Mannheim: The Rental Car

27 April 2009, 9:32 a.m.
49° 28' 31.45" N, 8° 30' 56.10" E

If I remember correctly—and I’ve got to rely on memory right now because the plane just took off from Hamburg, so I’m completely offline—when we arrive at Mannheim City Airport we’ll be in Terminal One, and to get to the rental cars I’ll need to go down the hall to the east, which will be on my right. Damn, I wish I could check.

I’ve got an Opel Zafira reserved for me, a minivan. I had never heard of this model before—I don’t think they sell them back home—but I found a clip on YouTube. Pretty nice. I’ll make sure to add the links to this post when I can find some connectivity. I’m not used to this—I mean typing into a device that’s not connected to the rest of the world—and it feels weird, like the way your voice sounds when you stick your fingers in your ears.

Anyway, I won’t visit Mannheim at all, because I’ll be heading straight to a nearby medieval town, a place called Speyer. Actually, Speyer is older than medieval, it goes way back—it was a border town between the Romans and the barbarians. But it really came into its own after the turn of the millennium, the last millennium (or the first millennium, depending on your point of view), which is to say that by December 1076, Speyer had become the most important town in Germany.

Even back then, the town’s main attraction was its Romanesque cathedral, Dom zu Speyer. In the winter of 1076-77, it would have been less than fifty years old, a baby as cathedrals go. Parts of it would have still been under construction. Dom zu Speyer must have loomed over the town, a raw sprawling symbol of the holiness, the Romanness, and, well, the imperium of the Holy Roman Emperor.

In Speyer, my passengers should be waiting for me. The minivan should have just enough room.

Landstraße

27 April 2009, 10:28 a.m.
49° 28' 35.4" N, 8° 31' 25.3" E

Now I’m driving alongside the runway outside Mannheim City Airport on some frontage road—at least I think that’s what “Landstraße” means. Whatever kind of road this is, I’m glad it’s here—it gives me a few hundred meters at a nice easy speed to help me get used to this vehicle. Not to mention this continent. I’ve just left the rental car place, and the GPS on my phone tells me that very soon I’ll be on A656 and then on A6, and I know that if it begins with “A”, it’s an autobahn. And the smaller the number, the bigger the autobahn. Now don’t worry, I brought my mounting kit with me, so the phone’s stuck to the windshield. And the USB adapter works great. So I’m safe, hands-free, and charging.

But there’s something odd about this minivan, this Opel Zafira—it has a manual transmission. For me, a stick shift in a fully equipped minivan seems like a detail from a crazy dream—it doesn’t fit with the cognitive structure of the world as I know it—it’s like a violation of some intuitively obvious Law of Automotive Categories. Obvious to me, anyway, as an American. But hey, I get it—I know I can’t expect my intuitions to be law over here. Still... I can’t help thinking about all the responsible authority figures of Germany—all those parents and coaches and bureaucrats and safety engineers—in their minivans, winding out the RPMs from third to fourth, fourth to fifth, just like I’m doing, right now, as I hit cruising speed.

Wow. I am on the autobahn.

In the slow lane, but this is definitely the autobahn.

Okay....

The town of Speyer is about 20 km south of here. I’m heading to the Cathedral, of course, but before that, I need to swing past the train station, where I’ve arranged to meet two medieval historians, Lambert of Hersfeld and Bruno of Merseburg. In my opinion, these guys don’t get the respect they deserve, which might explain—now that I think of it—why they were both available on such short notice. But still, I’m kind of excited to meet them.

After all, for about seven hundred years, Bruno of Merseburg (also known as Bruno the Saxon) and Lambert of Hersfeld were the leading authorities on the Holy Roman Empire in the late 11th century. They were the guys. Then along came the haters—I’m talking about the 19th century, you know, German scientific historiography—and it’s like Bruno and Lambert got demoted to secondary sources. Or even to common gossips. I guess their footnotes weren’t good enough or something. Anyway, it’s sad the way some historians have treated them for the last hundred and fifty years or so. As for me, well, if you give me the choice between hanging out with a good story-teller and an impeccable philologist, I’ll take the story-teller every day.

Speyer Nord-West: First Passengers

27 April 2009, 10:51 a.m.
49° 20' 0.9" N, 8° 25' 06.1" E

The drive to Speyer turned out to be a lot quicker than I expected. Well, I managed to exit the autobahn without getting killed, and now I’m here at the efficient suburban station of Speyer Nord-West. My phone says Bicycle Parking: Ja, WC: Nein.

Okay.

Bruno’s supposed to arrive first, on the regional trolley, and then Lambert should get here about ten minutes later, on the inter-city train. There was some back-and-forth setting this all up, but on the whole, I gotta admit the scheduling worked out great. I mean, considering.

Now, although Bruno and Lambert are both, technically, “monks,” they’ve told me me not to expect any traditional monk gear on this journey—no tonsures or hair shirts or hoods or anything like that. In fact, when I hold up my “Bruno the Saxon” sign, after the trolley drops off a dozen passengers, I’m approached by a typical German hiker-type: a guy in jeans, t-shirt, and Adidas, with a scruffy beard, and carrying an immense, high-quality, internal frame backpack.

As we shake hands, an urgent-sounding announcement comes over the loudspeaker. Bruno listens, and then translates for me: the inter-city train is going to be late.

“How late?” I ask.

“Four minutes,” says Bruno.

For some reason I think that’s priceless, and so I try to make a joke about German efficiency, just a little cross-cultural warm-up joke, except I use the word “inefficiency,” because—well, because I’m trying to be funny. Bruno looks at me like he’s wondering what kind of crazy clock-obsessed Yankee he’s going to be traveling with. Then he smiles, tolerantly, like maybe he’s decided to give me the benefit of the doubt. So we stand there, together, silently, on the platform. After a minute, Bruno takes off his backpack, and leans against it. He looks like he’s been hosteling his way around Europe for a good decade or more.

I wonder if I should try to explain the joke.

No. Forget it.

When the train arrives, exactly four minutes late, Lambert is the sole passenger to disembark. He’s an older man, with a more formal style—umbrella, overcoat, a single leather suitcase. I introduce Bruno and Lambert to each other. It turns out they’ve never met before, although they both claim, maybe a little too warmly, to be great fans of each other’s work. Then I open the back door of the Zafira, and load in their luggage.

Pretty soon we’re driving through the city streets, and we catch a glimpse of the spires of Dom zu Speyer.

Wait a minute.

Nope. Not yet. That’s some other church.

Spira and Domgarten

27 April 2009, 10:58 a.m.
49° 18' 50.46" N, 8° 26' 40.57" E

Here I am driving through the streets of Speyer with my two passengers and I realize that nobody’s said a word since I told Bruno and Lambert to check their seat belts, back at the parking lot of the little train station.

Whose job is it to start a conversation? I guess that would be me. So....

Suddenly I catch a glimpse of the real Cathedral, yes that’s it, those are the spires! about a mile away. That’s a good topic, isn’t it? My first impulse is to ask Lambert and Bruno if they’ve seen that American telenovela—you know, the cable series about Bertha of Savoy—because of that shot in the credit sequence, it’s amazing, the camera had to be almost exactly where we are right now, of course they must’ve done some digital stuff to get rid of the modern buildings....

But then I think, maybe it’s too early in our acquaintance for pop culture references. I mean, I’ve just met these guys, and while neither of them seems like a snob or pedant, they are medieval chroniclers after all, and I don’t want them to think I’m the kind of guy whose knowledge of their world comes only from watching TV.

Just a minute, I’d better pay more attention to driving.

Okay. The GPS on my phone just guided me through a big intersection, and I’ve swung from Siemensstrasse onto Banhofstrasse. Doesn’t banhof mean train station, and isn’t the train station where we just came from?

Oh, it looks like there’s another station, an older one....

Yep, there it is. That one looks like a train station all right....

Still no conversation. This silence is getting awkward. Wait a minute, didn’t I write down some questions when I prepped for this trip? Sure I did.... All I gotta do is find the notes program on my phone… there it is….

Hey, that one’s perfect....

“So guys,” I say. “Does the name of this town, Speyer, really refer to the spires of the cathedral?”

And listen to that! Bruno and Lambert immediately fall into scholarly disputation....

Bruno seems to be of the opinion that the name Speyer, which he says is from the Latin spira, or breath, could not possibly refer to the spires of the cathedral as said structure was not built until the 11th century and the name was in use as early as 500 A.D.... Good point....

But wait, wait... Lambert is saying that spire, like aspire, comes from the same root word, and then he reminds us, like we oughta know this already, that the town’s Teutonic name was Nementum, home of the Nemeter, and that undoubtedly there was some sort of church, with some sort of spires, by time Nementum (also known as Noviomagus) became Speyer....

I am one proud host and driver—my research is paying off!—although I gotta admit that some of the finer points of their colloquy escape me because I’ve been searching for a parking place....

Finally I find a good spot, on the outer edge of the Domgarten, with a great view of the Dom’s backside. It’s a very impressive structure, impressive enough to render Bruno and Lambert momentarily speechless as they step out from the Opel’s sliding side door.

“So,” I say. “Can you show me around the cathedral? Give me an expert tour?”

They hesitate for a moment.

“I dunno…” says Bruno.

“Excuse me,” says Lambert. “But is... is the King, Kaiser, whatever he calls himself these days—is he in there?”

“Henry?” I say. “No, we’ll be meeting the family in town. About an hour. C’mon! What are you waiting for?”

Dom zu Speyer: Tour of the Cathedral

27 April 2009, 11:23 a.m.
49° 19' 2.33" N, 8° 26' 32.77" E

Now I know that this visit to the cathedral isn’t the make-or-break moment of my vacation, but I’m a little disappointed. Maybe I’m naive, but I had been hoping that Bruno and Lambert would be lively tour guides—after all, they’re the contemporaries and countrymen of the people involved in the construction and early history of this magnificent building. And look at it—it certainly is magnificent. And historically important—did you know that ever since the French Revolution, when the Abbey at Cluny got sacked, Dom zu Speyer has been the largest Romanesque church standing? You’d think that fact would inspire a little home-team pride from Bruno and Lambert.

But no, as soon as we walked through the tourist entrance in the back and came out in the basilica itself, right near the altar, their mood turned positively monastic.

“Now is that a groin vault or a barrel vault?” I ask, pointing to the ceiling.

Lambert bows his head and closes his eyes. He looks like he’s praying—wait a minute, is he begging God to forgive me? Oh c’mon, I think. What’s wrong with architectural curiosity? I turn to Bruno and repeat my question.

“How the fuck should I know,” he says, shrugging. I don’t know what kind of look appears on my face, but apparently it has a big question mark attached. Bruno steps closer to me.

“Don’t act so stupid,” he says in a whisper. “You know as well as I do that this place is all for show. It’s a spectacle. A big song-and-dance. An act.”

“Well,” I say, “I suppose there’s a performative aspect...”

“Give me a break,” says Bruno. “This place pisses me off. Do you have any idea how much silver from Saxony they needed to cover the budget shortfalls? And then they want us to come on down and spend big money on pilgrimages! Where do those emperors get off with their arrogance?”

“Okay,” I say. “I guess... I guess I should expect there would be issues...”

“And I can tell you,” says Bruno, “the Pope isn’t happy about the Emperor having a bigger fucking cathedral than he does!”

“Alright,” I say. “Let’s just take a minute to calm down.”

So we wander through the vast nave for a while—or to be accurate, I do the wandering, while Bruno and Lambert trail behind me. It’s like they’re each attached to me by an invisible rope, and repelled from each other by an invisible force. I get the odd sensation that our movements could be modeled by a simple computer program—Point A (that would be me, or your mouse pointer) leads the way, while Point B and Point C (that would be Bruno and Lambert, or two dots on your screen) both maintain a fixed distance from Point A but a maximal distance from each other. It would be moderately entertaining, on an old CRT computer screen, especially when Point A whipsaws around a cathedral column, which is what I’ve just done.

Bruno and Lambert bump shoulders as they pursue me around the column. They both seem to be in slightly better moods. I mean they both still look grouchy, but now they look like they’re trying to be grouchy.

“Okay,” I say. “Let’s go down to the crypt.”

Lambert and Bruno look at each other for a moment. Then Lambert takes me aside.

“You’re going to be convening with Henry in less than an hour?” he says.

“Sure,” I say. “That’s the plan.”

“You’d be wise to assume that he doesn’t like that place. Down there. The crypt. The Salians can be quite superstitious.”

“So?” I say.

“Just be discreet, please. With the king. And his consort. And his heir.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I say, “The family doesn’t need to know I saw the tombs.”

Then Bruno and Lambert negotiate briefly among themselves. Bruno must be the loser of that little contest, because he’s the one who ends up taking me down into the semi-subterranean chamber.

The crypt is roomy and well-lit, and all in all it’s just about the least spooky medieval burial vault you could imagine. Interesting? Absolutely. Solemn? Without a doubt. But scary? No way.

“Well, here they are,” says Bruno.

He’s standing next to one of the wrought-iron grates in the ante-crypt, the barriers that prevent tourists from treading upon the bones of kings. I join him, and look down at the row of serene sandstone blocks. “There’s your man,” he says, “Henry IV. The one who’s going to Canossa. Next to him is his father, Henry III, pious bugger that one, he thought the king was kind of priest, rex sacerdota, what a line of shit. Then we’ve got grandpa Conrad, the one who built this cathedral, Conrad’s wife Gisela, and....”

Bruno pauses, staring down at one of the tombs.

“Who’s that?” I say.

“Bertha,” says Bruno. “Bertha of Savoy. Henry’s first wife. She’s way too good for him.”

Maximillianstraße: The Imperial Family

27 April 2009, 12:14 p.m.
49° 19' 2.38" N, 8° 26' 23.76" E

So I’m feeling kinda tense, like I’m going to a job interview or something, as Bruno, Lambert and I emerge from the big front doors of Dom zu Speyer. I’ve picked up a vibe from the two monks—it would be hard to miss—that they aren’t exactly eager to meet the Imperial family. Or at least they don’t want to meet Henry, which shouldn’t be too surprising, because they’ve both trashed him in their annales. As for me, well, I’ve never written anything about these people, except that one paper back in undergrad, which I hope never comes up in conversation.

We walk down Maximillianstraße, which is sort of like the town square or main plaza of Speyer. The plan was to get together with Henry, Bertha and Conrad in a sidewalk café, not too far from the Cathedral, which sounded plenty specific in the email, but now that I’m out here, looking at the solid row of sidewalk cafés on either side of the straße, I realize that I’ve set myself up for a major faux-pas: what if I walk right past them? Yeah, they said they’d be in modern clothes, but I also got the impression that they expected to be recognized. Not hounded like celebrities, maybe, but, well, noticed, or at least whispered about.

