I first met Uschi in cyberspace. It was an unplanned, accidental meeting, inasmuch as my presence there was definitely not with any intention of meeting anyone. I entered cyberspace - or the Internet, as it is more commonly known - a few years back, first purely as a business tool when I was still involved in the printing business. Over a number of years my activities on the Internet extended into e-commerce, then promoting my published book, which – in turn - lead me to posting some of my writings on literary websites. Being involved with this latest activity had some unexpected consequences, as I began receiving comments from fellow writers and readers.
For a variety of reasons, not least of which is a serious lack of time, I was - and I still am - reluctant to get involved with exchanging emails, messages and pleasantries with anyone, other than with immediate family and well established close friends. However, being that I am an old fashioned fool, I could never ignore a comment left under any of my writing and consequently I always acknowledge and thank - however belatedly - a comment or a note.
How and why – over the years – it lead to acquiring a number of “cyber friends” is still a total mystery to me, but the fact remains that, owing to my activities on the Internet, I am now in correspondence with a few people that I never met in real life. The odd thing about these newly acquired cyber friends is, that – in some way – they can feel every bit as real as any of my other friends I met in the flesh, throughout my life.
Uschi was amongst the few who left comments under my writings posted on the Web and our initial exchanges of messages – she leaving comments and I sending a brief thank you note – were unremarkable. How and where it started to turn into a more personal exchange, I would now find very hard to pinpoint. Suffice to say – without going into detail – that she opened up, I responded and we became “cyber friends”. Slowly I began to know her family background, her work and her rather hectic way of life of coping with growing up children and holding down two distinctly different kind of jobs, all without the support of a partner. I also found out – to my not inconsiderable surprise – that she was German, living and working in Germany. Surprise, because from her writing I never suspected it. Her English is faultless, she is an accomplished writer and poet and even though the pen name she writes under has a distinctly “Continental” flavour, I somehow assumed – erroneously as it turned out – that she lived and worked in the US.
As the correspondence became gradually more personal, I received photographs of her and her daughters. Now the “cyber friend” started to become a “real” entity, with an identifiable shape, face and persona. She is an attractive, petite young woman, mother of three teenage daughters and separated from her husband. It would be wrong and totally unacceptable of me to publicise details of her personal life and betray her confidence; suffice to say she lives a complex, complicated life, common with many contemporary divorced or separated women, who are trying to balance full time working with bringing up a family on their own, whilst coping with a sense of loneliness and feeling lost.
Why she opened up to me and disclosed many details of her personal life, I do not really know, but I am grateful for her confidence in me, whilst, at the same time, I am also slightly bewildered and humbled by her trust.
As we continued our periodic correspondence, I never anticipated for a moment that we would eventually meet personally, so it was an unexpected and pleasant surprise when she indicated her intention of coming to London, visiting a friend and expressed her desire to meet me in the flesh.
In spite of my advanced years and the fact that I am officially retired from work, my life does not lack in complications and problems of an entirely different nature from hers. Both my wife and my daughter have medical problems and consequently my life at the moment is full of hospital appointments, visits to clinics and hospitals, involving regular, frequent and long car journeys and endless waiting in the hospitals’ waiting room. All this is compounded by ad hoc emergencies, making any forward planning virtually impossible, because of the unpredictable nature of the problems, arising out of the condition and treatment the two women are receiving.
Uschi’s projected arrival coincided with a double emergency episode at home, with a variety of hospital and clinic appointments pending and therefore, up to the very last minute, it seemed extremely dubious that the two of us would meet after all on this occasion. Fortunately, however, Uschi had a very relaxed, flexible and understanding attitude to my predicament and we agreed that she would come and visit us – not an inconsiderable journey from where she was staying – if at all possible, to fit into our hectic schedule of appointments.
Finally on the appointed day Uschi arrived, brought to our house by her friend, who kindly volunteered to drive her to our house, stay with us through her visit and drive her back afterwards.
Meeting someone for the first time can lead to awkward moments, or even long minutes of silence, feeling tense or anxious and sometimes the parties involved can hardly wait to part, in order to end their ill disguised discomfort. Corresponding with someone you’ve never met is one thing; meeting face to face is, however, quite a different matter. There is always that slight uncertainty about how the actual persona would fit the perceived picture of personality, reflecting back from brief letters and messages. Would she be as pleasant as I imagined from her emails, or would I be disappointed?
My other concern was my own tiredness and weariness from all the hospital visits and assorted problems, arising out of the state of health of my wife and daughter. My wife was not feeling well that day, yet she insisted that I should not cancel the meeting.
I must admit to having a slight sense of apprehension whilst expecting Uschi’s arrival, totally unnecessarily as it turned out. She proved to be natural, relaxed and charming and meeting her for the first time was more like reconnecting with an old friend. There was not a moment of apparent unease, whilst we had lunch together at a nearby cosy Chinese restaurant and a long chat, both at the restaurant and back at our home and time seemed to have passed far too fast.
When she left for her long trip back – she had to catch a flight back to Germany that afternoon – for me it almost felt like saying “ Auf Wiedersehen” to a member of the family, rather than someone I had only just met for the first time.
