After two and a half days of non-stop driving across midsummer France we pulled over and tumbled out of the van beside the Rhine Bridge near Colmar. On the other side of the river, a lone church spire jabbed skyward against a backdrop of blue mountains. The sun glowed orange as it eased closer to the horizon.
“Germany! I can’t bloody believe this, mates—we’re actually here.” Pete raised his arms high above his head and leaned backwards to stretch. His sunburned face was glossy with perspiration, and he wore only stained white shorts, battered sneakers, and the leather cap that never left his head. “I wish I could have a proper shower before crossing the border.”
“Yes sir, looking at you two I’d have to say we look pretty bad,” Charlie said, crushing a cigarette on the gravel. “That’s the last of my smokes, thank God. Those Galoise are killers. When we get to Freiburg I’m gonna find something decent. Maybe I’ll start smoking those roll-your-own like you do.”
I dug through my pockets and came up with a woefully light load. “Here we are, about to enter a new country, and all I have is twenty of those damned French francs.”
“Guess what else?” said Pete. “Today is Saturday. The banks won’t open till Monday. This is typical. No money, filthy dirty, can’t change money, and can’t speak the language. Now, after six bloody weeks in France, we have to limp into the land of beer without the money to buy any.”
I slid into the driver’s seat. “I don’t want to freak you out, but there’s always busking. That’s what we do, isn’t it?”
“I know that, but I’m a bit older than you and feeling knackered,” said Pete. “We’ve been driving for days, busking, pissing it up all night, and never sleeping. It would be nice to wash up, relax a little, have some tea and a proper meal for a change.”
The city of Freiburg lay curled in the hills of the Black Forest, and the slender tower of its ancient cathedral rose into the sky to mark the center of town. As we drove in the dwindling light, following signs for Zentrum, we dodged swarms of bicyclists. Trolley tracks tugged at the wheels, threatening to throw us off course. At last we parked near a medieval archway with turrets on either side that marked the entrance to the pedestrian zone. The air was scented with the aroma of roasting meat, and footsteps echoed on the cobblestones. Smaller streets radiated from the center, lined with pubs, cafes, and restaurants. A network of shallow gutters, or the Bachle, ran down the sides of the streets gurgling with swift moving water. The ever-present sound of water splashing in the fountains and Bachle, the students in baggy sweaters and colorful scarves, and the handsome Gothic architecture subtly unknotted our nerves.
I had come to Europe with my friend Charlie to get over a painful breakup with my longtime girlfriend, and after meeting recently divorced Londoner Pete Ryan, we traveled around together playing music on the streets of western France. A thirst for good beer and a change of scenery propelled us to Germany, and when I looked up at the stone lacework of the cathedral tower, illuminated by floodlights, I felt a strange sadness at the thought of leaving, even though we’d just arrived.
“I hear these German girls are wild,” said Pete. “Once we start playing, they’ll be fighting each other to shag us.”
“Sure they will, Pete.” My eyes struggled to look everywhere at once because the streets swarmed with gorgeous women. “Damn, they’re like goddesses!”
Charlie stopped to listen to the sound of applause wafting through the air. “Let’s check out the competition.”
We followed the scraps of music until we turned a corner to see a crowd of people clapping along while a bearded and bespectacled busker strummed a battered guitar. Deutschmarks poured into the guitar case lying open in front of him. I turned to the others. “We should get our instruments and show this town what music is all about.”
Pete rubbed his fingers through his hair. “I’m absolutely shattered, mate. We’ve still got some petrol, so let’s find a campground and get a rest. I can still feel the road knocking me about.”
The others outvoted me and we started back to the van. I drove out of town, searching the countryside until Pete spotted the universal triangle symbol for a campground, which pointed to “Camping Lunisee.”
“Camping Lunacy?” laughed Pete. “Sounds custom-made for us.”