Luckily, it’s kind of cool today, so there aren’t too many people out in the cafés—basically just the smokers.

“There! That’s him!” says Bruno, out of the corner of his mouth. Then he does this little maneuver where he points in one direction, while quickly stepping around to the opposite side of me. When I figure out which way he’s actually pointing, I see a guy sitting alone outside this funky café. He’s a tallish, bearded guy, maybe late twenties, a black leather motorcycle jacket, scruffy designer jeans and black army boots.

“That’s Henry?” I say. “Where’s Bertha? Where’s Conrad?”

“They’re shopping,” says Bruno.

“Shopping?” says Lambert.

“How do you know?” I say.

“Look at him,” says Bruno. “Look at his posture. That’s a husband having a smoke while his wife and kid are shopping.”

Lambert shakes his head. “Casuistry,” he mutters. “Utter casuistry.”

Henry pulls another cigarette out of his jacket and lights it. As I watch Henry take a drag on his cigarette, I realize that I recognize him—he looks exactly the Henry on the cover of The Song of Henry—that fake medieval saga from the nineties—it’s on my bookshelf back home. Except that this Henry isn’t anywhere near as buffed up as that Henry—this one looks kinda lanky, even scrawny, the way athletic guys get when they smoke too much. But still, it’s the same face. I wonder how the artist did it.

The monks and I watch him quietly from across the street. It’s like we’re bird-watchers or something.

“What’s that T-shirt he’s wearing?” I say.

“Unheilig,” says Lambert, “Unholy.” He makes the sign of the cross.

“Cut the sanctimony, it’s just a band,” says Bruno. “Wait a minute. Here they come.” He turns and looks down the street.

“Ahh,” says Lambert. “The consort and heir approach...”

Bertha turns out to be a slim woman, about the same age as Henry, but with a much more sophisticated style. She wears chic jeans, a double breasted yellow leather jacket over a cashmere sweater, and her hair pulled smartly back. In one hand she holds several shopping bags; with the other she pulls a little boy, maybe three years old—he’s wearing a black and white soccer jersey—Juventus FC, I think—that hangs down to his knees, and he seems to making a case for going back to the store.

“See! See!” says Bruno. “They were shopping!”

Despite the boy, the bags, and the challenges of wearing high heels on a cobblestone street, Bertha still manages to convey an air of elegant composure. As she gets closer, I see a tiny jeweled cross dancing lightly on her otherwise bare throat.

By this time, Bruno has stepped forward and offered to carry the shopping bags for her. Bertha lets him do so, too blandly for my taste. Would it be too much for her to smile at the guy? Sure he looks like a hippie but he’s being kind of gallant. Anyway, the three of them sit down at a table—not the same table with Henry—in fact, Bertha’s table belongs to the café next door—a more upscale place than the kind of punk joint where Henry sits, his long legs sprawled out across a rough wood bench.

Lambert, meanwhile, has found a table for one at a café across the street.

I wonder what’s going on with Bertha and Henry. Are they speaking to each other? And if not, why is she making this journey with him? Why does she stay with him at all? Why is she bringing Conrad?

After a minute, I work up the courage to walk up to Henry and introduce myself, and remind him of all the emails we’ve exchanged. He doesn’t seem too excited to meet me. I offer to bring the minivan around. There’s place on a side street where I can load everybody in.

“No, no,” says Henry. “Go to our hotel first. Get the directions from that one.”

Without looking at her, he indicates his wife with a nod. “Load the luggage there, then come back here and pick up those two.”

“Okay...” I say, “but... what about... you? The minivan—it has plenty of room for five adults and one child—and all our luggage. It’s an Opel Zafira.” As I say it, I realize how lame it sounds.

“Don’t worry,” he says. “I’ll meet you in Canossa.”

What’s wrong? Why won’t he ride with us? Is it the Opel Zafira? Did I rent the wrong vehicle? Is Henry the sort of guy who refuses to ride in a minivan? Shit, there was some sort of Mercedes SUV at the airport—I could have rented that—but it didn’t have as much interior room...

“Give me two hundred euros,” says Henry.

“What?” I say.

“Two hundred euros.” His tone is calm, matter-of-fact, not like he’s asking for a loan, but as if it were the natural order of things that he should need some cash and I should give it to him.

How should I react to this demand? Should I tell him that I am not his vassal, that I am a twenty-first century American, a Democrat, an empiricist, a blogger? That we had a deal?

Then I think: without Henry, what would I have to blog about? My breakfast? My moods? The bailout of the auto industry? Obama’s health care bill? The latest comments from Rush Limbaugh? Let’s face it—I’m not that kind of blogger. And just how many excommunicated Holy Roman Emperors do I know? So eventually, I break down and give him the cash. Luckily, I’ve got just enough in my wallet—I stopped at an ATM in the Mannheim City Airport, just to have some euros on hand, even though I plan to use plastic for nearly everything on this trip—you know, to get the best exchange rates.

Henry counts the 200 euros, and then gives me back twenty, and tells me to take Conrad to the Technik Museum—we’ll pass it on the way to the autobahn. He tells me to make sure the kid knows it’s a present from his father.

I look over to Bertha’s table at the next café. Bertha is sitting quietly, reading a fashion magazine. Or is that a Catholic woman’s magazine? Conrad is climbing around the neighboring tables, and Bruno is watching the kid, kind of protectively—like maybe he’s hoping that Bertha notices.

“So...” I say to Henry. “How... how are you going to get to Canossa?”

“Who said anything about Canossa?” says Henry.

I’m about to say, “Well, you did, just a minute ago....”

But then I remember the cover story. Oh, yeah. That was part of the deal. The cover story.

“Sorry,” I say. “We’re going to Augsburg, right? In Bavaria? Where the princes of Germany are going to hold their... uh, meeting. You want to get there early. To do some lobbying. Some wining and dining. Convince them this excommunication business doesn’t matter. So you can keep your—”

“Don’t try to add details,” says Henry. “Just the facts.”

“Right,” I say. “Augsburg. That’s where we are going.”

Henry just looks out into the street and takes a drag on his cigarette. Did he just dismiss me? No, no, that’s not good enough. If I’m driving his family, I need some info.

“Excuse me,” I say. “But how are you... going to get there? To... Augsburg... or wherever?”

Henry shrugs his shoulders and glances down a side street. His eyes settle on a motorcycle—I recognize the BMW logo—but this one is smaller and sportier than the BMW bikes we see in the U.S.

“Nice,” I say. “Is it yours?”

“It will be,” he says, “very soon.”

The Technik Museum

27 April 2009, 1:04 p.m.
49° 18' 45.84" N, 8° 26' 42.12" E

Well, Henry was right—on the way out of Speyer, heading back to the A6 autobahn, you go right past the big Technik Museum. And if you’ve got a 3-year-old boy in the front passenger seat of your rented minivan (I still haven’t figured out what the rules are over here—for all their scholarship, Bruno and Lambert profess complete ignorance of German child safety laws, and Bertha still hasn’t said a word to anyone except her son), you don’t have much choice but to stop, especially when Conrad starts shouting “aereo! aereo!” (The museum has a big Lufthansa jet, frozen in takeoff, mounted practically on its roof.)

So here’s the budget for this stop: Henry had given me 20 euros to take little Conrad to the Technik Museum. (I know, I know—it was really my money, and Henry was just giving me a kickback from the payment he had just extorted out of me, but the weird thing was, it felt like something else—like I had these special Imperial funds in my pocket.) But it turns out that kids under 5 get free admission to the museum, so even with the 7 euro ticket to the Imax, you might think I’d be ahead 13 euros, right? Hah! That would be because you forgot about the four adults in the Opel! Adult admission is 13 euros, plus the Imax tickets at 9 euros each, and nobody but yours truly made the slightest move to pay. (I’m beginning to understand what it means to go on vacation with two monks and a royal family.)

So basically we’re talking 95 euros, of which 20 had been “given” me by Henry, so even if I accept the fiction of Henry’s beneficence, and deduct the charges for my own tickets (I did enjoy myself), I’m still down 53 euros, plus the 200 (or should it be 180?—this feudal finance is getting confusing) that I had already given Henry.

Anyway, it’s great museum, it even has an old Soviet Space Shuttle, which they floated up the Rhine. Yep, that’s how they got it there, on a barge.

Kindersitze

27 April 2009, 2:38 p.m.
49° 19' 11.11" N, 8° 26' 4.49" E

While the rest of us have been enjoying an immense and immersive swim with the dolphins in the Imax Dome, Lambert has been doing some online searching (on my laptop, of course, using the Museum’s surprisingly expensive WiFi), and he’s found something very interesting, which he’s eager to share with me after the movie.

“So what’d you find out?” I say.

“I have learned many things,” he says. “But first, there’s something important....”

He minimizes a window as I approach. I grin and shake my head.

“Lambert, Lambert....” I say.

But then I realize he’s not hiding something from me, he’s hiding it from Bertha. He waits a minute, until Conrad takes off running toward some antique fire wagons, Feuerwehr-somethings, and Bruno chases behind him. Bertha takes a few steps in their direction, and watches tolerantly as the three-year-old kid and the thirty-year-old monk play hide-and-seek among the wire wheels of the old red trucks.

Once Bertha’s back is turned, Lambert opens the window on my laptop. It’s YouTube, with the sound off, although with the echoes in here it wouldn’t matter. He’s watching the Pope’s video, with closed captions in German, the one where Gregory asks his boss—that would be St. Peter, up in heaven, if you’re not familiar with the organization chart of the Catholic Church—for permission to excommunicate Henry. Apparently Lambert has never seen it before, and it has him kinda agitated. I, on the other hand, have already seen this YouTube at least a dozen times, not to mention all the spinoff memes and the related content, such as the Auto-Tune parody of Henry’s original drunken voice mail—the one where he tried to fire Gregory and basically kicked the Investiture Controversy into high gear—so I just try to keep Lambert calm and get him back on task.

“That’s the world we live in,” I say. “It’s no secret. The Pope says no one has to obey Henry.”

I can’t tell whether Lambert is excited or dismayed by that idea. So I steer the conversation in another direction.

“So... what about those German child safety laws?” I say. “Remember? The stuff I asked you to research?”

And it turns out that Lambert has five other browser tabs open, and he’s discovered that those laws are very strict indeed. I’m impressed by his skills—I mean, for an 11th Century monk, he really has a good sense of what to trust and what not to trust on the Internet. This actually improves my opinion of his original historical work—after seeing the way he avoids the bullshit and zeros in on the reliable content, how could I doubt, for example, his account of the murder of Godfrey the Hunchback, which some historians have called sensational and melodramatic. Anyway, the bottom line is that passengers younger than 12 years of age and less than 150 centimeters tall must be strapped into an EU-approved child restraint system. A kindersitz.

And Conrad, I realize, is exactly the kind of kind that the German lawmakers had in mind. He’s three years old and what, maybe 92, 93 cm tall? Normally I’m terrible at thinking in metric units, but back when I was married and we were fixing up the house, I had this measuring stick with a yard on one side and a meter on the other, this antique from the Carter administration—it had this slogan on it, Get Ready for Metric!—and I liked to carry this stick around and point it and twirl it and measure everything in centimeters and millimeters, as if we were living in some alternate universe, where Ronald Reagan had never been elected and the USA had long ago converted to the metric system. My wife found the joke funny the first day and after that it drove her crazy, which was, for me, the point. So I’m pretty good at guessing the height and length of things in the centimeters, if the thing isn’t more than one meter tall. Or long.

When everyone is back at the minivan I share Lambert’s findings with the rest of our group, and I tell them that our Number One Priority is to find a child seat, a good kindersitz for Conrad. I’m expecting 100% support for this initiative, because it is so totally obvious that this is the main thing we need to do before we get back on the autobahn, so I’m kinda surprised when Bruno starts giving me a hard time. He’s saying that contemporary laws shouldn’t apply to Conrad, who is after all the Duke of Lotharingia, not to mention the son of the Kaiser. I’m about to say look, being a Duke isn’t going to protect Conrad in an accident, but then I see that Bertha is beaming, absolutely beaming at Bruno’s remarks, and finally I get what’s going on with Bruno. He’s just trying to impress Bertha. Okay. I’m going to have to make an executive decision on my own. I tell them this is a no-vote issue. If Conrad is going to ride in my minivan, he’s going to use a car seat. An EU-approved kindersitz. No more questions. That’s the way it’s going to be.

So now I’m driving past the cathedral again, looking for a Neckermann’s store around here someplace that’s supposed to have a huge selection of kindersitze....

And here we’re in the aisle at Neckermann’s. There’s a perfectly good, completely certified, EU-approved car seat for 90 euros. Some brand I’ve never heard of, but it looks solid and well-made.

But then Conrad starts shouting “Cavallo! Cavallo!” and pointing at the Ferrari model, and Bertha won’t have anything less for her little duke.

A Ferrari car seat? For 129 euros? Well, that’s the power of marketing. That’s the kindersitz I end up buying.

Quiet Time

27 April 2009, 3:07 p.m.
49° 19' 15.74" N, 8° 34' 8.40" E

It’s “quiet time” here in the minivan, as we head south from Hockenheim on the A6 autobahn, and all the adults in the car—Bruno and Lambert and Bertha and myself—are being super quiet and careful, because Conrad just fell asleep, after crying it seemed like forever after getting strapped, for the first time, in his kindersitz.

Well, I’m not being completely quiet. I'm actually writing this blog, right now! You see, what I’m doing at the moment is speaking softly into a digital recorder with voice-recognition software. I’ve got a hands-free Bluetooth mic stuck in my left ear—it makes me look like a cyborg, but who cares—and it does an amazing job of screening out the road noise, and the transcripts, so far, have turned out to be pretty darn accurate.

You know, now that I think of it, the underlying technology must be really good, the way it detects the signal of my voice amid all the noise of the autobahn, because it sure seems that for the human ear—at least the ears of all the other humans in this minivan—my voice blends in perfectly with the rumble of the road. It’s like my companions can hardly hear me, even when I'm talking directly to them.

Maybe it’s my Midwestern accent. Somebody told me once we sound like passing traffic.

Anyway... my system is turning out to be just about perfect for blogging.

Although... it’s not so perfect for getting to know these people. I wouldn’t mind having someone to talk to.

