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Fairytale Land out my window

Finding a Fairytale

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
William Butler Yeats

The world – as seen from the window where I write this – is a fairytale land. There is a series of ponds in front of my house where the grey heron spends his time. I often see him gracefully swooping to find a landing place among the tall reeds and sometimes the storks join him for a rest on their long journey back and forth across Europe. In the fall, the buck bellows his lovelorn call and in the spring, the deer give birth to their fawns in the tall grass of the swamp just a few feet from our front gate. The woods are full of wild boar and I even saw a badger once waddling down the street. The woodpecker staccato greets me in the morning, the hawk cries over the fields in the daytime, and owl hoots at night. Yes, it is quiet enough to hear all of these things even though we only live about a half hour from the biggest airports in continental Europe. I walk out the door and in less than a minute I am surrounded by trees and wildlife.

Even the people here seem somehow out of a fairytale. I can see my neighbor down the hill as she brushes her long, beautiful blond hair at her window every morning like Rapunzel. There is local guitar builder who builds bass guitars for some of the great players in the world who I see almost every day looking like a homeless man walking his dogs. You would never know how successful he is. Like a lot of small towns – we have under 600 residents – this one is full of characters.

We found this house sort of by accident and a curious synchronicity of events. Wolfgang inherited some money just at the time of the Lehman crisis and went to a State certified investment counselor to ask how he should invest it. She said, buy property; you don’t want to be investing in the stock market at the moment (which turned out to be a mistake but who knew when it seemed like the economic world was crashing down around us). That day literally our landlady called and said that she had to sell the house we were renting from her to fulfill death duties and would we want to buy it. It was a row house in the city in a not great neighborhood but with all the conveniences so we considered it in part because she named a very reasonable price. A few days later she raised her price – friends of hers had told her she should ask for more – and we noticed that there was structural damage in the house. And besides we never really wanted to live in the city, so we went looking elsewhere.

We had lived for a short time in a small town outside of Frankfurt and had felt very comfortable there, so we went looking there first and found something in our price range. The house wasn’t particularly nice and the rooms were a funny shape and organization but other houses in that area were much more expensive so we thought it was the best we could do. The only issue was that it was a prefab house from the 70’s. At that time in Germany, they used formaldehyde on the wood slats and asbestos on the outer walls and so we had it all evaluated by an expert for toxins. While we were waiting for the report, I suggested that we continue looking. To tell you the truth I didn’t like the house but I was willing to take it if we couldn’t find something else. I had however seen an ad for another house that peeked my interest. They only showed the view out of one window, but that view was only of tree tops. I wanted to see the rest.

A real estate agent made a plan of several houses for us to see including the mystery house, which turned out to be the first one we saw. I don’t know why but 10 minutes in the house and I knew I wanted to live there. The owner told us that someone else was working to find the financing but he would still accept a bid. We saw the other properties but they just couldn’t compare. We made a bid, it was accepted with a little haggling and we got the keys just a few weeks later. We had to do some renovation – most of which Wolfgang did by himself – including putting in a hardwood floor in the living room and antique terra cotta tiles in the hall but we made it in before we had to be out of the other place. We are still working on the renovations four years later but we’re doing it as we can, when we can.

Some of our friends and my students think we were crazy to move out here. I drive into Frankfurt nearly every day to teach, about a 40 minute drive and when the weather is bad coming up the hill to us its not so easy. A couple times I almost didn’t make it. But when I am here, my soul opens up and my head is clear. And then it is all worth it to live in fairyland.

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Playing Frau Holle

The German Air

Fresh air is good if you do not take too much of it; most of the achievements and pleasures of life are in bad air – Oliver Wendell Holmes

The Germans have a very special relationship with “air”. Air is a thing for the Germany that is measurable and recognizable, that has a “flavor” and a smell, almost like a good wine. There are many cities in Germany that have a special distinction because of their “air” that is supposed to have healing properties. Before I moved to Germany I never really thought about “air”. Maybe when the local meat packing plant was doing something that smelled bad but the “quality” of air? Went by me.

Germans can immediately notice the quality of “air” in a room and ask for the windows to be opened if they don’t find it good. I have to admit, I hardly notice it myself but I have gotten into the habit of “airing” the bedroom in the morning. I also open the window in the studio where I teach after every lesson just so that no one complains. They also “air” their bedding by hanging it out the window in the morning, something I have also taken on. One of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm – who lived most of their lives in the German state of Hessen where we live – tells the story of a girl who is put through many tests. When she comes to “Frau Holle”, she has to shake the bedding out of the window and that is why it snows. When the Germans hang their bedding out the window, they sometimes say they are playing “Frau Holle”.

The other thing that Germans are obsessed about is “draft”. I never really thought about this concept before either. Draft to me was a good thing. Until I got an air conditioner, I learned to sleep with a fan on to drown out the noise of the New York streets. When I moved to Germany, I was so used to the flowing air, I bought a fan and had it on even though the nights were really quiet. When I met Wolfgang and we spent the first night together at my place he went ballistic. “How can you have that on? There is a draft!” He drove a little convertible at the time, a Mazda Miata. I found it confusing that when we had the top down, everything was all fine but when we had the top “up”, we couldn’t have the windows “down” because then there would be a “draft” and he would get a cold. It may sound crazy but I have experienced the truth that he indeed gets a cold if the windows are open in the car. Makes for hot driving in the summer since we don’t have air conditioning in the car.

Germans know no pity when it comes to “draft”. Many’s the time when riding on the train with the window open because the air conditioning didn’t work, I would be amazed that someone would come from a seat some way away and demonstratively shut the window by my head muttering the word “draft” as if that would explain being so rude. They have unbelievable antennae for such things.

But the funniest thing is that after living almost twenty years in Germany, I now feel a “draft” and ask people to shut doors or windows. I rarely open the window in the car or in the train anymore. And I may even be noticing the quality of air in some of the rooms or places I walk into. I don’t know if it is my imagination or indoctrination but there you are. Air had become a “thing” for me, too.

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