People With Their Walking Sticks


Starnberger See. Photograph by Kanisterkopp.

From Lapham’s Quarterly:

Münsing (population scarcely 4,200) is among the towns that lie along the Starnberger See, a large lake where, in 1886, King Ludwig II of Bavaria was found dead, strangled, together with his doctor. Most of the area is still farmland with fields, barns, silos, herds of dairy cows. But the most prosperous towns around the lake are resort towns, some for tourists, others, very elegant, for summer people. The crown prince of Thailand was living (until very recently, when his father died) in one of the lakeside towns. I walked one day along the lake from Ammerland to Ambach and Münsing. The houses were huge, elaborate, turreted, old, something like houses on Fisher’s Island or Mount Desert. It turned out that an unlikely set of refugees had built some of those houses and moved into them—citizens of Munich, fleeing from bombing by the Allies in World War II. Along the entire roadside, an eight-kilometer stretch, the only refuse or litter I saw was a single Kleenex, fluttering slightly, unused. I have always wondered what impulse causes people to throw their pizza boxes, beer cans, cigarettes, whiskey bottles, shoes, toys every few yards along country roads in Connecticut, where I live. It seemed that Germans have no such impulse or that the owners of houses along the Starnberger See are very careful to tidy up. The view from the houses over the vast lake to mountains beyond is lovely but, even in sunny weather, brooding. (T.S. Eliot mentions the Starnberger See in the eighth line of The Waste Land. The poem is much preoccupied with the lake’s dark history.) There seemed to be no activity in any of the houses. On the road there were people on bicycles, people with their walking sticks. All German. Certainly no people of color. Paula had tried very hard to find employment for her migrants. She had found a job for one of them in the kitchen of the most expensive hotel in Ober Ambach. She urged me to look him up. He was still there, a waiter told me, working as a dishwasher. It was hard to imagine that the owner of any of the houses by the lake would risk having a migrant on his staff. It was hard to imagine a migrant risking a walk along that road.

When I got back to the asyl, there had been two crises: one known only to the migrants, the other only to Paula. The first was that someone had thrown an electronic device into the washing machine while it was running. I had never heard the word they used for the device. It sounded to me like plastique. I took it to be some sort of bomb. The device was actually the remote for the TV. Without it, the TV would not work. Paula was telling Ali that until the perpetrator was found, and had paid to replace the device, there would be no more television at the asyl. When Ali went outdoors for a minute, Paula told me that all the migrants, including Ali, knew very well who had thrown the remote into the washing machine. It was Usman. He had a crazy streak. Sometimes this streak was mild. When he had arrived (at night, by taxi, along with five other migrants, a journey arranged by a bureaucrat somewhere), he had received proper medical attention; but he had, with real fury, refused dentures. He has consistently demanded implants, therefore remained toothless. Sometimes he has a physical seizure of rage bordering on violence. Until Usman confessed, or until some other migrant told on him, Paula could not let it pass. If the migrants joined a conspiracy of silence about an act of destruction by one of them, it would imperil the safety of all.

The secret that only Paula knew was that the bureaucracy had decided (without warning to her, to the migrants, to the school, or to any local hilfsbewerber) to disperse the Münsing flüchtlinge into other towns. Only this morning, Tuesday, Ali, on the basis of a rumor or intuition of some sort, had asked his teacher whether it was true that he would soon be taken out of the school and sent elsewhere. The teacher had assured him that it was not, that he would be staying in her class. Paula had tried, and failed, to persuade the central bureaucrats in Munich or Berlin that this dispersion would be disastrous. She was trying to remain calm and to think of strategies for keeping the migrants, particularly Ali and his mother, in her care.

The next day Paula took me to see the Kartoffelfeld, a small tract of land that a farmer had loaned to her, and plowed, so that she and some migrant children could plant potatoes there. Paula had grown up on a farm. There is nothing more important to the mind and health of a small child, she said, than to plant food, tend it, and see it grow. But the child has to be very young. If you wait even a year, it may be too late.

“Brontosaurs Whistling in the Dark”, Renata Adler, Lapham’s Quarterly