Thursday, November 1, 2007

German Memory

From my spot on the meticulously well-maintained old wooden bench, I could see the entire square. It was medieval, with grey cobblestones on the ground and grey stone facades on all of the buildings. Grey pigeons were everywhere. In the middle of the square was a circular two-foot deep pool that held coins from all over the world. The tossers were trying to buy a blessing, (or maybe just a little luck), from the angel who watched over the pool.
Rather than paying a small admission price and entering the boxy, inelegant cathedral looming over one end of the square, I preferred to sit outside of the tourist attraction and watch the action at the interface of tourists and locals.
It was a warmer than normal late October day and the cafes and bars all had their full complement of tables along the fringes of the square. Because it was early in the afternoon, the café tables were emptying and the bar tables were not yet filling. In fact, there were more pigeons than people at many of the tables.
Amid the general hubbub, my attention was drawn to some combination of motion and sound off at the northwest corner of the square. There was what appeared to be an elderly Eastern European gentleman yelling Slavic insults at a giggling German boy of eleven or twelve. The word “apoplectic” should hardly ever be used, but in this case it is the exact right word. The old man was apoplectic.
The more he yelled and lurched toward the young boy, the harder the boy laughed and backed away, staying just out of reach of the old man’s grasp and flying spittle. Eventually the old man gave up and joined the line in front of the cathedral.
The boy went back to the corner and took up a position in a doorway just out of sight of those entering the square from a narrow, picturesque cobbled street lined with pensiones and inns. From his position, he could glance out at a plate glass window across the way and see tourists as they approached the square, but they could not see him.
This was clearly something he had done before, as his timing was impeccable. When he identified a person with just the right gait, he would rip a wad of bread from the cheap loaf clutched in his left hand. Using prodigious powers of triangulation, he would choose an exact spot on the cobblestones where the side street entered the square and then, when the time was exactly right, he would toss the wad of bread in a gentle arc.
If he had figured everything correctly, (which he did more often than not), the bread, the pigeon, and the tourist’s foot would all occupy the very same space for just a moment. After that moment, the tourist would be screaming, the bread would be flat, and the pigeon would be hurtling through the air, having been kicked by a European in mid-stride. The boy would be doubled up in fits of laughter on the sidewalk. And for an hour or so that particular day, so would I.

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