The loss of story – further reflections on the crumbling of perceptual boundaries

When I consider the lessons of our divestment over the past several years, the house on McCollum Street, the house on Park Street, Mama Ganache, a lifetime of acquisitions – I find I always return to the center: what I am, I take with me.

What I am has nothing to do with the things and stories that surround me. It doesn’t need even one suitcase to contain it, much less two. When nostalgia for what I had begins to fill me, wherever I am, I can go to my heart and feel at home with who I am, and that is enough.

Ceiling tile for sale on a street in Morocco

It’s where I find hope, where I can recover that sense of eager anticipation the Hathors recommend in these times of failing expectations and beliefs, the loss of story, and crumbling perceptual boundaries.

One of the seminal books of my hippie years was a typewritten channeled teaching called Season of Changes. I’ve forgotten the details of the predictions, but I’m sure they’ve been borne out or will be soon enough. It was a dark view of the future, full of cataclysm and apocalypse. Written in question and answer format, the last responses concern how to respond to the changes. As I recall, the advice most forcefully given was to practice meditation.

It’s comforting to imagine that more people than ever are doing that, at least in my own bubble. It’s less comforting to remember how tiny a percentage of the world’s population my bubble contains.

But it’s sound advice. When the now threatening storm of storms is full upon us, when that moment of personal and collective apocalypse that we all feel coming finally arrives, it’s the meditators who will be able to hold the rudder.

Storm coming in at our house in Cordes

Meditation takes you to your center, to the center, the one we all have in common. It takes you out of the chaotic whirl of stories to the place of no story, where energy is conserved instead of fueling the miasma of outer experience.

It takes you beyond imagination, beyond the limits of space and time, and beyond the singular focus of our culture on the physical: on acquisition (growth vs. maintenance), on hierarchy (dominion vs. sharing), beyond your own little bit of the apocryphal elephant.

Letting go of the world as we know it, the world of perception, this particular consensus reality, is necessarily heart-breaking. It’s painful to separate from the things and people and stories we love, and love is, after all, what it’s all about.

The tricky part is to connect love to the universal rather than the particular.

And that’s where meditation can take you.

Arrived: Cordes-sur-Ciel

Who would have guessed that the line to rent a car at the Bordeaux airport would take 2 1/2 hours? Or that not one of the three agents would adjust their customary style to – at the very least – shorten the conversations they usually enjoy with each customer? Imagine how exciting the story of our journey from California would have been. Arnaud at Avis was particularly skilled at drawing out his clients’ stories, but I kept looking over my shoulder at the dozens of families with small children behind us: a sea of impatient grimaces, hungry whines, and tapping feet. I’m not sure it made any difference.

It took us close to three hours to get onto the road.

Outside, it was 38C, record-breaking heat, but the thoughtful GPS took us along the back roads, so we enjoyed the ride –

– even the muddy track through the cornfields that saved us a good two minutes over the more conventional route.

Eventually we arrived at the office of M. duMartin, the notaire (real estate lawyer), in Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, where the couple from whom we bought the house and our real estate agent were waiting.

I will be eternally grateful that Tom is fluent in French! M. duMartin, jowls and chins indistinguishable, thick steel-colored hair brushed back and plastered to his head, melted into his ornate chair behind the expanse of his ancient desk, and read aloud document after document after document. Do we understand that there can be no changes to the outside of the house, not even to the paint on the blue voleurs (shutters)? And here, this is very important, you see where the back of the house goes under the one on the street above? The well is in your house, but a shaft goes up into the house above…

Periodically a young assistant in short shorts, long legs, and assorted tattoos brought more documents, or copies for us all the sign. M. DuMartin’s wife, gray hair in braids circling her head, appeared behind him from time to time, ghostlike.

It was stiflingly hot in the room. I struggled to follow, using all the skills I’ve acquired from years of hearing loss: catching enough words to get the gist, applying what I know from similar situations, and watching everyone else’s responses very carefully. Still. French legalese!

We signed the papers at last and went to the house with the agent and the sellers for a few lessons in house’s quirks.

And now we are here!

We woke to a gentle breeze coming through the wide open window.

Such a view! Come see us!

