Friday, August 1, 2008

Hamburg 1.1.2000: Eating Berliners and Dancing Strauss Waltzes

It seemed so momentous when I thought of it as a child, the year 2000. Now I write it as casually as I might have written 1999. It’s, after all, only a new day.

Still, I’ve lived now into a new century, as my grandparents all did. Just as I look back and speak so confidently of “that” century, the 19th, my nieces and nephews and their children will talk about “my” century as a time almost unimaginable. How hard it is to understand the lives of others, the hearts and thoughts of others—even of the other our childhood selves become as we proceed through adulthood.

And in this year, I head to the pinnacle of middle age and onto senility. How? How has it happened that I’m now middle-aged and have undoubtedly lived more than half of my life? And have accomplished next to nothing? I’m becoming one of those old men whom failure haunts like the smell of a stale restaurant haunts the clothes after one has eaten there.

When I was little—5? 6? 7? momentous years for me—I used to ask my mother, “Will I live to 2000? She thought I would. Then I’d ask if she’d be alive then. Of that, she was less certain. Unthinkable to me, then, that my life could span a period in which my mother was gone.

She is gone, for all intents and purposes. I see her as often as possible, helpless to reach or help or even sustain her. I love her, still, and often cry when I’ve seen her. My heart still leaps into my throat when her care facility calls.

But her death will, in many ways, be anticlimactic, when it occurs. I’ve let go over and over, and accepted that’s all I can do, now. There’s peace in that acceptance, but also defeat: I’m weary after the long years of struggle with her, her unbending iron will and malicious purpose, her unswayable intent to destroy herself and anyone that cared for her. She won, and the guardianship judge’s treatment of Steve and me only underscores that, in the most brutal way possible. (May God make Alice Gray face what she does to families when she mistreats gay children who provide care for aging parents, and soon—from my mouth to God’s ears!)

+ + + + +

New Year’s eve in Hamburg, 1999-2000. It begins at W. and K.’s apartment with coffee and Berliners filled with apple butter, followed by champagne (not Sekt, but the real thing). Wolfram’s childhood friend V. is there with wife V. He is drily cold, as he was the first time we met, but recalls the circumstances as precisely as I do. His wife has an eye that looks off to the side, a louche eye. Why did I not notice that when we first met? As she talks, she draws her mouth up and extends her lips outward, as German women often do. There’s a haughtiness about the gesture, though otherwise, she doesn’t seem to be a haughty woman.

K. and V. are in plain black shifts. K.’s is low-waisted, rather emphasizing her square build. As she shleps coffee and cups to us, I see in her carriage the outlines of the old woman she’ll become not too many years down the road, though her complexion is surprisingly dewy for a woman of her age, who smokes to boot.

The champagne talk is about V. and V.’s golf trip to California, Claifornia wineries, then, in German, about a trip to the Middle East. V. describes a hotel at which they stayed in Turkey, the number of room, the cost, the food. Germans love talk like this, about vacations to hot lands, with precise descriptions of the conditions one encounters and how much things cost. We had almost precisely the same conversation with the Schindler cousins the night they took us to Steinerwirtz to meet the other cousins—first Weihnachtstag.

Then on to the train station to meet two other members of the party, a woman on W.’s faculty who teaches intercultural studies and her man (I had the feeling he isn’t her husband), a translator. I catch no names; introductions are curt, formal, cold.

Instructor lady has that deep-red hennaed hair German women like, and inquisitive, intelligent brown eyes. She practices intercultural studies by talking to Steve and me, at first in German, then in English. Man-friend is stolid, refusing to be engaged. On the train, he sits across from me. I try to catch his eye and broach a conversation, twice. Nothing. He won’t meet my gaze. As the evening goes on, he puts on heavy-rimmed (black-framed) glasses, that add to my impression he intends to armor himself against contact. He seems ill at ease and unhappy; my sense is that instructor lady calls the shots and is not entirely satisfied with him.

The party’s at a small theater in Altona, with a round ceiling of oak built in a vaguely shippish style, with beams leading to a central eye that seems designed to open in summer. Tables have been set up all over the room, whose floor is also of oak strips. Each party has its own table, with names on tabs in the glasses; all this has been discussed, precisely, in German at W. and K.’s.

The entrance hall has a buffet table its whole length, with trays of food. We’re greeted by desultory greeters, all in black. Who they are and precisely where we are (i.e., why we’re there) is not very clear to me.

Sekt appears as if by magic, on trays carried around the room by Spanish-looking watiers, who glide lithely, as if on silent wheels. Everyone in each cluster waits, of course, to drink until all in the cluster have glasses in hand. Then the ritual of clinking, toasting, eyeballing each person in the group, and drinking.

People come up and are introduced. I catch no names and still have little idea what the gathering’s all about, what draws this particular group together. One man’s a 40-something Düsseldorfer who says jut for gut. W. teases him about his Rhineland Plattdeutsch dialect. He looks a bit like some German film director, real or imagined, wears a leather jacket, and blows smoke in a practiced way through a nose whose nose hairs could stand some clipping.

