Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Three Short European Tales

Three Short European Tales

Ville de Remich

  Late Train to Haguenau
(France, 1974)

He was the same man, I told myself, the one I met in  Strasbourg, the one  that sat at the bar on a stool, near me, not too near me, but near enough to talk to me and for me to hear him without difficulty.  He was in his forties I believe. He wore one of those panama white hats, white with a wide and thick black trim around it. His suite was dark, pressed, and he had a thin light tie on. Dark glasses,
       “Can I buy you a drink?” he said, friendly like.
       “Sure,” I said, and smiled.
       “Where you headed for?” he asked.
       “Haguenau?” I said.
       “Haguenau, what in heaven’s name is in Haguenau?” he replied.
       “Perhaps nothing, but I got mad at the waiter out on the pier where the outside cafes are, one waiter told me to leave the table because I’d not order anything from him, matter of fact, I just wanted to eat my sandwiches with my two twin boys and he told me to move in a rude way, and I should have beat the day-lights out of him but, I didn’t, I just told him …well for get that!”
       “You look like a soldier, American soldier, is that right?”
       “Yes,” I replied, “on a long weekend with my twin boys, they’re sitting over there at the table drinking a coke.”
       He turned about, took a look, “Twins you say, how old?”
       “Four years old,” I answered.
       “So you got real mad at that guy, haw?” said the stranger.
       “I suppose so, why?” then the stranger lit a cigar, blew some smoke in my direction, smiled, pulled out a calling card, it read, in German, French and English  “Sam, Gun for Hire!” I started to laugh, but held it back, and he said with a different tone of voice now, “It’s for real, but I use it for a joke now and then, but if you could afford me, would you?”
       I smiled didn’t really know what to say, thinking: Would I do what?
      “Got to go,” I told Sam and he waived at my two boys as I walked out onto the platform where the trains was waiting. I had tickets to Haguenau, and we sat huddled on wooden benches on one side of the train’s compartment cramped in third class, with chickens and butchers and a number of other farm looking peasants.  Several women were about, it was 4:00 P.M., we figured we’d get into Haguenau late, about eight or nine o’clock, depending on how many stops the train would make.

       About halfway to Haguenau, a woman who was near us asked:  “I see you are going to Haguenau, an American soldier stationed in Germany, is that right?”
       “Yes I said, and my two boys, Cody and Shawn, they’re going also.”
       “We’ll, by the time you get to Haguenau, it will be late, and the hotels will be shut down, closed for the night.  They lock the doors early there.  Incidental, I work for the museum there.  Your children will be hungry, and so will you.”
       “Yes,” I said, and then wondered why she said what she said, and she looked me in the face—somewhat sternly yet concerned for the boys I think, I was twenty-seven years old at the time.
       “I know a hotel, my friends own it, and they’ll be glad to put you up for the night, I’ll bring you there when the train stops in Haguenau, if that is alright with you?”
       “Oh yes,” I said in reply (trying not to show my apprehensiveness, but not wanting to lose the opportunity of her goodwill should I need it), “that’s quite generous of you…” I added to the comment, and I didn’t quite know what else to say, I was mad at all the French people because the waiter had the nerve to kick me and my boys out of the café area in  Strasbourg, but I guess she was making up for his rude behaviour.  I had told her point-blank, I had intentions of staying in Strasbourg, but was too angry to, so I simply bought tickets to wherever the train went in France, to be able to say, I was in France (it would be my first trip to France, in later years I’d come back four times, but never back to Haguenau, rather to Paris and Normandy). Then a voice called out: “Nest stop was Haguenau!” (The township had perhaps some 20,000 to 25,000-inhabitants.)
       The train stopped, it was 8:30 P.M., and the kind French lady who spoke some English, slurred and broken but clear enough to be understood if you’re a good listener and used to the accents, as I had been being raised in a Russian Family by a grandfather that every other word was pronounced with a ‘V’ or ‘da’ you know what I mean: took me and my boys to the hotel.  It was locked as she said it would be, and she knocked hard on the door, someone came and looked though the peephole of the door, they saw her, and opened the door, “These are my friends,” she said to the owner in French, and she spoke on for a few minutes, and the man said, in the little English he knew:  “No problem,”  and we walked into his domain, and into an area that looked like the  main room, it was more likened a three story house (actually a guesthouse), with a small dining area on the first floor, and to the left in smaller room several folks were drinking at a table, and looked towards me and my boys, the stairway to our room was to my left, “You can have room #202, if that’s fine with you,” said the proprietor, and the lady said, in French,  the one who introduced us, “Make sure they get something to eat.” But I didn’t quite understand it then, but I would later on. And then she left.
       “I’d like dinner for me and my boys brought to the room, please,” I told the owner.
        “No dinner” he said, “all closed.”
       I insisted, “My boys have to eat?” And he looked at his fellow men sitting at the table,
       “You want beer?” he asked me.
        “No,” I said, I’m tired, just something to eat.” Then he replied as if he took no note of what I said, “Go to room 202, and see you soon.”
       But before I’d go to the room, the folks in the little room at the table invited me in for a beer as they readied the room for us, and I felt I needed to be sociable.   Then I went to our room, and to my surprise we the owner had a fine bottle of wine in a silver bucket with ice for me, and three large sandwiches of ham and cheese, on dark bread. The note read in English, “Compliment of hotel!”
       In the morning we went to the park, there the boys played around the fountain area: there was this kind of rotunda with pillars they ran around like little gothic knights. And we caught a train back to Babenhausen West, Germany at 1:00 P.M., that afternoon, where we lived.
Originally Written: 2002, reedited, 2004 again 1-14-2009, again 6-2012, and lastly, 7-2015