Where the heck is Henry? I figure he’s commandeered that motorcycle, and he’s riding around someplace. I keep an eye out for him in the rear-view mirror, but so far, nothing.

There’s this big race track off to the left of the autobahn, and I try to ask Lambert if that’s the Hockenheimring I saw a sign for, but of course he doesn’t hear me the first time, so I have to raise my voice, and then I get all these outraged shhhh sounds from the wayback seat, so I shut up.

I will remain shut up, apparently, for the duration of Conrad’s nap.

Except for my mumbling, that is, which doesn’t seem to bother anyone.

Maybe I should have started at the other end. In Italy. Maybe I should be down in Tuscany right now, hanging out with Matilda and Gregory.

Naahhh....

The Histories on My Shelf

27 April 2009, 3:15 p.m.
+49°17' 28.4", +8°36' 8.8"

Well, I’m getting a little more comfortable guiding the Zafira down the autobahn. I just saw a sign for a place called “Spanferkel.” Or maybe it’s a thing, not a place, a thing you can find somewhere around here....

Maybe I’ll look it up later, when I’m not driving, and my phone isn’t busy being a GPS, and this minivan isn’t stuck in “quiet time” and the driver, the one who is generously paying for all the transportation costs out of his own pocket, is allowed to maybe ask a question or two!

You know something, this is not at all what I expected this journey would be like.

So what was I expecting?

And that question leads me not to an answer, but to my “Canossa shelf,” as I call it, the one-fifth of a bookcase in my apartment back home where I keep all the books and media I’ve acquired in the last couple of months as I prepared for this journey.

Last night, for example, I watched Enrico IV by Luigi Pirandello, starring Marcello Mastroianni and freely adapted and directed by Marco Bellocchio, whom I had never heard of, although according to the IMDB he has a long list of director credits....

Wait a minute. That wasn’t last night—that must have been two nights ago, if you count that night over the Atlantic, those foreshortened hours of fitful half-sleep. Well, it was the last night that counts for me, the last time I slept in a bed.

So that night, Saturday night, two nights ago by the calendar, last night according to to my biorhythms, I watched the movie of Enrico IV and then put the DVD on the right end of the shelf, almost all the way over. I put it next to Tom Stoppard’s translation of the same play, which is called Pirandello’s Henry IV—I suppose that’s to help the book-buyer or theatre-goer tell this Henry IV apart from all the other Henry IVs that float around in our historical and literary memory. The last time I checked, by the way, the disambiguation page of Wikipedia listed 15 rulers named Henry IV, 15 guys with that name and numeral—let’s see if I remember—one Holy Roman Emperor, three kings, six dukes, two burgraves, one count, one prince and one Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights. I might be off by a burgrave or two, whatever those are. I tried to learn the list by heart, at least the aggregate summary, because as I was planning this trip everyone I talked to kept getting mixed up about just which Henry was going to be involved.

Now, the biggest sources of confusion are of course the other kings—we speakers of English, when we hear “Henry IV,” usually think first of the Henry who gave his name to two plays by Shakespeare, which are really about his son, the future Henry V, about the Prince Hal who either squanders his youth or grows into greatness in the company of Sir John Falstaff. Of course the reigning monarch at the time, that would be the English Henry IV, did get a lot of stage time in those plays—as I vaguely recall from a BBC video, he’s the central character in all those boring scenes where some minor knight interrupts a blank-verse political discussion with news of some offstage battle—the high-minded scenes that alternate with the low physical comedy and incomprehensible insults that Falstaff and Hal exchange while drinking in Mistress Quickly’s tavern, the scenes we all wait for, if the right actor is playing Falstaff.

I get the impression that for continental Europeans—this particular confusion actually happens to a character in Pirandello’s play—their default Henry IV is a different king, it’s Henry of Navarre, the moderate Protestant who switched to Catholicism to take the throne of France in 1594, pissing off all the extremists of both sides during his life but become a hero to moderates everywhere after his death, if we moderates can be said to have heroes. (Speaking as a moderate, I would answer with a definite “yeah, sure, in a way.”)

And we can’t forget Henry IV of Castile, Isabella’s older half brother and predecessor, a big athletic guy with a broken nose but politically weak and seriously turned off by his wife, his cousin Blanche of Navarre, a marriage that was eventually annulled on the grounds of sexual dysfunction caused by some kind of spell or curse. Not much of king, but what a great situation for a telenovela. I figure that we’re going to see Henry the Impotent on the Encore!!! Network sometime very soon. A big macho guy who is either gay or addicted to brothels or both, arranged incestuous marriages being negotiated or defiled on a daily basis, an inquisition into an unconsummated matrimony, witchcraft, and a clever little sister who who will soon grow up to be half of the most powerful power couple of 1492, maybe the greatest power couple of all time, Ferdinand and Isabella. How could it miss?

And then there’s our Henry. I mean the Henry who is Bertha’s husband, Conrad’s father, and the principal subject of the writings of Lambert and Bruno—and, I guess, now of my own, if you can call this writing. So anyway our Henry, the one who’s out there on a motorcycle someplace, I mean the Holy Roman Emperor, the King of the Romans, the King of Italy, and the King of Burgundy, that Henry—well, he has the distinction of being at the top of the chronological list, which is to say, of being the first Henry (or Enrique or Heinrich or Enrico) to have the Roman numeral IV attached to his name. Of course those numerals got attached later on, so in the 11th Century sure you would just say “King Henry” or “the Emperor” and everyone would assume you just meant “the one who is alive now.”

Anyway, Pirandello’s play isn’t really about Henry and his trip to Canossa as such, but instead it’s about an Italian nobleman who thinks he’s Henry, or at least acts that way, because twenty years before the action of the play he was riding in a carnival pageant when he fell off a horse and banged his head on a rock, and ever since that accident he has been forcing everyone around him to act out a goofy costume drama. It’s basically a cosplay game, which I guess was a hobby only the very rich could afford in the early 20th century. For this guy, this madman, the life of Henry IV and what happened at Canossa provides a juicy set of characters ready for role-playing. The role he’s picked for himself is Henry, the German king who has come to Italy to beg forgiveness from the Pope, and the other big role, the romantic lead, you might say, is Matilda, his beautiful Italian cousin, the ally of the Pope and the leader of the papal armies. But of course Matilda is a lot more than just an opposing general. She’s the real object—in this story, anyway—of Henry’s quest. Which is to say that Pirandello’s madman—or his fake madman, it’s kind of complicated—still has a crush, after all these years, on the woman he has cast to play Matilda of Canossa.

Several characters feel obligated to point out that there’s no historical evidence of any romantic or sexual goings-on between the original Henry and the original Matilda, and of course those characters are right—there’s absolutely no evidence. But still I think that Pirandello is on to something—after all these centuries (800 plus years in Pirandello’s case, more than 900 in mine) the sexual tension between Henry and Matilda is part of the story. Or at least, part of the fascination. Let’s see, Matilda was four years older than Henry…. Did they ever? In some castle when they were kids? Would they ever, if they had the chance? I think that’s the kind of thing that anyone with even a moderate level of sexual curiosity starts thinking when you read a few books about what happened at Canossa.

So I put the DVD and the book by Stoppard and Pirandello about seven-eighths of the way over, almost all the way toward the right end of my Canossa shelf, next to the DVD boxed set of The Meek Shall Inherit, you know, that Encore!!! Network telenovela about Bertha of Savoy, the one that that stayed pretty much historically accurate until it got to the end of the first season—spoiler alert—the decapitation scene. Because of that season finale—well, yeah, and then the entire rest of the show, in which Bertha becomes Bertha the Great, the first Holy Roman Empress to really rule—that I decided to place The Meek Shall Inherit on the right end of my shelf.

You see, my shelf is ordered, left to right, roughly on a scale of scholarly respectability. Trustworthy, reliable, and well-researched on the left end and outrageous, outlandish, and unfettered on the right. (If you want to see a correspondence with a certain political spectrum, that’s your problem—my system began with me putting the more believable books closer to my reading chair, even though I’d often end up reaching for more entertaining works at the other end.)

The left end starts with books that are Well-Researched but Boring (the kind where the footnotes are more interesting than the text, like a certain standard biography of Henry, of which I will say no more), then there’s Stylishly-Written Surveys of the 11th Century (of which several appeared in the early 2000s, inspired, I suppose, by parallels with Y2K and 9/11), then the Good Stories (pretty slim pickings, except for a feminist biography of Hildegard of Bingen), then the Completely Unreliable Narratives (like The Song of Henry, that fake medieval poem, or Warrior, Daughter, Saint, the ultra-Catholic version of Matilda’s life, aimed at pre-teen girls, two books which occupy opposite poles of the continuum of reactionary opinion that seems to attach itself to Canossa, with macho-pagan bullshit on one end and super-holy-the-church-is-always-right Catholicism on the other).

Just a minute, exit ramp coming up, the one I’ll be taking onto A6... Okay. Not too difficult, if you’re the slowest minivan on the autobahn, and always stay in the right lane.

So. At the extreme right end of my shelf, the Totally Off-the-Wall end, there’s a book that sets forth the arguments of a crazy Russian mathematician who maintains that the Middle Ages never happened at all—or to be exact, that the years between 500 and 1500 actually took only about hundred years to occur. This Russian guy’s idea is one of those almost-believable but in the end completely nutso theories that could only have emerged from the latter decades of the Soviet Union, when it seems that lonely geniuses were encouraged to outdo each other with denunciations of decadent Western orthodoxy. He starts off by arguing is that our modern chronology, our historical timeline, was an invention of the Enlightenment. Here he’s completely on point. There were in fact two scholars—Joseph Scaliger and Dionysius Petavius were their names—who built the timeline, the one we all still use, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. You see, until the last few centuries nobody really knew what year it was, so even the official scribes of the ancient world and Middle Ages, the ones who wrote what we now regard as the primary sources, they would just date their documents with something like “in the fourth year of the reign of Henry, son of Henry, son of Conrad.” So Scaliger and Petavius did the historical profession the incredible service of building a single master timeline on which everything else could hang. Now the danger of this system is that as soon as everyone in the world started using the timeline, it became self-confirming and almost impossible to check: nobody went back and questioned their original assumptions. Scaliger and Petavius were great scholars, sure, but they also made a lot of judgment calls, and maybe some of them were wrong.

But the thing is, now that we’ve got this timeline, this single master set of years going back to the Romans and the Greeks and the Egyptians and the Sumerians, nobody questions it. It’s like we assume that everyone in the past had clocks and calendars on the walls, that everyone knew the time and date, but of course they didn’t. It just seems that way because some relatively recent historian has given whatever event she or he is talking about a precise date based on the timeline given to us by Scaliger and Petavius. Of course there are still discrepancies: some things just don’t fit. But what happens now is that when when historians find a discrepancy, they fix the year of the event, not the system of years: they say this really happened in 767, not 764—it never occurs to anyone to argue that it really did happen in 764, but the chronology, the calendar, was wrong. Why don’t they say that? Because that would throw off the work of every other historian in the world, at least those who have written about the years 764-767, not to mention every year after that, and the profession of history is a guild in which the individual historian survives—and sometimes prospers—based on the goodwill and respect of his or her colleagues. So we just reassign individual events to different years, different dates, and never question the chronology itself.

I just said “we,” didn’t I? Like I’m actually a professional historian myself? I gotta be careful about that.

So anyway, up to this point, from my lofty status as an amateur history buff, as an engaged and enthusiastic reader of history, I’m willing to follow the Russian’s argument. I’m willing to grant that Scaliger and Petavius might have made a few mistakes, and the whole system could possibly be off by a couple of years, maybe even five, six, seven years, and we’ll never catch the mistake because we are locked into a frame of reference. For example, if somebody told me that, based on the rings of some redwood tree, they had proved that this isn’t really the year 2009, it’s really 2003, or even 2016, I might be willing to concede the point. But the thing is, I’d also argue that it doesn’t really matter, because the whole system is kind of arbitrary, and since we’ve been keeping really good records since the year 1500 or so, so why not keep calling the years the same names we’ve been calling them?

But this Russian mathematician, he makes a much more sweeping argument, an argument that is much wilder in every possible way.

He basically disregards all the chronological cross-checking that all the historians in the world have ever done, and accepts the reports of a few ancient and medieval stargazers as precise and well-documented facts—as basically the only facts, in his view, worth considering. And from these, to him, iron-clad facts, these reports of ancient astronomical observations, he deduces that this or that reported solar eclipse or passing comet must be the one, according to his calculations, that would have occurred at such-and-such a date. Usually many centuries later. And from that irrefutable reasoning he shows, quod erat demonstrandum, that the Middle Ages never happened at all. Or rather—since something, undeniably, did happen—he figures that it happened at a ten-to-one compression ratio, in a kind of time-lapse video: the events we used to spread out over a thousand years now must rush past us in a hundred.

It’s kind of fun to work through this guy’s ideas, as a thought experiment, but in the end, I don’t buy it. Not at all. I’m a guy who believes that the Middle Ages really happened. I can tell you, if didn’t believe that the Walk to Canossa really took place in the winter of 1076-77 (or very nearly thereabouts), I wouldn’t be here now.

Even if things are, for the moment, kind of boring.

Patricius

27 April 2009, 3:31 p.m.
53° 21' 4.59" N, 2° 17' 0.09" W

So yesterday—or was it this morning?—I was sitting in the airport bar in Manchester, (layover #2 on my bargain itinerary, O’Hare—Newark—Manchester—Hamburg—Mannheim), having a cocktail so I’d be sure to sleep on the connecting flight to Hamburg....

Now that I think about it, it definitely was morning there in Manchester, right around dawn maybe, but the rhythms of my life had been just been trashed by a night of transoceanic travel and at that point I just wanted to sedate myself a little, set myself up for an hour or two of unconsciousness on the next flight, and I figured I could start pounding coffee once I landed in continental Europe....

Anyway I started talking to this couple, it turned out they were from the Czech Republic and they asked me where I was going and I told them I was a blogger and I was flying to Mannheim so I could re-enact or re-live or re-something the Gang Nach Canossa, the Walk to Canossa, and the amazing thing is, this couple sorta knew what I meant.

