Monday, January 6, 2014

It’s a Euro-peeen Co-ink-y-dink

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2014
Images from the Internet
A while back, in 2008, I wrote a blog about bizarre coincidences in my life that would never be believed if they were fiction, linked HERE. Well, here is another couple that I could have added:
During the summer of 1997, my partner, M_____, had the opportunity to teach for a semester through Europe, bringing a bunch of middle and upper class Midwestern students to Amsterdam/Utrecht, Berlin/Petzow, Krakow/Warsaw, and London/Bloomsbury. As these classes needed to be set up, she went for a month during the summer, and the school associated with the program let me go along, if I would pay for most of the transportation, my own food, and the difference between single and double accommodations. Seeing that much of Europe for a month for about $2000? Count me in, even if it took me two years to pay it off (not counting for the 80+ rolls of 35mm film used that needed developing).
The plan was simple: during the day, M_____ would be working an organizing her classes, and I would scout around, learning the way around, checking out some highlights that she could use for the students, and generally play tourist. There were major tours we would take together, such as the astounding Wieliczka salt mines and Auschwitz (I and II) near Krakow, the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam, and Queen Victoria’s Royal Pavilion in Brighton, but mostly I was on my own most days. We would meet up at dinner, and spend the evenings together.
During this month, there were two separate incidents which fall into this category of whodahthunk coincidence.
Having grown up near New Utrecht Avenue (pronounced “yoo-tr’k”), walking the streets of the town it was named after in the Netherlands, Utrecht (pronounced “Oo-treCHt”) gave me some kind of vicarious thrill. Traveling along one of the many canals that run through the absolutely lovely city about 20 miles outside Amsterdam, I was heading back to our hotel in the city’s center where we were going to leave for Amsterdam by train the next day. There was something about the Da Capo used and new record store at Oudegracht 10 3511 AM that caught my eye (whatever that was), and I went inside.
The store was empty other than someone behind the counter, who was busy working away.  Over the store’s PA, a Herman’s Hermit’s (yes, Mike, with Peter Noone) album was playing. I’m a fan, so it was nice. Looking around, I noticed a “garage” section, which pulled me to it, of course. There were some Get Hip label vinyl LPs by the Cynics, the Brood, and yes, both albums by the Mystic Eyes, led by one of my besties, Bernie Kugel. This definitely brought a smile to my face, because it’s rare to find any Get Hip records in the States, and to find it in Utrecht was just delightful.
Just around that time, the Herman’s Hermits LP closed out, so I held up the record, and said to the guy at the counter, not knowing if he even spoke English, “Why don’t you play this next?” The guy’s face lit up, and in a Dutch accent, he said, with a surprised lilt, “Oh! Yah! Bernie Koogl. Great record, man!” I’m not sure why I didn’t just say hello and introduce myself; perhaps shyness in a different country, or if my memory serves me well, he really did look quite busy, so I waved and said  goodbye, and walked the rest of the way back.
When I got back to USA, I called Bernie and told him the story. He knew of the place, which apparently is well known among the American garage affectionati and bands, and the guy (Michael) has even hosted the Cynics and the A-Bones. It’s a small world, indeed, and Walt Disney would probably be smiling if he weren’t in anti-Semite hell.
The second story is even more out there. On the flight over to Holland, M_____ and I were talking about our plans. She commented that when we got to Berlin, she was hoping look up a New Brunswick born lesbian poet who was now living in the city, but only knew her name (which I quickly forgot). Wow, looking up a person in a foreign city the size of Berlin with only a name. So much for that.
Through the days, I went to the bombed out Keiser Wilhelm Memorial Church downtown, to the old part of East Berlin and the Neue Synagogue, had a beer under the television tower, and went to Museumsinsel (Museum Island). I also took a couple of the Berlin Walks that are given throughout the city, usually starting at the main train station, in the central district. Most of them are run by students originally from other countries to pay for their education (e.g., someone from France studying in Berlin would take a group from France or Quebec). While my week in the city, I took two of them, one focusing on the Reichstag, Berlin Wall and Brandenburg Gate area, where we saw the abandoned Checkpoint Charlie. We also saw the largest part of the wall that remained, locked from the public behind a fence owned by a multi-national corporation (the irony was not lost on me).    
The second tour was of “Jewish Berlin,” looking at some of what used to be the Jewish neighborhoods of Berlin before, well, you know. There were cemeteries, statues to those deported, and even one to a group of non-Jewish women who managed to protect their husbands during the midst of the war. I was also impressed by the sign for Rosenstra├če, being that Rosen is my mother’s family name (it was quite common, and that branch of the family actually came from Prussia).
The person who led the tour seemed quite knowledgeable, and then mentioned Fredericton. Later in the tour she also brought up a particular Canadian poet. Jeez, I thought, could this be the person Marie was looking for, and what were the odds it actually was her? After the tour, I approached her and said, “Hi, my name is Robert, and I think my partner is looking for you.” She looked at me quizzedly, and honestly, suspiciously. And rightfully so; after all, who was this strange man from a tour asking her personal questions? I told her about M_____ and how she was trying to find her, and asked her for her phone number to pass along. She was obviously hesitant, but she did it.
When I met up with M_____ around suppertime, I told her the story of the tour guide and gave her the phone number. She immediately and excitedly jumped into the first phone booth we passed (remember phone booths?) and called the number. Yes, astonishingly so, it was Carolyn Gannon, who had written a book of poetry called Lesbians Ignited that was causing great stirs in the lesbian literary circles.
Carolyn Gammon
M_____ met with her, and hired Carolyn as a guest lecturer for her forthcoming class. While Marie did this just the one year, Carolyn has been working with the same program since. Apparently, we led her to an ongoing paycheck. This makes me very happy.
The following year, Carolyn and her partner, writer / scholar / activist Katharina Oguntoye, came to Brooklyn to stay with us for a couple of weeks, and just this past December, Carolyn stayed in our house in Saskatoon as a Visiting Writer for the University of Saskatchewan. Her recent books include two Holocaust survivor narratives (Johanna Krause Twice Persecuted: Surviving in Nazi Germany and Communist East Germany and The Unwritten Diary of Israel Unger).  In fact, she read me a few of her poems from her upcoming book that she is working on, and I’ve shown her around town (including a night at the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra, and the quaint City Perks Coffee Shop. After Berlin, it was my turn to be the tour guide. All this from a coincidental meeting that was certainly meant to occur.