Two Suitcases and One Pallet

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The current state of the pallet.

We’re experimenting with what to take and what to leave behind, and piling up various configurations of it on the driveway. Pretty soon we’ll have a good enough idea of how and what will fit and the pile will move indoors.

Since my project is called Two Suitcases, I took the idea of moving to France with two suitcases pretty seriously. Well, with two suitcases apiece. Eventually it came to me that, though it would offer me to opportunity to partially replicate my parents’ arrival in the same part of the world in 1940, it was a thoroughly romantic – and therefore impractical – notion. We shifted our thinking to shipping one pallet of boxes.

Right now the boxes making the cut contain: the library I’ve collected to use as background material for Two Suitcases, a few boxes of my papers and other books, some of Tom’s papers and books, framed photos of the family, art, kitchen things, winter clothes, and some items to make our new home feel like our old one. Carpets, my computer, Tom’s keyboard, and more art will be shipped separately.

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Most of my days are filled with sorting and packing. This box has our favorite mugs at the bottom, some delicate pieces of art and glass in the middle, and at the top, some of the birds that lived in our houseplants or flew around the ceilings in our home here.

At its center, packed very carefully, is the crystal bell my father bought my mother with his first paycheck in 1943, less than a year after they arrived in Philadelphia. He always said he bought it to remind her of what is important.

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A thoroughly romantic notion.

 

 

 

 

 

A shift in the wind

It’s five weeks until Tom’s and my exploratory trip to France following the final sale of Mama Ganache, and less than four months until our projected move to France.
This immense choice to change countries, and languages, and neighbors is largely driven by my current project, Two Suitcases, a series of historical fiction pieces based on my parents’ three escapes from Vienna, Paris, and the south of France. In order to do research in all three settings, we planned to move to Luçon, a city of 10,000 on the Atlantic coast, very near to Centre Tripura and dear friends.
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As these things go, the moment I fell totally in love with Luçon, having explored it in great detail via leboincoin, the French Craigslist, Google Maps, and a series of wonderful five-minute broadcasts by Sud Vendée TV, the direction of our adventure seems to be changing.
It occurred to me to consider moving directly to the region of southern France where my parents were in hiding, rather than settling in Luçon immediately. Do the the research out of chronological order. Ease into our new life in a furnished apartment in a small city  more like San Luis Obispo or Ithaca, walkable, culturally and historically rich, with no need for a car.
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Our trip to France in May will now include a few days in Montauban , a city of 58,000, four hours southeast of Luçon. If the right furnished apartment in center of the city shows up, perhaps we’ll end up there for our first year of footlooseness.
An hour north of Toulouse, Montauban was my parents’ destination when they left Paris as part of the great exodus of June 1940. Under the combined auspices of the Austrian Social Democratic party and the French Resistance, they spent the next two years in hiding outside a small village about an hour from Montauban. As I was growing up, both of them – but especially my mother – spoke of retiring to Montauban.
So we will see where the shifting winds blow us. Stay tuned.

Two Suitcases – in process

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This is the first image that arrived on my desktop when I began the research for Two Suitcases. I googled “Socialist Youth Movement Vienna 1929” and this magical doorway into the world in which my parents met opened.

When I read about Edith Tudor-Hart, who took the photo (a show of her work is making the rounds called The Soviet Spy with a Conscience), she immediately joined my list of possible characters in my book. It’s a long list. There were so many extraordinary people around in Red Vienna that many of the people on that list haven’t shown up in the book yet. Edith jumped right in.

[I think I will change the names of the characters soon.]

Almost all the settings in the book come from pictures: family pictures and stories, or gifts Mother Internet sends me. I wrote the section on the Youth Congress from a newsreel. The torchlight march was inspired by hearing the songs the kids were singing.

I paste the material into the text above what I’m writing and take them out later. At first I didn’t save the pictures, so I hadn’t seen this one in months until I started collecting the pictures on Pinterest.

Here’s an excerpt in which the current version of Edith appears. My favorite line belongs to her:

“So, why do you think we have wars?”

“Because we are ruled by an elite group of sociopaths who own the banks that fund both sides of war for profit!”  says Edith, slamming her hand on the table.

