over the tracks above the station, my fears are confirmed: the rear lights of the last wagon are in motion, pulling away from the station house; the station master on the platform is just turning away to return to the warmth of his office. I take all this in as I glide momentarily, but instinct and some deep reserve of hope -- it's not over till it's over -- drive me on, faster, to the corner; then a swift right turn into the parking area beside the wooden station house, bumping over gravel along the side of the yard toward the train, still visible a hundred yards or so up the track; it has come to a stop with just its rear car sticking out of the canopy of fir trees.

With a running leap, I hurl my bike to the ground and race full tilt after the train: it has paused, I recall from many trips to Luzern, to drop the gear-wheel that engages with the middle cog rail used on the steepest part of the rail line between Brünig and Lungern. I hear the "chunk" of the cog dropping; the forward lurch of the train sends a final shot of desperate power to my limbs and and I half-fly. I'm within reach -- just -- snatch the chrome handle of the rear door and yank, swing a foot onto the iron stair, and stumble into the heat of the wagon. The conductor, already punching tickets, turns in astonishment and along with four or five travelers in the car regards me, I suspect, with a Swiss hint of disapproval at the sudden breach of decorum and protocol. Who cares! I'm on.

Of course there's a surcharge, but my heart sings a victory chorus as the conductor writes my ticket, takes my money, and wishes me " 'ne guete Reise von hier ab." I settle into a seat, sweat running down my face and under my clothes, embarked on the first leg of my 12-hour ride to Berlin.

After a full day of travel and connections across Switzerland and Germany, I arrive at Marienborn (if my memory serves me well) and the train passes through passport control. From this point on, I feel I am in new and alien territory. The rail line crawls along a section of track with high walls on both sides; then the landscape opens, but still, walls and wires mark the border as the train completes its passage across the territory of the DDR (German Democratic Republic) and into West Berlin, suspended deep inside East Germany like a soap bubble at the end of a straw.

By the time I arrive at the Zoologischer Garten station, night has fallen. The air is startlingly cold, far chillier than at Hasliberg. I have no idea where to go, but I follow crowds toward an epicenter of light and noise impossible to miss. Many streets are closed; clumps of revelers stroll and wander down the Kurfürstendamm. I pass the ruins of a church tower, apparently preserved as a monument -- the Kaiser-Wilhelm Memorial Church, I learn later. It's good to walk after my hours of confinement in the train, though the relief fades; I'm to be on my feet almost non-stop for the next twenty-four hours. I've made mental note of the train I must catch to get back to Switzerland on Sunday: 9:15 pm Saturday at the Zoologischer Garten. Later trains have bad connections: I'd have to overnight somewhere, and arrive late for Monday morning classes. I've already pushed the bounds of what I can justify as an unexcused absence from my job; whatever befalls, I must be on that train.

I wander down unfamiliar streets, largely ignorant of the history of Berlin. I have sketchy knowledge of events at the end of World War II and afterwards; the divisions of the city into quarters controlled by several Allied victors; the building of the Wall in 1961. I've seen the photo of the German soldier leaping across the early fence practically all my life. For my generation, a sinister Iron Curtain lay across Germany and all of Europe, and the demise of this emblematic schism in Berlin is a sign of immense change toward, as one could only hope, a better world.

Zeitgeist -- Photographer unknown

This world seems literally to be blazing to life at Potzdamerplatz, where I find myself in a crowd of thousands packing a wide area along an expanse of brightly painted Wall straddled by young people singing, chanting, waving, at times standing, dancing. No one seems fully confident that no sudden outbreak of violence or repression might erupt, but a state of exuberant joy reigns nonetheless. Hours pass; I wander along the Wall, an endlessly diverse gallery of political and cultural expression, briefly joining various groups, watching street performers gather impromtu audiences around music or puppetry, squeezing into packed cafés for moments of warmth. I glimpse vistas of city boulevards and plazas where traffic provides a semblance of normalcy as a foil to the madcap revelry of the night. I grow hungry, weary, cold. My legs ache; the only relief is to walk, or occasionally sit on a curb or bench. I don't want to miss anything. I've heard that the wall is to be breached at Potzdamerplatz sometime on Saturday, and I return to that locus regularly, checking the progress as drilling commences and a crane is set up. I and others collect shards of concrete near the drill sites as mementos.

Exhausted, I find a restaurant open all night and devour a serving of sausage and "spätzle," nurse a hot drink for as long as I can make it last, and rest my limbs. Sleep tries to conquer me. Finally, outside again and tired beyond caring, I find some cardboard to use as a combination mattress and blanket, and creep into an out-of-the-way spot under some stairs, my head on my bag of books, my wool cap pulled tight over my ears. Shivering, I capture a couple of hours of sleep.

