Saturday, July 27, 2013

A Citizen of the World (Heidelberg)

Because of the work I have done throughout my career I have had the opportunity to visit almost virtually every medium and large metropolitan city in North America. I also got a chance to go work overseas.  Of all the places I went I think Germany was somehow the most special place I visited. 

When I was in Germany I worked in Frankfurt but stayed in Mainz down by the Rhine River. I would take a commuter train into the city every morning and home every night.  My digs were in the topmost room of a small boutique hotel called the Hotel Hammer.  My room was very small but I liked it because it had skylights and big windows I could throw open and look out at the gothic cathedral and down at the old city square.  The other thing I liked about Mainz was that it was the home of the original Guttenberg printing press. I visited it quite often.

The people in Mainz were quite nice.  Herr Hammer and many of the people in the restaurants and shops took good care of me.  One time I hurt my back and I went into the apothecary.  I took four semesters of German in college but never really got the hang of it.  I can read it pretty well but I'm terrible speaking it. I tried to ask the lady behind the counter if I could get some type of painkiller but my German was so bad she finally said, “Thank you for trying but please don’t hurt yourself.  I’ll speak English.” I started to laugh and she smiled.

When I wasn’t working I would try to take little excursions to the places I saw along the train line or go out on the river.  One Saturday I decided to take a day trip to Heidelberg.  I got up early went, bought a round trip ticket and got on the train.  I found myself a comfortable seat near a window so I could look out and see the countryside and other towns along the way.  After the train got underway the conductor came through the car and asked for my ticket.  I handed it to him and he said, “You are in the wrong car. This is first class. You paid for coach.”   I apologized and asked where I should go.  He said, “Just stay here but ask someone where to go when you come back.” 

When we got to Heidelberg I just started wandering the streets and bridges of the city.  I went and climbed the seemingly hundred steps up to the huge castle that sat high hill.  It was amazing; like something out of a fairy tale.  The castle in Heidelberg has the world’s largest wine cask.  You can mount a catwalk and twelve people can easily stand on top of it.  I walked through the ornate gardens filled with fountains and huge classical statues. I took pictures with my camera and imagined what it must have been like in the days of kings and knights.  I tend not to like guided tours.  What I liked about the castle at Heidelberg was that you could just roam around if that is what you wished. 

After I left the castle I went and strolled on the cobblestones through the open air market.  I bought my wife, Karen, some Christmas ornaments and my son, Ben, who was my only child then, a beautiful handmade wooden train.  I next visited the university, which is gorgeous and has over time had some of the most brilliant people of our time pass through its doors.  I had about an hour before I had to catch the train so I stopped into a little student bar on the narrow main thoroughfare that was not far from the station.  It was not crowded. There were just some locals, workingmen, sitting at the bar.  What struck me as odd was that all of them had large dogs quietly curled up at their feet.  I asked the girl behind the bar in German if she spoke English.  She answered yes in English. She got me a beer which was one of the best I have ever had.  It was cold and crisp, almost like wine.  She told me her name was Ursula and that she was a university student.  

Two of the men at the bar were engaged in a very heated discussion.  At one point the taller of the two through up his hands, grabbed the leash of his wolfhound and stormed out of the bar.  The other fellow, who was short, squat and had a huge moustache, slid over to me and started talking to me in German. I told him I was best at English.  Ursula came over and said, “He will not understand a word you say in English.  He did not go to school so he never learned it.  Do your best and I’ll interpret if you get stuck.” 

After that he and I talked in our strange way about many things.  He told me about what he did.  He was a mechanic in a nearby factory. He told me that he loved watching American football, especially the Jets.  He told me about his family, his wife and children.  He told me how he was very proud that they had gotten to be extras in the movie Schindler’s List and that was very important to him. I asked him why. He said something I absolutely could not understand.  I asked Ursula for help.  She was drying glasses with a towel. She pursed her lips, sighed, and said, “His parents were intellectuals. They were killed by the Nazis.”  I didn’t have a clue what to say so I just put my hand on his shoulder.

We talked awhile more and then he got up to leave.  He paid his bill and said something to Ursula. She looked at me and said, “He wants to know if you want to go to a political rally.”  I said, “Tell him, thank you but I have to catch a train.” She relayed the message. He nodded his head, took both of his hands and slapped me on the shoulders, said one last thing and then he left.  I asked Ursula for my tab.  I paid and asked, “What did he say when he left.  It wasn’t just good-bye.”  She thought for a minute and then she said, “Basically what he said was you are a good American. You are a citizen of the world.”  I thought that was a rather generous thing for a person you just met to say.  Ursula then started giggling a bit. “He also told you to say hello to Steven Spielberg when you see him.”   

That night I rode home from Heidelberg in what was essentially a smoke-filled boxcar filled with young people who were playing guitars and singing songs. I rode the whole way home sitting on a crate. It was actually very pleasant.

In the town where I live there is an Irish pub built into the garden level of an old Georgian mansion in the historic district.  I used to visit there frequently after I got off the train from work or on weekend mornings because they televise a lot of the English and international soccer games.  Because of that there are a lot of expatriates that make up the customer base.   Over time I’ve made friends with people from all over the world: the UK, Sweden, Nigeria, Mexico, South Africa, and New Zealand

One day I told my friend, Stephen, who is from London, about my adventure in Germany and he listened with a very contemplative expression on his face.  He said, “Tom, I rather like that expression ‘citizen of the world’.  It is a good description of a person who travels not to just look at things but to experience them. Someone who has respect for other people’s cultures, a willingness to try new things, and a curiosity to learn about the lives of people who live in worlds very different from their own.”  I liked that. I kept it in mind every time I went out on the road, either in this country or somewhere else.  

One night my daughter was struggling with geography and was very frustrated.  She complained, “Why do I have to learn this?”  I said, “Because, Meredith, if at some point you have an opportunity to travel  when you're older, I don’t want you to just visit landmarks. I want you to travel as a citizen of the world.”