Here’s the whole section:

July 13, 1929

It is Ernst Papenek’s talk on the benefits of International Socialism on the second morning of the Youth Congress that finally wins Erich over to the cause. At Fritz’s invitation, he sits with some of the young men from the Brigittenau group: Hugo, Karl, Erwin, and a fellow called Franz, and listens to Papanek for most of the morning. Not only does the speaker make Democratic Socialism seem reasonable, caring, expedient and attainable – all important values to Erich – but it turns out that Papanek, unlike Luitpold Stern, is not a pacifist. It isn’t that he promotes or even approves of militarism, but he does believe in facing up to the dark forces that oppose the dream of a unified socialist world. 

Afterwards, Trude, Fanny, and Gert join them at a cafe to share their experiences. Edith arrives from the tent camps where she has been taking photographs. “18,000 kids in 3000 tents! You must find the time to go over to see them,” she announces as she pushes her bulky camera bag under the chair and sits down. “Vienna is housing 22,000 young guests for these three days – and they’re all having a great time from what I see.” 

An enthusiastic discussion follows, but Erich is itching to bring up Papanek’s stand on fighting. At last he finds an entry point.

“The ideas I’m hearing are all tremendous, but I wonder if you aren’t being naive. Even Papanek believes that the children may not be safe in today’s world. We shouldn’t imagine that by not thinking about it, we can make the National Socialists and their hatred disappear. We may need to fight to protect the children.”

“Papanek wouldn’t say that! You misunderstand him!” Edith responds. She gets shrill about such issues easily. “He abhors war!”

“I think it’s you who misunderstand,” Erich answers. “He was quite clear. He doesn’t rule out the necessity of war under extreme conditions. Were you there this morning?”

“But the conditions leading up to war can be mitigated before it becomes necessary,” says Hugo.

“That hasn’t happened yet,” Erich says. “I doubt if it ever will.” He pauses and then asks the group, “So, why do you think we have wars?”

“Because we are ruled by an elite group of sociopaths who own the banks that fund both sides of war for profit!” says Edith, slamming her hand on the table.

“The current coalition government isn’t in control? I thought we were celebrating the success of Democratic Socialism here,” Erich says, one eyebrow raised.

“We are.” Edith lets out a breath so derisive it is almost a snort. “But socialism hasn’t overcome the forces of capitalistic militarism yet. War is far too profitable for the banks to easily give up financing it. They’re just waiting for the right moment to launch a new war.”

Ida says, “That’s why the work we’re doing here is so important. Young people have been raised to think war is inevitable and will always be part of our lives. The generation being raised in the socialist paradigm will know better.” 

“And will refuse to be sacrificed like pawns in a game of chess,” adds Gert.

“I don’t think it’s that easy,” says Erich. “Boys like to fight. You can’t overcome instinct. Ask Dr. Freud.”

“That’s exactly why this afternoon is dedicated to games and sport!” Fanny says, ending the discussion.  “Are any of you playing in the games?”

“We’re both on the all-Vienna football team,” Karl replies for himself and his brother. “We’re playing against the Czech team at 4:00. Are you girls coming to watch?”

“Of course!” come responses from all around.

Enjoying reading this? Click on the links above to learn more about the characters and see the material I’m using as resources.

 

 

 

Two Suitcases – an update and an excerpt

I haven’t had much time to write lately. What with watching Éva, charming but nonetheless 19 months old, up to five days a week; sorting and emptying this enormous house and getting it ready for the market; hosting a slew of wonderful guests, some paid, some not; and best of all, having our whole, hilarious family here for over a week, entailing regular meals for between 15 and 23 guests (impossible without the help of my sister-in-law,  Joanne Currie), quiet moments are scarce.

AND YET, the ancestors haven’t let up on me. Material floods in. My parents’ papers from Vienna, Paris, and Verfeil. Above, their identification papers from Tarn-et-Garonne, in France. Below, a history of the Social Democratic Party in Brigittenau, the neighborhood in Vienna where much of what I’m currently writing takes place:

red Briggittenau book

 

I’m overwhelmed with gratitude.

