Lives, like particles in physics, can be charmed and strange. I claim both.
One afternoon last April, we felt our way through the small town of Alfeld-an-der-Leine in Lower Saxony (distinguished from another Alfeld in Bavaria) just as the setting sun cast its last light where there was any light at all. Eventually we reached our goal: Walter Gropius’s 1911 Fagus Werk, some administrative offices and production space for an important German shoe manufacturer. Approaching the factory gate at about 5:15, the plant had already closed for the day. But the gates were still ajar, so I approached the guardhouse, hoping the night watchman spoke a little English. Beyond bitte schön, bier and a few useful terms in restaurants, I’m at a loss to be little more than courteous to German speakers.
I explained that we—my friends Richard, Jeremiah and myself—understood the grounds were closed for the day, but would it be at all possible to at least step a few meters inside the fence and take photos, while the light still allowed, of Herr Gropius’s iconic administration building. He said certainly and I waved Richard and J.J. through the gate after me. The peachy brick was almost orange in the last light of day. We had only moments.
As we did what architecturistas do, I watched a short barrel of a man—who might easily have been an extra in “Lord of the Rings”—approach us from the guardhouse. We were about to be expelled, I feared, but instead, without any English on his part, I understood he was asking us to follow him to the on-site museum (of whose existence we were clueless). He on a forklift and we in our rental car, the convoy drove counterclockwise behind the factory, parked and walked toward a service door in an older part of the plant. He gestured to follow and we found ourselves passing through a locker-room of sorts and then through a fire door into the ground floor of a four-story heavy-timber building that must at one time have been a factory itself. Miraculously, it had become the lobby of a marvelous world-class museum whose extent we could only guess. Our husky friend indicated with a few gestures and fewer words that we were free to enjoy its wonders.
We rode the elevator to the top. Four floors and two hours later, we learned the importance of shoe manufacture in the pre-WWI German economy and the character of Carl Benscheidt (1858–1947) who founded the Fagus company in 1910. [We learned, coincidentally, of an enlightened business perspective that would have seemed alien, even incomprehensible, to the executives of Bain Capitol Ventures.] Not once during our visit did we see another person; not once were we asked to pay an entrance fee; not once were we interrogated about how the hell we’d got beyond the security checkpoint.
It was dark when we left, driving past the guard and waving a grateful thanks from three American tourists who’d encountered hospitality rarely found at home. Would that Agincourt had such an attitude.
Perhaps it did.