On the surface, Mark Twain and I have nothing in common. Twain was a cranky Southern gentleman (with occasional bursts of quite ungentlemanly language), the quintessential Mississippian with that very American cockiness that most of our fellow travelers have. In Innocents Abroad and the subsequent A Tramp Abroad, Twain turns an unforgiving and merrily satirical eye on all things foreign, and writes about Europe at the end of the 19th century. He makes fun of customs and linguistic hangups, teasing and exploring, and at times, outright insulting those he comes across in his travels. Twain the satirist is in full form.
I am a sarcastic, slightly less cranky Pakistani-American girl from New Jersey, which makes me what Twain would have called “a damn Yankee.” I’m forgiving of my fellow humans and appreciate all things foreign. My sensibilities are global, and while I indulge in satire myself, my tongue is not nearly as sharp as Twain’s. I traveled to Europe at the beginning of the new millennium, nearly 125 years after Twain. Yet we share a common affinity: for a tiny German college town we both loved.
“One thinks Heidelberg by day—with its surroundings—is the last possibility of the beautiful; but when he sees Heidelberg by night, a fallen Milky Way, with that glittering railway constellation pinned to the border, he requires time to consider upon the verdict,” said Twain.
I remember walking to the castle grounds late at night with friends on a crisp autumn night before Halloween. The apartment I shared with my best friend was up on the mountain, a 7 minute walk from the castle grounds, and that night, we sat on the edge of a parapet and looked down at the city in all its twinkling glory. Next to us, the castle ruins were lit up in their golden light, and below us, the Neckar River lapped gently against the cobblestoned walkway, other students walked along the alleyways, snippets of drinking songs wafting up to us in the cold night air, and the lights of the town snaked along the river, creating a veritable constellation in the stillness below.
Twain writes: “The summer semester was in full tide; consequently the most frequent figure in and about Heidelberg was the student. Most of the students were Germans, of course, but the representatives of foreign lands were very numerous. They hailed from every corner of the globe—for instruction is cheap in Heidelberg, and so is living, too. The Anglo-American Club, composed of British and American students, had twenty-five members, and there was still much material left to draw from.”
The summer before that autumn night, I sublet an apartment in the middle of the Old Town, and instead of feeling like a foreigner in a strange country, I shared the indignation of every other Heidelberg student in the summertime as we fought through crowds of tourists on our way to class. There is no air conditioning in Germany, but our apartment buildings of concrete kept the heat at bay, and in the evenings, a light breeze would blow from the direction of the river, just down the street from my apartment window. German windows have no screens and can open both outwards and tilt inwards. On summer nights that I didn’t spend in raucous conversation with my other university friends (on the benches outside the dining hall, in the various pubs and coffee shops, at faculty parties and festivals), I would sit on the ledge of my window, both panes opened all the way out, and listen to the radio while looking out over the trees with the perfumed white flowers that lined the banks of the river.
I have met many people who’ve visited Heidelberg over the years. Somehow it comes up in conversation, with random strangers I’ve struck up conversations with. Germany would come up in conversation, followed by Heidelberg. Those who had been there got that familiar dreamy look in their eyes, mirrored in my own. The unanimous feeling was that Heidelberg is someplace truly special, indescribably rare, and heart-wrenchingly lovely.
Sometimes the enduring magic of a place transcends distances between experience, geography, and time. Twain and I could not be more different in our ethnic makeup, our experiences, our regional differences, or the disparities between our respective eras. Yet the notoriously cantankerous Mark Twain was not unmoved by the city I love so dearly. His passages on Heidelberg in A Tramp Abroad have a lighter tone, a certain softness that belies Twain’s usual satirical bite. He is moved enough by Heidelberg and its customs to spare it the poison of his pen. After all, if the stories are true, Heidelberg was the place that shook loose his writer’s block. Shortly after Twain took a raft trip down the Neckar River in Heidelberg, he published his most famous work, Huckleberry Finn. Still doubtful of the connection? Consider Heidelberg’s translation into English: Berg is the German word for “mountain,” and Heidelbeer? The root of the name? Why it translates to “huckleberry.”
Zainab Chaudary works in politics by day and as a writer by night. Her blog, The Memorist, ruminates upon travel, religion, science, relationships, and the past, present, and future experiences that make up a life. She tweets @TheMemorist