Biene Travels to England
“If you want to eat well in England, eat three breakfasts.”
W. Somerset Maugham
In the meantime Biene had exchanged quite a few letters with Mrs. Lande, her employer-to-be in Manchester, England. She found out that she would be working in a modern household with three small children all less than six years of age. In spite of the many warnings from her friends regarding tough working conditions, Biene was looking forward to her job as an au pair girl, which offered a great opportunity for improving her English language skills through direct contact with people speaking their native tongue. Becoming familiar with running a household while earning some money also proved useful for the young lady from Germany.
On August 10th Biene took the train from Düsseldorf to Calais to catch the ferry to England. At dawn the ferry reached her port of call at Dover, where Biene had to endure a gruelling time at customs and at the passport control station. She arrived at London by train two hours later than expected and therefore missed her connection to Manchester. Fortunately at Dover she had enough time to send off a telegram to Mrs. Lande. After a brief sightseeing tour of Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London she was on the train again and traveled through a very pleasant landscape, the so-called Midlands, featuring one of Britain’s finest scenery, greenest countryside and grandest views, through a picturesque patchwork of streams, valleys and woodlands.
After the cold night onboard of the ferry Biene felt sleepy and happy in the warm afternoon sun that was peering through her compartment window. After she had conducted her first English conversation with a nice elderly couple, who almost overwhelmed her with good luck wishes for her time in England, she fell asleep and awoke only, when the train was already approaching Manchester. The closer she got the more excited she became and wondered if Mrs. Lande would recognize her on the platform.
But she worried about that for nothing, because her employer was nowhere to be seen. In vain she looked around and after some time she was standing with her suitcases all alone on the deserted platform. She asked a black porter, who looked at her with pitiful eyes, to carry her suitcases to a taxi. When he found out that she was from Germany, where his mother was living, he was so delighted to be able to help her that he did not take any tip from her. Biene was quite touched by his helpfulness, especially after the porters in London had shamelessly taken advantage of her uncertainty over how much money would have been the appropriate amount for a tip. In the taxi she felt drowsy and suddenly very tired after so many wakeful hours. She could barely follow the verbal onslaught of the taxi driver, who in his zeal to share his local knowledge wanted to tell her about all the remarkable sights of Manchester.
Biene’s Plunge into Life’s Reality
What a pleasant surprise unfolded before her eyes, when the taxi stopped at a large house with a friendly appearance. Immediately all tiredness disappeared. Mrs. Lande received her with open arms. The two became instant friends. That night Biene slept like a log. And it was good, because there was a lot of work waiting for her the very next morning. Mrs. Lande had just returned from her vacation in Spain and needed all the help she could get with the children. There was little baby Paul, who was being potty-trained. He was not too eager to cooperate and constantly climbed off his tiny chair. While Biene was putting him back, where he was supposed to do his business, Caroline and Simon were pinching each other and screeching like howling dervishes. Gradually Biene was adapting to a totally new routine in her life. A 7:30 Paul woke her up with his crying, because he was wet and the diapers needed changing, all the while the older siblings were hanging on to her skirt and were hollering for attention. They wanted to get washed, dressed and fed breakfast all at once. And when at rare occasions a little bit of peace and quiet reigned in the Lande household, a pile of children’s clothes, the entire gamut from diapers to pants, were waiting on the ironing board. So Miss Panknin was on her feet from dawn to dusk seven days a week, during which she had altogether one half-day off. But even then Mrs. Lande occasionally brought Paul into Biene’s room, because she could not handle him any more.
In spite of the hard work Biene was happy. Every night, when after a relaxing bath she sank into her bed, she fell asleep with a sense of accomplishment she had never experienced before. In her letters she would often mention to me that through her work with the children, as challenging and arduous it really was, she was able to draw herself out of the darkness of idleness into the light of meaningful activity with little children. It was heartwarming for me to see that she too was going through an important trial period albeit quite different from mine. By dealing so intensely with young children she was in a much better position to decide on a small or large or no family at all. She learned first hand how much love and labor one needed to invest in raising a large family. Being an au pair girl was a real eye opener for her.
Leisure time had become a precious commodity for Biene. Whereas back home at Velbert she had often idled away her time, she now began to appreciate every free moment that she had at her disposal. What allowed her to truly enjoy her time off was the heightened awareness that what she was doing in Mrs. Lande’s household was not drudgery she needed a break from, but deeply satisfying service to others.
On one of her half-days Biene took little six-year old Caroline to a nearby cinema. Mrs. Lande had recommended the movie ‘Sound of Music’, which had gained the status of a box office hit not just in England, but also in translation practically all over the world. Completely enraptured by the picture and the music Caroline cozily sat on Biene’s lap. She was proud that she had been allowed to go out with the new so amiable au pair girl in the family.
