The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘encounters’


October 17, 2014 | by


A German cab in 1971. Photo: Eugen Nosko

You expect to feel humbled when you travel. Strange public transit, alien customs—add a language you don’t speak and it’s an immediately chastening experience. When the residents are so inured to your national arrogance and laziness that they don’t even visibly resent conducting transactions in English, it is more galling still. It’s sort of like being a baby—helpless, barely verbal, sleep deprived—except you can’t throw a tantrum. On the contrary, you are often expected to conduct business.

All this I expected. I was even impressed and charmed, on my first visit to Berlin, to find people eager to discuss Spinoza in restaurants and quote Schiller on the plane. Here is what (or who) I did not expect: my cab driver to the airport. It’s not that I was shocked by his exquisite English, his verbatim recitations of Kleist, or his strangely in-depth knowledge of the Frankfurt Book Fair (“I wondered about the Finnish literature they featured … Well, I try to keep up with such things.”) Here is what was deeply intimidating: he had actually read Patrick Modiano. And not just La Place de l’Étoile! “But not all thirty,” he said.

On the plane, I was seated between the aforementioned Schiller scholar and a teenage girl. I watched Maleficent and devoted considerable thought to the derivation of the term fruits of the forest, as used to describe that one mix of luridly red berries occasionally found atop old-looking tarts and cheesecakes. The teenager appeared to be writing diligently in a journal; I felt abashed anew. Then I glanced down at the page and, from her rounded, teenage-girl handwriting, I could see that it was a list of German words: a food diary. Before I looked away, I clearly saw a sentence beginning “Mein chicken nuggets.”

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Crossroads of the World

October 1, 2014 | by


Times Square from above. Photo: Anthony Quintano, via Wikimedia Commons

In Times Square, surrounded by embattled Elmos and superheroes, several of us stopped at the crosswalk to wait for the light to change. The blue font on the overhead news ticker looked so cartoonish, so sort of jolly, that it took a moment for the words’ discordant meaning to sink in.


I stood and stared in horror; next to me was a very old man bent nearly double by kyphosis.

“Was it you?” came a voice. I looked down; there was a guy in a tweed flat cap. “Was it you?” he said again, to the old man. The old man looked up at him in uncomprehending irritation.

“Did you do it?” the guy in the cap persisted, indicating the circling words above us.

The light changed then and, without acknowledging him, the older man began his laborious navigation of the crosswalk. Over his head, Tweed Cap gave me a broad wink. I looked away as quickly as possible.

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Meeting the Goose

June 14, 2010 | by

I’d always thought it a shame that Rainer Maria Rilke and Franz Kappus never met. Now, I’m sure that it was a small mercy.

“To want to meet an author because you like his books is as ridiculous as wanting to meet the goose because you like pate de foie gras.”—Arthur Koestler

I discovered My Literary Hero when I was fifteen years old, handed his first book by an English teacher who thought I’d like him. Like MLH? I loved MLH: immediately, completely, and obsessively. It wasn’t a romantic crush; it was a writer crush, and it endured. Over the next thirteen years, I read and reread everything he had written, toting all of his books—essays, novels, short stories, what couldn’t the man do?—from my childhood home to my college dorm to my first apartment to my second, third, and fourth apartments. I read him on road trips, on airplanes, in foreign countries. I scrawled his best lines (poetry!) in my journals. I insisted that friends, family, acquaintances, and random passersby read MLH’s work. I insisted they recognize its excellence. I was a one-girl, and then a one-woman, fan club. MLH was my idol.

I eventually started to write a book myself. One day, as I was struggling with a passage, I thought, “I bet MLH would know what to do. If only I could ask him.” And then I thought “But could I ask him?” Sure enough, his e-mail address was there for the taking—one just needed to be willing to pick through the Internet obsessively for three hours and voila! Access!

I wrote (and revised and rewrote) an e-mail to MLH. Shockingly, MLH wrote back the next day. He’d be glad to help. Our correspondence commenced. It was my condensed, digital version of Letters to a Young Poet. Only he wasn't advising me on how to write lyrical German poetry; he was advising me on how to appropriately market a non-fiction book about a dog. It seemed similar enough.

If MLH and I got along famously over e-mail, I figured, we could potentially be best friends in real life. So when I took a cross-country trip several months after my first e-meeting with MLH, I wrote to tell him I'd be passing through his outpost and asked if I could buy him a drink. By “passing through” I meant “driving thirteen straight hours out of my way.”

Instead, MLH invited me over for dinner. He was significantly older than I and decidedly non-sleazy, but he lived in the bar-free boonies. That’s how I ended up at his kitchen table.

That’s also how I made MLH wish we’d never met.

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