Stories of this Canadian girl's adventures exploring Europe...join me!

Thursday, February 28, 2013

postcards from the edge

It is my mother’s birthday today. She would’ve been seventy-years-old, I think, or maybe seventy-one.  The fact that I don’t know that for sure; that I don’t have any documents to actually check, is just one of the things that makes me sad and contemplative on a day like today.

What I do have of hers, which is much more meaningful, is her small box of letters. Years ago, five to be exact, a few months after she died, I finally opened the box.  She had told me over the years what these letters meant to her, and I remember walking with her, on a sunny lunchtime break, on the sidewalk outside of her downtown office, as she told me about never having read the letters again, after that fall of ‘63.

Fifty years ago.  Wow, that was fifty years ago, and I am sitting here now, with letters and postcards spread out all over my desk. Fifty-year-old envelopes, papers and words. Two people’s hopes and plans; all innocent, flirty and naïve. I’m trying to sort the letters out, the chronology of them, to figure out the story here.  Where is the first one…and where is the last one? Were they able to see each other during this time? What were their plans? And, when did he actually die? 

He did die, this first love of my mother’s. That’s how this story ends. But first…

She was living with her parents, two sisters and her brother in Cologne, Germany. The effects of the war were still visible and ‘feel-able’, but this generation of twenty-somethings was taking control of the sixties with an energy and excitement that was different; where the fifties had been mostly about recovery.

My mother was twenty as she met and fell in love with this young soldier. She had been visiting her brother over the Christmas holidays in Speyer. It must have ‘funked’ quickly (as they say in German) because the first postcard from him came on January 5th, 1963.

For months he was stationed in Calw, in the Blackforest during his then-mandatory, two year army training. During these months they wrote to each other every three to five days. I imagine them, anticipating each letter, excitedly opening  mailboxes, finding a quiet place to read, eagerly opening the envelope and then, as soon as possible writing back. Back and forth they wrote, getting to know each other and trying to make plans to see each other again. Whimsical cartooned postcards he sent, or photos of the place he was training in; Biarritz, Calw or Schongau, while her letters were always written on the same narrow, cream-coloured stationary.

By June they seem to be pretty much in love.  Flirty, kissy letters, with drawings of arrows through hearts, and heady, hopeful talk of future visits.

He wrote that on the 3rd of August he would come and visit her on his holiday leave.  But, his holidays were denied…she wrote of her disappointment, saying that her brother told her that “as a soldier you can’t count on receiving holidays until you have the leave statement in your hand”.  So, instead she spent her summer days-off swimming and sunning herself by the Rhein (sounds like my summer last year). In another letter the Twist comes on the radio as she’s writing, “und wie wär’s?” (how about it?), she asks him playfully.

On August 24 (which ten years later would become my birthday) she closes her letter with “denk an Speyer”. It seems they were planning on seeing each other in a couple of weeks when she would visit her brother again. Then comes a letter from him on September 24th, pleading that she understands why he had to leave Speyer on that Saturday. Did they see each other? I want to know.

I wish I could ask her. How much would I love to sit across from her at the kitchen table asking her questions about this first love of hers. She never wanted to talk about it when she was alive. She said she was keeping the letters, possibly to look at them again someday or maybe just to throw away. This relationship was a dream, something she never completely let go of. But does anyone really ever let go of their first love, or any loves? Do we need to? Or, like having more than one child does love just grow the more people you love? Past loves don’t take away love from future love, do they? I’m going to say no.

Soldier boy then writes that on the 23rd and 24th of September, he had to parachute freefall from 800m pulling his chute after 3 seconds so it opened at 600 m. Tomorrow it will be 5 seconds – he’s nervous, but hopes it all goes well.