That is, they knew the phrase, in German and in English, and they knew it had something to do with church and state, and they knew that snow was involved, and Bismarck, and a king named Henry and a pope named Gregory, although they were kinda mixed up about which Henry and which Gregory. It turned out that they had seen the American cable telenovela about Bertha of Savoy (dubbed into Czech, wouldn’t that be wild!) and the two of them had been having this running argument for like two years about whether the show should be taken as historical fiction or total fantasy—these were intelligent people, this Czech couple, he was an engineer and she was a lawyer, or maybe the other way around—but, still, I was impressed that they made that distinction, that they could argue about the difference between a story that’s based in fact but takes liberties and a story that refers to our memories of other stories in order to create its own mythic reality. They actually said things like that, in the airport bar. Or maybe I said those things, but they nodded their heads so enthusiastically that it felt like they were talking.

So anyway, they thought I was some kind of expert, and they asked me to tell them what really happened. Of course I slithered out of that one, but I gave them my spiel, the same deep background I’ve been giving my co-workers in Waukegan when I try to explain my plans for this journey:

Well, I said, when we talk about Gang nach Canossa, the Walk to Canossa, l’umiliazione di Canossa, what we’re talking about is an image—a king kneeling in the snow, outside a lonely castle, begging forgiveness from a Pope. Now to understand that image, you’ve gotta understand all the games that the pope and the king were playing—and to do that, you’ve gotta go back a generation, to an earlier Henry and an earlier Gregory.

That’s right. What was going on in 1076 and 1077 had its start back in 1046, when Henry III, King of the Romans—that means a king of the Germans who hasn’t yet been anointed as Holy Roman Emperor—came down to Italy to clean up a mess. And Rome was a total mess. In 1046 there were three popes, and all three of them had sordid back stories—even Gregory VI, the supposed reform pope—he had purchased the papacy, just gone ahead and bought it, like it was on craigslist or something, from one of the other popes, this guy who wanted to get married, but then the chick dumped him (I think I actually said “chick”—the Czechs were totally into the American vernacular, and the airport cocktail, for once, had a little oomph to it) so the first pope decided he wanted to keep his old job, and meanwhile the other guy, etc... etc...

It was bad, the whole situation, disgusting even, at least to the kind of Catholic who wants the church to be pure, so Henry III deposed all three of them and picked a new pope. The new guy was his own personal confessor, a fellow German, who took the name Clement II and promptly christened Henry as Holy Roman Emperor and for good measure gave him the title of Patricius, which basically meant he had the right to appoint popes. This was a big deal to Henry, for while it was obvious to everyone that he had the power to appoint popes, Henry III was as devout as he was power-hungry, and he wanted the right.

The Czech couple seemed to find this stuff fascinating. One of the them, I think it was the woman, made an interesting comment.

“So this Henry, this Patricius,” she said, “he would have been one of the Kaisers of the First Reich.”

The way she said it, I got a sense that German Reichs, whatever the number, were not very popular in the Czech Republic.

“Sounds scary when you put it that way,” I said. “But yeah, that’s it exactly. The Holy Roman Empire. Heiliges Römisches Reich.”

My German pronunciation was terrible, but they didn’t even try to correct me. In fact, they bought me another drink, and told me to keep going. They wanted to know how the next Kaiser ended up at Canossa.

Hildebrand

27 April 2009, 3:39 p.m.
53° 21' 4.59" N, 2° 17' 0.09" W

To be honest, I’m a little bit worried about those cocktails in the Manchester airport. I mean, that conversation sure feels as if it happened yesterday, but there’s no way I can avoid the fact: it happened this morning. It sorta bothers me, here as I’m tooling down the autobahn, that I had two strong cocktails—how many hours ago?

Wait a minute, let me think about this. Let me do the math. One unit of alcohol per hour after the first 30 minutes....

Nope, there’s no problem. The alcohol would have completely out of my system by the time I landed at Mannheim, in fact, by the time I landed at Hamburg! Yeah, definitely. I’m good. As long as I leave jet lag and sleep deprivation out of the equation, I’m good to drive. I’ve been good to drive this whole time.

So there I was—I’m in the Manchester Airport bar, on that long layover, talking to this Czech couple about how this whole Walk to Canossa thing got started, the original one, not my vacation, and I’m on a roll—for the first time, I’m making this story work—which is great, because when I tried to explain the history to people back in Waukegan, I usually got these blank stares.

So by the time the bartender brought the next round of cocktails, I was already telling the Czech couple what the world was like in 1050, which is they year that Henry IV was born. In 1050 his Dad, that would be Henry Number 3, he is at the peak of his powers—he has already gone down to Rome, he’s fired three popes, he’s picked his own pope, I mean 1050 is one year when things are looking really good for the Holy Roman Empire—by which I explained that I meant the Holy Roman Emperor himself, the person, the guy, not the institution, which was always sort of a mess. Anyway, that year the Catholic Church is under the Emperor’s control, and all the German princes, for once, seem to be well-behaved, even the Saxons. Now of course, there’s a lot of conspiring going on, in the private chambers of castles, and the vestuaries of cathedrals, in Germany and Italy, pretty much all over the place. The Saxons, being Saxons, are just waiting for a good chance to rebel, and Henry III’s big year in 1046, what you might call his display of imperial prerogative, well that has quietly pissed off a lot of people in Italy—by people, I explained to the Czech couple, I meant the people who show up in the historical record, which is to say the people who can read and write, so we’re talking about priests and monks and bishops, not ordinary people—and a lot of these pissed-off clergy, including all the backers of the now-deposed Pope Gregory VI, well they are quietly organizing themselves into a reform movement.

Now some of these reformers are true believers, real purists, hard-core sex-negative fanatics like St. Peter Damian, who genuinely wants to clean up the church—I told them Peter Damian wanted to wipe the Church down with bleach, and of course the couple knew what I was saying—but there’s one reformer, an ambitious young monk named Hildebrand, let’s say he looks at this reform movement as a political opportunity. This Hildebrand goes around telling everyone he that he’s a blacksmith’s son from a small town, that he’s a poor kid who rose from his humble origins through brilliance and hard work to become the top protege of Gregory VI—that’s one of the popes who got fired by Henry III. Now some people say Hildebrand isn’t a blacksmith’s son at all, that in fact he’s Gregory’s nephew, just another brat from the same rich Roman family. According to this version, Hildebrand came up with the blacksmith story after he saw how his uncle got bounced out of the pope job for acting too rich, too entitled, just too damn obvious when he tried to buy the papacy. Or maybe Hildebrand did start out as a smart hard-working poor kid. It’s possible.

Anyway, Hildebrand goes into exile when Henry III fires Gregory VI, and a few years later he turns up again as the toughest ecclesiastical operative in Rome. He’s the stage manager, the behind-the-scenes guy who basically runs the town. Sure he’s a reformer, but he’s not some starry-eyed idealist. Put it this way: Hildebrand is the kind of reformer we know all about in Chicago. He would fit right in.

As soon as I said it, I knew I shouldn’t have mentioned Chicago. When you’re from Waukegan, people just cannot understand the difference. Next thing I know, the conversation is totally off track, and the Czech couple are asking me about Oprah, and Al Capone, and Michael Jordan, like they’re personal friends of mine. I tried to bring up Rahm Emmanuel, as a way of getting back to Hildebrand, but the Czech couple had never heard of him. Then I tried to explain how Hildebrand pushed through the rule change that gave the College of Cardinals the right to pick the Pope, but they started talking to each other in Czech, so I dropped it.

Anyway, the cocktails did their job: I slept like a baby on the flight to Hamburg.

Alarum

27 April 2009, 3:43 p.m.
49° 16' 16.50" N, 8° 36' 49.74" E

Conrad and Bertha are both asleep now, which is way better than having just Conrad be asleep and Bertha hyper-vigilant about keeping him that way. I can’t blame them—the autobahn seems like a good place to nap. It’s soothing, I suppose, the rumble of a well-constructed vehicle doing 140 km/hr. That’s 80-something, I figure, in MPH, plenty fast for me and my jet-lagged reflexes.

I follow the directions on my phone and take Exit 31-Kreuz Walldorf to merge onto A5 toward Basel/Karlsruhe. Piece of cake. I’m beginning to feel like I’m in control of this minivan. Maybe I could handle 145, 150?

Now there’s a noise from the wayback seat—a tinny techno beat. What’s that? I wonder. It sounds funny—is it some kind of alarm? Maybe they have tunes for alarms in this car—different tunes for the pressure in each tire? It could be anything....

Maybe I should have read the owner’s manual. But how could I? It’s in German! And realistically, who reads the owner’s manual for a rental car?

But the tune keeps going—now it’s repeating! Damn it, I should have asked for a translation—do they let you do that? It’s us foreign drivers who might really need a translation of the owner’s manual—there might be some system of alarm tunes that everybody in Europe knows but—

Then Bertha wakes up and answers her cell phone. I can see her in the rear-view mirror.

Her cell phone. Of course. That’s what it sounded like—a cell phone.

Maybe it’s Henry—I wonder if I should interrupt—find out where he is?

I can only catch glimpses of her in the mirror—she seems angry. No, not angry—more like she’s forcing herself to talk to somebody she doesn’t like—

All of a sudden she slaps her phone shut and starts shouting at it in some language—is that Italian? Now she’s angry—wow, is she angry! Is her relationship with Henry that bad? Bruno’s trying to comfort her... Looking in the mirror, I try to figure out what’s going on, but some Audi gives me the horn as it zips past....

Shit, I’d better keep my eyes on the road....

Conrad wakes up and starts screaming in his kindersitz, but Bertha doesn’t even notice. She arguing with Bruno now, pointing at her cell phone...

Now even Lambert is awake—or maybe he was awake the whole time, and now he’s paying attention.

He turns around and looks back. Okay, I’ll let him figure out what’s going on.

I study the road ahead of me for a while. I try to keep the minivan perfectly centered in our lane.... I don’t even look in the mirror. I’m the driver. I’m responsible for keeping us all alive. Eventually things calm down. No more voices from the back. Lambert turns around and looks forward again. He seems weary.

“What was that all about?” I say. “Who called Bertha?”

“That was Henry’s cousin,” says Lambert. “Her name is Matilda.”

“Matilda?” I say. “You mean Matilda of Canossa?”

“You know her?” says Lambert.

“Well,” I say. “I’ve read a few books....”

Privacy in the Wayback Seat

27 April 2009, 3:51 p.m.
49° 10' 6.46" N, +8° 34' 15.58" E

After the cell phone call, the one Lambert says was from Matilda, things had calmed down for a while—if “calm” is the word for a minivan where everyone is wide awake and being careful not to say anything. But now, as we pass the towns of Forst and Hambrücken, Bertha’s emotions erupt again. In the mirror, I can see Bruno trying to talk to her, or just trying to listen. Bertha’s yelling about something, and he’s dodging her anger, leaning back, leaning in, taking her verbal blows like a boxing coach.

“What language is that?” I ask Lambert. “Is it Piedmontese? She’s from Turin, right?”

I don’t know what Piedmontese sounds like, but I’m pretty sure there is such a language—Primo Levi talked about it in his books. I figure it’s a good guess...

“It’s Latin,” says Lambert.

“Latin?” I say. “It doesn’t sound like Latin... Maybe Occitan? Or do you guys call it Langue’doc?” I wonder if I should tell Lambert that I once wrote a college paper on “those who say òc, others who say , still others who say oïl....” Would he recognize the quote from Dante? Does he even know who Dante is?

“It’s Latin,” says Lambert. “Somewhat vulgar. The way the Savoys speak Latin, when they’re angry.”

“You’re the expert,” I say. “Interesting. Savoyard Latin.”

“How would you know what Latin sounds like,” says Lambert. It doesn’t sound like a question, so I don’t answer.

In the wayback seat, Bertha says something sharply, in a new tone, and then falls silent. I catch a glimpse of dejection on Bruno’s face, and then the mirror fills with his lumbering body as he climbs forward into the middle seat.

“What happened?” I say.

“She says Conrad needs more room,” says Bruno.

“How could he need more room?” I say. “He’s sleeping! In a kindersitz!”

“Conrad needs more room, alright?” says Bruno. “Privacy.” His voice is kind of testy.

“Okay, okay. So was that Matilda? Matilda of Canossa? On the phone?”

Lambert gives a snort, like he’s upset that I’m asking Bruno, when he already told me.

“It was the Contessa herself alright,” says Bruno.

“Well, what did she say? How did she get Bertha so upset?”

“Just a minute,” says Bruno. “There’s something going on back there.”

“What is it?” I say. We’re entering a long curve on the autobahn, so I’ve gotta keep my eyes on the road.

“She’s taking out her cell phone... she’s making another call....”

“Who’s she calling?” I say.

“Shh,” says Bruno. “Let me listen.”

Eavesdropping

27 April 2009, 4:02 p.m.
49° 5' 39.18" N, +8° 32' 4.06" E

“Be quiet!” says Bruno. He’s listening to Bertha make a phone call, and I guess I’ve interrupted once too often. Through the white noise of the minivan, as we pass the towns of Untergrombach and Obergrumbach, I can just barely hear Bertha’s voice. She doesn’t sound quite as furious as when she was yelling at Bruno, but I can tell she’s talking about something that still makes her angry.

“It’s her Mom,” says Bruno. “That’s who she called...”

Whom she called,” says Lambert. “And whatever happened to the word Mother?”

“Do you want to do this?” says Bruno. “Translate Bertha’s Latin into demotic American English? It’s not as if I enjoy the vulgarities....”

He listens for minute. “It seems... she’s telling her Mom all the same stuff she told me—how disgusting Matilda is, how Matilda complains about being a widow when everyone knows she was the one who sent the assassin to kill her husband.”

“Matilda took out her husband?” I say. “Godfrey the Hunchback? Everyone knows that?” I’m being a little disingenuous here, feigning surprise and ignorance when in fact I’ve read three or four different biographies of Matilda, and I’m well aware of the different theories about the death of her husband, the Hunchback. There’s a pop-feminist version that practically congratulates her for ordering the hit, portraying it as a triumph of self-actualization, and then there’s the super-Catholic version, the Life of the Saint for young girls, that describes in lachrymose detail her mournful journey north to Lotharingia, to bury her beloved Godfrey. I’m playing dumb, because I want to find out what these guys think.

“It’s common wisdom in the Emperor’s camp,” says Lambert. “Henry is convinced that Matilda had her husband killed so she could give his lands to the Pope. Personally, my money’s on Robert of Flanders.”

“Shh!” says Bruno... “That was just the warm-up. Here’s what really pisses her off—Matilda gave her a message from Agnes.”

“Wait a minute,” I say. “I know who that is! It’s Henry’s mother, right? Agnes of Poitou!”

“Well, Agnes used to be his mother,” says Lambert. “Since Henry’s been excommunicated, I would imagine the dowager would say she has no son.”

