40 Jahre Goethe-Institut Neuseeland
The ferry, that I took from Harwich to the Hook of Holland, was for me a cutting of the painter, the clanging bell in the harbour roads a requiem for an old country. The 800 km journey to Munich in a mini-van leaking oil, fraught; but I arrived that evening at my destination in Munich against the flow of Oktoberfest traffic, a triumph of navigation. Charlotte, schlug mal herunter! were the words that greeted me as I re-united with my pregnant wife, Jo, at her cousin Charity’s apartment, husband Erik vainly trying to get their infant daughter to swallow her evening meal. Mine was Hühnerleber Berliner Art – chicken’s liver and mash, welcome after the long drive.
Next morning we set off for Murnau and the Goethe-Institut where we were to spend the next six months. We stopped for a break at the Starnbergersee. Knappertsbusch ist tot was the newspaper headline. Later we passed a pine forest where a high-speed vehicle had careened off the road and smashed a swathe into a stand of pine.
In Murnau we soon found our lodgings: Frau von Pastor, older woman with braided hair, showed us to our room. Proudly she showed us a secret exit at the back of the house. ‘Falls die Russen wiederkommen’. The Frenchwoman in another room smoked in bed. Would she set the wooden house on fire? the constant fear.
Grundstufe 1 was where we began. Mein Name ist Herr Laabs, wrote our teacher on the board. Bettina ist fleißig, aber Hartmut ist faul. Our Unterricht was underway. My knowledge of German until then confined to the ein, zwei, drei, vier, fünf, sechs, sieben … of a card-playing German family at the next table in a Swiss resort during a skiing holiday. Many of the other students were Americans who had never been taught grammar at school. They struggled with the structured nature of German. Shouldn’t it be brought into line with what they knew? And there were ructions in the dining room. Forelle blau looked like raw fish to people who had only eaten Fischstäbchen before. The star pupil was a Japanese banker with extraordinary mental energy.
Week-ends we interacted with the locals. Discussions of how we might spend the evening cut short by, Ich interessiere mich nur für die nächsten fünf Minuten – the impatience of a young man eager to offer some of the girls a ride to the bright lights of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Jo and I, and an American draft-dodger (whose name I forget) were keen to explore the Southern Alps. One memorable walk took us to a peak overlooking Mittenwald, Geigenbaucentrum Deutschlands, the view into Austria spectacular. But it was getting late. We needed to get down the mountain quickly. Our German guide took us to a long and steep scree slope. Gut für laufen! quoth he as we ran side-slipping and careering our way down.
Murnau, quaint little town with an onion-towered church and brightly painted wooden houses, was the unlikely epi-centre of one of the great art revolutions of the twentieth century: German Expressionism. Wassily Kandinsky & Gabriele Munter made it their home. From 1908 they lived the idyllic phase of their relationship in what is now called the Munterhaus. There and in the town gallery examples of their work are on display. We saw the rich colours of the landscape and the buildings through their eyes. Trips to Munich, especially the Neue Pinakotek, furthered our art-education, first gallery in Europe to be devoted to modern painting and sculpture.
But the Munterhaus had another meaning for us. Jo’s term was approaching, and it was where Frau Stöpf held weekly Schwangerschaftsgymnastik sessions: to ensure expectant mothers had the requisite musculature to birth their babies efficiently and well. And so it proved. One afternoon out for a walk Jo started to feel labour pains. We made for the Krankenhaus,in those days run by Catholic – barmherzigen? - Sisters. The birth of Monica was swift and good, a giant step toward assuaging the grief of the loss of our first child, Gail.
Our six-month stay in Murnau ended in April. It had included a winter with temperatures as low as -28c, our mini-van fitted with chains. We ended up in Mittelstufe 2 - B2 in today’s terms – having passed all the requisite Prüfungen. Now I was qualified to enter the doctorate programme at Geneva University, which required three European languages (I knew French from school and Cours de vacances in Paris & Grenoble). Once again, Jo’s cousin Charity, a lecturer at Munich University, helped her and Monica onto a plane to Geneva. Again, I followed with the car.
My last memory of that time was of driving down the Allgäu to Bregenz to take the car-ferry across the Bodensee to Konstanz. It was a calm April spring day in bright sunshine. Already swallows were swooping and darting after insects over the lake surface. The scene was as beautiful as any I have ever seen. Jo and I then reunited in what was to be our home for the next four years: the cowman’s lodging above a huge Swiss barn, winter home to a herd of cows, the farm owned by Monsieur et Madame Luginbuhl soon to become our friends; as were the Sjollemas, Baldwin head of the Anti-Racism unit of the then vigorous World Council of Churches in Geneva.
Cut to Wellington post-1990: my love-affair with the German language continues at the Goethe-Institut. I sweat my way through the syllabus and exam for the C1 qualification. The place is presided over by a kind of fairy godmother, Judith Geare, ever-active and energizer of all. Students from Germany assist with the teaching and running of the Institut. Well-educated and courteous, they are the best advertisement for the kind of nation Germany is becoming – now two generations away from the events they read about in their history books.
And then, in 2008, at Frankfurt am Main, the even more demanding requirements of the C2 course and examination. Somehow I had arrived. Bi-annual visits to Germany became increasingly rewarding. From 1996 I had been researching Holocaust sites and, as Pilger an unheiligen Orten, the guest of Karmelitinnen in Dachau, Berlin, and Emsland. Even in the latter, in mitten von nirgendwo, there were people to talk with and learn from auf deutsch!
A big Vielen lieben Dank, then, is how I’d like to end.