The precise timeline of Saturday escapes me now, and regrettably, I find no details in my journal. I'm sure I had it with me but I must have been too caught up in the activities of the day and night, too cold, too peripatetic, to write anything. And when I returned to Switzerland I was immediately caught up the final weeks of school before Christmas break, and with preparing a talk for students and staff about my journey. By Christmas, my attention had turned to events unfolding in Romania, and while my journal contains good accounts of my journey there at the end of December and my volunteer work with Medecins du Monde (Doctors of the World) at the Romania-Hungary border and inside Romania, there is only the barest mention of my "trip to Berlin." So I am going strictly by memory here.

I awaken to pale dawn. An icy haze has settled over the city. Yellow street lamps carve little worlds of light from the surrounding penumbra. Pigeons startled upward again and again by night-long mobs seem wearied by the unceasing commotion; resigned to a strange new order, they wander where they can in little gaggles amongst the humans, or settle hastily onto bare limbs of trees edging Potzdamerplatz, their usual realm at this time of day. The city seems not to have slept a wink. Workmen have resumed toil at the Wall, drilling away between concrete panels. It's unclear what will happen when, if or at all.
Everyone enjoying the ride!  Photographer unknown

Sometime in the morning I find myself at the Brandenburg Gate, its ornamental arch visible above the multicolored Wall. Here, as bright wintry light dissolves the haze and a clear day breaks forth, soldiers stand guard atop the Wall and repel the occasional youth striving to mount it. The atmosphere is somewhat tense, and the crowd murmurs, chants slogans, surges one way or the other in currents and streams. I feel I'm inside an epic movie of the Roman Empire or a massive street production of Julius Caesar: Marc Antony should emerge and seize control of the headless monster of the populus, giving shape to the unformed chaos of the uprising. Instead, for no apparent reason but clearly on orders, the soldiers stand down and disappear. Soon revelers have mounted in their place and wave flags and signs and take pictures.

Somewhere during this I learn in a passing conversation that the border to East Germany is officially open, and that one can take the city S-Bahn train to a stop across the border and visit East Berlin. This seems worth attempting. The first step is to get on a train. At an elevated station some blocks away, the first sleek grey train to arrive is packed full. No one gets off as the doors open; riders and would-be riders stare at each other. There isn't an inch of space. The doors close. Another train arrives, equally impregnable. Eventually I am able to press into one and ride a few stops, soaring over a river and arriving at Friedrichstraße Station in the eastern sector.

The Iron Curtain is palpable; a life-time of espionage movies and books have conditioned me to sense a kind of invisible horror hanging over everything. Perhaps everyone felt it, I don't know. I join a line of travelers waiting to have their passports checked by stern-looking East German border agents, but when my turn comes, the tall, impassive agent gives my American passport a close look, scrutinizes my face, stamps it, and hands it back. "Wilkommen in Berlin," he says with a smile. "Darf ich überall laufen?" I ask (May I walk everywhere?) He nods.

I press through a turnstile and emerge on a station platform, looking down at a city street lined with, to my eyes, odd-looking colorless shops with generic names, where people bustle along sidewalks
Schramm family, parents and son, with employee 2nd from left, in 1986
Photo: Harf Zimmermann

Photo: Harf Zimmermann 1986
as on a normal shopping day. Many faces turn and look with some wonderment at the brightly-dressed westerners exiting the station, their Nikons and Sony video cameras, stylish winter wear, and whole demeanor of foreigners visiting a strange new land setting them apart. The euphoric madness of the western side has not yet fully dawned on the east. Perhaps their news coverage has been less breathless than that on the other side, or still answering to the demands of censorship bureaucrats whose instructions haven't been updated. In any case, I feel self-conscious and alien as I reach the street and begin a random exploration of this newly-opened world where East Germans seem to be going about their lives normally, though perhaps they are just as dazed as everyone else.

I buy a sweet roll at a bakery, delighting in its flavors of cinnamon and raisin that recall my beloved pain aux raisins in France. My West German currency is gladly accepted. For no particular reason, I follow the curve of the river Spree past several bridges, then along what seems more like a canal to a small footbridge, across which rises the imposing front of a building marked "Pergamonmuseum." A museum tour might focus my attention beyond the aimlessness that has marked my visit thus far, I think. It's open; I don't recall if it was free or merely dirt cheap; in any case, it strikes me that I am in a city and society that values culture and its accessibility to the masses. Today, I am one of the "visiting proletariat." I enter and look around the museum about which I now remember nothing whatsoever except that first glimpse of its modern exterior facade. I was so tired as to be almost in a walking dream by then.

