Friday, April 18, 2014

RIP—Günther Heise, 24/12/1931 – 18/4/2014

This Good Friday morning, around 7:30 a.m. Berlin time, my Dad took his last breath and peacefully slid away.

You may remember that I had seen him only two weeks ago, during my last trip to Germany. I had returned to the US just last Wednesday and was en route home from a weekend high school mountain bike race (950 miles of driving plus the race in three days!) on Monday morning when word reached me that Dad had been hospitalized and was not doing well at all. With my brother in Vietnam for a 3-week vacation (and at the time of my notification not reachable yet) I immediately booked a flight to Berlin and left Lubbock on Tuesday morning. When I arrived in Berlin at noon on Wednesday, my nephew, Dennis, picked me up and we went straight to the hospital.

Things had progressed quickly. My Dad had not been feeling well for weeks, and, quite frankly, we thought that a lifetime of heavy smoking had finally caught up with the 82-year-old and that cancer was ravaging him. So, really, none of this came as a surprise to us. ("Us" in our case is a very small family: My brother, Bux; his two children, Dennis [21] and Jannick [15]; his ex-wife Gabi, who happens to work as an ICU nurse in the hospital where my Dad was stationed and who had taken care of cleaning chores at my Dad's once a week or so; his other ex-wife, Andrea; and a literal handful of cousins, aunt, and uncle from my deceased mom's side. That's it.)

We had no idea how bad things were with my Paps even if we knew he wasn't doing well. He was not much of a complainer, and he didn't let on when things were wrong. Still, when I had said good-bye two weeks ago I had been wondering how many more times I might get to visit him in the "smoker's den," as Judy and I had called the yellowed apartment in the middle of Berlin's Turkish quarter. Apparently things became so difficult and uncomfortable for him that he called an ambulance on Sunday to be taken to the hospital. (I had two brief telephone conversations on Friday and Saturday with him during which he sounded totally worn out.) Gabi was on-site soon after, and he made clear to the physicians that, should things turn south, he did not want to be kept alive with artificial means and treatments other than to provide comfort; his living will stated the same. According to Gabi, he was lucid and appeared somehow relieved, even though the initial diagnosis indicated that some medication would take care of whatever ailed him. I am sure he knew that the end was closing in rapidly. I hope that, once my time comes, I can show the same dignity and courage that he displayed.

Monday saw my Dad's condition spiraling downward. The doctors found out that his heart function was greatly diminished and that he had a large amount of fluid in his lungs and abdomen; what had seemed as possibly fixable with some medication became an increasingly hopeless situation, especially in light of my dad's explicit wishes to not utilize high-tech procedures to keep him alive to avoid becoming somebody requiring 24-hour care. His liver and kidneys started to fail. The call to me was made.

On Tuesday, his younger grandchild, Jannick, visited my Dad after his brother, Dennis, had picked him up at an out-of-town Easter vacation camp for special ed kids. Dad's condition had already deteriorated markedly, but he still had lucid spells and obviously was glad to see Jannick. Gabi and Dennis started taking turns staying with Dad, as much as possible, while I was sitting in airplanes to make it back in time. I did, but only to see him in a more-or-less comatose state. There was never an obvious sign that he recognized me or my presence, which is of no consequence since we will never know. For those of us who are left over, the temptation is great to assume that our presence is calming and soothing. We believe what we want to believe, and hope often tops intellect.

With the exception of a short 3-hour break on Thursday afternoon, during which I made personal contact with a funeral home and rode for an hour to clear my mind and body, I spent the entire time with my Dad. The hospital bent the rules a little bit and provided me with a bed so that I could rest some. The nurses were friendly and emphatic, the way most nurses are—what a blessing on mankind they are! The doctors were mostly absent since, let's face it, there was nothing to be done. I had sent my good friend Alan the results of my Dad's blood work, and he ventured an estimate of 24 to 72 hours. I read this e-mail around 6:15 a.m. this morning. At 7:30, Dad was dead.

