Friday, August 19, 2011

Lesson Learned

Like you—like most people, I imagine—I tend to see myself as kind. I like to think of myself as compassionate and willing to help. But I wonder at times—perhaps you do too—if I don’t go too far, mistaking my own neediness for helpfulness.

A few weeks ago, one wet afternoon as I wrestled my bicycle through the heavy front door of the building that houses my physical therapist, a young woman approached me. In an American accent, she asked if I knew where—holding out a piece of paper—an address was.

‘That’s the main train station,’ I said.

She nodded.

‘Well’, I said, ‘I’m not exactly sure how you get there from here, but it’s nearby. You’re not far away.’

I looked around me, over the tops of the buildings, vaguely noting the elevated tracks of the S-Bahn interurban train, not a block away, and consulted my mental map.

‘I can’t tell you exactly how to get there from here, but I know it’s off in that direction,’ I continued, pointed in the opposite direction from where the tracks headed directly toward the station, which was, as I came to recognise later, less than a block from where we stood.

In the weeks since, I’ve thought many times of the brief exchange, imagining the young woman cursing the eager but poorly informed woman who, I hope, she ignored and asked the next person she met.

(I call to mind the afternoon I wandered along the edges of Harlem, looking for the Cloisters Museum. I stopped a elderly woman, tiny under an amber felt hat, who pointed me in, I was sure, the wrong direction. After she walked off, I stopped and asked a neatly dressed younger man. As I did, the woman stood about a half a block away, watching.

‘What did he tell you?’ she demanded of me when she approached after he walked on. He had, in fact, pointed me toward to right bus. She, to her very great credit, escorted me to the bus and boarded it with me.)

In the weeks since I blithely pointed the young woman in the wrong direction, I’ve felt a nagging every time I pass the neighbourhood of the train station. I should have simply said, as Himself so often tells me, ‘I don’t know.’

But I didn’t. I tried, as always, to help. I want to be helpful. Or I want to demonstrate my knowledge. Is it, perhaps, that I want to show off?

Not long ago, I had to run an errand late on another wet afternoon. I put on my raincoat and waxed hat to cycle to the bus stop. Tent-shaped and solid black, the voluminous coat falls nearly to my ankles; the hat, also black, looks absurd, like Mary Poppins’ hat, with a silly black velvet rosette. But the coat covers my legs as I cycle and the hat’s wide brim protects my face, so, despite looking like a crow, I wear them both when I must cycle in the rain.

Our bus stop is the northern terminus of the line, so normally the bus discharges the last passengers before it turns and departs. But on this day when I boarded, already drenched by the heavy rain, the last passengers remained aboard. From the back of its double-length I could hear the bus driver’s voice rise in broken-English frustration.

‘Not this bus,’ he said.

The woman leaned in to question him further but he seemed to lapse again into German. Then she turned and walked back toward her husband, who consulted a tourist map.

‘Can I help?’ I asked brightly.

She looked at her husband and two children, about 9 and 11.

Again, I asked, ‘Can I help.’ This time, it looked as though the light dawned. I was asking in English.

‘He says we need the Number 1,’ in an Australian accent. ‘But I don’t know. . . .’ She trailed off, shrugging.

‘I know,’ I said, with genuine sympathy, thinking of how unhelpful Salzburg bus drivers can be. ‘It’s very frustrating.’ I wondered how they had ended up at the end of the line on Number 7. The Number 1 doesn’t come this direction.

The husband, backpack at his side, looked up from his map. ‘We want to go to the Messe Zentrum Park-and-Ride. It looks like it’s on this line.’

I turned it over in my mind. I was puzzled. In my many trips along the route, I’d never heard the Messe Zentrum announced as a stop. But then. . . it’s only a few hundred metres from one of the bus stops, I recalled.

‘The bus driver told me he’d tell us where the right stop is,’ said the woman.

I pushed ahead. ‘You want Messe Zentrum? Not the Europark Park-and-Ride.’

‘It’s Messe Zentrum Near the circus. We saw it this morning.’

Well, yes, there is circus there now. And we were just one—or was it two?—stops from the turn into enormous car park where its tents can be seen.

Thinking fast—proud of myself—I told them I could show them which stop. ‘It’s coming up quick,’ I said. ‘Press the “Stop” button and I’ll show you.’

With my sleeve I wiped thick fog from inside the window. ‘Look—it’s coming. See? There. Go back from the bus stop and turn up there. You’ll go the roundabout next to the motorway.’

Doubt crossed the woman’s face. ‘Is it safe?’

For the first time I hesitated. What to say?  I’m sure she could read it in my eyes and in my silence. But the bus was pulling up to the stop.

They looked at each other. ‘We’ll try it,’ he said, pushing aside his hesitation.

‘Come on, children,’ said she.

And the four of them stepped into the grey downpour.

I settled in. Across from me, a man who had just boarded wore an orange rain jacket. He looked past me. Or was he staring? Suddenly, I felt unusually self-conscious.

I turned my mind to the Australians. It was very wet. I thought of the four of them, wondering if they’d make the turn at the corner. I considered what it would be like to walk the short but ragged ground between the corner and the entrance to the Zentrum car park.

And I finally heard what she had said: The bus driver said he would tell them where the right stop was.

From the back of the bus, I looked at the driver’s reflection in the mirror. He must have watched all this and wondered at my interference. For I had interfered. They had not asked for help.

The bus ploughed on through the rain and, as I sat, the warmth of shame and doubt rose within me. What had I done? How far from the entrance to the car park to where they had left their car would they have to go?