Letter: October 2, 1963, “today, on Tuesday we had to do 3 jumps again, but not like the others (opening our chute after 3 seconds). Today we had to wait for 7 seconds.  You can believe me, the 7 seconds falling through the air, seems longer than an entire day. Tomorrow I have to do 2 more jumps with 7 seconds and then the third one from 1000m pulling the chute at 10 seconds.  You can’t imagine what it’s like jumping out of a plane at 1000 m and waiting 10 seconds until you’re finally allowed to pull the chute. The hardest part is holding your body during the freefall. If you don’t hold it the way you’re trained then you won’t fall calmly through the air. This can be quite dangerous because you can get twisted in your own chute. But, up till now ‘alles hat gut geklappt’ (has worked really well).”

Then he writes, “Wenn es so weiter geht, schaffe ich auch diese Hürde und gehe am 24.10.63 mit bestandenem Lehrgang nach Hause“ (If everything continues the way it’s been going then I will manage this hurdle, and with training finished, will go home on October 24th).  I think he dies the next day.

In this last letter, he mentions how she ended her latest letter, „In love…“. This was the first time he had seen this word from her and he asks how much she means by it.  Then he ends his letter with the same words. I don’t have this last letter of hers. It’s not amongst the others. He had written that he’s lost a lot of weight, is nervous and can’t relax or sleep well. I can’t help but think that he had the letter with him when he jumped. The other letters, the ones I have now, were sent to my mother one week later, by his training unit.

Holding these letters, reading the private thoughts of two people who are no longer alive, feels strange to me. My mother lived an entire, full life after this; moving to Canada with, I would argue, her great love, having two children and doing some pretty interesting things. Maybe she held on to these letters because it had been such a perfect time; it was a perfect memory not destroyed by herself or soldier boy. The love ended before it could fall apart. It was pure and uncomplicated and unspoiled. Or is that just the cynic in me?
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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

my mother's letters

The faded red and black, stationary box found me.  Well, more exactly, I had to go and pick it up.  But, I didn’t eagerly seek it out, and I can’t seem to get rid of it.  The box has stayed with me, like a heavy weight, moving with me across the prairies and finally across the ocean…ironically, back to where it came from.  I have had it for six years now, almost exactly to the week.  My mother’s box of letters.

On one hand I treasure it, as it was my mother’s most valued possession; and yet on the other hand, knowing that I have it means she is gone.  My mother had carried this little box with her across continents and from house to house for over forty years.  Possibly two or three people ever knew it existed while she was alive.  Even my father never realized that this unassuming box went with them through all of their moves, and through their two marriages.  But, she had told me about it.  And, I remember the day I had to pick it up as if it was yesterday.

My mother had been sick for a few months, although my brother and I hadn’t known the extent of her illness or even what kind of illness exactly.  Her husband (and my mother) had kept us in the dark about most things, possibly out of denial.  Or control.  My step-father, although I can barely make myself call him that, was (and most certainly still is) a horribly, controlling man.  A few years after their wedding, my mother had told me that she had moved her little box of letters to her office in downtown.  She was worried that he would go through it, as he had gone through all of her videos, taping over films she had made of herself and her friends and her children.  So, the box sat in the bottom drawer of her filing cabinet, with a handwritten note stuck on to the many layers of tape ensuring that no one opens it, saying “PERSONAL LETTERS”, and in red marker, “GIVE ONLY TO NINA KESEL”.

It was a dark, cold February morning, when I showed up at my mother’s office.  She had been away from work for four months or so already.  I asked one of the court clerks who I knew to see if my mom’s supervisor, Shelly, was available to see me.  As I saw her walking towards me, I could tell that she was trying to read my face.  What news was I bringing about my mom?  My mother had worked in that office for almost twenty years; everybody knew her.

After greeting each other warmly, I told her that I had come to pick up the box.  Shelly’s face dropped.  She said, “So your mom isn’t come back to work is she?”  Shelly was one of the 2 or 3 people in the world who knew about the box, because my mother had explicitly told her years before, do not let anyone except Nina pick up that box.  No one is to touch it!  My mother, the drama queen.  I used to wonder, why does she think everyone just wants to get in her stuff...as if it’s that interesting. 

