A letter and a kid (3)

My father was born in the Northern part of Styria. Imagine a typical village in the middle of the Alps: a municipality consisting of several hamlets and a main village with a small central square where the Town Hall stands. It has three schools. The plain, white church dates back to the 9th century, the building itself being a mash-up of Romanic, Gothic, Baroque and Neo-Gothic styles.
There’s a supermarket. Next to it, a cemetery. This odd vicinity having nothing to do with cause and effect, of course. 
Along the two main roads stand low buildings, no higher than three storeys, some of which house doctor’s offices, cafés, restaurants, different trades: bakeries, grocery stores, hairdressers, watchmakers, pharmacies. You’ll even find a Chinese restaurant, like in any average Austrian village.
Situated at the edge of a large basin, the village huddles against a gentle, woody rise. When you take the road next to the church, you discover a brook that runs down the slope, cutting a winding rift into the forest. The rivulet murmurs and gurgles peacefully in summer and autumn, its banks overgrown with fern and flowers, grass and clover, stinging nettles and alpine plants. Here and there, the trees' overhanging branches hide it from view.
In winter, a tiny trickle is barely audible, the brook syrupy under its thick crust of ice. In springtime, when its demons awake with the melting of the snow, it gets all puffed up and important, rushing and gushing and roaring down the rift.
Following the rivulet upstream, you pass near the stony, moss-covered remnants of an ancient castle, long ago the stronghold of proud and cruel knights who used to rob the merchants of the county on their way to the nearest market fair. Later, the prince-archbishop of Salzburg owned the castle, which was finally razed and abandoned to time and weather in the 16th century, until only shatters and ruins remained.
If you walk on, let’s say for half an hour, up and up and up, you will leave the shadows of the forest behind and reach a rustic alpine farm made of thick stones and dark, old wood, surrounded by steep meadows and ancient, whispering trees. The flowers give off a wild, dry perfume, and bees, flies, and bumblebees hum around.
The fertile basin stretches at your feet now, imposing mountain ranges surrounding it like rocky sentinels. The houses and streets of the village down below look tiny as if toys. The giant slate pile of an ancient coalmine rises in the middle of corn fields. Not too far away, there’s a moated Renaissance castle.
That’s the setting.
Now, my family… Well, my dad’s father, a good-humoured and tolerant fellow, was working in the local coalmine. My grandma, from a family that had moved from Bohemia to Styria two generations before, was living three kilometres from the village, on a farm where she had been hired as a milkmaid when she was fourteen.
I don’t know much about how she met grandpa. Her employer must have brought her “to town” on Sundays to go to Mass, I guess. Which would have favoured an accidental first encounter.
But not with grandpa, Lord Jesus no! Not only was he working class, but a Communist into the bargain. One of those dreamers who believed in a better tomorrow, in the inevitable downfall of capitalism, and the rise of a new race of humans. In his world, religion was but the opiate of the masses.
I call him a dreamer because he never was dogmatic. An idealist, not an ideologist. Things always start to go downhill when a vague dream, however beautiful, becomes an ideology. When hope becomes blind faith.
Now, apart from the church, where could he have met grandma? Maybe he stumbled upon her on the farm where she was working? It’s true that my grandpa was popular with the local farmers. Which comes as a surprise—most of them were conservative, fervent Catholics, whose only fear, besides Hell, was what they called the Red Danger, the henchmen of Moscow. Those guys didn’t mingle with someone in diametric, political opposition.  
But grandpa was an easy-going lad. With a healthy thirst. And it wasn’t water he preferred, if you catch my drift. Now, what bridges ideological gaps better than some pints and a few glasses of schnapps? 
Moreover, grandpa was always ready to help. “Certainly, certainly…”, he'd say when someone asked for a service. For instance, he’d visit his brother once a week, bringing a small leather satchel with scissors and a mechanical beard trimmer. They’d take turns cutting each other’s hair. Grandpa was good at that. In a small village, word-in-mouth spreads fast, so he’d tour the farms and cut the peasants’ hair in his spare-time, too.


A letter and a kid (2)