So, who was this man? Physically, we were quite similar, even though I am taller and have always been a bit more muscular—my Mom always made fun of his sticks in the ass legs! But look at pictures of his face and mine at similar stages in our lives, and the similarity is striking. He was a good husband and father. His dedication to my mother, whom he nursed for ten years after she fell sick with MS, was 100%, to the point of being self-destructive. He always had the best for his family at heart. He was the type of provider that only the post-war years could produce. (Both he and my Mom were born in Berlin and had their formative years during the final stages of WW II.) He was a curious person, and he instilled in me that same sense of curiosity and adventure that lie at least partially at the root of my urge for travel and, eventually, having emigrated.

I remember well a defining moment in my life that, in retrospect, seems like a turning point in my Dad's life, too. It was sometime in the late '70s, after I had already left for college in Trier but before my exit to the USA. Most of his life, my Dad had minor heart problems, and on that particular afternoon he had experienced some medical problem that had necessitated a house visit by Dr. Lehmann, our longtime Hausarzt. Apparently, things weren't too acute since the doc just told my Dad to rest up. When I went to see my Dad, who, quite curiously, looked shrunken and much smaller than usual, and check on him, he turned to me with an ashen face and sad eyes and let out a sigh that has stayed with me since: "I had wanted to do so much!" The resignation in his voice turned these words into something like a mantra for me, reminding me to not just want to do but to actually DO. I have been doing, and that may be one of my Dad's greatest legacies, even if he never intended it.

Dad was a good guy. Like everybody, he had his flaws. As a family father, he could be quite authoritarian, to the point of intimidating. Generally, he had an even temper, but on very rare occasions, he would erupt in an unpredictable manner, and it was not a good thing to be in the direct line of fire. He was a man of rigid principles, sometimes to a fault. I started to recognize these various traits once I left the house, and, sometimes seeing the same in myself, I have been trying to be cognizant and avert the worst damage. Those of you who know me will know what I am talking about. We are, after all, our parents' children.

His biggest fault, though, is a personal one that may have prevented him from having had an even more fulfilled life than I believe he must have had: My Dad had a very hard time communicating his feelings to and with others. Even though he was very, very soft on the inside—easily brought to teary eyes—some events in his childhood made it impossible for him to truly confide his feelings, aspirations, fears, hopes, and demons. There was some barrier, something that over time had become so large that he couldn't overcome it. I am sure others have seen the same in their parents. I do not know how often over all of those years and many, many visits I tried to break through to that inner Dad that I know existed. It was like an encapsulated tumor, and the slow and cruel death of my mother made it even more of a foreign object. Still, I thought that Judy's death might, just maybe, open him up toward his elder son. (I do not know how open he may have been with my brother, but I believe that certain doors stayed closed, there, too.) My father's resistance to share emotion and allow others to see inside him has certainly left its mark on me, someone who is gregarious, full of love for life, optimism, and the need to share with others. I tried to crack the nut, didn't succeed, and am OK with it—yet, I can still wish he had shared this inner self with me.

I am writing all of this a few hours after Dad's death, less than 100 meters away from his apartment. You see, right on the corner of Sonnenallee and Erkstrasse/Wildenbruchstrasse, there is this small Eckkneipe, a corner pub called Zum Tiger. How often did my dad and I joke about going there to have Sunday Frühschoppen, a time when German men escape their wives and have a pint or two before lunch? Of course, we never went. There were no women to escape from.... So, when I was slowly trudging back to the apartment after finalizing everything in the hospital, I saw Zum Tiger. And then I stepped in—Good Friday and all—and decided to have a pint or two and write all of this.

Rest in Peace, Dad.