Chat, chat, laugh, drink more Sekt, smoke if you’re so inclined, and then as if by silent command, people sit at the tables. One of the black-dressed greeters, gray hair cut almost scalp-level, gets onto the stage and reads a prepared text, three pages (of course; this is Germany). The first lines, greeting us, I understand without a hitch; then, I become lost—something about dictionary definitions of “millennium.” It’s all evidently facetious, since people laugh. As it goes on, there’s that slightly desperate awareness of lots of food just kept at bay outside, that German gatherings of this sort always produce.

We rush to the buffet. Fried this or that—egg rolls? empanadas?—with bowls of papadums broken chip-size. Lamb curry, duck and vegetables Chinese style, spinach au gratin (an odd choice, given all the other dishes), and various salads, beet ones, potato ones, cucumber ones, a muddy, mysterious one that turns out to have some sweet sauce like hoisin and ground peanuts—disconcerting, mixed with the other salads. There are also cheese and lox platters, which I forgo.

The egg rolls and empanadas turn out to have a tasteless dough that doesn’t seem to betoken either an Oriental or a Latin American delicacy. Sure enough, the egg rolls have a liver filling and the empanadas a mystery meat heavily and rather grotesquely spiced with something that seems a bit curryish and a bit cayenneish, but not quite either. (The Nachtisch will present us with similar mysteries.) I taste both, and pass them to Steve. Having discovered seasonings, the Germans by god use them, in that dull, unimaginative dialectic way the culture has: nothing can be a bit of this or that, and heaven forbid, both simultaneously; it’s either tasteless, or seasoned to high heavens. A Schlafzimmer’s for sleeping, not eating, and I rather suspect, not for reading, given the way the bed’s are made. A Wohnzimmer’s for Wohning, not lounging, not reading, certainly not eating. Germans seem constitutionally averse to the light touch, the ironic, the double entendre, and that makes their earnest, intensely methodical approach to “exotic” cuisines ludicrouse.

We eat, earnestly, absorbed in the process. No sparking chatter—food here, food gone. Several of us return for seconds and even thirds. A French red wine is copiously consumed. As the bottles are emptied, new ones appear, along with mineral water, as if by magic, as the dark-skinned waiters glide among us.

There’s a pause after dinner, seemingly unplanned and thus decidedly not in Ordnung. This produces an undercurrent of angst in the room. The word Nachtisch is heard here and there, as if a question is emerging from someone’s troubled sleep.

The Natchtisch comes, piecemeal. It is foregone by no one, though V. had refused the Berliners at W. and K.’s, saying the holidays had wrecked her figure. It’s rather touching, and alarming, to see all these German adults soberly eating the two scoops of ice cream topped by whipped cream that we’re all allotted. The Frau next to me, the wife of a theologian at the university, almost signs with relief, as she receives her ice cream.

I make the mistake of asking what flavor the ice cream is. Vanilla, she shoots back peremptorily. It’s not, I’m certain. There’s some . . . other . . . flavor. Her husband disagrees with her, but can’t name the flavor, either. I suggests Eierlikör or nutmeg, knowing it’s not quite either of those. No, she maintains, having ditched the vanilla thesis. It’s something Indian (Indian!?). I try coriander. Not that, they think. We all give up and finish spooning in the mystery concoction.

After the ice cream, the professor’s wife—an East Prussian refugee raised in Oberbayern after the war—is in fine form. She tells me a joke, blushing and warning me it’s naughty. Bill Clinton and the pope die. Clinton goes to heaven and the pope to hell. The pope got to the Petrus who acknowledges a mistake has been made. The men’s judgments are reversed. They meet halfway, as they change locations. The pope tells Bill Clinton he’s excited to go to heaven to meet the Virgin Maria. Bill Clinton says, “I’m sorry, but you’re too late.”

And now dancing. Chairs are put away and music begins to throb from a sound stage at ceiling level—heavy, pounding rock with American lyrics. Immediately almost the entire room gets up to dance. The professor and his wife (H., I now discover) have taken blue glittery stars from the table and inserted them into their glasses frames. They cavort with grimaces approaching joy on their faces.

Four, five non-stop American rock tunes and almost the entire room sits down, sweating, again as if by a silent command, though the music goes on. I’m intensely uncomfortable. Being forced to dance in heterosexual unites always feels to me like pretending something that’s not, for me. I can tell that my not dancing, and Steve’s not dancing, Is Noticed. We’re breaking some code of Alles in Ordnung, and giving offense.

There are same-sex couples dancing, however, though most of these are pairs of high school girls, and they raise nary an eyebrow. There’s also a strange pairing of two men who may or may not be dancing together. I had seen them talking at a nearby table, faces close together, previously, and it was clear to me that the older of the two was attracted to the younger.

The younger has on a sink-tight black t-shirt displaying his shapely biceps, and jeans. In a gay setting, he’d be instantly recognized as gay. But not here: he seems to have a woman in tow, though, granted, she seems more interested in him than vice versa. The older man seems unattached.