Charlie drifted into the camp office to register while Pete and I set up the tent. I checked out the facilities and laughed at myself for rejoicing over the cleanest toilets I had ever seen. After a hot shower, a shave, and a change into some fresh clothes, I felt miraculously revived. Soon we were strolling under the stars past the lake that gave the campground its name of Lunisee, or Moon Lake. We found an empty table on the terrace of the camp cafe and Pete lost no time getting to the take-out window and chattering away in French and English to the woman there until she finally gave in. Pete returned with an armload of Furstenburg beers. “We’re in luck! They take French francs here. Bloody ‘ell, this is what I’ve been dreaming of for a month–a real, proper beer. Look at the size of them, too. Not those poxy little thimblefuls they dole out in France.” He took a long pull, then gazed at the bottle with misting eyes. “This beer is beautiful.”
The next morning, as the orange tiles and jutting spires of Freiburg peeked over the treetops, the sun was warming rather than hot. The wind buffeted my face as I leaned out of the passenger side window. I couldn’t suppress a burst of joy and howled at the open sky.
The streets heaved with people, and stalls bursting with clothes, fruits and vegetables piled onto the walkways in front of the shops. We walked to the square surrounding the cathedral and wound our way on cobblestones carpeted with flower petals to the front. Then we mounted the three stairs up to the massive wooden doors.
Charlie looked it up and down, his hands on his hips. “This is perfect.”
Brightly painted baroque buildings surrounded the square with arcades and crowded cafes. The gothic cathedral was built of pink sandstone and still betrayed its age in spite of the newer stones put in during restoration. In the very thick of the market activity squatted a fountain spewing out a slow stream of water into a round stone basin.
“I hope so,” I said. “In a few minutes those people better hand us their money because all I’ve got are two bits of lint in my pocket.”
Charlie’s flute lashed into a reel called “Lucy Campbell,” and a few people paused to listen. Then my bouzouki slashed into the tune, flying note-for-note along with the flute. At last, Pete slid into the tune on the bodhran and a crowd began to form. Heads bobbed in time to the music, smiles emerged on face after face, and change jingled into the cap that lay between us and our audience. More people stopped to watch until we had a crowd so large that I wondered how many of them could actually hear us. We ended our first number and the volume from the cheers echoed through the square. We decided to play until we saw signs of disinterest, but the crowd only grew larger.
“We’d better stop,” Charlie said at last. “We’ve got to leave ’em wanting more, and we shouldn’t subject them to Pete more than we have to.”
“I’m going to ignore you because we’ve got a flippin’ fortune here.” Pete held up his sagging cap. “Some people actually thanked me while handing me their money! And they handed it to a bodhran player, Charlie—not to some poseur flutist who fancies himself.”
We busked at pedestrian intersections around in the center of the city where we received similar responses. After a hasty dinner break we ran across a seedy pub called Das Delirium and opened the poster-plastered door. The walls, more smothered in posters than the door, looked like they had been built during the Crusades. Each wooden table was rutted with graffiti and sported a candle jammed into a wine bottle, an ashtray with plumes of smoke rising from it, and a large beer in front of each customer. Most of the people were young, with long, painted, or spiked hair and casual to bizarre clothes. The barman, a massive guy with a bushy black beard and bald head, stood behind the bar doling out frothing mugs of beer.
After asking the bartender’s permission, we got out our instruments and started into “The Foxhunter’s Jig.” Conversation stopped and the previously earnest-faced Germans clapped happily along. The barman brought more beer – on the house – and we kept playing as the ancient Bierstube rocked with music.
“Hope you don’t mind if we join in, like,” said a hulking Irish fellow who heaved a big black accordion onto his lap. He wore a purple sweatshirt and crinkly hair tumbled down his back. “You’re not bad. But why are Yanks playing Irish music?”
A skinny, dark-haired guy with an enormous nose jammed a fiddle to his neck. “Do you know this one?” He fired off a tune I vaguely knew and I struggled to find the combination of chords to play along with him.