“Bertha says that Matilda saw Agnes in Rome,” says Bruno. “Matilda always makes a point of visiting Agnes in her convent, whenever she’s in the old town. That makes Bertha sick.... wait—now she’s on to a new subject... and... what? It’s Conrad! They’re talking about Conrad! Agnes told Matilda that she couldn’t stop thinking about Conrad.”

“How grandmotherly,” says Lambert.

“Agnes went on and on about Conrad—his pale skin and sensitive eyes—his passivity and obedience—his aptitude for a life of holiness and scholarship. At least that’s what Matilda told Bertha,” says Bruno.

“An unmistakable message,” says Lambert. He turns to me. “Do you see where this is going?”

“Uh... no,” I say.

“Boy oh boy!” says Bruno. “Listen to this! Agnes would love to have to have Conrad visit her in Rome. And both Matilda and Agnes are certain, absolutely certain, that that Pope would take a personal interest in Conrad’s education.”

“Well,” says Lambert. “the little Duke is quite a prize.”

“What’s the big deal?” I say. “So what if Agnes wants her grandson to visit her in Rome?”

Bruno stops listening and turns toward me. “Don’t you get it?” he says.

A Mercedes zips by—a big one. That’s the fastest car I’ve seen yet out here on the autobahn.

“He doesn’t get it,” says Lambert. “Tell him.”

“Well, in Bertha’s opinion,” says Bruno, “Matilda and Agnes are trying to steal her son.”

“Not to mention all his lands,” says Lambert.

“That’s why she’s angry,” says Bruno. He looks back at Conrad, sleeping in his kindersitz.

“And she’s quite correct,” says Lambert.

“Hell yeah,” says Bruno. “A lotta people would like to grab that kid.”

In the mirror, I see that Bertha is still on the phone—but now she’s sitting quietly. She looks like a dutiful daughter listening to her mother.

Monastic Sign Language

27 April 2009, 4:13 p.m.
49° 2' 31.72" N, 8° 29' 19.16" E

Bertha’s still talking to her mother on her cell phone—she’s listening mostly—as we barrel down the autobahn. In the mirror, I can see her nodding her head. Then she closes her phone and makes an announcement to the car.

“Listen you guys!” she says. “I told that bitch Matilda that we are still in Speyer where the Pope wants us to be. So don’t go talking to any spies now, okay? We want this trip to Canossa to be a surprise, a big surprise, got that?”

Bruno and Lambert nod their heads, kinda thoughtfully, like middle managers agreeing with their boss. I think about raising the question, just as a point of clarification, of exactly which cover story we ought to be using, and under which circumstances: are there some people to whom we should insist that we are still in Speyer and others—oh say for example those whom we might meet out here on the road—to whom it might make more sense to say that we are going to Augsburg?

But then I realize everybody in the minivan is looking at me. Impatiently.

“Got it!” I say. “No talking to spies. Top-secret!”

Then Bertha curls up in the wayback seat, next to Conrad in his kindersitz, and goes to sleep.

The minivan gets really quiet. Except for the roar of the autobahn.

Lambert opens the black book on his lap, looks down at it, and closes his eyes.

I drive on for a while. We pass an autobahn rasthof—it looks like a rest stop of some kind.

Then Bruno climbs forward and whispers in my ear—

“Time for sign language!”

“What?” I say.

“Monastic sign language. I’ll teach you. Perfect for nap time in the modern vehicle.”

“Aren’t you a mendicant?” I say. “One of those monks with no home?”

“So?” he says.

“But you’re not part of a monastery... are you?”

“Who better to reveal the secrets of the cenobites?” says Bruno.

Then Bruno, from his perch in the middle seat, begins to demonstrate, in gleeful parody, the silent solemn discipline of the Benedictines. Does he think I’m paying attention? In the rear-view mirror, I can only see fragments of each move... and besides... I’m driving!

When Bruno sees that I’m not taking my eyes off the road long enough to learn the gestures, he laughs and leans forward.

“I’ll tell you,” he says, “the truth of the matter—monastic sign language shouldn’t be called a language at all.”

Lambert closes the black book on his lap with an emphatic thud. Has he been awake the whole time?

“It’s not like the sign languages of the deaf,” says Bruno. “Those are real languages. They’re vigorous, grammatical, complete. But this monastic lexicon—it’s got no grammar, no prepositions, no logic words: no that, no whom, no because, no why. The verbs don’t even have tenses!”

“Who needs tenses?” says Lambert. “Our sign language dwells in a tenseless present, for all times are as one to the mind of God.”

“Oh gimme a break,” says Bruno. “You’re just elevating the primitive to the philosophical.”

“A true monk,” says Lambert, “seeks to approach the divine through limitation, not excess, whether of pleasure or of language.”

“So poverty is a virtue?” says Bruno. “In a language? You have got to be kidding! Come on, tell the guy—how many nouns does your sign language have?”

Lambert thinks for a moment, and then, accompanying each word with its gesture, he says:

“Well, there’s... Abbot.... God... altar... church.... And of course, any object which can be indicated by pointing.”

“Pointing?” says Bruno. “That’s rich! Sorta proves my point, doesn’t it? Now tell us—how many verbs?”

Lambert replies with reverent pride. “In the Abbey of Hersfeld,” he says, “there are four and only four verbs: sit, stand up, kneel, and confess. Any more would be impudence.”

Leaving the Autobahn

27 April 2009, 4:21 p.m.
48° 57' 36.17" N, 8° 23' 55.34" E

I bite my lips, contort my cheeks into a grimace, first the left side, then the right side, pinch my leg, squeeze the steering wheel, anything to stay awake. The autobahn is even more soporific than I-55 in southern Illinois, especially when everyone else in the minivan has gone back to sleep, or is praying the office. I try to imagine life in the towns and villages whose names flit past on the blue signs: Durlach, Karlsruhe, Wolfartsweier, Ettlingen, but really all I can think of is a warm bed and closing my eyes.

Maybe it’s jet lag, maybe I’m resentful for having assumed the role of the only adult in the vehicle, maybe this whole project is a mistake—how was I so foolish as to expect that these people from another century, another era, whose view of life, after all, is fucking feudal—how could I have expected them to pitch in, offer me a banana, maybe, or a granola bar, or even just stay awake and make conversation which is all I need to keep this goddamn minivan on the road.

I gotta watch my language. There’s just something wrong about a minivan driver mumbling curses into a Bluetooth microphone.

Then there’s a noise from the wayback seat. It’s Bertha’s cell phone again—that tinny techno beat. She answers it and talks for a while in a tone of studied nonchalance. Who could this be now? In the rear-view mirror I see her shrug her shoulders. Then Conrad, in his kindersitz, wakes up and starts screaming “Papa! Papa!” Bertha’s voice grows more argumentative for a moment, then stops. Can I actually hear the tiny click of the cell phone closing, or do I just imagine it? I glance back in the mirror, just in time to see Bertha inhale sharply through flared nostrils.

There’s a lot of whispering and rustling behind me now. “Keep those seat belts on!” I shout. Even Lambert, in the seat beside me, wakes up, the prayer book sliding from his lap.

Eventually Bruno leans forward and tells me what’s going on. “Look,” he says, “I don’t know whether you’ve noticed, but Bertha and Henry, well, their marriage is kind of rocky....”

“I noticed,” I say.

“Well, that was Henry,” Bruno says. “He’s not taking the autobahn. He’s got some vehicles in his retinue, they can’t do the minimum speed limit.”

“What?” I say. “Like Vespas?” I don’t know why I picture Henry riding around with a retinue of Vespas, except it seems so... European.

“Who knows. Anyway, Bertha, she has mixed feelings, you know, about Henry’s retinue, but at the same time she doesn’t want to get too far ahead of him. On the road. What with all the spies and the assassins and so forth....”

“You and Bertha,” I say to Bruno, “You seem to be close.”

“She needs someone to confide to,” says Bruno. “Anyway, you gotta admit she has a point. It would be very awkward for her—for us, all of us—to show up at Canossa without Henry—particularly after Matilda made those comments about taking Conrad to Rome....”

“I suppose so,” I say.

“So Henry wants us to get off the road, cross the border into France, and meet him and his retinue in Strasbourg.”

“You mean get off the autobahn? No problem,” I say. “No problem at all!”

Exit 51

27 April 2009, 4:24 p.m.
48° 55' 54.70" N, 8° 21' 34.13" E

“Watch for Exit 51, Baden-Baden,” I say to Lambert. “We’re going to take B500 toward Iffezheim slash Paris.”

“Paris?” says Lambert. “But Paris and Baden-Baden are in opposite directions....”

This is ridiculous. Here we are, barreling down the A5 autobahn at 130 k, and I’m trying to teach a medieval monk how to use a GPS unit—while I’m driving. While I’m the one who’s... driving. I’m tempted to add another -ing word, but I refrain.

“No,” I say. “Exit 51 is near Baden-Baden, all the signs will say Baden-Baden, but the sign we’re looking for says Paris slash Iffezheim. Or Iffezheim slash Paris.”

“Hmm,” says Lambert skeptically, leaning toward the dashboard to study the unit.

I know what he’s gonna say next. He’s gonna say that we aren’t going to either Iffezheim or Paris, so before he gets a chance I tell him:

“We’ll go right past Iffezheim, and we won’t get anywhere near Paris, but that’s the sign we’re looking for.”

“No need to condescend,” says Lambert. “Exit 51. It’s the quickest way to Strasbourg. I get it.”

“Right,” I say. “Sorry.”

I drive for a while in silence. The noise of the autobahn no longer puts me to sleep—it’s a different sound now. It’s like I can hear the land beneath us moaning.

I glance in the mirror—Bruno is staring out the window, Bertha seems to be looking at her phone, and what’s Conrad doing? Is that a PSP?

No one but me seems to hear the earth complaining, clay and sand, roots and rocks writhing under the concrete bonds.

A Comfortable Silence

27 April 2009, 4:37 p.m.
48° 47' 34.23" N, +8° 9' 40.05" E

Lambert, in the seat beside me, is now taking his duties as navigator seriously—he opens a paper map, flapping and snapping, to compare it to the GPS.

“Exit 51,” he says, looking at the map. “There it is—right there.”

He seems to be in a good mood. Maybe this is a good time to get to know him better. As a writer, a thinker.

“Look,” I say, “I’ve been meaning to ask you...”

“Hmmm...” he says, without lifting his nose from the map.

“Well,” I say, “It’s about your work... I’m not sure where to start...”

One thing about having a conversation while you’re driving—you don’t have to look at the other person. And without that eye contact, there seems to be no limit on the length of pauses. You pause when a Mercedes zips past your rented minivan, you pause when you pass a truck, you pause for entire minutes, for kilometers, for farms, for rivers, for ancient villages, for whatever tension builds up in your mind.

Eventually I manage to state my question to Lambert, and it goes something like this:

“Well, I guess I wanna ask what your thoughts are on, well...”

(pause)

“...you know, the role of narrative in history, story-telling, I mean, given the paucity...”

(pause)

“...the paucity of documentary evidence, of course you yourself are one of our greatest sources, for your period, and from what I’ve read, the parts that have been translated...”

(pause)

“...I’ve tried translating some myself, but my Latin...”

(pause)

“...anyway, your annals, from the references I’ve seen, the extended quotations, they seem to have a great narrative energy...”

(pause)

“...But...”

(pause)

“..there’s always a tendency for any narrative, any story, to structure our understanding in terms, well, of stories we’ve heard before, pre-existing models...”

(pause)

“...you know, story templates as it were, casting this person as hero, this other one as villain, one side the good guys, one side the bad guys...”

(pause)

“...so when we tell a story, we might not be understanding the past, as much as projecting our world, our own conventions, our own social expectations, back on it...”

(pause)

“...I guess I’m curious, as to what you would recommend, as to how we should deal with...”

(pause)

“...the essential...”

(pause)

“...unknowability of the past... that is, of what we really want to know about the past, all the questions of subjectivity, personality, motivation...”

(pause)

“...I guess it comes down to what it was like to live back then...for example, we talk a lot today about identity, you’ve got your Palestinian identity, your gay identity, your Asian identity—which is interesting because it only exists outside of Asia—your evangelical Christian identity, though its odd that people usually only talk about identities on the left, but the same principle ought to apply to groups on the right, don’t you think?”

(pause)

“...so what sort of identity did an unfree man have, a serf, some guy working out on the fields at the Abbey of Cluny? Or your abbey? Hersfeld, right? and what about that guy’s wife? Did that serf’s wife have anything that we would recognize as an inner life? Now I assume she did, 100%, because I’m a liberal 21st century guy and its part of my world view to recognize her as fully human as you or me, but if social structures constrain consciousness and the social structures were so constricting that....”

(pause)

“...so my main question is, how would you respond to one of those contemporary historians, I had professors like this in college, who dismiss all attempts at narrative as a sentimental exercise, as if telling a good story is just satisfying the appetite of the crowd....”

(pause)

“...you know, somebody who thinks that the appetite for narrative, the human need for a good story... it’s like a craving for sugar. And the historian’s job, well it sure isn’t selling candy to the sugar-addicted masses...”

(pause)

“So. What do you think?”

Lambert takes a while to respond. The silence feels comfortable, relaxed, friendly.

Finally he says “You missed it.”

“What?” I say.

“Exit 51,” he says. “Iffezheim slash Paris. About three kilometers ago. You drove right past it.”

Europa Brücke

27 April 2009, 4:55 p.m.
48° 32' 4.03" N, 7° 55' 13.64" E

So we’re still on the autobahn, A5, south of Baden-Baden, and our plan now is to take Exit 54-Appenweier, which should let us merge onto B28 toward Kehl. This route might even be a few kilometers shorter, or pretty close, no big deal. I’m not ever sure why my phone recommended Exit 51. Maybe the traffic.

As I swing off the autobahn and onto the exit ramp, Lambert checks the GPS screen on my phone. He reports that we will soon be crossing the Rhine on the Europa Brücke. The Pont de l’Europe.

“What?” I say. “You mean we’ll cross two bridges?”

Lambert looks at me like I’m an idiot. Bruno leans forward and fills me in.

“It’s the same bridge,” he says, “The Bridge of Europe, with two different names, in French and German.”

Bruno and Lambert aren’t laughing out loud, but I can tell they’re feeling mighty smug.

Okay guys, I think, clenching my teeth, if I had been able to look at the GPS myself, I would have figured it out right away. But hey, I’m driving this minivan! We’re going 120k here, as I merge onto B28.