I think they see me watching them dance together. They immediately stop, sit down, and then get up again, this time each with a female partner. Throughout the evening, though, each dances alone through many dances, black t-shirt furtively eyeing other men. No women ever ask black t-shirt to dance with them, though some even ask Steve and me to dance. That says to me he’d be better off not pretending anymore.

There’s another intriguing cluster of young men. One, in a gray woolen suit coat, is drinking beer out of the bottle in a nervous way as he sits talking to another young man. Another had played the piano up till dinner—tall, willowy, Oscar Wildeish, but occasionally hanging onto a pretty young woman who may or may not be with him.

And then there’s blond boy, an intensely driven, and very good, dancer in black shirt and tie and black pants. He dances now and again with a young woman in one of those Rastafarian-type hats, and pantomimes the lyrics of every song, gyrating his hips, grinding against her ass when appropriate, grabbing his crotch.

But all this seems to be theater—not look-at-me theater (there is one of those Astaire couples on the dance floor), not look-at-me-I’m-straight theater. This is a young man who loves to boogie and do the disco thing to the max. He’s beside himself with the delight of dancing, and will do it with anyone.

Including the young man in the gray coat, with whom he dances repeatedly throughout the evening, grinding his hips, grabbing his crotch, etc. But this time with some obvious attraction. Steve says one of the young female couples watches all this with intent interest. Our eyes are not the only eyes on this couple.

At the end, all three dance together, blond boy, jacket boy, and piano boy, as if throwing off all pretense (though I see jacket boy dance with no one except blond boy all night).

As the evening goes on, middle-aged women also dance together, including K. and someone else. Not a single other male couple besides blond boy and jacket boy, and Steve and I for two or three dances, ever materializes. Middle-aged “straight” men just can’t cross that line, it seems, just as, in the Oberpfalz village church, I saw not one man on the woman’s side of the church, though some women sat on the men’s side.

The dancing is interrupted by fireworks at midnight outside, the biggest display in Europe. They go on and on and on—again, Teutonic thoroughness. Among us, many of the partygoers also set off fireworks, often dangerously close. The air is sultry with spent gunpowder and smoke. A woman leans over and says to me in what sounds like a Jamaican-accented English (though she’s German), “I don’t like it. It’s like the very devil himself.”

We go back in and Strauss waltzes begin to blare from the loudspeaker. As long as they play, not one gay couple dances. Strauss and the waltz symbolize something, and that something is decidedly heterosexual—gallant men in uniforms, bowing and simpering belles in low-cut tops and hoop skirts.

I’m rather surprised at the alacrity with which all these supposedly politically engaged (i.e., W. and the other professors, and the Green Party leader of Hamburg) folks run to the waltzes. They must know that this part of German heritage seems, in many people’s minds, to have coexisted smugly with concentration camps. Weren’t Strauss waltzes played by some camp commandoes for relaxation after they’d tortured victims?)

There is a bit of kitsch about the way some couples dance the waltzes in a vastly overdone way, bouncing like boisterous peasants, rather than gliding like civilized 19th-cnetury burghers and aristocrats. The Green Party lady and her husband, a tiny long-haired man with the face of the comic actor Dennis Miller, in particular take each waltz over the top. As the “Blue Danube” begins, V., who’s sitting next to me, exclaims in German, “Oh! The beautiful ‘Blue Danube’!” Sensing that she wants me to invite her to dance (her husband V. is with K.), I studiously eat the bowl of soup we were given after our fireworks display, head down and pretend-oblivious. I despise my churlishness, but I haven’t waltzed in years and would be a disaster.

All evening, there are only the two kinds of music, the loud American rock, to which the Germans dance excitedly, many of them mimicking the lyrics and acting them out (blond boy and “Like a Virgin” are a class act); and the Strauss waltzes. There are none of the slow dances that came as predictably as May sunshine at my high school sock hops, every third or fourth song. Again, the German mind seems to have difficulty with both: and. It’s always either: or, one alternative dialectically negating the other.

At 3:30 or so, V. and V. leave and I beg Steve for us to do the same, knowing we have to take the train back to Nienstedt. We do leave about 4:15.

Steve gets us onto the wrong train, and we have to wait at the next station to return. Lots of uncertainty about which train to take. After much backing and forthing, we finally get to the Altona station, where we have to switch trains to the Wedel train.

Both the train to Altona and out of it are chock full, though it’s now past 5 A.M. Lots of the partygoers are suddenly drunk young people with schnapps or wine bottles and beer cans. On the Wedel train, I almost step into a puddle of vomit. The drunkest of all are chattering away in drink-slowed, slurred German on handies, as the Germans call cell phones.

But both trains also have an ample supply of children, adults, senior citizens (at 5 A.M.!) of all social classes. As we exit the Wedel train at Hochkamp, a well-heeled middle-aged Nienstedter couple exit with us. The woman stumbles over someone on the way out of the train and says, “Entschuldigung,” in a commanding, but drunken, voice. The couple march ahead of us to their street of fine mansions. The station and streets are littered with an unbelievable amount of firecracker rubbish. New Year’s day, the millennium, year of our Lord 2000, Hamburg.

No comments: