Aitutaki. Aitutaki Lagoon. Aitutaki Lagoon Resort. Aitutaki Lagoon Resort Grotto. Aitutaki Lagoon Resort Island, part of the Cook Islands in the South Pacific.
The grotto is not actually a grotto, as one might imagine a hermit’s cave or some rocks balanced on each other to form a shelter. It is really a hut, part of the resort, a carefully designed lean-to hut about 12 meters square, leaning against a very large black rock. The rock is about 30 meters high and the base about 20 meters square. It is pure black. Vegetation grows from its crevices.
The rock was pushed upward by volcanic forces millions of years ago. It is situated between the water of the lagoon and the sand beach. It is become the highest point of the area that surrounds it. The hut was built on the beach side of the rock, in the style of the resort: wooden posts and beams, palm leaves and thatched roof, the leaves overhanging the roofline. Looking out from the hut, the view is not unobstructed, but rather hanging leaves frame the view in the distance. The view is of the lagoon, the breakwater, and the Southern Pacific Ocean beyond.
One wall of the hut is really the face of the black rock, so it’s not a grotto; it’s just a hut. The rock is a marker. It marks the transition between land and sea, the ground and water. It forms an ancient gate and guide for entering either world.
The hut is sparsely furnished. When Hans arrived he comfortably pushed himself deep into one of the chairs and now sits facing the lagoon. The shallow water of the lagoon changes from time to time from blue to green and multiple shades in between. Where he sits he can touch the face of the rock with one hand, and with the other hand he is holding a drink from the bar: the cocktail du jour. He is waiting for his friend to come and join him in the hut. The friend is actually an elderly man, and it is difficult for Hans to refer to him as “friend”; he hardly knows him. Hans met him three days ago in the resort; they had introduced themselves and exchanged stories and memories of their lives. So what Hans actually considers him to be is a conversational partner.
Hans is 70. Sitting in his grotto, looking at the serenely quiet water, Hans’s mind began to be restored to the peace he used to enjoy.
Hans was born in a small town, Minden, in Saxonia, Germany. An old town, once a member of the Hanseatic League, Minden is located on both sides of the River Weser. Hans spent all his early years in Minden. Before 2001, the first year of the 21st century, Hans had only once been outside of Minden. He had spent four months in London studying at London School of Economics, on a special course. Through Kings College, he managed to find a small apartment on the second floor of a three-story building in a rather dilapidated part of London. In exchange, Hans did some work for an educational institution. The institution was owned and run by his landlady, who provided annual conferences for high school teachers in various disciplines. His job was to keep the files, help arrange schedules, and issue public relations announcements—all in total about 15 hours a week.
His landlady lived on the top floor of the building. Hans had the second-floor apartment, and the ground floor was used as an office. At the back was a small kitchen.
His landlady was rather eccentric. For one thing, there were no regular hours for his work, no visible structure of any organisational form. It all seemed to be running on a totally ad-hoc basis. Another graduate student came in from time to time to help out; he was a mathematician from Italy. Hans tried his very best to fit into this arrangement. With his rather rigid approach to running things, the situation was totally contrary to his instincts. But this confusion was temporary for him, and once Hans reminded himself of that, he began to enjoy it. Somehow in this disorganised environment, Hans found in himself a surprising talent for mimicking various accents. He could mimic other people’s speech very well. For instance, he could speak English with a convincing Italian accent.
On Hans’s last day in London, a sunny Saturday in September, he was free, not having to work, and he was looking forward to an orderly life back in Minden where everything was arranged for him. He decided to take a long walk and stopped at Hyde Park. It was a glorious autumn day; the sky was clear and high.
While he was sitting on a bench, he found himself developing an idea. He had always been interested in three-dimensional coordination systems, in which one could identify a point in space by using three parameters: length, width, and depth, or in other words, x, y, and z. The parameters represent a quantitative distance from the reference point.
Could that make him think about who he was? “Who am I?” he thought. If he himself was the reference point, where was his life in space? What was his life? To locate it, he had to understand the distance between himself and the coordinates which he found himself calling axes. One axis, he concluded, as he looked around Hyde Park, was his Germanness, that is, his national culture. The second axis was the social structure he lived in, in Minden. He knew his life was there; he would follow in his father’s footsteps. The third was his identification with his work. He understood he had been groomed to follow a structured life in the mittelstand, the family business. One day he would marry the daughter of another mittelstand.