In these days of easy travel it is not unusual to meet and exchange pleasantries with comparative strangers from far away places. On our travels round many parts of the world, over the last forty plus years, we have met countless number of people of all races and nationalities and felt at ease in their company. However, unfortunately, we also have had – over the years – numerous rather unpleasant experiences in a number of places – mainly in the larger towns and cities of Germany and Austria - and also with some Germanic people in various parts of the world, whilst on our travels. One should never generalise from bad experiences; however, I must now confess that I do have some prejudices. I believe that there is not a living human without some prejudice, weather they admit to it or not, or are aware of it or not. One can acquire a variety of prejudices in a variety of ways.
I acquired considerable prejudices about Germans in general, early in my childhood and youth, under extreme duress, during the German occupation of Hungary in the Second World War. I know, one should consciously fight against all preconceived notions, but it seems easier to acquire prejudices than to shake them off, especially when causes of such prejudices are frequently and forcefully reinforced through various unexpected and unpleasant experiences… and I am not talking about war time experiences only. Whilst I admit to my prejudices, I am not at all happy about them. I would rather be without them and I am always on my guard not to allow them to influence my rational judgment, or actions. But, unfortunately, no matter how much you guard against such prejudices, on a subliminal level they can still raise their ugly head and interfere and influence the way you relate to certain people. Being on your guard can also make you involuntarily tense or inhibited.
It was before Uschi left and I handed her my book, when a slight shiver of apprehension ran down my spine. Here I was, a Jew, handing a book, written about racial prejudice and stories about Nazi atrocities, to an unsuspecting young German woman. How was she going to react? Would she read it or throw it in the dustbin at the earliest convenient moment? Was it the right thing at all to give her the book? Would she find the story disturbing and some of the references to Germans and Germany maybe even insulting?
She received it with a faint but encouraging smile, briefly leafed through it and said she would read it with interest. It wasn’t so much what she actually said, or the way she said it, but more like her entire demeanour of handling the book that reassured me and put me at ease again.
When she and her friend left, she turned round and we parted with a friendly kiss. I was left with a feeling of reassurance that a friendship was forged and reinforced by her visit. I felt relieved, I did not wish to lose her trust and the amity that developed between us.
It was a couple of days after her visit that I started pondering about our newly developed friendship and the strange and unexpected turns of events in life in general. Many instances and occurrences, all through my life, taught me to exercise caution in assessing or judging people, but at the same time, I also learned to question “coincidences” and look for some “meaning” in events, in order to learn a “lesson of life.” Was meeting with Uschi merely the result of a fortuitous coincidence of encounter in “cyber space”, or was there a deeper significance to it for either one, or possibly for both of us, to learn from?
In this modern day and age, when rational thinking is rated much higher than instinct, it would be unthinkable to state that meeting Uschi was anything other than the result of events arising out of a coincidental first encounter. In so-called rational thinking a preordained encounter with a “stranger” is deemed to be absurd. I consider myself to be a rational thinker, yet I was left with an unsatisfactory feeling, that meeting Uschi had a deeper significance than purely rational thinking would allow.
Instincts and “feelings” are hard to quantify, they do not fit into the framework of scientific empirical analysis. They are relative, introspective events, not available for inspection by an outside observer. Yet it would be an utter folly to deny their existence. We all have “feelings” and I was left with this vague, intangible feeling that meeting Uschi was “meant to be”, even though I could not quite put my finger on it why.
Undeniably, those of us who were on the receiving end of wartime atrocities, ended up with a number of emotional scars and prejudices that linger on, probably to the end of our lives.
To what degree do those scars and prejudices influence our daily lives, depends on individual adaptability and control over those “skeletons in the cupboard”, that can emerge at a touch of a wrong button capable of unlocking the doors. I learned not to hate or seek revenge, not to harp constantly on past events, but never quite mastered the art of forgetting, or unconditional forgiveness towards the perpetrators of those atrocities. Life would be definitely simpler and more agreeable if one could burry those skeletons deep and forget about them altogether. But so far this proved impossible.
So if meeting Uschi had a hidden significance, what was the significance? What indeed is the significance of any friendship, whatever way it is formed?
Uschi fits roughly into the generation of my own daughter; there is only about two-to-three years of difference in their ages. She had not even been thought of, let alone born at the time when I was collecting those wartime scars. I have never been particularly quick or ready to form friendship with anyone; I am not an outgoing personality and although I am not antisocial, I do not feel a great need to seek friendship with anybody. I treasure the existing friendship with a few people, but at my age, I am certainly not desperate for new companionship. However, Uschi’s friendship I regard as a gift to be treasured, almost like finding a missing piece from a jigsaw puzzle to complete a larger picture, and since our personal meeting, the correspondence between the two of us continued and our friendship had been confirmed in more ways than one.
I found Uschi, her openness, her charm, intellect and her extended hand in friendship simply irresistible and this has nothing to do with male-female attraction, or relationship, or some other romantic notion. It undoubtedly has to do with her personality and her straightforward character and beyond that it feels almost like a symbolic “rapprochement” between war time adversaries, although, in reality, her generation can in no way be held responsible for the “sins of the forefathers”.
I’ve received and accepted her friendship as an offering of a precious gift, presented with amazing charm and grace and I am grateful for it beyond words. I also believe what my instinct dictates – however unfashionable that may be - and feel that, in some ways, it was preordained: a sign of healing and hope.
© P. J. Oszmann (2006)
© Illustration created in Photoshop (2006)