The Kronberg Apartment

short stories

Doug Alt

 

The Kronberg Apartment

Ute Schueller and I had been dating, and then “getting serious”, during the year before I was drafted into the Army. With the uncertainty involved when facing being sent to the war in Vietnam, we put any future plans on hold when I reported for duty. She had a good school teaching job, while I was going to be collecting a grandiose $80 monthly Army pay.

In the Spring of 1969, I received orders to go to Germany, rather than Vietnam, for my duty assignment.  (BIG sigh of relief!) Once I reached my duty station there, in the town of Eschborn, we began making plans for getting married in August. I would get a short leave to fly back to New Rochelle, NY for the ceremony, after which we would fly to Germany together and spend our first year of marriage there.

Ute and her family spent the Summer making all the wedding arrangements; I had to find a place for us to live near Camp Eschborn.

Kronberg discovery

Most GI’s stationed at Eschborn, Germany thought of the train running through the town as the direct connection to downtown Frankfurt, about 5 miles away. Not long after my arrival at Eschborn in May of 1969, the Battalion Clerk who had befriended me the first weekend I arrived suggested that I try taking the train “the other way” sometime. He mentioned that there was a nice town at the far end of the line.

He was right – Kronberg was a picturesque town up on the side of a large hill (or small mountain) that contained an old, walled-in section surrounding a castle.

I felt that it would be great if I could find an apartment for us in the old section of this town, which represented the “real Germany” to me.

Apartment Search

I found some apartment listings posted on a street-corner bulletin board, and saw that one of the real-estate agents had some English language items there, so he was the first one I called.

He showed me several nice apartments that were in relatively modern apartment buildings outside the old walled section. When I asked if he had anything in the OLD section of town, he expressed big surprise, stating that no Americans he had dealt with had EVER wanted to be in an OLD building. I replied that that was exactly where I wanted to be, so he showed me the apartment in a three-story building at Schirnstrasse 14.

The street level of the building was occupied by an electrical appliance shop, which was operated by the building owners. The owners were an older couple who lived up on the 3rd floor of the same building. The empty apartment was on the 2nd floor. It had been completely refurbished and had a little deck off the kitchen that would be just right for breakfast on a sunny morning - it looked great to me.

One fact that seemed strange to me was that, although the apartment was totally ready to go, with kitchen appliances and everything in place, there were no light fixtures on the ceilings of any of the rooms, just bare wires sticking out of holes in the newly painted ceilings.  The agent assured me that this was standard German practice. It is assumed that you will want to install your own favorite light fixtures when you move in, and then take them along with you when you move out.

I was introduced to the husband and wife owners, Herr and Frau Lezius, and was able to exchange some minimal pleasantries with the wife, since I had started to acquire some very rudimentary German vocabulary and she had had some English instruction while in school 50 years earlier. I was able to convey that I was getting married in August, and that my wife-to-be was originally German and had lived in Germany up to the age of 11. The husband did not seem to know any English at all, and my German was not good enough to communicate anything at all with him.

The agent and I went back to the real estate office, where I filled out and signed the rental paperwork. He would take it to the owners for their signature later that day. Everything should be set by the next day.

When I returned to his office the next evening, he had bad news for me, stating that the owners had decided that, as a policy, they had decided that they did not want to rent to American soldiers. I was very disappointed by this turn of affairs, but could understand that they might be wary of having to deal with “The Ugly American” types that were far too typical of the GIs in Germany during the 24 years since WWII had ended.

So, back to more apartment searching!

A few days later, I was back in the town looking at other possibilities, this time having ridden my bicycle up from Camp Eschborn, rather than taking the train. After several hours of exploration, I had found one or two places just outside the walled section that looked nice, but I was still really fascinated with the Old Section. I wandered back into the area of Schirnstrasse, wondering if there might just be another place in that neighborhood that might have a “For Rent” sign in a window, rather than being listed with an agency. I was stopped, sitting on my bike, at a corner where I could see down Schirnstrasse to where #14 was located, and was just looking, somewhat wistfully, at the picturesque setting it presented, when an old lady in a big coat and carrying a shopping bag bustled by me going down Schirnstrasse in the same direction that I was looking. A few steps past me, she suddenly turned and ackowledged that she recognized me. I was surprised to see that it was Frau Lezius, the owner of #14 that I had met just a few days ago!

