I wish I could write. I ought to be able to, because there has been such a succession of characters moving across the screen of my life. But it is useless for me to attempt to do more with these characters than to tell about them as I saw them and to show what they meant to me.
What do you think of when someone says Switzerland? Cheese? Chocolate? Bankers perhaps? Chances are a Rittmeister* wouldn’t be very high on your list. Anybody who looked for the odd or the exotic in life would have been thoroughly satisfied with the Rittmeister.
He was a master of horses by profession and an artist by preference, and a rather remarkable fellow in every way. To look at him, you would believe that he had stepped out of the past, like during the intermission of a play, and had just neglected to remove his make-up and change his costume.
The end to his military career came as sudden as the drop of the blade on the guillotine. End of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, end of emperor, end of country.
Switzerland had been home during my early school years, high above Lake Geneva and I became acquainted with the Rittmeister, and his horse Charodey, on one of my morning rides. We chatted and instantly liked one another (granddad had been of the same ilk, different emperor). I was invited to afternoon tea.
When I arrived the table was set and everything was ready for tea. The Rittmeister had his own way to serve tea. No dainty little teacups with saucers and sugar bowls. He filled the tea glass directly from his silver samovar and drank. Not as we did, he put a sugar cube between his teeth and drank the hot tea from the glass. And I followed suit and enjoyed it. He said; “One has to be completely awake in the present to enjoy the tea.”
After we had finished he ask; “Now, Solnishka what would you like to do? “Let us take a journey through your living room (Reise durchs Wohnzimmer)”, I answered.
And we did, once a week, for four years. For a wayfarer he had been. Destiny had made him experienced in both travel and life and the rooms in his house reflected this. There were exquisite furnishings, walls of books, and excellent paintings; both artists and places unknown to us, for the countries had vanished after WW I. Towns that were everywhere and nowhere and a population of astonishing diversity. The Rittmeister lived in a twilight world suspended between the formalities of the old nineteenth-century order that had shaped his early youth and the innovations and uncertainties of the 20th century. The haunted atmosphere of this world was beautifully displayed in these rooms. I would much later encounter the sentiments again in the writings of Gregor v. Rezzori.
The Rittmeister died in my senior year. Nobody left to call me Solnishka. But with time I learned to see myself through his eyes and realized that once loved, always loved.
Whenever I find myself in the “neighborhood” I visit his grave. When I came at Christmas I found horse tracks in the snow leading me to it...
*Rittmeister (in the German language literally [Horse] riding master or Cavalry master).