To The Inimitable Frau Clausen: Thank You

backpackers

When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all.”

Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage rage against the dying of the light.

When I was 16 years old I moved to Germany as an exchange student.  It changed my life.  Today the woman responsible for organizing and inspiring this adventure passed away.  Frau, you broke the mold and I’m grateful for the impact you made on my life and on many other lives.  Godspeed.

Because of Frau Clausen I was lucky enough to wander Hamburg’s streets with Johnny Brennan.  I saw a stage of the Tour de France near Paris.  I camped in the Swiss Alps (hell, I camped anywhere that was comfortable).  I slept in a Roman train station and ate street pizza on the Spanish Steps.  I skied beneath Matterhorn.  I watched Bundesliga football.  I listened to chamber music in Vienna.  I crawled through the streets during Octoberfest.  I saw a David Bowie concert.  I visited the D-Day memorial and Neuschwanzstein.  I saw the Mona Lisa, David, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Colosseum, the canals in Venice, the coal mines in Salzburg and the beginning of the end of the Berlin wall.  There are certain things that fundamentally alter your view of life, your opinions about the world, and your understanding that we are all global citizens.

Most importantly, I learned the pure joy of limitlessness.  With little more than a backpack and a money belt the world felt open and alive and limitless.  Anything was possible.  I was free and with my friends and that’s all that mattered.  It’s sad that changes.  Sadder still that we allow it occur.

We become habitual.  Maybe even a little boring.  We accept limitations.  We don’t fight as hard for joy.  Life, work, family, schedules, bosses, their bosses, goals, then someone else’s goals, money and then more money.  We start to schedule our adventures that aren’t really adventures at all.  We call them vacations.  We accept bad bosses.  Jobs we don’t care about.  Bad marriages.  Lackluster friendships.  Slow, creeping resignation.  It’s the tacit and unfortunate decline that too many accept and call it “the real world.”  God knows I’m as guilty of this as anyone so please don’t take this as didactic.

Limitless.  The gift that Frau gave me was the opportunity to feel limitless.  I’ll always be grateful and I’ll never forget it.

The Missus and I visited Frau before she passed.  It had been 30 years since I’d seen her last.  In her 90’s, she insisted on feeding us cake.  She also insisted that I eat two pieces.  German to the core.  And despite her failing health she was the same strong-willed, smart, and funny woman who had convinced my mom and dad that sending their teenage son abroad was a very good idea.  She had no idea how right she was.

Thanks Frau and I pray you’ve found the rest you deserve.  You made a difference and I was fortunate enough to learn from you.  Limitlessly.

One response

  1. What a lovely tribute, Matt. Just yesterday I was musing on the common practice of what I call “smallifying” ourselves. It’s all too easy to make our worlds small–out of obligations or fear or sheer exhaustion. It’s a blessing to meet someone that opens the world again for us.

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