The three-dimensional model seemed to be satisfyingly relevant to Hans, as it applied to his life. He was quite pleased with the prospective happiness that future before him would deliver. He felt that this location of his life in space was created and structured a long time ago, generations before he was born, and all he had to do to achieve happiness was continue exactly in this place.
In 1815, to be precise at 20 minutes past midnight on June the 20th, in the woods near Bielefeld , Prussia, a small town near the Kingdom of Holland, a young man, leading a horse, was walking quietly in the woods heading north. The man’s name was Otto Bartel, aged 24, and he was a blacksmith, son of a butcher, of Minden. Four days earlier, Otto belonged to the kumark landweher cavalier under fieldmarshal Blucher, the Prince. He was part of the second combined dragoons under the oberstleutnant Wahlen-Jὒrgass. He had been stationed in Ligny, east of Waterloo, facing Napoleon’s Arm du Nord. On the 16th of June, 1815, the Second Combined Dragoons were ordered to defend Sombreffe. In the afternoon, Napoleon’s Armée du Nord attached. First artillery, then cavalry charged. In a hollow between the cornfield and the woods, Otto’s horse was hit by musket balls. He fell under the horse and lost consciousness. The dead bodies of infantrymen of the Prussian Army were piled around him. When he woke up, once he had extricated himself from under his horse, he found he was not hurt. A white line appeared at the horizon and day broke. The battlefield was quiet. He had one thought and one thought only: he wanted to go home, to the north, to Minden.
Otto washed himself in a nearby stream, because the blood was everywhere. Then he found a horse standing under an oak tree. Its owner was nowhere to be found. It looked like an officer’s horse of the French Cavalry, who was most likely dead. Otto took the horse, a well-trained horse with fine trappings, and it was quite happy to be under Otto’s command.
Otto had had enough. He had been four years in the cavalry, and it was time to go home. In a ruined farmhouse, he found civilian clothes, food and water. In a half-destroyed barn he stripped the horse of his saddle and took the French insignia off the bridle. Attached to the saddle was a small pouch that held 25 gold coins, and Otto tied the pouch around his own neck under the civilian clothes, took the food, filled a canteen with water, and rode the horse out. He travelled by night. Two days later, he crossed the border into Prussia.
He reached Minden in early August. His journey had been slow because he had had to keep himself and his horse hidden. Otto used all his reserves of his training leading his horse and walking silently and cautiously along footpaths at night. He was welcomed by his father and his mother.
In 1820, Otto with his father and the Napoleon gold coins, purchased land and established a workshop to make knives and other implements for meat preparation in butchers’ shops.
Four generations later, in 1946, Hans Bartel III was born into the Bartel family enterprise, now known as Bartel Engineering, Food Processing, and Equipment, GMbH. It was a mittelstand, a family-owned business.
Hans, sitting in his grotto on the South Pacific island, clearly remembered another, more recent date: Saturday 15 September 2001. He was standing in front of a brand-new Mercedes in a car showroom in Bremen. He had driven 80 km in his 10-year-old Mercedes from Minden to Bremen. He saw his reflection in the highly polished black sedan. He was 54 years old. For the last 23 years he had been the owner and manager of the family firm, after the death of his father. The company was doing well. Both his daughter and his son were deeply involved in its management and operations.
In 1997 tragedy had hit the family; his wife Birgitte died of cancer, passing away in a very short time. After that, especially after work was over at the end of the day and he returned to the big house that was built by his grandfather, while walking from room to room, a strange, unbalanced feeling came over him and an unfocused uneasiness enveloped him.
Now, in the car showroom, as he caught sight of his reflection in the mirror that was the shiny surface of the car he saw the sides of his hair were turning grey and a lost look was haunting his face. Startled, he looked away and concentrated on his task at hand: to buy that new car.
Being German required him to buy a German-made car. As a member of Minden society, he should have a moderately-priced car, not too flashy and not too shabby. As the owner/manager of a mittelstand, the car needed to be a four-door sedan so he could carry his clients around. The car should be silver or black. All those requirements, conventions, and obligations determined what kind of car he should have.
