travelers-tales

 

 By Marianne Rogoff

Gold Solas Award Winner in the Love Story category

Jayne and I are traveling to Switzerland, to an international conference on the depth psychology of Carl Jung. On our way we’re staying overnight in Freiburg with Josef, a German she met here over thirty years ago when she was a young American exchange student. She had told me he was her first true love and first hard breakup so I am a little worried about the plan, but when we arrive he welcomes us with warm hugs and smiles as we leave our shoes and baggage at the door. We’ve been on the move through airports and train stations for days; we’re animated, wired and tired, and when Josef offers fancy house slippers to wear, they are all so sparkly we can’t decide. He is excited, playful, as he slips his favorite pairs on our feet and carries our carry-ons upstairs to show us around, sliding across the wood floors in his socks like a kid. He suggests “some good German beer and a bite to eat” and we accept and settle in while he bustles around, aiming to please, at home in the kitchen, arranging plates of food with panache and ease.

On the train, Jayne used the word puer to describe him, the boy who never grows up. We agreed, it’s so easy to love those guys but then they break our hearts. I observe these ex-lovers seem pleased to see each other, and that I am attracted to the man myself, his energy, attentiveness, lively body, wiry muscles. Or maybe he just reminds me of the Peter Pan I loved most.

The two of them lapse into German, a language I don’t speak (Californian that I am, my main ‘other’ language is Spanish), but I enjoy not-understanding everything, listening to the rhythms of that foreign tongue, unfamiliar music from a neighbor’s window, wind blowing through empty spaces between trees in the Black Forest outside our doors. I listen to a cacophony of German birds in the trees, songs and sounds I’ve never heard at home. We are sampling a selection of cold local beers in brown and green bottles, bitter Pils and sweet Weizen, as we sit around Josef’s homey table talking. Their German has a spirited back and forth and so does their body language; intangible chemistry sparks as the three of us drink and laugh and flirt. Now they are remembering fondly, telling stories they both recall, times they had, and I am not a part of anything they talk about but I like how we’re all here together, in such friendly, good moods. Nothing is required of me.

Jayne and I describe being tourists, the sights we saw as we wandered the outdoor market in search of the famous Münsterturm cathedral.

“It’s surrounded by scaffolding and under renovation so we couldn’t climb inside the tower but I love how narrow and tall it is, and all the gargoyles,” I say.

Josef says, “Gargoyles are dual figures; first, they will serve as spouts to drain water from roofs; second, they may ward off evil spirits.”

“The one I loved most had at least two faces, and there was also a carved human ass among the dragons and chimeras. Felt like he was ‘mooning’ us.”

“Yes, that was put there by construction laborers to protest working conditions.”

“Not too subtle, you Germans,” Jayne says. “At least we know how you really feel.”

Jayne reports other highlights of our travels, including the Italian trattoria near the train station where the two of them used to go, and Josef starts to critique pretty much every place she describes. He has no more urge to travel, he tells us, wonders why we do it, why we’re here now. “It’s so arduous!” He strains to pronounce the word, as if he’s been studying his English. “I’ve seen so many churches, monuments, and ruins, what’s the point? The Freiburger Münster is just as fine as Notre Dame.”

Jayne reminds him of the many adventures they took together. “Remember when we hitchhiked to Göttingen for Gabriela’s wedding and we stopped at the Gänseliesel fountain near the Rathaus? You seemed so happy to show me things. ‘New sights around every bend.’ Don’t you remember, that was your saying?”

“That was in my twenties, when I was a silly young man,” Josef says and Jayne scowls.

“I don’t mind getting on the wrong train,” she says, “So what? I recalibrate.”

She and he begin to recall one particular wrong train (was it Munich or Hamburg?) and being lost together on steep mountain trails in the Alps.

“We all acted stupid and selfish, we all made mistakes, right?” he asks me, searching for eye contact and validation.

“Nah, it’s everybody else that makes the mistakes,” I say, joking, I think.

Everyone is drinking and laughing until the singular moment when the conversation turns, on some small phrase or recollection, and I note a shift in tone as new characters appear in their separate versions of old stories, to take their place at the table. Recalling some long-forgotten slight, or worse, their faces redden and they start to argue in German. I search myself for the right words to bring back the laughter but it’s hopeless.

Jayne is looking out the window at a black cat leaping from one neighbor’s roof to another. She points to the smoky clouds that have settled among the treetops.

“Here in Germany we say, ‘speak with four eyes,’” Josef commands.

“What does that mean?”

“Both eyes to both eyes.”

Seems he wants to rehash old memories and it is hard to tell if the two of them have come together in search of apologies, revenge, or to reconnect. Their attraction looks mutual to me, magnetic: attract/repel. On the train, Jayne had wondered whether the abrupt way it ended between them all those years ago has affected every failed intimacy she’s experienced since.

Josef stands to clear our plates and pour more beer, plus shots of something I don’t recognize. The true drinker will keep pouring the next drink then another, and we all have been that person at times in our lives. It could be any one of us who will cross some psychic line that leads to excess access to long-buried emotions, rage or sadness or regret or guilt, followed by loss of judgment or common courtesy.

We are not at that stage.

I try changing the subject and ask a nice, calm tourist question.

“Why call it Black Forest when it’s really so many shades of green?”

We all turn to gaze through the glass doors at the sea of deep dark trees.

I point out how the branches reach out only at the very tops of the tall, thin trunks, and Josef tells me it’s because their roots entwine so close together; in certain light, with so many shadows, the tree-lined mountains can appear black against the sky.

“I wouldn’t want to be Hansel and Gretel, led away to die in that forest.”

Jayne asks, “Was there a moral to that story?”

