The year 1956 came, and West Germany started rearming (East Germany was well ahead by then). My father felt his vocation and signed up again. He joined the new air force in the rank of a major, which impressed my form teacher, a nun, of course, and was posted in a little town outside Munich, with an important air base run by the Americans. I had no idea what was going on inside these buildings where he had to work. I only know that he and my mother pushed up their noses at the new uniform which was indeed of a nondescript grey. One piece of uniform in particular, a wind-cheater type of jacket, was called a rude name for not covering the lower parts properly.
Three items of his former uniform had survived war and prison camp. They were really beautiful and I looked at them from time to time. One was a cloak, generously cut on the cross, out of woollen air force blue material, falling beautifully and held together at the collar by a clasp representing an eagle on either side. His hat was still around, too; but it could not be shown easily, having the swastika on it. The third surviving item, the name of its place of origin, the school where he had his training as a pilot, Flying Training School C Louis-Joy (“Flugsudfürerschule C Ludwigslust”), stamped into it, is in my possession now : a large yellow silken cloth with a wide blue edge – blue for officers – supposed to be visible from a distance, at sea, for example, in the case of a crash …
The East Germans used the old uniform without any scruples. As far as they were concerned, they were continuing good Prussian tradition which existed long before the dictator. Had the West Germans done the same, they would have been called rude names. So for the time being it was befitting to show humility. As the years went by, the shocking short jacket, the sloppy look, disappeared to be replaced by more sightly garments.
A fair number of my father’s old friends had rejoined the air force. They were mostly majors and colonels. One of them was extravagant, to the point of being mentioned in an Englishman’s book about an air-battle affecting his country. He was a colonel and no doubt frustrated about not having had further promotion. Anyway, he had nasty things to say about the incompetent generals at the top and was really quite glad, so he said, not to have to join this caste. I heard it with amazement – I would have loved my father to be a general; I was positive he deserved it ! So was my mother ! This colonel-friend of my father’s reckoned he did not have anything to lose and took a few liberties like wearing the uniform he liked : tailor-made out of finest cloth and not quite the accepted colour, thus attracting a certain amount of high-placed attention. When he retired much later, he turned his back on Germany with disgust and moved to Paris.
My father’s new occupation provoked a major change in our lives : we had to move from near the North Sea to the heart of Bavaria. Does anybody realize what this implies ?
My parents moved with joyful trepidation, so did my sister and I – all for different reasons.
The most exciting prospect for me was to join a small school with coeducation. As for my sister, I wonder did she feel she was going to meet her future husband shortly, to whom she was married at the age of nineteen. My parents loved the idea of being near the Alps, although my father had uncomfortable memories of years back, before the war, when he had been sent from Berlin to Bavaria for a short spell. He had found that he could not understand the population ! This time, however, he was in the company of three more or less talented females who were able to help him across such a minor obstacle. My mother learnt he language from her driving instructor, Betty Nethermyer, and her home-help, Mrs Rough. My sister and I had the school. It took me half a year, though, before I could be certain of what my mathematics teacher meant when he opened his mouth. With the help of my classmates I acquired a basic knowledge, and an informal diploma conferred at a recent class reunion, of the Bavarian language and am trying to pass it on to my children, together with some Berlin slang. I do not want to say any more about the Bavarians and their language, many books having been written on the subject. Suffice it to note that they are not great friends of the Prussians and at one time harboured Wagner among them.
We had a wonderful time in Bavaria.
It is true, my father soon began to look tired, pale, overworked; but again, this did not filter through too much.
What a beautiful country we were beginning to discover ! The foothills of the Alps, overgrown with forests; magnificent, idyllic, out-of-this-world lakes, big and small, embedded into them; a monastery where the best beer for miles was brewed, sitting on top of a hill overlooking a lake – all of this within reach of the bicycle.
Our lady-chemistry teacher – a man might have wanted courage !- took our whole class on a bicycle outing to this monastery. Everybody returned home safely. Some of the boys had lost their sense of balance a little. However, Bavarian beer is relatively weak; some people can take quite a lot, others less – all you have to do is try it out ! Along with the beer went a strong, smelly cheese, also produced by the monks, a brezel (if you know what that is) and a big white radish skilfully sliced up (but left in one piece !) and salted to make it “cry” and thus lose its strength.