Honestly, I find it exhausting just writing about this…thinking about this.  I’m doing it as a journaling assignment for one of my writing classes.  It really does feel like a weight that pulls me down.  This box.  But, I’m also thankful for the box.  Having it has made me want to become a writer because I had, and still do, this certainty that there’s a story inside of it.  There has to be a story in these letters that my mother kept with her her entire life. The letters she wrote and received from the first man she loved.

There has to be a story.  I have to make something out of it.  I just have to. At least I have to try.
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Monday, February 11, 2013

dukes and duchesses, poets and priests

I met an old man.  It was in the former East German city of Weimar.  After a long train ride, I had unpacked my canon rebel, left the train station, greeted the drizzly morning, and started walking without a map.

Have you ever walked over really, really old cobblestones, like thousands of years old?  Let me tell you, unless you are wearing the flattest of shoes, it’s very difficult not to teeter.  Old cobbles are very uneven, with gaps large enough for even the widest of heels to tip and totter.

As I mentioned, I didn’t have a map, but I had a rough idea of where the town centre was; the castle, the major touri sites.  Upon crossing one particular street, I noticed some different looking houses further down from the stream of people I was sort-of following.  I decided to venture off the ‘beaten path’ and have a look.

The buildings began changing, from renovated, clean, freshly-painted, more modern facades to houses slowly going downhill, figuratively and literally.  But also becoming increasingly more interesting, and as I was snapping away, I noticed an elderly gentleman push through a large, wrought-iron, arched gate.  I was, at that point, standing beside a high, graffiti-covered, stone wall, trying to photograph the dilapidated, falling-down structures beyond it. 


I decided to be brave and strike up a conversation about this place.  I asked him if he could tell me where I was.  He proceeded to proudly regale me with the history of this, the oldest part of town, Jakobstadt.  He was enthusiastic, with saggy, tired eyes, and a warm smile.  We were, he pointed out, just downstream from the palace, and in these former factory-type buildings (which looked to me like worn-out, neglected houses of nobility) the ‘dirty work’ was done so as not to smell-up the air around the palace.  Here, hundreds of years ago, the gerbers (tanners) and potters had been busy.  And, in many of these buildings generations of families have lived since; the handwerk (work with the hands) having long ago gone the way of more ‘modern’ technology. What a treat talking to him.  There are often blessings when you stop to talk to a stranger…which maybe I should do more.

Eventually I continued on my way; past houses baring commemorative plaques of Jewish inhabitants pulled from their houses during WWII; past the impressive, white, late-Gothic style, pre 1550, St. Peter & Paul cathedral where Martin Luther often preached; and past the massive palace lying quietly beside the river Ilm. I was already very moved by this place and I had only been here an hour.  That’s when I met the Duchess.

The Duchess Anna Amalia (1739-1807) was a great lover of the arts.  She had the largest book collection for a woman of her time.  Her support for philosophy and research was reflected in the variety of books she collected.  So, when her collection became too large for the palace, she decided in 1766 to renovate the green palace, which stood just above her stables, on a small hill.


I was immediately struck by the rose-coloured riding stables; a large, rectangular building sitting like a block beside the river, and about a hundred yards upstream from the stone sternbrücke (starbridge).  Instantly, I felt a fairy-tale connection; I could picture Anna Amalia riding her steed along the riverbank, past clumps of trees, on a misty spring morning, stopping to sit by a tree and read. 

As I walked past the stables, I caught a glimpse of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s gartenhaus which the duke, Carl August, built for him to encourage him to stay in Weimar longer than his customary short visits.  After the library project began, the already popular poet moved into a spacious, Baroque house in the centre of town, on Frauenplan where he lived from 1782 - 1832.

Finally, I came upon the library.  The Herzogin Anna Amalia Bibliothek.  In the middle of the new library, she commissioned a 3 storey, rokokosaal (rococo hall) which is quite possibly the most impressive room I’ve ever stepped into.  In the rokokosaal, walls filled with the oldest of books, share space with paintings of philosophers and poets of the time, and tall pedestals display white, ceramic busts of the royal family. 


