Once upon a time, I lived in Germany. I studied German for four years and majored in German Language and Literature at UVa. I was even the President of the UVa German Club for a year or more. (Twenty years later, Tina Fey studied German at UVa.)
My thoughts today are sent back 31 years, when I was living in Eckel, Germany, a small town outside of Hamburg, in northern Germany. It was cold, dark, and snowy this time of year. Thanks to one of my favorite professors, Jens Rieckmann, by way of his brother-in-law, I had a job with Herr Gerhard Heitmann and lived with die Familia Heitmann (I don’t know if I have to use the dative article when the preposition is English; it would be required with the German preposition: “mit der Familie Heitmann.”). (Herr Rieckmann was one of the few people I told I wanted to be a poet. He wisely noted it wasn’t much of a living.) When I first arrived in the Heitmann’s lovely home, I announced I would only speak German. I had moved to Germany because I was a good student but not fluent. It was a long time before I realized Gerd und Inge had hoped I would help their two children, Gabi und Jens, improve their English. Sigh. I must have been a disappointment, though they either didn’t let on or I didn’t get it.
Instead, Gerd gave me a job in his Zimmerei. Gerd was an architect and had a sawmill in his backyard, where workers cut lumber for jobs they constructed. They did it all. And I worked as an unofficial apprentice. (There was an official apprentice, whose name I forget, though I can see his face.) Apprenticeship was alive and well in Germany. To become a master in a trade required leaving one’s home to work in a new location under a full Meister for a year. The Meister of the Zimmerei (other than Gerd), was Herr Wolf, a fiercely intimidating man who could have picked me up with one hand. As tradespeople, we had official craft uniforms, heavy black corduroy bib-overalls with bell bottoms to keep the sawdust out of your boots. And a broadbrimmed black hat to keep the sawdust out of your collar. We looked ready for an Amish high school disco dance. (I still have my measuring stick and pencil from those days.) I used to wonder if Gerd didn’t expect me to hate the labor and opt to be a tutor, instead. Too bad I didn’t realize that was an option — if it was one, in fact. As it was, I labored hard as a junior tradesman in rural Germany for about 6 months. I drank too much on occasion (before and after, as well). I ate pigs feet, eels, und Bienenstich. I danced and played ping-pong and Skat. I fell in love with a girl named Suzanna, who was wise enough not to fall in love with a mush-mouthed foreigner. Before I left town, Gerd — a giddy practical joker — and I hung a garden elf outside Zanni’s window. Something to remember me by.
German and my life in Germany are never that far from my consciousness. Today, they are even higher in my thoughts as I digitize a German folk album I bought while I was there: Ikarus, von Reinhard Mey. (Icarus has been a profound figure in my ideomythos since childhood. And, I have been the Minotaur on occasion.) The song, Ikarus, is full of gorgeous imagery from an airplane window. The singer asks what it is that drives him to leave home (even as the imagery suggests it is reason enough). Perhaps, to escape prison. Such a wonderful tune is immediately followed by my second favorite on the album: Es gibt Tage, da wünsch’ ich, ich wär mein Hund (There are days, I wish I were my dog.)
Gerd Heitmann is one of the few people I’ve ever sung to. He was delighted by Grandpa was a Carpenter, by John Prine, as sung by me. (“He built houses, stores, and banks. Chain-smoked Camel cigarettes and hammered nails in planks.”)