Saturday, August 31, 2013

An unexpected but very, very pleasant sentimental journey. I won’t say ‘to my roots’ because that would be bollocks, but there was something of that about it. And a rather odd tale as to why my father was nicknamed The Spy (Der Spion) by my many relatives in that part of the woods.

I don’t think I’ve yet really done justice to my trip to Germany in what I’ve written. OK, so my stay there was extended from just three days to eight days through a piece of expensive bad luck (and what cost me a total of €573 to have put right would have cost me here in Cornwall around £180, according to my friendly Vauxhall dealer. I told him I like to think - I prefer to think that costs are just higher in Germany, which is why I paid more. Don’t you believe it, he said, they knew you were a visitor and upped their prices accordingly. Surely not, I said. Well, he replied, I could give you the names of ten garages here in Cornwall who do just that whenever a holidaymaker breaks down and needs emergency work done.)

As it turned out the trip became more than just attending my niece’s wedding and reception and meeting up again with my sister’s family and some of their friends. When I was told that the car (the starter motor needed to be replaced) would not be ready until the following Monday afternoon, I was invited to stay with a distant relative and her family. Her grandfather and my grandmother were cousins. Then, after I had rung the garage and was told - in German, of course - ‘problems, I’m afraid, sir (a sentence with which folk the world over will be familiar), I had to ask whether I could stay another night, and there was no problem at all with that.

The plan was originally that I would pick up my car and drive north to the Emsland, the area my grandmother and grandfather came from. My sister and her husband have bought themselves a renovated farmhouse for his retirement of which my sister is very proud, and she was keen for me to see it. I was hoping to stay for three nights and two days, but what with ‘problems, I’m afraid, sir’, it became just two nights and one day.

There was a second problem when I was taken my my cousin (as I like to think of her although if truth be told be are cousins several times removed) and two of her sons to pick up the car. I handed over my credit card to pay. ‘Is it an EC card?’ they asked. ‘We only take EC cards. It wasn’t as were my other three debit cards. But my cousin kindly offered to pay and get the money back from me. (‘EC cards’ are almost wholly unknown outside Germany and only available in Germany. And a few hours ago I was looking them up on the net - ‘researching’ as they say when they want ‘looking up’ to sound a tad more important - and it seems you can only get one once you have opened a current or savings account with a German bank and then only after showing you are a straight-up sort of guy by making regular deposits for nine months. Daft or what?) Then it was off to the Emsland.

. . .

The farmhouse my sister and brother-in-law have bought was a bargain. It is in a remote area right in the district of Bunde on the west of the Emsland and less than a quarter of a mile from the Dutch frontier. And when I say remote, I do mean remote. There is a small village a mile or two away - it’s called Ditzumerverlaat, and a German village with a Dutch name shows you quite how remote it is - which has a mini supermarket where you can buy most of what you might need in the way of food - particularly fresh Brötchen for breakfast - but otherwise the only surrounding houses are other farms. I don’t know the history of the farmhouse, but I gather it was renovated by an architect and then bought by a Dutchman, a painter and decorator, who eventually sold it to my sister and brother-in-law.

It is big, and I mean big. There are three separate apartments and the downstairs apartment where my sister will live could easily be split into two separate apartments and none of them would be cramped. Then there’s a huge barn at the far end of the building. And bizarrely it also has a sauna. What was astounding about it is that the asking price for somewhere that large was comparatively low, probably because it is remote. I shan’t give figures (I know them, but these things are private and I don’t suppose my sister would be too chuffed it I did), but my brother-in-law offered around 10 per cent less, but this was turned down. A few days later it was accepted.

It is typical of the area. The rooms are large, but have Kachelöfen in them which can keep a room toasty warm. It is surrounded by garden and lawns (though not in the pristine and to my mind rather soulless British sense) and what is especially nice about the whole set-up is that it will be a paradise for young children - as in grandchildren - to visit. And as my sister had just seen her oldest daughter now married and has two sons and another daughter who are likely to have children, she is rather pleased.

The one full day I had there was spent visiting, separately two aunts (and I say ‘aunt’ but they are again several times removed, though that doesn’t bother them and most certainly doesn’t bother me. Their father was the chap I mentioned above who was a first cousin to my grandmother). They are sisters, although one is now 88 and the other 78. However, the 88-year-old could give many a 55-year-old a run for their money. She’s a real livewire.

I spent a few hours with her, then took off from her village to a town a few miles to the north to have Kaffee und Kuchen (although it was, in fact tea as this is the one area of Germany where they drink tea rather than coffee) with my sister’s mother-in-law. And the second aunt, who I had earlier contacted met me there. It was good - Lord, that sounds lame - it was great to see them both again and I am very fond of both, especially the second aunt. After homemade apple Torte and Sahne, I went back to her house where we sat on her balcony and chatted. And then, coincidentally, a cousin - her nephew - also turned up.