Between tunes, dozens of people came over to talk and offer us cigarettes. Strangers pressed phone numbers and addresses into my hand, and all manner of advice on busking was given and forgotten. After a hazy period of more talk and more drinking – followed by a boisterous drive on the autobahn – I found myself climbing over the fence to the campground while dawn painted the sky a luminous blue.
Each morning for the next two weeks, we hopped into the van, rolled into Freiburg, and busked around town. Later, we would play at one of the nightspots in town – Das Delirium, Der Auerhahn, Brenessle, or one of many other bars we got to know. We would invariably meet up with our new acquaintances and finish the evening with long, beery jam sessions.
Life in Freiburg stretched long past the time when we should have moved on.
We had gotten a bad case of what our new friends called “Freiburgitis”—a disinclination to leave Freiburg, even for a day. This got worse when Charlie fell for Connie, a pretty university student, and started spending his spare time with her.
Eventually, the clear weather we had been blessed with was replaced by a ceiling of black clouds spewing out endless streams of drizzle. The gloom and wet eventually made busking impossible, and we spent entire days lying in the tent or sitting in the van nursing beers. Our money began to run dangerously low, and after living on bread and cheese most days, I felt the constant hum of hunger in my belly.
Early one rare clear morning, moments before the sun touched the sky, I lay awake in the tent. The campsite was quiet except for Pete’s snoring and a sharp wind that made the tent billow in and out as though gasping for air. I felt uneasy. Something was different that day. The air held a chill in it and carried the aroma of decaying leaves.
I crept outside. There I found Charlie sitting on top of the van in the blue light of dawn smoking a cigarette and staring toward the mountains while the wind grabbed the smoke and danced away with it. “What are you doing up before the crack of afternoon?”
“I couldn’t sleep anymore. Are you all right?”
“Come on up. I’ll roll you a smoke.”
I climbed to the roof of the van and for several minutes we sat looking out over the glowing horizon. Heliotrope clouds drifted low, scraping the treetops on the hills before descending into the valleys. The first smudges of rust colored the leaves.
Charlie turned to me. “Do you realize that it’s the middle of September? The whole summer and part of autumn is already gone and we don’t have one single gig. We don’t have a place to live except in that leaky tent. One day we’ll have to go home just to keep from starving or freezing to death.”
“Then let’s head south.” I slid off the van and hurried back to the tent.
Pete was sitting up, the skin under his eyes swollen. “Hey, what’s the craic?”
“I’m just getting a jacket. How come you’re up early?”
“I’m meeting that East German girl again, you know, Sabina. Sabina’s father is some professor who escaped from the east with a price on his head. When we’re talking she acts like she’s thinking of something else.”
“You should be used to that.”
“Piss off, mate, it’s too early for your jokes. Anyway, what are you doing up?”
I pulled a blue turtleneck from my pack. “What do you think of getting out of Freiburg, at least for a while? We’ve been thinking about . . . “
”I was wondering when you’d come around to that.” He sprang up from his sleeping bag. “You Yanks have been in a trance ever since we got here.”
We joined Charlie to watch the sun emerge over the hills and melt away the last clouds. After breakfast at the café we broke down the tent, paid our bill, and bid farewell to the campground manager. Once in town, we made straight for the cathedral. As we walked down the main pedestrian boulevard past the shops, fountains, odd sculptures, and rushing water of the Bachle, I tried to absorb every detail, every image, so that I could hold it forever in my memory. Clouds rolled from the hills to darken the sky, and as we played, the vendors and shoppers on the Fussgangerzone turned their faces worriedly skyward.
“We still don’t know the best place to go,” said Pete.
“Let’s talk to Irish Tony,” I said. “I told you he said he was going to get in touch with that chain of Irish Pubs and get us some gigs.”
At that moment Connie came strolling around the corner of the cathedral. She wore an oversized yellow jacket, her short brown hair was spiked, and a smile was forming on her usually earnest face. She always knew when we’d get into town and where we’d busk first. She put one arm around Charlie and pulled his face down to kiss him. As she drew back, her expression changed. She glanced at me and Pete, and then at me again, her face a question mark.
