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Word-Starved In Heidelberg

When you travel alone in a foreign land for the first time, you are by definition an outsider, but never more so than when you stand outside the local language, treading uneasily around the outskirts of its sentence structures, its conjugations, its argot. It was my struggles with what Mark Twain called "the horrors of the German language" that had chased me out of Heidelberg's Old City across the Neckar River to the deserted cobblestone path that hugged its far bank. No sooner had I reached the quay than a rainstorm descended, making wet polka dots on the cobbles and sending me scurrying under a stone archway of the 18th-century bridge known as the Alte Brücke.

As I stood watching the Old City's distant rooflines soften behind a veil of rain, something clattered on the stones behind me, and I whipped around to see a middle-aged man with severe eyes and the dashing dark mustache of a silent-film villain.

"Hast du hunger?" he asked, gesturing at the battered cooking pot he had just tossed onto the path. But before I could answer that I was indeed hungry, the stranger vanished again, plunging into the tangle of green that rose from the riverbank.

The length and intimacy of this encounter was pretty typical of my chats with Germans. It was the summer of 1985, and as a 19-year-old college kid traveling by myself with the aim of learning German by osmosis, the one thing I'd needed from the locals was their time. But time is the currency least likely to be squandered on a stranger; for many Germans, economy of expression is the watchword. And so I'd become a linguistic panhandler, collecting handouts where I could: a moment of small talk at a bus stop, an interval of banter at a pretzel stand. Sometimes I asked for directions I didn't need, just to gather a few scraps of chat, pocket an idiom or two.

Word-Starved In Heidelberg

The poverty of these encounters had left me lonely and starved for conversation, and now even the brusque Neckar River seemed to be muttering fluent German just out of earshot as it shouldered past.

But my elegant vagrant, he of the well-groomed mustache, returned a moment later, this time carrying an uncooked chicken and followed by a sidekick, a doughy man with stringy blond hair and a broken grin more gum than tooth. Without delay, the first man issued terse instructions to his associate, who puttered about building a fire.

As the sidekick nurtured the flames with great puffs of breath, the more assertive fellow extended his hand and introduced himself as Luzifer — whether mocking himself or me, I couldn't quite tell. I told him my name was Beelzebub, he nodded, and we got along just fine.

"And my name," spluttered the sidekick cheerfully, trying to get in on the joke, "is Nobody." As I would learn, that was very much how he saw himself.

And so I settled in with Luzifer and Nobody beneath the Alte Brücke, spilled their red wine into the chicken pot for flavor, ate heartily, wiped my hands on my jeans and spoke more German in one sitting than in my entire previous two weeks in the country. My new friends spoke slowly so I could understand, glad that anyone was listening; I listened with interest, glad that anyone was talking.

Being on the fringe came with an unexpected fringe benefit, too: the best view in town. For here we were, sheltered by one historic landmark, gazing across the river at another: Heidelberg Castle, a storybook fortress atop a hill, its ivy-cloaked ruins all turrets and arches and stately decay.

"Nature knows how to garnish a ruin to get the best effect," Twain had written of the castle in 1878, and this observation was no less true of Luzifer. Adorned with a well-trimmed mustache, expensive (if scuffed) leather shoes and a tailored (if rumpled) shirt, he spoke articulately and carried himself with the air of a deposed duke. But if Luzifer was a magnificent ruin, Nobody was just a plain old ruin, padding through life with a sweet, toothless grin and a sense of inborn defeat.

Next day, after a night spent in a cheap hotel, I once again bumped into Luzifer, who had slept beside Nobody beneath the bridge. We were in the Old City, and he took me to a student haunt near the 600-year-old university. His fondness for language matched my own, so over a couple of Pilsners Luzifer read me a strange bilingual couplet he'd written on a paper bag: "Ich bin der Freak von Heidelberg/ Ich habe no money, but eight womans."

Still, as much as Luzifer saw himself as a freak, he was a freak by choice. When pressed, he admitted he was an experienced gravestone sculptor and stone mason, two words — bildhauer and steinmetz — that I greedily tucked into my vocabulary like Deutsche marks into a billfold.

Putting our nascent camaraderie at risk, I told him that he was obviously no bum and that if his profession was carving gravestones, well, then he damn well ought to be carving gravestones. He nodded ruefully and changed the subject back to womans.

The following day, after a morning spent admiring weather-worn nobles carved into Heidelberg Castle by Luzifer's occupational forebears, I went looking for him down by the river.

Instead I found Nobody.

As before, he was generous with his conversation, and I eagerly gathered up his German turns of phrase, scribbling some into a notebook. His speech was more halting than Luzifer's, but I valued it more, because he had fewer words to spare. Then, suddenly, he stopped midsentence, his lumpish body seized by incapacitating tremors that continued until he took some quick swallows of wine. The next new German word he offered me explained the disturbing situation: He suffered from leberzirrhose, cirrhosis of the liver.

Though he was reluctant to discuss it, Nobody finally revealed that he had been diagnosed at a local hospital and released as terminal. He had no family, and not until prodded could he think of a place where he might be taken care of: the year before, a group of what he called "Jesus peoples" had sheltered him in the southern French city of Nice. But Nice, of course, lay 380 miles away.

As I walked through Heidelberg's shopping district that evening, past well-heeled German "somebodies" who paid me no attention, my thoughts kept returning to Nobody. The German word for vocabulary is wortschatz, which means "word treasury." Mine had been enriched considerably by Nobody, and so I determined to pay him a kindness in return.

The next morning, I found him again by the riverbank and walked him, step by shuffling step, to the train station, where I bought him a ticket to Nice, home of those charitable Jesus peoples. He was a gregarious soul, and as he shambled onto the train, clutching his rolled-up straw mat, he turned at the last moment, fixed me with his droopy hound's eyes, and said, "It would be so schön if you could come with me." I don't know if I've ever seen a man look so alone. When I told him I couldn't join him, he nodded, gave me a last little toothless smile, and shuffled into the train car. I never saw him again.

Under the bridge, Luzifer responded to the news of Nobody's departure without emotion. Though I had thought of them as a pair, the two men had in fact only known each other a week and had become comrades simply because one of them had a blanket.

Sensing I was an easy touch, Luzifer cheekily asked if I could send a few Deutsche marks his way, too. I refused, explaining that I didn't feel sorry for him. At this, he gave a shrug and admitted that since our last conversation he had sent away for his work certificate; he was tired of being an outsider.

Then, all at once, he grew stern and big-brotherly toward me. Having begun to straighten himself out, Luzifer now insisted I do the same; it wouldn't do for a clean-cut American college boy to waste his time with vagrants. I had told him that I was wending my way through Germany with the eventual aim of meeting my father and traveling with him for a few days, and now he urged me to stop drifting outside of society: "You must go at once to your father," he admonished me.

And so I did, boarding a train for Berlin, where a wall ran straight through the heart of town, making East Berliners outsiders in much of their very own city. Within a month, perhaps, Luzifer would be back at work carving tombstones for the living world's ultimate outsiders. And soon enough, I supposed, our friend Nobody would be among them — though when I think of him now, I like to imagine him kicking back in Nice, lifting his doughy face — toothless grin and all — toward the warm Mediterranean sun.

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