This Side of Midnight
By Mike James in Germany – 4 July 2008
There is nothing the eye perceives that is unpleasant to behold. I look out over my balcony to a polka-dot sky of sculptured, puffy-white clouds sailing gracefully in the heat of the evening sun through a yonder of brilliantly nuanced shades of purple and blue.
It is an unusually warm Friday evening in the sleepy village of Burgholzhausen. My neighbours are attempting to erect a tent, for they have visitors from Austria. But they’ve already imbibed too much beer, and the proceedings are farcical. The canopy takes the shape of a theatrical backdrop and everyone cheers. Then it tips sideways and rightwards and a general moan accompanies twelve square feet of canvass crawling off in the direction of the washing line.
I watch the ravens fight for the upper perch of a fir tree I have known as my nearest friend these last ten years. It is the tallest fir tree in my neighbourhood. It is unshakeably still this evening, yet I have seen it bend like a defiant warrior in winds that have swept tiles from roofs and cars from streets. In the winter months, she clothes herself in frosty snow like a bride awaiting a distant groom; and yet she is perennially alone.
Below her branches, two little boys and a girl are cavorting with a puppy dog. This way he goes, that ways he goes; but none of the children can catch him. He yelps in delight. It’s a game, with no winners, no losers. The children are lost in a world of giggles and silliness and the puppy dog is in love with the little people he can outrun, but will never run out on.
Across the way, Christoph, an old piano teacher is entertaining the friends of his daughter, who has just finished her first semester as a ballet dancer and singer at Frankfurt’s Academy of Arts. Is it Johann Sebastian Bach, Strauss, or Mozart? Nobody knows and all the girls are laughing because Christoph has drunk too much wine and he’s having fun, shifting from one concerto to another at a whim.
Here is the fulsomeness of a midsummer German evening, and nature delights in herself. She is a woman in full bloom and she fills the air with the scent of her own romance. There is no shame to be had in the nakedness of her bosom, for here we are all children; and this is paradise; an idyll in the heart of Germany.
On evenings such as this, I can stand at the uppermost breach of the Old Village and track the ascent of eagles to their lair on the Feldberg Mountain. Near the old watchtower, now a church, warriors would keep watch on predators, Roman legions or Frankish invaders. These were the people who could talk to wolves and read runes in the trees; and in the eyes of their descendants, I can still catch a glimpse of this magnificent Volk.
Beyond the strawberry fields and the orchards lies Friedrichsdorf, the refuge of the Huguenots and non-conformists, and the birthplace of Philipp Reis, the man who invented the telephone. This elderly sister of Burgholzhausen is still a very beautiful lady and has gracefully accepted unto herself a vibrant community of folks from every corner of the Taunus; and not a few French, Italians, Chinese and Turks besides.
Her people love her, but her old glory is gone. The Milupa factory, once famed for producing the world’s greatest output of skimmed, powdered milk is closed, shuttered, and bare. It was purchased, downsized and resold on a bank fraud by an Israeli hedge-fund operator. Tools, equipment and trucks remain in place, rusted and frozen in time as if caught in an Hiroshima of financial Armageddon. The men are gone, turned to beer or part time jobs, or even suicide.
They are not alone. In the years of cheap, freewheeling finance, men with crooked noses made crooked deals; and the blue-eyed, strawberry-eating citizens of Friedrichsdorf trusted them, for it was a crime not to. Traditional businesses that had thrived for generations are now no more. Gone forever.
The men and women who were the proud, hard-working great-grandchildren of the Huguenots moved out of town and into the cloisters of public housing and onto prescription drugs while the speculators moved in and purchased defunct property for pennies on the pound, building offices for foreign lawyers and American and Israeli money men.
In Burgholzhausen, the children are still playing. Christoph’s wife is cooking chicken with ginger sauce and I can smell it from my balcony. The girls are beyond mirth, and I can hear them laughing. In fact, the whole street is laughing; even my neighbours who have managed to make a drunken tepee out of a sheet of canvas.
The sun is setting beyond the distant hills and the clouds that remain nearest are suffused with a reddish glow, while those closest to the village hang low and heavy like spoiled treacle candyfloss. The ravens have pitched their fight to even squares and have set themselves apart atop of the fir tree.
A silence descends on the village as darkness draws close, and I can hear the televised voice of an American in the distance talk of war and his undying loyalty to Israel. The children are no longer playing and the puppy dog yelps for joy no more. The girls have taken their leave and Christoph is playing a sad, pianist soliloquy.
I’ve been working late, wrapped in thoughts and have lost all fashion of time. I step out onto my balcony to spy the church clock, and I sigh a breath of relief.
It’s still this side of midnight.
Michael James, an Englishman, is a former freelance journalist resident in Germany since 1992 with additional long-haul stays in East Africa, Poland and Switzerland.
Last updated 09/07/2008