29 March 2015, Sunday – Journey to Le Vernet (4)

We board the bus. In Digne-les-Bains the driver stops in front of an Asian restaurant, where we have lunch. Noodle soup is one item on the menu. I explain to Christa and Alexander that they should – they have to – slurp the soup loudly, otherwise the cook will think they don´t like it. This is normal in Japan. And indeed, we hear loud slurping sounds from the neighbouring table. We immediately do the same and have fun. It´s nice to laugh.
We get back on the bus, drive a short distance through the town and stop in front of a building which looks like a town hall. Patricia Willaert, the chief magistrate, meets us.
I´m glad to leave as I am absolutely shattered. I wanted to be in the mountains with Jens and would like to have stayed longer but we had no way of knowing that the Japanese group were on such a tight schedule.
When we arrive in Marseille we retreat to our hotel room, lie down on the bed and look for German stations on TV. For the first time I notice the beautiful view of the old harbour and the banks opposite. I open a type of French door and discover the enormous balcony with its comfortable chairs. Not bad! But I feel like I´m in another world. The reason we´re here is in stark contrast to the sunny reality.
Although my body and soul are hurting, I´ve been feeling a bit better since we were in the mountains.
We decide to take an evening walk around the city. As we leave the hotel one of Jens´ Japanese colleagues approaches us. He asks if we would be willing to meet with other families at 10:00 PM, as the president of the company is arriving directly from Japan to offer his condolences. He would very much like to see us as well. I sense his unease as he knows the Germans. He understands that we´re very tired from the stressful day and could easily refuse, but we say we´ll be there. Why should we snub the Japanese? We would also like to meet Jens´ boss. His colleague smiles at us, relieved.
We walk along the old harbour to the sea. It is extremely windy which is usual on the coast.
I´m feeling low but at the same time happy to have been able to be close to our son high up in the mountains.
We walk up a narrow alley lined by rundown buildings where I would not want to be alone at night or better yet, at all. Then we head back to the hotel and make our way to the designated room.
The families and employees are waiting, as are the General Consul and his staff. We sit next to Nakamura-san. As so often, her face gives nothing away.
A few sentences are spoken in Japanese. Silence. I whisper with my husband. Eventually I use the opportunity to try out my Japanese skills, which are enough for small talk. They look at me delightedly. We chat about this and that. All of a sudden they burst out laughing because try as I might, I just can´t find the right vocabulary and try to describe something using another word, which obviously sounds strange to them. Nakamura-san grins while she explains the correct expression. We also laugh loudly. The mood is more relaxed until the president arrives. It is immediately quiet. He speaks haltingly and a staff member translates into English for us. He offers his condolences and honours the two colleagues who were killed. There are many long silences. The Japanese try to start a conversation and ask me what the mayor of Le Vernet said to my husband and me. I answer in English. Silence again.
Later we find out that this was the president´s last official act before retiring. Apparently he is usually cheerful but the disaster was hard on him.
The silence is getting longer and longer and weighs heavily on us. Finally the meeting is over. As we say our goodbyes a young Japanese woman hurries over to me. She also speaks no German and asks if we know the schedule for tomorrow. “Yes, we do.”
She repeats the question.
I answer, “We know everything for tomorrow.”
Suddenly she flings her arms around my neck and begins to sob terribly. She is shocked at the senseless deaths of her colleagues, especially of Jens’, who she had worked most closely with. It turns out that she had been his assistant. We hug each other for a long time and cry. The Japanese are upset and stand in the background, while my husband puts his arms around us to comfort us.
We feel like we´re on a roller coaster: highs and lows. At first we were laughing and once again we are deeply sad.
We raid the minibar and sit on the balcony till long after midnight.

© Brigitte Voß / Translation: Ellen Rosenbaum

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