American author Sally McGrane on why the German spy in her novel “Moscow at Midnight” wears a Jack Wolfskin Jacket
I like to think of myself as a relatively adventurous traveler. But I always remember what a famous American travel writer said, in a talk I went to, years ago, in Berlin. Someone from the audience asked him what he thought of Germans, and he laughed.
“Great travelers!” he said. “You can go to the ends of the earth, you can be all alone, out in a canoe in the arctic, sure that you are the first person who has ever set eyes on this place. Then, along the distant horizon, you see another canoe. And that canoe will paddle towards you, and as it passes, the person paddling will greet you with a friendly hello, and that person will definitely be German.”
His position was there’s nowhere you won’t run into a German tourist. What I might add is that you’ll probably recognize them by the paw print on their multifunction jacket.
I don’t remember exactly where I first saw a Jack Wolfskin jacket – was it the air-conditioned deep freeze of a Singaporean high-rise mall? A snowy ‘hutong’ courtyard in Beijing or a Moscow discotheque? A vaporetto in Venice, a metro in Paris, anywhere at all in Berlin?
I do know that the paw print and the name attracted my attention from the first. Growing up in San Francisco, I was raised on Jack London books. To me, the name and logo always look like an anagram of the itinerant novelist’s name and his classic castaway tale about a literary critic rescued by pirates after his commuter ferry sinks in the San Francisco Bay, “The Sea-Wolf.”
Regardless, if you travel enough, you’re sure to get to know the brand. It’s so popular with Germans as to be almost ubiquitous. When you’re on the road – wherever you’re on the road – you’re certain to see it enough that sooner or later you learn that it’s a German brand and that you can peg your fellow tourists’ nationality in a moment, once you’ve spotted that telltale paw print.
So, a few years ago, when a German publisher told me he liked my half-written spy novel but wondered if I could add a German spy, I said, “of course.” I immediately saw my new character in my mind’s eye. That is to say, I saw what he was wearing: A black Jack Wolfskin multifunction jacket.
As the publisher and I tucked into a spargel lunch at a fancy bistro, a scene came back to me: one time, I was in Davos, teaching a writing class, when I decided to ditch the perfectly-adequate youth hostel the organizers had booked for us and spend a night in the former sanatorium that had been one of the models for the sanatorium in Thomas Mann’s Zauberberg.
You reach the hotel not by car, but by funicular. I boarded, along with a small group of tourists. As we were being silently lifted up the snowy mountainside, I found myself playing the “where are they from?” game. I looked at one couple and thought, maybe Swiss? Until the man turned around, and I saw the Jack Wolfskin jacket. Then he said something to his companion, and it was confirmed – they were German.
And so, in that moment, Heinz Mueller-Heinz, a vegan German spy who once had to eat the Burger King hamburgers served at the opening of the US Embassy in Berlin to maintain his cover, was born. Jacket first.
A few months later, I was ensconced in a beautiful studio apartment on Gogol street in Odessa, racing the clock to finish “Moscow at Midnight,” the spy novel I had promised the publisher over spargel. Max Rushmore, my down-on-his-luck American spy, is trying to save his career and heads to Siberia, where he meets a former Soviet scientist who claims to have designed a time-traveling machine. Inside the machine – very much like one that I myself visited, in a former Soviet science city outside of Novosibirsk – Max has a vision.
Following a hunch inspired by the vision, Max heads to a fictional Siberian town. There, he needs some help. A friendly bartender decides to call the only other foreigner in town. When Heinz Mueller-Heinz, the BND man who will give Max just the clue he needs to solve the nuclear waste mystery, arrives at the bar, he needs no introduction: His black multifunction Jack Wolfskin jacket speaks for itself.
Sally McGrane was born in Berkeley, California, but has lived in Berlin for the last decade working as a journalist. She writes about the culture, business, politics, and science of Western Europe, Russia, and Ukraine for the New York Times, New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, Die Zeit, Monocle, and many other publications. Her first novel, Moscow at Midnight, was published by Saraband Books in 2016.