Postcard by Susan S

My fresh, clean sheet of paper comes very late in the day this time; although my diary has been updated there has been no chance to sit down in peace and quiet, and dedicate myself to the pleasures of putting other words on paper. The new page in a diary, having run for so many decades, is different to that of a letter where, hopefully, a new start is being made and a two-way conversation will ensue. A personal journal is, by definition, personal and not thought for the eyes of outsiders. At least, not until we are dead – recalling Virginia Woolf – and even then probably not; after all, who could possibly be interested in the private life of a minor writer of insignificant articles and papers on literature, philosophy and the art of letter writing? I arrived home from a two day trip south, and had to dedicate myself to the more mundane chores of life: airing the house; shopping; collecting post; finding and feeding the cat, and that all despite being tired out after a long journey and two nights of very bad sleep indeed.

The problem with living in a small town, as I do, is that it is quiet. Now, this may not be a problem for some, but it makes a difference, as strange as it may sound, to my sleep patterns. When I first arrived here, some twenty years ago, sleeping in a small apartment in a back street where no vehicles drive after about nine at night, it was as if the day had merely paused, the lull before the storm as the saying goes, and initially I was waiting for that storm. Now, two decades later, I find that any noise in the middle of the night which does not belong, a car racing its engine, a truck, will wake me. Worse: two nights sleeping in a small hotel in the middle of Wiesbaden – near to Frankfurt am Main in the almost south of Germany – brought hardly any sleep at all. Buses which run through the night, and a bus stop right below my hotel room window; people coming back from the bars in the centre of town; general traffic. The sounds of the city, which so many desire and love, are a nightmare after so many years of absolute still in the wilds of nowhere. Or the backwaters of civilisation, if you will.

I put it down to my own laziness: I had a meeting planned in the centre of Wiesbaden last night, and no desire to walk through the town either before or after. The hope was, naturally, that after would be more of a controlled zigzag return, filled with the pleasantries of a good red wine and a decent evening meal. Reality is something else. The meeting was not what I had expected: those of us coming from outside entered merely for it to be closed and were not present at the opening at all. We then had a short presentation – with nothing new that I could fathom – and a meal consisting of stewed vegetables and meatloaf. No red wine. In fact, no alcohol at all, but you don’t really need such beverages to make an evening better – except in this case it would have been an advantage. And the conversation? We can go back to memories of the bottom-feeding pond-life, which hardly made my nearly six hundred mile round trip worthwhile. Interesting, yes, most certainly, but very limited. A one-subject evening with no chance to spread the conversation out into peripheral areas of interest, and a large number of seats vacated as soon as food had been cleaned from china plates, water drained from glasses. And yet.

The meeting was yesterday evening, but I went down a day earlier. Wiesbaden has an interesting history behind it, and I was hoping to be able to steep myself in some of its illustrious past; diary entries and letters can be innately boring if the writer does not actually do anything with their lives worthy of being set down on paper. It was the scene, for example, of the effective creation of the German national flag, which was raised during the revolution against serfdom – and much else – on 4 March 1848, with an attempt to create a combined German nation; crushed a year later, but revisited and achieved by von Bismarck about twenty-five years after that. It is a so-called Kurort – actually two words: Kur meaning Cure and Ort meaning Town, and spoken as two words despite being run together when writing – where people come to take the waters and enjoy the fresh air while walking through secluded wooded areas and generally getting their health back. Which would probably be possible even today, but for the fumes of traffic and the noise of a bustling city.

So, my laziness is that I prefer doing everything in a relaxed manner, not rushing here and there trying to get all the sightseeing done in a few hours, but leisurely, with plenty of time on my hands. I think, at my age, that is understandable. Although, truth be told, I do know many pensioners – one of which I am not! – who do suddenly decide to catch up on what they’ve missed their entire lives, and experience ten cities in seven days, that sort of thing. Can you imagine trying to fit all the museums on Florence in to one morning? Or the beauty of Venice in one, short, afternoon? It happens, there are people who sign up for these excursions and then, back home and breathlessly, regale anyone who has enough patience to sit and listen stories of their exploits.

I am so lazy, however, that I wander through the centre of town until the museums open at ten, enjoying a cup of coffee and a fresh bread roll, the sights and sounds, the hustle and bustle – daytime is so different to night time, when you’re trying to sleep – or perhaps spend a few minutes checking out the packed shelves of a second hand bookstore. So lazy that I sit and chat with one of the curators of the Frauen Museum (Women’s Museum) about equal rights, changing attitudes, women photographers and the exclusion of women in even the most liberal of artistic communities in Germany right up to the First World War for an hour or so. I am not so lazy, though, that starting a new page in my diary or the clean slate of a new letter to someone , gets put back in favour of other pastimes. Second hand bookstores in Germany, as a passing point of interest, do not call themselves by their real name: they call themselves antique handlers. This has always amused me, especially when some of the books being offered for sale are the failed bestsellers of the previous year, and many shops do not have anything older than fifty years on their shelves.

