Across Continents

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An orderly appearance

I’ve long admired the Germans for their precision. Some years ago I met with my then counterparts in Munich. The meeting was due to start at nine. I’d slightly underestimated how long it would take to get there, arriving with just a few minutes to spare. It didn’t matter. I wasn’t late. Others had yet to turn up. At nine am sharp my robust German colleague stood up and announced, quite abruptly, ’They are late’. I liked that.

I’d camped on the outskirts of the city of Freiburg. In the morning, armed with my towel, I wandered down early to the washrooms. Immaculate. People were already busying themselves with domestic chores, preparing for the day ahead. In France it was not uncommon for there to be little movement until gone nine, sometimes later. The French had a habit of being caught napping.

I’d quickly realised that my German was largely non-existant, but I had a plan. I would head into Freiburg with my phrasebook and spend the day grasping the rudiments of the language. It was a national holiday and I’d been warned the shops would be closed, but I was reckoning on the cafes being open. I’d cycled through the city the previous day and had a good idea of the layout.

The city centre was quiet. I found a cafe and sat for a while drinking coffee in Ralfansplatz, a small square near the cathedral. A meeting point for guided tours. The people had a smartness, their clothes a functional simplicity. But not drab.

Clean lines

I drifted around for a while, quietly muttering German phrases to myself. They liked the back end of the alphabet, the harsher sounds giving the language a more foreign feel than French. The buildings too had sharp, clean yet elegant lines. An ordered appearance.

A lady approached. She had a sad, pitiful expression. She spoke quietly. I explained that I didn’t understand, that I spoke only a little German. She wandered off. She might have been begging or just asking for directions. I didn’t know.

I found a small park. A young man was learning to juggle. Families on their bikes, small children towed in buggies. A few picnickers dotted around. I watched for a while then headed off, curious to get more of a measure of the place.

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