Little Paul also brought much joy to Biene. Barely two years old he had already turned with his cute baby talk into a real chatterbox. One of his favourite words to express his admiration or approval for something she suggested to him was ‘nice’. When she played on the harmonica I had bought her in Schotten, he dropped all his toys and looked at her with his big dreamy eyes as if a fairy had just arrived to play for him on her magical instrument. Then he clambered up into her bed. Every time she stopped playing, he would nudge her to play some more by tapping with his fingers on the harmonica and by humming and crooning a melody of his own. On another day in the evening, when the kids had all been put to bed, Simon, the middle child, sleepy-eyed with drooping eyelids, stepped into her room, snuggled up to her on the bed and like an affectionate little darling laid his head on her lap. She stroked and caressed him, until he finally fell asleep.
Biene’s Engagement Ring
Her Half-Day Cultural Activities
On one of these half-days my letter with the engagement ring arrived. Biene having no idea what it contained and filled with joyful anticipation placed it prominently on the mantle piece. She did not want to open it until all her work was done. This way she would enjoy reading the latest news from Canada in the peace and quiet of her room. The morning hours crept by at a snail’s pace. Finally the moment had come, when she could open the letter. I thought it would be best to let her describe her reaction upon finding the engagement ring in the envelope, about which we both had given up hope of ever seeing it again.
O Peter, if I had opened it any sooner, I would not have been able to do any work. Now I was by myself, and it took me a very long time, until I had recovered from the joyful shock. I was totally unprepared for this! Now your ring is on my finger and I have to keep looking at my hand, because I can hardly believe it. And how accurately you have chosen size and form as if we two had bought it together! Is it not like a miracle that your letter with its precious content after a journey half around the globe finally landed in my hands? How did I yearn for it in June and then later again, when you thought it could arrive by surface mail! And now it has come so unexpectedly! Will it always be like this with us? I keep thinking of the quote from Bodelschwingh you had given to me in Michelbach, ‘To learn to wait is our merit …’. Ever since I love you, Peter, even waiting fills me with joy. All I do is for you, and all I experience, I experience in thought with you. It is unimaginable how much inner peace and how much strength you have given me after all these years, in which I had been torn and tossed to and fro by feelings as if I had been living in a labyrinth. Now it seems to me as if I have found the right way. No, it is actually not like that, for I know that I found it through you …
As hard as her daily chores often were, they did not diminish her enthusiasm for the care she was able to provide for the children. Having received much love during her childhood, she was able to pass it on to the Lande children. In fact the close relationship with them aroused feelings of tender anticipation of the not too distant future, when she would be looking after our own children in the land of our dreams in Canada.
Every once in a while, she granted herself a little treat and went out to immerse herself into the British cultural environment. When she attended a performance by the internationally renowned Bolshoi Ballet, which happened to be in Manchester on its tour throughout the United Kingdom, the dancers and the music enchanted her such that in her imagination I was sitting next to her just like on our rendezvous at the opera in Wuppertal and with this romantic image on her mind she no longer felt alone among all those strangers in the theatre.
On rare occasions she went out to dine sometimes alone, sometimes with a friend. With all the work that Biene had to do, there never seemed to be enough food for her on the dinner table. Indeed, at times she was so hungry that she often resorted to eating candies, which was certainly not helping to keep her teeth in good health. The dentist in town paid for by the generous medical program, which included foreigners with a work permit, took care of many a cavity in her teeth.
Like me at my road trip through Canada, she was sometimes puzzled by certain customs, peculiar expressions and idiomatic expressions. One day while waiting for her meal to arrive in an East Indian restaurant, she was looking at the little trays, which the waiter had placed in front of her on the table. One of them particularly attracted her attention with its dark aromatic liquid, which Biene thought to be an appetizer. After all this was an exotic eatery, and while she did not recognize what it was, good manners and etiquette required that she at least tried and tasted some of these mysterious substances. The saying ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’ may have also prompted her to reach for the teaspoon and dip it into the liquid that appeared to her as most appetizing. The strong piquant flavour was not altogether disagreeable. However, when the observant waiter saw the young lady from Germany sample another spoonful, he came rushing to her table and discretely said, “Excuse me, Miss. The items are not hors d’oeuvres, but rather condiments for the main course you had ordered.”
Some other time she went out to dine with her friend Susan. They had ordered a glass of wine to complement their meal. As they happily savoured the delicious food, the waiter came by their table and announced in a tone that was supposed to convey his appreciation for his customers, “The drinks are on the house.” Biene pondered on the meaning of his puzzling remark. In her mind she visualized drinks being placed somewhere on top of the restaurant. But she was smart enough not to ask any questions or make a silly remark, as I had once done on my trip with Adolf through Canada. Susan clued her in later saying that the waiter meant that the drinks were free this evening.