Here’s a draft of the section I managed to write during all the uproar of the last couple weeks.

July 12, 1929

Vienna

Trude looks into the old mirror on the inside door of the armoire and straightens her red tie for the fifth time. Her new blue shirt looks good but the tie isn’t hanging quite right. She wants everything to be perfect. Finally the tie is right. She takes Mitzi, the pipe cleaner antelope her grandmother made, from her shelf in the armoire and slips her into her pocket. Mitzi always comes along to important events. Moments later, Trude is hurrying down the stairs to catch the streetcar to the Heldenplatz for the opening ceremony of the Second International Socialist Youth Congress. 

The sight that meets her as she steps out of the car is stunning. As always she is early – but the huge plaza in front of the Hofburg Palace is already filling with many thousands of young people. Troops of children, from seven years up, their leaders, and throngs of young adults are pouring from every direction, following and clustering around red flags in a variety of shapes and sizes. 

All the same beautiful deep red, the flags symbolize International Socialism. At the entrances to the courtyard and on the steps of the palace, tall, narrow flags flutter from very high poles. Similar narrow flags are scattered across the plaza, but most of the thousands and thousands of flags – everyone is carrying one – are simple rectangles of red. Each group carries at least one to which they’ve added a symbol to identify themselves, but the great majority are just red. It is so inspiring! As Trude winds her way through the sea of color and eager young faces, she’s filled with the excited energy of the crowd. 

“Hi!” she calls out, waving her arm at Karl and Erwin when she spots them on the steps to the Federal Chancellery, where their group is gathering. The brothers got up at four in the morning in order to stake a claim on this fine spot. “How great! We have a perfect view!” Trude says. She climbs up a few more steps to survey the plaza. 

Never before has such a group gathered.

“You won’t be able to stay up there,” Karl tells her. “Those steps are reserved for functionaries more important than our little group of event coordinators.”

“It’s remarkable!” says Erwin, his eyes never leaving the gathering attendees. “It’s like an enormous symphony orchestra!”

Fritz and Ida arrive next. 

“We were just at the station,” says Fritz. “What a welcome we gave! A good-sized brass band was there and they were playing loud, but we young people were even louder. As the train pulled in, we formed a long, broad wall along the tracks, and waved and chanted ‘Friendship, Friendship!’ You should have seen the eyes of our comrades on the train!”  

Next come Hugo and Gert, she, in the new spring coat she made for herself out of offcuts from the dressmaker’s shop where she works. 

“It’s beautiful!” says Trudy, seeing the coat for the first time. “You’re so creative with so little!” 

“That is truly a compliment,” Gert replies. “Your mother is the queen of creative reuse! And you’re no slouch yourself.” 

Trude smiles and turns a little to model her grey skirt, recently an old coat, swinging it outward gently to let the red trim show.

“Thanks! I’ll never be as good a seamstress as my mother, though,” she says. “I can’t compete. That’s why I worked so hard to get into Gymnasium.”

“That’s not true. You’re so smart! You’d be bored being an apprentice like me.”

“I don’t think I’d mind if I could work for someone else in a big shop like you do. But I would have to work at home for my mother! I wouldn’t be able to stand it!”

“I understand perfectly!” Gert laughs. 

The group is talking animatedly as the musicians seat themselves on the large balcony above the palace entrance. Then Ida looks up in surprise. 

“Erich!” she cries out. “You came!” 

“Would it be alright if I join you?” asks Erich. 

“You aren’t part of our group,” says Hugo. “You really shouldn’t…”

“Why not?” Ida’s voice cuts sharply over Hugo’s. “Everyone, let me introduce my friend from the University, Erich Stein. Erich, these are my friends in the events coordination group I told you about. Hugo Preis, the rude one there,” she glares at Hugo, then goes on, “and Gert Heber, his girlfriend, Karl and Erwin Weiss, my brother Fritz of course you know, and this is Fritz’s girlfriend, Trude.”

Erich subdues his inclination to flinch at her boldness, and nods and smiles at each one of Ida’s friends. “Glad to meet you,” he says. Only Trude notices his discomfort with the way Ida spoke over Hugo; she feels the same way herself.

