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from the March 2009 issue

Kaspar Hauser in a Desolate Land from “The Double Book”

I haven't seen that chain-smoking Spanish girl for days. Not at our ten o'clock break, and not during the shift. I guess she's been fired. Keine Disziplin!—no discipline. She'd told me in the corridor that she can't handle all this. What can't she handle? She can't handle all the rules, all that Disziplin. A village girl like her couldn't cope with walking on concrete city sidewalks after our shift. Maybe she's dead. But if she'd died, her people would have buried her with Spanish rites and ceremonies. I saw one of them buried once, that's how I know. There was even a flag. Imagine me buried and wrapped in our Greek flag, I thought to myself, white and blue!

Poor girl… I miss her. She was a skinny little thing, pale, with large eyes like my Anastasia's, and with thin reedy arms—scrawny as a mudstick, as we say back home.

Among all of us, those Spanish girls are the worst, really the worst. They stick together like a swarm of bees, like ants in an anthill. Where there's one Spanish girl you'll find others too, or if not, they'll show up soon enough. As if they're frightened of being alone. They can't live without each other—tweet, tweet, tweet—always twittering among themselves. Brousakis over at the café told us they all come to Germany straight from their villages, and can't break free from the well on the village square, the cold water, the gossip, the goats, the village boys. Brousakis the philosopher tells us their villages haven't come apart and died the way our villages in Greece have. So after work all the Spanish girls rush out to find one another: the maids from the houses, the restaurant dishwashers and waitresses, the girls from the pizzerias and cafés. They crowd together and whisper their gossip on street corners, just for a little while if they have to get back to work—quick pecks on cheeks, tomorrow same place same time—they must rush, quickly, so they won't be called to account for Disziplin by ladies like Frau Baum who employ them in their homes and who'll have none of this.

There's a whole Greek world in Stuttgart, some forty thousand of us, more, in other words, than the whole town of Volos back home. And there are a lot of Greeks among us who've brought their villages with them: they sleep in them at night, and wake up in them every morning expecting to hear roosters crowing that never crow here. Here these villagers walk on concrete sidewalks and have no rocks to trip over—instead they trip over the construction lumber and cables. I'm not going to tell you about them, that's not my job, go look for them, they can tell you more about the Greek world here. What I'll tell you about is me.

And I'll tell you that I've been away from Greece for four years now, but never once, not once, have I felt that longing for my country. I don't even know what that kind of homesickness would feel like. The way I see it, my country is not a fatherland to me in the way Spain is to those silly Spanish girls, or Greece to my fellow Greeks who are wracked by longing, the way my pal Skouroyiannis longs for that village of his, Dobrinovo. I'm never back in Sourpi, never at the bus stop where Anastasia stood waiting for me, never at the main square in Almiros where our Sunday movie theater used to be, or at the lumberyard, or down at the canteen in Volos where the boss used to take us. I don't see myself there. I don't want to go back.

I am, I guess, a man without a country.

* *

Those who built the AUTEL factory right there next to the train station knew exactly what they were doing. All that money saved in shipping out their products—I've tried adding it up. But when all's said and done, I'm the one now who has to deal with the station and everything that goes with it, which is even harder for me to make sense of.

As I go along with my cart I have the station at one side: to my right as I pass with a load, to my left as I return empty. Without wanting to, I see the trains pulling in and the trains pulling out of the station. I don't have time to stop and watch. But I've managed to count the tracks: twenty-three in a row. I guess this station isn't what you'd call small, but I doubt it's one of the biggest in the world. Medium, I'd say. A nice, medium-sized station in a nice medium-sized German town. I can't complain.

On track three, at eight-thirty in the morning, a green train arrives. It's the hour my shift starts. No idea where it's coming from. It's as if that train is calling out to me—"Good morning, here we go again!" Another train, a blue one, heads out on track six. No idea where it's going to—I and it move along—it's as if it's reminding me there are other trains that will pull in and pull out, and other carts I'll be pushing and pulling throughout the day. At 4:45, right before my shift ends, the train that brought me here comes in. Enough work for the day, I think, and go to take off my overalls.

That's how it is with those trains, all day every day. They roll angrily in their tracks, bringing into my daily routine what the guys in the café call "the big wide world." They only talk about it, but I have to face it every day, the trains coming from everywhere, heading out everywhere—I never know where from, where to. The big wide world is everywhere. Seeing these trains as I do, I sometimes get the longing I don't have for Sourpi, for Greece, and think that the big wide world might well be my country. A new country. Inside the big wide world.

But I guess that I don't have a country after all. Of course all these trains heading out don't scatter in the wind. They go somewhere. They all have a terminal, an Endstation, as the Germans say. They go to Sourpi, to some Spanish village, to Dobrinovo. If you think about it, the big wide world is a lie, it's a lot of small tiny worlds put together, and I still end up without a country, without a small tiny world of my own—I don't have one, and am also robbed of the longing for the big wide world that doesn't exist.

* *

My Endstation is Stuttgart, here in Germany. I didn't choose it—it was the luck of the draw. Come to think of it, almost everything that happens to me happens by chance. I pretty nearly ended up in Hannover, I might have gone to Belgium, I might have stayed in Volos forever. Stavros was here, so I ended up here too. A few years back, I never even knew there could be a city like this. Not that I know this city now. All I know is the AUTEL factory where I work, the room at Frau Baum's where I sleep, and the autobahn that connects them: a tightrope along which I come and go.

* *

I told you about the factory, so let me tell you about my room.

I inherited it from Stavros, along with his three blankets that still keep me warm, a bed, a nightstand, and a chair. Also a mouse whose presence I sometimes sense as he creeps about the room: I lie still in the bed, I don't even breathe. I don't want to frighten him away; I can fall asleep with him for company. He's invisible, I've never seen him, I just know he's there.

This must have been the maid's room once. At the back of the house. You have to cross a courtyard to get to it. At my factory I'm out at the back, and here at the house too. The room has no window. There's light from a transom above the door. The transom is nailed shut.

The door to my room opens onto a narrow and dark corridor. There's a small toilet there too, and, at the other end, Frau Baum's kitchen. Always locked from the inside. Frau Baum can unlock her door and come to where I am, but I can't unlock her door. No different, you could say, from the way things are at the factory.

I never see Frau Baum. I set eyes on her only once, the day I moved in. She looked at me, her head turned slightly, the way you see birds do, her beak ready to strike. I could tell from her voice that she wasn't hostile or scornful—she and Stavros used to chat—but she turned and looked at me again. It was as if she was saying: no funny business, or I'll peck at you! I stood there staring at that beak. I have this thing sometimes: I'm more bothered by the beak than by the horrible little room. That's how I am.

Her kitchen door has a slot. I push my rent through it. I put the money in an envelope, cross the no-man's-land corridor, and jam it through the slot, just like Stavros used to do. Along with the rent I also put the money for the electricity I use: there's no separate meter, though I wish there were. I've never been late with the rent, I've never used more electricity than usual, Frau Baum has no reason to call me to task, no reason to come peck at me. So I never see her. No different, you could say, from the way things are at the factory. But there it's the other way around: there I get paid and see nothing—here I pay and see nothing.


Read more from the March 2009 issue
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