On the Surrealistic Road
by Glenn Horvath, Leipzig 7.2022
Picture yourself in a car on a trip; on a very l-o-n-g trip from Leipzig, Germany, in eastern Germany to the far western shores of Northern Ireland.
This was at summer’s end of 1991.
Not the British Northern Ireland, but Irish-Ireland, specifically County Donegal, way up northwest. First Belgium, then France, then Britain, then Ireland, then Belfast, then County Donegal.
Although we did drive through a British checkpoint with a big caliber, stationary general purpose machine-gun pointed at our car as we passed through the Belfast checkpoint, we made it through, looked on as suspicious Germans. This was 1991. We saw a lot of Ireland, and we swore a helicopter was following us all over…
My hero, art collector, benefactor, the honorable Bert Holterdorf, and his girlfriend Sabina were my hosts in his new Volkswagen Passat Kombi-station wagon. In late summer 1991, he kindly invited me to drive with them all the way to Ireland. He owned a house in Dublin he wanted to check on, and he offered to deliver me to my ancient Irish descendants up north after doing so. Impossible to say no to that! These were relatives on my mother’s side. My grandfather escaped to the USA, New York City, and married and had two daughters, and one had me that made us Americans.
This story won’t contain any tangerine trees or marmalade skies but to a guy on his first European trip almost. Primarily my own visit was to my Irish relatives I’m 50% Irish- and my different excursions with Bert and Sabina as we drove.
I’ll write about things like my seeing a ghost pop out of my hotel closet at 3 a.m. and his ghostly warning to me, juicy brown Guinness beer, Irish bars, and flirty Catholics girls, a white horse coming out of the fog on the highway, a man dying as we entered the ferry to England, terror on the wild English channel, waves and rolling 40 degrees up and down and all around, dishes crashing, AND my grandfather’s brother, a priest, age 90, telling me my granddad was an assassin for the IRA, buttery smooth Irish oatmeal for breakfast every morning from his lovely older housekeeper, who never forgot to put a metal bed warmer under my sheets every night I stayed there for more warmth…meeting the most innocent children I’ve ever met and their warm greetings to me as the nephew of their beloved parish priest during their school recess and meeting my lovely relatives, who met my mom 40 years earlier in the same places.
PS) if you’ve lived in Germany for an extended period of time one, tends to write long sentences like the one I just wrote. Stocked full of ideas…
Mom and her sister, the tiny village sensations, cute Irish-American girls in Ireland, in the ’50s, on a visit.
Driving through Germany and France was uneventful. Just a lot of discussion. The Belgium coast was a different story.
Bert spoke perfect English, and I was beginning to learn German. I can’t remember if Sabina spoke English, I think not, so there was a lot of translation. I remember one unspoken conversation with Sabina; she made it clear with her eyes and body language her displeasure with me being on the trip, her 3rd unwelcome wheel, interrupting her lovey alone time with her new boyfriend. I tried at every turn to be there, but not too much there for her sake. I, for some reason, fascinated Bert, and he safeguarded my presence, so I only felt really welcome with him nearby. Bert was a West German who also landed in Eastern Germany, Leipzig, right after the iron curtain fell. I think not a typical West German who disliked Americans and East Germans. He seemed to like us. He was searching for a story, as he was a pro journalist. I think he was amazed at how someone like me could be in Leipzig, the old socialist GDR (German Democratic Republic), without a parachute or any safety net. A 30-year-old guy just living and creating art and music there; a starving thin involuntary English teacher too. Germans had no native English speakers in the GDR, so I was exploited to my delight. Almost everyone tried their English with me, alleviating me from having to speak German initially. Maybe I was just an odd story to Bert.
I did fly to Paris with only 100 dollars in my pocket on a one-way ticket. I had no idea what was coming, but I was out of America and into a strange land as a happy but nervous stranger in June 1990. France was beautiful, and Germany was better. Leipzig was the best, broken down, bullet-ridden, but creative, like me.
I don’t remember a lot about Belgium. I can think of ocean, fish and chips, flat, clean, a ghost, as we went through Belgium on our way to France and the Calais ferry to Britain.
We did spend the first night of our trip at a Belgian hotel after a full day of driving from Leipzig. It was a simple 2-star place with a communal bathroom at the end of the hallway on each floor. It was typical of many non-luxury hotels in Europe. What happened that night was crazy to say the least.
Technically it was morning, 3 a.m. or so.
After a few Belgian beers in the lounge, we said goodnight to each other, and I headed to my single room, generously provided by Bert. I was pretty tired from the journey, and I remember falling asleep quickly. After a few hours’ sleep, I suddenly woke up. I turned on the bedside lamp and looked at my watch. I needed to use the bathroom in the middle of the night. It was still dark outside in this strange new country I was in.
Because the bathroom was at the end of my hallway, I left my door ajar and went to answer my call of nature. I returned, still groggy and sedated from sleep, and suddenly a man popped out of my wardrobe as I closed my door! Jesus H.! There are few built-in closets, or at least there were back then in Europe, so a 7-foot-high wooden wardrobe was typical for clothing, covers, hangers, etc.
As tired as I was, I was awake! This was no dream!
