on German

There’s an old photo on the kitchen wall. A camp site on the French Atlantic coast south of Bordeaux, in the foreground a pallet for a table looking oddly like a big chess board, with a baby’s bottle, a tin of drinking chocolate, a baguette, naturally,  etc . Behind it, Mike Reid on the left reading a book and ignoring the children in an amiable kind of way:  Emma cuddling blankie and sucking her thumb, Sarah frowning at Emma, Sophie with a teaspoon hunched over her hot chocolate, Billy’s hands in a blur as he takes something to eat off the table, and in the background Rosie, playing with a stick, her head hidden behind a tangled mat of hair. and pine trees. Out of the picture, Sheila, Sarah’s friend whose name I’ve forgotten, and where was Joel? A few days earlier and before Mike had joined us, we’d spent our first night in France at a camp site by the river Loire. Sheila and I each drove a car – now we can hardly drive one between us – with three or four  children in it, and everybody was tired and fed up by the time we got to there and put up the tents and got something to eat. Behind a grove of willows a wide arm of the river ran shallow, golden and safe. You could paddle out for thirty or forty yards and not get much above your knees. Or your chest if you were Rosie aged three. In the twilight we washed away all the dust and bad temper of the long journey from London.

We were about a hundred miles up stream from Mauves sur Loire. the village where I’d spent three summer holidays as a teenager with the Chaillots in their bourgeois villa, learning to drink and smoke and how children could be passionately rude to their parents and get away with it.  But one thing we never did was swim in the river. Down near Nantes it was huge, western Europe’s second longest river approaching the sea and fanning out into a network of sandbanks and channels and islands half a mile wide. It was treacherous to bathers. As you swam in innocent, warm pools invisible currents could suck you down to  the dark cold depths. At least that was the story, and often the local paper ran stories of another child drowned.  The Chaillot children shouted at their parents, cursed their grandmother, fought with each other, cycled madly about the countryside, abused the local peasants, got thrown out of school, but they never went swimming in the river, though there must have been safe places.

The ruin of a bridge destroyed in the war still limped across the river making it seem even more dangerous.

Back at the camp we went to bed as it grew dark but I couldn’t get to sleep. On one side of us two French couples finished their meal and sat drinking and chatting almost in lullaby style, but on the other side a group of Germans made more and more noise as everything else grew quiet. And although it wasn’t what I wanted to believe, it sounded as if French were a much more attractive language than German, the one musically matching the river and the trees and the sunset, the other jagged and guttural with lots of cackling interjected. The strange thing is that it took me about fifteen years to realise that what I had been hearing was not the difference between the French and the Germans, or between French and German, but the difference between on the one hand two middle aged couples, their stomachs comfortably settled into their familiar camping chairs as they relaxed by their great river with another bottle of wine after a week at work – it was a friday night, their cars had local plates – and a group of students,  in a foreign country, maybe away from home  without their families for the first time, quite probably not used to the effects of alcohol, having a great time and feeling very, very excited. One day I  became enlightened, I don’t remember how or why it happened.

I once read an article about the difference between the German and Polish words for death, Tod and smierc. (shmyerts, with the ‘e’ long as in yet.) The general idea was that the meaning and value of ‘Tod’ was forever linked with the Nazis, that in German the idea itself of death had become ugly and cruel, that you couldn’t hear the word without thinking ‘jackboot’, whereas in Polish the word spoke of mourning, of sadness and humanity.  It took me a long time also to realise that this was untrue, or that if nazism had put a curse on the language, it wasn’t for ever, and that the pre-nazi German language could be recovered. (You could listen to small children speaking for a start.)  One day I was listening to the aria ‘Zerfliesse, mein Herze’ (literally, ‘Dissolve, my heart)  from Bach’s St John’s Passion- a heart breaking song about a heart breaking,  and heard how in the line ‘Dein Jesus ist tot’[1], death in German is resurrected.

[1] Tod and tot – death and dead, they sound the same (I think)

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