Monday, April 7, 2014

One of Europe's top-10 to visit: Salzburg

Panoramic shot of Salzburg
That's an ambitious title, I know. But after spending an absolutely delightful long weekend in the city of Mozart I think I need to spread the word about this charming place. It ranks right up there with the likes of Paris, Prague, and Budapest and should not be missed if you happen to be in central Europe.
On the Autobahn, heading from München to Salzburg
Driving east on the A8, parallel with the Alps, must be one of the most spectacular autobahn drives in Germany
How 'bout it?
Salzburg is notorious for bad weather. This part of Austria (as well as the immediate German region around Bad Reichenhall and Berchtesgaden) is called the Salzkammergut for its longtime production of salt. And, let's face it, everybody knows that it always rains in the Salzkammergut. So it was a special treat to visit Salzburg (literally, Saltcastle) in pure sunshine with spring-like temperatures. But, as they say: YMMV when you visit and it rains and the lustre is a bit less vivid.
One of old town's shopping streets
Lines were long at the local Bosna place, a Balkan-inspired sausage stand
Bosna: A grilled dual-sausage with all kinds of delectables wrapped in a bun
Long before Sabine and I had decided to change our relationship we had decided on this visit and had booked an apartment (and I had made all my flight arrangements to go to Europe). Life's too short to let amour interfere with travel. So, after arriving in Munich last week we took the Skoda on the less-than-two-hour trip on the autobahn to the very south-eastern corner of Germany. What a drive along the northern edge of the Alps! The visibility was fantastic, and I was gushing about how green everything was. Coming from Lubbock that's not too difficult, but even Sabine mentioned that it was unusually green for this time of the year. The main reason is that there's been hardly any snow to suffocate the grass, yet there's been enough moisture to green up everything. Simply put, it's gorgeous and lifts the spirit after the depressing wind and dirt in West Texas.
Mozart is everywhere!
Should have gotten some of that to take care of back pain, impotence, and rotting teeth
Nice way to end the day, eh? The fortification is on the right, in the background.
Salzburg lies in a fairly flat area, built up by two small rivers, the Saalach and the Salzach, with the latter coming straight from the mountains and having the tell-tale greenish-milky tint of a mountain stream. What is now the middle of town, immediately off the old medieval center, is an interesting rock formation that was simply screaming to be fortified by some adventurous duke. At the highest point, the fortification, Festung Hohensalzburg, reigns supreme over the city. Our apartment was the entire top floor of a house attached to this sheer rock, with the back wall being unfinished rock and the bathroom hewn into the mountain and simply finished off nicely (actually, very nicely—we had splurged thanks to a 50% off offer from AirBnB). Let me go on the record: This was the most unusual apartment I have ever stayed in!
The bathroom: built into the rock wall
Our apartment was the top six windows of the dark-brownish building
Our apartment was located mere steps away from Salzburg's old city center. We parked the car and never touched it again until we had to head back to Munich. If you go to Salzburg, get accommodations close to old town and walk everywhere. And while you're planning, consider—nah, it's a no-brainer—buying a Salzburg Card, which gives you free entry to most must-sees as well as free public transport (not that you will need it if you're close to the city center). The card costs 31 euro per person for 48 hours, and the time starts ticking when you first use it. (One caveat: Everything that is "free" with the card is free only once, so you can't take the castle tram up and down on two consecutive days. The fine print doesn't exactly explain this.)
Spring-like weather only added to the charm
Festung Hohensalzburg in its nighttime attire ...
... and in daytime glory with Old Town in front
Sights there are many. We didn't get to see everything that the card offered, but at the same time, we got the feeling that we sampled a good cross-section of attractions. On top of the list, of course, must be all the Mozart stuff. After all, the economic impact of the name "Mozart" is estimated at several billion euro a year. There is the house in which Amadé (yes, that was Amadeus' actual name) was born, and there’s the quite stately mansion where his family moved when he was still a child prodigy. But it is probably more impressive to visit the elaborate Konferenz Saal of the Residenz where the six-year-old performed for the then-ruler of the region, the Prinz Erzbischoff. Among all the gold and brocade and wooden flooring you can almost hear the boy wonder play the fiddle, as they would call it in Texas. So it was a violin, and he didn’t play the two-step, but that’s about it for differences, n’est ce pas? Of course, most young fiddle players don’t go on to compose their first opera and symphony before puberty hits in earnest.
Young Amadé played here as a 6-year-old
Just around the corner from the location of Mozart’s formative years is the Schloss Mirabelle, where I saw my first Heckentheater. I had been familiar with the term but never seen one: It’s a tiny stage, located in the gardens of a chateau, where actors enter the stage from a dozen or so small walk-ways that have been cut into the hedges (Hecke) that form the backdrop of the stage. Sabine made a dramatic entry to show how actors would seemingly appear from nowhere, to only disappear into nothingness. The grounds of the Mirabelle were at their spring-like best, and lots of couples took the opportunity to profess their wedding vows.
Sabine making her Thespian debut in the Heckentheater
Magnolias in full bloom, just outside the Mozart residence
Schloss Mirabelle may not be as grand as Versailles or Sanssousi....
... but it is intimate and quite exquisite
An old cemetery, which supposedly features the family grave of the Mozarts but which certainly is not marked or even on the tour-circuit radar, provided beautiful gems for those who speak and read German. One inscription offered as its eulogy, “ He lived only to save for his children.” Another one emphasized that such-and-such was the recipient of this-and-that plaque, with its accompanying chain! Lots of gems like that.