I’ve grown up in that little village in the Styrian Alps. My mom has not. She was born in the southernmost part of Styria. The South-East. If you check on a map, focus on that Austrian appendix that bores into Slovenia like a probing finger. Near the tip of that finger, bordered by the river Mur and a rivulet called Kutschenitza, you can find Murnitz, the small hamlet where my mother lived as a child. If you zoom, that is. 
Keywords such as agriculture, Catholic devoutness, conservatism, and exaggerated Germanic pride will help you understand my mom’s background. Back when the Habsburg Empire still existed, the duchy of Styria was administrated by the local, German-speaking gentry, whereas the common folk, mostly peasants, spoke Slovenian better than German. But everyone wanted to imitate the upper class—some things never change. So you had better not claim you felt Slav if you wanted to see the next day unharmed. 
It’s the last names that gave away everybody’s origins, anyway. You wanna feel Germanic, Mister Stralič? Oh, be my guest! 
Where my grandparents lived, in the plains of the South, people cultivated wheat, corn, vegetables, and fruits. Pumpkins, cucumbers, potatoes. Apples, walnuts, plums. And from my frequent visits when I was a kid, I remember vast and wild forests. I remember beech trees, chestnut trees, oak trees, ash trees, linden-trees, birch trees, rowans, maples, hornbeams, and weeping willows. I remember high grass with daffodils in springtime. 
A few kilometres to the North began the softly undulating hill country, covered with vineyards. Another strong memory of mine: our family autumn strolls up there. The sun, ready to set early on, shed gentle light on the landscapes, oblique rays wiping out any neat contour and blurring everything in warm colours. The grapevines’ regular patterns would follow gentle slopes and dingles like as many meticulously combed strands of hair. Vine leaves and forests would be aflame with yellow and red and brown hues, only a few recalcitrant trees braving the season, their foliage still green, but it was a dark green, an almost nostalgic green. When I narrowed my eyes, I could guess the reaped fields in the distance, all ochre and brown. The traditional farms, low buildings with small windows and thick, calcimined walls, pressed against the ground as if the weight and immensity of the sky had flattened them. 
So, that’s where my mother grew up. In a house built at the edge of a forest, down in the plains, a mere five-minutes’ walk from the Kutschenitza and Yugoslavia, as the country was called back then. Her mother, my granny, was working for the local notable, the Count Stürgkh. My grandfather was a carpenter. They had married after the war; my mom was their only child. 
How odd. I don’t have a clear picture of these guys in my mind. My mom’s parents, I mean. I remember their physical features, but the rest is harder to define. Oh, I remember my granny as a warm and generous woman. But that’s about all. She died from cancer when I was a little kid. 
And grandfather would always remain a faraway person. You know, someone you could describe as discreet because he’d always stay outside, at the edge, sleek and elusive like a fish you’d try to catch with your bare hands. Especially after his wife’s death, he would disappear from the family circle, in small, maybe involuntary steps, but with determined steadfastness. 
Of course, he would show up for the usual family reunions such as Christmas, because my mom insisted each time. Of course, I would see him during my holidays, when the family spent some weeks in his house at the edge of the forest. Of course, he would tell me countless stories of the war, when he’d enrolled in the Wehrmacht. He’d been to Norway, he’d suffered from diarrhoea in Greece. But the man always acted as if his daughter, his son-in-law, his grandchildren were mere strangers whose existence he accepted politely, but whose departure he never regretted. 
To me, my grandparents feel like a man and a woman who have stepped out of a dense wall of fog, two hard-working, mute guys in their middle ages whose only purpose has been to welcome me at my birth, offer me a regular change of environment during my childhood and teenage years, and disappear at last without too great an impact on my own existence. 
I guess that’s what my mother feels, too. She hardly ever mentions them. The memories we share concern the parcels my granny would send us from time to time, with home-grown vegetables and fruits and stuff. And the banknotes my granddad would slip into three plain, white envelopes at Christmas. One for my mom, one for my sister, one for me. Nothing for my dad; my granddad liked him, but never considered him family. 
By the way, and just for the record: granddad would always ask my mother to get him the three envelopes. Five minutes before we’d gather in the living room in order to distribute the Christmas presents.


A letter and a kid (1)

