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The Magic Mountain
by Thomas Mann

Field-Tested by Rosecrans Baldwin

in Cape Town, South Africa

My roommates were two Americans and five white South Africans. The other Americans and I were students, renting rooms in a group house, a beat-up, pink Victorian house with parakeet-green shutters and a heavy metal security gate.

The South Africans were a mix of 40-somethings and 30-somethings. One of them grew pot in the backyard; his plants ringed the fence like green forsythias, fencing us in. I've forgotten his name, but I liked him a lot, this cheerful, broken-nosed, stout Afrikaaner, and I remember he spent half the year working high-rise construction in the city for lots of money, then spent the other six months surfing, living in a tent near Jeffrey's Bay.

Nights were nearly always the same. The furniture salesman would undo his tie and roll a trumpet-shaped joint. His yappy girlfriend would start dinner, and the record producer's girlfriend, lending a hand, would occasionally snap because she couldn't get a word in edgewise. The surfer, well stoned, would come find me to see if I wanted to play chess. Usually I was reading.

I was homesick, and I remember The Magic Mountain as both a wonderful escape and a familiar story — I had an easy time identifying with Hans Castorp's gradual acclimation to the sanatorium. At first, South Africa was very uncomfortable. Apartheid had only recently ended, and people were impatient for their new government to fulfill its promises. There was no common feeling of safety like in the States. Crime was high. Several friends were mugged or robbed. The days were hot, and we had no air conditioning, no car, but gradually I adapted. I figured out how to get around. I went out to clubs, I met people, I felt safer walking around at night. And when I flew back to New York for Christmas (with the book finally finished deep in my backpack), I found myself wishing I wasn't going; I remember sensing that I had significantly changed, though I wasn't sure how.

Rosecrans Baldwin is a founding editor of The Morning News where he writes the Letters from Paris column. His stories have elsewhere appeared in the New York Times, The Nation, and on NPR's "All Things Considered."

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