One of the several highlights was a guided tour of the Festspielhaus, the site of the annual plays that are a huge part of Salzburg’s international draw. As a matter of fact, the city features not only one major theater but something like four or five, or maybe even more—I couldn’t keep up with all the different names of the various venues. We got to look behind the curtain, and our thoroughly entertaining guide connected one anecdote with the next. One of the stages, a former riding school, was built into the same rock wall that our apartment shared. Initially an open-air venue, it had been furnished with a retractable roof only recently.
The 1 1/2-hour tour of the various stages of the Festspiel area was super-informative
Of course, the central visual focal point of Salzburg has to be the castle that towers over the city. It’s one of the largest such fortifications in Europe, and it was never taken under serious siege or, heaven forbid, conquered. Gees, had I been a marauding duke and had seen the place, I would have looked at the sky, started to whistle, and opined, "Oh, lets; not bother about this one—I know a really lovely place down the road that we can conquer”—and would have made a 180-degree turn. In 1800, the locals, for whatever reason, simply handed the Festung Hohensalzburg to Monsieur Napoleon, without a fight or anything in return—they probably felt magnanimous or something.
Inside Festung Hohensalzburg
Panoramic view to the south
Nothing like one of those comfy, 24-hour-a-day chastity belts!
The Festung was never seriously besieged or, worse, captured
The castle, with its first iterations going back to the 14th century, is simply formidable: Its white, impenetrable walls and its location on top of a steeply rising hillock make it appear larger than it is. It simply dominates the countryside, and any fool trying to take it would have been a big fool indeed. Nowadays it’s just hordes of tourists that conquer the place, either walking up the steep ramparts or taking the 100+ year-old little funicular that was built to supply the barracks of the Austrian army (to which the castle had degenerated) with staples. The view from the top is spectacular—toward the south and southwest stretch the high Alps with lots and lots of snow, while toward the north and west the land softens up and continues in wide vistas of fertile plains. Heaven indeed, especially with the weather we had.
Not-so-unsuspecting tourists sitting in as the archbishop's drinking buddies
Ach, to be der Herr Erzbischoff....
Our last tourist destination was Schloss Hellbrunn, where one of the early archbishops (those guys were much more secular than they are now, or at least openly so!) decided to build a little play-pen for himself and his cronies. Hellbrunn is known for its trick fountains, with which his highness entertained his guests and himself. Take for example the "Roman table," where Markus Sittikus enjoyed gathering his buddies and making them drunk. Then, when the time was ripe, he'd give the signal to turn on the out-of-the-seats jacuzzi jets, and the poor dolts would have their skivvies all wet yet weren't allowed to get up until his archbishopness decided that the fun was over. Our (Mexican!!! in Austria!!!) tour guide had just as much fun spraying us unsuspecting tourists via hidden valves and jets as his highness did a few centuries ago, and everybody giggled and laughed, just as the nobility had done way back then. Some things never change.
It is a bit naughty, isn't it?
Hellbrunn's Prunksaal
Markus Sittikus, who probably played more than he prayed during the 1612 to 1619 period of his reign as archbishop
So, that was Salzburg. Meanwhile I have been to Berlin to see my dad for a few days and then back to Freising where I have been riding the bike on daily excursions. To sum things up: Salzburg is definitely worth a visit when you're in the neighborhood, and it's worth a visit, I think, even if you're outside of the 'hood and need to detour by a few hundred miles. Don't miss this one!