Biene’s Academic Endeavours
To strengthen and further develop her language skills Biene enrolled at the Manchester branch of the Cambridge University, which offered English proficiency courses to foreign students. By some administrative error they had placed her at a lower level program, which was way too easy for her. When she brought her concerns to her teacher’s attention, he made sure that she would participate in a more challenging course. There the curricular material was quite difficult. But Biene, never afraid of tackling new challenges, attended the evening sessions with vim and vigour. Many nationalities were represented in her class, all striving to obtain the prestigious Proficiency Certificate. In spite of having less time for studying than her fellow students she made excellent progress. She soon became known in her class as the ironical author. Her instructor was so impressed with her ironical style that he read out her essay to the students as an exemplary piece of writing. The topic was ‘First Impressions of the Typical Character of the Englishman’. Based on her own experiences, she attempted to show and to prove that there was no such thing as typical Englishmen. Like other human beings, they all have their own individual character traits. The recognition, which she received from her teacher, was a great boost for her morale and strengthened her self-esteem. She was proud to see not only her language skills improve, but also to see herself evolve as an independent thinker. Great was her joy, when she heard that her composition would be published in the official school magazine.
Her facility to express herself well in the English language also came in handy in the Lande household. Being able to communicate well with the members of the family had become truly a source of great pleasure for her. This was especially the case when dealing with the older children at bedtime. She discovered the joy of story telling, not just any story that she may have read in a children’s book. In fact, she invented them in her creative mind at the spur of the moment. Caroline and Simon were fascinated, because they were involved in shaping the development of the story and felt important that they had a say in how the story would end. Each time Biene got lost in the maze of her own thoughts and paused for a brief moment, the children would spark with their questions new wonderful ideas and thus often contributed to a fanciful, fairy-tale kind of ending. To the children the most popular stories with all their variations were about the ‘Little Moon Man’ and his friend, the ‘Little Star Friend’. When Caroline and Simon listened as quiet as a mouse, Biene was happy about her success and dreamt of creating story and picture books for our own children. Until then a lot of water would spill over the Niagara Falls, she regretfully wrote to me in one of her letters.
Peter’s Passionate Plan
With the intent of giving Biene a mild shock followed by a pleasant surprise I wrote Biene a letter, which seemed to suggest that the waiting period might be cut short by more than she had anticipated.
Calgary, September 11th 1965
My dear Biene, I have to bitterly disappoint you. Believe me, my pain is greater than yours not to see you as quickly again as we first thought possible. We must resign ourselves to some unforeseen circumstances. I don’t know how it all came about. Either the official of the university exam committee did not have all his marbles or I wasn’t quite there myself, but — I passed the test!
Aren’t you a little glad now that you will be able to come to Canada as early as next spring? Oh, how happy I am to finally have gained a foothold in Canada. This will be the last letter with my brother’s return address; for I will immediately start looking for a small apartment to rent in the northwest of Calgary close to the university. From there I will write to your parents in Velbert. I hope that they will have some understanding for our unusual plans. But I have to ask them soon, if everything related to your immigration should pan out as intended. Right after your parents have given us their consent, I will pay a visit to the immigration office and will initiate the process. You need not do anything, until the Canadian Embassy in Cologne will give you further notice and tell you what to do. Greetings with love, Peter
Biene thought she had prepared her parents well, before she had left for England. She now wrote a letter to her mother, who had given her until now her full support for our plans in Canada. In it she let her know that a letter from me would be coming soon, in which I would ask the parents to grant me permission to marry her beloved daughter. Shortly afterwards, Biene urged me, “Please write my parents soon. For now they have been prepared.”
In my mind, I was merely going through a number of steps that would involve a few letters going back and forth with questions about my progress at my studies, my job prospects in the teaching profession and my assurances that Biene would be well looked after and be happy. In my mind the exchange of letters was a mere formality, a remnant of an old custom that appeared antiquated in the modern world, yet had a useful function of getting to know one another. This was especially true in my case, where a formal visit from Canada was out of the question. With Biene having done her best to have her parents prepared for my letter and in view of the fact that she would be of age to determine her own destiny, I did not spend one minute worrying about a negative reply. Besides, after passing my English proficiency test, I was riding on a wave of renewed optimism and was looking forward to boldly taking on the next major hurdle, two intensive semesters back to back with hardly a break in between. My ambitious goal was not just to get by with average marks, but to excel with a high enough grade point average to be eligible for government grants to acquire the necessary financial support for the following year.