Lumps in the gravy

A café at the Alte Opernplatz

I just spent a couple of days in Frankfurt, Germany. I had been stationed there some 50 years ago, and since I was passing through on my way to Riga, I jumped at the opportunity to see how much it had changed. The late 60s, after all, were not all that long after the end of WWII, and Frankfurt, like much of the rest of the country, had been bombed into rubble; the few buildings left standing in 1945 were left on purpose, the allies having singled them out for future headquarters. A lot had been rebuilt when I was there, but although the rubble had been pretty much cleaned up, a lot had not. Whole quarters were still clear of buildings, including the historic Römer, one of the most important sites in German history. A few blocks away, the old Opera house was standing, albeit unused and unsafe, with rows of chest high bullet holes along its walls. There were similar reminders of the war all over town. All of that has now been rebuilt to exacting specs, and the city was eerily unfamiliar within a context of remembered places and new construction.

But the most striking thing was the population. On certain streets it was nearly impossible to find a bratwurst among the curry and halal restaurants. What I found was a vibrant diverse community of people living peacefully together.

Well, that’s not all that odd for Frankfurt. When I was there 50 years ago, we used to joke that it was the northernmost Italian city in Europe, with strong Turkish and Indo/Pakistan contingents as well. Still, Germany?

It is, after all, practically the birthplace of the very idea of the ethnic nation state. Those Mediterranean peoples I remembered from all those years ago had been invited in as guest workers, and Germans were pretty ambivalent about their presence.

Things are very different now, thanks largely to the efforts of Angela Merkel to keep the borders open to refugees from the many devastated parts of the world. There is resistance, of course, and a resurgence of the right, as in many other places in the west, but, at least so far, its impact has been rhetorical for the most part.  I have heard Americans say that Merkel has ruined Germany, by which they mean she has ruined it for people like them, racist xenophobes.  I agree, and I hope it stays ruined for them. Germany, of all places, is something of a beacon of hope in a dismal political landscape.

Which brings me to America. What an embarrassment. We strut and crow about melting pots, but when the chips are down we fold and curl up in a little ball. Not all of us, of course. I am happy to say that more than half the country fully and proudly stands for and lives up to the noble sentiment inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty.

Unfortunately our cynicism has allowed the minority to elect a government headed by an appalling racist and a congressional majority too terrified of the loss of power to stand up to him. We of all people should be an example to the world of compassion, but we’re not.

I mean, Germany. Who would have ever thought it?

How to build a fire

The woods around Frankfurt am Main, Germany, in the late 60s were scrupulously maintained by a cadre of forstmeisters.  Deadfall was cleared promptly, and cords of firewood kept at intervals along the well-groomed paths.  This was to be used elsewhere; open fires in these woods were strictly prohibited.  Germany, like all of Europe, was well trodden through centuries of settlement and resettlement, and Mother Nature was more a well kept mistress than a matriarch.

But this was, after all, the late 60s, and certain paths through certain quarters were undeclared free zones, and the minions of the psychedelic diaspora ran unfettered there.  In one such area, we maintained a kind of salon-in-the-wildwood, with a commandeered military shelter overlooking a campfire that was more or less permanently smoldering.  That fire saw faces and feet, new and familiar, come and go through many nights.  Tall tales, laughter, music, and in one case, an improvised artistic stick-throwing contest, filled those days and nights like the billowing cannabis smoke pouring from the tent.  It was, as I believe I’ve mentioned, the late 60s.

On one particular sodden day, after a solid week of rain, a friend, call him Chuck, and I arrived with the idea of cheering things up with a nice, cozy fire.  After a half hour of rummaging through the surrounding woods, we managed to collect a halfway decent pile of not-so-wet wood.  For kindling, there was always sufficient litter in the tent, partly collected for that purpose, partly the natural detritus of exuberantly youthful living.

So we began.  First, a crumpled piece of paper, with informally piled twigs atop, failed to catch.  Then Chuck suggested a teepee.

“What?”  I said, “You mean the tent?”   Chuck snorted and rolled his eyes.

“No, it’s a Boy Scout thing.  You stack small firewood in a kind of pyramid, then light it.”

“You were in the Boy Scouts?”

The teepee, too, smoldered hopelessly, as another friend, Herbie, arrived, surveyed the situation, and declared the obvious solution.

“You need a log cabin.”  Great, I thought, we’re going to run through the entire history of architecture here.

Nevertheless, what we were doing wasn’t working, so we carefully laid small sticks, of a size precisely to Herbie’s specifications, and stuffed paper from the dwindling supply into the ground floor.  The lighting ceremony was accompanied by the lighting of a large joint Chuck had been preparing.  All went marvelously well.

Except for the part involving the campfire.  It produced lots of smoke, but not much else.  Herbie declared all was going according to plan, that the wood just needed to dry out a bit.  Chuck pointed out the fire had been planned for that day, and not the next.  Chuck and I laughed uproariously.  Herbie grunted and stuffed the last remaining kindling into the structure.  We watched as the fire blazed up, consumed the dry paper like it was … dry paper, then died back to a dull occasional flicker.

Jens arrived.  Jens was from Antwerp, and as far as any of us could figure, had been on the road since shortly after birth.

“What’s happening?” he said.  From anyone else, this was a standard hippie greeting, the equivalent of a grunt of acknowledgment.  From Jens, it was a reasonable question.

“Trying to build a fire,” I offered, “but it’s just too wet.”  Gloom.

Jens looked at the pathetic little pile of semi-charred sticks, and, without a word, turned and walked away.  Just not willing to sit in the damp woods without a fire, I thought.

We continued our discussion of what to do next, whether the attempt was even worth continuing, when he returned.  He was dragging a sodden-looking, moss-covered log, about a foot in diameter and roughly five feet long, which he promptly dropped squarely on top of the remains of our fire building exercise.  A few halfhearted sparks flew out in protest.  A collective groan arose to compete with them.

“Jesus, Jens, thanks a hell of a lot!”  Herbie said.  He had still not used up the last of his theories in defense of the log cabin method.  Jens shrugged and sat down to join us.

We moped in silence for a good ten minutes, until the first flames began licking up the sides of the log.  In a few more minutes, the fire was roaring away; I was dumbfounded.  I looked at Jens with incredulity.

“What?”  he said.


“Jens,” not his real name