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Drudgery

I want to complain about the cost of healthcare in Germany, the isolation, the irritation, but I don’t have the energy. I’ll try to tell the truth.

Today I met a group of my students who’ve been preparing to take a big test. We gathered at the city center to talk before they had to sit down with interviewers and launch into heavy discussions on the merit of meeting agendas and what’s essential when booking business travel, all the drudgery that comes with business English. Afterwards we went to the Christmas Market and huddled around a standing table, drinking Glühwein from ceramic glasses sporting stenciled pictures of angels. In the course of wading through teeming crowds of Japanese, Dutch, and Belgian tourists, we witnessed two different people set themselves apart and begin to shout, the kind of yelling where you miss the first few words but it doesn’t matter. You get the gist. The first was a crazy man. Patchwork clothes, self-cut hair, a drawn face and mottled skin. Someone had apparently taken his picture, or at least taken one with him nearby. He shouted about his soul, and how it had been stolen from him.

The second was a woman, middle-aged but featureless in a head-to-toe burqa hiding all but the slit of her eyes, covered by sunglasses. She was closer, standing on the steps of the Karlsbrunnen at the center of the Markt, rigid in the shadow of the big man himself, Charlemagne, whose statue has waited there patiently since the Middle Ages, minus the brief period it was stolen by Napoleon. Her beef was the sin of alcohol, and with so many hundreds, maybe thousands, of sinners warming themselves by heat lamps and mulled wine, it was easy to imagine her filled to the brim, bombarded by wicked, western ways as she passed in innocence through the marketplace. Uncovered heads quaffing Glühwein from chipped glasses. An affront to her god. A moral imperative to show sinners the evils of their ways.

The response of the crowd was the same to both. Laughter and ridicule. And the reaction of both doomsayers was likewise the same. Shouting, then half-hearted mumbling, then a quick retreat from the field of battle. Someone leaned over to me and said she could shout all she wants, so long as she doesn’t have TNT strapped to her chest. It’s the kind of comment I don’t know how to feel about. The woman was harmless. Her methods noisy but without substance. Like those Christians who come to the French Quarter, their placards high and visible, PAs turned up to just below the volume where words turn to unintelligible squeal. Noisy, but no one ever converted from a man shouting his doctrine at a crowded square.

When I was 18 or 19, I went to the beach with friends. An hour’s drive from New Orleans, yellow sand by green ocean at the Mississippi coast. We sat in rusting lawn chairs, coolers of beer between us, and watched the waves swim in and out. An old man dressed in an old man’s suit came to the edge of the beach, a hundred yards away, a book in his hand too far to tell but probably the Bible. He stood at the beach’s edge, facing the ocean and swimsuit-clad beachgoers, and shouted himself hoarse. But he was too far away for us to hear the words, the shallow crash of creeping waves masking his voice with their drone, the wind snatching it away before it went a dozen feet. I have no idea what he said, and after a while, he wandered away, back to his home or his Home, back to work at whatever office required its workers to wear gabardine on a hot summer day. If my conversion was his goal, he must have been disappointed. Or perhaps he was shouting at the ocean and the wind, another crazy man who’d lost his soul at the hands of a cameraman, only to have the wind and ocean take his voice away too. It’s hard to say.

I tried not to laugh at the prophets who came to the Markt today. They only wanted to make the world how they thought it should be. Nobody can fault them for that.

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