Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Travelling Hans

Once upon a time, in the land where coconut trees and paddy fields co-exist like Hansel and Gretel, there lived a boy named Hans. Hans wasn't a common name for a little boy in those parts. Boben, Princey, Innocent, Blossom and Mathukutty, all common names for little boys, yes. But not Hans. And so he got teased terrible by little boys named Boben, Princey, Innocent, Blossom and Mathukutty, who just wouldn't leave him in peace. "What a weird name you have! You don't belong here. Why don't you just go away?!"

And so, one day, he did just that. Gathering his meagre possessions up in a knapsack, he stopped by the German Consulate for a visa, and soon found himself in the land where beer and sauerkraut co-exist like Holly and Kit (no, really, the first time he had a bite of sauerkraut, Hans dropped to the floor in convulsions, thinking he'd been poisoned).

The Germans were curious about him. "Wo kommen sie her, Hans?" they asked. Hans stared at them uncomprehendingly and then replied tentatively in the only German he knew, "Sprechen sie Englisch?" "You are named Hans and you speak no German?" And they walked sadly away, shaking their heads.

And so you see, Hans belonged neither here nor there. That is often the way of the world.

xxx

Hans enjoyed himself very much in Germany. In the country of his birth, he had been living in its cities for far too many years and had gotten accustomed to fighting his way through a day. Here in this foreign land, he was pleased to be back amongst the rhythms of the life he remembered from his childhood, far away from the dehumanizing crush. Here were a friendly and cheerful people often kind to the strangers they crossed paths with. People with smiles on their faces and sometimes a "You look lost; may I help you?" to spare for Hans.

As he got to know the country a little better, he grew to admire the care and the love with which the Germans build things. The Deutsches Museum in Munich, he was told, would hold him for 36 days if he spent a minute on every exhibit. He gaped in wonder at Gutenberg's press, at the first automobile built by Karl Benz, at one of the early Wright planes (and no, not a model: the actual thing, in a hangar it shared with several other aircraft, some of which he was allowed to step into), at a U-1 submarine... it is a disservice to even attempt to list the treasures in there.

Hans had grown up in a port city on the Arabian Sea and the cranes and the ships sometimes called out to him in his dreams. So he made his way to the other end of the country, to the great port of Hamburg. His first visit, though, was not to the masses of floating steel on the Elbe and that peculiar sadness that only shipyards can convey, but something that spoke of German obsessiveness. The Miniatur Wunderland. "The largest model railway track in the world" is attraction enough to anyone who remembers even a little bit of once being a boy, but it is much more than simply that. It has room-sized models of Swiss towns, the Hamburg airport (complete with plane taking off into clouds), the Grand Canyon, all in such detail that the parents who'd brought their children in there became, for a few hours, even younger than them. As much fun as the models are, Hans spent more time studying grown men and women gently jostle with their kids: their ambitions were not very big - all they wanted was a little space by the Berlin railway station, to press their noses to the glass, to get closer to the tiny windows of the shop housed below the tracks, and to peer inside at all the furniture built painstakingly to scale.

If Hans were forced to find fault with Hamburg, it would have to be with its propensity for long spells of gloomy weather. The sunnier days sees the locals head for the two lakes around which the city is built, but Hans had his most intimate experience of Germany's gateway to the world on one of its cold, drizzly evenings. This weather meant that there wasn't a soul around as he walked through the warehouse district and on towards the port. Hans found the warehouses, built on the sides of the endless canals criss-crossing the district, impossibly elegant. The lights were all on - both on the roads and in the buildings - suffusing everything in a golden light. He paused often on the numerous bridges (Hamburg, he was told many times, has as many bridges as Venice, Amsterdam and London put together), and wondered what memories would hurt more in the months to come: the gracefully lit buildings or their achingly fragile reflections in the canals? But he did not allow himself to feel too sad, for there, in that time, he was in his own fantasy film, or, if you prefer, in his own Wunderland. And he had it all to himself. How could the Hamburgers ever bring themselves to stay at home - no matter the cold, no matter the rain - and leave their beautiful city in its entirety to passing strangers like Hans?

xxx

But there are no gardens without serpents and so too were his travels not without its troubles. He hadn't had water to drink for days. They didn't seem to like it much there, instead preferring a bitter, honey-coloured drink that they served in giant mugs and to which Hans didn't take at all. And so it was that a chance meeting with a kindly innkeeper changed his life. The encounter did not start very promisingly for Hans but if you stick around till the end, you will see how his life is about to take a turn.

