My mother and I always used to walk for an hour before lunch; now we just walk, so at least we get some fresh air. My mother says it’s almost as healthy as eating.
Every day we go down the rue Neuve to the Grand-Place, because my father liked it so much. And it is very beautiful there. In the sun the great mansions seem to be made of silver and gold, and there are lots of flower stalls with the most colourful flowers in the world. My mother wants to look at all the flowers. She says it’s much nicer to look at so many flowers than to buy a few of them. But when we have money, we buy a few anyway, since the flower-sellers always shout at us and beckon us so frantically.
My mother walks sadly beside me. She’s frightened that I’m hungry, and she’s frightened that something has happened to my father. We can’t write to him, we can’t send a telegram or telephone him — we don’t even have an address for him. I say to my mother, ‘I don’t think anything’s happened to him’, and my mother breathes a little more easily.
But she doesn’t know what will become of us. As we walk slowly along, she doesn’t teach me about Barbarossa but about all our perils. We have so many perils and they are hard to understand.
First of all I have to learn what a visa is. We have a German passport, given to us by the police in Frankfurt. A passport is a little book with stamps in it and the proof of one’s existence. If one loses the passport, one is dead as far as the world is concerned. One can’t get into any country any longer. One has to leave one country and can’t get into the other. But God in his wisdom has ordained that people should only be able to live on land. Now I pray secretly every evening that God in his wisdom will ordain that people can swim for years in the sea or suddenly fly into the air.
My mother read to me from the Bible, and it clearly says there that God created the world, but borders he did not create.
One can’t cross a border if one has no passport or visa. I always wanted to see a border properly, but I don’t think it’s possible. My mother can’t explain it to me either. She says, ‘A border is what separates two countries.’ At first I thought borders were garden fences, as high as the sky. But that was stupid of me, because then no trains would be able to cross. A border is not earth either, otherwise one could simply position oneself in the middle of the border or walk around on it, if one has to leave one country and is not allowed into the other. In that case one would stay exactly astride the border and build a hut for oneself and stick out one’s tongue at the countries to left and right. But a border consists of nothing at all that one can walk on. It’s something that happens in the middle of the train with the help of men who are officials.
If you have a visa, the officials let you stay on the train and travel on. Because our passport was issued in Frankfurt, we can really only get a visa in Frankfurt. But Frankfurt is in Germany and we can’t go back to Germany, because if we do the government will lock us up, as my father has written in the French and other newspapers that he can’t stand the government, and he’s written a book about it too. A visa is a stamp that is stamped into one’s passport. You have to ask every country you want to go to for a stamp in advance. For that you have to go to a consulate. A consulate is an office, in which you have to wait for a long time and be very quiet and nice. A consulate is the piece of a border in the middle of a foreign country and the consul is the king of the border.
A visa is also something that runs out. At first we are always terribly happy that we have been given a visa and can go to another country. But then the visa immediately starts running out, it runs out more every day — and suddenly it’s run out completely and we have to leave the country again.
I have to learn all that. My mother cries about it a lot and says everything was easier in the past. Well, I wasn’t alive in the past, when everything was so easy. I find everything quite easy and don’t need to cry. When I’m grown up, I’ll have a husband and a child too and perhaps everything will be easy again then.
I’m not afraid of policemen in uniform either or officials on the train.
When we were travelling from Poland, a customs man first wanted to confiscate my doll’s kitchen and not let in my two tortoises, and afterwards he wiped my nose with his own handkerchief.
And here in Brussels a traffic policeman was going to arrest me in the Place Rogier, because I crossed in front of the cars at the wrong moment, and looked at the policeman, as he had such a wonderful place on a white throne in the middle of the action and directed everything. Green and red lights come on in turn, I love to see that.
One is only allowed to cross the street when the green light is on, but I often forget, as I like the red light better.
When I looked at the policeman the traffic got stuck and could no longer be directed, since it so happened that these cars didn’t want to run me over, only one of them almost did, but its driver was able to restrain it in time.
Cars are much more dangerous than lions, and must be kept under very strict control, as they constantly long to roar towards people. I’m not at all frightened of lions. I have seen some at the zoo and in the circus. I think, though, that I would be a little frightened if a hungry lion came roaring up to me. But perhaps I would stand my ground and speak to it and stroke it. You can’t do that with a car, when it comes roaring up, and that’s why I always walk away from roaring cars. Because cars like that just want to kill you and aren’t hungry and don’t even want to eat you.
As I stood in the middle of the traffic and was hemmed in by trams and hostile cars, the beautiful policeman got down from his throne and roared towards me like a lion anxious to eat me.
I couldn’t run away.
The policeman took my arm, and his mouth was fierce and open. I really thought he was a lion, snorting cars surrounded me, headlights gleamed like eyes, the houses were so big, and the sky was so far away that misty clouds fell on me. And since the policeman was a lion, I treated him like a lion. I stroked his hand, and said to him in French that he mustn’t hurt me and not keep me prisoner and eat me up, if he wasn’t hungry, because, ‘mon père n’est pas chez nous et ma mère ne peut pas rester sans moi. Excusez-moi, monsieur — je vous ai regardé — vous êtes si beau.’
Then the lion stopped growling and turned back into a beautiful traffic police-man, who no longer wanted to arrest me, but became a prince who carried me across to the other side of the street to the woman who sits on rails.
The woman is fat and sells nuts from two big blond baskets. And no more trams travel over these rails, though one used to.
The prince set me down in front of the fat woman. Before he did I was just able to give him a quick kiss, and he bought me ten fat walnuts from the fat ginger woman. Then he went off and remounted his throne and controlled the traffic again and was no longer transformed, but just as he was when I had to look at him in amazement and as a result the traffic stopped.
Now I pass him every day and always wink at him, and he smiles down at me. Sometimes I have a terrible urge to wave my hand too. But I prefer not to. It might stop the traffic again.
From Child of All Nations (Kind aller Länder, 1938)
by Irmgard Keun
Translated by Paul Vincent
First published in The Low Countries, 2001