New Worlds

Beloved readers, I am back from Germany. I am on a diet. This says everything that needs to be said about German food, but I shall continue. It is vile (as M- wrote, whoever thought of having cheese for breakfast?); everything is fried (as M* found, looking bemused at a plate of fried schnitzel and fried potato croquettes) and most of it contains cream. At one dinner a girl ordered a ‘salad’ and was handed a pile of cubed potatoes and meat. The only leafy greens were those in the forests, not on a plate.

But I digress from the fascinating topics of archives, media and narrative, which we were my reasons for visiting Germany. I was sent there by the Consortium, along with 5 other boys (to whom M swiftly began referring as my ‘harem’), with all expenses paid, to a conference titled ‘Ways of Worldmaking.’ So although I hate conferences, it would have been silly to turn it down.

Monday saw me getting up at 4.30am, to be picked up by a greasy-haired taxi driver and taken to Heathrow. It was actually a beautiful morning – the sun glinted off the spire of a church, the sky was still streaked with pink, and then it became so bright I could almost have been in Sydney. We flew into Frankfurt and were conveyed to Castle Rauischolzhausen, near Marburg. It was a very beautiful place, but much newer than it looked – the building being completed in 1875, but designed in the Gothic style. To an Australian, it still seemed pretty old. In the gardens was an arboretum, and, on Wednesday afternoon, when I couldn’t bear another conversation on someone’s thesis topic, I took myself into the grounds and walked through the trees, and became much calmer.

I hate meeting people en masse. I’m fine with a few at a time, because then I can recover the energy needed to listen and to enquire, but to do this hour after hour, for 6 consecutive days, was terrifying and exhausting. To make things worse, nearly everyone who spoke at the conference had an accent, which meant that hearing was even more difficult. There were people from France, Germany, Italy, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Spain, as well as one little fellow, probably feeling even more adrift than I, who was from Chile. As an end result, I took in very little of what was being said. By the time I had figured out the words the person was using and put them into sentences, I didn’t have time to then piece them into an argument; it was all just too fragmentary. The paper I can recall most clearly, apart from that by S, my supervisor, was by an English guy who’d moved to Giessen University (who was hosting the conference) to study W.G. Sebald. His voice was so clear, and his delivery so charming, that for the first time in days I relaxed and listened well.

Having said that, I didn’t get quite as tired as I expected, and I did meet some lovely people. We were taken to nearby Marburg for a tour while at the castle, and a nice fellow asked me how I was going with hearing the tour guide. ‘Not very well,’ I told him, and added that usually, if I wanted to find things out, I just looked them up later on the internet. He said I wasn’t missing much, and I asked, jokingly, how long it would take him to repeat it all to me, and he said, ‘Two minutes. Actually, no, make that one, because I’ll forget half of it,’ and I started laughing.

The boys that I was with were fun, when I could hear what they were saying. S was a nice bloke, but I could never hear him because he mumbled. M spent half the week deliberating what to get his girlfriend, until there were jokes about needing a three-day seminar in the matter. Eventually, on the last evening, he went into a tourist shop full of tat and came out with a small plastic beer mug, which we looked upon with subdued horror and amazement. Each to his own, however, and I didn’t do much better, getting H chocolates at the airport. They had pictures of Mozart on the front, which was confusing as Mozart hailed from Salzburg, but I bought them because they looked so awful they had to be good. They weren’t, as it transpired, because they had marzipan in them, and we both hate marzipan. However, I wasn’t prepared to make much of an effort, as the last place I’d got him a present (well, before the nice eggs I got in Salzburg) was in Istanbul, and I’d trudged halfway across the city with a tragic hangover to get him what I thought was a very nice print from the markets, only to receive a fairly noncommittal response.