I continue along the river in the general direction of the iconic tower whose bulbous spire rises above all but the tallest buildings of the neighborhood. I come to a park and large church that strikes me as ugly, the Berlin Cathedral, quite different from the cathedrals I am familiar with from France and West Germany.

The midday sun is moving toward the southwest and already less warming as I wander about on a large, empty square that I remember as Karl Marx Platz. Studying contemporary maps of Berlin, I think this must have been what is now called "Lustgarten," a rather empty-looking ornamental park with a water feature at its center, adjacent to the Berlin Cathedral and the Altes Museum. Again, I am relying on 30-year-old memories of a young man who'd slept only a few hours and was wandering aimlessly around an unfamiliar city. This is how I remember it.

I'm close to the Alexanderplatz spire, but the day is moving on. Anxious to see what is happening at Potzdamerplatz, I turn my steps west. I hope to see that Wall open before I have to head to the station for my return trip back to Hasliberg.

I cross the Spree again on a wide boulevard, Unter den Linden, which strikes a chord in me from my growing knowledge at the time of popular German songs and medieval lyrics, in which linden trees figure importantly. I trudge down this tree-bordered avenue, noting the impressive buildings, though little is left in Berlin of pre-war architecture. Virtually anything with a 19th century look is a reconstruction. My observations and musings give me a growing sense of the distinct culture of East Germany: a country formed in the aftermath of a murderous war and national catastrophe, rising from ashes as a Soviet protectorate and taking initial pride in its socialist workers' paradise. I approach a squat stone building with heavy columns and gaping doors. A plaque announces it as a "Memorial to the Victims of Fascism and Militarism." Armed soldiers stand honor guard on pedestals on either side of the entrance, in full uniform, and seem to me as massive and immobile as statues.

I recall the border agent's smile and permission to wander at will. I dare to address one of the soldiers, looking up at him and feeling for all the world like a child: "Darf man hinein?" He gives a nearly imperceptible nod, without so much as moving his eyes. I hasten inside, and spend some time circling the "eternal flame" inside its prismatic box, and the plaques commemorating the remains of an unknown soldier and a concentration camp victim. I needed reminding that both east and west, in the aftermath of the war, suffered the consequences and the hideous memories of what fascism had wrought. The carving out of an eastern country under Soviet influence, and of a western enclave within it, were all consequences of the strange ending of the war as armies of various common enemies of Germany converged on Berlin, virtually razing it in a final deadly engagement, and then occupying according to their divergent ideologies and goals.

After a respite in this quiet and virtually unadorned sanctuary, I return to the street, again nearly dead with walking. The Brandenburg Gate I recall being shut off at that time, and I cut back toward the Friedrichstraße station and again wait my chance for a place in a crammed wagon.

Back in the BRD (West Germany), I grab something to eat from a street stand and sit to rest my aching back and legs. Twilight is falling by the time I reach Potzdamerplatz. Where workers had been drilling earlier there is now a 20-foot wide gap roped off and surrounded by TV cameras and media vans. Atop a platform brightly lit for the cameras a somewhat incongruous figure sits at a microphone -- Dan Rather, the famous anchorman for a US news channel. Despite living for years now in a remote boarding school in the Alps with almost no contact to American TV culture, even I recognize him. He seems a bit silly to my eyes, perched under bright lights on this vantage point in the midst of the crowd, with a make-up assistant and coffee thermos at his side. He appears to be making a live report at that moment. His presence adds a note of theater to the proceedings, and what at daybreak had still seemed a purely spontaneous and completely unpredictable situation now bears trappings of a media event and civic celebration. I slowly work my way through the crowd and nearer to the gap.

Somewhere in the night, Berlin, November 1989 - Photographer unknown

Within the next hour or so I watch as the mayors of east and West Berlin shake hands under the unnatural lighting and unflinching gaze of TV cameras, standing in the gap where the Wall stood. Some words are spoken, there is some applause which swells and spreads through the crowd, growing to a roar.

Once the ceremony is over, the cameras move away and through the gap I catch my first full view of the expanse of no-man's land -- the flat open field of death between the two walls. A channel of metal fencing stretches across to the wall on the east side; uniformed soldiers stand along its length and gaze stoically through the wires. The crowd begins to press through the gap into the channel, and no one works very hard to deter them. An open avenue is maintained in the center, but I drift with the tide through the gap and along the the fence a hundred feet or so inside the forbidden zone. As the jocund crowd presses up against the fence, the guarding soldiers loosen up, some even daring to smile and say a few words to the westerners. Anticipation and disbelief reign; no one, it seems, can quite believe what is happening nor guess what is next.
Photo: Getty  - The author is somewhere among the crowd up center, along the fence.