"Innkeeper, innkeeper, may I please have a glass of lemonade?"
"You want Sprite? I have lots of more interesting things with alcohol in it," said the kindly wench.
"No, I don't want Sprite! I want lemon and water. Why do you guys keep calling Sprite lemonade?"
"You want me to drop a lemon into a glass of water and you want to drink it?"
"No, no, no. You cut the lemon into two... like so, yes?... and then you squeeze it here and... and now, do you have any water?"
"Water?" She asked, scratching her chin, "The stuff in the taps that you use to wash cars and clean plates? I... I'm not sure I can give that to people. I'll have to check with the health and hygiene board. I could lose my license."
"Oh, you'll be fine, trust me. You pour the water into the glass with the freshly-squeezed lemon juice, like so you see, and then you add a little sugar. Yes, perfect!  Thank you very much."
She wrinkled her nose as he raised the glass to his lips and asked, "Are you really going to drink that?"
"Of course! I've been looking forward to this for weeks!"
"But... it just seems so... unhealthy. I have beer, very nice beer. Can I interest you in some?"
"Aaargh! Don't mention the word beer in my presence again!"
"You don't like beer?" She looked hurt, but then brightened again. "No worries. We recognise in Germany that not everyone may be blessed with the sense to like beer. We have something else for them. We call it Radler - it's half beer, half lemo... erm... Sprite."
"It's still half beer."
"It's also half not beer, which is too much of not beer if you ask me, but we do like to make allowances for the differently taste budded," she said generously.
Hans was having none of it and downed the glass in one gulp.
"How much do I owe you?"
"Oh, nothing," replied the crestfallen girl, "I don't think it's right to charge people money for a little bit of lemon and some water. You really like to drink water?"
"An unhealthy habit I picked up in the Far East."
"Hmm...  We used to have a king you know, long ago. We called him Mad King Ludwig because he liked to drink a lot of water. He drank so much water that one day he drowned in it. There's a lesson in there somewhere, I think, " she added, looking at Hans meaningfully, "So, anyway, he built a castle high up in the Alps - a very beautiful one - near an Alpine lake with blue waters, called the Swan Lake. And it is said that there is a chamber in his castle with a magical basin that is always full with water from this lake."
"Wait, are you saying there's a castle here in Germany where I can drink as much water as I want? As much refreshing, cool, pristine, blue water?"
"Yes. And you don't have to be deliberately disgusting with your descriptions. You'll probably end up drowned and bloated like poor Mad King Ludwig."
"Yes, yes, yes. Fine. All right. And what is the name of this castle?"
"The Neuschwanstein."

xxx

As Hans cycled up the path to the castle floating amongst the clouds crowding the Alps, his jacket was tight about him. The rain stung his eyes and his fingers were frozen to the bone. He half expected to see snowflakes falling like feathers from the sky. He bitterly thought for a few uncharitable moments that if this is what these people called summer, then they could keep all of their First World comforts and their six-percent unemployment. He wanted none of it.

The castle was as gorgeous as anything he'd dreamed of as a child, when his head was full of fairy-tale princesses and rich kings. But for now, he needed a place to hide. Tourists rack up experiences like the brave little tailor who cut notches in his belt for each fly he'd killed, and spending a night in a castle like the Neuschwanstein, with all the water he could drink... well, that was an experience he was willing to take risks for. The difficulty, though, was that the rooms in the castle were smaller than he'd expected and finding a hiding place proved more difficult than he'd hoped. The story goes that Ludwig had the design for the castle in his head already as a boy, and the finished version in many ways reflects that. This was no trophy toward a pompous man's bragging rights, but a boy's dream for the happily-ever-after - cozy and pretty and a place to call home.

But Hans was nothing if not industrious and the Germans expect too much honesty for their own good. He spent much of the afternoon well hidden and listening to the guides taking the visitors around the castle. They were informative but, because they're employed by the Bavarian government, are not allowed to go beyond the dull. That, of course, only makes the naughtier of the visitors enjoy tormenting them that much more...

"Is it true that Ludwig was gay?"
"Well, he did have a jewellery box."
"Interesting. So, he and Richard Wagner did more in here than discuss music, then?"
"King Ludwig was, of course, Wagner's patron and this castle was built as a homage to him. As you no doubt noticed, many of the rooms here are themed after his operas."
"That wasn't my question, was it? Do you know where they did it? It couldn't have been that bed - shouldn't a king have a king-size bed? Or was Wagner a very small man?"
"Wagner never set foot in here. Shall we move on? These tours have a half-hour time limit."

xxx

The room was very small, with space for just a small coffee table and two chairs. The windows were enormous and in good weather would, Hans supposed, afford spectacular views of the Alps and the countryside below. But even with the rain lashing the windows and with the dark only occasionally lifted by streaks of lightning, Hans didn't feel like getting out of his chair. There is sweet beauty and there is also the violent kind and Hans had room in his heart for both. He was transfixed.