The Munich Beer Festival did not impress me much – too crowded and too noisy. People were too keen on one’s money. The current joke was : Each year two million litres of beer are sold, which means two and a half million “Mass”, a “Mass” being the name of the standard beer mug holding one litre…
In the winter my class used to go skiing for a week, a sport, although not unsporty, I did not care for at all. I sprained my ankle twice, broke one ski and came down the slopes on my bottom, spoiling the piste by creating great big holes when digging in my heels to brake.
I preferred walking in the mountains in the summer.
My mother and my sister having weak knees and short breaths, my father and I went on our own, and I have the most glowing souvenirs of eagles, gentian, edelweiss, mountain goats. Also some sausage peel which I found on a very narrow path with a very steep drop on one side. My father was busy getting me past the danger spot quietly by just walking with concentration in front of me, when I stopped and pointed out to him my find !
This was the first thing he told my mother, when we rejoined her and my sister after a few days. The evenings in the mountain chalets, spent with other walkers, young and old, playing cards, singing with or without guitar accompaniment, had a special charm. Next morning everybody set off early, and during the day we might not see anybody.
We were in two parallel classes at school, depending on the second language pupils had chosen : French or Latin. Mine was French, and I liked my classmates well enough; but I liked the Latin ones much better ! There was only a handful of girls to a majority of boys in each class. Even without sharing any lessons the girls conversed with one another. So did the boys. I was making eyes at the Latin ones, and they were making eyes at me (I believe). After a year, a lot of the pupils left school, having reached a certain level and school-leaving age. What was left to go on and do the Abitur, was put together into one class only, separated for language lessons. I then acquired my first boyfriend, a Latin one !
He was also from Berlin; somewhat taller than me; somewhat older; brown hair; hazel eyes with long lashes. He could speak beautiful Bavarian when he chose and was an excellent card-player, a national occupation down there. Also a lover of classical music and a member of the well-known youth choir (whom many years later I heard perform in Notre-Dame, Paris). A lover of nature and long walks – I could not have wished for anything better ! He introduced me to some very innocent kissing and cuddling in hunters’ hides, high up in trees. For me it was a big step to take. Later, my sister became his girlfriend for a short time – he at last managed to teach her to swim – before she married his elder brother. I shed a few tears when I lost him and am sorry not to have kissed him properly when I saw him again twenty years after having left school. I will make amends next time I see him.
It was the time of James Dean, Elvis Presley and the Rock’n Roll. We did a lot of dancing with our classmates, and the ultimate thing was for the girl to be swung on and off her partner’s knees. My father practised this with us at home.
Dances were a wonderful opportunity to get to know those boys, although I did not like too great a familiarity which was rarely attempted, anyway. The utmost one of them dared while dancing with me, was to put his moist lips onto the inside of my hand and to look at me with burning eyes, saying that surely this is not going too far. I excused him in a way. The trouble was I did not fancy him in spite of a good working relationship, and he lent me books he treasured about Karl Jasper’s philosophy and Picasso’s paintings.
Somebody else nearly ventured to invite me out to the cinema – I heard this from his brother – but probably felt in time that he would be turned down. I had no sympathy for this sort of entertainment and suspect that I would have felt uncomfortable and lost, left on my own with a male – in a dark cinema of all places, stuck down in a seat and no escape.
I even turned down a young lieutenant’s invitation to go to the cinema with him – and that meant a lot ! Young smart lieutenants were very desirable. I was hoping to meet them in the airbase library where I went to listen to music – Beethoven’s violin concerto and Dvorak’s fifth symphony mainly. I listened to them so often, that I could whistle long stretches out of them, much to my mother’s amazement; she loved opera and had never considered purely instrumental music.
We also met lieutenants in the officers’ mess from time to time when there was a dance to which we were allowed to accompany our parents. Airforce lieutenants preferably. But why not Navy ones ? There were some Navy pilots around, very smart, well-behaved, calling me Miss D., kissing my mother’s hand, standing to attention for my father and his rank, so much higher than theirs. However, none of them took a lasting interest in me, and I envied my little sister who had found herself a stately Army lieutenant for good.
I did have one very good evening once on a fancy dress ball in the officers’ mess. I had no idea who my partner was – a frog on the outside – but I spent all evening with him until well after midnight. In the end he turned out to be the “throat-nose-and-ear-fellow” – so called by my father -, a Dr Merry, specialist in the afore-mentioned field, in the rank of a major and attached to the airbase hospital. His wife was also present on this ball, finding her own amusement. I had a very good time in the arms of a man who was perhaps touched by my youth and certainly did not touch it.
