When I was twenty-three, two friends and I decided to travel to go behind the old iron curtain, to see for ourselves the land of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Czars, and revolutions. Our youthful sense of adventure, limited funds, and innate frugality led to two days travel before we arrived in Moscow: overnight flights to London (the cheapest place to fly into in Europe); a day breathing out money in London before Ryan Air out of a second London airport to Berlin; a night in Berlin and discount fares on Air Berlin to Moscow. A circuitous route, to say the least.
Our frugality didn't stop there. No, cheapskates that we were, we arranged to stay with friends of Hungarian Annie's uncle in Russia and friends in both Milan and Rome, where we traveled after our Eastern European adventures. Only our night in Berlin was without a host.
So, with the aid of a German friend, we wrote to a friend of a friend in Germany, to see if they knew of anywhere in Berlin we could stay. A person named "Basil," (in my head, BAY-SIL, like the herb) wrote back, saying that we were welcome to stay at Basil's place, located in the Turkish quarter of Berlin. I accepted. At first, I assumed that Basil was a woman, like Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler of my childhood reads.
As we corresponded, however, I began to have my doubts. Basil had three roommates: a Macedonian man and two Italians. The tone of the emails, though in broken German, sounded more like a man. By the time we arrived at the appointed metro stop and called our gallant host, I was not so surprised to find a tall, bespectacled German man (pronounced BAH-SIL).
Basil-the-man took us on a "cruising tour" of Berlin, showing us the train station, pieces of the wall, and the place where Hitler shot himself before we arrived at his apartment above the Turkish coffee shop. He regaled us of stories of graduate school and his parents meeting while studying with Joseph Ratzinger. As I lay on my pallet on the floor, listening to my friends' continued conversation with Basil, I wondered what made me question the masculinity of the name Basil, whose patron saint was a bearded Greek bishop.
The answer was thanks to my mother and grandmothers, who never fully abandoned their maiden surnames-- two out of cultural practice, one out of feminist principles-- let alone their first names. No, as a child, I remained ignorant of the whole proper-women-use-their-husbands'-first-name thing. By the time I learned of this custom, Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler existed only in the far reaches of my memory, the name Basil long enshrined as an aspect of her femininity.