The Hearth in Amsterdam
(Holland 1974)

Two police men were riding down the cobblestone street on horses, I stood alongside a building  watching them, while also glancing  at  several other folks standing inside a building, sipping on different kinds of wine, and I and my two twins-boys, continued to stare, then looked at one another and one of the two asked,   
       “Dad, what are they doing?”
       “Tasting wine I guess,” I said randomly.
       We had just left the center of Amsterdam where statues of lions were, and we ended up drifting along the canals and streets.  A young American hippie near the statues asked me,
        “Sir…yaw wanta-buy some pot?” and I never answered him, just kept walking. 
       Cody, the older of the twins by nineteen-minutes was hung onto one of my arms, and Shawn on the other, and I carried them like two sacks of potatoes off and on, the ledge of the lion statues, there was two I think,   and then we continued our journey of checking out Amsterdam by night.
       It was my first time in Amsterdam, and it would not be my last, I was, twenty-seven years old then, a Buck Sergeant in the Army, living in a little city called Dieburg. I wanted to take my boys on a trip, they never really made much of a fuss on such trips, and Cody was quiet all the way down on the train playing with his toy car and Shawn looking here and there, inquisitive. 
       I didn’t bring much luggage—I never did, and I suppose I should have found a hotel first, but I didn’t, in those far-off days I was unprepared, I often just picked up and went on a trip without much planning but things always worked out somehow, or I made them so, or the Good Lord was looking after me, or my guardian angel had his work cut out, or one of a dozen reason might have been in place, but all in all, things always worked out, and I felt the boys and I needed some excitement.  And this weekend was Amsterdam, and I had liberty to do so, no extra duty on the military base.  The railroad ran unbroken from Dieburg to Amsterdam, a hundred stops, but straight through otherwise, no disembarking to get onto another train, hence, life was simplified, the way I liked it when traveling.