Suddenly Hans remembered sitting on the bench in Hyde Park in London, in 1969, and his insight about the point in space he would occupy in his life. For 23 years he had been in fixed coordinates. His decision about a car lay in the quantitative position of his own self in relation to each key definer of his identity. “So what do I really want in a car?” he wondered. He found himself answering, “I really want a red convertible, made in Italy, for driving in the Alps with the top down.”
That was when Hans’s point of existence began to be uncertain in his own mind; he wasn’t sure where he was anymore in relation to his life’s structured coordinates. Hans suddenly walked out of the car showroom without purchasing a car. He went to a nearby bar and ordered a calvados. Hans felt frightened.
He knew himself to be neither a rebellious nor a flamboyant person.
Hans began to reflect on his life and images from the past came to him like picture cards falling away one by one. He saw himself in an image of a well-behaved child in a sailor suit, and next saw himself as a student, not brilliant but above average. He saw himself in a white lab coat standing in front of the factory, looking confident and competent, and then in a dark suit as manager of the company after his father had passed away. He saw himself later, surrounded by all of his employees in front of an expanded company head office.
Hans thought, “I was very much in love with my dear, departed wife, and I was a good, affectionate father to my children. I did everything that was required of me. I maintained the correct distances in my life from the coordinates of my life’s context: my Germanness, my social class and family, and my work.
“Am I tired of doing that? Am I bored?” Hans started to ask himself, “Am I happy with who I am? Is this my true identity?” He wasn’t sure where he was anymore in relation to his life’s structured coordinates. He saw the carefully structured distances between his life axes begin to wobble.
Two months after the car showroom incident, Hans relinquished his position as owner/manager of the company to his children, daughter and son. They both had MBAs and were competent and well-qualified to run the company, now expanded to include 125 employees and all the latest technology. Hans moved out of the old house and into a small apartment near the Cathedral in the old town.
Hans travelled—actually, he was not travelling, since travel usually has some purpose. He just began wandering, first in Germany and then around Europe and then Asia and beyond. His old school friend Dieter Brinkmeier, the owner and publisher of the local newspaper Minden Volkszeitung, offered him a travel column. He said Hans could write about people, events, surroundings he encountered in his wanderings.
Sixteen years later, Hans is sitting in his comfortable chair looking out of the grotto toward the lagoon’s calm greenish water and beyond, the dark line of the breaker with a white, foaming mist of the waves against it. Beyond the breaker, the sky meets the ocean. Hans feels that his past, like a stack of fractured images on slides, is receding one by one into this far ocean meeting the sky.
Hans anticipates the conversation between him and his conversation partner will be about the broken images of their pasts. In a previous conversation, Hans had recounted the car showroom episode. He had asked his elderly companion, “What was my reason for that—my sudden consciousness of who I was?” The answer came, “You don’t need a reason.” He went on, “Life-happiness and well-being quite often are moulded and governed by external events. In rare occasions, the inner self awakes—no reason required.”
Listening, Hans had felt much more at ease with himself. He had turned to look at the South Pacific lagoon and found it had seemed to take on a much deeper hue.
The elderly man arrives. It’s difficult to tell his age—somewhere between 70 and 90. He wears a white shirt made of pure cotton, possibly from Huaxaca, Mexico, light pants, and canvas shoes. In a calm and polite manner, he tells Hans a story.
Hans listens carefully and takes notes. That night, back in his bungalow, Hans transcribes the story for his friend Dieter for his newspaper. He wrote the story as his friend had told it.
When I was five, in the 1930’s, my family—that was my Mother, my Nanny, myself, the cook and two house servants—lived in a garden villa in the French Concession in Shanghai. My father was away in Beijing, negotiating loans from European countries for building railroads. The villa was situated between a busy street and a narrow hutong (a kind of laneway between buildings paved for pedestrian traffic and an occasional car or two). It was smoothly paved with a concrete surface, lined with small trees, and flower beds. It was always very quiet in the hutong. The flower beds were arranged along the garden walls. The flower beds were in the shape of a rectangle, long and narrow strips along the walls, edged with concrete kerbs. On top of the kerbs, a short fence made of wrought iron was installed. The fence was two-centimetre-wide iron, and the fence and kerb together were about 20 centimetres high. The top rail was a box about 2 centimetres wide and deep.
I was allowed to pedal my pedal car in the hutong in the afternoon. My Nanny would open the gate that separated our garden from the hutong. She would lift my pedal car over the sill and onto the pavement. Sometimes she would stay in the doorway watching me; other times she would do some tasks in the house. I was allowed to spend hours on my own.
