02 October 2009

There is a house in New Orleans

Inspired by Nicole's touching lovestory series I thought I'd ask my father to tell me his lovestory. These are his words.


I met your mother in early January 1965 at Sonnenberg House in Germany. Sonnenberg House is an international conference centre set high in the Harz mountains in central Germany above the village of St Andreasberg. It was the second Sonnenberg conference I had attended; I had attended my first one the previous winter when I was in the upper sixth form at grammar school. This time, like then, I had stayed with a host family in Hamburg during the week before the conference after which I took the train from Hamburg to Bad Harzburg (the nearest railway station to Sonnenberg) in time for the start of the conference on 6th January.

It was there outside Bad Harzburg station where we – some of the British group – were waiting for the Sonnenberg bus, that I first encountered the Dutch group who were also travelling to the conference centre. Hearing Dutch being spoken in such a confined space as the shuttle bus and so close at hand and with such vivacity and enthusiasm by the teacher-training students from Arnhem, was an unforgettable experience! What a strange sounding tongue; how do these folk survive without developing serious throat problems later in life? But, strange tongues aside, there was one student among them that I had already noticed…

She was tall and slender, with curves in all the right places and great legs… but above all it was her vivacity, openness and graceful ease of manner that really caught my attention.

The conference itself was most enjoyable. The majority of the participants were German, largely final year gymnasium students from the Hamburg area. There were Dutch and British in about equal numbers and a smattering of Austrians and Swiss. In all there were about a hundred participants, but notably none from Eastern Europe.
The theme of the study conference was ‘The Contribution Europe can make to the Development of Tomorrow’s World’. Most lectures were given by eminent German professors and academics (simultaneous translations via headphones were always available) with the occasional lecture delivered in English. One lecture I do remember was given by Dr Jef Last of the University of Amsterdam on ‘Russia and the West’.

There was ample free time between lectures to talk, make friends and to explore the local area. I was able to hire skis to ‘langlauf’ through the local hills and forest and down to the village sometimes. Sonnenberg was deep in snow and the landscape was at its most beautiful then. There were also organized visits to local sights and places of interest including the charming and historic town of Goslar and the not-so-charming Iron Curtain which cut through the Harz mountains just a few kilometres to the east of Sonnenberg.

I first spoke to your mother in the little library at Sonnenberg; I was leafing through a German world atlas in which on one map the pre-war frontiers of Germany were given and pondering the unusual and sometimes funny German spellings of geographical names – Miland for Milan for instance. We talked but not so very much –your mother’s English was very good but unpractised and I as usual was quietly reserved. But there was something; something happened… I felt her presence, her proximity beguiling: I was intrigued and excited by the encounter. Perhaps I did not know then how auspicious that meeting would prove to be. We found ourselves in the same discussion group later in the conference which gave your mother more opportunity to practise her much-easier-on-the-throat foreign languages - and for me to check out those legs again. (And you must realize too, of course, that any girl who can divert my attention away from looking at maps has to be very special indeed!)

Sonnenberg conferences always include an International Evening – usually towards the end - when everyone is expected to put on a performance or take part in an entertainment of some kind. I remember doing a sketch which was a telephone conversation with an imaginary German friend in which I tried to explain to him the game of cricket. I think it was quite funny and it went down well. Hans, one of the Dutch students, wearing a black leotard, black top and black bowler hat, performed a very clever and masterful mime act. Richard, my grammar school colleague, who was doing a third year in the sixth form in order to take the Oxbridge entrance examinations, sang The House of the Rising Sun by The Animals to his own guitar and wearing a blue sailor’s cap which he had purchased in Hamburg. It’s funny the things you remember… and it’s funny the things you don’t remember: I don’t remember what the Dutch group’s contribution was exactly, except that it was loud (ie involved a lot of singing and dancing) and was, in true Dutch fashion, ‘in your face’… I think I must have been concentrating on one particular female participant rather than enjoying the wider performance.

It was a special conference and a special time. The atmosphere was warm, friendly and good natured. The centre itself was bright, warm and comfortable. The lectures and discussions were stimulating and challenging. It was so good to have the opportunity to meet students from other countries. The deep snow seemed to isolate us from the rest of the world and help us focus our thoughts on the business of the conference.

I recall little about the journey home; it remains hazy, perhaps because I didn’t really want things to end then. I know that I and a number of the British party travelled together with the Dutch group by bus and then by train as far as Hanover where our paths finally separated, those returning to Britain having to catch a later boat train to the Hook of Holland.

I knew then as I returned to my undergraduate studies in Cardiff that my student grant would in future have to support the regular purchase of stamps by the dozen and writing paper by the ream.

I had fallen in love.

16 comments:

  1. What a sweet story! I adore stories like this...

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  2. this is such a lovely story and i am so happy i got to hear it!

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  3. how lovely!

    PS: I miss snail mail.

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  4. How amazing! I love hearing the love stories of couples who have been together decades. You are very lucky to have parents who still love each other so much.

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  5. How sweet! And why is it that any story seems so much more romantic when set in Europe?!?!

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  6. oh..I loved this! And reading it in his own words was lovely. I could hear the accent.

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  7. I wish my parents had such a sweet story!! this is heart-warming :)

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  8. What a beautiful story! Your father is a great writer, I felt like I was right there with him! Happy weekend, friend! xoxo

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  9. This was such a wonderful post to read, I really enjoyed it. Such beautiful imagery. You are so fortunate to have parents with such a beautiful love story...

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  10. This is the absolute sweetest! I love how it's in your dad's words. So beautiful and inspirational.

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  11. Oh Saskia, this is an amazing story. There's an incredible strength in distance relationships I think. Your parents are very lucky...

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  12. This was truly incredible. Thanks to you and your father for sharing!

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  13. What a wonderful story. Such an amazing father you have!!! XOXO

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  14. what a beautiful story! Your father is really in your blog a lot haha!

    *loves*

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  15. I love that your father shared this with you (us). Beautiful story...

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