After the Fall of the Berlin Wall it became clear that Germany was going to become a major player internationally - and that the Germans were wholly unprepared. We thought we would just apply that situation to a tiny, remote village: How would the villagers react if they are suddenly catapulted onto the world stage? Poorly, of course.
|This is from the book.|
In the interest of full disclosure there is one thing I should clear up right now. I am not the Head of the European Bureau for the New York Times.
There. Now you know.
I sure would like to have been the respected American journalist they took me for in Loch am Rhein - one of those cool, globe-trotting writers that show up in self-important Sunday morning press clubs on TV with legs crossed and a serious look on their faces, explaining their incredibly well-founded opinions. Unfortunately, I belong more to the group of people whose professional titles begin with "wanna-be." Wanna-be-Journalist, Wanna-be-Writer, Wanna-be-Globetrotter.
There are a lot of us out there like me. We escape from our suffocating small-town somewhere in Ohio or Oklahoma where you learn to drive when you're ten because you have to take the pick-up to get to school and we come to Europe to bask in the rich culture of the Old Continent and write that novel that will make us world-famous. But before we really get going on that book, the money runs out and we get a job as an English teacher - a "native speaker" English teacher - in some run-down language school catering to waitresses who dream of becoming secretaries but don't have enough money to go to a school where teachers are hired according to real qualifications. With a lot of other wanna-be's, we then spend too much money in bars, where we eventually meet a sexually enlightened local girl and move in with her, and before you can say "The Rape of Europe" she starts a campaign of discrete but relentless badgering against her fresh new husband on the theme of "perspectives."
The way a cool, sexually enlightened European bride launches a discussion of "perspectives" is never quite the same. Carla did it something like this: "You know me. I don't care that the first forty pages of your novel have been sitting untouched in your drawer for the last three years. For me you're a novelist deep inside. That's all that matters. But maybe it would be a good idea to start out small. Like a travel article for an American newspaper."
"I'm not a reporter. Journalists are whores. I write novels."
"It can't hurt to try something new for a change. Just to get experience, you know?" she said, and added just as quickly: "I bought Ben & Jerry's."
It wasn't over, not by a long shot.
"You know, a little success now and then would do you good. For someone like you it would be easy to write a simple article, just for the money. You could do it with one hand tied behind your back. And when you see your name in the paper, it will give you new energy to finish the novel."
"Yes, and it's yet more time wasted that I could spend on the novel," I said.
That was late summer. In November it started up again:
"Didn't you say you wanted to write something small and simple? For a newspaper?"
"I'm still thinking about it."
Early in December, Carla spread out a pile of American newspapers from places like Florida and Washington on the living room table.
"I was down at the train station and took a look at the international press shop," she announced without warning. "You wouldn't believe how many newspapers there are in America. You know what? I'll bet none of them have a correspondent here in Krefeld. You could write a story about Krefeld for the travel section. I'm sure they don't get offers like that every day."
"That's not how it works..." I said, or tried to say, for that's when she brought out the big guns: "You're so negative, sometimes you sound German."
After a few days of not speaking a single word to each other, she stepped it up a notch: "What should I tell my parents? The novel is almost finished and after that you'll be a big star? Do you have any idea how long I've been telling them that?"
The big one was coming. The really big fight. We both knew it, but like so many couples, we put it off as long as possible. Why do couples do that to themselves? Why not just go through the whole process in fast forward? As soon as a subject pops up that clearly will sooner or later end in a fight - why not just start screaming at each other from the get-go? The sooner you start, the faster it's over.
I believe it's due to a basic selfishness in men. We're afraid it's going to hurt. Women are less selfish. They postpone it out of consideration towards us: They know it's going to hurt - us.
The big one came right on time for New Year's Eve. After we had screamed at each other an acceptable amount of time and slammed enough doors I retired to the bedroom, looked reality in the eye and angrily switched on the computer. In 30 minutes I had slapped out a travel article about Krefeld. After another 30 minutes it wasn't even half bad. The prose drew life from a strong, healing cynicism and my unerring eye for the pettiness of the provincial mentality. I portrayed a few bums in the Friedrich Strasse shopping mall as anarchistic rebels against social conformity and concluded that the best thing about Krefeld was how easy you could escape to Holland just across the border. Print-out in hand, I marched into the living room, threw it onto the coffee table and snapped: "Send that to the New York Times and see what happens if you think I'm some travel writer."
Two days later I talked to the manager of my language school about career potential. There was none. On the contrary. Two months later the town's evening school printed its new catalogue and my boss and I explored together the sections in it I was responsible for, which there weren't any.
When I arrived home, jobless but with a very expensive bouquet of flowers, Carla was waiting for me. She was recognizably in a good mood and in her hand she held a letter. Clearly something or someone had made her happy and who was I to ruin the moment? I tossed the flowers into the hallway before she could see them and wonder about reasons for my bad conscience.
"Read this!" she said, excited, and handed me the letter she had already opened. It was addressed to Steve Gunderson, Journalist, New York Times, to our address in Krefeld.
Honorable Mister Gunderson:
We are writing to you after reading your very interesting article in the New York Times. It impressed us to see what powers of observation you are able to invest in such a little-known town, which must be even less well-known in America than it is in Germany! It is rare for foreigners, especially Americans, to possess such vivid and exact knowledge about our country and to write about us so positively.