Goethe was commissioned to organize and catalogue the vast collection of the duchess’s books.  The duchess wanted the library to be open to the people of Weimar and Goethe was asked to take over the administration duties.  He was by far the most studious and faithful user of the library, with over 2000 signed out entries.  Back in 1766 one could sign out a book for three months without penalty.  Even then there were so many books that today approximately 50 000 volumes are stored in an underground passage which Anna Amalia had built, joining the palace to the library below ground.  Still today it’s a living and breathing research library, rotating its books regularly through the underground repository, bringing ‘new’ books into circulation.  I’m not sure how long I spent in the library, just staring and wandering and clicking away, but I was in awe of the story of this place; the people who had been here before and whose names I was now learning centuries later.


One of our favourite summer activities is gathering with friends for some grilled Thuringer bratwurst in our garden on the riverbank.  Later, as I walked into the town square, I saw signs screaming ‘Authentic Thuringer Bratwurst!’ I was excited-I hadn’t realized that I was now at their birthplace too!  So, stopping for a lunch break, I bought myself an authentic thuringer bratwurst, sat on a bench outside of hotel elefant and called great guy.  He proceeded to tell me that he had worked at hotel elefant for a few weeks during his architecture studies, designing or measuring or something (I didn’t quite understand the German).  He hadn’t mentioned this piece of great guy trivia before…he sure is a man of few words.  But, what great bratwurst!

With souvenirs of petits fours, and bundles of coriander and thyme from the market, I once again boarded the train for the four-hour ride home.  

If I had to describe the atmosphere of Weimar, I would say that it’s a protective feeling one gets; possibly like a mother hen wanting to show off her proud son and yet worried about exposing him to unkind outsiders. Weimar has, like many cities in Germany, especially in the former East, a recent, horrific past.  But, in Weimar you can sense a need to showcase the incredible, diverse and rich history of all the hundreds of years that came before.  They want to be proud…and I think they should be.
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Saturday, February 2, 2013

a fool's show

Gold, sequins, pomp and circumstance.  This is carnival.  But, I just don’t understand the point?

Last Saturday night, I headed out with mickey and minnie (including many of mickey’s nine siblings, their partners and children) and their neighbours, veronica and archie.  Great guy dropped me off at m&m’s place, and stayed just long enough for a bubbly toast to get our party night started.  He is definitely not a fan of the big, dress-up parties…a drama queen he is not.  So, as he went home to settle into an evening of watching terminator for the 100th time, I put on some blue hair, a short, red flamenco dress, a black boa and some high, high heels.


Arriving at the decked-out carnival club (official name: Kemptener Narrenverein 1950), along with nuns, prisoners, hippies, and more nuns, I could feel the air heavy with excitement in anticipation of the revelry to come. I had no idea what I was in for, but everyone else seemed to  know that they were going to have a great night.

The evening began, and continued on for four hours, of glitzy, sequined, white feathers-in-their-hair, blue, red and white tutu-wearing, dancing girls (mix cheerleaders with the rockettes and you’ve got it); costumed men giving long, (apparently hilarious) speeches in dialect so heavy I thought at some points they could possibly be speaking English.  I had no idea what some of them said, but watching minnie and veronica laughing so hard that there were tears running down their make-up, stained faces was entertaining enough; dancing skits with cops & robbers, cheerleaders & soccer players, and even two guys in a boxing ring spoofing the new rocky musical to the tune of ‘it’s the eye of the tiger’; and last but not least a group of young, super-cool-wannabes going gangnam style and actually doing it not that badly.


Now I still don’t really understand what or why carnival exists…in Rio, New Orleans and our side of the Rhein.  It seems to be one of the very few, if not the only (other than communion) church-sanctioned (or even initiated) event where the major point (it seems to me) is to drink…heavily.  Ok, maybe it’s not the main point of carnival, I know that the gardemädchen (dancing girls) are superfluous during carnival, but the drinking is a huge, helluva-helau part of it!