I loved my pedal car and took very good care of it. It was a gift from my Ganma, my godmother. She was an intimate friend of my mother’s; they referred to each other as sisters. Mother would take me to stay with her, and my Ganma would spoil me with gifts and attention. She had had a rather tragic marriage. It was an arranged marriage to the second son of a very wealthy family, descendants of a well-known comprador. Her husband was a decent fellow, but rather useless, so the family bought a car dealership for him for importing luxury American cars. The dealership was doing well at that time, probably due to the family’s connections. But the replacement parts for the cars had to be shipped from Detroit to San Francisco and would take months to get to Shanghai. To offset this, the dealership had its own machine shop staffed with mechanics and craftsmen. My Ganma asked the shops to build a pedal car for me, modelled on the then-fashionable car Pierce Arrow. Here I was, sitting in my white miniature Pierce Arrow, pedalling up and down the laneway in the French Concession in Shanghai.
In mid-September, Shanghai is still quite warm, though not as fiercely hot as in the summer. Pedalling up and down the laneway became rather boring, so I decided to walk around. The wrought iron fence was extremely tempting, so I decided to walk on it. Balancing on the 2-centimeter iron rail was quite difficult. It turned out I could only manage one or two steps, and then I fell off. After several attempts, I decided to go back to my pedal car, park it under a small tree on the other side of a flower bed, and sit in it.
Just then a young man appeared at the other end of the hutong. He was in his late 20s, fashionably dressed, wearing a silk man’s robe, western-style trousers, and well-polished black leather English shoes. He wore a very smart Panama hat with a colourful band and carried a folded fan with a rosewood guard. He walked towards me.
Without looking at me, he hopped on the wrought iron fence, the one I tried and tried to navigate. He walked the whole length of the fence, and then casually hopped off, and disappeared through the other end of the hutong.
I was very impressed. My mouth was wide open. This image was imprinted in my memory. Throughout my life, this image would surface over and over again. I treasured it, polished it, and as picture in a child’s colouring book, from time to time I added colour to it.
It was the elegance that impressed me: the urbanity of the young man, the ease with which he executed the action of hopping up on the fence with such confidence and self-assurance and without any acknowledgement of his accomplishment.
In my youth, I always wanted to be like that. It was not a recollection. It was not only a memory. It was the being—Hegel’s “being.” It was the first step in the process of my acquiring knowledge of the world.
Among my limited number of possessions related to my past is a small yellowing photograph of a 5-year-old boy in a sailor suit, sitting in a pedal car. Every time I see that photograph, my memory comes back of that young man walking on the fence.
In the succeeding years I experienced war, dislocation, displacement. Wandering in different countries, I often asked myself who I was. The answer was I wanted to be the man elegantly and effortlessly walking on the fence.
Four days later, Hans says goodbye to his conversation partner and leaves Aitutaki. He flies to Sydney from the Cook Islands, and then to Amsterdam. While in the Amsterdam railway station, waiting for the Berlin express that stops in Minden, Hans reads again the old man’s story he wrote down for Dieter and his newspaper.
While he is reading, he receives an email from the old man, with greetings. Attached to it is a faded picture of a young boy in a sailor suit within a pedal car. Hans muses about the vast difference between the childhood story of a life of privilege and his friend’s subsequent life, full of war, disruption and uncertainty. He compares that life to his very structured life, structured at least until he began wandering the world. He sees the bright speck of the individual, within the sectors created by the intersecting axes, as being moved by external events and internal decisions. At times the individual is closer and at times further away from an axis such as national cultural identity. He sees too that in spite of the changed distances, the axes themselves do not change. His own identity is still defined by his original axes.
Now, on the train, Hans feels elated by his thoughts. The flat Dutch landscape flashes by his window, and he recalls Aitutaki’s lagoon, the resort, the grotto.
Hans feels at peace, that after 16 years he has found an answer to his identity question. His identity hasn’t changed; it has just shifted within the sectors that define it. He is going home to Minden and will see his children and grandchildren again. He will visit the mittelstand he had a role in perpetuating and will eat his favourite German dishes. He may travel again, but he suspects he may not.
Mittelstand image: Representation of the supporting role of the Mittelstand, Walter Wilhelms