I wrote this piece when I came back to Germany from a few weeks away in the US. I knew I was making it back just in time. It was late February. Italy had been in the depths of disaster for weeks. We knew that everyone around the world needed to prepare, but “social distancing” hadn’t become the norm, and the awful global tally sheet hadn’t started up.
After COVID-19 is finished with us, will jet airplanes be the new cigars–outmoded and frowned upon by most everyone and brandished defiantly by a few? And what about trains and train stations? I have to believe that we will once again congregate in crowds, especially these constantly changing crowds of strangers crossing paths in concentrated nodes and then going out in so many directions. I know, a virus’s dream! Everything attractive about train travel is what the virus thrives on too. But I can’t imagine Europe without train stations.
Anything I write about life just a few weeks ago feels like a story from another era. Can I ask you to forgive the levity in “Leggy Ones” and embrace it too in the hope that we will regain some or even most of what made life fun before the pandemic? Call it feeling nostalgic about the future.
Compare and contrast: the leggy financier of Frankfurt (L) and Herkules, the symbol of Kassel (R)
In the Land of the Leggy Ones
Shuffling, squinting in the bright sunlight, I wander around the Frankfurt Flughaven Bahnhof (airport train station) without any real aim except for the search for WCs. The transatlantic flight has left me feeling like a zombie but a grateful one, so glad to be off the plane, so glad to be home. My body is still telling me it’s the middle of the night and I should be sleeping, forget about the sunlight. Maybe jet lag is a good thing, slows me down enough to think without thinking and actually notice things. Two more hours before my train to Kassel. Lots of time. So I wander like this, constantly hydrating and looking for bathrooms, sometimes glancing at newspaper headlines without fully understanding them.
Before making my way to the BhnHhf I stop and stare at the list of arriving flights and it finally sinks in that I’m in the center of Europe. A hop and a skip are Berlin-Strasbourg-Warsaw-Lisbon-Dublin. I feel at home but also a foreigner. I feel at home because I am a foreigner—if that makes sense—because everybody knows who I am. I’m a foreigner the second I open my mouth and utter a few syllables of German. Or are there more subtle cues: the way I’m dressed, the way I walk, how long or how briefly I hold a person’s glance? We never know what makes us stick out. Probably a good thing.
The massive hall of the train station is covered by a glass roof, letting in the brilliant winter sun without the cold. I settle myself on a bench to people watch. I begin to notice everywhere around me the masters of the universe, Frankfurt style. I’m talking about men who don’t work with their hands but with their handies.
I begin to realize the station is full of these hip, leggy types, the Frankfurt financiers. They’re not in any kind of a hurry, gliding by with their wheeled and wafer-thin carry-ons. There is a uniform and an unmistakable picture. Take a man in relatively good shape but preferably slim and tall and anywhere from 25 to 55, stretch his legs as far as they’ll go and stick them in those skinny jeans that are so popular now. Throw a blazer/sport coat/suit jacket (whatever you call it in your country) over the top part of him, which is less important than the bottom part. It is the legs that matter. I’m talking stature and stride. And the crown for these leggy ones are the shoes. Italian leather, top notch, impossibly long and pointy. Is it an exaggeration to call this the male equivalent of a bustle? And what is its purpose—to conceal the length of their feet or to exaggerate? The answer is yes.
This is where Lothar would claim that none of these men in the Frankfurt ICE Bahnhof have an ass. I don’t know. I can’t tell because their sport jackets are normal length. But I see his point. The significance of the loss of the male glutes is that there are fewer hardworking, honest (calloused-hands-tender-heart) kind of guys in the world. If you’ve never had to physically work you have to be constantly in the gym to get any kind of bum. Even then, these gym rats focus on their arms and end up looking like skinny-legged freaks without any foundation. Only from spending all day on your feet and moving heavy things do you get nice strong looking legs and derriere. Lothar believes that men in general are all losing their asses. It’s a discouraging trend that should feel concerning to us all. I mean it’s about two very different types of masculinity and we’re losing one, the original type–the ploughman, salt of the earth, beefeater, sings when he swings the hammer type–imagine Harvey Keitel in his prime and you get my meaning. But I digress.
Where was I? A sea of blue jeans, a Milan of pointy shoes. If I sit on my bench and just look straight out, not lift my eyes, this is what you see. The uniformity (I stop short of monotony) is striking.
Now, onto the top half (or third) of the uniform. It allows for a little more individuality. I see many variations on the theme of the sport jacket. I like the more traditional, relaxed fit jacket that floats ever so slightly as the man walks and that actually has pockets that you can put things in. I’m dismayed by these paper-thin, tight-in-the-arms jobbies that are so fashionable now. “Slim fit” does not even begin to describe it. It looks like they all got shrunk at the cleaners. Who can even button these things up? Lothar and I have noticed how the TV news announcers, both male and female, are wearing this new uniform and stand with their elbows stuck out like double diamonds. The jackets get tighter all the time. Why? To rule out anyone over the age of 35? Just as high heels scream youth in women, so tight jackets are all about the young elite who, if they had to, couldn’t find a fireman’s physique anywhere in their family in the last 400 years.