       It was now late, and the kids were tired, their heads leaning on my thighs, and falling to sleep as we walked, and accordingly, I found a midnight hotel, and I and the custodian talked about the night’s rent, and I argued that the night was half over, so he should give it to me for half price.  And he said no, and then he saw my kids, and perhaps was overtaken by that, and said,
       “Well, I’ll give you a break, I’ll only charge you two thirds the price, and so we shook hands, and we had our room.
       After settling down in the rooms, my tiredness had long sense departed, and I think the twins were also on their second wind, so we went downstairs of the small hotel, there was a fire in the hearth, and I ordered myself a beer, and the boys each a sandwich. Some invisible arm was put on my shoulder, said:
        “You come over by the hearth, bring your boys, warm up, and drink with us.”
       I turned about and it was an older man, he had a smile with a flow to it, it was contagious, and I smiled back. Shawn and Cody were on each side of me, each on a separate leg, chewing away on their ham sandwiches.
       The fact now was, we’d be really tired tomorrow, but the railroad ran back to Germany almost hourly so I felt if we overslept, no problem, I’d catch a later train out of Amsterdam. So, light-headed, I sat with my boys, the fire crackling, warm heat soaking through my pants, my legs being warmed up, the light from the hearth was like sparkling firecrackers, and I could have hugged those three fellows for inviting me over to the hearth.
       There were a few ladies in the background, whom seemed to drift here and there, one a waitress cleaning up things, actually the bar was closed and it was just this group of guys by the hearth. A cat and a dog lying near the fireplace, but they kept their distance as if not to take the heat away from us folks.  Then a woman brought me a guitar, knowing I could play—I had mentioned it in passing during our conversation, and we sang some songs, I didn’t understand them, but who cares when you’re half lit up.
       That evening, I put the boys to bed, and snuck outside for a moment (had a babysitter watch them), found a bar nearby open, and ordered a big beer in a bottle to bring back to the hotel room.  Three guys followed me, once out of the bar, then another joined him, and still another.  I couldn’t fight all four or five, let alone being half lit, and so feeling incapable of charging these fellows, I simply broke the bottle against a stone wall I was passing by, and now I had a weapon, and they saw it, and they talked amongst themselves, taking their eyes off me for a moment, and I grabbed that moment, I ran down the side streets, couldn’t find my hotel at first, then it appeared out of nowhere.  Bells were ringing in my head, iron bells, ‘I made it,’ I said to myself as I  ran up the steps to the apartment, and jumped in bed or passed out I can’t remember, and counted myself lucky to have made it back alive in the morning. 
       The trouble was not unavoidable, had I stayed in the hotel room, and thereafter, I did.  I never seemed to challenge fate twice; I was a quick learner in the area of survival.

Written, 5-2008/Reviewed-reedited, 7-2015

Christmas in Luxembourg, 1975

Part Christmas Eve Day

From Germany, I headed west, to Luxembourg, crossed the boards with little to no difficulties. I went by car, a 1967-VW, dull green in color, it was not the best running of cars but it seemed it could make at two-hundred and fifty mile trip—I had purchased the car a few months prior.  The road was dotted with quaint, rural hamlets that most people associate with fairy tales. It was midwinter, and winter in Luxembourg, is not as extreme   as it can be in nearby countries, and I had been to Europe a dozen times, and during this tour of duty, I was stationed near Darmstadt, Germany. For a land locked country, it had what I would call pretty standard climate.  It was a day before Christmas. The trees were filled with crystal like frost, as I drove through an area that seemed the landscape had its share of wooded extremes. A very beautiful and pleasant area, it was brisk in the woods, and when I drove out of it, it was cool, with a warm sun leaning on top of my car.  I had my two boys, Cody and Shawn with me, twins; they were five the previous October. I found myself in a little quaint village called Ville de Remich, I didn’t see much of it, I stopped the car to have breakfast, the street was of cobblestone, and the guesthouse, was old Germanic in style, the owner with an apron on, looked at me and my two boys, it was Christmas Eve morning, and no one was in the guesthouse, no guests that is, no one but the proprietor,  and he was I fear about to say: we are closed, but his wife walked up, and asked,   “…do you need something?”
       “Yes,” I said, “for me and my boys, a room for the night and breakfast.” (I noticed all the café chairs were up on top of tables, as if put aside for winter cleaning).
       “Well, okay,” she murmured, hesitantly, “but tomorrow is Christmas, and I do hope you will not be staying over that day, we are always closed.”
       I assured her we had just come for the day and evening, that we’d like to have breakfast if possible, and we’d be gone early Christmas Morning. In between, we would go to the nearby cemetery I noticed on the way down, and climb those 100-steps up to its domain, and visit the city. And she and her elder husband both looked at each other, then back at my twin boys, and me, “Good enough,” they confirmed, and I filled out a guest slip.


