I had no idea what sort of a career I wanted on leaving school at the usual age of nineteen – some of my classmates were twenty, twenty-one. For the boys it was easy. They had to do their military service first of all. None of the girls was set on any particular career. In the end we just went by the marks we had in the different subjects. I had reasonable marks in languages, especially French. What could I do but study languages ? It would keep me busy for about six years, and eventually I would probably end up as a teacher. I had no feelings about this prospect.
All I knew was that I was a little frightened of the big city where I would go to university, to begin with, anyway. But it was convenient, on the doorstep – Munich – and I would be commuting every day, able to live with my parents. I could not imagine not living with them.
Some of my classmates were so adventurous, staying in Munich until late at night, enjoying all sorts of events organized for students. I had no desire to join them. I felt lost and alone in these crowds of people travelling in trains and trams like sardines in a tin; crowded lecture theatres – eight hundred students for the main lecture in English alone; ten thousand students just for the university, not counting a number of schools independent of it, but of the same level – all this in 1960 – numbers have increased since …
I spent two and a half anonymous years at Munich University and then left it, because I had failed an important examination in English, which I would be allowed to re-sit only once. I did not feel like trying again. Perhaps I needed this push to get away from a little-loved place which only kept me for convenience reasons.
Now, for the first time in my life’, I had to make an effort to cope without my parents. Settling down in lovely Tübingen proved to be very easy. I was lucky to be accepted in a brand-new students’ hostel run by the protestant church.For the purpose”s of reputation, a few catholics were also accepted. The catholic students’ hostel took the same view towards the protestants. “Ecumenical thinking” was fashionable in a stronghold of theological studies harbouring people like Cheeseman and King. The hostel was still a building site when we moved in. I came in touch with foreign students for the first time, like one evening when I was sitting in my room with a little lamp, door not fixed nor fastened properly; people in the corridor groping their way in the dark and my door pushed open : I could see mainly very white teeth surrounded by darkness – three smiling students from Sierra Leone. Conditions soon improved. We had a proper celebration to inaugurate the building, which I could not attend, being ill for some reason or other, but was told that the bishop dispensed plenty of blessings, intermingled with hymns and prayers.
There were community rooms in the basement where we could make a first contact with our fellow-inmates, the eight o’ clock news in the TV room being particularly popular. There was also a music room with a piano, where dances were held from time to time.
The change from Munich to Tübingen was tremendous. An altogether new and enjoyable life had started for me. Everything was on a smaller scale. I suddenly knew more people than I had ever done in two and a half years before. It was interesting to meet students from other faculties, too, not just boring philologists. There were the medical students first of all who frightened me into having anti-tetanus immunization. One of them I liked particularly and was dismayed when I heard that he had become engaged. He was far-sighted in one way or other, for he was convinced that “unfortunately” I was going to be married to a foreigner, saying this at a time when I certainly did not have any ideas of any kind. Then there were the theological students by whom I was mainly surrounded, having loosely joined a group of “Christian Pathfinders” – uncomplicated, jolly, running a study group about the fashionable theological philosopher or the world religions or sects, quite a number of which were represented in Tübingen, we went to see them. Looking back, I do not think I was terribly interested in these things. I just liked the company, doing things together. The occasional walks in the beautiful surroundings were as nice as anything, especially at night, ending up by a lonely chapel – “Wurmlinger Kapelle” – on top of a hill, immortalized by a famous poet of the romantic period. When we arrived there, a big fire was lit, sausages grilled and many students’ songs sung. There was a lot of singing in general, more than in any other country I know.
Die Kapelle (Ludwig Uhland)
Droben stehet die Kapelle,
Schauet still ins Tal hinab,
Drunten singt bei Wies’ und Quelle
Froh und hell der Hirtenknab.
Traurig tönt das Glöcklein nieder,
Schauerlich der Leichenchor,
Stille sind die frohen Lieder,
Und der Knabe schaut empor.
Droben bringt man sie zu Grabe,
Die sich freuten in dem Tal,
Dir auch singt man dort einmal.
The Chapel (Ludwig Uhland)
Up there stands the chapel,
Calmly looking down into the valley,
Down there is singing amidst meadow and stream
Merrily and brightly the shepherd’s boy.
Sadly sounds the little bell from on high,
Gruesomely the funeral choir,
Silent are the merry songs
And the boy is listening below.
Up there they are carried to the grave
Who enjoyed themselves in the valley,
Shepherd’s boy, shepherd’s boy,
For you, too, hymns will be sung there.
Punting on the river Neckar was another favourite pastime, in boats so full that they went dangerously low in the water. One or two of us invariably ended up by falling in. This only happened to boys, though, they were gentlemen enough … Punting in luke-warm summernights was good fun, snatching roses from any gardens we passed on our way home. Again, I was less daring in that respect than many others. There were complaints in the local newspaper about students going round at night, cutting any available rose. One of my friends turned her room into a rose-bower from time to time.
