05 December 2015

One Cold Christmas in Germany

The Kindness of a Stranger

By Myra Vanderpool Gormley (c) 2015

It was Christmastime, but nothing was going according our plans — except my ship arrived on time. The weather was cold and snowing and we were a long way from home. Between us, we didn’t have $20 in cash and only a few Deutsche marks, which would have been handy, since we were in the middle of Germany.

We were stuck between staying at a hotel near the Hauptbanhof (main railroad station) that we couldn’t afford much longer and our paid-for apartment that the landlady refused to give us the key to until January 1, which was more than a week away. We had no car and no way to transport my suitcases and trunk from the hotel to the apartment except by taxi. I had hauled these from Oklahoma, across the Atlantic Ocean to Rotterdam and then via train to Germany. They contained all my clothes and our household goods — all of our worldly treasures needed to set up housekeeping.

So far we had been unable to reach our military sponsor, who should be able to get us temporary housing or help out somehow. So here we were, but what were we going to do? Additionally, there was the language problem. My husband had signed an apartment lease, but, of course, it was in German and our new landlady-to-be was rigid in her refusal to let us have the apartment. While we had paid a full month’s rent plus deposit and an extra week, we couldn’t move in, evidently because the current occupants now refused to move out until the first of the year. She quoted German law, which was Greek to us, and we suspected she might have been gaming the system by collecting from both renters. However, when you’re young, poor, and a long way from home, what are your options?

This was long ago, before there were credit cards or debit cards that work with a swipe, no matter where you are in this world. In those days, one had to have cash — either in American dollars to use at the military base or in the local currency. Of course, the stores and markets had to be open also for you to purchase anything.

Christmastime in Germany is a magical world and it was easy to fall under its spell and forget our housing situation — at least temporarily. Wandering the winding streets of the old city, we discovered the Christmas market. We stopped and listened to brass band music and drank some Glühwein (hot mulled wine). It warmed us up and brighten our spirits.

Vendors peddled sugar-roasted almonds, stöllen and gingerbread hearts. Beautiful Christmas tree decorations, handcrafted wooden toys, clocks, and hand-blown glass ornaments were available. If I had had any money, I would have gone into a buying frenzy. Instead, we purchased bratwursts dripping with hot mustard on small Brötchens — in a desperate attempt to silence our growling stomachs because we had skipped breakfast to save money.

As we started back to the hotel, we discussed our apartment situation and then glibly decided to go see the landlady one more time and plead our case. We decided to call the sponsor again, too. Tomorrow would be Christmas Eve and most businesses would close early. Both December 25 and 26 are legal holidays in Germany. We were running out of time. The military base would be on a holiday schedule, which meant the Post Exchange, American Express and Commissary would be closed. We desperately needed to get a check cashed and convert some dollars to Deutsche marks.
The sponsor still did not answer the phone.

We caught a Strassenbahn to the apartment and rang Frau Brücker’s apartment. When the buzzer sounded, we went into the foyer, shaking the snow from our hats and coats, then headed up two flights of stairs to her place. She greeted us with a torrent of
German spewed so fast that neither of us could catch but a word or two. We shook our heads. “Ish verstehe nicht!” So she yelled louder. We shook our heads.

Finally, she went to the phone. Was she calling the police? I couldn’t help but giggle at the thought of writing home to the folks — “Dear Mom and Dad — we are in jail —for renting an apartment.”

Shortly after Frau Brücker returned from the long hallway where her phone was located, still yelling in German, there was a knock on the door. A young woman entered and introduced herself as Hannelore. Her English was good with a British accent. She explained that Frau Brücker had asked her to come translate. She lived in an apartment on the top floor of the five-story building. The frau told her side of the story and we explained our situation.

After more discussion, there appeared to be no happy solution to this saga. Frau Brücker would not let us have the key until January 1, but she did agree to let us bring our suitcases and trunk and store them in the basement. Finally, we realized it was an impasse, so we stood up and started to say our good-byes, knowing we had a long hike to the military base and another Strassebahn ride back to the hotel.

Then Hannelore said, “Why don’t you come back tomorrow, say between 10 and 11? I am leaving in the early afternoon to go skiing in Bavaria for a week. You can have my apartment for that time — if you wish?”

Tears blinded my sight, and I know I heard the rustle of angel wings.