Charlie led her aside. “Ah, Connie, I’ve got a bit of news for you.”
The two talked quietly together near a worn sandstone cathedral column. Connie’s face trembled, and she wiped away tears with a pink handkerchief while Charlie hugged her. After a few minutes, she stood up straight and strode over to Pete and me. “So you are leaving us,” she said as she grabbed and pumped our hands. “I’m hoping not for very long. I have a friend who has been wanting to meet you. Here she is.”
A young woman with long dark hair and a bulky red sweater rode up on a bicycle. She dismounted, pushed the mass of gleaming hair out of her face, then chatted with Connie before Connie introduced her. I could smell the herbal fragrance of her shampoo.
“This is my friend, Helga. She works with me in my political action group.”
Helga’s presence pulled my nervous system so taut that I felt like I was wearing a corset or one of those waist trainers for posture. Her hair shone like polished walnut, hers brown eyes rested calmly beneath dark eyebrows, and her long, straight nose was instantly endearing. A few freckles lay sprinkled on her cheeks, and she moved with restless energy. As our group stood talking, I couldn’t get over my feelings of excitement. I noticed that Helga repeatedly glanced at me until she finally turned to Connie and said something in German.
“How about going off for a beer?” barked Pete as she took Helga’s arm.
Helga’s look changed to one of confusion.
Connie whispered in my ear. “Get Pete away from her.”
Charlie questioned Pete about the location of one of his shirts. Pete was taken in because his borrowing of our belongings was a constant source of contention. As Charlie and Pete argued, I swallowed my own shyness and asked Helga if she was from Freiburg, which was difficult because she didn’t speak much English and my German was limited to the ordering of beer. She answered, with an embarrassed smile, that she grew up in a little town in the Black Forest.
“Where in America are you from?” she asked.
“We’re from near Baltimore. Well, except Pete. He’s from London.”
“I see.” Her eyes softened. “You are liking Germany?”
“Oh yes, very much. And you are in a political action group with Connie?”
“That’s right, yes. I go to the medical school here.”
“Medical school? You must be quite an interesting person.”
“So must you.”
She paused. “There’s a jazz concert tonight that you might like to hear.”
“I’ll go,” I blurted out.
She pushed back her tumbling hair. “But what about your friends? Are you not playing music tonight also?”
“Not tonight; we’re taking the night off.” Trying to suppress my elation, I turned to Charlie and made arrangements to meet them later at the Harlequin.
“Off with Helga, are you?” Pete’s voice regained its usual perk. “She’s right tasty. Sorry about moving in like that.”
“Yeah, what was that all about?”
“I wanted to give you an out.”
“I’ll take care of my own love life. Aren’t you meeting Sabina?”
“That’s right!” He picked up his drum bag and hurried off. “See you at the Harlequin, and be there by midnight. We’re leaving tonight no matter what.”
Helga and I wandered together through the cobblestone streets immersed in our halting conversation. Her face danced with different expressions, especially when she had to think in English, and her voice betrayed the musical lilt of the region. By the time we reached the jazz club I was already halfway in love with her. Barely aware of the concert – held in an old warehouse where we sat on a concrete floor surrounded by Alternativs – my eyes were on her through the entire show.
Soon I felt her arm on mine and she took my hand. The touch of her skin sent a thrill through my system, and before long we put our arms around each other. We moved outside to a wooden bench where we embraced and kissed without a thought for anything else in the world. All ideas about leaving Freiburg were forgotten as we kissed more passionately. Her hands ran up my neck and down my back, and I gave in completely to my emotions – the first joyful emotions I’d felt in years. The clean smell of her hair entwining itself in my fingers, her searching lips, and her sighs – aroused feelings I thought I’d never experience again.
“Oh, I am not believing this,” she murmured. “I am so happy you came to Freiburg. I am so happy to find such a nice boy.”
