They come unexpectedly out of context, like optical illusions, giving me a very brief but delightful moment in which I hear my own language only as sounds, the words not coming together into any meaning.
"Woher kommen Sie? Hatten Sie bisher eine schöne Reise?"
I come across them behind the counter of a baker’s shop, at the desk of the campervan return point or in a small café by the side of the road. We’ve had this shop a couple of years now and it’s going well, tells me a woman with short dark hair and a reserved smile, who I’d never have taken for a German. The only prospects we had in Cologne in the end were as a chain-store bakery. I’m really glad to have turned my back on Germany. There’s no constant pressure to achieve things here like there is in Germany, no discussions over unemployment benefit, and the children can go to school barefoot if they want. And another thing: It’s very easy to get a foot in the door here. I travelled for a few months and I wanted to stay straight away, I felt at home here from the very beginning.
Why do these conversations cause such a feeling of confused irritation in me? Why does it seem to me as if these women – they’re all females – were coming up very close to me, actually rather too close? Perhaps because I only ever hear positive things, in a restrained tone. They don’t come across as unhappy, but neither are they happy. These conversations will be on my mind for a while to come.
Coming across people who don’t come from my country, but have something to do with Germany or have had in the past is exactly the opposite. Getting into conversations apparently by chance. Cautious inching forwards via innocuous subjects, until at some point I find out the reason that triggered the other person’s interest. The older woman with short, iron-grey hair who I come across at a service station between Gisborne and Rotorua, for instance, starts talking to me about her tea, how good it does her to interrupt a long drive with a hot drink. It’s only after a while, once we’ve chatted about warm sweaters and this year’s definitely too-cold New Zealand summer, that I find out she’s a Catholic nun who studied in Rome in the 1970s and once absolved a journey across Germany on a Rhine steamboat.
I left the campervan behind in the South and said goodbye to Henry, who accompanied me for most of my stay. Recently, I’ve been travelling almost exclusively on the buses that head into the larger towns once or twice a day, and are called Intercity – which seems logical enough to me for a country with barely any train lines. The people you meet on this kind of journey are divided into clearly demarcated groups: older ladies who seem very well educated, occasionally older gentlemen. School children, the odd backpacker and a large number of Maori grandmothers with pre-school-age grandchildren. Sometimes there are glowering middle-aged men, who give the impression they’re in the midst of some kind of problem, in which the loss of their car or their driver’s license is only the tip of the iceberg.
Where do angels have their wings? This is another question that arises at a bus stop. I’ve spent a rather desolate day in Napier, a town that was rebuilt in the Art Deco style after major earthquake damage in 1931. It’s a place where you come to understand how many ideas and currents a really lively town has to consist of, how dull and also somehow coercive it comes across as when a single project, one idea, one centrally controlled thought dominates an entire place (East German architecture occasionally gave me a similar sensation, back in the early 1990s when it could still be seen in its pure state all over the former East). And then there she is, standing close beside me. The woman with the most beautiful and unique tattoo I’ve seen in these six weeks. In high-heeled shoes and sheathed in a long, tight, pale blue cotton dress, the hand holding her cigarette nonchalantly resting on the large door of the bus’s trunk, she watches the driver crawling around on all fours inside to heave the cases onto the pavement. Not below her neck or on her shoulders, but in the middle of her shoulder blades is where her magnificent, intricately feathered wings are anchored. She stands there with such elegance! Such trust in the present, and also in the future, is in that stance! She’ll have to wear backless dresses for the rest of her life so as to come to fruition as a work of art. She seems to face this fact with such great serenity.