The winter of 2010 was very harsh even by German standards. It was snowing knee deep even on the eve of Christmas, and it was all set for a Weisse weinnachten (white Christmas). I had planned to stay back and explore Stuttgart for the Christmas vacations rather than traveling behind touristy places which most of my friends did.
On a gloomy winter morning, I decided to go to Birkenkopf which is not far from city center. It is a man-made mountain built out of the rubble of the Second World War. The war had reduced almost three-fourth of the industrial city to rubbles, from where it was rebuilt by industrious people. Facing the city below, I sat in one of those giant pieces of stone slabs which should been a pillar of a pre-war building. The City was pitch white but for the patches of rooftops and occasionally red regional trains leaving the main station. I took out my travel diary and started to continue my unfinished article on Swabian food culture, but found my fingers too numb in cold to write anything.
“Eiskalt” smiled the old lady who was sitting in the slab next to mine. She should be in her late sixties, short and somewhat fat and her unkempt hair held together by a headband. She had a couple of plastic covers stuffed to its brim with clothes. It is interesting that I didn’t notice her when I came to sit in the slab. Her features are so sublime that it mingles into the canvas so inadvertently that hardly anyone notices her. “Ja! genau” I smiled back at her. Her smile carried a kind of faint luminescence which should have been a lightning glow attracting men during her Youth.
After the customary introductions and mutual questions about India and Germany, we decided to take the bus back to centre of city. Despite being so involved while talking about general topics, she hardly spoke anything about herself during long winding trip. When we ran out points to discuss about a topic, there was an oppressive silence, which was then followed by another general topic like ‘Climate change’. So, as we neared the city center I was expecting that she would bid adieu. But she asked me whether I can join her for coffee chat.
I got a double espresso for me. She had cappucino. For those who had not been to cold countries, you can never understand the importance of coffee on a cold day. We sat down indoors near the glass window overlooking the street. I looked outside the window and waited for the conversation to start. The city square was crowded, but there was some orderliness in the crowd. Lovers were giggling over a cup of gluhwein in the Christmas markets. An old man was buying a pack of Mandeln (Candied, roasted almonds) for his granddaughter. Christmas is a special time to be in Germany, it’s a feel which can never be transcended into words.
I hardly thought this ‘old- plastic bag carrying-head band wearing’ woman might go down as one of the most engaging conversationalists I have met in my life. That despite the fact that I was never sure whether what she told me was truth or a figment of her imaginations.
She told me that she had never seen her father. The last that was heard of him was a long letter from the eastern front enquiring about his pregnant wife and how he wants the child to be named. Apparently, the child was named Volga. Volga spent her childhood in Gaislingen and later studied in Ulm. Fate took her finally to Stuttgart after drifting her through Duisburg, Halle and Jena. She decided to live alone in Stuttgart after a disagreement with her only daughter who had married a Turkish businessman.
She narrated her story with the necessary ups and downs in her voice to express the various emotions connected with the story.
In return I offered her the short history of mine of how I was born in temple town in South of India and so on. She was equally excited with my narration. She can’t digest the fact that my German is better than my Hindi.
And as people came and left around our table, we sat there four hours straight. We parted exchanging our phone numbers.
The next time I saw her was during the Monday demonstrations against Stuttgart 21 near the main railway station. The people of Stuttgart staged a huge demonstration against the governments decision to tear down the old railway station and build a new hi-tech one.
Volga was behind a sea of green flags. She herself was waving a banner which said ‘Mappus weg!’ (Mappus – Name of mayor of Stuttgart; Weg – get away)
and as usual she had a rugged head band.
“What are you doing here in the demonstrations?” She asked me.
“I..” She did not wait for my answer, as she joined shouting the slogans which started just then.
“I invite you to my place. I live in Giebel” she shouted and wrote her address in my hand.
One Sunday morning I took a long walk from my apartment in Feuerbach and had reached near Giebel. I remembered Volga and decided to drop-in and say hi.
She lived in a single room flat in a huge complex mostly inhibited by old people.
I could see that she was not so happy that I had come without informing before. She was repenting that she didn’t even clean her house. Volga made coffee for me and offered some bretzels.
She was busy arranging her unkempt bookshelf. I saw this book on the table whose title was something like ‘Die Einsamkeit der Primzahlen’. I took this book and sat in the balcony with the coffee to flip through the book till she finishes her rearrangement of shelves.
The balcony was overlooking a garden. In it couple of young guys trying to fix a hookah. As time passed, many more guys joined the hookah party and there was lot of noise. I came back to the living room. She was still rearranging and I understood that I could not speak a word until she finishes.
After sometime, I planned to break the silence.
‘Can I lend this from you?’ I asked.
‘No. Leider. I plan to read it on the Weinachten’ She said.