It just sounded like two different bridges, the way he said it, that’s all.

“So it’s like a symbol,” I say. “After all the wars between France and Germany....”

No response. My comment must be so obvious they can’t think of anything to add.

Okay. I don’t need to say anything. I can keep my thoughts to myself.

The Border Situation

27 April 2009, 4:58 p.m.
48° 33' 13.38" N, 7° 52' 8.25" E

Maybe I’m being too sensitive—the silence in this minivan is getting oppressive. So what if Bruno and Lambert act all smug when I say something they think is stupid? There are things I want to talk about—things that are worth talking about. For example, here we are heading toward the Rhine river—and that means France. Strasbourg, France.

I’ve gotta admit, I’m kind of excited about driving across a national boundary in contemporary Europe, now that it’s all unified. I’ve never done it before, and I’m very curious as to what happens at the actual border. And I’ve got to admit that I’m also curious as to what Bruno and Lambert think. What’s their take on of the unification of Europe? Whatever it is, it’s got to be fascinating. So I swallow my pride and tell the two monks what I’m thinking. I explain what I know about the border situation, and why I think it’s interesting.

“I’ll bet,” I say, “that we won’t even have to stop when we cross the Rhine. Free-flowing traffic, that’s my prediction.”

Nobody says anything. Well I’m not going to give up. I’m going to start a conversation.

“So how does that compare,” I say, “to your experience? You know, the borders of 1076?”

“We don’t worry about borders,” comes a voice from the wayback seat. “My husband is King of the Romans.”

It’s Bertha. This is the first time she has spoken directly to me since we left Speyer.

“Right,” I say, jumping on the chance. “Of course. He definitely is. But still, aren’t there some—”

“My Enrico is also King of Germany, King of Burgundy, and King of Italy.”

Enrico? Who’s Enrico? Oh, she means Henry!

“And when we get to Canossa, the pope will anoint Enrico Emperor.”

“Really?” I say, “I... I’m not so sure that’s on the agenda.” In the rear-view mirror, I catch a glimpse of her scowling face, so I figure I’d better change the subject, quick. “But aren’t there, you know, a lot of princes, dukes, counts, whatever, with their own territories, their own armies...?”

“My son is Duke of Lower Lotharingia,” says Bertha. There’s something final in her tone, as if Conrad’s dukedom is all I need to know on the subject of German principalities.

“That’s great,” I say, nodding my head. “You... uh... you must be proud of him....”

What the hell is Conrad doing? I look around the minivan, as best I can, in the mirror. The Duke of whatever-it-is had better still be in his kindersitz!

“Lower Lotharingia,” says Bruno, “is basically what you would call the Low Countries. That’s—”

“I know what they are,” I say. “Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg. Benelux.”

“Very good!” says Lambert, his voice dripping with superiority, “Except that Luxembourg would be part of Upper Lotharingia.”

Okay, I give up. We’re going to stop in Strasbourg and I’m going to get a hotel room. I’m going to get a good night’s sleep before I try talking to these people again. How long has it been since I slept? I mean real sleep—not counting those semi-hallucinatory hours aboard the jumbo jet, half-dreaming yet excruciatingly aware of the passage of time? And definitely not counting that passed-out flight from Manchester to Hamburg. When I said earlier that “I slept like a baby,” I was putting a positive spin on that nap. The fact is, I drooled all over the woman in the next seat. I was appropriately mortified and apologetic when they were finally able to wake me up. I had to fill out some form with the airline—you know, she could send them her dry-cleaning bill, and they could charge me. Something like that.

So how long has it been? Since I had some real, refreshing REM sleep? A nice pleasant dream? Or even a nightmare?

I’m losing it. I can’t figure it out.

Pont de l’Europe

27 April 2009, 5:17 p.m.
48° 34' 23.49" N, 7° 47' 55.38" E

As we get closer to the village of Kehl, the B28 highway follows a little river—I figure it must be a tributary of the Rhine, except that it looks more like a canal, sometimes even a drainage ditch. It’s the kind of waterway that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would love: dredged, routed, measured and rationalized. But as I drive beside it the little river keeps pulling at my mind, and now I think no, it’s not rational at all, here it looks as if a giant child has pulled his finger through the soft earth. I imagine an immense soil-encrusted finger, soon to be licked clean by the immense tongue of a giant slobbering dog. The little river’s name? I have no idea. I see a sign or two, but I think better about asking Bruno or Lambert—the signs might mean “No Littering” or “Fishing Only for Senior Citizens” and I don’t want to accumulate any more American Idiot points this afternoon.

Then we veer left, heading toward France. Around us sprawls the industrial fringe of Kehl—rail yards and warehouses. Next thing I know we’re crossing the Rhine—on a dreary old causeway that must be the Europa Brücke/Pont de l’Europe. For a symbol of peace, reconciliation and unity, the bridge is very utilitarian, even boring—it looks like it was rebuilt in a hurry at the end of World War II, which it probably was. There’s a nice pedestrian bridge, though, one of those soaring Calatrava rip-offs—a few hundred meters to the south.

Just as I expected, the border crossing itself is clear sailing. It’s like driving through those tollbooths outside Chicago, where you don’t need to stop—except it’s even easier, because you don’t need that thingey...

And then I see that something is wrong.

Burned out buildings.

Police tape.

Armed troops, with sub-machine guns, guarding workers boarding up smashed windows.

“What the hell happened here?” I say.

“The anti-OTAN riots,” says Lambert. “I think you call it NATO.”

“Don’t you watch TV?” says Bruno. “A couple weeks ago. The Black Bloc anarchists set fire to the custom house during the summit.”

I pull over to the first parking spot I can find.

“C’mon,” I say. “You mean there were riots—buildings burning—right here—at this symbol of European unity?” I don’t care how stupid I sound—I want to know.

“Like I said,” says Bruno, “How did you not see this on TV? Did you even know your president was here?”

“Of course I knew,” I say. “It was all over the news. But I kept turning off the TV—it was all about Michelle Obama and Carla Bruni—their clothes, their make-up, their hair, whether they really got along or not...”

“American TV is fucking stupid.” Once again, a female voice comes from the wayback seat. I look back. Now that we’re parked, I can actually turn my head. Bertha has taken the Duke of Lower Lotharingia out of his kindersitz and holds him defiantly in her lap.

“I read about it in a magazine,” says Bertha. “You have the second-stupidest TV shows in the world.”

I’m about to say something, maybe demand a source for that outrageous opinion, but then I think no, not now, not over this.

Hotel Mercure

27 April 2009, 6:35 p.m.
48° 35' 0.62" N, 7° 44' 16.42" E

We’re supposed to meet Henry and his entourage at the Hotel Mercure in Strasbourg. Well, it turns out that there are several Hotel Mercures in this city—first I navigate through the narrow streets to the Hotel Mercure Strasbourg Centre, on the picturesque ile that holds the upscale shopping district, and we’ve almost got the minivan unloaded when Bertha gets a call on her cell phone. It’s Henry, saying he’s at the front desk, and wondering where we are.

I go into the lobby to look for him, but all I see are five or six guys in red and black soccer jerseys.

Well of course I can’t find Henry, so everyone gets involved, and after much gesticulation in several languages—at one point, I could swear that I hear Lambert speaking to the concierge in Latin—we set off for Hotel Mercure Place Gare Centrale, near the giant space ship, excuse me, train station (honestly, Strasbourg’s gare looks like it was designed by the same team of alien architects that did the remodeling job on Soldier’s Field in Chicago).

This time, we go right into the lobby—no messing with the luggage until we’re sure this is the right place. It’s amazing. There are even more red and black jerseys in this place. Whole families.

Well, Bertha’s phone rings again, and we repeat the confusions before discovering that there’s yet a third Hotel Mercure, just down the Rue du Marie Kuss. Eventually we find Hotel Mercure Quartier St. Jean, which seems like an outpost of gentrification in an old bohemian neighborhood. I get the impression that this place is even more pricey than the other two, but I figure I can handle a room there, for one night anyway.

“What a mix-up,” I say to Bruno as we get out of the minivan.

Bertha and Conrad have already gone into the lobby. Well I guess that’s okay—you know, just assuming that the men will unload the luggage.

“That was no mix-up,” says Bruno.

“What do you mean?” I say. I open the back of the Opel. The luggage is really crammed in there.

“Henry scouted all the hotels,” says Bruno. “This is the first one he found that wasn’t full of red jerseys.”

“Yeah I saw all those people,” I say. “What are they, AC Milan fans?”

Patarini,” says Lambert. He pulls out his own suitcase.

“What?” I say. “No, I could swear those jerseys—that’s AC Milan—they have a word, don’t they? The rossoneri?”

“They’re from Milan, alright,” says Bruno. He grabs his backpack, and starts strapping it on. “Henry figures they’re all spies for Matilda and the Pope.”

“You mean the Patarenes? From your time?” I say. “I read about them... a right-wing Catholic group from Milan, right?”

“Don’t be anachronistic,” says Lambert. “The patarini don’t fit on your political spectrum.”

“None of us do,” says Bruno. He and Lambert turn and go into the lobby, leaving me with the rest of the luggage.

“Sorry,” I say, but they don’t hear me.

Did I just offend them? Or do they think that I’m just the driver? That I’m some kind of servant?

Checking In

27 April 2009, 6:44 p.m.
48° 35' 0.62" N, 7° 44' 16.42" E

After a few minutes, someone from the hotel shows up with one of those carts to help me with the luggage, and together we roll it into the lobby. As I head to front desk, I give the guy a tip—I have no idea if it’s the right amount, but I think I need to make it clear that I’m the sort of person who gives tips, not the sort of person who gets tips.

Henry is nowhere to be seen, but Bertha’s nearby, talking on her cell phone. When I look at her and try to give her the International Tourist Sign Language for “Is this the right place?” (upraised spreading palms and quizzical eyebrows), she nods and points to the desk. So I go and book a single room for myself, and then the clerk asks me about the rest of my party.

I look around—no sign of Henry, Bertha’s still on the phone, Lambert is sitting on a couch, his nose in that black book, and Bruno’s on a more distant couch, watching over Conrad, who is playing peacefully for once with his PSP. Well, at least there aren’t any AC Milan fans in this place.

The clerk looks at me expectantly.

Now this is the point where you might be asking, “What the hell does he expect?” But I swear that I’ve made myself very clear about who is going to pay for what on this trip. I could look up the emails—I know I kept a copy. I told everyone I would handle the driving, and the minivan rental, and the gas—basically all the transportation costs and duties—but I’m certain I made it quite clear that we’d all be on our own for food and lodging. Those were the very words I used—“we’ll all be on our own”—something like that, anyway. That’s clear, isn’t it?

Well, the clerk seems to be used to dealing with groups, and he murmurs something, in very good English, about just needing a credit card to finish the check-in, and he assures me that I’ll be able to work out the details with my party at my leisure. So I get out my card and book a room with two singles for the monks, and a family room (double bed and cot) for Henry, Bertha and Conrad. At the very moment my credit card touches the counter, I hear this voice over my shoulder.

“Are you ze steward?”

It’s a big blond kid, early twenties, kind of a jock, with a big duffle bag over his shoulder.

“What?” I say.

“You know, ze keeper of ze Treasury? For Henry? Ze Kaiser?”

“No, no...” I say. “I’m just a blogger, I’m driving the minivan....”

“Yah, yah, you’re ze vun. I am Feller ze Blessed! Good to meet you, bro!” He turns and gestures to a group of about half a dozen other guys, who bring their duffel bags up to the front desk.

“So,” I say, “You guys... you’re Henry’s entourage....”

“Ve are Die Kaninchenkrieger!” says Feller. “Fastnacht Fanatics from Spargelmeinde!”

“Spargelmeinde...” I say. “I think we drove past there....”

“You can call us ze Rabbit Varriors! Gang nach Canossa!”

“Cool,” I say. “You’re coming with us?”

And then, while I’m shaking hands with the other Rabbit Warriors, Feller the Blessed tells the clerk he needs a couple of big rooms. He doesn’t care how many beds there are. He laughs and slaps my shoulder. “Ze vuns zat don’t get lucky vill crash on ze floor!”

He turns back to the clerk. “Yust put it all on zis guy’s card!”

Le Bar

27 April 2009, 7:53 p.m.
48° 35' 0.62" N, 7° 44' 16.42" E

My room is kind of angular, like somebody tried to hide the attic beams of an old building by disguising them as geometric modernism. But it’s a nice room. Really nice. I haven’t done the euro-dollar conversion yet—my brain is still too foggy from lack of sleep to do the math in my head—but I think it fits in my budget, as long as this is the only room that is still on my credit card at checkout time. I’ve gotta talk to Henry about that.

But I don’t spend much time in the room, just set down my luggage, open my computer, and fire off a few a quick blog posts. The speech-to-text conversion from my digital recorder turns out to be like 90% accurate, which is sweet because I’m in a hurry—the guys from Henry’s entourage said they’d be waiting for me downstairs, in Le Bar—that’s right, the hotel’s bar is actually called Le Bar—and they’ve offered to buy me a beer. The thing with jet lag is that sometimes, like right now, you’re dead tired but so buzzed from daylight and caffeine that a couple of beers sounds better than a nap. Besides, I’m eager to meet these guys, find out what their story is.

So here I am, walking into LeBar. And there they are.

Feller the Blessed introduces me to rest of what he calls “the strange six”—the founders and organizers of the Rabbit Warriors, which seems to be an organization devoted to the production, preservation, and above all the use of something called the “BierWagen.” I meet Grahlert the Garland-Headed, Geng the Horse-Lover, Ruck the Strong, Schulze the Flower-of-Manhood, and Schwager, the God-Who-Is-With-Us. Over the first beer, which is very good, by the way, I learn that they are all from a town near Speyer called Spargelmeinde (they laugh whenever they say the name, so it’s either a very funny town or a joke that I don’t get), that they are currently enrolled, for the most part, as engineering students at the University of Heidelberg; that they are all monster snowboarders; that they usually do their snowboarding in the Black Forest, but they are hoping to catch the last snows of the season in the Alps on our journey to Canossa; that they love American pop culture, including the Simpsons (which they watch in German), the songs of Hall and Oates (which they karaoke in English), and the web-comic XKCD, which they quote incessantly—“It is ze only comic in ze language of calculus!”

“I zink you have ze wrong press conference,” says Geng the Horse-Lover, and the rest of them start making a noise—not laughter, exactly, but a thin, ritual parody of a laugh.

“Is that a line from XKCD?” I ask.

