I began to learn about Germany by walking my dog along the Rhine on damp, misty mornings, when the fresh, earth smell of fields by the path mingled with the tang of woods and fallen leaves. Barges rumbled up and down the river, sometimes in fog so thick you could only hear them and just catch ghostly glimpses of them now and then, and you wondered, radar notwithstanding, how they managed to avoid each other. Sometimes they didn’t, and when the fog lifted there would be a lumbering, stranded carcass anchored to one side of the channel.
Herr Kräckel was my first acquaintance. He walked his big, black, almost labrador, Rex, there every day. At first we merely exchanged polite “Guten Morgans”, with a courteous tip of the hat on his part, but Rex and my retriever, Tiffany, soon put a stop to that. They discovered an instantaneous mutual delight in swimming in the often dangerously fast current and racing after small animals in the woods, and soon Herr Kräckel and I were walking companions. He spoke no English, and at that point I spoke no German, but he didn’t let that bother him. He kept up a constant conversation. I felt my first glimmerings of triumph over that fiendishly difficult language when I finally began understanding bits and pieces of what he said–but that didn’t come until much later.
“Kaninchen,” he pointed out to me one day when the dogs put up a rabbit and went in wild pursuit.
“Kaninchen,” I repeated to myself. And repeated it over and over during the morning to make certain I would not forget it.
I must have done a thorough job of it. That afternoon I took my teenaged son out to buy a jacket. In German. After much stress and strain, mission accomplished, and thoroughly soaked by a steady, cold rain, we took refuge in a coffee shop. According to the menu, a pot of coffee seemed to be a “Kännchen.” Dangerously simily to “Kanninchen.” To the vast amusement of the waitress and the customers at nearby tables, and the humiliation of my son, I proceeded to order a rabbit of coffee.
My next acquaintance was Frau Piccu. A Bavarian, with all the grace, humour and generosity of those delightful people, she was to become a good and steadfast friend over the years to come. Her dog was an English setter and a thorough rogue. She paid many a fine to owners of the sheep and chickens penned near the river walk. Pippo was unrepentant and incorrigible, but irresistable.
There were others, all destined to become important to me. Herr Engelskirchen. (Herr Angels’church). Plump and as angelic-looking as his name, he painted, committing to his easel our marvellous views of river and hills, cliffs, tiny villages, and the looming remains of castles that stand lonely and silhouetted against the sky. His dackel, a kind of dachshund peculiar to Germany, was always with him. Wiry, rough-coated, square-muzzled and feisty, dackels are intelligent, curious about everything and everybody, and fiercely determined in their own small way to get every possible ounce of enjoyment out of life.
Then there were the two doctors. Lifelong friends, they had worked and walked side by side since childhood. One, tall and courtly, the other a little smaller, a little more frail, but with an impish twinkle in his eye. No matter how cold the morning, gloves were always stripped off the right hands with a flourish for the ritual handshakes as we met, and he always held on just a fraction of a second longer, squeezed just a fraction more. But with that expression in his eyes, as if to say, “I’m an old devil, aren’t I?” After the third year he took to hugging me and walking with his arm around me as if I were his daughter. I think I was, in a way, since I found out she had died many years earlier.
Finally, Frau Klaus. How to describe her? Seventy-two, the first year I met her. Tiny, but wiry. She had been a wealthy girl and an even wealthier woman, but the war had finished that. She lived now in a home for the elderly, on the banks of the Rhine by the Mehlem ferry. Every morning, no matter what the weather, she stepped out of that home and with the aid of her cane tapped her way down to the Dreesen, a grand old Rhine hotel which was the scene of one of the meetings between Chamberlain and Hitler. Frau Piccu, who was friend to us all and “mommy” with pockets full of biscuits for the dogs, took Frau Klaus under her wing most especially.
“This is a terrible morning,” she remarked to her once on a particularly foul day in December. “You should really have a nip of brandy for your heart before starting out in this.”
“I’ve had two,” Frau Klaus answered with a chuckle, then proceeded to do a small dance and sing an old soldier’s song that Frau Piccu assured me was “most naughty.”
One morning two police officers rode towards us on the path on their huge, magnificent horses. They drew respectfully aside to let Frau Klaus past, but she stopped, fixed them with a determined look, then tapped the nearest one on the leg with her cane.
“I’d like to ride that horse of yours,” she said.
“I’m so terribly sorry,” the officer replied, somewhat taken aback, “but it would be against regulations.”
“I could do it, you know,” Frau Klaus went on. “We had horses when I was young. I was a marvellous rider.”
“I’m certain that you were, meine Dame, but unfortunately I cannot let you ride this horse.”
“Pity,” Frau Klaus muttered. “It would have been nice.” She tapped the horse’s haunch this time with her cane. “On with you, then.”
Shortly after this my mother came from Canada to live with us as she was very ill. Eventually, she had to be hospitalized and we found her a room in a hospital high up in the hills, at the edge of a woods. She had a little balcony off her room and I kept it filled with potted plants and flowers. A pigeon used to visit each day. He would strut around the balcony, then inspect the room officiously. Germans have a very understanding attitude about animals, the nurses used to save bread crumbs to feed him. Sometimes he even made it into the hall, but nobody worried overmuch. My mother, however, was not so tolerant. The pigeon she accepted, but not so the cuckoo that lived in the woods outside her room and started up, with true German efficiency, at daybreak every morning. And kept up for most of the day. I brought binoculars so that we might see him. My mother said I should have brought a gun.
When my mother died, my neighbours, perhaps a little reticent up until then, brought flowers. My friends along the Rhine walked with me in the morning mists and comforted me.
(To be continued)