The orchestra begins with Richard Strauss’s “Festival Procession.” By the time they finish and the chorus joins in for the “Wake Up” from Wagner’s Meistersinger, every heart in the massive plaza is joined to every other. 

The hope of a new world is gathered.

Otto Felix Kanitz, founder of the Red Falcon scouts and head of the progressive Kinderfreunde school at the castle, Schönbrunn, greets the Future of Socialism, standing in the plaza before him. Karl Seitz, the mayor, welcomes them all to Red Vienna, living proof that a City of the People, For the People, is possible. The Dutchman Koos Vorrink, speaking for the International Youth Movement, announces that internationalism, the Internationale, the greatest conception of what humanity can be, is alive and flourishing. The orchestra is drowned out by the enormous cheer that rises from the crowd as the red flag of International Socialism is carried up onto the dais.

In the afternoon, guided tours of Vienna are offered, and most of the young people spread out over the city in small groups, visiting the social housing complexes as well as St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the Opera House, and other sights. The event coordination group splits up to prepare for the twenty-five concerts, celebrations, and performances that will be offered all over the city that evening.

Ida is the leader of the group preparing for Josef Luitpold Stern’s poetry reading in the large meeting room at Karl-Marx-Hof  that evening. She intends to get there at 6, but how can she refuse when a group of her friends says they were going to a café for a drink and a bite to eat? 

“Hey, redhead, you come too,” one of them calls to Erich as he links arms with Ida and pulls her along. 

Erich is very entertaining on a couple of beers – Ida already knows that. An hour passes in laughter as comical imitations of the morning’s speakers mix with deep appreciation of the Youth Congress so far. The sheer numbers! The power of the language: “a City of the People, for the People.” And how tightly organized the congress is!

Oh my! Ida realizes that she should have left for Karl-Marx-Hof ten minutes ago. 

“I’ll find something for you to do, Erich,” she says over her shoulder as she hurries down the street. “But you really should have decided to come when I first invited you. We would have found a good job for you.”  He catches up with her. For a few moments, their long strides match.

“I’m usually good at making myself useful wherever I am. What still needs to be done before the bard declaims?” he asks.

“Just tag along and I’ll see when we get there.”

They board the tram together.

Trude arrives at Karl-Marx-Hof and heads straight to the large meeting room. The room is unlocked, and but no one is there. She looks at her watch: half an hour early. All the way over, she worried she would be late. Well, she is not.

The high-ceilinged room is lovely in the late summer afternoon. The windows are open wide, letting in a pleasant, fresh breeze. Summer sun fills the space and bounces off the glistening wood floor. At the front, the podium is already on the dais. Banners hang on all the walls. Hundreds of folding chairs are neatly stacked on wheeled carts lined up along the back wall. 

The center of the room is gloriously open.

As quietly as possible, almost on tiptoe, Trude crosses the huge room. She hangs her bag on the back of a folding chair, squints to look at the whole room, and then checks her watch again.

Humming the Skaters Waltz to herself very softly, Trude begins to glide around the perimeter of the room, sliding on the highly polished floor as if she were skating. After just a few bars, she realizes how much more smoothly she could glide if she weren’t wearing shoes, so she pauses, unbuckles her sandals, and slips them off. Looking at her watch one last time, she leaves her shoes under the windows, and begins the waltz again. Her thin stockings slide beautifully. 

This time she sings out the melody, dah, dah, dah, dah!  Soon she leaves the edge of the room and glides across the middle. Then she skates around happily, making figure eights and graceful curves, singing all the time, until she notices with a shock that someone is standing in the door watching her.

It is Erich, who arrived at Karl-Marx-Hof with Ida a few minutes ago. 

“Go ahead of me, Erich, and go and see if we need to turn on the lights in the large meeting room,” said Ida, who needed to stop in at the office first.

When Erich gets to the large meeting room, it is filled with light, and a fairy, some lithe little thing in a blue blouse, a pretty skirt, and stocking feet, is dancing around the room alone, accompanying herself with a slightly off-key version of Skater’s Waltz. 

He is instantly enchanted. Should he announce his presence? Surely she will see him on one of her turns. In the meantime, he takes in the sweetness of this young girl dancing by herself so beautifully. 

