Saturday, August 16, 2014

How could I ever forget Whatsisname?

The things you find when you’re throwing out old books and papers! Somehow, the other day, an old address-book from 1966 surfaced, and I’ve been surfing through it trying to put faces and incidents to the names in it. (I’m talking about a real old-fashioned handwritten address book. Younger readers can ask their grandparents what that is.)

The names are grouped by countries of residence, and some were transcribed from an earlier book. In A for Australia: Ray Hudson of Sydney, met at a Youth Hostel in Hammerfest on 12th August 1963 when I was hitching through Scandinavia on my own. (The Summer of ’63, in the Archives of January 2013.) We met up again in London that winter, apparently. And Ron Winch, also of Sydney, whom Linda and I hung around with on 19th & 20th January 1965 in Damascus. “A v nice bloke”, I noted: unusual praise. So why do I have no recollection of the hanging-around?

On the page for Austria there is an entry for Peter and Herwart Kramer, whom we visited in Vienna on 11th April 1965 for a cup of tea. Peter was the brother of Stefan Mueller of Tirgo Jiu in the Saxon region of Rumania whom we’d met a week earlier. A note says I spoke German with both brothers. That must have been fun for them.

 In The German Lesson posted on this blog in May 2012 I confessed how desperately bad my spoken German was. I can scarcely imagine how I had the cheek to impose myself on strangers in a strange land and language. Did I phone ahead (surely not!), or did we just turn up on the doorstep? “Hello. Your brother said you’d give us a cup of tea. How about it?” I can’t recall.

 Only years later did I read up about the Saxons (Sachsens), ethnic Germans settled in Transylvania from the 11th Century onwards by the rulers of Austria and/or Hungary. They had kept their own language ever since, though it would have been a distinct dialect, and probably not much like the German of the west. The ones we met spoke standard German to me: that’s all I know.

There were 250,000 or so living there at the time of our visit. One man assured us, “Things weren’t so bad during the War”. Probably not. But the community as a whole had looked kindly on the Nazi governments of Germany and Austria, and after the war the imperial Soviets relocated tens of thousands of them to other parts of the Union. The fall of Ceausescu in 1989 triggered the departure of most of the remainder, this time to Germany.

Also in Transylvania we stayed with Alfred & Inge Bauman in Sibiu. “Board & friendship – 3rd-5th April 1965”, I wrote. That was while my car was in the shop (Co-op Tehnica Mona) having a new transmission installed. That incident, I remember: but the accommodation, not at all.

Nor do I recall the pension on the outskirts of Sofia (Bulgaria) where we had stayed 25th-28th March, run by Dmitri Ctaunoh. (I’m not sure about the name; he wrote it in the book in Cyrillic script, and the letters don’t all have exact transcriptions in Latin script.) I have "Rom" beside his name, which must mean he was of Rumanian nationality and not that we spoke Rumanian together. Bulgaria came before Rumania on our itinerary. I have no recollection at all – not only of Dmitri but of the whole city of Sofia. What ingratitude, in the face of such kindnesses!

Some sights are remembered, though not always in the correct context. For decades I claimed to have inspected the stuffed body of Ceausescu’s predecessor in Bucharest, and I can see it clearly. But Wikipedia tells me I’ve been wrong all this time. The body we saw was that of Georgi Dimitrov, sometime dictator of Bulgaria, and the place was Sofia.

We queued up with thirty locals and filed reverently though the mausoleum in the main square. Thirty doesn’t sound many: perhaps there were more. We were much keener to see Lenin’s body - embalmed and entombed - in Moscow when we got there, but there must have been a thousand people waiting in a long line on a hot day, and we didn’t have the patience. If you’ve seen one dead dictator’s mummy, you’ve seen them all, pretty much.