She turned and bustled on, and my reaction was, “How cool; I’m in a strange German town, 3,000 miles from home, but at least I know one person that is a ‘waving as we pass’ acquaintance!”

The next day I got a call from the real estate agent: the couple at Schirnstrasse 14 had decided they would rent to me after all, if I hadn’t already found someplace else.

Whoopee!

The agent’s understanding of what had transpired was this:

Herr Lezius had been captured by the Americans during the war and had been in a prison camp for something like two years, and wasn’t going to have any U.S. Army uniformed men in HIS home. Frau Lezius, however, had been in favor of renting to me all along, but had, at first, conceded to her husband’s strong feelings. The agent wasn’t sure exactly how or why, but she had evidently convinced her husband to change his mind.

A factor that the agent was unaware of was the chance meeting of Frau Lezius with me, my bicycle, and my hang-dog look while staring at her house. That incident, along with the fact that Ute was actually German, and fluent in the language, must have been enough for her to go home and convice Herr Lezius that it was worth taking a chance that we would be good neighbors to have in their building.

I wrote to Ute, telling her that I had found a place in the old part of town that I liked, but we had to get our own ceiling light fixtures when we moved in since there were just bare wires coming out of the holes

Furnishing the apartment

A surprise (to me) benefit to US troops in Germany was a huge warehouse of Army-owned household items that were available on a no-cost basis. Beds, bedding, chests of drawers, couches, cookware, dishes, flatware, lamps…the whole enchilada!

No cost or fees, just ...”come on down and sign out whatever you need”! (Of course, you have to take it BACK when finished with it.)

I arranged for some of the guys at my ADM Platoon to help with the furniture pick-up, utilizing one of our platoon’s huge Army trucks to carry it all, the day before I was scheduled to fly to The States to marry Ute.

One glitch that I hadn’t anticipated was that we couldn’t get the huge army truck into the narrow, crooked streets of the Old Section. We found that we had to park the truck about two blocks away, outside the encircling wall, and trek back and forth lugging all the stuff. I vaguely remember that we must have borrowed a neighbor farmer’s cart to help with some of the bigger pieces.

This process required much more time than we had allotted, and, rather than setting up all the beds and furniture properly as planned, we just piled everything in the living room as the day ended and hustled back to Camp Eschborn.

When I flew back  home for the wedding, I filled Ute in on the situation: our first task upon arrival at our new home would be to assemble the bed and arrange the furniture properly in the rooms. We would undoubtedly be fairly exhausted after a hectic wedding weekend, a long Trans-Atlantic flight, and a scheduled arrival in Kronberg fairly late in the evening, but I figured we would just get the bed together upon arrival, crash for the rest of the night, then tackle the rest of the set-up the next day.

Arrival in Kronberg for the newly-married Alts

I only found out some time later that Ute had developed a fairly negative apprehension regarding the “old apartment” in the “old town” with the “wires sticking out of the ceiling” and a “mountain of used Army furniture” that I had committed her to.

I was not feeling any too cheery myself as we climbed the stairs that evening to the 2nd floor of Schirnstrasse 14. I had developed an ear infection during our wedding weekend that had completely wiped me out, and I was NOT looking forward to having to assemble a bed by the light of one little table lamp before being able to get some sleep.

However, what met our eyes as we opened the apartment door was… a completely set-up home! Everything in place! The dining table set – even a candle or two!

The good fairies turned out to be Herr and Frau Lezius, who had decided it would be a nice wedding present to welcome the new couple in this way! If I remember correctly, I think Frau Lezius even had some food prepared for us so we could have a decent meal.

What a great way to start off our Germany adventure!

After all this excitement, we finally got ready to go to sleep, and promptly encountered an unexpected aspect of our new apartment: although we were quite exhausted from the wedding activities and travel, we had a hard time actually getting to sleep. You see, this was an OLD building, in an OLD town, and such old buildings have VERY THICK stone and masonry walls. So thick, that very little sound gets through! The neighboring residents all close themselves in for the night, there was no street noise, and there was COMPLETE SILENCE!

The disconcerting effect of the total lack of any sounds at all was a complete surprise to me.

Herr Lezius – the rest of the story

During subsequent months we found out that although Herr Lezius had been in a prison camp, it had been somewhere in the Midwest of the USA, and he spoke very positively about how the Americans had treated the German captives.

It also turned out that Herr Lezius had quite a good command of the English language - he just was NOT going to condescend to speaking OUR language; we should speak HIS language while in HIS country…

My kind of man!