I spent more time in the Women’s Museum than in the other two combined: I think it must have been the enjoyment of a good and deep conversation on interesting subjects which makes the difference. You can wander around an art gallery or a museum for hours on end, if you wish, and take in all the sights, note the dates, the styles, the sheer wealth of history. Being able to talk to someone about what you see, though, is worth its weight in gold; and especially when that person has an interest in what is being displayed and, above all, in-depth knowledge of the exhibits.

The main exhibition was a selection of works by a Polish painter, Justine Otto. If I had the right bank balance I’d have bought two or three of her works without a second thought – then again, there were a few Old Masters in the State Museum I wouldn’t have minded hanging on my walls at home – simply because they, despite their simplicity, caught the eye and held it. The viewer was drawn into the central point of the work, be it a school class being controlled like puppets from above, or a young woman sitting in the middle of thick foliage, but not in a quick, shallow manner. The mind played along with the eye, and a form of message was communicated despite the apparent simplicity of the theme. Further investigation of each image would have shown a much deeper complexity, not just in the story being brought across, but also in the skill used to create the picture: the brush strokes, the use of multiple layers of colour to create greater depth, the mixture of fine and broad brush strokes. Although her style of painting and the methods she uses are much broader – rougher, I suppose you could say – and the effects brash in their way, her works are just as inspiring and beautiful as one of the time-honoured Old Masters we see exhibited in the Big Name museums around the world. Sadly, since this is only a limited-term exhibition, the galleries and museums involved produced neither a catalogue nor postcards – with a very good exhibition I buy the catalogue, and always a few postcards to add to my diary entry – so I have been forced, and I hope she either doesn’t find out I’ve done it, or understands the reverence! – to take two pictures from her web site which, as you will have noticed, I enclose. Photographs of work, especially when low quality copies are involved, are never a replacement for seeing the real thing.

It is not always possible to supplement my diary entries with a visual recollection of events, sadly. In Wiesbaden I visited all three museums open to the public, but with differing experiences. The largest had more information for visitors available than a single person could comprehend in a single day, and I took full advantage of this, with sixteen large information cards disappearing into my all-encompassing pockets for later pleasure. The postcards offered for sale, sadly, only covered more modern works, and not the many beautiful images I would gladly have relieved them of, given the chance, to adorn my own four walls. In the second museum, which covered the history of the city, there were many fascinating items – such as an original oaken chest, three metres long and bound with steel bands used as the treasury in its day, or an overlarge cash box – and a model of the former Town Hall. Sadly, no shop, no postcards and, as is common in many German museums, photography not allowed.

Now and then, when I come across places which forbid photography, but also have nothing on offer for the visitor to take back home with them, I write a short letter questioning the wisdom of their decision; many museums are in desperate need of financial assistance, and a shop with tourist items, a catalogue, a small book even, would bring in something extra for their budgets. Sadly I have never received a reply, no matter how polite I may have been, or how convincing my argument. The last answer I ever received from a museum director was several decades ago, when I wrote to ask how a man could tell, following an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, whether a woman was wearing undergarments or not. He replied, a very interesting letter, and explained that by undergarments he meant corsets and whalebone supports – for the wide bustles and stiff dresses worn in fashionable (rich) society during the Victorian era – and not the skimpy things which go for undergarments today! Even so I find it a shame that so many refuse their patrons permission to take a few photographs of what they have experienced: I can understand it when considering light damage, or those who use a stand and are a danger to themselves as much as anyone else, but a simple photograph as memento does no real harm, especially when there is nothing else to take back with you. It almost forces people like me, who are generally as honest as the day is long, to go to their web sites and ‘borrow’ images.

Having mentioned my own style or understanding of being lazy, I feel it only right to mention something else about, me which many people either enjoy or, often, find annoying: I can be very impatient. I want to be out there and experience things, so my impatience is not so much in the ‘hurry up’ vein when it comes to other people, but more so when it comes to myself. I cannot just sit still and do nothing – unless it is my hour or two set aside each day to read a book – there had to be something to do. And this, in case you hadn’t noticed, is why a second letter comes so quickly on the heels of a first, without allowing time for a reply. Life continues while the post is moving across the world, whether we want it to or not, and the experiences keep on mounting up. So, rather than just waiting and forgetting half of what has happened, in the hope that a small portion of what is written remains of interest, I tend to just write regardless of when the last letter was sent, or received. I have also discovered, after many decades of writing letters, that this is an excellent way of keeping a conversation going: when there is a break between missives of two or three weeks – or longer – the thread of a conversation can be lost completely. And that would be a shame.

As justification for this stance, which some do not understand, I always draw attention to the long conversation between several Renaissance Humanists in Italy over whether Cicero’s Latin should be considered perfect, or a mixture of the writing styles of several philosophers and men of letters from his times. It was sometimes a bitter and deep argument, with both sides drawing barbs as fast as they could shoot them at their opponents, and lasted for about one hundred and twenty years. If some of those letters weren’t written before the answer to the last had been received, the conversation would definitely have died out after a mere fifty years or so, rather than going its full, fascinating, length; and we, reading now what was thought then, would be much worse off as a result.