This was back in 2007, and I was living in Heidelberg. Most tourist handbooks describe the city as the most beautiful in Germany. It had been spared bombing during the war, and as a result still had much of the old beautiful architecture that most German cities have lost.
I was living in a building in the altstadt (the old city), on Untererstraße, to be more specific. Germans are specific and practical about everything: words, trains, clocks. So it should come as no surprise that my street name meant “under street.” And it should come as no surprise that this street was home to a large concentration of cafés, bars, and clubs, frequently inhabited by the university students who would get quite drunk and engage in whatever kinds of activities tend to happen on streets like the “under street.”
Anyway, it was in early December when I first started to notice the radiator not working in the bedroom of my flat. The winters in Germany are usually mild in terms of precipitation and temperature. The skies are always gray, and it feels like there’s a constant drizzle, a mist of some kind that lingers on your skin, keeping you perpetually chilled. But this particular winter—I was told by some friends—was colder than normal.
One morning I woke shivering in my room. Mind you, it wasn’t unbearable, just enough for me to notice, and force me out of bed to get some more blankets. But when I woke a few hours later, the room was still cold. Outside the sky was gray, and I wondered if it was the same temperature outside as it was in my room. I could see my breath, and I puffed away in my bed, continuously tucking the blankets underneath and around my toes and sides. My toes felt blue, although I was too lethargic to make visual confirmation. And after lying in bed for a few more minutes, fantasizing about Florida, fires, and all things hot and warm, I got up and shuffled over to my old (most likely lead-painted) radiator and put my hand to it. Not only was it cold, but it appeared to be completely off.
Now I realize this doesn’t seem like some catastrophic event worth mentioning, let alone writing about. But if you’ve ever traveled, been in a place where you don’t speak the language, or been somewhere you don’t belong, you know that the smallest problem can seem impossible to solve. Turning down the wrong street can feel like the navigational mistake of your existence. Asking for directions in a foreign language can be like standing in front of someone naked. The slightest discomfort can feel like life’s cruelest trick.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure where to begin with the radiator problem. I suppose I could have talked to one of my German friends, or looked up a repairman myself, but I was embarrassed to ask for help. Looking back, it would have been easy to ask my friends for help, but I suppose I was ashamed at not knowing how to solve the problem myself. It also didn’t help that my German had gotten worse since arriving in Germany, as I’d dropped all my language classes in favor of English courses, partly due to my interest in literature, and partly due to laziness.
Needless to say, I suffered through four or five more freezing nights in my flat. I took to wearing my winter coat and hat to bed; I drank tea all hours of the day; I got drunk so I could fall asleep without feeling the bite of the air.
But after a week of this icy torture, and no end in sight, I called my landlord. He seemed to understand my problem, and from what I understood, he would be coming up the next day to look at the radiator.
It must have been early because it was still dark outside when I was woken by two dark figures huddled over my radiator in the far corner of my bedroom, muttering to each other in German. Obviously my landlord had let himself into my flat, and thought it unnecessary or impolite to wake me. The repairman set to banging on the radiator with a hammer.
I don’t know if you’ve ever had to talk to someone, or interact with the world in general before you’ve completely woken up, had your coffee, or taken a shower, but these instances can be brutal. I don’t think I’m overly sensitive; I just have a hard time getting around the world, like I’m some aging baseball player, still trying to prove I can hit the high fastball. I was more confused than anything, but maybe this was how they did things in Germany. Maybe they repaired all your appliances while you lay in bed, sheepishly looking at them, feeling helpless.
The repairman was still banging away with his hammer when my landlord turned around and asked me something in German. All I could muster was “ice kalt,” a phrase which needs no translation, and I’m sure evoked an “obviously” or the German equivalent of the American phrase “duh” from my landlord. He looked at me and turned away, as if disgusted by my lack of language skills. I thought I heard him spitting out anti-American sentiments to his comrade, pent-up rage about the war, about how we Americans think we run the world, how we’re all fat and never bother to learn other languages. And after a few more clangs of the hammer the landlord and repairman left me to wallow in my misery of ineptitude.
By mid-January the situation had only grown worse. The radiator was still broken, and my landlord had stopped responding to the notes I left on his office door.
Somehow, in my half-frozen mind, I rationalized that the cold was good for me, and that I should embrace it as other aspiring artists had done before me, or so I imagined. At the time, I was reading a lot of McCarthy and Hemingway for the classes I was taking, which only served to inflate my sense of required masculinity. I thus took it upon myself to suffer through the long, cold German winter with nothing but books for warmth. After all, if I couldn’t make it through one measly winter in Germany, who would take me seriously as a writer? I mean, McCarthy built his first house, from scratch. Can you imagine? People just don’t do that sort of thing anymore. And Hemingway—well, yeah, he’s Hemingway.
Much to my dismay, the books did little to warm me, and I found myself looking around my kitchen for something to keep me warm. I couldn’t heat the place with my oven because I didn’t have one, but there was a toaster oven, stuffed away high up on a shelf. After dusting it off and cleaning the insides, I brought the toaster oven to my room, set it on the floor and plugged it in. Now I don’t want to exaggerate my happiness at the warmth I felt, but I must have sat in front of that orange, glowing metal box for an hour straight, warming my hands and toes. I kept it on during all hours of the day; it was a good little toaster oven. I realize now of course that it was a fire hazard, to leave that thing plugged in all night with the little glass door open. But what was I to do? I was freezing.
The best part about the toaster oven, aside from keeping me warm that cold winter in Heidelberg, was the ding it would make when the timer went off. The timer could only go up to sixty minutes, so when the timer was up it would let out a loud ding and I would get out of bed, or stop reading, and turn the dial back and start it all over again.
I never told any of my friends about the toaster oven; I guess I was embarrassed. I don’t know why, but there was something so incredibly uncool or juvenile about heating one’s bedroom with a toaster oven.
The worst part about that time in my life is not the memories of shivering, or being woken up by the landlord, or even the clanging of the hammer against the radiator, it’s not any of those things. Really the worst part about the toaster oven incident is that whenever I hear the ding of an egg-timer, or the ring of a doorbell, all I can think about is crawling out of my bed to turn back the timer, just to get another sixty minutes of warmth.
Soon Wiley is a native of Nyack, New York. He received his BA in English and Philosophy from Connecticut College. He currently attends the MFA program at Wichita State University, where he is the assistant editor of MOJO. His work has appeared in or is forth coming from TINGE Magazine, the Hawaii Review, Columbia College Literary Review, and others.