As the hours slipped by, Hans started to feel a little lonesome. Fairy tales do not often end with the dashing prince retiring to his room with a good book. Thus, when the next flash of lightning lit up the room, Hans wasn't displeased to note that the chair opposite him was no longer empty. It wasn't a princess as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood of the window frame, but rather a tall, well-built bloke in regal attire. Even so, all things considered, he was still an improvement over the inky emptiness that had hovered over the chair just previously. Hans stared at the apparition with interest. The apparition studied Hans imperiously.

"Guten Morgen," said Hans, for it was just three hours from sunrise, "Ich hei├če Hans. Ich komme aus Cochin. Sprechen sie Englisch?"
"Ja, ja," said Mad King Ludwig, "Those infernal castle tours are in both German and English. Over the decades I've managed to pick up a little bit of English - and some Russian and Spanish, too."

They talked. Because of the masses of tourists that visit the Neuschwanstein everyday, Ludwig was well up-to-date with events in Germany and around the world. Even so, Cochin was a long way away - in distance, time and habits - and Hans found him a polite and attentive listener. For his part, Ludwig narrated the sad stories of a century-and-a-half ago. He was a king not much interested in the affairs of the state and instead indulged his great passion for architecture. He was much loved by his subjects, though not so much by his cabinet, who accused him of bankrupting the state for his grandiose projects. But he'd financed his castles with his own money and suspected the cabinet were trying to pin their failures on him. He planned to sack them all but, as very often happens to star-crossed heroes of tragedies, he was unlucky and they got wind of his plans. They acted quickly and with an efficiency they'd never exhibited when running the country they had him declared insane. The doctors who signed the report had never even met him, let alone examined him.

Three days after he was deposed, Ludwig was found drowned in a lake, in three feet of water, along with the doctor who'd headed the panel set up by the cabinet. Was it an accident? Did he kill the doctor and then himself? Or was he murdered? To this day, no one knows. Not even Ludwig himself. He had narrated the events thus far without any trace of rancour. After all, these were stories of long ago and an afterlife of forever roaming the halls of his beloved castle wasn't such a bad deal - even if the hordes of tourists poking about aggravated him now and then. But now, a trace of wistfulness crept into his voice.

"'I wish to remain an eternal enigma to myself and to others,' I'd always said, but I never imagined that my own death would torment me for eternity. I just don't understand it! One minute, I'm walking by the lake with the doctor, and the next thing I know, I'm lying dead on a slab in Munich, not quite sure what happened. Something did happen, of course, but I don't have the foggiest notion!"

xxx

Hans was now deep in the Black Forest, in a train on the Hell Valley railway line. It is one of the famous train rides in Germany, passing through forests, meadows and by lakes, sometimes rising steeply over hills, sometimes passing over deep gorges. He'd been in the Black Forest for a few days now and, given that he spent much of his youth amongst hills and greens, this should've been the highlight of his trip. But truth be told, he was bored.

Perhaps it had to do with how little it resembled its name. It was too beautiful, too much like a postcard in every direction. He tried to imagine himself in one of the houses he could glimpse from the train. They stand alone, sometimes by a lone tree, with grass extending for acres all round. Everything's just the right size. The hills are gently rolling, with bright-yellow carpets of flowers, and the grass everywhere, green and seemingly mowed by a heavenly hand - Wimbledon looked just like that on his high-definition plasma television back home. To come back to the original question, should he ever find himself waking up in a bed with a window that opened out to all that beauty... he'd give himself two weeks before he bought a one-way ticket to Berlin.

Then again, perhaps he was uncharitably attributing his impatience and his boredom to the place because he didn't want to look further, because then the fingers would point to something terrible. Before meeting King Ludwig, he had been free of responsibility in any form. He was a stranger in a beautiful land and he was content to walk all day where the road took him. Getting away from "here" and getting to "there" no longer seemed so life-and-death because he had no obligations to be anywhere: the clock had no hold over him. For the first time in his life, the journey was more meaningful than the destination because there was no destination. People were no longer obstacles that thwarted his plans but fellow-beings who added light and colour and made the road all the more interesting. But if that were so, what did that say of how he'd spent the decades up till then?

And now, he was again saddled with responsibilities. He could not refuse King Ludwig and so he was now a knight on a kingly errand. He was back to being Industrious Hans and he had no time to linger and waste. A couple of stations before Donaueschingen, he alighted. He then discovered that the grass that looked Wimbledon-like from the train was in reality knee-high and quite difficult to walk through. From the station, he could see the line of trees that stood all alone. The guardians of the future, they were called, though for the life of him he could not figure out how they were guarding anything by standing inoffensively in a line in the middle of a meadow. He asked them. They replied that they were named thus because they remembered the past just as it happened, unclouded by prejudice or agenda. Besides, they added with a touch of irritability, they were just trees. How should they know why humans give the names they do?

