The train headed southwards and the young man across the aisle tried to catch my attention. In an otherwise empty compartment he had chosen the place closest to me and with a smile and broken German he addressed me. I answered and turned back to my paper, but he wouldn't give up. He asked to borrow the sports section of the paper, he asked me to watch his bag, but as I answered with one word sentences he finally left me alone. I felt a little sorry for him, but I wasn't in a mood to carry a conversation with this dark stranger with flirty eyes. His sighs failed to move me and I in turn sighed with content as a young woman sat next to him in Giessen. She enjoyed talking even more than him and they were not quiet for a second for the rest of the way.
The train pulled to the station and I followed the talkative couple out. I had checked the way to the old town and had no trouble finding the right way. A bridge crossed the river Lahn and I stopped for a moment to track its course through the old buildings. It brought back a memory from nearly twenty years ago: us visiting our aunt in Geneva, the trip to the little town on the French side. There had been a similar river there too.
The past disappeared to be replaced by new memories as I came to the St. Elizabeth's church. The bombs of the last war had left it untouched and I enjoyed the silence inside. The feel of the old stones. The war hadn't brought about only the loss of millions of lives and the loss of innocence; it had also destroyed irrevocable pieces of history, turned to dust and rubble layers and layers of the past. These German towns with roots going back to the Antiquity and the Middle Ages whispered of things, which were gone for ever and I had to mourn the man's desire to destroy.
But man is not inclined only for destruction, but also creation. I stepped from the church into sun light, called forwards by the sound of jazz drifting into this house of a god. Tents and stalls stood around the church and right outside a man sat moulding a piece of clay into a small round jug. The potter's wheel turned and turned and his wet hands shaped the clay - gently, but firmly. Less than five minutes had passed, before the piece of matter had turned into an object of beauty in those hands.
I watched the transformation with eagerness and desire. I wanted to sit so too, with the potter's wheel between my legs and give something inanimate life, a purpose. His skills astonished me; this balding middle-aged man in torn pants and dirty shoes, dried clay sprinkling his arms nearly to his elbows. He made it look so easy and I left him wanting one day to possess his skills, to be as good as him - to have a wheel and an oven of my own somewhere in the back of a garden.
The band was still playing - whether jazz or swing I couldn't tell. I bought a currywurst from a smiling young man in a nearby stall and ate standing, listening to the band play. Three old man and a youngish woman. They were having fun bringing the music into the world and enjoyed the attention of the crowd around them. The joyful notes followed me as I continued forward.
The Pilgrimstein wound along an old botanical garden towards the old town. The road started to climb higher, old steep steps led me to the old Rathaus and pushing the door open I peaked in. In the silence and emptiness I was greeted only by the smell of an old house. That wonderful smell of wood, which always brings to mind thoughts of home. It is connected to the smell of a damp, cool cellar, which I had smelled somewhere not long ago. A memory of that lingered still in the back of my mind, but I could not remember where it came from. I pressed my face close to a wooden pillar and inhaled the essence of wood. With those memories whirling in my head I stepped back outside.
I followed the way upwards, ever more steps brought me towards the market place and the sun was warm on my back. Café keepers were busily carrying out the tables and I wondered if they fell tempted to call in the panting old ladies who were struggling to get up the hill.
Another band was playing at the market square and stalls with free blood pressure and cholesterol controls were happily neighbouring tents selling sausages and beer. I left them both and continued ever upwards.
I reached the grounds of a Lutheran Church from which walls I could see the town nestled beneath. The medieval city centre stretched onwards. People were living in these beautiful, old houses and smoke was drifting from one of the chimneys into the clear autumn sky. How many centuries had these buildings witnessed, how beautiful and proud were they in their mixture of decay and stubborn resistance to the ravishing of the time. The modern houses further away must have been humbled by their longevity, shamed of their own ugliness.
Ever more steps lead to the highest hill of the town, where the old castle of the landgraves dominated all the surroundings. Guarded by wild boars and sturdy walls it stood over the town and whispered promises of beauty. I pushed the heavy, decorative door of the castle open and climbed up the stairs.
Saint Elizabeth told of her life from 800 years ago: the Hungarian princess who came to the magnificent castle of her future husband at the age of 4 and was a widow already at 20. Despite all that she could have had, Elizabeth chose a life of poverty and charity and the harshness of her life killed her when she was only 24. Was she happy with her choices or did she regret her life when she lay on her deathbed?
The castle was full of enticing, comely objects and I wandered the halls in silence - the joy bubbling inside. The intricate craftsmanship visible in the cupboards and commodes brought back the desire that the potter had already evoked. I wish to turn my hands also into instruments that could create such lasting marvels. I dreamt dreams of an old farmhouse bathing in sunshine, the dog running wildly in the garden as the cats guarded the sleeping baby. The striped one licked its paws as the longhaired tomcat yawned lazily. I had laid away my book and the chisels worked on the wood, which slowly acquired its shape.
The allure of the past centuries was overwhelming and I was saddened by the ugliness and the hectic spirit of my own age. But relief was there to chase away the repulsion. With thankfulness I realised that I did not have to endure the more nauseating sides of it if I didn't wish to; I could always choose a simpler life away from the pressures of the cities.
The hecticness came towards me as I slowly descended from the castle. Already from afar a sea of human voices, indistinguishable and blurred into one steadily ebbing and rising wave hit me. It was the burring of distant bees, which grew louder as I turned a corner and saw the shopping street in front of me. The slowly moving river of people swallowed me and carried me onwards: I tried not to bump into the rocks that were other people and as I felt that my strength was vanishing I made a final push. In the fork of roads I took the upper one that was braved by only three other souls and the milling, screaming mass of people streamed downwards.
It did not take long for the irritating sounds to disappear and soon I could hear my own footsteps and the birds singing again. The road ascended to the castle, but I went past it and stopped at the café. The sun caressed me and I had to take of my fleece. It was sleeveless but with the strength of the sun it was still too warm.
The waitress brought my Apfelwein and cheesecake soon and my thoughts circled back to the day. I shooed away an insistent bee and gazed down at the church and the town. It was good, very good: The traveling and all these old towns where you could feel the past seeping in. It was always there; the same way as the otherness of the strange language and the odd looking buildings and signs. It pushed against the boundaries of the mind: expanding them, enlivening and invigorating, expelling the murky mists of the commonplace.
It was good. The same way the business of this restaurant was good. I paid my bill, strolled down to the church and sat on the wall. A very good day indeed. This was how life was meant to be, but I wasn't sure if I could make it reality in the future. Did I want too many things? I wanted happiness - and at least today I had been happy.