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Archive for January 19th, 2012

A couple of Sundays ago, my husband and I were chatting with the wife of a now-retired priest, and reminiscing about our early married life in Germany.  My husband was talking about the cold-water flat we lived in, describing how we used to move the space heater from one room to another in order to warm up the next room we would be occupying, and she said, “But then, why did you like it so much?”

Her question brought me up short, because actually, why did we like it so much?  Why do we still talk about those three years in Germany as the best time of our lives?  Because actually, our living conditions were primitive, by modern standards.  We did have running water; at least we didn’t have to use an outhouse.  But cold water was literally all we had, when I wanted to wash dishes, or when my husband wanted to shave.  For bathing, we did have a five-gallon tank that hovered over the bathtub.  At night, before we went to bed, I would set the timer on the tank heater, and in the morning it would be just the right temperature for *one* of us to have a bath (no shower).  While my husband washed, I would fill up a teakettle and boil water; it was done by the time he was done, and he had hot water for shaving, while I made coffee.

When we rented the apartment, it had an electric “stove” that was supposed to heat the whole place.  Unfortunately, it died on us within the first two weeks of winter, so we went out and bought a space heater, a little thing that we could (and did) carry from roon to room.  The worst was in the morning, when the whole apartment was cold; I’d move the thing into the kitchen and get it going to warm up, then turn it off while I went out on my daily errands.  In the afternoon, it kept me warm in the living room; around  4:00 p.m., I’d move it into the kitchen to warm up that space again, so it would be toasty when my husband got back from the base, and while we ate supper, the space heater warmed up the living room.  While we decompressed from the day, the space heater warmed up the bedroom; and so it went, all winter long.

The whole time we lived in Germany, I didn’t drive, at my husband’s request; German drivers really are wild, and he feared for my life.  But that was, and is, a country where bicycles and trains never went out of style, so getting around wasn’t a problem.  The supermarket was around the corner, the base only a couple of miles through a bike path in the woods; my husband and many of our neighbors cycled to and from work every day, and if I needed to get on base for any reason, so did I.  The forest was so beautiful!  Germans love their forests, and the Town Forester kept the path clear of branches, and soft with a good bed of pine needles.  Throughout Germany, hiking trails were not only maintained and clearly market, but labeled with the amount of time you could expect to spend on them; they had fifteen-minute trails, half-hour trails, trails that could take as long as three hours to hike the whole thing, and all the trails were marked along the way, too, via different-colored markers, so that you would end up back where you started.  You couldn’t get lost.

And yes, we could have bought provisions on base.  We could have washed our laundry on base (when the laundromat worked; it was frequently closed for repairs).  We did that, for the first year we lived there.  Then I learned to speak German, which my husband could already speak.  We were already going to weekly Mass at the church in town, so we were a known quantity in the community; after that first year of learning German, we began to live German.  And what a difference it made, to see my neighbors at the supermarket or the hairdresser’s, to buy our breakfast rolls and coffee at the local bakery, to cycle to the laundromat on laundry day, as all my other neighbors did.

For entertainment…oh, for entertainment!  We belonged to two music clubs, one a semi-professional concert choir and one a folk-music choir that was an extension of our church choir, to which we also belonged.  Did you know that despite the devil’s many arts, he can’t sing?  Did you know that every morning, “white veils of mist appear to herald the morning sunrise before it breaks through the clouds”?  Or that the “golden sun is full of joy and wonder”?  Those are just three of the folk songs I learned; there were so many more, full of the joys and miracles of everyday living.

Then there was the concert series at City Hall.  We paid the equivalent of a dollar to hear student musicians play music that stays with me to this day:  Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Schubert, Handel, to name just a few.  These were serious musicians, who took their art seriously, and whose education was completely funded by the State of Hesse, where we lived; presumably, the other states of the Federal Republic of  Germany had similar programs for their young musicians.  We had no television; we didn’t need one.  We had books from the library and light classical music from Hessischer Rundfunk, “our” radio station (there were three.  One was talk, one was rock, and then there was Hessischer Runkfunk).  We had no telephone; who were we going to call?  We wrote letters home once a week, and received letters from home.

It was, all in all, a good and quiet and very low-key way to begin married life.  We had time to adjust to each other, unhampered by the storms of anti-war movements and feminist rebellion that rocked the rest of the country.  I think I was back in America for three years before I learned that the Beatles had broken up.  Because everything was so new – nothing in life was anything like what we had known – I think we absorbed the shocks of married life better than other newlyweds.  Our expectations were minimal, our horizons limitless.  We had the greatest gift of all, time to meld into a single united entity, which stood us in good stead when we did return to the USA and had to weather our families’ expectations of who we were – so different from who we had become.

(By the way, anybody familiar with military life will surely be asking by now, “Why weren’t you in base housing?”  Simply put, enlisted personnel who weren’t career military didn’t qualify for base housing.  And my husband’s college degree, not being in a “critical field” like engineering or flight, wasn’t considered sufficient reason to grant him officer status.  It should have been, but it wasn’t.  You want to talk about government waste?  It’s nothing new.)

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