The bells clanged midnight, and I had to meet the others at the Harlequin. It was painful to withdraw from the closeness of her warmth, even for a moment. “I’m sorry, but I told my friends I’d meet them now. It’s important.”
“I am sorry.” She gave me a long, deep kiss. “I don’t want them to be angry with me. Is it possible to be coming too?”
We walked together down the dark streets listening to the muttering water of the Bachle. She rested her head on my shoulder and I held her close. The world outside seemed unreal and unimportant. Feeling her hand on my waist and her hair on my cheek lifted me to an intensely heightened joy in being alive. She was real, and I couldn’t think of leaving, no matter what Charlie and Pete thought.
The pub was half-hidden behind the movie theater under the sign of a dancing Harlequin. I took a breath to steady myself and kissed Helga one more time. We pressed past the row of backs at the long front bar until we reached the rear room, lit by amber lamps, where many local buskers, including Irish Tony, would often meet. The first person I saw was Tony himself, sitting at a table with a pile of change and a cigarette perched on the ashtray in front of him. A few other buskers lounged about, including Charlie and Pete.
“How are ya?” Tony greeted me in his raspy voice. Years of singing on the streets had taken their toll on his vocal chords. His thick black hair was tied into a tight ponytail and he looked up at me with his perpetually red-rimmed green eyes – humorous,
but with more than a hint of cynicism. His lean body was curled over the change in concentration.
“Tony’s got a place in Switzerland he thinks we should check out,” said Charlie.
I wanted to shift the subject. “Is it true you’re going back to Ireland?”
“Yeah, I’m really pissed off with this life. After seven years I’m ready to go home. I’ve done a lot and seen a lot, but it wears you out. Especially now that things are changing. Back a few years, people were idealistic and loved music. Now, young people are only into money and stereo systems and cars.” He picked up a map from where it rested beside his money. “I was telling your friends, you should head to Switzerland, just a couple of hours south on the autobahn.”
“Sounds right to me,” said Charlie.
“That’s where the real money is. Germany’s overflowing with buskers and it’s hard to make a living.”
“So Pete, how was Sabina?” I was buying time, trying to figure out how to tell the others I didn’t want to leave.
Pete shot a look at Helga. “She was acting all stupid on me. Crying, laughing, mumbling to herself. Finally pissed off somewhere. Don’t know what’s wrong with her.”
Tony tapped my arm. “Let me show you how to get to a town you’ll like called Biel. Go down the number five autobahn, then cross over the Rhine into Switzerland at Basle, follow signs for . . .”
“Tony, I’ve got to talk to these two about something important. Maybe we should stick it out here for awhile until we can get some gigs at these pubs. I’m not ready to go anywhere. Not now.”
At that moment, a petite girl with short blond hair and hazel eyes thickly lined in black staggered past the bar and into the back room. She wore a black skirt that barely peeked out from under a black leather motorcycle jacket. At last she turned to me with tears all over her face. It was Sabina. “You are leaving now, even tonight,” she moaned between sobs. “I must now tell you how I feel.”
“Now I must tell you how much I love you.” Sabina choked back her tears and stood unsteadily before me. “I have loved you since I first saw you playing your music. Didn’t you know?”
I felt like I’d been blindsided by a Chicago Bears linebacker. “Sabina, you don’t even know me and I don’t know you! I mean, we only met once for ten seconds . . .”
“I love you so much. Oh, please don’t hate me.” Giving in to her tears, she sank to the floor. “I can’t live without you anymore.”
“Friggin’ ‘ell!” said Pete, tugging on Sabina’s arm to get her back on her feet. “I didn’t know she was like this.”
Charlie’s friend Matt, a thin guy wearing overalls, shoved his way through the crowd at the bar, his green eyes half hidden by a swatch of red hair. “Listen, there’s two guys asking about some buskers.”
“We’re off for the night,” said Tony. “Tell him to look around the Munsterplatz tomorrow.”