A cacophony rises from further to the east: honking horns, shouts. Through the channel comes a parade of people, bicycles, tiny Trabants, the people's car. Germans are coming through, their faces animated with wonder, joy, disbelief. As they reach the western end of the channel they join a cheering throng that includes me: a pretty clueless American expatriate who has skipped out of work and traveled across half of central Europe to share this moment, and all the other moments of joy and astonishment as a world order gives way to another yet to be created. The police -- I don't know whether they are of the east or west and don't care at this point -- gradually push those few hundred of us who had breached the gap back out along with the transiting eastern citizens, and willy nilly I find myself in their midst, passing through the newly-opened Berlin wall from the east into the bosom of a welcoming crowd of celebrating westerners.

Just at that moment I notice on the ground beneath my feet a camera with a broken strap. I stoop to save it, lifting it up in the air, craning ahead, scanning over the heads of the crowd so its owner might see and claim it. No one does, though I continue to hold it aloft and look for anyone who might be trying to work back through the crowd for something lost or left behind.

Meanwhile, I struggle with a sense of being an imposter: I am among the entering inward surge of easterners, but I know very well I don't belong there. People in the welcoming crowds are popping bottles of champagne, throwing packs of cigarettes and candies and gum, rushing up to grip the hands of deliriously excited families hanging out of the windows of their little cars or walking hand in hand, walking bikes, leading children. Elderly folks lean on the arms of younger; people embrace and weep openly; children stare in shy amazement; dogs bark; whistles blow; horns honk; songs are sung. It is mayhem, unbridled and unreserved. It is the end of an era of oppression and tragedy and everyone is part of it. I have every reason to celebrate along, but given the forward press and irresistible weight of the crowd, it takes a minute for me to reach the edge of the surge and find a spot to enjoy the scene from the sidelines rather than from the midst of the action. I'm a spectator, and the import and profundity of the hour make me despise anything smacking of role-playing.

That is the high point of my trip, the most vividly poignant and memorable of all. Much else has fallen into oblivion, as my narrative betrays, but the privilege of being present at that moment of rebirth, as the broken city healed and a divided people found themselves again one German Volk, is one of the great treasures of my life. It has taken me days to pull together this narrative, checking memories and maps, pondering apparent contradictions in my recollection and gradually straightening out a flow of events that represents my best effort at reconstruction of my part in that weekend of historic change.

I was sorry never to locate the owner of that camera, but there seemed no better alternative to keeping it. My train was leaving in a couple of hours; to locate a police office and turn it in seemed hopelessly complicated and pointless. I had tried, really, to find someone in the crowd who was missing it, but there it was, in my hands. I couldn't tell if there was any film in it and didn't want to open it to find out and risk destroying any photos. Later I rewound the film and had it developed. There was nearly a whole roll of unexposed slide film, and three shots that had been taken from the western side before the wall was breached. I was glad to know it belonged to someone from the affluent west rather than a crossing "Ossie." Those few slides appear above as the unattributed photos illustrating this long-delayed report of my journey to the Berlin Wall in November, 1989. If you recognize those three pictures as your own, feel free to get in touch. I'd love to know who took them and hear your story.

The camera was barely damaged by its fall; I used it for years. Eventually its age and perhaps latent injuries caused its photos to come out always a bit blurry, like old memories; it was also surpassed by a new generation of camera technology. It's gone now, I forget where -- sold "as is" perhaps, or lost again, or or donated to a thrift store. It seems in some ways like an apt metaphor for the history I rode into and then out of again on the 9:15pm train: an imperfect instrument of memory neither stolen nor given, but changing hands and moving on at the meeting place of two worlds which have since melded into one. Memories fade:

"Time like an ever-flowing stream, bears all its sons away, 
they fly forgotten as a dream fades at the opening day."

I spent the last hour of my time in Berlin on a grassy park meadow adjacent to Potzdamerplatz in the company of a group of young people who lit a fire and danced and sang a hit song of the 60's that they, or someone, had rewritten to honor the demise of the Berlin Wall:

Marmor, Stein und Eisen bricht
doch die Mauer steht ewig nicht,
Alles, alles geht vorbei
und wir reisen frei!

My free translation:

Marble, Stone and Iron break
Walls break too, make no mistake,
All things pass and cease to be
and we travel free!