I heard myself again, my voice too loud and overbright: ‘Can I help?’

I heard again my husband’s repeated admonishments: ‘It’s all right if you just say you don’t know.’

A few stops on I heard a stop called. I must have heard this announcement scores of times before, but it had never registered. It was the connection for Line 1 to Messe Zentrum.

What had I done? 

I don’t know the end to this story. I hope I didn’t send them too far afield. But I think of those two children, weary after a rainy day’s sightseeing, slumping a little as they stepped off the bus. I think of the woman’s hesitation when she asked, ‘Is it safe?’ And, my mind writhing with shame, I hear my voice, uninvited. ‘Can I help?’

What drives me to do this, again I ask myself. Is it that I want to make a connection? That I am lonely? That I want to boost my own sense importance. Or is it perhaps an ingrained American trait, that characteristic desire to reach out to one’s community that is, I think, actually part of the American culture?

I will say this: I swear—I promise solemnly—I will never again give directions unless I actually know what I’m talking about.

And I hope, without hope, that I don’t become part of a family legend somewhere in Australia. I hope, without hope, that a young man and a young woman don’t find themselves saying, about 10 years from now, ‘Remember that weird woman, dressed like a witch, who sent us off, tramping for an hour through the rain, one day in Salzburg?

I hope, as I say, without hope.

Wherever you are, I am truly sorry. I have learned my lesson.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


After a cool, overcast week punctuated by thunderstorms and cloud bursts, it’s a sunny, calm and mild morning on Katzenstraße. I was up early to feed Jimi, the elderly cat of our neighbours, who are on holiday. He followed me, wobbling slightly as he does these days, into the gentle warmth of the early sun. Now, from the kitchen window in our first-floor apartment, I can see the brown-green fishing pond, which lies behind the houses across the street from us. No wind ruffles its smooth surface, which reflects the grey-green foliage of the trees that line the bank.

It’s a little after nine, yet the street is quiet still. A few walkers pace the path round the pond, their Nordic polesvery popular here—rhythmically marking their stride. A cyclist, red shirt flashing through the interstices between the houses, rolls by. The expanse of garden below the window is quiet; the blackbirds have settled into midsummer silence. Only a few birds chatter in the tall trees of the wood beside us.

In this quiet of this Saturday morning, I’m put in mind of our neighbourhood in California, in a mid-century development in the Newbury Park area of Thousand Oaks, about 40 miles from downtown Los Angeles and several thousand miles from Salzburg. How many thousand miles? I wondered yesterday but neglected to look it up.

I recall Saturday mornings in Newbury Park, especially summer Saturday mornings. The sun blazes on wide roads that meet, mostly, in orderly squared-off intersections. I had never realised how wide are the neat asphalts streets in that suburban neighbourhood until I moved to Europe. Katzenstraße, for instance, isn’t as wide as our driveway in California.

At half-past nine on a July Saturday morning in Newbury Park, the sun glares off the asphalt pavement of those wide streets and glints off the chrome and glass and metallic paint of the cars that are beginning to fill them. The early-morning (first light!) garage sales are well under way, with shoppers peaking about now, as the temperature creeps toward 90. (That’s about 30, for you in Europe.) Women pick up old crockery and examine the undersides of faded chairs; men pick through piles of books or yard tools or the detritus of a home office, watched with studied reserve by those eager to unload the goods. Car doors slam and an engine starts and another car joins the stream cruising the street.

Mockingbirds chatter their loud, complex calls, elaborate as blackbirds’ song if not as musical. The shouts of the Little League coaches and parents fill the air in the field behind our house, occasionally drowned out by the roar of gas-powered lawn mowers and leaf blowers. Noise, as well as swelling heat, seeps through windows, inching under and around our blinds, which remain drawn against the sun. All the same, harsh light creeps along walls and floors, slashing the shadows. The neighbourhood is wide awake, and, no matter how late one or another of us would like to sleep, the sound of its routines breach our walls.

Lying in the coolness of the bedroom this morning, here on quiet Katzenstraße, I saw in my mind’s eye, as in a Google satellite view, the old neighbourhood. As if I hovered overhead, I saw the streets in their modified grid, block after regular block of broad, squat houses with low-peaked, pale tiled roofs. Illuminated by the relentless Southern California light, each was surrounded by concrete and grass, patios of paving stone, sprawling pink Queen Elizabeth roses, lilac agapanthus and brilliant fuchsia bougainvillea. I saw the shimmer rise from the streets and, from high above, looked at people moving about, doll-like, in the glare of the morning. A few joggers braved the heat, groceries were loaded into the back of SUVs, a man, body sleek and tanned, dove into the crystalline blue of a swimming pool. It seemed, for a few minutes, as clear and as immediate as if I were there.

It’s been four years now since I left our home there; I haven’t been back. The quiet neighbourhood where Katzenstraße is located looks very different. The heat does not, at least this summer, shimmer as it rises from asphalt. Time rushes on; what we left in California, then later in Ireland, is remote, the images dreamlike.

But every so often, like dreams, they return, and I inhabit briefly that strange half world of memory made vivid by imagination.

Even this posting is fuelled by imagination. It has been three weeks since the bright July morning I began writing it. Time again has been compressed. Mornings spent in German classes, pressing work and a slow-to-heal back injury have kept me from posting here. So on this rainy August afternoon, I am compelled to try to recall what it was I had recalled, filling in the gaps with imagination.

Imagination is sometimes the stuff of life.