Something light to begin the new year, a tale from my last visit to Germany in January, 1988.
In Berlin i stayed at Toms Haus, a Kreuzberg B&B owned by a Swiss emigrant named Kurt Ettler until his death and its closure in the late ’90’s. It was conveniently located, just a few blocks from the KaDeWe with its legendary food hall for my daytime entertainment. It was also within walking distance of three gay bars for my nightime entertainment.
But this is about Kurt.
He was an entertaining conversationalist, enough so that we were having too much fun talking for him to make many interruptions to correct my grammar although he did at one point break down and mention that the one thing i could do to make a dramatic improvement in my German would be to please, please, please always remember to stick the subject after the verb in dependent clauses because my frequent failures to do so were painful to the German ear.
He also extended my vocabulary by pointing out that since i wanted a pair of Bundeswehr Springerstiefel, i could find an excellent price for them at a motorcycle shop across town, and while i was in there i could pick up a replacement visor for his motorcycle helmet. That was an entertaining expedition since the guys at the shop knew absolutely zero English but had a sense of humor and were able to laugh with me over my talking around words i didn’t know in German, which they then supplied. Alas, while the visor they supplied Kurt fit perfectly, my jump boots never got comfortable.
Better yet, Kurt gave me a chance to rise to the occasion, and who doesn’t love that? Well, if you’re successful. In this case, one evening near the end of my stay he knocked on my door in a panic because he was cooking dinner for friends and suddenly his oven had gone off and wouldn’t relight. I asked myself what made him think i was the most practical of his guests and then wondered, hmmm, do German ovens use the same sort of safety measure that American ones do? A device that shuts off the gas supply if the pilot goes out and requires holding a button down while you insert a match to relight the pilot and let a thermocouple get hot?
So i got down on the floor and pried off the protective panel at the bottom of the oven, and sure enough, there were all kinds of wires and tubes in there and something that looked like it might be an extinguished pilot light. And yep, a knob with three positions just like in America – on, off, and something else that by default had to be “pilot”. And yes, a conveniently accessible red button. So in a couple of minutes he had his oven going again, and in another minute an explanation of how the system worked so he could relight the oven himself if it ever failed again. Great fun and besides, the pleasure of feeling competent.
I told about my having picked up a new visor for his motorcycle helmet, but now’s a good time to mention that Kurt was the most complete leather fetishist i’ve ever met. Head to toe. Seven days a week. Hell, maybe even 24/7 since i would not be surprised if he’d had leather pajamas.
My favorite memory of him, though, was his travel tales, most of which involved thwarting obnoxious officialdom. Like the time he was going through customs on a visit to this country and had an encounter that started out rather badly.
See, when he’d opened his suitcase, the agent was highly interested to see that it contained little but leather, and seeking to embarrass him, started holding items up for everyone to see and inquiring loudly, What is this?
Dis is a pair of leder pants.
And what is this?
Dis is a leder shirt.
And what is this?
Dis is a pair of leder shorts.
And what is this?
Dis is a leder jockstrap.
And finally, Why do you have all this leather clothing?
Becauss i am allergic to silk.
At which point, the audience patiently waiting behind him during the show gave such a roar of approval that the agent, seeing he had lost the game, slammed Kurt’s suitcase shut and waved him in.
Meanwhile, who says PG&E lacks a sense of humor?