Many years ago I went to Berlin to visit my girlfriend who was working there for a few months. She didn’t want me around during the day.
“Piss off,” she said. “Go and do something.”
I saw the sites and visited the museums. A sturdy woman slapped my hand in a food court when I tried to point at a doughnut I wanted. A phalanx of Germans berated me for jaywalking. I came within a pubic hair of getting arrested for climbing up the arch of an iron bridge. I had fun. My flimsy understanding of German didn’t really get in the way. I ignored all the German and listened out for words I understood. These often came around very far apart and so I could relax for large parts of most sentences. To me, German sounded something like this: “Ich german-german-german mein german-german nicht.”
One day I was walking along Wilhelmstrasse when I saw a sign that read Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte. Wissenschaft was science, that I knew. Just that morning I’d been to the Technical Museum and so I decided to try this one too.
The door, strangely, was locked. There was no sign to indicate what the opening hours were. I knocked. For a while, nothing happened. Typical Germans, locking the door. I knocked again.
“German-german,” a voice called from inside.
“I’d like to come in,” I yelled in the general direction of the keyhole.
There was fumbling and clicking and the door was opened slightly. A small, old man blinked at me. He had two tufts of hair growing like tiny handlebars above his ears and eyebrows like carpet samples.
“Ja?” he said suspiciously.
“Hello,” I said. “Are you open?”
I knew that word too — please. I edged in past him. The door must’ve been a side entrance because the hallway beyond it was gloomy and small.
The little man — let’s call him Helmut — closed the door slowly and looked at me.
“Pay,” I said, rubbing my fingers together. “Ich musten pay.”
“Nein,” Helmut said, shaking his head. “Kein german-german-german.”
Helmut scratched his chin and rubbed his temple. It was clearly not free but the gulf of German lay between us. Maybe he was just a janitor, I thought. I had an idea and pulled out a card that gave one discounts on the entrance fees of some public institutions. Helmut looked at the card.
“Nein,” he insisted.
“Where can I pay?” I asked.
I started down the corridor.
“Kommen Sie,” he said, beckoning. “German-german-german.”
He led me into a dark and chaotic room. There were bookshelves to the ceiling and a large wooden desk. It didn’t look like the entrance to anything, so I asked again.
“Where can I pay?” I said. “I want to look around.”
I walked two fingers on the palm of my hand.
“Nein, nein,” Helmut said, shaking his head.
He pulled out a chair at the desk and made me sit in it. Then he went around the desk and sat behind it. He wasn’t a janitor after all. He folded his hands over his stomach and cleared his throat.
“German,” he began. “German-german nicht german-german Wissenschaft, german-german. Ja?”
“Yes,” I said and nodded. “That’s what I want. Wissenschaft.”
“Nein,” Helmut insisted. “Sie german-german-german nicht hier.”
“What do you mean nein?” I asked.
I was getting irritated with Helmut. I was on vacation but I didn’t have all day.
“I don’t want to sit here,” I said firmly. “I want to walk around.”
“German-german,” he replied.
There was an enormous globe and what looked like an orrery near the only window of the room. I got up and wandered over to look at them.
“German,” Helmut murmured as he took my elbow and guided me back to the chair. “German setzen Sie german-german.”
“I don’t want to setzen,” I said as I sat down. “I want to walk around.”
I mimed the idea of walking around again, but Helmut had another idea.
“Warten Sie,” he said, motioning for me to wait, “german-german.”
He walked to the door and paused there to show me again to remain seated. I nodded and he disappeared.
What the hell was wrong with these people? Why did everything have to be so damned difficult? I resisted an impulse to walk around and started fiddling with the things on his desk instead. There was a rather realistic-looking skull. It was mounted on a wooden base. I pulled it closer. The lower jaw was broken and had been wired to the rest of the skull. When I had the thing in hand it became obvious that it was a real skull. I couldn’t believe it. What other wonders lay hidden elsewhere that Helmut was keeping from me?
The wooden base made it impossible to look into the skull’s mouth. I had never known whether the palate was solid bone, and now I had a chance to find out. I inserted my fingers around the teeth and into the gap they made with the lower jaw, and probed around inside. There was something bony there. I felt around, hoping I could get a finger to come out the nose, but then my ring got caught on the wire that held the lower jaw. I wriggled my fingers but as I moved them about, they became more ensnared.
Just then Helmut returned with another German.
“German-german Wissenschaft german,” he said.
It was ridiculous. I could hear my father’s voice asking how the fuck I’d managed this, but there I was, sitting at a desk with my fingers in a skull’s mouth. I tried my best to look as though I was merely stroking it. The new German — let’s call him Kurt — was also a small man, even shorter than Helmut. He had a book in his hand.
“I want to walk around,” I called out to Kurt and mimed walking with my free hand.
“Nein,” he said sagely, shaking his head. “German-german-german.”
He nodded at Helmut.
“German-german,” he explained. “German Geschichte german—”
But Helmut had noticed my fingers in the skull’s mouth.
“Mein Gott!” he cried. “Was german-german-german!?”
“I’m stuck,” I said sheepishly.
“German-german verrückt?” Kurt asked.
I knew that word — crazy.
“I’m sorry,” I whimpered.
They came around the desk and began to work my fingers from the skull’s mouth. They grunted and said many German things and a minute later I was free. Helmut clutched the skull as though I’d try to steal it.
“Sie german-german nicht german!” Kurt insisted.
“Genau!” Helmut agreed.
They conferred for a few moments, nodding in my direction.
“German-german aus german,” Kurt suggested.
“Genau,” Helmut agreed again.
They led me silently to the door in the hallway and put me out onto the street. I hurried across Wilhelmstrasse and turned to look back. They were watching me from the doorway. Helmut still held the skull.
“What’s that place?” I asked a pretty girl walking by.
She looked at the sign.
“Zey study ze history of science,” she said.
“Not a museum?” I asked, feeling suddenly cold.
“No,” she laughed. “Professor zere, like university.”
I looked at Professors Helmut and Kurt who still stared at me from across the street. On an impulse I gave them a little wave. After a few moments, Kurt waved back and then they closed the door.