When she sees him, Trude is mortified. Her heart pounds and blood rushes to her face. A man saw her being so silly! 

Without retrieving her shoes, she heads toward the door to see who it is. When she realizes it’s Ida’s friend Erich, she’s even more upset. He must be at least Ida’s age – what, 20? – and he stood there watching her make a fool of herself. When did he come? How long was he watching her?  Suddenly she’s angry. How extraordinarily impolite of him! 

Breathing heavily, she stomps over to where Erich is leaning in the doorway. How dare he look so relaxed, so nonchalant? His long limbs remind her of a grasshopper. 

“Why are you here?” she asks bluntly. She is standing firmly in front of him, hands on her hips, looking up. He’s a head and a half taller than she. “Didn’t Ida tell you the poetry reading doesn’t start for another hour and a half?”

“Ida sent me up here to turn the lights on for that very event,” says Erich. “It seems it isn’t necessary.” He smiles at the fire in her eyes. 

Footsteps echo from down the hall. 

“Ah, here is the great leader herself,” he finishes, looking down the hall and calling out, “Ida, Trude is already here!”

“Trude! Well, there are three of us. Let’s set up the chairs,” says Ida, entering, brisk and businesslike, apparently not noticing Trude’s stocking feet. 

Trude gets to work, grabbing her sandals as discreetly as possible as she passes the windows, and scrambling to put them on while Erich and Ida are talking. 

Soon the rest of the group arrives, all of the three hundred chairs are set up and coffee is brewing in a samovar. 

The poetry is mythic, thrilling, larger than life. It speaks equally to the glory and the utter humility of humanity.  It extols peace and condemns militarism. The crowd cheers and swoons.

Erich wonders if he is the only one in the room who considers it bombastic and grandiose. But he is no fan of Wagner, either.

Two Suitcases: a wink from Eric

My desk is filled with photos my parents and their friends in the 1920’s through the 1940’s. None of the main characters in my historical fiction novel-in-progress, Two Suitcases, is alive.

I should have asked more questions.

IMG_7014I write from pictures, from old newspaper articles and newsreels, from family stories told many times or just once, from snatches of memory, from dreams. I read about the period and places where the story is set incessantly. Then I make up stories that could have happened.

 

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There are four main characters in Ida 1940'sthe story: my mother and father, Trude and Fritz, my father’s sister, Ida, and a friend of the family, Eric. Six more characters play secondary roles. None of these are entirely fictional, but what they do in the novel is certainly not what they did in life. It’s fiction.

Sometimes I wonder if they approve.

I had the great fortune to be with both my parents when they died, and I was close to my aunt till the end, but until yesterday, I thought Eric died about eight years ago and no one knew to contact me.

In yesterday’s mail I found a beautiful handwritten note.

It says,

“Eric passed away October 3, a few weeks before his 102nd birthday. He was in good health and excellent spirits. He died peacefully at home. His heart stopped while he was reading the Wall Street Journal.”

The perfect ending.

I said good-bye to Eric in 2008 on my way home from India. I already lived in California then and came east very rarely. Eric was his usual gracious and elegant self. It was five years after my mother died, and he told me for the first time how he’d loved her. At 95, he was still walking long distances every day, but we talked about the likelihood that this would be our last meeting. He filled my rental car with treasures from his beautiful house and we stood in the driveway a long time saying good-bye.

Caught up in the hurly burly of home, I didn’t write a thank you note for some months. When I did, it came back stamped “unknown.” I mourned.

I should have asked more questions.

I missed seven good years of Eric’s life.

Still, over these last couple months, the character, Eric, has been pressuring me to give him a more and more important role in the story. He’s been developing more personality, more, in fact, than any of the others, save Ida, and that perhaps because she acts as a foil to him. His voice is clearest.

If that note isn’t a wink, I don’t know what is.

Thanks, Eric. It feels like you approve.

 

Two Suitcases: A Window into my Work

Here’s a look into the process of writing Two Suitcases:

timeline

This is one of several timelines I’m using to structure the book. This one was meant to have historical events at the bottom, events and pictures from my parents’ and their friends’ lives in the middle, and trends at the top, but it’s pretty mixed already. It was a good plan anyhow.

herd of pipe cleaner animals

A small herd of pipe cleaner animals has invaded my chapter chart.