Both aunts are now widowed and lonely, but you wouldn’t know it. I know it, because we spent a long time chatting and both, in the least dramatic way rather let their hair down. The first aunt keeps herself busy, but really there is not a great deal for her to do. The second aunt is also busy but she, too, finds living alone a pain. As, I should imagine, do many widows and widowers. I don’t feel I am especially romantic and rather loathe a rather overblown way many, both here in Britain and in Germany, but most certainly everywhere else as well, and get rather sentimental and fanciful.

Yet driving up to my sister’s farmhouse, for several miles along dead straight roads surrounded by huge wheat fields, now harvested, I had the oddest feeling of coming home. I have only mentioned it to my sister and mention it here because no one else reading this, with two exceptions, actually knows me. But I did, and I wasn’t pretending or indulging in some silly fanciful fantasy. And I don’t really know why.

The feeling was, and this is the oddest bit, that this is where I belonged and where I should end my days. I almost certainly will not. But I should very much like to. It has as much to do with the kind of people who live up there as the countryside (a word which seems wrong, in fact, and Landschaft would be better, although by using it I might well come across as not a little pretentious and I really don’t want or mean to do so).

In a sense the people are almost as much Dutch as German and most certainly not German in the way many imagine Germans to be. (The cousin in Langenfeld I stayed with told me that when, as a young girl, she went to stay with a family in America, they were very surprised that she didn’t arrive wearing a Dirndl. To explain that, for the folk up there to wear a Dirndl would be as odd, not to say outlandish as for an Italian to wear tartan trews as a matter of course.)

I like, and very much relate to, their more relaxed, laid-back manner, their hospitality, the way they socialise, their sense of family. I look forward to making many more visits to my sister there, hopefully sooner or later surrounded by her grandchildren and their cousins, before I pop my clogs. I took several pictures of the farm but don’t have them with me at present, so here is a picture I dug up on the internet which might give you a flavour of the area. It’s not actually the Emsland (named after the river Ems of telegram notoriety) but of Ostfriesland, but it will do.

Oh, and it is all about three or four metres below sea level: the land was reclaimed several hundred years ago and is surrounded by dykes.

. . .

One very odd story I came across several years ago was that my father was known among my mother’s many relatives in Papenburg and Lathen as Der Spion (the spy). I do happen to know that he did occasionally help out with MI6, although what his relationship was with the good folk in real-life 007 country I have no idea and now no way of finding out. I’ve always thought he was a BBC man first and foremost but that he - well, as I say helped out. There have been suggestions that it was pretty much the other way round, but who knows? I most certainly don’t.

He started his World War II service, after spending two years at Cambridge, in the infantry, but very soon his rather special gift for languages, especially French and German, saw him transferred to Intelligence. (One of the aunts mentioned above assured me that he spoke German completely without an accent. I can’t vouch for that, but merely pass on what she said.)

Once the war ended part of his duties were to seek out Germans untainted by Nazism to build the framework for a potential resistance movement who could be relied upon by the Allies if and when the anticipated Soviet Russian push westwards began. This, most probably through my mother, who he married in 1947, brought him into contact with August Löning, my mother’s mother’s cousin.

August Löning was quite special: he would have nothing to do with the Nazis when having nothing to do with the Nazis was not at all easy and even insisted that his daughters, two of whom were the aunts I mention above, were not allowed to join the Bund Deutsche Mädel (BdM), the girl’s equivalent of the Hitlerjugend (HJ). One aunt, the 88-year-old, born in 1925 was rather upset by this as the BdM was sold as nothing more than an innocent Sportsverein. All her friends were members and she a young nine-year-old, felt rather left out and couldn’t understand why she couldn’t join. But August wouldn’t, he simply wouldn’t, let her.

I have no idea what he did for my father and the British military authorities, but my aunt tells me that every so often - she would by now havebeen around 22 - a mysterious ‘Mr Warner’ (here, left, is the only picture I have been able to find of the man) would turn up for meetings with her father and everyone was told to make themselves scarce while they discussed whatever they discussed. And that, dear reader, is it. I really can’t tell you any more, except to repeat that as no one can keep secrets for long my father was jocularly known as Der Spion. The most curious part is that at my niece’s wedding reception was one very nice (and attractive) woman, a student friend of hers from Peru who spoke impeccable German. And when she was introduced and told who I was, said: Also du bist der Sohn von dem Spion (you’re the son of The Spy). This, from a total stranger, took me aback, to put it mildly.

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