Getting Away from It All
My husband and I do not always see eye-to-eye – or even see the same things. And on that afternoon in Munich, we vibrated on altogether different wavelengths. Bob had arrived several days earlier to attend a cardiology conference, and was now clear-eyed master of the local terrain, ready to show me where things were and how to get to them. But having landed barely two hours before, my eyes squinted at the cityscape through a jet-lag haze. We stood on the steps of our hotel on the BayerStrasse -- the InterCity. It was a mere block from the Hauptbahnhof -- the central train station, explained my husband, waving his finger at the street. Maybe not in the fanciest part of town -- but being near the Hauptbahnhof – that was a big plus. I nodded, straining to appreciate his savvy. A bearded man wheeling a dinged-up suitcase stopped just beyond Bob’s finger, stooping to pluck a package of sun-lit cellophane from the sidewalk. Tilting my head, I could make out the red-and-yellow logo of Lucky Strike. The man shook the wrapper, but getting no leftover butts, dropped it and continued on his way. My husband took my elbow. First order of business was a stroll to the Marienplatz, a key tourist destination. For orientation’s sake, he said.
It wasn’t a bad idea. I am geographically-challenged; Bob is a born path-finder. Yet his tour did not feel absolutely critical. We’d be in Munich for just two more days and then depart for Reykjavik and our Icelandic vacation get-away. Two years before, our son had sent us jaw-dropping photos of that opaque volcanic land, and now we were thrilled to see it for ourselves, eager for sights beyond the Gothic spires and museum collections of mainland Europe. And to be honest, at that moment I wasn’t really up for orientation anywhere. Increasingly tired, I was barely able to keep my shaky legs moving. What I wanted was a place to lie down.
A Schlafsack, the Bavarian locals would call it. A home-made bed-roll. (My German was weak, but I knew that word.) Just as we turned a corner, there it was. Right in the midst of bakeries and boutiques, snuggled against the buffed granite exterior of a gift shop, the good citizens stepping carefully around. While I gawked, Bob – palming his Google Maps display – strode right on past this miracle of soft architecture, a delicious monument of blankets in layers of pale pink and blue, edges lined up just so. Constructed with great care, I thought; perhaps born of its maker’s respect for the upscale surroundings.
Although Bob had missed it, I nearly stumbled right onto it. How was there not a single dirty footprint? The top cover was only slightly rippled, like a pond bothered by a breeze. A corner was turned back in a tidy triangle, although I knew it was not to welcome me. More like the occupant had ducked over to the loo, or out for fresh coffee. A lid-less paper cup stood undisturbed at the side, only a quarter full. A modest size, the impromptu bed asked for nothing. No pleading sign scrawled in all caps: “Ich habe hunger”; no container for coins.
The bedding transported me back to childhood nights at home in the States. Our Girl Scout leader, Mrs. Frederick, insisted we learn to construct our own sleep-away-beds before she’d allow campouts in puffy commercial sleeping bags. I never did get the hang of them, my heaps of lumpy covers nothing like the serene surface of the Munich sleeper’s nest.
Once, Mrs. Frederick took our troop on a field trip into midtown Manhattan. The day is lost to memory, except for an encounter outside Penn Station. Lurching down the street towards our green-uniformed cluster of ten-year-olds was a man in torn and filthy clothing. He tripped in a crack, staggering over to the curb. Imbued with the Scout’s Promise to Help other people at all times, we girls rushed to him as one, hoping to prevent a full-on tumble into the gutter. Mrs. Frederick shouted at us to stay away from “that bum.” I don’t remember whether she blew her Scout whistle or not, but it was usually around her neck. Maybe her adult nose discriminated odors of pee or whiskey or vomit that we could not. Did she fear he was contagious? She didn’t seem troubled that he could fall into a street puddle, only that we might fall into his clutches. On that long-ago afternoon, it didn’t occur to me to wonder where he would sleep that night.
The next morning in Munich, Bob off at his doctor meeting, I headed once more for the Marienplatz. Elbowing through the Hauptbahnhof throng, I started across the street, my thoughts on our Icelandic adventure. Like other well-spoiled people of the First-world, we looked forward to our get-away-from-it-all trip. To judge from our son’s photos, we were in store for spectacular vistas. Glaciers, barely finished carving up the land, dropping huge shards of ice into the ocean. Waterfalls, cascading over cliffs from one end of the island to another. And the entire surface humped with volcanoes – carcasses of ancient ones now overtopped with grass, right next to younger ones still burbling, biding their time.
Just as I was pondering volcanoes, I realized I’d bungled my bearings, and dug in my pockets for the hotel’s City Guide. Still curious about the bed-roll, I hoped to retrace our steps from the day before. How would the bedclothes look this morning? Rumpled or smooth? Still clean? The resident’s hair matted or gently tousled? I believed it to be a she, not a he. (But what did I know?) I considered why she might wish to lay her head so near to the famous plaza. Perhaps down on her luck, she simply wanted to sleep in a part of town that had once been home?
It was no good; I was unable to make my way to the Marienplatz – let alone to the bed-roll, instead finding myself in a busy neighborhood full of kaffee bars and souvenir stands. After a few blocks, I was seriously lost. Giving up on the guide, I switched to Google Maps – Bob’s version of the city. Peering at the display, I decided to go back and try the little connecting lanes shown as near our hotel – although they were not at all familiar. These took me to a wide (and equally unfamiliar) Strasse, which I followed in one direction and then, having no luck, tried the opposite. I turned the device upside down: which way was north? The screen swiveled back on its own, its smartness mocking my stupidity.
