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The Day I Got Old

By Benoîte GROULT Sofitel Munich Bayerpost

I have had a long, strange relationship with Germany. When my sister Flora and I were children, my father, André Groult, whom we called Pater because he was a Latin scholar, would traipse around our apartment on Sunday mornings in his white terry-cloth bathrobe, which he referred to nobly as a toga, reciting Latin verses or French poems or singing German lieder. «Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind? Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind.» (« Who rides so late through the night and wind? It’s the father with his child.») Helped by poetry and filial love, I was deeply moved by these harsh sounds. The musicality of Italian, a language similar to the Latin that I would later teach at the Cours Bossuet in the ’40s, seemed by comparison too pretty and somewhat flashy. The year when I obtained my baccalauréat, therefore, I decided to teach myself German. For the 1939 summer vacation, I bought an Assimil method, with which it was possible to learn a foreign language painlessly and even with an element of pleasure: The lessons were presented partially in a comic-book form that helped fix in the memory key phrases.

After three months of vacation at my grandmother’s house in Concarneau, I knew the verbs, the declensions, and a bit of vocabulary, and Pater decided that it was now time for me to have lessons «in person.» In that blessed era, adolescents heeded parental opinions and their advice had the weight of law. Thus, a week later, a young German girl who was studying our language at the Alliance Française arrived, ready to converse with me three times a week.
My first lesson was on Sept. 2, 1939.
On Sept. 3, France and Britain declared war on Germany. Which is why I never learned to speak German properly and why, out of patriotism, I even forgot all that I had managed to teach myself. – It’s out of the question for Krauts to enter my house! Pater had decreed, reverting to the popular slang from the First World War, during which he had twice been wounded.

So it was that my idyll with the German language came to an end. But it was to be revived 40 years later, in a most unexpected fashion: My last novel, Les Vaisseaux du Coeur, whose title was beautifully translated as Salz auf unserer Haut (Du sel sur la peau, or Salt on Our Skin), had met with a success that exceeded my dreams, remaining for nearly a year on the best-seller list published in the distinguished newspaper Die Zeit. After a series of respectable showings for my previous fiction and nonfiction books, Salz auf unserer Haut sold more than a million copies in Germany! There had been a series of presentations in a number of cities and «readings» in French institutes, where I discovered the pleasure of performing a text, which I had never had the occasion to do in France, for we tend to prefer oratorical jousting and the debating of ideas rather than the humble reading of a few pages by an author who has rarely learned the art of reading in public. In Germany, though, this exercise has long been appreciated. The public is indulgent, taking the risk of hearing an old novelist with a quivering voice try to convince them that he was indeed the ardent lover whose story he recounts in his latest novel. And this holds true for a no-longer-young female novelist as well, although there is generally less tolerance of aging in a woman.

Thanks to this quasi fervent attention from audiences on the other side of the Rhine, I came to enjoy these encounters and I even dared to read passages from my book that were supposedly risqué, with Bernard Pivot feigning shock when he interviewed me for his popular French television program, Apostrophes:
– You’re going to make us blush with this erotic language! It’s a bit daring for a woman, isn’t it?
I also discovered some things that the guidebooks don’t mention, notably that the word «province» doesn’t mean the same thing in Germany as it does in France. Throughout the country, many cities call themselves a capital and act as if they are one. I even spent two days in a row in two cities that each claimed the name Berlin and that each considered themselves the capital of two Germanys so different that it was necessary to separate them by a wall for decades! After Frankfurt, Cologne, Hamburg and Weimar, dubbed «the Athens of Germany» by Madame de Staël (Buchenwald is 8 kilometers from here, my guide noted), after Dresden, the capital of Saxony, which, on the eve of the fall of the Reich, had been almost entirely razed in February 1945 by 300 American flying fortresses, not because of its strategic importance but «to break the population’s moral,» there remained another capital to discover, that of Bavaria: Munich, as we say for München. The city was not to be missed, my guide had insisted, citing pell-mell «its three Pinakotheks, the Deutches Museum, Dachau, the market and, nearby, the three castles that Ludwig II of Bavaria had had built in an ‘exuberant’ style before his suicide by drowning in 1886.»

This «village of nearly a million inhabitants, the most popular tourist attraction in Germany after Berlin,» had not ceased to surprise me. A bastion of German Catholicism, Bavaria under the aegis of the prince-elector Maximilian Joseph acquired the status of kingdom for a most unexpected reason: Years before, Maximilian Joseph had judiciously sided with Napoleon in the conflict between the European powers and the French forces. Under the name Maximilian I, he ascended to the throne of the new kingdom created by the French emperor and thus secured the resources necessary to embellish its capital, transforming Munich into the «Athens on the banks of the Isar.» But the story did not end there, for it was in Munich that Adolf Hitler first appeared! On Nov. 9, 1923, backed by his infamous storm-troopers, Hitler kidnapped the head of the Bavarian government and attempted his first coup d’etat. But the so-called Beer Hall Putsch failed and Hitler was imprisoned. He reappeared 15 years later, again in Munich, but this time in a position of power, bringing together Mussolini, Chamberlain and Édouard Daladier, future symbols of the blindness of the Western democracies, to sign the unfortunate «Munich agreement» that, a year later, in 1939, would lead to the Second World War.

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