       The boys and I sat outside at a squared wooden table, I ordered eggs and bacon, toast and jam, milk and coffee for the breakfast, and all three of us, Shawn, Cody and me, sat waiting, I think our mouths were salivating, we were very hungry.  I had thought she understood the order, she brought three pouched eggs, which I did not know how to eat, but would learn quick, I had to ask the elder man him how to go about it, “You just crack the egg on the top with your spoon, the shell,” he said, “then dig out the inside of the egg and eat it.”
       I had a hard time doing that for some odd reason, can you imagine the boys.  Anyhow, we did not get bacon, but we got bread and butter and jam, and that was that, and the boys did get hot milk and I got coffee, and that again was that, I dare not complain, although I left a kind of empty blank face, when I paid for the meal.
       And then we did go on to see that cemetery, and the village and  that night I bought two large beers and drank them down, and kind of stared out the windows, looked at my boys, cut, blond hair, blue eyes.  They were good boys, never complained much, or cried much, only fought and laughed with one another too much, but not creating any profound disturbance.
Part Two: Xmas Day, 1975

       It was Christmas day, and we had said our goodbyes to the owners of the guesthouse, and had that long 250-miles to travel back to Darmstadt, or thereabouts, and then onto Babenhausen. As we got on our way, it seemed to be an extended road back, our brakes were going out, and steel on steel, squeaking and burning up, and you could smell them.  The twins knew something was wrong but not exactly what. As we drove further, into a hilly area the sky turned dark, and the transmission was jamming in first gear, couldn’t get it out, thus I drove in first gear for miles.  The heaters had stopped working and the fan belt had broken, the car spit and sputtered; when we’d get to a long hill, I turned the car off, and rolled down the hill allowing the motor to cool, and then popped the clutch to start the car again—it was indeed a long and trying morning, and extended into the afternoon, and we got no place it seemed, I mean we should have been back home by 4:00 P.M., but it wasn’t going to happen, we’d make it home by 9:00 P.M., that evening.
       It was turning out to be a worrisome Christmas Day.  The boys had insulated snow suites on, I had purchased them in Minnesota, oversized knowing they could and would grow into them, and glad I did. Finally we drove alongside of a guesthouse, it was closed for business, but in the back of the building, some lights were on. Actually, we were on a lonely road, deserted somewhat. And I really didn’t know what to do, and I put the hood up, of the car and went to knock on the establishment’s door, and asked to purchase some food for the kids (the woman of the house, brought out sandwiches for the boys and me), and speaking German, along with a tinge of English, and sign language, I got the message through. The middle aged man in the house saw the car, took a look at  the motor, knew we were in trouble, and went back to his garage, and found an old fan belt, it was too large for my car’s fan, very loose, to say the least.
       “You got to drive slowly,” the German said, indicating if I didn’t and if I went over too many bumps, the belt would fly off and perhaps get entangled into my motor, and loosen up or break my fan, and overheat at the same time.
       Well, what could I say but thank you and I had a hot cup of coffee, and the boys got some more bread and cheese with ham, and they would not take any money, it was Christmas, and they felt they just couldn’t.  It all took an hour or so, and I felt I was intruding, but in life to get a step ahead, is exactly what you got to do, intrude, lest you die where you stand, waiting for somebody to say something only to find out they will say nothing. And I think they both bit into their lips, wanting to say, “Wish we could help you more but…,” it was now about 3:00 P.M., we had left at about 11:00 A.M., and it was now even darker, gray dark. A snow storm was building up.

       When we arrived at our apartment in Babenhausen, Germany (although we had actually left from Darmstadt on the trip), the boys were tired and fell to sleep like two little sheep, and I sat up, had a beer, a cigarette, and was thankful for the trip, and I got rid of that junk heap of a car a week later.

Written: 5-30-2008