Saturday, January 31, 2015

In the memory of Jens Hansen..

I wrote about my ten-day-road-trip across Europe in the summers of 2013 in a travelogue titled Two Men And a Car []. Jan Peters was my travel mate. Apart from the thrill of being on the move, nomadic way of life, the travelogue documents the profound experience of walking on the ocean floor to reach the island of Langeness in the North Sea, just ten kilometres off the mainland in western Germany.   
The profound walk on the ocean floor

We walked barefoot on the seabed to reach Langeness, almost a 10-km walk. Twice a day, for about six hours, when the tide is low, the water drains out and you can walk from the mainland to the island……there was ankle-deep water with thousands of sticky, white, gelatinous, mushroom-like objects all over the seabed. I concluded they were jellyfish, waiting for the water to return. There was hardly any wind, the conditions were ideal for walking. I was told that I am damn lucky to get this weather. When we were halfway there, the mainland behind us was a bright line, bisecting land and sky. On the other side, the island was still hidden. The sun had set, the sky was deep blue, the water on the ocean floor reflected the sky. A deep blue infinity surrounded us. We stood in the middle of this emptiness like inconsequential dots.

We stayed in the island of Langeness for 36 hours. Jan worked here for a year as part of mandatory civil service, some ten years ago. 

The island is sparsely inhibited. Cattle and many kinds of birds migrate to the island in the summers, like tourists, and outnumber humans by many fold.
We roamed around, cycled, witnessed vastness of ocean unfold before us, sitting in the sun, by the lighthouse at the far end of the island. That day it was hot, no breeze. But sun means fun in Germany.  

Jens Hansen/1982/Photo:Rainer Schulz
This note is in the memory of Jens Hansen—the grand old man of Langeness—who spent his entire life on this island. Though, remained stay put here, a herdsman who lived close to the nature, away from the mainstream and the mainland, he had a profound world view.

Photo: Jan Peters
I have never met him nor will ever meet him--died few years before I came to this island. But, I seem to know him well.
Jan introduced me to him by revisiting his life and his personal space. We peeped into his locked apartment from the big, dusty glass windows. It’s very basic, simple, but affirms his values, approach to life. “Nothing is changed,” Jan said. Just some inactivity. His absence stays here. But this absence didn’t overwhelm his strong presence reflected by ever article of his personal use. He lived alone, never married, but was never alone. He had a big family, every inhabitant on the island, who lives or lived here, and came in touch with him, was part of his extended family. He is alive here in the lives of those who live or lived here. He has had a profound influence on many lives.
Like that of Jan. He treats him like a grandfather. The life on this island inspired Jan to become an ecologist, instead of a social scientist, Jens played some role in it, but 'minor' says Jan. 
Jan—the civil servant
Jan was initiated into birding here that is become his life-long passion. He travels all over the world with his binoculars that he purchased when he was here.He takes pride in the fact that it still looks fairly new. He existed barefoot for months together. Impressive!
photo: Jan Peters
Jens is buried next to a local chapel. His grave is between that of his younger brother who died sixty five years before him—a young German soldier killed in the last few days of the second World War—and that of his mother who lived the significant part of her life with him on this island.
There is a little museum here, images from his life and times is preserved in the Waddensea House on Peterswarf. It's build on a 'Warf' or an artificial hill, like other houses on the island, to protect against storm-induced-floods and corroding-rough-sea.  
Photo: Jan Peters
Jan narrated to me in great detail about Jens, that he was friendly, age was no bar. And that he misses him but is happy to be back here. He visits this island, often. I read homage paid to him in form of hundreds of letters sent by his extended family and friends from all over the world. They are all complied in a thick folder for everyone to see.

I decided to cook for those stationed there, a new batch had just arrived and the older batch was about to leave. I attempted biryani—meat and rice skilfully cooked together with Indian (used the German) spices. It took me hell lot of time, German chicken take longer to cook. I did manage to cook something that vaguely resembled biryani.

We all sat huddled around the round table, next to the open kitchen, to eat--where Jens would often join the folks for a drink or meal. This space acts as a community room where inhabitants of this house spent time together. We took a minute off to remember him.

This old young man, who is not alive yet present, lived a long and fulfilling life on this island, grew rich in wisdom by sharing it, and his simplicity was key to small pleasures of life. I dedicated this meal to Jens Hansen. And we invited him to join us in spirit.
The folks clapped, their eyes wet.
Recently, I came across a film on his life which I couldn’t follow much because German is Greek to me. But here’s the link:,sendung332776.html  
For someone like me, the visit to Langeness became a sort of pilgrimage.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing! I wonder if I remember Jan, the name rings a bell. I was on Langeness and the station there in 1989. I stayed for two weeks or so and had the pleasure to meet Jens, always friendly, always helpsome, and the good soul of the Warf. I have met many people during that time, but somehow, Jens has a special place in my mind. I cannot explain how, but I often remember the time on Langeness and staying together with Jens. Maybe because I was young and he had a warmth to make one feel at home. One day, we had a flood setting the island under water ("Land unter“) and I had to inform him about this since the major had called to tell people to be prepared. Jens was not there but came home later the evening, when I was trying to fit the wooden beams in fron of the doors to prevent the water entering the house. He just claimed the water would not come that high … and he was right. He had this assuring wisdom of a man who knows his place and his island. And I, only knowing the larger island of Föhr, had the awkward feeling of being dumb. We miss you all, Jens!