Speaking of helau…this year’s theme for the evening was ‘a thundering triple hellau!’ (okay, it doesn’t translate that well) which meant that every 10 seconds or so the hall would erupt in screams of ‘helau, helau, helau!’ Appropriately this ‘helau’ is called ‘the call of fools’ which you’ll hear on the streets and in the hallways, as a greeting throughout the weeks of carnival.  And, if someone on stage messed up or said something too crude the entire crowd would respond with a rousing rendition of sing-song which I will attempt to write as, ‘oi, oi, oi oi…ow wow wow, wow wow’.  Guess you have to be there.  But, it sure is fun to watch people, young and old, singing at the top of their lungs (the more you drink, the funnier it becomes).

Here, a few of my favourite things:

-archie continuously flipping his long, orange locks, like one of charlie’s angels


-mickey getting so annoyed with the large, hairy she-devil at the next table who was boisterously balancing wine bottles on his/her very ample bosom, that he started throwing walnuts at his/her head (one question: Why did mickey have walnuts along? He was dressed as a cleaning lady.)

-männerballet (yup, that’s right, man ballet) which if you’ve ever seen top secret you’ll get the right idea…but without the super-sized balls.  Mickey’s nephew was one of the dancers, along with the son of another friend of mine.  Family and friends howled and cheered the guys on, as they twirled and pirouetted, hopped and leaped, while lifting and throwing each other around; all the while dressed as police officers (I still don’t know why).

And, the highlight (by far the funniest thing that I could understand) was a video spoof of ‘America’s Most Wanted’ (Aktenzeichen Ungelöst) re-enacting recent unsolved crimes in the area.  A nun (clearly not a real nun) is seen sneaking into the Hildegard herb garden of the nearby Hildegard of Bingen convent, heading over to the herbs and ripping them all frantically out.  In the process he disturbs another nun (clearly not a real nun) who is quietly meditating in the garden.  The thief runs out of the garden, his habit flying behind him (isn’t there a movie about this?) as he makes his great escape, arms full of herbs, into the woods.  A police man (apparently a real, neighbourhood bobby – judging by the audience’s reaction) just happens to be strolling past the convent garden (probably his regular beat) when he senses something amiss and gives chase.  To no avail, the thief is gone.

Next scene: the neighbourhood building centre, where on every Saturday a bratwurst truck is setup selling to the lunchtime crowd.  Right next to it, on this particular Saturday, a nun (again, clearly not a real nun) is busy setting up a herb-selling stand.  A moment later the friendly, neighbourhood policeman happens to drive by.  He sees the nun, slams on his brakes, jumps out of the car, and with baton waving runs towards her.  The nun, notices the policeman, herbs go flying and they run off.  Break to mug shot of said nun…apparently some prominent person from the area (major hooting and hollering from crowd)…who knows.  But, during the chase and ensuing arrest, someone else entirely took off with the herb stash.  Case still unsolved.

It’s one am and slowly people get up, gather their fallen-off wigs and long-tossed-aside wands and weapons, and in mickey’s case, a plunger.  The floor is littered with feathery boa remnants and the long, wooden tables are messy with empty glasses and plates, and lots of sad, used up luftschlangen (literally translated as ‘air snakes’!). There are still two guys on stage doing a sketch about the high cost of parking metres on mainstreet, but nobody seems to be listening anymore.  Everyone is just plain exhausted from all the laughing, the singing… and the drinking.

Maybe at the end of the day (and long night), the point of carnival is for the community to come together; to plan and prepare and execute a night of merriment and laughter; to not take themselves or each other or politics too seriously, but to make fun and have fun…and to look silly.

Good, hometown fun…not my hometown, but that’s okay, they happily let me in. Or maybe they were just drunk.


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