My Big Fat Frankfurt Book Fair
by Jen Burke Anderson
She had lived in Frankfurt all her life, the woman I was chatting with on the balcony. All around us the 2018 Frankfurt Book Fair was cavorting like a circus: six airplane hangar–sized halls assembled around an open-air agora swarming with everyone from green-haired cosplay kids to scarf-tucking intellectuals from Die Zeit. The two of us discussed how the fair had changed, her plans for the day, how few good books there were for a certain age of child.
The conversation wrapped up nicely, I made to go, and now I could not move my right leg in a backwards direction.
Just seconds ago, for the first time since arriving in Frankfurt, I’d felt as though I was having a meaningful conversation, an insight into the fair I could never have gotten from the avalanche of gung-ho booklets loaded onto visitors the second they made the turnstiles. My overwhelm had started to ebb as I absorbed one local’s intimate reflections. At last, a moment’s shelter from the maelstrom, a little base camp from which I could get a grip and reckon what an unpublished American writer could get out of it all.
And here I was, not only falling but falling backwards over something — a cylindrical, ground-bolted lighting sconce about the size of a birch-tree stump sliced off diagonally at the top. I’d nearly tripped over the damned thing walking towards it; now it had taken me from career-savvy wordsmith to bystander-endangering clown show. My arms backstroked helplessly through the air as my cross-body bag weighted me sideways and ever backwards through the crowd for what seemed like half a mile.
I am mystified to this day. Not only was I able to swing one leg wide and get this despicable structure behind me (or in front of me, as I fell backwards from it), but to tuck into a pro-wrestler soft roll that allowed me to take the concrete without a scratch.
Flat on my back, bug-eyed and breathless, I now enjoyed an upside-down view of three Teutonic lit-hipsters going totally silent, lowering their drinks to the altitude of their navels, and raising their pierced eyebrows at this fresh windfall from the cuckoo-tree.
I howled with laughter. Alles OK! Alles OK! I cried, ostensibly to soothe the crowd but really trying to assure myself. I had no clue what I had just done.
Restless at 2 a.m., from my tiny Bahnhofsviertel hotel room, I gazed across the street through the giant windows of an all-night game hall. Some local toughs were shooting pool, and I was reliving my fall. Over and over.
It could have ended so badly. I could have even hurt someone else.
But no harm had been done. Such a sliver of time. Augenblick: German for moment, literally the blink of an eye. Why wouldn’t it let me go?
Sure, there’d been the adventure of impressing certain cultural higher-ups not with my literary daemon but my involuntary acrobatics. That wince would not un-wince for some time.
But more to the point, there’d been that loss of control, that extreme fear lasting just long enough to seem like the worst kind of second childhood.
I returned to San Francisco, to an unsatisfactory life I knew I had to change, and fast. The Tumble tagged along as a psychic souvenir.
Shouldn’t my recovery from such a fall have strengthened me, made me less afraid of risk in my workaday life? Why then, the more time went on, the more distance I gained from it, did this memory seem like an omen?
I even tried to write about The Tumble in some amusing, enlightened way, tried to move it to some other position on my game board — but always ended up veering off-topic like someone diving behind the sofa trying to avoid their ex at a party.
The fact is, in late 2018 I did have the nerve to walk into my stable, secure job of ten years and give notice, as I’d dreamt of doing for years. I would live off my savings somewhere east of the Danube and begin the writing career I had tried so long to begin.
But it would take another year, including six months of therapy, to get the courage to give hard notice and set a walkout date. By that time it was January 2020. I was on a plane to Barcelona by February.
How did I get through nearly three months of sheltering from COVID-19 by myself in a Bavarian university town? You can only answer such a question in retrospect, and doing so may result in an entire memoir.
No rational person believes in omens, but it’s almost impossible for writers to ignore patterns. Perhaps The Tumble was an omen in the sense of being (in Germany, no less) a first small dose of cold chaos inoculating me against a situation hardly anyone on earth knew how to handle.
Indeed, Frankfurt was where I would board, in June 2020, one of the tenuous first flights reconnecting Central Europe with San Francisco. Walking through darkened shopfronts in the deserted Lufthansa terminal, afraid to touch anything, I tried to recall the warm evenings and chattering crowds of the 2018 Frankfurt Book Fair. It was like trying to see the night sky from under water.
Maybe now is a good time to go back to that afternoon, with me lying there slammed on the concrete balcony in disturbed exhilaration.
Because that pure, naive moment, unmolested by history or analysis, is actually important. All I could think, gasping away like a seven-year-old having hacked her first roller-coaster ride, was: I wanna go again!
Jen Burke Anderson has written poetry, essays, journalism, fiction, and drama in San Francisco for more than 25 years. Her most recent story, “Situation Aktuell: Fear, Beer and Desolation in 2020 Munich,” appears in the Winter 2022 edition of Caveat Lector. She’s at work on a memoir. Read more at jenburkeanderson.com.
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