Desperate for a clue, I stopped at an intersection and scanned the avenue. Back-and-forth, back-and-forth. I didn’t even notice the man crawling across the lanes until what must have been the very end of his passage, as he hauled his body up through the gutter and vaulted over the curb, landing almost at my feet. Fifty-ish, he wore a black shirt rolled up past the elbows and black pants shredded at the knees – the point at which his legs disappeared. At first I’d almost missed him, but now I stared. Was he born with those half-limbs? Or had his lower parts been amputated by a surgeon, shredded by factory machine, or minced by battle weapon? However he had come to this state, he was undeniably, utterly unlike anyone else on the sidewalk. He was Other.
Taped to his hands were inch-thick pads of yellow nylon foam, apparently to cushion the impact of rough pavement. He dragged himself past me, tanned biceps shuddering with the work of locomotion. His eyes, burning above a salt-and-pepper stubble some days beyond a shave, were hard-focused directly ahead against the perils of a tossed cigarette butt still alight or bit of broken glass. I couldn’t smell him, or hear his panting. He said nothing. Yet I imagined I had a sense of how he must feel there on the sidewalk, the upright ones looking down.
I’d had my own moments on the ground. Born with long and loose ligaments (“hyper-extended” said my doctor), in childhood my unstable knees were prone to slip out of alignment (or “sub-lux”) with sudden moves or turns, dumping me without warning on dirt or floor. Adults smiled and called the phenomenon a “trick knee.” Calling it a trick didn’t make it feel funny; and I had two of them. Running across streets, playing sports, dancing at parties – came at a price. Once, at a gymnastics meet, my right knee “tricked” in mid-air just at the peak of a vault. Coming to on the mat, my eyes looked up into a ring of teammates’ faces. “She’s probably faking,” whispered someone. Spills like these came with pain, but worse was the embarrassment washing over -- and knowing another unpredictable come-down was around the corner.
What washed over me then on the Munich plaza was not embarrassment, but shame. If I’d been undercut by childhood joints, my adult ones had been retrofitted with titanium-and-plastic knee-replacements. That afternoon I had not made my sure-footed way to the Marienplatz, but within days I’d be hiking the glaciers of Iceland in full vertical mode. I could never claim membership in this man’s pain-wracked league, or match his steadfast, gritty progress through the city, fixed upon his goal.
And what was that goal? At first, I envisioned lowly purposes. A bar, maybe, for a drink to drown sorrows. Maybe he was homeless and bound for the bed-roll confection of the afternoon before – despite my belief in its feminine provenance? (Yet, male or female, I could not imagine hands that sloshed through city grime arranging those pastel blankets just so, leaving no smear of tar or mud.) And then I switched lenses, pulling back for another look. This man might be headed towards job as newspaper columnist for an eminent Zeitung! Again, what did I know? Or maybe he was en route to a stint as radio DJ, grime tolerated given his mode of travel. Foam un-taped from his hands, I pictured those same fingers punching buttons on a studio console, welcoming listeners to an hour of his favorite soft jazz.
The audience would likely have no idea what it took him to get through to them – or through a day -- the ripples of his arm muscles, the torrents of contractions propelling his trunk through the city. In the days of Hitler, the Nazis would have been in pursuit of his Otherkind, never allowing him to gain even the far side of the Strasse. He would have been sterilized, or given a send-off cleanse in a Reich’s shower-sized crematorium -- precursor of its industrial-scale version. But on this day, the man was tolerated like anyone else. I heard no one swear at him, saw no one trample his fingers. More than tolerated, he’d been helped; someone had assisted with the hand-pads. I couldn’t see how he’d affix those alone. And how much courage was required to move from sidewalk into street? Bad enough to be stepped on by a citizen – but squashed by a vehicle, the rest of his body would go the way of his missing limbs. To the drivers careening around the plaza, his pace must have seemed infuriating, even glacial, as though he carved his incremental way forward via chisel.
Was he Deutsch or foreigner, perhaps a recent Middle Eastern migrant? His stubble masked ethnic clues. Signs of refugee influx were evident everywhere along the BayerStrasse -- café placards in Arabic, men in dark beards, milling women tented in black abayas. And although the waitresses at the restaurant next door were Heidi-like, blond braids bobbing atop checkered Bavarian pinafores, their headwaiter was a swarthy Egyptian from Alexandria. It wasn’t only entitled vacationers on the move; other citizens of the world had reasons of their own.
Moments ago, I’d completely lost my compass, even though I’d been elsewhere in Germany. What must it be like for new arrivals who had never so much as heard the language, let alone encountered the culture? Driven here by default, not choice. From the recent surge of displaced people flooding Europe, Chancellor Angela Merkel had welcomed some one million asylum-seekers. Far too many newcomers for her infuriated opposition, apparently; the chancellor had just announced plans to step down. The free flow of migrants would be choked to a stuttering trickle, refugees required to slow-walk a gauntlet of border-processing centers. Could the bed-roll maker or the man crawling the sidewalk have been among the last to make it readily across? And while any journey of that man was daring, the ladies swathed in black also gave me pause. What had they conquered to get here?
I’d like to say I was frozen in my tracks, contemplating the heroics of my Muslim sisters and the street gymnast, not to mention the builder of the ad-hoc bedroom. But no. It was time for my get-away! And the next afternoon, the sun sliding toward the horizon, I buckled myself snug into a seat on a Reykjavik charter flight, all ready for the mind-bending sights to come.