An island without sea
Not because I’m a hundred years old but for other reasons which won’t be of interest to the reader (fortunately not health reasons), I happen to have visited many spas in Germany, both well known and lesser known ones. Baden Baden, Bad Mergentheim, Bad Kissingen, Bad Bocklet, Bad Ems, Bad Brückenau, Bad Nauheim, Bad Kreuznach as well as many others with the prefix Bad, meaning bath, and I’m not sure which is the most beautiful. They are all so neat, lovely, clean, tidy, with elegant old or modern buildings, many flowers and fountains in the parks, a lot of benches where old people can rest, with swimming pools and springs where thermal water comes full of iron, sulphur and many more metallic elements. And besides all this, one can find a palace or a medieval castle, a friendly café where one can have a sweet or a restaurant for a schnitzel with fries and a beer. “Gemütlich”, as the Germans call it, it’s like the American word “cozy”: all that is warming body and soul, all that offers calmness, relaxation, familiarity, a pleasant environment in other words.
Bad Kissingen must be the flagship of the German spas. A Mykonos for the old, a Mallorca in Germany, an island without sea. With so many tourists coming and going, it gives me the impression of a Greek island, even though it’s a completely different landscape. This impression is underlined by a beach bar playing loud music, surrounded by chaises longues and sun umbrellas on the bank of the Saale, the river running through the city. It’s an artificial beach which resounds of an island. On top of that, the whole vacation atmosphere and the fact that all these people are here for holidays, remind me more and more of the islands in my country, Greece. Anyway, people tend to look for similarities and parallels with familiar things, that’s why for me holidays equal islands.
I haven’t yet been to the Greek spa town of Aidepsos but I can picture it like Bad Kissingen. A gold mine for hotel owners and other business people, with bad quality restaurants – of course there are exceptions where one can eat well- because it is a well-known fact that senior citizens aren’t very selective, they eat big quantities but the quality isn’t a priority. Everything seems good to them, as long as they can fill their stomach and have company during their meals.
One observes the elderly here in Bad Kissingen, and there remains no room for imagination in regards to one’s future. If you are so lucky as to live after seventy, it’s possible that one of your limbs will suffer one way or another. Rheumatism, arthritis, you will shrink and bend, and become hunchbacked, your feet will swell, your fingers will become deformed, you’ll start limping or your damned scoliosis will start showing, the one with which you were diagnosed as a child but you didn’t listen to the orthopedic doctor when he told you to do some exercises in order to beat it.
But even if you get through it all without a scar, Alzheimer’s or any other form of dementia is lurking, in order to make you look or feel lost in space, opinionated like a toddler, happy-silly.
You can make a fool of yourself in other ways, too: by peeing in your bed, by making advances to your nurse or to your women relatives when they come to visit. And if all of the above isn’t enough, there is cataract, hearing loss, a stroke, or a heart attack, Parkinson’s disease and so many more as you can’t imagine.
By looking at these white-haired heads your own life passes in front of your eyes like a film. You can watch your last years on earth. And if this is a bit sad, you may wonder as you look at the white-haired heads what their own lives have been like. Still, appearances can be deceiving. As a child, I used to observe my grandfather, a rather difficult old man, halved by a stroke that had paralysed one leg and one arm, an old man who couldn’t go anywhere without his walking stick. It was impossible for me to imagine how much he had seen, how many things he had done in his life. Adventures of all sorts.
And when one looked at my father, during his last days, with his look so empty, with his eyes so lost because of the dementia, one would be unable to believe that this man who held his newspaper upside down pretending to read it, had really read during his lifetime entire encyclopaedias and countless volumes of literature, history, mathematics, etc. One would be unable to believe that this man used to be the soul of the party, always shining not only thanks to his knowledge, but also thanks to his intelligence, his sense of humour, to a charm emanating from his personality and his looks.
He had to pay for some things he used to say in his good days, it seems. Maybe for this “cast a glance to old age, please”, which he repeated jokingly, imitating the words of an old beggar in the centre of Athens.
Some day I, too, will have a rigid, slow body, even if now my spirit is still quick.
Already at 39 I felt for the first time something changing in regards to my body. I had always been a “lapdog”, I had always enjoyed sitting on the couch reading a book, but at 39, I suddenly felt I was getting tired more easily than before. I belong to these lucky people who always look younger, but today, a decade after those first changes, I discern other clear signs of old age, not only grey hair. On my hands the veins form a relief and I prefer not to wear rings as not to underline the trunk-like circles on the skin of the finger knuckles. By the way, these were the first signs of old age I noticed on myself.
Better not to talk of the breasts, what a defeat, and as for my once-upon-a-time firm skin, it looks like a knitting pattern thanks to the many folds of the cellulite. The spots on the skin multiply geometrically and my hair is getting thinner every day.
Sometimes I wonder whether my need for so many confessions through writing is not so much related to the era of Internet and blogs, but has to do with letting go of my constant secrecy – this letting go is surely another symptom of old age marching towards me.
There are, however, old people who resist. Like this lady who was sitting beside me the other day in the eye doctor’s waiting room. She turned to me at a certain point and said angrily: “I have lots of time in my hands. What I don’t have is patience!”
On the other hand, science is progressing and will preserve us humans as ruins or live mummies as long as we have the money to pay. Still, the spectacle won’t be pleasant to the other people, and for ourselves to be in this state won’t be extremely pleasant either.
We’ll be merely inhabiting the planet, fighting with all our means to keep our old glory, some traces of our previous beauty or of the sound, clear mind we had when we were young.
