Is there anything more blatantly conspicuous than an American tourist? With a Jansport backpack pulling at the shoulders of her parka, paired with lululemon tights and hunter boots, Rebecca unabashedly exemplified the anatomy of a travelling student. Tugging, pulling her luggage out of the bus, repositioning her carryon on top of the suitcase, wearing an expression of unbridled nervousness, she oddly reminded me of myself when I first stepped out from the same bus, onto the same sidewalk in Heidelberg, Germany.
For a Pakistani girl, raised in an orthodox family, the experience best resembles what the existentialist philosophers term “thrownness.” It was as if I was plucked, mid-monsoon, from a land of chai and chatter, and thrown into a new window of time and space, bound on all sides by bronze cobblestones and castles.
Immersed in these thoughts, I let the locals pelt my friend, Rebecca, with their sneers a little longer before finally embracing her and leading her to my humble apartment a few paces from Altstadt, the Old Town.
I had only a day to boast my hard-earned knowledge of the city, and then I too would abdicate my status as a guide and journey with Rebecca as a naïve traveller from one German town to the next.
We dined at Schnitzelbank, a cozy tavern with woodwork benches and old tools that were reminiscent of the time it was a cooper’s workshop that made barrels for local winemakers. By the time we were finished with our schnitzel, the sweet saxophone tunes had gotten to our heads, propelling me into an eloquent soliloquy on the fantastic and tragic history of the Heidelberg Castle and how the most glorious building in the Roman Empire was brought to ruins by war.
Rebecca, on the other hand, seemed more enchanted by the little pink houses and small Christmas shops with nutcracker dolls peering out from behind glass windows. The brassy chimes from the nearby protestant church continued to pour into the evening air as we strolled towards Philosopher’s Way, a path located on the northern banks of the Neckar River known for having inspired famous German poets like Joseph von Eichendorff and Friedrich Hölderlin in their writings.
The cherry blossom trees and the vineyards formed a perfect landscape for our dialogue on the 19th century Romantic Movement and how Heidelberg, despite French wars and natural catastrophe, was washed in the fragrance of romanticism and solitude.
The Philosopher’s Way led us on to the top of Saints’ Mountain and by that time we had both fallen silent, perhaps we had run out of things to say or perhaps we were enraptured by the midnight sunset typical of European summers. The deep green Königstuhl hills stood unfazed as the prismatic River Neckar kissed at their feet and behind it the sun exploded, soaking the sky in its gold blood.
Until the sky licked the last of light we stood staring, thinking. It was the most beautiful type of life, one spent in a peaceful town, made of blissful visions. Maybe the terrible beauty of these towns was the secret to the relentless German strength that pulled its people out of the devastation of world wars and genocide to rebuild and restore the magnificence that is unimpeachably every land’s right.
In the morning, we got up just in time to rush with our cups of coffee to the Heidelberg Central Station, but Flixbus (as usual) was behind schedule and the dawn (as usual) painted the horizon a bright maroon. Rebecca, completely exhausted and jetlagged, rested her head on my shoulder as I stirred my macchiato and smoked my last menthol cigarette. I thought about the list of places Sandra (my German friend and an avid traveller) had vehemently instructed me to visit in Frankfurt: St. Bartholomäus, Kaiserdom, Alte Nikolaikirche. All of these were churches and cathedrals of course, but I had been in Germany long enough for the childlike awe inspired by stained glass windows and icons of Trinity to have faded away.
During the bus ride, we got excited over the possibility of securing an aisle seat at the back at a ballet show at Alte Oper (for the curious reader this ended up happening in Vienna and not in Frankfurt). In the end, all we did was mile through Romerberg, the square complex at the heart of the city, casually glancing at mediaeval buildings, discoloured statues, half-timbered wine houses, eavesdropping on German conversations and, occasionally, stopping for massive glasses of foamy beer so notoriously German.
It seemed as if we had spent all our lives here. We strolled along River Main until we found ourselves in, what almost seemed like, a completely different city. Here skyscrapers had replaced gable facades, glass buildings had sprouted in place of courtyards decorated by fountains, 20th century modern architectural structures had trumped the multi-coloured huts. It seemed as if Frankfurt, like the rest of Germany, was having an identity crisis, oscillating between deeply rooted nationalism and progressive inclusivity. Nevertheless, the striking contrasts between medieval and modern Frankfurt made the city a delight to explore.
By sundown, Rebecca and I had traded our puffer jackets and faux fur-lined boots for full skirts and petticoats in preparation for Shabbat. Dressed like maidens from an Emily Bronte novel we joined Rebecca’s Rabi uncle for a candle-lit dinner. Bread breaking rituals and Kiddush, blessing over wine, were soon superseded by an open-hearted and honest discussion on the shared Abrahamic origin of Islam and Judaism. Matzah among many other Jewish cuisines was passed around the table and the suffering of the time of the holocaust recounted.
Read part 2 Bohemian wanderers in Berlin here
Never have I resonated with a sentiment so deeply as that expressed by the Rabbi when he talked about the struggle of a people to preserve their identity. Man is so ostensibly stubborn as to give up anything but his belief; and is it not strange that he is willing to relinquish everything rigid and tangible for something abstract, uncertain and (in some sense) ephemeral?
But, in the end, we all need a cause to die for. And as the night grew heavier, a Muslim girl amidst a Jewish family in a German city hummed to the melody of Shalom, thinking about her dear cause to die for.
(To be continued)