I did not go very often on nightly outings, nor did I have practical experience with the “Island of Sighs” – a long island in the river with two rows of centuries-old plane-trees and a little wood – , so called after the sighs some people claim to have heard at night, one person in particular who was walking along and prompted to shout near a place of special darkness : “anyone being murdered” ? The answer was made by a lusty male voice “no! on the contrary”.
More entertainment was provided by quaint little inns romantically situated at the edge of woods, at the foot of hills, a stream running by, where the local speciality, apple-wine, was consumed by the litre. It was served at different stages of maturity, the taste changing as time passed from sweet and sparkling to quite sour and still. With it, one was supposed to eat brezels. How good to be with a crowd of people, sitting round a table in the garden, a grey and blue stoneware jug in our midst which kept being refilled. Was the drink nice ? I cannot remember and it was immaterial.
On a Sunday we occasionally treated ourselves to a restaurant meal, especially in the asparagus season. We also frequented the little “Room Theatre” – barely larger than a living-room – or went to the concerts organized by the University, with two famous guitarists among others. We also had an evening with a celebrated pantomime.
It was not entertainment and amusement all the way, though. Serious work went on during the week. Academically Tübingen was of a good standard in most faculties. There were some well-known people in the French Department. One had to work hard to be admitted to their seminars. I was awe-struck by most of them, duly read their books and learnt them by heart so as to be well-prepared for the final examination. I gathered it was the contents of their books they wanted to hear on the crucial day. Things were easy in English in that respect : the professor of literature had written two quite short volumes, a literary history. The linguist had had one thick book published about the structure of the English language. I liked him; he seemed human under a rough shell. I did make sure I knew his book well.
French was a little more difficult, the relevant professors having published vast quantities of material and even insisted on making us study their opponents’ views.
We were trained to write scholarly looking papers with plenty of footnotes and a good bibliography. These were, as far as I know, the criteria of quality. I had one paper returned unmarked, because there were no footnotes. The paper was on a book published by a very specialized American school of linguists. Things went into mathematics, my weak spot, and I did not understand a thing. I somehow managed to concoct twenty pages. The length was right – but there were no footnotes ! I successfully remedied the weakness by taking quotations out of the text and transferring them in the shape of footnotes to the bottom of the page. This time, I had the paper returned with a good mark.
Some professors took it easy. In their lectures they dealt in detail with their own publications. These were the most important lectures because, as pointed out already, we had to know them for the final examination. Of course, we only went to the lectures of those professors whom we were going to be confronted with in this much dreaded tête-à-tête.
One professor of international renown was happy, in his main lecture, to read aloud to us the misfortunes of Mme B., with much drama in his voice and gestures, and an explosive enunciation, sending showers out of his mouth. I must give him that I remember this “lecture”, in the true sense of the word, better than any of his colleagues’. This may be due to the book he read, which shook me.
As far as examinations were concerned, there were two major ones : one half way through our six years, the one I failed in Munich first time and had no problem with in Tübingen, and then the final one which covered the whole ground of literature and linguistics in either language. There was first a written and two or three months later an oral exam. The latter was for many of us the one and only opportunity of really facing and actually having something like a conversation with – I am inclined to say – a demi-god, as far as I was concerned, certainly. In the months leading up to that meeting we crammed our memories with anything that might vaguely be of importance. We were bursting with knowledge, memorized an awful lot of details and looked run down with nightly studying which, in my case, was limited because I go to sleep, an urge of nature thwarted by some of my friends with the help of strong drugs.
At last the day had come. I tried to look at the situation from a human point of view, feeling sure that the professors would rather pass than fail us, that in reality they were not as bad as rumour would have them.
In my English oral, the professor of literature saw me for the first time, I believe. I had written my thesis “for” him and during the “examining conversation”, as in higher circles people liked to call this meeting, it turned out that he did not know this, never mind the subject it was about. Of course, professors are busy people who have assistants to work for them.
I felt much better with the linguist, who had a French name, by the way : Vendeur, a friendly, elderly and occasionally temperamental gentleman who did me no harm, but gave me a good mark.
Half a year later the same thing in French. I had always felt less at home in the French Department. English does come easier to Germans. However, the written exam did not prove too difficult in the end. What would the oral be like ? The same mad cramming of one’s memory for a conversation lasting half an hour – only a fraction of the material could be touched simply because of limited time. Chances to be asked something one was not good at seemed unfairly high. Also it was important to look good and I derived much comfort from a friend’s remark shortly before I presented myself to my executioners, or perhaps they were human and just examiners, who assured me “ your hair looks nice”. With this knowledge I sailed through my French examination without meeting resistance.
Having achieved my end, I systematically started forgetting next day all the things I had learnt …