“No, they’re after two Americans and their Brit friend. Some old geezer is going around town with a copper. Says his daughter ran away to follow some busker and he’s out to get his hands on the guy. She’s underage, you see. Fifteen.”
Tony jerked out of his chair. “You didn’t tell them anything, did you?”
“I told them I never heard of them. But they’re checking everywhere.”
“I knew this bird here was a headcase,” said Pete. “But she’s only fifteen?”
I bolted upright. “If her dad’s looking for some guy, then that guy must be me! He’s assuming I’m taking advantage of his daughter. Oh, this is just friggin’ great.”
Helga stared at Sabina then fired off a look that stopped my heart.
“Helga, I don’t even know this girl!”
“Listen,” said Tony. “I’ll show you a way out of here. You’d better leave now.”
Helga pushed her way through the people crowded at the bar.
“I swear, Helga, I don’t know her!” I squirmed my way through to follow her. “This is a big mistake!”
Irish Tony grabbed me and pulled me back. “You won’t catch her, and even if you did, she wouldn’t listen to you right now.”
“What am I going to do? This is crazy!” I looked at Sabina, who stood crying into her hands. “I’m sorry you’re upset, but I don’t understand.”
“I am sorry,” she squeaked. “I took some pills, and now my feelings are not able to hide.”
Irish Tony pushed me into a corner. The other patrons turned to observe, a few concerned, more amused. “You three have got to go right now. The Polizei will be here before long. I’m telling you, man, go!”
“But I’ve got to talk to Helga.”
“Matt, keep a hold on Sabina until I get back, right?” Tony ordered. “We’ve got to get her straight before her father finds her.”
“This is crazy . . .”
“Listen,” Tony interrupted. “You’re going to have to get away, trust me. You don’t want any trouble with the police. I’ve heard about Sabina, and this isn’t the first time she’s pulled this. Another friend of mine had some problems with her too. Had to split the country.”
“What will I tell Helga? I don’t even have her phone number or address or anything. I don’t even know her last name!”
Tony pulled a pen from his jacket pocket, wrote something on a scrap of paper, and handed it to me. “This is the address of the Harlequin. Write to Matt at that address and he’ll get Helga your mail. We’ll take care of things for you. I promise.”
Moments later we were careening through the maze of streets. Clouds sagged low over the town and rain brushed the windshield. After whipping through the deserted industrial area, we sped onto the autobahn. The rain cut loose at the van like machine gun fire. The lights of Freiburg disappeared behind the hills while raindrops on the windows turned those lights into distorted blobs of color.
We busked through Switzerland and Italy, but when we finally returned to Freiburg weeks later, neither Connie nor Helga were anywhere to be found. Irish Tony had returned to Ireland. After about a week of busking in the rain, making no money, and looking everywhere for Helga, we finally gave up.
It was a long, dreary road to London and our flight back to the States, and it wasn’t until many years later that I returned to Freiburg. Wandering alone through the Munsterplatz, I again smelled roasting Wurst, watched groups of laughing students trip through the cobblestone square, and heard the gurgle of the Bachle and the ancient bells of the cathedral. A group of buskers young enough to be my own kids played next to the fountain. I didn’t know them, and to them I was just another possible source of change.
I found myself looking twice at every pretty, dark-haired girl, half-expecting for a few impossible moments to find Helga. But the young girl I fell for so many years earlier no longer existed, and neither did the scruffy American kid who disappeared from Freiburg one September night. Somewhere along the road of life she may have gotten over Freiburgitis, but I never did.
C.B. Heinemann has been performing, recording and touring with Irish music groups for nearly twenty years. His Celtic rock band, Dogs Among the Bushes, was the first American Celtic group to tour in the former East Germany and Czechoslovakia after the fall of communism. A graduate of the University of Maryland, C.B. Heinemann has written three novels, and his short stories have appeared in Storyteller, One Million Stories, Whistling Fire, Danse Macabre, Fate, The Washington Post, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, Cool Traveler, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Car & Travel, and Big World Travel.