But even among these uniformed elites of FRA BhnHf there are elite elites. I saw one example stride past me in a royal blue suit, an actual suit, putting him a rank above the blue-jeaned legions. It was more than nonchalance he showed in his gait, it was pure arrogance but wonderful to watch. I wouldn’t say he was handsome but the slimmest and the tallest of them all, so the winner in every class his whole life. (After a rough start when he might have been pushed around by the other kindergarteners). His early balding spells a monied kind of testosterone. I don’t think I’m being harsh, just connecting the dots. No, I like these Frankfurt guys. If you are going to stiff the world, at least get dressed.
(I still have another hour before ICE-237 is set to arrive so I indulge in these exaggerations)
There have been studies that have shown that the tall and the good looking get somewhere in life just cuz and I believe the FRA BhnHf is a living exhibit of this. It’s not the uniform of the elite that makes them elite. And I don’t use the word “elite” as an insult. I am attracted by the cheekiness of these men, the light puff of edginess, the long purposeful stride that is at the same time unhurried (how do they do it?).
I’ve plenty of time so I expand on my study in the Bahnhof.
- Are the pointy-shoed ones ever walking with sneaker-wearing guys? What we would call average Joes? Never. The closest I saw was a trio of men of about the same height, neither tall nor short, two sneakered and one wearing what in the States would be called urban hikers or something like that. The pointy-shoed ones are mostly lone wolves. After all, only one is needed at any time to win that account or whatever it is they’re up to.
- Where is the female equivalent of the pointy ones? Interesting that here, in the Frankfurt ICE Banhhof, one of the most significant nodes of business and finance in all of Europe, I’ve seen only one striking example. She is tall and slender, of course, and dressed in long, normally tailored, swishy pants (Thank you! Where can I find these?!) and a nice fitting but not too tight and clearly above-the-melée parka that goes well past the behind and gives that slightly hourglass-shaped Victorian traveling effect. And of course heels. Where do the male and the female of the species meet? In private homes? In the elite colleges? Out jogging? And then do the women stay home and have the kids who will also be tall, leggy, and good looking?
- Am I overgeneralizing and skewing this whole survey of the Bahnhof with my own perception bias? Yes, of course.
Sure, the train station is not completely filled with leggy movers and shakers. There are other people here, all with their own provenances and futures. I’m all for treating people as unique individuals… but when you are traveling and have time to spend in places like train stations you can’t help but notice Types. If there are the suave blue-jeaned professionals striding around there are also plenty of folk from the county as we would say back in the States. Their sneakers and ratty suitcases, dating from way before the wall came down and held together by duct tape, give them away.
Through this scene passes a tour group of Asians, all in medical masks. They appear like their own exhibit on a moving surface. Despite their conspicuousness–at this early stage of the pandemic–they don’t appear self-conscious. They dutifully move as a group, following the group leader’s sign held aloft. Their passage appears like a backdrop or like a scrolling text reminding us all of what’s in the news. “YOU’RE NEXT,” the scene tells us. But we’re not listening.
Then I spot a sport mütze! (A wool cabbie’s cap) It signals a man neither tall nor short, wearing urban hikers and a jacket that is just a plain all-weather jacket. I am sure if I look in his face for more than a second I’ll see the crow’s feet around his eyes, know him to be a good sort: kind, modest, can handle himself. I am drawn to him immediately because I miss Lothar so much and because this “type” is so approachable, so warm. You’ve seen him too. The nice-looking regular guy that all animals, children, rough-sleepers, and tired or flustered women instinctively gravitate towards.
I know I fit a Type too. My chunky lace-up stompers, so Kassel, put me in the league of the incidental and interesting-woman of a certain age: fit from exertion but a bit haggard, independent looking but not at all polished. Could use a real haircut. I am hoping that the fact that my hair is not yet grey and my face–from a distance–not too weathered might make me harder to place.
The man in the sport mütze is not Lothar, only a reminder of how much I miss him and that soon I’ll be on the train north and home. There’s no reason to be walking up to any capable and kind-looking men. I’m not in any kind of trouble. I bought a brotchen on the platform so I have something to eat and I’ve figured out which car I’ll need to be in when the train pulls up. There is nothing to do but wait.
Who knows. Perhaps there will be someone on the train I’ll never notice, someone who is also bored and has plenty of time, who will jot down a few notes about the tired but perky writer-type, clearly middle aged (!), in bad need of a hair-do, and somewhat frumpily dressed yet with a grain of panache (that’s me putting that in), who spends her time in train stations writing notes about people!