This weekend is the third Sunday of Advent and I’m in Berlin where I was last year at this time. But this year the feeling is quite different.
The apartment building next to mine where a fire broke out has been almost completely rebuilt. The structure is finished, and they are ready to start doing the interiors, putting in the kitchens and bathrooms and new wood floors, and last but not least, the elevator. The apartments will be for sale, and it is possible I could have everything I used to want—an apartment with an elevator, right in my old neighborhood near the Rathaus Schoeneberg where John F. Kennedy said “Ich bin ein Berliner.” Now the square where he spoke at the end of my street is called John F. Kennedy Platz.
But this year my book has come out in Athens. My Greek is fluent enough to argue with taxi-drivers, and the island of Syros feels like home. That’s why I’m taking my favorite China to Syros.
That has made my neighborhood in Berlin feel different. The excavations in the street don’t make me angry anymore. I wasn’t here when they were started, and I don’t much care when they are finished.
I am different too. I walk with a cane, after a fall in Vienna in February. It’s a kind of walking stick that my daughter Delia gave me, like a ski-pole, when she came to see me in Berlin in May when I had a different kind of health crisis. It’s been a difficult year, difficult and scary, but by now I feel I’m out of the woods. A friend calls my walking stick my scepter, my symbol of authority.
Once again like last year I had to mail something from the post office, and I thought I would stop for breakfast at the Croissanterie where the young woman once baked fresh apricot croissants while I waited. I hadn’t been there in a awhile. This time what I was mailing was not a Christmas card like last year, but the signature pages of a lot of documents which I have to send to a bank. I hope that doesn’t mean that this Christmas I will be Scrooge.
Leaning on my walking stick I felt I was poling my way down Eisenacherstrasse, as though it were an Indian river or one in South East Asia. My therapy makes me quite tired so that I stop frequently to rest and just look ahead with my oar out of the water. Today I realized it was taking me much less time to get to the croissant shop than it did in the spring, so my knee must be getting better. On my way, I thought of Doctor Riemer whose office is in the same building as the Croissanterie.
I discovered the shop one day when I went to see him in his office. What is Doctor Riemer’s first name? He wanted to send my book to his father, who had taught ancient Greek in
a boarding school in Iran. Dr. Riemer invited me to a talk he was giving about Iran and a slide show of the photographs he took on a recent overland trip he took there. I told him about an overland trip I took to Iran in 1971, and we became friends. “I’ll keep in touch with you,” he said. But suppose I ran into him in the croissant shop and I had to call him Dr. Riemer because I couldn’t remember his first name. The therapy has affected my memory too, but not seriously. I know I just have to wait a little and the name will come. It takes a little time. Gunnar! Gunnar Riemer.
In the shop, there were two apricot croissants under the glass. Without asking the owner how he was, I said I would have them both—one to eat now and the other to take-with. Once while I was there, I was eating a sandwich, sitting on the high stool, thinking of the apricot croissant I would have for dessert, when a couple came in and bought the last two remaining apricot croissants right from under my nose. This time I wasn’t taking any chances.
The tea came first, and I cupped my hands around the steaming glass to warm them. I had one croissant with my tea, biting off the crunchy tip. By the time I finished it, the orange juice and my sandwich came. The sandwich was on a round hard bun, each half resting on the sliced halves of cherry tomatoes like a raft on floats; and the drooping curls of the salami stuck out around the edges of the roll like a skirt. It took me a long time to eat the sandwich because the roll was hard. When I finished, the owner asked how I was.
“Gott sei dank,” I said, (meaning “Doxa to Theo.”) He said he was glad to see me back. He said the doctor frequently asked about me. I said was only going to be here today and tomorrow, but I’d be back in the new year. “Give my regards to Dr. Riemer,” I said, and I thought, “To Gunnar.”
As I stood on the sloping step at the doorway, ready to set off down Hauptstrasse to the post office as though on cross-country skis, I thought of how I had felt the year before, and I wondered what I could write about this year to make another message for the Third Advent Sunday. There wasn’t much time left in which to notice things, and I was having trouble getting into the Christmas spirit.
When I got to the post office, I saw that there was a long line all the way out the inner door into the lobby. From the other side of the glass door, where I was standing, it seemed there was a crowd of people inside, shouting. But when I came in, I realized that the room was still—the line was moving slowly, the silence broken only by the sound of the stamp that made the postmarks.
There were two small benches, one on either side of a stand that displayed envelopes, boxes and other paraphernalia. On one side, people were sitting in both seats, and on the other, a young boy was sitting, contemplating his phone. There was an empty seat next to him, and I made for it, hurrying past a man with a black stubbly beard who had come in after me but who I thought would reach the seat before I did.
“I’m going to sit there,” I said, as I scooted past him, and it was a good thing I spoke in English, for if I had said it in German he would have thought I was ku-ku. He wasn’t interested in the seat and walked past it without noticing.
