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First day: Friends put worry to rest

I worried our visit might be too much for Josef and Marlies Frick. Josef is 89 now; Marlies 85. They are both lively and in good spirits. She walks a couple of kilometers every day. He keeps a garden in a small lot next to the house. They are closer to me than my parents, and I relished the prospects for a week or more with them.

They are slowing down. The garden isn’t quite as extensive these days. Josef has chosen to grow just lettuce, tomatoes, and peppers this year. Gone are the beans, potatoes, and peas. He’d planted sunflowers over a quarter of the garden. They demand little for such great payoff. When I visited in 2011, Marlies outwalked me on my first day. Now, her pace is a regular step for me.

I arrived in Wawern on Saturday after 27 hours, three flights on three different airlines with long stops in Chicago and Stockholm, and a lengthy train ride. I made it just three hours before I fell into bed at 9 p.m. exhausted.

In the quiet of the basement, where the Fricks have a comfortable apartment for guests, I lay awake, unsure of the next couple of days. Marlies had invited me to have a couple of friends overnight with us. Udo Bethke owns an art and architectural glass workshop in Reutlingen. He was due Sunday afternoon sometime. Eddy Harris, the American writer and filmmaker, would arrive later, possibly in the evening. He was taking buses and trains from his corner of France by the Bordeaux. The Fricks wanted to know exactly when the men were going to be there and all I could say was that we’d know more the next day.

I kept thinking about these older people hosting three strapping men in their 50s and 60s. Eddy, Udo, and I are all hearty, Eddy and Udo topping six feet. Marlies likes to do everything, stay on top of eating and having a constant pot of tea on the table for conversation. I worried that the presence of me and my friends would be too much for the old couple.

When I telephoned Udo in the morning, he said he’d arrive with his truck around time for cake and coffee—about 3 or 4 in the afternoon. Eddy reported he was in Metz, waiting for the train that would deliver him to Trier around 6. Marlies looked forward to meeting my close friends. As the day developed, I could see Josef was anxious to meet them too.

Udo drove up at exactly time for coffee and cake. I was jetlagged and wondered if conversation would sustain itself. Udo’s a pretty intense guy, serious and thoughtful but deeply emotional. To my delight, he got on with the Fricks right from the beginning. They asked him about our time in Trier as young apprentices in 1986. They inquired about his business, where he learned his trade, and how he kept his interest after 30 years. He said the glass business was always changing, that it went through highs and lows. He was busy now, and he’d been able to get ahead of a few bills and pay off his debt.

We were sitting in the Fricks little breakfast nook/dining room. Pictures and souvenir plates festooned the walls. The table nearly filled the room but for a small wood-and-glass armoire to one corner of the window at the far end of the room. There, Josef kept a table with shelves beneath that held a few bottles of fruit brandies and schnapps under the window. Marlies put flowers on the top.

Conversation flowed and I kept mostly quiet. My German was just getting in gear but was still sputtering and halting. We explained we had met through our mutual friend Ivo Rauch the night he and Ivo and several other men were planning how they would pay for and arrange their new apartment in a house in the Saarstrasse in Trier. That meeting set off friendships with the “den Männer der Saarstrasse” that would last over three decades.

When the time came, I showed jUdo to a small bedroom with a double bed in the apartment below—nightstand and lamp, and a large window he could crack at the top for fresh air.

Back upstairs in the living room, Marlies showed him the family pictures: sons and daughter, in-laws and relatives. We sat at the coffee table, the Fricks taking their place in armchairs across from Udo and me on the couch. Slowly, my cares about the Fricks and my visitors getting along fell away. We chattered in a pleasant way until time to pick up Eddy at the train stop in the neighboring village of Kanzem.

The train was on time. Eddy stood at the platform, bag in hand. He and Udo shook hands and we packed Eddy into Udo’s van. I had thought of telling the Fricks that Eddy was black but figured it didn’t matter. The Fricks had hosted over 200 students in the course of 35 years in a German cultural program, where students lived with a German family over the holidays or for up to six weeks. They had seen all kinds, young and old, from Malaysia and Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and North and South America.

When we arrived back at home, Josef didn’t seem phased by Eddy, which made me happy. Eddy knew no German and the Fricks no English, so I would have to translate. I knew the Fricks would accept him as a friend of mine, and they put a lot of confidence in me. I still wondered how the group would get along now that we were all together. When Eddy sat at the coffee table, Marlies asked him if he wanted anything.

“Sure,” he said. “I’ll take a beer.” I winced. I didn’t want anyone to make too many demands on our hosts.

“Bier, oh!” said Josef in German. “I understand that.”

“What else can we get our weary traveler?” Marlies asked me.

“Wurst,” Eddy said after I translated.

Eddy pleased Josef, as he finally had a drinking partner. Not that Josef drinks much, but he had spent a lifetime as a winemaker. He drank only sparingly in the face of my abstinence. He fetched Eddy a beer. Marlies brought in a plate with brötchen and sliced meats and cheeses.

We chattered about all kinds of things. I told the group that I’d met Eddy when my first book was being readied for publication. I’d wanted a quote from him on the dust jacket, since his books changed my life. I ‘d tracked him down through his publisher and sent a note to his home in Pranzac, France. He said he would and I sent him the manuscript. Since then, Eddy and I have been friends. I explained to the Fricks and Udo that Eddy came to stay at our house every time he came to the States.

Udo and Eddy talked in English. Udo’s English is intermediate but unpracticed. They found a great deal of interest in one another. Meanwhile, they kept the Fricks in the conversation. I did my best at translating. I learned German organically, without books or lessons. My translation muscles have always been weak, but I did a passable job.

Eddy’s an early riser and was tired from his trip. About 10 p.m., after a glass or two of Josef’s wine and a brandy, Eddy’s eyes were closing of their own accord. I showed him to a couch in the small living room in the apartment and made sure he knew his way around. Then, I joined Udo and Josef and Marlies for stories and jokes until it was time to end it all around midnight.

I lay in the quiet of the room, wondering what the next days would be like. I’d planned a trip to Luxemburg for my two friends the next afternoon. We’d spend part of a day in Trier. What was most important was that the Fricks not feel as if we were using their house solely for the benefit of our entertainment, that they were part of the whole adventure.

As I closed my eyes, I felt that everything was working out well. Udo and Eddy passed well together. The Fricks and my friends found common ground. What the next days would be, I couldn’t tell. But we’d gotten off to a good start. My worry about how all this would work fell away and I accepted these were all grown people and would navigate the intricacies of relationship building on their own. My only job, as Josef’s and Marlies beloved son, was to translate. As sleep fell over me, that worried me the most.

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