Maybe it is the mention of the fairytale or the still-present ghosts in the Black Forest that cause us to start talking about everything else going on in the world that summer, beyond personal histories. Josef grows agitated, calling the German government “misguided,” and he also is angry at France, who believes it’s superior.

“How many years, how many decades, do the Germans have to keep apologizing, heads hung in shame?”

He assumes the position of a dog begging forgiveness, paws up, tongue out.

Jayne asks, pointedly, “Do you think Jung was right, that an individual history can resemble a country’s history?”

Josef’s voice grows loud. “Do dumb Germans really think taking in refugees now will redeem us? It is so dangerous. We do not know who these people are.” He is angry that all these people are streaming in to his country, believes Germany is on the wrong track, and heading in the wrong direction.

Jayne says, “These people are fleeing bombs and wars that have nothing to do with them. Wouldn’t you want the same kindness shown to you?”

“We are all on our own, Jayne.”

All four eyes are engaged.

Josef regresses into baby talk, angry baby.

“Oh me oh my, me so sorry, me say come in, take all I have, me so guilty, shame on me.”

Jayne had told me bits of Josef’s family history on the way here, whispering inside the speeding stream of a nighttime tunnel, that Josef’s father had been a high-level Nazi who died last year and left the inheritance that enabled Josef to buy the house where we’re staying.

How guilty should we feel? Jayne and I had analyzed this question on the train, for miles.

Josef was Jayne’s first love when she was twenty and he was twenty-five, decades ago. He was loving then he was mean, could change like that, finger snap, came all the way to the USA to break up with her, no warning.

How guilty should he feel?

Nothing is required. No one has to make amends for actions that are long over. Right?

“Most Germans I’ve met on this trip have told me they simply feel it’s the right thing to do, to welcome the refugees, humanitarian action; it’s not about soothing the past but the present,” Jayne says. “I’m also aware that no motive is purely pure, that Germany’s population is aging and needs young workers, and that Carl Jung might analyze the welcoming impulse differently: What was unconscious must not only be made conscious but acted on.”

“Of all the most unconscious countries on Earth, don’t you think you Americans should look at yourselves?”

More beer, voices rise, and emotions surface as the two of them further debate the supremacist histories of the United States and Germany, reverting to German, my little contributions entirely unnecessary as the layers of our complexes spiral out and in, mine being conflict avoidance. The atmosphere is thick, unpleasant, smells like beer and our recently cleared food: lamb, garlic, radishes, etcetera, as we stare at each other’s strangeness in the dreamy silence of the Black Forest.

 

Taking action, Josef offers digestif shots of Jäger. We clink glasses, sip, and I believe it is this that triggers my own inner Nazis to appear in the room. It’s me who is guilty? Me, personally? Me, an American? I recognize these characters; every trip I have ever taken includes at least one “dark night of the soul” where I find myself in total meltdown, suddenly terrified to be where I am, want to go home, feel lost, stupid, and full of self-loathing. I thought this trip might be different, that I was here to study other people’s shadows, not my own, but no.

Jayne and Josef choose to step outside on the patio, to play aggressive, Jäger-driven ping-pong, so there is just the sound of the ball bouncing hard and fast while I squirm in the finger-pointing company of my demons. I try repressing them back to where they normally reside but they grow teeth and eyes in the glare of consciousness: You didn’t fight hard enough. Is this about politics or my lost marriage? All I know is, I’m a human ass unable to balance the weight of my head as I push away from the table and disappear into the bathroom to banish the voices. You’re as guilty as the next guy. Full-body sweats and shivers of ancient remorse besiege my body while imaginary staircases fall away from under me as I try to climb out of my self-made rubble. Humbled, I start confessing my failings to myself, and there are many, as I straddle the toilet on a long tour through the guilt factory. I’m shaken, paving the way toward atonement by shitting bricks, mentally leaping from rickety steps, grasping shaky scaffolding and flagpoles, until I hear voices calling my name, the jangle of Josef’s car keys. I wash my hands and reassemble my Klee cubist face to be seen in the mirror: flawed as hell, like everyone else.

We are going out. Jayne has to drive because Josef has lost his license. She declines, he cajoles and hints where we’re going, convinces her, and she gets behind the wheel, him in back, me up front so he can lean and whisper directions into her ear as she accelerates around the curves out of town.

“This is where we used to hitchhike up to my parents’ place. Up ahead is the path to Kirchzarten, where we visited the country church and had a glass of Kirschwasser, remember? Just continue straight here.”

We start heading through the hills of the forest all the way up, winding through places she and he used to explore; this was their territory. Feels like Jayne is taking the curves too fast and I grab onto my seat and say, “You could slow down,” but she scoffs, laughing. The two of them are in a new state of charged nostalgia where the happy past is present again, fueling the ride. I’m along for the ride.

At the top of the mountain is a wide-open intersection of roads that drop down in four directions. A sign names the place: Oberreid. The peak is bare of trees, we are above the treeline, and there is no one else up here but us. Jayne pulls off the road where Josef instructs, parks, and we get out to whooshing gusts of cold wind from all sides. Exhilarating wind, parting clouds, on the bare top of the forest, no one else around, just us, fantastic: stick figures in a mandala landscape. I turn the camera on myself and smile, absolved for the moment. Then I snap some shots of Jayne and Josef looking at each other, hair wild, hands gesturing, no shadows, bodies leaning toward and away from each other against the wind.

~ ~ ~

Marianne Rogoff is the author of the Pushcart-nominated story collection Love Is Blind in One Eye, the memoir Silvie’s Life, and numerous award-winning travel stories, short fictions, and essays, including in The Best Travel Writing and The Best Women’s Travel Writing. When not teaching university students, Marianne leads trips for writers to exotic locales.