Fritz, Trudy and three pipe cleaner friends

My favorite pictures of my parents and the first of the pipe cleaner friends.

Ida's passport picture      Ida's passort front page

These are pages from my aunt’s passport, issued in German-occupied Vienna in 1938.

And here are a couple of less distressing shots:

blue lady sunbathing

A blue lady sunbathing.

blue lady dancing

And one dancing.

And, as promised, a snippet of what I’m working on now. This is yesterday’s work, in more or less first draft.

April 22, 1929

The University of Vienna, Ringstrasse

 Ida hurries out of her first afternoon class, Dr. Charlotte Buhler on Child Development. After experimenting with sitting on three different benches, she settles on the second, and, with her book bag on her lap, she looks first to the right, and then to the left, and then to the right again. It’s her intention to keep an eye on the door she expects Erich to emerge from momentarily, while simultaneously watching the route he is likely to take to the Konditorei where they’d first met, in case she misses him coming out. 

She doesn’t have to wait long. Erich’s mop of wild hair is obvious above the group pouring out of the Mathematics building.  He’s walking with someone and gesturing animatedly. What next? Should she stand up and go to him? Or hope that he notices her there on the bench? The courtyard is crowded and noisy now. 

Ida decides she shouldn’t chance sitting, so she stands up and makes her way toward Erich across the current of chatting students, glad of her own height. Should she call out? She’ll miss him if she doesn’t. She raises her arm and is about to wave, about to call out his name, when he turns, spots her, and grins. He says something to his companion and makes his way, cross-current, to where she is. 

“Hello!” he says, genuinely glad to see her. “I was hoping we’d run into each other again!”

“And I you!” she says. He’s very handsome despite the pockmarks all over his face. She hadn’t noticed them before, but it’s not such an uncommon sight. Lots of children get smallpox and most of them die. He is lucky to have survived, she thinks. Money and good doctors, that’s always a help.

“Join me for Jause, will you? I’m going to Sluka.” 

“I’d love to,” says Ida, and she lets herself be drawn into the outward flow of the crowd with Erich at her side. Sluka! Not the little bakery where they met! What have I done? What kind of fool must I be to have accepted?

Konditorei Sluka is one of the best bakeries in the city. It is elegant, luxurious, and outrageously expensive, a place inhabited by tourists and the wealthy, even the very wealthy. The Empress Elisabeth was a regular customer! Ida knows where it is, of course, but she has never been inside – though she has looked into the window longingly many times. Frantically, she searches her mind for a reason to back out now, to decline Erich’s offer, walk away and never see him again. They are too different; they’ll never get past their class differences. She is poor. He is rich.

Before she can decide on an excuse, he turns to her and asks how she likes her coffee. With whipped cream? One teaspoon of sugar or two?

By the time they reach the Konditorei, Erich and Ida have discussed their mutual enjoyment of good coffee, pastry, and the cinema, as well as establishing the comforting fact that they are both Jews. 

Once in the bakery, however, her problems begin. Ida has no money. She could allow Erich pay for a small cup of coffee, but it’s much too soon in their acquaintance to let him buy her pastry. 

Ida turns and looks around the Konditorei. High windows draped in sheer curtains fill the dining area with light. Glistening chandeliers in several sizes hang from the lofty ceiling. The walls are deep yellow with gold trim and pale green panels framed in rich brown. Elegantly dressed ladies and gentlemen sit at highly polished round tables cutting their pastries with forks and knives. The chairs have graceful bent wood backs and legs so delicate Ida wonders how people dare to sit on them.

She takes a deep breath.

The pastry case in front of them radiates golden light. Ornately decorated pastries and cakes satisfy every visceral sense: moist cream fillings, bright fruit slices shimmering in fruity glazes atop voluminous cakes, crispy puff pastry layers surrounding vanilla scented creams, soft nut tortes offering only a fleetingly crunchy resistance to the bite while rewarding one’s every nutty desire, unctuously melt-in-the mouth coffee butter creams topped with crunch.    