I got back to the École d'Humanité sometime Sunday, November 12. Word of my unauthorized trip to Berlin had been widely commented on, and I was greeted with much joviality by students, friends and colleagues. One or two older teachers, who would perhaps themselves have greatly loved to make such a trip, gave me a cold shoulder. I bore it. I put together a talk on my adventure and shared it with those interested in my view of events. I honored then as now the inner voice that prompted me to that Quest, and to bring back and share what I was granted by both the journey and its gift.

I found my discarded bicycle at Brünig, where someone had leant up against a wall of the station house and it had waited out the hours till my return. Dear Switzerland, it has a certain charm.

Ecole d'Humanité, Hasliberg, CH

Follow my blog for updates for continuation of this narrative a week later, as the Czech Velvet Revolution brought down another socialist government; and a month after that, in a violent but swift uprising, the Romanian people threw off their dictator, Ceausescu. How my Berlin journey brought those events into my life can be read next, as it comes to me.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Ok, that's not Okay

I only recently learned of a new zone of hate speech and divisiveness, embodied in the phrase "OK, Boomer." That's my generation, and I'm proud of it. Not of everything, for sure; but I know the history I've lived through and the changes I've been part of.

I grew up on black and white TV (and very little of it.) I was bullied as a gay kid in the 60's, and have been called every sort of name. I joined the hordes of runaway kids and roadside hitchhikers in the 70's, sang the "Feel-like-I'm-fixin'-to-die" rag in street protests against the Vietnam war, watched with glee as Nixon resigned. I've marched for Pride, for women's rights, for gun control. I've lost friends to AIDS and suicide, lost two siblings to drugs and cancer, lost my parents to age and the march of time.  I've seen a lot, learned a lot, grown a lot. My life matters.

Millennials -- or whoever you are turning "OK, boomer" into a buzzword and put-down -- this is not okay. Get your fucking priorities straight. My generation is not your enemy; we are your vanguard. We beat the path on which you now walk with youthful energy and all the power of global networking and technology at your fingertips. "Okay, Boomer" is your response? I don't know where this meme originated (and I am suspicious of it) but whoever has used it, let me tell you this: my generation isn't standing in your way; we laid the way. Speaking for myself: I'm as young as I ever was; I've just been here longer. And you know what? I have some wisdom about life.

Let me start with an image -- I like pictures. Below is the inside bookleaf of a series of sci-fi books I discovered when I was 10 or so. Whenever I came across a book on the shelf with this electrifying picture inside, I knew it would be a good read. It seemed to depict a world impossibly far-off in time: horrifying, apocalyptic, and impossible.

Illustration by Alex Schomburg, 1953

The image has all the elements of dystopian horror: cities under attack, populations fleeing; weapons advanced beyond understanding; ruthless, perhaps deranged overlords; strange technologies controlled by non-human intelligence; rockets blasting skyward as the world submerges in chaos and rising seas.

Huh. Pretty far-fetched stuff for a boy in 1964. For the same boy in 2019, with a body and spirit well-aged like a good whiskey, it's all true. This is our world. It's been a long road to dystopia, yet here we are. And the road from here on, for you younger folks of whatever branding you prefer for your generation, is long as well, and may not lead where you expect. There is no guarantee that the era we live in is not the last gasp of liberal western civilization, a fling before a crackdown, or the crackup of life as we know it.

The future doesn't look pretty. It will be even uglier if, on top of the authoritarian backlash already underway and an eco-tastrophe more imminent by the hour, the "generation gap" becomes a generation war. Pitting one generation against another fits right into the playbook of the long-planned right-wing conspiracy to own America: divide and conquer is the #1 rule of the game we are losing. If you are laughing at "OK, Boomer" remarks, you are betraying your allies: the tried and true lefties some of you now mock are your partners in demanding a world of justice, sustainability, freedom and diversity; a world that we Boomers, many of us, have been battling for all our lives.

Ageism is no less ignorant and unconscious than racism, sexism, anti-semitism or islamophobia. Before you laugh, think about what it means to reduce the human worth of any individual. Consider how swiftly and uncontrollably a meme can morph into violence against groups and individuals purely for their perceived membership in that group. "Ok, Boomer" fans a dangerous fire.

Lastly, it never hurts to remind yourself that unlike some demographics, elders are a group that you will one day join, should you be so lucky. I admit, looking down on the old was a youthful folly of mine as well; I grew out of it eventually. So will you; so you must. Yes, we Boomers will gradually leave the world stage, and you will take our place. And I'm okay with that. But I don't accept being bullied for who I am. Nor should anyone. It's just not okay.

In the perilous future we live in and will live into, we need all the help we can give and get: all colors and persuasions, all ages and genders, all people everywhere who want to lead their lives in peace, dignity, comfort, and security, should listen and learn from one another. Okay, Millennials?