Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down This Wall
It turned out that Joschka was intensely interested in everything Vermont.
“So, your girlfriend is receiving her master’s degree this weekend,” I said to my seatmate and customer, Joschka Ulbricht. We were on the road to the venerable Middlebury Inn on a brilliant summer afternoon. “What’s her field?”
“Well, she does two things,” Joschka explained with some pride in his voice. He was a slim, good-looking young man with hazel eyes and tousled, dusty brown hair. “Cindy is an accomplished classical singer. But the degree she’s getting from Middlebury is — I’m not sure how to say in English — in the history, maybe the structure of the German language.”
“I get it. I think the discipline is called linguistics. That’s cool. Is she German, too?”
“No, she’s from San Diego. We met while she was studying in Hamburg.”
We were passing though Ferrisburgh, and I motioned to the left, saying, “Look at that place, man. It’s a museum now. It was a stop on what they called the Underground Railroad. Before the American Civil War, it was a federal crime to help slaves trying to escape up to Canada. So brave folks who were opposed to slavery, abolitionists, put together a series of, like, safe houses, where these fleeing people could take some rest and sustenance on their flight, hopefully, to freedom.”
As I delivered my little history lesson, I was surprised at the wave of intense feeling, as if I’d been transported back 175 years to this property, once owned by the Robinson family. Could you imagine the conversations that went on in the house between these Vermonters and the courageous African American fugitives? Only 70 miles to go, my friends. Just a couple more days…
“This is what I so admire about the Americans,” Joschka said. “You have fought wars to actually free people, like the slaves and the people of Europe in World War II.”
I was touched to receive this tribute to the USA from the mouth of a foreign visitor, though American idealism has surely been a double-edged sword. The exchange brought to mind what floors me about the German people in the aftermath of the second world war. It seems to me that, as a society, the Germans are grounded in the reality of the human condition, as opposed to some hubristic, idealistic fantasy. They understand viscerally the devastation wrought by hatred wrapped in the seductive guise of “patriotism.” With the sight of smoking death camps and their great cities laid to waste, the scales have fallen from their eyes.
It turned out that Joschka was intensely interested in everything Vermont. As we ate up Route 7, I told him about the relative merits of Jersey and Holstein cows, about the sugaring process and the grades of maple syrup, about the progressive politics of our little state. If it weren’t for the Brooklyn accent, you would have thought I grew up here.
All this expounding began to get boring, even to me, so I changed the subject. “So what do you do for work, man, or are you also in school?”
Joschka chuckled, saying, “First, let me say that I hate my job. I market web banners. This has become an international market, you know. I work at this company with people from everywhere — some Americans, a Swiss guy, a guy from Shanghai, and there are three beautiful Polish girls.”
“Oh, my goodness,” I said. “Three beautiful Polish girls. You can’t beat that … I bet everybody at the firm is under 30. Am I right?”
My customer laughed. “Thirty? I just turned 25 and I’ve been doing this for two years. That makes me a — how do you say?”
“I think the word you’re looking for is ‘veteran.’ And you know what blows my mind? You’re doing a job that never even existed five or 10 years ago. It’s truly one world now, isn’t it?”
“Yes, and, truthfully, it is fun. We talk to people all over the globe, setting up contracts. The trouble is the hours. There is so much work! And with the BlackBerry, it never ends.”
“Hey, man — you got to just draw the line with your boss. If you’re on salary, they’ll keep increasing your workload until you say uncle.”
Joschka cocked his head. “Why should I talk about my uncle?”
“Sorry, it’s an American expression. Basically, I’m just saying you got to stick up for yourself, not let people take advantage of you!”
“Ooooh-kay, then,” he said, an appropriate response — I had to give him credit — to a ranting person.
We reached the undulating pathway leading into the heart of Middlebury, a road I’ve driven hundreds of times through the years.
“So, are you still living in Hamburg?”
“No, I’m in Berlin. I love it there. In 1989, when my father heard what was going on with the Berlin Wall, he put us all in the car, and we drove down to watch. I was just a little boy, but I can remember the celebration. People were going crazy, they were so happy. And now I live there. It’s so exciting. All these new buildings going up — everything is growing.”
We came up on the Middlebury village green, swung around the rotary and pulled to a stop in front of the Inn’s entrance. As Joschka paid me the fare, he said, “I can’t wait to see Cindy. I have so much to tell her about.”
“Yeah, I can dig that,” I said, “but one last word of advice from an old dude?”
“Sure,” he said, chuckling.
“If I were you, I’d skip the part about the Polish girls.”
“Good advice,” he said with a smile, and we shook on it.