The waitress/hostess/bartender told me that someone was occupying the table reserved for me. As she was pouring a tall glass of Berliner Kindl, she asked if I would mind sharing the table until the occupying patron was done with dinner.
I walked over, said “Guten Abend,” and took a seat across from a man who did not look to be the 70 years he had acquired. We exchanged pleasantries as he finished the last bites of meat and potatoes.
“I was inspired by the American writers,” he told me.
“Which ones?” I asked.
“Oh, he’s probably not known now, but back in the 1930s, there was a writer named Thomas Wolfe, who inspired me when I was studying literature in the 1950s,” he said.
“Look Homeward, Angel,” I replied, citing the title of one of Wolfe’s most notable works and thus bringing a smile to the face across from me.
We talked about Wolfe for a few minutes. The waitress brought a beer for me, and my dinner companion and I toasted one another.
“Do you know where Thomas Wolfe lived?” I asked.
“North Carolina . . . Asheville,” he replied, struggling to recall the name of the city.
“And do you know where I am from?” I responded.
I could see his delight when he understood what my answer would be.
“Yes, I am from Asheville, North Carolina.”
I told the man about the Thomas Wolfe House in Asheville and about Wolfe’s gravesite at Riverside Cemetery, which I had visited. He listened eagerly. His desire to visit Asheville, and indeed the United States, remained a dream.
We tried to remember the fictional name that Wolfe gave Asheville in his book Look Homeward, Angel. Resisting the urge to consult Google on our iPhones, we came to it at almost the same time, Altamont. Another smile.
I learned from my dining companion that Wolfe had spent time in Berlin. Herr Eigner told me that there was a photograph of Wolfe taken when the writer was in Berlin. The photograph shows Wolfe boarding a tram, and Eigner says the writer appeared so self-confident and so strong (Wolfe was a large man, nearly 6′ 7″) that it seemed as though he were holding the tram, with the same ease that he might be holding a glass of beer.
I found the photo. Wolfe does appear larger than life, though at the time, he had only two years to live, succumbing to miliary tuberculosis of the brain.
The year was 1936, only a few years before Berlin became the cauldron for an evil that would consume the world for half a decade (for those too young to remember, I’m referring to Hitler’s grip on Germany and the Holocaust from 1940 – 1945, though institutionalized persecution of Jews began a decade earlier).
Eigner and I exchanged contact information and vowed to stay in touch. When I returned to my hotel, I Googled him. He was a successful and celebrated writer from what I could learn through translations.
There was one part of his history that for me stood out above his successes, however.
Eigner was born on December 21, 1942. He was now 70 years old and at such at age, he is part of Germany’s tragic past. In early 1945, Soviet troops shot to death his father, a railroad official. Eigner was two years old.
History lives and breathes in Berlin. The history is not always poignant. Indeed, it can be gleeful (witness the tearing down of The Wall). You never know what kind of stories you will hear in Berlin, but you can be certain that there are plenty to go around. All you need to do is take a seat and start the conversation.