My first contact with France was made while living in Bavaria. I did an exchange with a girl in Pontarlier whose father reminded me much of one of my uncles. Her parents left us on our own in a holiday chalet of theirs for a few days. Much to my surprize her boyfriend turned up, being invited to my even greater surprize to spend the night. The biggest surprize of all : I was made to move from my big bed to a smaller one next door, because they fancied the big one. It is true that I had contemplated to offer my exchange partner hospitalty in my bed … She did not marry this one, but another one of the same name, Norbert, years later.
The Abitur came, our final examination, and then we were let free, dispersed, feeling that the world was ours.
Twenty years on we had a first reunion attended by most of us and some of our teachers. Times had changed …
“ It’ s not easy for people to rise out of obscurity when they have to face straitened circumstances at home”. Juvenal
I made a tactical mistake last night.
Not to keep the reader in suspense, I managed to rectify it.
This is what happened.
I had been writing all day. Steve calls it “lazing around” to himself, not into my face ! He was busy in his working gear, marching in and out of the house with big and small pieces of wood, carrying his ruler, tins of paint and other things that escaped me. His face had a busy look of concentration and determination. He was doing serious jobs, improving the house. All the things he has done since we came here – I list them with pride to anybody who wants to know.
I wondered whether I was getting on his nerves as he was going in and out, always past me. I was sitting quietly in the kitchen near the Rayburn where it is warmest, on my tall stool, using my nice solid-wood working top made by Steve for a desk.I was so visibly doing nothing !
He did not say anything, but I knew he did not like it. He retired into the living-room for quite a while at one point, working out plans for new kitchen furniture. When he came out again, I was still sitting in the same place. He threw a casual question at me : “what are we going to eat ?” The question gave me heart-beating : indeed I had not given this problem a thought yet at all. I asked my daughter, would she like to bake a cake. Cakes always seem to improve the atmosphere and my daughter loves to be left alone with the cookery book and the contents of the pantry. Cleaned vegetables are also good to have ready. She did this for me, too.
When Steve came past next time, he stood still, cast a look across the carpet and remarked : ”plenty of filth on there”. I looked and could see some dog hair mainly and not much else. I had my son to attend to that straight away and also asked him to volunteer and do the stairs.
The third time Steve stopped, the situation was serious.
I failed in fact to grasp the whole impact of his question and therefore was in trouble later on. The question was : ”what about the living-room ?” Oh dear, the living-room, his favourite room. I was getting fed up. It is never used much during the week and I could see no particular necessity to clean it. I answered “hm”. Steve went elsewhere and I thought, I’ll have to make a noise there before tea, just to be on the safe side and show my good will. However, time passed, tea was ready, people were in the living-room – I never got round to carrying out my intention. After tea I was tired, even refused to do music with Steve, and the idea of cleaning had slipped out of my mind. It had probably slipped out of Steve’s mind, too. We had a pleasant evening by the fire. I put my arms round him at one point; he did not seem to object …
I went to bed about half an hour before him, but could not go to sleep.Instead I was thinking about what I had been writing. I needed just one nice finishing sentence. It came to me the moment Steve was entering the bedroom. I asked him to put the light on, hand me any pen he might have about him and his ski-brochure for paper, so that I could jot down this sentence. He looked surprized, gave a half-hearted smile, found me a pen and paper, became serious again, did not say anything, seemed to be brooding. He started undressing. One leg had come out of his trousers. He suddenly stopped. I could see the association of thoughts forming in his mind … For heaven’s sake, what had I done ! Of course he saw the wretched woman write again. And what about the work she hasn’t done ?! The next thing was said aloud : “what about the living-room ?” Icy silence. He still stood there, one leg in his trousers, the other one out. I said as calmly as I could that I would do it first thing in the morning. That settled it. He put his bare leg back into his trousers and fastened his belt, saying that he would let me off and do it himself now; then he marched out.
I heard him downstairs with the hoover, making a lot of noise, shifting furniture and lifting carpets. He stayed a long time. I wondered in what mood he would be coming to bed and decided I had to do something about it. I put on his dressing-gown and joined him in the living-room. One look was enough to see that he had done an excellent job – I would not have to do any work there for a month to come ! He had nearly finished. I quietly helped to rearrange the furniture and then meekly took the hoover back to its place, not before promising that this would not happen again. He did not say anything. When he came to bed, I wondered what he would do. I did not have to wait long. He put his arm round me. I sighed once or twice for him. Peace was restored.