“Yah, yah!” says Ruck the Strong. “Ze vun about ze G-Spot! Did you read it?”

“Not yet,” I say.

By this point, I think we’re on Schulze the Flower-of-Manhood’s round. Each time one of them orders more beers, I protest, but just pro forma, to give them an excuse to back out, if they want to—I’m not quite sure what the rules are for rounds-drinking here in transnational or supranational or whatever kind of Europe we’re in. But then I notice—kind of sideways, I mean this is the third or fourth thought crowding around my mind at that moment, standing in the background, trying to get my attention—that they are putting the beers on their rooms, and that means—I can barely hear this thought, the bar is getting too noisy—that every damn drink has been going onto my credit card.

The thought waves at me one last time from across the room, and then gives up and goes off to be alone with its misery, because by this point, I’m insisting, loudly, that it’s my turn to buy.

Looking for the BierWagen

27 April 2009, 10:17 p.m.
48° 34' 57.81" N, 7° 43' 58.73" E

It’s dark now—what time is it? Who cares? A little while ago Schwager, or maybe it was Grahlert, said it was time to schlumble, and so that’s what we did. We schlumbled out of Le Bar and down the street to Le Rive Gauche, which seems to be some sort of classic Strasbourgian café. There are a lot of tables outside, filling up the pointy corner, and even though it’s not very warm, that’s where we sit. I order a round of beers and a round of apéritifs—I insist on calling them “shots,” and try to teach Schulze how to pronounce the word with the correct, Midwestern flatness, while Ruck and Geng check out a table of young women nearby.

Then Feller tugs at my sleeve. “Look,” he says, pointing with his shoulder to the interior of the café. The inside is nothing much, even kind of divey-looking, I guess that’s why everyone’s outside. All the tables are empty, except for one couple, in the back corner, making out. The guy is bearded, with a black motorcycle jacket. The girl is slim, with a tailored yellow jacket and an elegant ponytail.

“That’s... that’s Henry and Bertha....”

“Yeah,” says Feller. “There is our Kaiser!”

What he actually says is, “Zere is our Kaiser!” but my ears are getting used to his accent, and trying to do phonetic spelling with a voice recorder turns out to be a royal pain—you have to override the autocorrect every single time....

Wait a minute, something bothers me.

“Where’s Conrad?” I say. “If Henry and Bertha are out on a date, who’s taking care of the kid?”

I get out my phone and call the hotel desk. Yeah, sure, it’s like forty steps away from where I’m sitting, but I’m waiting for a round of drinks. The clerk puts me through to Bruno and Lambert’s room. Lambert answers. Yes, Conrad is there. It’s quite the domestic scene. Lambert is sitting at the desk, writing in his notebook, and Bruno and the little Duke are on the couch, watching some cartoon on TV.

“It’s Wall-E,” shouts Bruno from the background. “Thank God for Pay-Per-View.”

“Okay, then, whew,” I say. “Just checking.”

“Any sign of the patarini?” asks Lambert. I look around—there’s one guy in a soccer jersey with sorta-red stripes, but no, that’s Barcelona, not AC Milan...

“We’re good,” I say, like I actually know what I’d do if we weren’t good.

Now I’m buying a round of drinks for the madchen at the next table and as soon as....

I don’t think I finished my last idea. This past hour has been kind of a blur. But at least I’m still....

No, no, wait, hold on, where are we going? What? Okay. I’m in. Let’s go.

Now we’re running across some big boulevard near the train station, me and the Rabbit Warriors and our new girlfriends—this is a blast—we’re looking for the parking structure where they left the BierWagen, and when we find it we are totally going to....

Jouets d’Occasion

28 April 2009, 8:04 a.m.
48° 35' 0.98" N, 7° 44' 12.21" E

I wake up alone on the BierWagen. Which is to say that I wake up on an old mattress, surrounded by plywood and beer-tapping equipment, with a picture of a large white rabbit, wearing sunglasses, looking down on me. It’s an open question as to just how hungover I am, so I decide to postpone the moment of discovery.

Lying very still, I consider whether this place is indoors or outdoors. There’s a plywood roof over my head, and the smell of stale beer and puke, which support the indoors argument, but there’s a bright ray of light poking around the rabbit’s face, and a very cold breeze, both of which suggest that I am in fact outdoors. Eventually I remember that I’m in Strasbourg, France, and there’s a hotel, where I’m supposed to be staying, that has four, maybe five rooms on my credit card, so I decide I’d better get going.

I crawl off the mattress and stand up. The hangover arrives, a wave of unsteadiness and constriction—not quite nausea, not yet anyway. Moving my head was not a good idea—I consider lying down again on that disgusting mattress and remaining perfectly still for the rest of my life, but then I think of those hotel rooms, and my credit card. I find an opening in the plywood and look around.

I’m in some kind of parking structure. Large motor coaches, the kind that transport tourists in style, are parked nearby. What’s that? A tractor? A real farm tractor! Do they pull this thing with a tractor? Moving slowly, I climb down from the BierWagen and try to get a good look at it, the whole thing. It’s sort of a cross between a carnival float and a big blue plywood tank, and on the side there’s another picture of a white rabbit wearing sunglasses, just a huge picture, and also a smaller rabbit, with smaller sunglasses, in a shield. I vaguely remember arriving at the BierWagen from this angle. The Rabbit Warriors were proud and excited, and the Danish girls laughed—I think they were Danish—but I have no idea what happened after that.

I’m still in the same itchy clothes—the clothes I wore on the long jet ride across the Atlantic—how many hours ago would that be now? My brain hurts when I try to think.

I walk down the ramps of the parking structure, and find a security guard who speaks some English. In my best French accent, I tell him I’m looking for the Hotel Mercure Quartier St. Jean, not the Hotel Mercure Gare Central, but he just looks at me blankly. I say it again, this time pronouncing the French names with a horrible American accent, and he nods eagerly and gives me directions. What the fuck. Anyway, I’m supposed to take Boulevard de Metz to Rue Déserte to Rue du Maire Kuss.

Out on the boulevard, people are rushing to work. My head is really hurting now, but I make my way across a big intersection and find my way to Rue Déserte, a narrow back street, barely more than an alley. If I walk with my left eye closed, the headache seems more manageable.

I pass a brightly colored store, with big windows. Jouets d’Occasion. That means Used Toys, doesn’t it? There are two little dwarves in the window, dwarf dolls, like gnomes. Did I see this last night?

Yes, I definitely remember this place—the drab narrow street, the brightly colored storefront, the big windows, the toys, even these dwarves. A memory comes rushing back: I see myself stepping through this window, stepping into the shimmering plate glass, entering the world of the dwarves....

But then I decide No, that’s not a memory, more like flashback from a movie I saw once, one of the dozen or so movies I’ve seen with moments like that—they keep repainting the collective dream in brighter and brighter colors. Or maybe I dreamt it last night, on the puke-stained mattress. Or maybe, in my hangover, I just had a microdream, right now.

Anyway, I’m quite certain that it never happened, that I never walked through this plate glass window, never followed those dwarves down into a musty basement. And I never opened the massive iron door we found there, even if I was the only one tall enough to reach the latch. I don’t care how persuasive they were, there’s no way would I ever descend with those dwarves down that stairway of ten thousand steps. It did not happen. Was not me.

Just how drunk was I last night? At least these windows aren’t broken, that’s a good sign.

Beer for Breakfast

28 April 2009, 8:25 a.m.
48° 35' 0.62" N, 7° 44' 16.42" E

When I get back to the Hotel Mercure Strasbourg Quartier St. Jean, three of the Rabbit Warriors are sitting in the sidewalk café outside.

“There he is!” calls out Feller the Blessed when he sees me. “The steward of the empire!”

“Did you sleep in the BierWagen?” asks Schwager, the God-Who-Is-With-Us.

“Ah!” says Ruck the Strong, “The perfect cure for jet lag! Sit down and join us for breakfast, bro. We are drinking Strasbourg beer! Will you have one?”

“Wait, wait,” says Schwager. “We must randomize the trial!” Then he starts moving their beers around, like a shell game.

“You try the salicylic acid,” says Ruck, and they all make that sound again, that pseudo-laughter, as they drink from each other’s beers.

From inside my hangover, I watch them laugh, or pretend to laugh, or mock the very idea of laughter. I have no idea what the joke is about, but I start laughing too.

“Another line from XKCD?” I say.

“Yah, yah,” says Schwager. “The one about the acne medicine. Have you seen it?”

“No... not exactly,” I say. “I’ll... I’ll have some... coffee.”

I think about ordering breakfast, but I decide that’s not a good idea, not yet. All I want to do is go up to my room and take a shower. But I figure I’d better talk to these guys for a minute, and find out if I did anything really embarrassing last night. They assure me that by their standards, my behavior was kind of tame. I ask them about the Danish girls. Feller punches me in the arm.

“Those were not Danish girls!” he says.

They all laugh, make funny faces and point at me. I decide not to pursue the matter any further.

Just then Bruno comes out from the lobby. He seems very upset.

“Have you seen Henry?” he says.

“No,” I say. “I... just got here....”

“It’s all your fault,” he says. “Bertha blames you. And she’s right. You should never let them sleep together.”

“What?” I say.

“All they do is fucking fight the next day. Henry’s gone. He’s gone.”

“What about Conrad?” I say. I don’t know why I’m so worried about the little brat, but I am. I mean, he’s a kid.

“Right now, let’s see, the Duke of Lower Lotharingia, oh yes, he’s throwing a tantrum in the lobby,” says Bruno. I look in through the glass door. Amid the reflections of the street I catch glimpses of the little boy swinging a shopping bag, whopping it hard against the front desk.

“Don’t worry about him,” says Feller, standing up.

“Yah,” says Ruck.

“We know how to play with little dukes,” says Schwager.

And before I know it, the Kaninchenkrieger guys have all rushed into the lobby, like maybe they really are an elite military unit. Next thing I see (when a big black truck goes by and darkens the window) is Conrad on Feller’s shoulders, tossing something to one of the other Rabbit Warriors. Well, well, well. The kid seems to be having fun.

Sometimes a hangover gives you a real Zen-like attitude towards life’s problems. Like now. There seemed to be a crisis, but because I’m hungover, I didn’t do a damn thing, and now like magic it’s all better.

I glance toward the lobby one more time, to see what’s going on, but this time all I can see is my own reflection. I look like hell.

The Two Gozilos

28 April 2009, 8:58 a.m.
48° 35' 0.62" N, 7° 44' 16.42" E

Some guy in a fluorescent vest is watering the potted plants outside the hotel. He’s got quite a contraption—a little three-wheeled golf cart, a huge tub of water, and a long tube with a shower head.

“Don’t worry about Henry,” I say to Bruno, “He has a motorcycle. That’s what’s guys with motorcycles do. They go.”

By this point, Bruno and I are the only ones sitting in the sidewalk café. Where’s that coffee? Did I ever even order it?

“Or in this case,” says Bruno, “they arrive.”

I turn around and look. Three figures on motorcycles are coming over the bridge. One of them I recognize as Henry. The others... Are those Vespas? The other two look like a man and woman, all dressed in black and riding black motor scooters. Black helmets, black visors, black suits, black shirts, black shoes.

They pull up right outside the café. The guy in the fluorescent vest gives them a dirty look. It doesn’t look like a legal place to park motorcycles, even scooters, but what the hell do I care? One of the scooter riders is definitely male, tall and athletic. The other is a small feminine figure with an odd limping walk, one arm kinda shorter than the other. Who are these people? A mother-son scooter team?

Then they take off their helmets and I feel like an idiot. They’re both men. Both red-haired, both bearded. The tall one is young, with his hair pulled back in a pony tail. The small one, with the twisted arms and funny shoulders, is much older. His hair is thinning and his beard is wispy.

As they approach our table, Bruno gets up and goes inside. Henry doesn’t seem to notice. He never seems to notice Bruno, coming or going, absent or present.

“Book a room for these guys,” says Henry. “This is my cousin, Gozilo, and his nephew, Gozilo.”

“Pleased to meet you,” I say. “Uh, sit down... I was just ordering coffee.”

The young Gozilo says something in a language I don’t understand, or even recognize. Dutch, maybe? Or Danish?

“They’re hungry,” says Henry. “Take care of them.” Then he hops on his bike and takes off.

The two Gozilos sit down and look at me.

“There’s a server on duty,” I say. “I saw her before...”

The young one says something again, in that language. What does Walloon sound like? The older Gozilo nods his head.

Then it occurs to me. “Gozilo!” I say. “Isn’t that Latin for Godfrey? Or Gottfried?”

“No,” says the small twisted man. “No, it’s not.”

“I saw that name, I’m sure I did....” I say. For some reason now I’m talkative. “I was looking at the Latin text of Lambert’s Annals—last week, before I flew over here—not that my Latin is any good—I barely made it through Caesar’s Gallic Wars with an interlinear translation, and that was many years ago—but I found a copy of the Latin text, you know on the Internet...”

My Latin isn’t quite that bad, but the line about the interlinear translation is my standard excuse when someone at the library wants me to translate something. No one gets the joke, except for a few oldsters who took required freshman Latin at Catholic high schools back in the sixties. By the time I found myself in a Latin class, a decade after the requirement had been abolished, we were all there voluntarily, a bunch of language geeks, but our teacher, Mr. Roth, would entertain us with stories of the legions of mediocre students from the bad old days, cribbing their daily assignments in tortured syntax from dog-eared interlinears. He showed us a copy. It was disgusting. Not the translation, which was hilarious, but the physical book. It was the grossest thing we’d ever seen.

“...so anyway, I did some side-by-side comparisons with the translations, you know, just to get a feel for the original, and I could swear that I saw “Gozilo dux Lotheringorum”—you know, in the part about the murder of Godfrey the Hunchback....”

Stony silence, from both Gozilos. But I keep going...

“Maybe it’s just a medieval Latin thing, an unusual spelling. Lambert himself is staying in this hotel. We could ask him...”

The red-haired youth leans forward and grabs my shirt.

“We are not named Godfrey!” he says. I guess he speaks English, after all.

“Okay,” I say, trying to breathe.

“We are named Gozilo! Got that? Just... Gozilo!”

I nod my head and he lets go. The guy has really strong hands. Is he a gangster or something?

