In the quiet train compartment full of sleepy commuters heading to Zurich, an old lady was rigidly sitting on the edge of the seat in front of me. Dressed in khaki trousers, a matching vest with lots of pockets and a bright-red sports jersey with the Swiss flag underneath, she was leaning in over a black walking stick perched between her feet, her hands gripped on its handle, looking around as if she wanted to absorb of all that was happening in the carriage.
My mobile rang. “Tutto bene?” — Dad’s daily call from Italy to check that I was still alive in wild wild Switzerland. From the moment the old lady heard me talking in Italian, she started shooting piercing glances in my direction. Was she one of these nationalist nutters who would soon rant at me, as had happened before, about the invasion of foreigners and the good old times?
“Do you understand German?”, she asked as soon as I had hung up. “Yes I do!”, I replied, surprised by the tenderness in her voice. She asked me about Sicily, where a friend of hers lived, and for a few minutes we chatted about Italy and what I was doing in Switzerland. But then she mentioned being from Berlin and having been there during the Second World War and when I told her that my grandmother was also German and that she had been in Berlin during the same time, something clicked. I could see the excitement in her eyes. As if the fact that she and my grandmother had shared this common experience had actually created a bond between us. She leant forward and in 20 minutes — the time it took for the train to reach Zurich — she told me the story of her life.
She said she was born in Berlin in 1936. Her mother got sick, could not tend to her, and she was sent to a children’s home in the Baltic Sea where she lived throughout most of the Second World War. Shortly before its end, her mother brought her back to Berlin, showed her the debris-filled crater where once their house had stood before it was destroyed in an air raid, and decided to flee to the south of Germany. They fled by foot, joining the columns of people trudging through the countryside in the hope of escaping the bombs and the nearing front, ready to run for shelter when fighter planes would suddenly appear on the horizon, dive and shoot on the crowds, and fly away again.
But they made it to the south of Germany and lived first under Russian and then under French occupation. They had nothing, like everyone else, and when her mother got pregnant by a French soldier she was so thin, that the local doctor treated her to a kilogram of butter.
Peace. They moved to Switzerland. She grew up, married twice, divorced twice, had a child.
She now needed money to raise her daughter and started to work. At first, as a steelworker — the only female steelworker in the factory and we are talking the sixties here. People made fun of her, said she must be a lesbian to be doing such manly things. But it was driving which would become the job of her life, she told me taking out an old and battered picture, carefully wrapped in a transparent food bag, and showing it proudly. It was she, some forty years ago, waving from the driver’s seat of a brown lorry, when she was delivering clean laundry in the area of Geneva. Eventually, she moved to Zurich, became a taxi driver and, overall, lived happily ever after with minor complains about badly serviced cars and waiting in the cold.
I was glued to my seat. When she talked about the bombs, her hands were trembling and she kept her eyes tightly shut, as if she was seeing it all happening again in her mind. At other times, she would explode in an infectious laugh that shook her whole body. Like when she told me about a special laundry delivery she had done with her lorry in a rich part of Geneva. One day, she had to replace a colleague on short notice because he had suddenly felt sick and when she had arrived at one of the villas where his colleague usually stopped and had walked with the big bag of fresh laundry to its entrance, a very beautiful and very naked woman had flung the door open, only to look rather disappointed after seeing who was delivering the laundry this time. The old lady laughed so joyously, she had tears in her eyes.
When I saw the train pulling into my station and told the old lady that I was getting off, she started thanking me profusely for having listened to her, apologised in case she had taken too much of my time and shook my hand vigorously mentioning my grandmother several times amongst various other very kind things. I shook her hand vigorously back, assured her I was really glad she had started talking to me and insisted repeatedly that the pleasure had been all mine.
I started gathering my stuff and it was only at this moment, as I emerged out of the bubble of war, family and driving anecdotes she had conjured up around me, that I realised what had happened in the train compartment. All the people around us wearing big, fat, satisfied smiles on their faces, newspapers and smart phones on their laps, trying to get a glimpse of the old lady whose story had evidently captured more than one person.
I got off the train with a chaotic mix of images and impressions in my head. And I had to think about my grandmother. My grandmother who, towards the end of the Second World War, a girl in her early twenties studying Medicine in Berlin, found herself in the eye of the storm when the Russian Army attacked the city and had to dig out all she had learned when suddenly deployed as an emergency doctor during the battle. After the Russian Army had conquered the city, she made a deal with a Russian official and was allowed to roam the countryside around the city with a carriage pulled by a horse to assist civilians and wounded soldiers. Each time she met the Russian official to report on her work, she had to end the conversation downing a glass of vodka with him or else be suspected of being a traitor. Sixty years later, during the last weeks of her life, lost in delirium and confusion, she kept telling us every morning that a man had dragged her to a field and had left her under the rain for hours, leaving us wondering whether that might still be Berlin, the Russian front, her personal hell which she had never told anyone about. She died and brought her memories and nightmares with her and I will never know because I never asked. All I have is these few facts, which my brother (who did ask) told me, and some old black-and-white photographs, where she poses with people I don’t know in places I don’t recognise. Twenty minutes with my grandmother is all I would ask for to get to know her a bit better and, somehow, add another brick to my foundations.
At the same time, I could not get the beautiful picture the old lady had shown me out of my mind. With fading colours on paper damaged by years of carrying around, the brown lorry is parked in the middle of a small garden surrounded by trees. Sitting in the driver’s seat, a beautiful redhead with long curly hair waves happily to the camera leaning out of the vehicle’s window. No grown-up daughter or smiling grandchildren, nothing of her friends or ex-husbands. She took out a photograph of herself. I tried to imagine the reasons why the old lady was carrying around that one particularly. Is that how she likes to remember herself? Or had those been the best days of her life? Maybe the person on the other side of the camera was someone she really loved? Slowly, I started to wonder: of all the photos collected in a lifetime, which ones will we carry with us right until the end?
Andrea Del Duce lives in Zurich, Switzerland, where he works as an engineer. In his free time, he writes short stories and scripts for short films. This is the first story he attempts to publish.