by Dante Zappala

I met Rolf before we even said hello. I spotted him a good block away as he vibrantly bounded through the old city of Schwerin. Glowing against the gray background of formality and reserve, he pierced stares to find smiles around him. With Rolf, strangers become instant friends, and I was no exception.

I’d been curious about Rolf. He is my father-in-law’s second cousin. That’s a stretch, but my wife, like me, has a small family. It takes a stretch to find relatives, particularly the eccentric ones. Seeing them is a must when passing through town. These people are the bridges to the secret gardens of our past. Their mannerisms and inflections hold the clues about where we came from, who we are.

My wife hadn’t seen Rolf in 10 years, but with less than 24 hours’ notice he eagerly met us to take us on a tour of the city—his city. With a key in hand, he led us to the 300 year old St. Nikolai Lutheran Church. While the church itself is a beautiful structure, its real value to us on this day was the view from the steeple.

Here, 35 or so feet up, we took in the exquisite views of Schwerin while Rolf gave us the history of the city from each angle. And then Rolf made a decision. Our grumpy 5-year-old was tired of walking and climbing. He was on the verge of staging a sit-in. But Rolf figured he just needed a better view so he hoisted him up on his shoulders as we rounded the steeple.

My little man was a champ, clutching Rolf’s 74 year old head but showing no signs of angst. Maybe he sensed that despite how precarious this scene looked, he was actually in the safest of places. He was being held by a man with a lifetime of wisdom, supported by the able legs of an old runner.

Rolf told me he was a middle distance man in his youth. In fact, he’d run 1:51 for the 800, this at a time when the world record was 1:45. Mind you my German isn’t great, but he told me a story that sounded like he once lost at the line to Jürgen May, the preeminent runner in the GDR at the time, only to have May tell him, “You’ll need to try harder than that.”

With that in mind, my confidence in Rolf holding my son only inches from sure disaster was actually pretty high. In fact, my confidence in everything he did was soaring.

Later, we toured the city in his car, a Hyundai with a busted muffler that advertised his presence even more than his charm. He drove painfully slow as he pointed left and right at the landmarks. People were urging to pass him and when they did, he’d take a moment to read the region code on their license plate. He’d then mutter some very specific and choice words about them based on where they were from, a favorite German pastime. Even his insults invited a feeling of community and togetherness.

He disobeyed every sign he didn’t agree with. At one point, he crept the Hyundai up to the sand’s edge of the beach on the south side of the lake, just to give us that much better of a look at the great Schwerin Palace.

Rolf carries the Socialist spirit of the GDR, one that says no place is off limits for it belongs to everyone. He easily mitigated any judgment lobbed his way about this sense of entitlement with a compliment and a wave. People accommodated us easily. Rolf wasn’t breaking rules, he was just following the old ones.

These rules are in direct conflict with the new order of things. After unification, Westerners rushed in and bought up property in this storybook city. They took over, relegating the inhabitants with no means to second class status. Rolf withstood this with some savvy investments in apple fields, but he is one of only a few to do so.

Gentrification is everywhere. A new apartment building is going up across the street from where he lives. It will block the afternoon sun that has warmed and brightened his place for the last 47 years.

Rolf carries very little resentment about this. He accepts that change takes place. But he’s not giving up on his world view, which says that materialism is limiting.

Even when we talked about his old training routines – 10 x 400 meters in 60 seconds with short rest – he didn’t want to dwell on it for too long. For him, numbers hold very little value. The measure of things is not his 800 meter time, or his 74 years on this earth. It’s not the age of the church or height of the steeple.

Value is found in human interaction. Shared laughter is currency. Warm sentiment is how you make change.

The measure of a day in Schwerin is the width of the smile on a grumpy kid’s face; the one you can’t see because he’s on your shoulders looking out.