To continue. B turned out to be one of the most gorgeous men I’ve ever met, second only to SP. But where the latter is all sunlight and golden skin, B had a stark Byronic streak, with dark hair and a 5 o’clock shadow, and with eyes that were fringed with long lashes, like a deer’s. He was studying Wordsworth, and I said to H that I didn’t understand how someone so attractive could be so obsessed with Wordsworth, but I found the contradiction amusing, and appealing. The only drawback was that he chainsmoked and he was ruining his lovely teeth.
R won me over by accompanying me in my stupid (but cute) shoes in Marburg. Normally they’re quite comfortable, but not, it transpires, when the town is full of cobbles. At the end of the day we had to walk up a steep hill to get to a castle where the restaurant was, and I found it so difficult I just took the shoes off and went up barefoot. Then, on the last evening in Heidelberg, he laughed at me in despair when I insisted on wearing stiletto sandals (they weren’t very high), and could barely negotiate the cobbles. ‘What were you thinking?’ he asked.
‘I want to feel like a woman!’ I protested. ‘I’m sick of wearing jeans, I wanted to put on a skirt and sandals.’
However the skirt (which was tight, but nothing out of the ordinary – I frequently wear it to work) had ramifications, because the waiter, who had been insistently trying to catch my eye all evening, dropped some coins down the back of my chair and had to slip his hand down there to get them out. R was indignant on my behalf, but I had thought it was an accident, and even if it wasn’t, it was still so pathetic a gesture that it didn’t even register on my radar of contempt. Later, R said to me, ‘Well, if you dress sexy, that’s what you get,’ and I corrected him, saying, ‘No, I have the right to wear what I want without being assaulted.’ H pointed out, when I repeated this incident to him, that if you wear provocative clothing then you haven’t the right to be affronted. I said that it was hardly provocative, and I was wearing minimal makeup, and if I’d wanted attention I would have worn something with a plunging neckline, and what did he expect me to do – wear a hessian sack? Honestly, this is the argument they try to use against women in rape cases – she was dressed inappropriately, therefore she was asking for it. Aren’t I allowed to be a woman, and to dress like one, without fear of reprisal, or at least without some fuckwit trying to get his hand near my arse?

After a few days of the boys’ company, however good, I sorely needed some women to talk to, and made friends with an Irish girl who lived in Sweden. She had one of the most beautiful, lilting accents I’ve ever heard, and told me that women doing their PhDs in Sweden actually get paid for maternity leave! Clearly I am in the wrong country. On another evening, when I couldn’t bear to face another plate of Fried Something in a loud, crowded room, I came across a lady to whom I’d mumbled a few words at breakfast (not being a morning person, that was the best I could do), and who later said she’d liked my paper. She was sitting on a bench, trying to figure out how to get to the designated restaurant for dinner, although she didn’t really want to go, and I asked her to come out for a drink and dinner with me. She turned out to be a barrel of laughs, and I was really glad that I’d met her.

On the Thursday we were taken to Heidelberg and the pace relaxed a bit. We did some sightseeing, and were taken to the ruined castle overlooking the town. Half of it was unfortunately covered in scaffolding, but it was surrounded by some pleasant parks. On the final day, Saturday, we walked up a hill, through some beautiful, dappled forest. It was amazingly green, and the light so soft. I didn’t talk to anyone really, because by this stage I had given up completely and just couldn’t muster any more energy, or even the inclination, to communicate. At the top of the hill was an amphitheatre which had been used by barbarians for their corroborees, and then the Third Reich came along and got their poor serfs to renovate it, brick by brick. Beyond this, further up the hill, was a crumbling monastery, with lots of rooms exposed to the elements. A family was picnic-ing in one of them. On the way down we stopped by a pub and had some apple wine, which was like cider and water, and didn’t even make me drunk, at which I was heartily pleased. When the light shone through the glasses, it seemed like they were holding gold liquid.

So all in all it was good, but I was a little disturbed by the infinitesimal amount of information my brain retained, compared to all the stuff that was going into it. I got one good idea for my thesis however, from Herbert Grabes’ master class, so that made it worth it.

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