I swear I almost had a heart attack when he emerged! Oddly, my first thought that interrupted his initial babbling was:
how long has he been hiding in my wardrobe?!
Was I asleep with him standing in there all night?
I had suddenly entered the twilight zone, a place I usually wished for as a devout follower of the old TV show, but we can become a bit zoned out when it happens.
He was a short, blond-haired young man with rough features who spoke English to me immediately after I blurted, “What the hell!” “What are you doing in my room?” I was getting angry, and I’m sure he sensed this.
He seemed surprised about something.
He may have mentioned his name.
He did say a couple of things I missed, but what I didn’t miss was that he told me clearly that a person committed suicide in this room last week. I think he meant hanged dead in the wardrobe, but I’m not sure.
He or “I” hanged himself here, he said. Today I’m still not sure if he said “I” actually. Maybe it was instead: “there was a hanging in this room last week.” It may have been pronoun free.
I was in a sort of short shock. This was my first hotel stay in Europe, and maybe this kind of stuff was expected here. Jeez.
Strangely my biggest regret is that I never touched him. I mean, if he was a ghost, I would have reached right through his ghostly form, right?
If he was actually the person who killed himself in my room and was back to haunt the scene, well, I guess I’ll never know now. It was just so weird!
This was precisely the experience where one wishes one had the sense to ask more questions and dig deeper. But with me standing there at 3 a.m. in my boxers, maybe a little wet from my pissing myself in shock, I just wanted this weirdness to end, for Mr ghost to go. He did leave, and I closed the door behind him and proceeded to search my little room for any other scary intruders. I looked under my bed, on the balcony, again in the wardrobe, behind the chair, and under the desk…Thinking back, the only X-factor was that I left my door ajar…Hmmm, still, something, someone, roaming the halls at 3 a.m. Slipping into a room to rob or kill? Weird also, on its head.
Oddly, a year before, I was driven to a stop in a French forest by a now proven French serial killer. I was spared at that time also. I’ll expand on that story later to come. Maybe I’m just not the to-be killed type?
Knock on wood.
The following day upon check-out I quickly realized it was useless to ask about my intruder that morning because the receptionist only spoke French or Flanders, not English, a trait of French-speaking countries I’ve repeatedly learned. So we left that strangeness in a strange land behind and entered France on our way to the ferry port of Calais, on the coast.
Listen to this…
After leaving the Belgian hotel where the ghost told me someone had just died in my room and then vanished, we watched a man actually die as we were first in line to drive into the Ferry boat to England. It was overcast and drizzling rain.
I watched as the balding elderly man, who, with his red flag, radio-controlled the load-on of cars into the belly of the giant sea ferry. He just fell slo-mo sideways onto the pavement, dead. I noticed he had penny loafers on for some reason, and he lost one shoe as he lay for his long sleep. His radio dropped as he fell and bounced next to him, someone still squawking at the dead man falling. It was a bit surrealistic watching this person die, the actual gatekeeper to my next adventure, crossing the mighty English Channel.
And I thought this couldn’t be good.
And our channel crossing was anything but good. I generally have no fear of death, which has always surprised me, but I thought I would die on that crossing. And I felt fear. There was a significant storm on the channel after we left the coast, and in my cabin, I watched the waves reach 1 p.m. on my round window hatch. That is a ship angle that will scare the bejeezus outta the most devout Nietzsche-ist. I escaped my cabin to the front of the ship, down the stairs at the nose, to where there were no more windows, just the ship’s cinema. I watched the current Hollywood film showing WW2 B-52 pilots and their heroic flights and fights against the Axis of Evil. I then experienced one of the most bizarre cinematic experiences of my lifetime. Never again repeated in any way, shape, or form since then.
There was this scene where the big old WW2 airplane was getting ready to take off. It was rolling down the runway with a view from the cockpit. Just as it lifted off the dirt runway, the ferry ship’s nose lifted high out of the water, giving me the 4th dimensional feeling of taking off with the airplane into the sky! I was pushed into my ship’s seat by the ship’s g-force lift. I couldn’t believe the feeling.
I ran out of the cinema!
Up on deck, dishes were flying and crashing. The piano was rolling here and there, and people were falling and screaming. I swear I thought we were going to sink into the ice cold water and I would die slo-mo, like the dead gatekeeper who showed me this was a death voyage, and he was the pied piper of my demise, with his red flag and his walkie-talkie radio saying something he or I would never hear.
I cornered a ship’s employee and asked if this was abnormal? He said this was a typical storm on the channel. I couldn’t believe anyone would do this job if he or she was subjected to this horror every storm.
Eventually, I went to Bert and Sabina’s cabin and sat down. To my surprise, Bert was not there because he was trying to score something strong to drink. Sabina and I avoided, then looked into one another’s eyes, and she mind-melded to me that this was my fault, our sinking, without a word said. I felt like I was sinking into her ice-cold abyss with just the thunderstruck look of her blame.
I almost said It wasn’t my fault. That sounded insane in my mind, so I just looked away.
Bert suddenly appeared, thank God, bottles in hand. Our voyage eventually ended, storm over, and we drove off the ferry,
alive and a little drunk, in a German car
on British soil.
to be continued