For this reason I feel encouraged to try to win you over for a special project.
A spectacular archeological find in recent months is now in the process of lending our town a new, explosive role in the history of our country. A recently-discovered gold artifact has given us reason to hope that the historic Golden Hoard of the Nibelungs lies buried somewhere in our modest county. Archeologically speaking, such a discovery is comparable with the raising of the Titanic. For this reason we are planning a series of municipal renewal projects, and a theater festival with international stars. And though it may be leaning out the window a little, I would dare predict that the name "Loch" will soon take on a significance in the public consciousness comparable to that of Bayreuth, Oberammergau and Dachau.
We would like to invite you to observe the various phases of our projects up to and including the gala premiere of our theater spectacle in August and to document it in a weekly series of articles for the New York Times. We believe that this project is so dynamic that it will interest Americans and indeed the world. Naturally you will enjoy unhindered access to all the leading personages of our town, including the mayor Fritz-Eberhard Steiner, the head of the theater festival Drafi Becker and the playwright Peter Westernacher.
Should you accept our invitation, we would be pleased to pay for your room and board in historic downtown Loch as well as an honorarium for your trouble and of course we will cover all other costs incurred, upon delivery of receipts.
I am looking forward to hearing from you and would be most pleased to receive a positive answer - until then, I respectfully remain,
With best regards,
Curator, Museum of Loch am Rhein
18th April, 2002
That was the most exciting letter I had ever received in my life.
I was in the New York Times!
To hell with novels. A life as an internationally renowned journalist? Also not bad. I immediately called New York and asked for the editor. I babbled something about my willingness to write about Krefeld regularly. "It's a treasure trove of quirky human interest stories here. The things I experience every day, you wouldn't believe."
He replied: "Who are you?"
For more than half a hour I was connected back and forth. I could hear my phone bill climbing steadily upwards, but I didn't let go of that receiver. Finally I ended up in the legal department:
"Mister Gunderson, it's nice of you to call. There has obviously been some kind of misunderstanding. As I'm sure you know, there is another Steve Gunderson who writes for us regularly. Our editor assumed your the article was from him and accepted it without thinking twice. The accusation has been made that he didn't even read it. I'm sure he would have realized his mistake if he had taken time to look more closely. As I'm sure you understand, the fact that an article of this quality has been allowed to appear in our pages may have done more damage to our reputation than you can imagine. The editor has been sent on unpaid vacation until this is cleared up. The real Steve Gunderson has issued a complaint for defamation. We are trying our best not to let the whole affair result in a lawsuit. If you would give me your address, I will send you a pre-written statement in which you clarify that you knowingly submitted an article under false pretenses and that you carry all responsibility for any legal consequences that may result therefrom. We would ask you to sign the statement and return it at your convenience within the week. Do you have any questions?"
"No. Yes. Do I get paid?"
"The check has been sent to Mister Gunderson and has been cashed."
The weeks that followed were the darkest of my marriage. When I confessed to Carla that I was unemployed, she wanted to kill me, but she didn't have the energy. The only silver lining was that we didn't hear from the New York Times legal department, as Carla had had the presence of mind to write me a note with lots of exclamation marks telling me to give them a false address. For once I was smart enough to follow her advice.
Weeks later it occurred to me: Wasn't there something else?
I looked for the letter from Loch am Rhine. There is was, in black and white: Room and board, all expenses paid, an honorarium.
"How do you plan on placing a series of articles about this little nowhere town in the New York Times?" asked Carla, who felt even more battered by that phone call than I did. "Or do you plan on just telling those guys some story and stalling them as long as you can, just to get the money?"
I tried to say, "Of course not," but somehow it just didn't come out.
"That would be fraud," she said. "You know that, don't you?"
"Not only that," I said. "It would be fraud at the lowest possible level. I can't even find this town on a map."
"Maybe you need a better map."
The Long Sentence
Germans like long sentences. It gives them the soothing feeling that the author is not just some hack. If you want to be taken seriously as a writer in Germany, you need a good command of the long sentence. For that reason we were careful to include one in "A Town Called Hole:"
It was one of those moments when you're already in the process of sitting down when you see that someone has just pulled your chair away, someone who obviously has something better to do with it, and you realize that you have to straighten up immediately, but unfortunately between the moment of that realization and the moment when the nerves carrying the command from your brain to your muscles reach their destination, exactly in that nanosecond, in which you, fully conscious of what is happening, as if in slow motion, lose your balance, and as you are the process of crashing to the floor you ask yourself why you didn't simply remain standing instead of trying to sit down, as you were clearly in control of your senses the whole time, and you also recognize that it was very clearly the wrong moment to pile your plate high with goulash, mashed potatoes and peas, not to mention getting that tall glass of cold beer.
|Some notes on "A Town Called Hole"|
This is our only novel Astrid and the only book both of our names appear on.
The pseudo-documentary first-person comic style was inspired by the mockumentaries of Christopher Guest, which we both admire endlessly.
We had the great honor of the great satiric painter and illustrator Michael Sowa paint our cover. Astrid and I are fans of his and we love what he did to the mayor's sex scene. Here's a gallery with some of his other funny, ironic, grotesque and iconic paintings.
Here's what an Oden Forest travel guide wrote about our fictitious town.
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