“So,” asks Erich, “What is your favorite?”

Two Suitcases – progress and a little taste of what’s to come

Today, even though I had most of the day to work on my new book, I only added a few lines and revised a short section. Instead, I worked on a crowd-sourcing site I’m planning to put up to help pay for the increasingly necessary research trip to the settings of the novel next spring. You can see the opening image of the site above. The day turned out to be more fun than I anticipated because, as incentives for people who are willing to support the project, I’m making and sending out pipe cleaner animals. Today I practiced making some to be sure I really could do what I’m promising.

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Some of you, I’m sure, are shaking your heads and asking, pipe cleaner animals? Here’s the reason. When I was a child, I had a collection of pipe cleaner animals made by one of the people in my parents’ circle. Unexpectedly, they turned up in Two Suitcases, playing a sort of Jiminy Cricket or Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern role. Here’s the beginning of the book in its current draft:

Chapter 1

Meeting

December 31, 1954

Brooklyn, New York

I lift the green pipe cleaner giraffe with the toothbrush neck from the shelf under the window and turn him toward the rising voices. “I doubt it,” he says. “Not anytime soon.”

The red antelope with wishbone horns snorts. Her attention is mostly absorbed in remaining upright. A powerful breeze rushes through the window, open an inch or so to mitigate the heat and cigarette smoke in the room. It hits the antelope’s oversized horns directly. She staggers but doesn’t topple. 

“It won’t be over till after bedtime,” she says grumpily. “Once they start to shout, we should make ourselves comfortable.” 

The blue pipe cleaner lady with the red plastic dress is upside down at the moment. The antelope is already packing their belongings—two acorn caps, a hard candy wrapped in foil and two carefully folded pieces of foil from candies eaten earlier—into her dress, which until recently topped a canister of whipped cream. They’d already chosen which of their things to leave behind and which to take. The ashtray is too heavy and they didn’t think they should touch the lovely china cigarette box. Anyway, they only have the lady’s whipped cream top dress to carry things in. Too bad the third acorn cap doesn’t fit. They’ll have to share plates at their next place, wherever that is.

“I’m so sorry I can’t help you with the packing,” the giraffe says. “But I’ve got a stiff neck.” He bobs the toothbrush to see if anybody gets the joke. “I’m very good at seeing over things, though.” Bravely, he hops up onto the windowsill and, bracing himself against the woodwork so as not to blow away, he peers out into the Brooklyn night. “It’s still raining, and the lights are on,” he reports. “Even in the park.”

I move all three of them to the bookshelf below the window and rearrange the pillows I took from the sofa on the floor around me. I am usually in bed by dark, but tonight I am in New York with my parents, visiting their friends. As always, I chose the most beautiful pillows, the ones with the multi-colored covers Fanny weaves. To my right, a heavy cast-iron radiator chuffs out heat relentlessly. I like sitting near the radiator, but the apartment is so warm, it makes me sleepy even when I don’t want to fall asleep.

Turning back toward the toys, my eye is caught by the bold, black calligraphy on the spine of one of the books. Die Sozialdemokratie und die Nationalitätenfrage it says, though at four, I couldn’t have read nor understood it even if it was in English: Social Democracy and the Nationality Question. There are a great number of beautiful books, some hand-printed and neatly bound with string. Some have pictures, black and white prints made from woodcuts. I’ve studied these closely. One picture fills a whole page. It’s a big tree with its trunk breaking in a thunderstorm. There are only four words on that page: O schwanken! O taumel! – my mother says they mean something like “Oh, sway! Oh, tremble!”

I’ve asked to hear the stories that go with the pictures, but everyone says I wouldn’t understand, so I make up my own stories to go with the pictures and look at the shapes of the words and letters. I especially like the books with the clean, tall, squared-off letters. The invitation to the evening’s gathering of my parents’ friends was hand-lettered in the same elegant style.

That’s as much as I’m willing to give away now, but to be honest, I’m not very good at keeping my own secrets, so more of the book is likely to show up here. In the meantime, watch for the crowd-sourcing site, which I hope to have in order within a week or two. This is so much fun!