House of Salted Caramel

Christoph was a terrible driver. I only drove with him once, and he almost crashed us. Not long after that, he did crash the same car, a cube-like Skoda, and then bought himself another Skoda. He was so fond of the Czech automobile brand, which was acquired by the German Volkswagen Group in 1994. I always assumed his car choice was influenced by his roots.

His students often referred to him as Housi, short for his family name Houswitschka. I addressed him as Christoph. He was born in Germany to Czech parents who never accepted this country as their own, although they were ethnically German. It runs in his family that people feel born in the wrong country. His sister, for example, was an Italian who was born in Germany by mistake. She corrected that mistake as an adult by moving to Italy. This is the kind of thinking that shaped Christoph’s identity. This is how he identified with disintegrated creatures like me.

Nonetheless, Christoph never disintegrated.

He was a true German citizen of the world. I say ‘German’ because that was the language that he spoke by default, despite being the Chair of English Literature in Bamberg. He was a big fan of globalization, immigration, and open borders. He was sometimes critical of his country, as well as the public institution in which he served as an academic. Yet, he was proud and defensive of both, whenever they were under assault by anarchists like me. He cared for so many people from all over the world, that he fragmented himself across earth, belonging everywhere and to everyone. Yet, he still obsessed with his heritage, preserving, and expanding it. He offered it to whoever desired, and still made friendships with those who didn’t.

Christoph was a human proof that Germany could exist beyond its borders, without having to wreck the world.

In addition to being a terrible driver, he was also a reckless cyclist. Sometimes he crashed his bike, and sometimes he hurt himself badly, yet he never liked to put on a helmet. His driving and his cycling had always been my main concerns for his safety until he left unexpectedly. All the sudden, he ran out of air. I always knew he had reasons to watch out for his health, but nothing felt that threatening. He recently told me that he was glad that he had the chance to live 30 more years after he became 60. He clearly had so much on his mind that he wanted to get done by the time we’d reach midcentury. He had so much confidence that the good healthcare system in this part of the world would buy him the time he needed. It never did.

Christoph died of pulmonary embolism on February 10 at the age of 60.

He’s a legend in Bamberg – there is no bigger statue than his in this town. In Golden Ages, scientists were sometimes paid what they weighted in gold. Though, there is no gold in the world that is enough to pay for Christoph’s wisdom or knowledge. He wasn’t just man; he was folklore, a complete institute – an actual establishment and a library. Yet, he was modest, equalizing himself to people like me; little infants compared to him. He was proud and confident, but it never stopped him from listening to and appreciating other people. Christoph showed me that the more we learn, the less we know. He was the kind of educator who expected his students not to confirm what he knew, but to tell him what he didn’t know.

I’ve never had a better teacher than Christoph, but his trick really was to be a student himself for life.

U2 Building: First class with Christoph, where I met Sarah & Alex

He had so many virtues, but if I’m to name one today it would be his enormous sensibility. The man had a great bias for action, yet he never took the risk of hurting anyone. He tailored every one of his actions in a way that it would be impossible for the people he was dealing with to be offended. Even when he wanted to help, he was concerned that the person he was helping could be offended by his offers. Therefore, he coated his generosity with so many layers that would insure people were taken care of without undermining their self-esteem.

Helping me amongst many of his pupils was the beginning of our relationship. After graduation, Christoph offered me something much more profound and valuable: his friendship. Friendship could mean a lot of things, depending on whom you ask. I personally find it extremely difficult to explain or define. The only thing that I can say is that there is nothing more valuable on earth than friendship. There’s nothing more generous than calling someone ‘my friend’ if you mean it.

Christoph always meant it.

He’s the second friend that I have lost in two years. When I lost my other friend, I told Christoph that death was merely an illusion, but it’s not. They’re both gone, leaving me with so much emptiness. The thing about friends is that they’re like a lung, you never feel its presence until it fails, and then you feel the vacuum. Christoph was a literal lung; he created an oxygen bubble for me to breathe, in a place where I never managed to belong. He saved my ass several times, at the most critical moments. He had the terrible habit of looking after everyone, and I welcomed his help every time, just like everyone else. Now I must live with the realization that I’ve never really done anything for him.

Is there a bigger regret than that of failing to give back?

I’m sorry for everyone who’s lost Christoph. His loss will be felt for a very long time – probably until we’re gone, too. Yet, I’m even more sorry for those who’ve never got the chance to really get to know him. Those people had nothing to lose, but also gained nothing more. The loss of a great man is inevitable – there is nowhere to hide from that. By contrast, it’s rarely the case for most people to get to know such a great man. His departure is a journey to the darkest corners of sadness, while in all that darkness Housi still shines. He takes you there, breaks your heart and still gives you a reason to smile.

The thought of Christoph tastes like salted caramel – it’s hard to cut off sweet from savory and that’s the whole point.

Alex, Christoph & me at the mill

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