Allergy Medicine

28 April 2009, 11:44 a.m.
48° 35' 0.70" N, 7° 44' 17.64" E

I’m ready to go to sleep now. Ready, willing, and I hope I’m able. I’m completely exhausted, not to mention hungover and jet-lagged. In the last 48 hours, correcting for time zone crossings, I’ve had at most six hours of sleep. That’s six hours tops, best-case estimate, and three to five of those could be categorized as “passed out from drunkenness”—which seriously reduces your REM cycles, so crucial for mental alertness the next day, not to mention your ability to absorb new experiences, a skill I could really use on this trip.

It’s odd that I can do math in my head again, all of a sudden, as I lie here on this creaky, dusty bed. Just a few minutes ago, as I was carrying my luggage up the narrow stairs to this room, I was so tired I thought I was going to fall asleep right there on the landing. Have I mentioned that I’m not in the Hotel Mercure Quartier St. Jean anymore?

Oh, I’m still paying for a room there—altogether there are five rooms on my card—and there’s absolutely no way I’m leaving town without getting reimbursed for most of those room-nights. And the room service! And the bar tabs! And the Pay-Per-View!

Of course I’ll pay for my own legitimate expenses—that would be, let’s see, last night, one room, my room, even though I ended up sleeping, or passing out, in the BierWagen. And I did buy a couple of rounds for the Rabbit Warriors in Le Bar, and breakfast this morning for Bruno and myself and the two Gozilos. I’m pretty sure I picked up that tab. Those are my charges. My voluntary charges.

You know what I should’ve done? When I checked out, I should’ve completely checked out. I should have paid for my room and my tab and taken my credit card and made damn sure that somebody else’s credit was securing the rest of Henry and Bertha’s traveling party. But did I do that? No. Not at all.

It happened like this:

After breakfast, we went to the front desk, and it turned out that the Hotel Mercure was booked full for tonight, which meant there were no rooms available for the two Gozilos. Okay, so was that my problem? Well, for some reason, I felt inspired to play the generous host and I offered to let the Gozilos have my room. Now what I meant, of course, was that I’d move out and they’d move in. But it turned out there were all kinds of complicated rules the hotel has to follow when it’s booked solid and there’s a waiting list, rules about sécurité, priorité and transférabilité, and the only way I could get some keys for my room for the two Gozilos was if I paid an extra 40 euros a night and signed some document certifying that I knew what I was doing by inviting two black-leather-clad bikers to my room for a three-way.

I’m not sure that clause was actually in the document, but it was definitely on the clerk’s face. The negotiations took place in three or four different languages, so I caught maybe 30% of the meaning. Yeah, right, whatever, I thought. I signed it.

So I took the two Gozilos up to the room, and once again it struck me, how nice the room was. I’ve gotta say, I wish I could sleep there myself, but the Gozilos didn’t seem impressed. I tell you, I picked up something dangerous and violent from these red-haired guys, the old one with his odd feminine limp and the young one with his big strong hands—and with the document I had just signed they could probably have murdered me and I couldn’t even complain.

My bags were still sitting on the bed, so I grabbed them and headed over here, which is the backpacker/fleabag hotel next door, above La Rive Gauche. The desk clerk at Hotel Mercure called ahead, so they gave me la chambre meilleur, which is to say, the only room available. It’s not that bad. Sure I have to share a bathroom down the hall—more like down the hall and then down a half-flight of stairs—and there’s an inch or so of dust under the bed, which I discovered after sneezing six times, but I’ve got my allergy medicine with me and there are big heavy curtains over the window, so I can get the room almost dark, which is a big plus, since it’s almost noon here in Strasbourg and I plan to go to sleep right now.

I just took my allergy medicine—the kind that usually knocks me right out. This will be great. I can sleep for 17 or 18 hours straight, which will get me right back on schedule for a 72 hour average, that would come out to, let’s see, between 7 hours and 20 minutes and a full 8 hours a night. I wish my brain would slow down.

But I start to worry. Does everyone else know what’s going on? What if they all check out of their rooms and load up the minivan, but I’m nowhere to be found? I should call someone. But none of these medieval assholes have cell phones, except Bertha, and I don’t know her number.

I end up calling the front desk of the Hotel Mercure and leaving a note for Bruno. We’ll be spending another night in Strasbourg, I say. Take it easy on the room service, I add. And watch out for spies and assassins and patarini. The desk clerk seems puzzled by the last part. A private joke, I say, and I start to explain about the AC Milan fans in their red jerseys, but it turns out he just wants me to spell patarini. Okay.

That allergy medicine better kick in soon. Maybe I should take another dose.

Innocence

29 April 2009, 3:57 a.m.
48° 34' 53.91" N, 7° 45' 1.10" E

It’s 4 a.m., and I’ve been walking around Strasbourg for an hour. Three times I’ve been stopped, by three different cop cars, petites voitures de police, little minivans that pull up next to me and offer to help.

“I’m innocent!” I want to shout at them. “I didn’t do it. It’s not possible!”

But instead I explain that I have jet leg, and I just slept for thirteen hours after not sleeping for two days, and I need to walk to get myself tired again, so I can sleep another couple of hours and get back on schedule.

All three times, the cops have been very helpful and reassuring. They tell me that I don’t look like a criminal, which means, I suppose, that I look like a crime victim. They know I’m an American before I even open my mouth. Are my clothes that obvious? Or my body language?

I’m completely sober, I tell them. I’m not looking for drugs or sex. I’m not going to get mugged. I just need to walk.

The cops all speak very good English. One tells me to avoid Rue X, where skinheads from Port du Rhin have been known congregate, another says to watch out for Quai Y, where the gypsy pickpockets ply their trade, and the last one made me promise to stay away from Place des Zed, where some backpackers suspected of anarchist sympathies like to camp out. Each time I thank them, and promise to keep my wallet in my front pocket. Then they pull away, and I continue on my walk, a respectable citizen of the world, an innocent international traveler availing himself of the calm streets of a safe city for a recuperative walk in the wee hours.

It’s a good story, but I don’t believe a word of it. In my gut, I don’t feel innocent at all. What I feel is desperately, mortally guilty.

This is the longest it’s lasted—the longest I’ve felt this way—after the dream. Normally all I have to do is wash my face, and my innocence returns. But not tonight.

You see, I have this recurring dream—well I can’t really call it recurring, it’s not even the same dream—it’s always different, always unique, always sneaks up on me. But it always ends up the same way—with me waking up, trembling with guilt and fear. That’s ridiculous, isn’t it?

It always starts in some other dream. A boring dream. I’m engaged in some trivial, repetitive activity, tying my shoes maybe, or re-shelving books at the library, or folding and unfolding some kind of collapsible object, when an overwhelming anxiety, a moral dread, comes out of nowhere and attaches itself to whatever I’m doing. I find myself thinking: I must do this well, I must do this faster, or... it will all come out!

And then the activity becomes impossibly difficult: the shoelaces grow longer and longer in my hands, the carts of unshelved books multiply around me, the collapsible object twists and turns into a snake... Shit. That was a bad one—the one with the snake. I shouldn’t have thought about that.

Tonight. I’ll think about tonight.

It was definitely night when the dream came, I’m sure of that. I had woken up, all groggy, and made my way downstairs to the shared bathroom to take a piss—I had been sleeping all day, but it was completely dark by then. I had to wait for this Swiss backpacker to finish using the w.c., and I looked out the window. The street was dark. Definitely dark. I’m positive. I don’t know why I’m so concerned about whether it was day or night, except that maybe if this turned out to be one of those weird dreams that attack you during afternoon naps, maybe I could dismiss the whole experience. But it doesn’t work that way. It always happens to me at night.

So tonight, what I was doing, after I pissed and climbed back up to my room and into that dusty bed—I found myself cleaning and reconnecting the tapper lines on the BierWagen. Now I’ve never cleaned beer tapper lines in my life, and as far as I know, the BierWagen doesn’t have any lines to clean—the only tapper I saw just went straight into a barrel—but beer aficionados always talk about cleaning the lines, and how important clean lines are for good draft beer, and I’ve been to a few after-hours parties in the basement of a bar. This was a long time ago, before I got married, when the library had me working a night shift, minding the new database server, which was very touchy, by the way, and I’d get off at midnight, and a couple, three times a week I’d stop at this tavern near my apartment, where there was an after-work crowd from a nearby emergency room. A fun group, usually buzzed with energy from saving or losing lives. Eventually I became enough of a regular that if I was still around at last call, I’d get invited to the after-hours party in the basement, and the beer lines loomed over us in the dim light like the rigging of a pirate ship.

Those lines must have made an impression me, because in my dream tonight they connected themselves to the tappers in the BierWagen, and it was my job to clean them. Of course I accepted the assignment, in the agreeable manner I usually have in dreams. Next thing I knew there were dozens of disconnected beer lines curling around me, clean and dirty and frothy and sparkling, and I thought: I’d better reconnect these to their original tappers, and that’s when the anxiety arrived.

Suddenly I realized I had to do it right, and I had do it fast, and I had to do it now, because otherwise I would be caught.

Fuck. There’s another cop car. Where the hell am I? Is this the Cathedral? Is that a gargoyle?

I don’t want to talk to the cops again, so I step into the shadows, and hide.

Guilt

29 April 2009, 4:36 a.m.
48° 34' 55.94" N, 7° 45' 2.86" E

I’m hiding in the shadows on the side of the cathedral. Notre Dame de Strasbourg. There’s a wheelchair symbol, next to a locked iron gate. Is this the handicapped entrance? The lights of the cop car bounce off the windows of the little shop across from me. I press myself back into the iron bars.

All around the cathedral, it’s some kind of pedestrian-only plaza, so the cop is driving real slow. He stops and turns off his headlights. What’s he doing? He gets out of his car outside the Office de Tourisme. He looks at a bicycle. Is that a crime or something? Leaving a bike there overnight?

I tell myself: hiding in the shadows is stupid.

But I reply to myself: hiding in the shadows is better than running up to the cop, throwing yourself at his mercy, and blurting out that you don’t know where the body is because you didn’t do it!

What’s wrong with me? It’s almost like I think it happened here—in Strasbourg! I’ve only been here for what? 36 hours? Yeah sure maybe I blacked out a little last night at the BierWagen—no, no I don’t even want to think about that. No way it was one of those Danish girls! They weren’t even Danish!

The cop gets back in his car. The headlights come on. For one terrifying moment, the lights swing across the handicapped sign, but he’s turning. He’s leaving. He didn’t see me.

This is totally insane, I tell myself. It was a dream. Your recurring dream. It’s happened before, back in Waukegan, so that means it did not happen here. In fact, you are absolutely certain it never happened at all.

But that doesn’t help. Probably because in the dream, when it happens, nothing happens. That doesn’t make sense. What I mean is that it’s not like something new happens—some new plot development, some new event occurring there in my dream-life. It’s more like a memory bubbles to the surface, and I catch a glimpse of something that I’ve tried to forget, a reality I can never escape.

So I wake up feeling guilty. I wake up remembering... or believing that I remember... or living under the weight of a memory....

I tell myself: In your dream, you remember another dream. When the memory arrives, it’s a not a memory of something you did, it’s the memory of something you dreamt.

Huh? I reply.

That’s the only possibility, I tell myself. It’s the only explanation fits the facts: At some point in the past, you had a dream. You never remembered this dream in your waking life, at least not directly, not the next morning. But now, every once in a while, you remember it in your dreams.

Yeah maybe, I reply.

It’s as if in sleep you live a parallel life, in a parallel moral universe.

But still... I remember what I remember.

You need to think critically, I tell myself. You need to examine the evidence. So what happened in this other world? In the dream you remember when you’re dreaming?

Well... it must have been 5 or 6 years ago, maybe 8, it could have been right during the divorce, there was plenty of free-floating guilt in my life at that time, self-recriminations around every corner....

You’re avoiding the question. At some point you’ve got to say it. What happened in the dream? The original dream? What do you remember?

I remember that I... committed murder.

There. You said it. You need to say it again, until it evaporates.

I committed murder.

Of course you didn’t really. But that’s the content of the anxiety, right? That’s the memory that bubbled to the surface while you tried to clean the beer lines? The horrible moral fact you’ve been trying to forget? Say it again.

I committed murder. It’s not evaporating.

You don’t know much about this murder, do you?

No.

What do you know?

That the victim was young and pretty, and I was attracted to her.

What else?

That I chose to conceal the deed and go on living my life as if nothing had happened.

And?

My victim’s death left a gaping hole of pain in the world. Someone, somewhere feels this pain...

Who?

A mother perhaps, or a sister, or a retired detective....

That sounds like a TV show.

So what? The pain is real.

What does this pain mean to you?

It’s pursuing me. The detective has been interviewing my neighbors. The mother is just around the corner. The sister is coming through the door.

Are you afraid of that pain—that grief and rage?

Not really. I’m afraid that when I see the mother’s face, or hear the sister cry.... I’m afraid I’ll confess. I’m just a coward. A fucking coward.

But you don’t know who the victim was, or anything about her.

No.

Talk about the murder.

I can’t.

Weren’t there any details?

No.

No blood, no inconvenience, no messiness?

No.

You’re talking about this murder as if it were an abstract moral act.

I guess so.

Or rather, a series of abstract moral acts—a violation, then a concealment, and then a decision.

What?

You believe you killed her, hid the body, and decided to pretend it didn’t happen.

Yes. I mean I remember the decisions, not the body.

That’s my point. Your abstract moral acts culminated in an abstract moral state—a life filled with guilt.

It doesn’t feel abstract.

But don’t you see—it’s like it happened in a debating class, or a game. You’re the one who drew the “I have secretly committed murder” card.

I think I remember that! I looked at the card... and I knew it was true....

But that’s proof that it was all just a dream, right? In the real world, murders don’t occur as abstract moral acts, do they? Real crimes, real murders, are bloody, inconvenient, and very messy. At least that’s what other people say, and that’s all we have to go on, because I’m very, very certain that you have no personal experience of murder. Not in your waking life. Not in the life we share with other people.

I run through it all again, all the arguments I use as I emerge from the dream, my critical faculties joining forces, marshaling facts and logic, details and analysis, to convince myself that it was just a dream. It had to be a dream. It couldn’t be anything else.

But sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes these arguments sound like a clever lawyer, throwing around philosophical terms that don’t matter to ordinary people. Sometimes the only thing that matters is what I feel: that I committed murder, that I concealed it, that my life as a respectable citizen is a lie.

I must have walked around the cathedral three times by now.

I sit down on one of the sandstone blocks outside the main door of the cathedral and wait for the cops to come talk to me again. I know I’ll be tempted to turn myself in and confess my crime.

But I won’t. I’ll be strong. I’ll keep living the life of an innocent man.

Continue with Pretenders.