Hans then asked them why the place was called the Black Forest when it was all mostly greens and blues. Ah, they replied, that's because the name was given it over 2000 years ago, by the Romans. The trees were so tall and thickly together that they allowed no sunlight through. They tried to tame it, with not much success, and even endured a brutal military defeat not too far from there that halted their northward expansion. But humans are especially good at waging war with nature and over the centuries the thick forests were replaced with wood more suitable for civilisation. The masses of trees slowly gave way to villages and cultivation and to its modern-day picturesqueness, and now it is more famous for its cakes and cuckoo clocks than its trees. Why, even as fairly recently as three centuries back, the forest was still black and foreboding and littered with big bad wolves and gingerbread cottages. There were witches who specialised in luring little children with roofs made of chocolate and then cooking them in giant iron stoves in the kitchen.

But then, along came Friedrich the Great of Prussia and all this changed. He foresaw a time in the not-too-distant future when rubber sacks would play a prominent role in sexual intercourse... and what were the people to eat then? Besides, considering all the crap that kids ate, he was not sure they constituted a nutritious meal. And gingerbread cottages attracted ants in their legions and brought about frequent epidemics of the flu - because the roofs melted in the rains. So, he looked southward at this new plant the Spaniards had brought over from South America. It was nutritious, hardy and easy to grow and its numbers were unlikely to be affected by a spike in Durex sales. It would save millions of lives.

But his citizens took one bite of this bland, tasteless tuber and they said, "No, thank you, dear king. You keep your potato." But Friedrichs do not end up being kings, much less great kings, without an astute grasp of psychology. He had the potato declared the forbidden royal fruit and had guards posted around his potato fields. Everyone wanted them now, and at night they crept into the badly-guarded fields and stole some for themselves. And thus, the potato became a staple of the German diet and the witches of the Black Forest had to look for alternate employment. Indeed, most of them took up jobs behind the information counters of the Deutsche Bahn or the cloakroom of the Berlin State Library. And his grateful subjects, to this day, leave potatoes on Freidrich's grave in Potsdam.

The trees would have gone on in this vein had Hans not firmly stopped them in their tracks and told them of the purpose of his visit: how did King Ludwig die? They told him. Unable to get the other nagging question out of his head, he asked them why the king could not remember the last few minutes of his life. "Oh that," they replied, "when someone dies suddenly, the brain has no time to transfer their memories from the short-term banks to the long-term ones. Is a common complaint amongst ghosts."

xxx

"... you were walking by the lake when you spied the boat. You saw your chance to escape over the lake and to your cousin, the Empress of Austria. You were convinced that if you could then present yourself to your people in Munich they'd see that you were not mad - at worst only eccentric - and would've had you reinstated. But the guards saw you try to escape and shot you in the back. And they were forced to kill the doctor, who was the sole witness."

"The bastards."

Hans and Ludwig watched in silence as the sun rose over the mountains. Presently, Ludwig said, "I suppose you'll soon have to leave. Normally, as brave a knight as you would get half my kingdom or my daughter's hand in marriage. But I have no kingdom now in this Federal Republic of Germany and if I'd had any daughters - which I didn't - they'd be a hundred-and-fifty years old."

"Oh, that's all right. You're really a very nice king, Ludwig. It was my pleasure."

"No, I can't let you go empty-handed. I see that you've developed a taste for travel. So, here, take this knapsack. Its dimensions are 56 cm x 45 cm x 25 cm, and if the airline's hand-luggage restrictions are even smaller, it will magically shrink itself. It is a portal to another dimension, invisible to baggage scanners. This, therefore, is a bottomless knapsack and never again will you have to wait at a baggage carousel nor will you lose your shaving kit in transit. And no customs officer shall ever again charge you usurious duties, either. Happy travels, my friend!"

Thus began the first day of the rest of Hans's life. He would live happily ever after, but first he had to find a laundromat because his clothes were by now quite dirty.

3 comments:

Susan said...

Good one. Nice to read one of your posts without any reference to any movie. Now if you could only get over your mother land bashing ....

Tamara said...

Ah! Your days of dreaming in Espanol are over! A little bit of Neil Gaiman in your writing, I see!! A wee little bit!!! And that in itself is a huge compliment :-).. keep writing, Hans!

George Peter said...

good. Keep on writing.
George Peter