Turning 30 in Germany is a bigger deal than in the USA. In Bremen, where Olli comes from, if a man is unmarried and turns 30, he’s obligated to parade himself through the town square in a tuxedo and top hat and head to the church. There, while enduring the jeering/encouragement of his friends, he will sweep the church steps until a virgin comes and sets him free with a kiss. When I asked for an explanation I was told it was a tradition renewed after the 1st World War and it was because the men at 30 had not fulfilled their obligation to society by settling down and starting a family.
I asked him what the women do if they find themselves unmarried on their 30th birthday.
“Well they used to be the ones to repair the church roof, but these days they polish the door knobs.”
Freud would have a field day with the more modern tradition of spinster women polishing God’s knobs but the fact that they used to be sent up on the roof really caught my attention. Obviously if an old maid then fell off, no one would be widowed or orphaned, making her a more attractive risk.
Other than helping to scrounge up the virgin in the form of a twelve year-old who seemed eager to help out, I mostly stood back and was a spectator for Oliver’s 30th birthday (I lacked the correct credentials). To her credit the young maid forced him get on his knees and beg before she finally gave him a little peck on the cheek under the watchful eye of her father.
When my 30th birthday started to approach I realized that I would be unmarried on the big day, although engaged. Luckily there is no tradition for foreign girlfriends being obligated to polish anyone’s knobs, and there is no access to our roof.
In comparison to my aiding in the solicitation of virginal kisses from young girls (under parental supervision), when it came to my present, Oliver really stole the show. He showed amazing resourcefulness and ingenuity.
I had not given him much to work with; when he’d asked I had refused to produce a wish list. Months earlier we’d gone by an antique shop and I’d mentioned offhand how I would really like something totally frivolous like a painting or some moth-eaten antique, so when I came home and saw a frame covered with a towel I knew he’d taken the plunge and picked out something on his own; I remembered a great portrait of an Arabic man, perhaps this was it.
Taking off the towel I saw it was even better.
I’ve celebrated my last five birthdays and every other major event at this place Makassar, our favourite restaurant; we even got engaged there. All of this has taken place under the watchful, reproachful gaze of the ‘woman with saggy breasts’ painting. It’s always been there on the wall, staring at us often from different locations because the owners have always argued about where to put it. Roger, the one who painted it loves it and Roland, the one didn’t always tried to hide it in the corner. I’m guessing this divided front was what made it possible for Oliver to persuade them to sell it.
**P.S.We were back in Makassar last night and I asked Roger if the painting has a name and his reply was in French, which I promptly forgot. He went on to explain that it was inspired by time he spent in Rwanda and was based on the landscape. Looking at the bosom on the female subject of the painting one can only assume that Rwanda long and flat as a pancake.