I started my Saturday as usual – with a walk to the bakers. I had a quite a large order this morning because both our daughters had friends sleeping over. To my surprise they were all awake and sitting at the breakfast table when I got back. It was a pleasure to see them all tucking-in to fresh pretzels and rolls. And even though we had Nutella on the table, the fruit was the first thing to run out. Maybe today’s kids will reverse the obesity problem themselves after all?
After breakfast I called two old friends, Klaus and Fritz, to say how sorry I was that their father had recently passed away. Klaus was one of the first people I met when I first moved to Germany. He worked for his brother, Fritz, in a small paragliding company – which I joined in October 1991. The company was based in a corner of Bavaria called the Allgäu (pronounced algoy) which is still my favourite place in Germany even though I left there 17 years ago. I was so enchanted by the place, and so warmly welcomed by Klaus, Fritz and the rest of their extended family that I have always considered the area as my German “Heimat”. I hope that we can move back there one day.
If you google a translation for Heimat you get lots of answers – home, homeland, native-country, hometown, motherland – none of which are quite right. There is no direct translation. I would say hometown feels closest, but it is more of a feeling. Where you feel you belong, where your roots are. My Heimat is probably Yorkshire, but my second Heimat is certainly the Allgäu and will be even if I spend another 30 years living here.
I first visited the area in June of 1991, visiting my brother who already lived and worked there. It was lovely weather and I remember meeting his boss, Fritz and after work driving in an open-top BMW to swim in a nearby lake – which you can see in the picture above. And yes, on a good day it really does look that good. To a young man who had recently been navigating a battered Fiat Uno around south east London, it all felt like a fairy tale. (Coincidentally, King Ludwig’s fairy-tale castle was only a few kilometres away). We had a barbecue that evening and Fritz offered me a job. How could I say no? 3 months later I moved to Germany.
On that first day I also met Klaus and Fritz’s father, Peter. He was working at the Cafe by the lake (which was run by his daughter). He was busy tidying up, emptying bins, renting out a couple of rowing boats and sometimes manning the little kiosk at the entrance to the swimming area. Whatever he was doing, he was always smiling. Without speaking a word of German, you instantly knew that this was an extremely good-natured guy who was just enjoying life.
He lived to be 92 and I am told that he was working up until his final days. The village, Seeg, will be a slightly sadder place without Peter’s smiling face. But his life was not always as idyllic as it seemed to me when we first met. He was a young man when the Second World War came around and was sent to fight on the Eastern Front. I don’t know any details but he was apparently one of the few survivors of some terrible battle – during which he was shot in the head. I can specifically remember someone telling me that the bullet took all the malice and left only goodness. To me it looked that way. I don’t think he spoke about the war, and perhaps he couldn’t remember anything which is probably not a bad thing where the Eastern Front is concerned.
That Russian bullet also affected Peter’s sight – he had a degree of tunnel-vision. But when I moved out there he was still driving around happily in his little Golf. Now it would no doubt be highly illegal, but this was the countryside and it all felt a little more relaxed and lawless back then. At a T-junction in the middle of the village was a small Spar minimarket run by a family with the name “Frei”. If you nipped into the shop you didn’t say I am going to the Spar, you said you were going to “Frei”. Frei also means free or “clear”. Once Peter pulled to a stop at the T-Junction and before he looked left and right to see if the road was clear, his wife in the passenger seat said “Frei”. Peter took that to mean that the road was clear, so he pulled out. His wife had actually meant that he shouldn’t forget that they wanted to go shopping at the “Frei” minimarket. There was a small traffic accident. As they say, you couldn’t make it up.
Apparently the doctors had said that he would probably only have a few years when he returned from the war. In the end he had over 70 years more in his beloved Heimat of Seeg and he won’t be forgotten for another few generations either.