I sat for a while to rest before getting up to get an envelope. I had the signature pages in the paper bag from the copy shop. At the display, I found a packet of ten envelopes—there was nothing smaller, and I took it back to my seat, cutting the celluloid end with my thumbnail and sliding one envelope out. I shook the pages out of the paper bag. I looked at the top sheet where I had written the address at the head of a covering letter. Placing the free envelope against the packet with the others to keep it flat, I wrote the man’s name on the envelope and copied the address beneath it. Then I wrote my name and address in the upper corner. Finally, I slipped the page with my letter into the envelope with the other sheets and pulled off the stripe so that I could press my finger along the seal and the two surfaces could stick together and give me the feeling of “there, it’s done.”
I looked at the line which continued to make sporadic progress toward the employees in their yellow and blue ties standing behind the counter. I wondered how long it would take to get to the head of the line, and I wondered if I could stay standing for so long. I thought of waiting until the line got shorter, but no sooner had the line moved forward a little and the end of it had come inside the inner room, but more people came up the outside steps and once again the line extended into the outer lobby. I realized however long I waited, the line would never get shorter, like the ball Sisyphus had to roll up the hill only to see it roll down again. Maybe I could wait until the post office was ready to close and they shut the outside doors so no more people could come in. But that wouldn’t happen for another three or four hours, and even then I would be taking a chance, that I might be turned away without ever getting to mail my letter.
Suddenly, a young woman came toward me from the direction of the counter. She said something in German, and I picked out the key words as I usually do when people speak German to me. The first words I caught were kann ich hilfen, can I help? Next was anstehen. I think anstehen means get up in the morning, but I knew she wasn’t offering to help me do that. Anstehen also means to stand up, or stand. Without knowing exactly what she was offering, I knew it would be something helpful, and I said, “Oh, that’s very kind. Very very kind.” She looked expectantly at my large white envelope all ready for mailing, and I held it out to her. She took it, looked at it more closely, and said something which must have been how did I want to send it, at what rate? I said I would wait, and when she got close to the head of the line, I would join her. She nodded, gave the envelope back to me and went to the back of the line.
I remembered something we did in grade school in America called frontsies-backsies. Someone could let you get in the line in front of them—they had a right to let you in front of them, just not in back of them—and once you were there, you could let them get in front of you. That way they wouldn’t have lost their place, and you would be in, and it would be legal. That’s what we would do now.
The young woman was standing near the end of the line which had just come in from the outer lobby. Some people were mailing large parcels, moving them along the floor with their foot so they wouldn’t have to stand there holding them. There was a tall man in a suede coat with a sheepskin collar who wore a black hat with a flat brim that made him look like a Berlin cowboy. I wondered if he had heard of frontsies-backsies. In England people hissed like snakes if you tried to break into a line. Jumping the queue, they called it.
The line continued its jerky progress. Every so often, when there was an empty space ahead of them, the people with packages would slide them forward on the floor. Coming from the other direction, a woman with a leather shoulder bag took out a knitted wool hat and pulled it down over her ears and buttoned up her jacket before going out to brave the cold. The woman who was helping me had progressed a third of the way down the line. She looked at her feet and then up at the ceiling, standing patiently. She was wearing small gray shoes that seemed a cross between dancing shoes and walking shoes, and jeans and a light jacket that could not have warmed her much. As she got closer to the stand with the envelopes, I got ready. I put my pack of envelopes in my bag, left the one with the address out, and got hold of my walking stick. The woman pressed the air down with both hands, indicating that I should stay sitting, not get up yet. I nodded and sat back, holding my bag and the envelope on my knees. That was just as well. What would we say to each other, standing in line for so long? From our conversation, the people near us would realize that we didn’t know each other, that this whole manoeuvre was just a way for me to get into the line. Frontsie-backsies wouldn’t cut it. As in England they would view jumping the queue as an unforgivable sin.
The woman was holding a large envelope like mine, only it was khaki colored and it had stamps on it. So why was she waiting in line if she didn’t have to get stamps? She could have just dropped the envelope in the mailbox outside.
Now she was almost on the other end of the stand with the supplies, and there were only only four or five people in line ahead of her. I decided it was near to zero hour. I got up and took large strides, poling my way over to where she was standing. She stepped back so I could get in line in front of her.
“No, you first,” I said, in English, realizing this was no time to fumble with German grammar.
“No, no,” she said, and she said something else and pointed to her envelope, and at last I understood. She was not mailing anything. She had come to pick up her mail, and she had done that. That’s why her envelope had stamps on it. She had picked up her mail and had been on her way out when she saw me sitting, gazing out to sea, wondering how I would ever get to shore. She had stood in line for twenty minutes to get her mail, and then stood in line again for another fifteen or twenty, just to help me.
Oh, vielen, vielen danke Madame,” I said, overwhelmed, and I shook her hand fervently.
“Frohe Weinachten!” she said. “Merry Christmas.”