20. February 2005 · Comments Off on Baden-Baden: Part the Second · Categories: Domestic, General

The Caracalla-Therme in Baden-Baden was very new, all sleek glass and polished surfaces, and would have stuck out like a very sore thumb if it hadn’t been so tactfully placed among so very many large trees. Practically everything else of note in the spa-town was built in Beaux-Arts or rustically Germanic plaster and half-timbering, sparkling clean, adorned with gardens and lawns. Every vista delighted the eye; there was nothing to strike a jarring note. I wondered briefly where they stashed unattractive elements like supermarkets, auto wrecking yards and poor people.

Allee, Baden-Baden

“You must zign zis release, madam, “said the attendant at the front desk. “Your dottir, she must be-have in ze baths. Ve haff many invalids taking ze waters, you must see zat she iz not to be runnink and jumpink.” I cheerfully signed the form, and accepted a locker key on a length of elastic, while Blondie looked around with deep interest. I resolved to keep hold of her hand as much as possible, especially in the neighborhood of anyone who looked especially frail. Frankly most everyone else looked robustly healthy.

We changed in one of the women’s changing rooms and locked up our clothes and my purse, and padded barefoot down the corridor towards the pools, the largest of which was housed in a great three-story tall glass tower, a round stone basin full to shoulder-deep with steamingly warm water. A bench ran around the inside lip of the biggest pool— not all the way, as Blondie discovered when she frolicked off the end of it and went down with a yelp and a gurgle into water well over her nearly-five year old head. I fished her out, and we settled on a length of bench which offered a view of the gardens outside, and two smaller pools. Bliss it must be to sit immersed in warm water, up to your neck and regard that view in winter, all covered in snow. It is also hard to be standoffish, when lounging in your bathing suit in a pool of hot water.

“You are American or English?” queried one of the other bathers. Ah, the eternal, pause-making question; it was probably pretty safe to answer it here, when asked by a bare-chested man in swim-trunks. “And where are you from, in America?”
Ah, the other pause-making question: where from? Originally? Lately? Lets’ not even get into the fact that my daughter had been born in Japan, and in another month we would be “from” someplace else entirely. Just travelers, passing through. And what did I think of Germany?
“Do you speak German?” another bather asked all friendly interest.
“Some. I had three years in high school and a year in college, but I’ve never been sent anyplace I could use it.”
“We should help you practice, then, and speak only German,” suggested the first man— oh, well, he had a point. Back in the States, the only practice I had outside of class was with some of the older people at Church, émigrés all, some of whom insisted on singing all the old hymns in German, irregardless of the rest of the congregation. I made careful and laborious conversation for a while, while Blondie got steadily more bored, and fidgety, and then I excused ourselves, saying we were going to check out the really hot pool.

We had passed the steps going into the small ante-room with the very hot pool on our way in. There was a constant circulation of people around the pools, wet feet slapping on the floor, and as we were going down the steps to the hot pool, Blondie suddenly reached up and took the hand of a woman who was also going down the stairs, who looked down at her with startled amazement.
“’Allo, kleine!”
(Blondie: “I really don’t know why I did that… I just had the feeling that she really needed something, something that we could do.”)

The woman was older than I, maybe mid-forties, and painfully slender. She also had a daughter with her, a teenage girl— like Blondie and I, killing time on an afternoon by soaking in the hot water. She was Lise, her daughter Anna: they were in Baden-Baden because Anna was to start at a local high-end secretarial school, which demanded that graduates be fluent in German, French and English, and Lise had driven her down to Baden-Baden in her husband’s BMW sedan.
“It is a luxurious car, “Lise admitted, “But my husband— he had to travel so much, to meet people for business…he needed to be comfortable, traveling so much… we should be speaking English now, so Anna can practice… your husband, is he in ze Air Force, alzo?”
Across the hot pool, Anna and Blondie were discovering a mutual enthusiasm for “Asterix and Obelix”. Anna was the right age to be adored by a small child, and to find the unquestioning adoration of a small child to be completely endearing.
“Asterix.. , Obelix… Dogmatix… Vitalstatistix…Getafix…Fullyautomatix…Cackaofinix… Unhygenix…Geriatrix…”
“Not any more, “I said, “We split up before she was born.”
“I am sorry, “And her eyes rather filled. “So hard for you. My husband died six months ago… he used to come to here on business…”
“I am sorry,” I said. Six months and a widow… five years and a bit, and something else. As hard to endure? Never mind. Grief is the price we pay for having love.

“We are going to the Brenner’s’ Park Hotel for tea, after here, “I said. It was pronounced around there as one long word: “Brennersparkhotel”, rather like Fort Worth in Texas is pronounced by the old hands as all one word: “Fortworth”.
“Truly? How wonderful… I have never been, of course I have heard of it. My husband went there many times, to meet with clients, you understand.”
”Then, why don’t come with us?” I suggested. Lise sparkled with interest, and agreed that yes, it would be a perfect culmination to the afternoon. We would go get dressed and meet in the foyer, and walk over to Brenner’s’ together, and have a lovely leisurely teatime.

(Blondie: I didn’t think anything about her wearing a black dress. In Greece, it was just what older ladies did, wear black all the time.)

The black made her look haggard, I thought. I wondered if it were still the tradition to go to half-mourning after a year, to white and grey and lavender. At any rate, she was a bit more in tune with the ambiance than I was, in denim skirt, and blouse and a preppy LL Bean sweater, but the staff at Brenner’s’ was too well-schooled to appear to take any notice of what guests and customers chose to present themselves in. We were shown to the grand lobby where tea was being served, adjacent to the formal dining room. That end of the lobby was furnished with a grand collection of chairs, sofas, and low tables, set about with urns of plants and flowers; a place to sit and have tea, or wait for someone, or just sit about with a newspaper and people-watch.

“Oh, look, how grand!” whispered Lise, as a very elegant lady in a long formal swept by on the arm of a gentleman in black tie evening dress. “It’s just like “Hotel”… a television show, have you ever seen it?”
“No, “I said. We had watched very little TV in Greece. We were brought a tray with the tea things, and little plates of cake and sandwiches, and service for four in delicate china, and we sipped and nibbled and vastly enjoyed the elegant procession of other guests going in to early dinner in the main dining room, all formally dressed with serious jewelry. One of the black-tie clad gentlemen was circulating throughout the lobby, bowing elegantly over a hand here, nodding grandly to another gentleman there. Lise’s cup of enjoyment quite overflowed when he came up to us and introduced himself as the manager of Brenner’s’; was everything completely to our satisfaction?
“It’s perfect, “replied Lise, and when he had continued on his grand and hospitable rounds, she set down her teacup with a little clink into the saucer and said, “I am so glad we have come with you, so glad we met you at the baths. This was the very first time since my husband died…. That I have gone and done something fun!”

I mumbled something modest and conventional about enjoying it all also, but never said what I was really thinking about grief and loss, as I looked at Anna and Blondie giggling over their mutual fondness for comic books. Blondie’s father still walked in the sunshine of this world, alive and well, but the love to which we should have been entitled, inexplicably, mysteriously withdrawn, if indeed if I had ever had it to begin with. Anna’s father may have been six months gone… but at least he had left, still loving her mother.
And grief is the price we pay for having loved, no matter how long or short the duration of that love.

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