I’m not sure I wanted to be born. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a suicide candidate. I cherish life. Even if mine hasn’t been a long and calm river, but rather ups and downs. Still, I’ve always thought it’s a waste of time and energy to deplore things I can’t change. So ups and downs it has been. And will be. For me like for anyone else. I’m born, I’ve got to deal with it.
But deep inside, I keep thinking that my previous state must have been neat. Those nine months when I was kind of floating in my mother’s womb, when I started out as this single cell, which divided into two, then four, then eight and so on, growing into something more complicated, more complex, a cell blob doing its cell-blob-business in the safety of a warm and dark and moist cavity.
Maybe the whole problem started with that cell division thing? Maybe I was happiest when I existed as a simple one-cell organism? Go figure. Would be only logical, because that moment didn’t last long, for sure. Happy moments never do.
What I’m trying to tell you is this: after a short period of pure bliss, bad things started to happen to me. They started the instant I was born, in fact. There—take my birth. Man, what a butchery. You can believe me, I was there.
Of course, my memories don’t go back that far. I know my pre-birth- and immediate post-birth-period only from hearsay, which always lacks that ring of truth that memories, even false ones, have. But hey, as far as my mom’s pregnancy is concerned, I can’t be too wrong. I know her. She’s such a warm-hearted, emotional and nurturing woman that I’m certain I was fine in her womb. Fine, content; happy, even. The repercussions of that early, let’s say pre-historical happiness still show through in my character.
First of all, I’m an optimist. Go beat me. Secondly, I’m someone who loves to live in his bubble. I guess you can call me a procrastinator. I guess you should call me a procrastinator.
I’ve got this theory. About procrastinators.
They come in three forms, okay? There are the lazybones, to begin with. People who dodge anything that looks like work, even remotely. Their astute assumption is that most things, when left until later, tend to be done by others.
Type #2 are the conflict-haters. They’ll do anything to avoid confrontations, meaning they’ll dither over decisions or actions until someone else decides or acts in their place. Those guys, Jesus, they need to be thick-skinned! Others will badmouth them as cowards or people pleasers. I should know; I’m one of them, too. Well, a bit.
That doesn’t imply these guys are losers, though. Hell, no! If they manage to ignore all that badmouthing and stuff, they can always get into politics and become natural success stories. Pity I never was tempted by that path.
Now, type #3. This is important, okay? The idealists. Caught in the reflections of their bubble and allergic to the many vicissitudes reality casts their way. They live like ostriches, their heads buried deep in the sand. Theirs is a world of imagination and dreams. If you’re one of them, you’ll have great trouble dealing with situations that ask for a quick response. Open-eyed and numb, you’ll stare at problems like a rabbit surprised by a cobra.
But unlike the two other types, if the going gets tough, if harsh reality bursts your bubble for good, you’re able to shake off the shards. And do something.
Not always the right thing.
But still.
And that’s me. Cornelius in a nutshell.
But wasn’t I talking about my birth? Sorry, I’m a fuss-head.
So. I was born, okay, we got that. But before I was born, I had to be conceived. Of course. And that wouldn’t have happened if there hadn’t been that letter. People still wrote letters back then, you know.
Or, to be more precise, it’s not the whole letter. It’s just one sentence in it. That triggered it all off, I mean. My parents meeting, falling in love, dating, marrying, engaging in regular intercourse, you get the picture, until—ta-da!—that single cell, soon to evolve into a blob, soon to evolve into me, appeared in my mom’s uterus.



That Saturday, Cornelius got a call from his sister. After they had assured each other everything was fine, Kathi said: “It’s Mom’s birthday next week.” 
“I know.” 
“Yeah, I guess. But do you think you can remember to call her this year?” 
“Of course!” 
“No need to sound offended, Cee! I just want to make sure you really do.” 
“I mean it. Really. I don’t want to go through another drama like last year.” 
“Alright”, Cornelius said. “Phone call on D-day. No birthday card. Promised.” 
“I count on you, okay?” 
Cornelius preferred to change the subject and talked about the banana cake he had prepared the weekend before. “Had some over-ripe bananas. You know, nobody wants to eat them here when they get almost black. So I googled ‘banana cake’ and found a nice recipe. Really simple, not too sweet…” 
“Hey, can you mail me the link?”, Kathi asked. “Got the same problem here. Was thinking of using the bananas to make me a milk-shake, but a four-banana-milk-shake for one person…” 
“Okay, I’ll send it right now. It’s in English, though.” 
“I’ll use Google Translate, don’t worry.” 
Only two days later, Kathi called again. “Cee? Got a minute?” 
“Why, yes. Shoot. What’s the matter?” 
“Oh, nothing important. But tell me: have you really followed that banana cake recipe you sent me? Or did you change something?” 
Cornelius said no, he had followed the recipe step by step, the way they explained it on the website. 
“I must have done something wrong then,” Kathi sighed. “I invited Bernd and Tim over for cake and coffee, last Sunday. And I had prepared your banana cake.” 
“Well, first I thought it was just me. Then I saw Bernd’s and Tim’s faces and knew it wasn’t.” 
“Well, the cake was … disgusting.” Cornelius heard his sister shudder. “I mean, like, really disgusting? Uneatable. It tasted strongly of flour and… rotten bananas.” 
“Ah, that.” Cornelius nodded, even if he knew his sister couldn’t see him. “Yes, I know. René and I didn’t like it, either.” 
There was a longish silence. Then, Kathi burst out with laughter: “You fucking moron! You know how embarrassed I was in front of Bernd and Tim? Of course, they were too busy making fun of me to notice.” 
“Oh, sorry…” 
“Couldn’t you tell me?” She still laughed. “Why on earth did you mail me the recipe without warning me?” 
“I wanted to know if I had done something wrong or if the recipe was shit. And, after all, you never ever asked me if the cake had been any good.”


Improvised (for Nils Frahm)

Pocket evening

Electric piano tunes
dripping and cascading
into twilight silence

Sugar teardrops
I’d never dream
of weeping

Salty rain
I’d crave
to get soaked in

I stop doing
what I’m doing
I don’t think
don’t even breathe
and listen
just listen

With my ears
my closed eyes
my skin
my mind

bead after bead
prickle through
then swell to tides
then echo inside
my skull and chest
touching my
inner bells

(check out: Nils Frahm, *1982, German composer and musician)