Of my bodily or mental skills, one has unfortunately left me, one that made me type fast, like a mad person on my keyboard. Fortunately another one has also left me, this rare desire, to feel like being risky and driving my small car on a central avenue in Athens or on the seaside road like an F1 champion.
Bad Kissingen is visited by old people who come here for their “Kur”, the thermal cure.
Some of them are ill, emaciated, almost dead. Others are healthy, good-looking old people. There are old men on crutches, in wheelchairs, or should I say old women, since women are the majority here. Men are fragile beings and that’s the reason why there aren’t so many of them. This is an old people’s society, getting older everyday as there aren’t enough babies born in Europe. The old ladies look way too old, rusty, all similar to one another, in their trousers and sneakers, with their white hair, not dyed and just ready from the hairdresser’s as it is the habit in Greece. There are here of course some who look more elegant, with their necklaces, their colourful blouses and their simple wrist watches.
The picture scares me and pleases me at the same time. It scares me because I can’t help calculating: in fifteen years I’ll be like this old lady, in twenty years like that old lady, because as I already said I’ve seen the signs on my body and I can recognize them. The picture pleases me on the other hand because what I see in front of me are people who have completed their family or professional circle, and they are getting old with dignity, satisfied by what they have achieved. I can’t tell if some of them are troubled by questions such as these: “Did I do everything I could, did I offer other people all that I could offer, did I, according to the Christian parable, do all the best I could with the talents entrusted to me, was I a good parent?” They look content, however, they look pleased and satisfied.
Three times a day, in the morning, in the afternoon and early in the evening, like a medicine, they enjoy old-fashioned classical music concerts sitting on the white benches of the spa town. If it rains they can do the same inside the large hall where they drink the mineral water. The wonderful orchestra is adequately trained to meet the needs of its audience, metaphorically an all-weather orchestra, which isn’t bothered by noises and other interventions. This orchestra isn’t bothered by mobile phones ringing all the time and never answered by their owners who can’t hear them, isn’t bothered by old ladies who remember their youth and wish to dance with trembling feet during the livelier musical pieces. It isn’t bothered by walking sticks falling suddenly with a loud bang on the floor nor by the untimely applause of some foreigners in the audience who are married to German women. In their culture there is no such thing as classical music pieces divided in many parts. The orchestra isn’t bothered by the dry coughing of old men or by anything else. (But I shouldn’t be unfair: the majority of the audience are extremely disciplined people who treat the concerts with an almost religious respect). In the evening, if the senior citizens don’t go to bed very early, they can gamble at the casino. In the morning they go walking in the woods – most of them have an athletic figure, despite their age – or sightseeing.
Of course there is loneliness here, too. Many people wander alone, having a lot of time to observe passers-by since their sight doesn’t make reading easy for them.
There is loneliness which can’t be covered by the professional company of women from East European countries, who come here to work as nurses. They, too, look all alike.
They are stout, with short hair dyed in a reddish colour, they have a plain Slavic face which was never pretty, and a body which brings to mind those doped women athletes of the ex-Communist regimes. They all, without exception, wear small golden bangle earrings, a trademark of their origin, their only piece of jewelry, maybe the only valuable thing they ever got or will ever get in their lives.
These women make me think. They make me think of the families they left behind (I used to observe them in Greece before the crisis, where they had to take care of difficult old people or of spoilt children), these women who cried everytime they remembered their own children left behind in Georgia, in Ukraine, in Russia, in Bulgaria. These women who had gone through so much, who ate with an incredible appetite everything they were offered in the homes where they worked, as if they had never seen a plate of food before. I hope these women will go to Heaven. Who cares if they aren’t pretty or graceful? They are so patient, full of compassion and faith, they are hard-working and feel solidarity towards their fellow men. They are real angels and I wish my own soul could be compared to a tenth of theirs, so that I could go to Heaven, too.
A sort of Heaven, however, is Bad Kissingen for the elderly. Or at least an antechamber to Heaven, thanks to its beauty and its cleanliness. The Germans love their country and take good care of their tourists, local or foreigners, young or old. And because everything is so well organised, you get the impression that this good and calm result has been effortless. Yet, many people have worked silently, discreetly and with a smile, without panting and puffing, without sweating, or showing off how tired they are.
In 1856 the prolific composer Rossini was a guest of the city, and a plaque on the wall of a building commemorates his visit.
As you walk in the streets, you see some senior citizens who are eccentric and quite different from all the others. For example the couple who think they are in Florida or in Cannes. A couple not reconciled with their age. She is dressed in red, her hair is raven black and the skin on her face covered with many layers of make-up. His clothes are a young man’s clothes and his skin has an orange tone, burnt by the solarium. I feel like crying with pity for them. Another couple are eternal fans of Harley-Davidson, even at this age. Clad entirely in black leather, they have long uncombed hair (the remaining hair, that is) and various chains. I feel like laughing at this spectacle. A while later I spot another couple who push a pram. Their grandchild, I suppose. Then I see a dog inside the pram!
Old men and old women in wheelchairs, accompanied by their children or grandchildren, or by a nurse or helper across the park, others who autonomously ride their modern scooters or their rolling walkers with a shopping basket. There are those with traditional walking sticks and crutches and a happy few, with no support at all, who still walk on their two feet, upright, defying the riddle which the Sphinx put to Oedipus.
One is young as long as one’s spine is flexible, goes the wisdom of India, and it must be so indeed. I’d like to add that one is young as long as one’s spirit is young. If you are so lucky as to combine the two, then you’ll never be old.
-Written in August 2013, originally in Greek, and translated by the author herself. Published in english here: