I once met an extraordinary man called Luis, who made me promise I’d write a book about all the other incredible men I’ve also met (platonically), and title it “Men I didn’t want to sleep with”. You can read Luis’ story here.
This is the story of Frank.
The essence of life is statistical improbability on a colossal scale. Richard Dawkins
One day, while I was sitting in a café writing my master’s thesis on transnational European parties running for the European Parliament, I received a message on Couchsurfing. It came from an 18-year-old German boy with baggy clothes and long, dishevelled hair, shown hitchhiking in the photos he posted. He said he would only have been in Bologna for one day and that he absolutely had to meet me. I get a lot of these messages because kids see that I travel all the time and think I must have all the answers to life’s questions. But the truth is, no one is really at peace, no one has anything figured out and no one has any answers to the mysteries of life.
I tell him that I only have time for a quick coffee because my thesis is due. Half an hour later, an elegant forty-something gentleman with short grey hair and a serious man’s briefcase arrives at the café. And that’s how I met M., a lawyer who is a member of the legal services of the European Commission, i.e. one of the lawyers who defends the European Commission in the courts. He was in town that day to give a special lecture at the Bologna Business School. A serious man with a rebellious hippie past and heart, extremely sensitive, deep and tormented. The profile on Couchsurfing was not fake: it had simply never been updated in the years of his transition from rebel hippie to career family man! Our 10-minute chat turned into two days of wandering around the bars of Bologna, very long discussions in which we told each other the stories of our lives, talked about politics, ideas and books, and for much of the time we discussed the structure of my thesis. I admit that without his help the thesis I submitted would have been rubbish. After that, he went back to Brussels.
Two months later, I receive an email. “Hello. M. has told me everything about you. Come to Brussels for a drink. Yours, Frank Schwalba-Hoth’.
I google who this Frank is and discover that he is an important figure who co-founded the West German Green Party in the 1980s, who was a member of the European Parliament and who is one of the most important networkers in Brussels. I reply “Ok, let’s meet on X day”. He replies “Meet me at the London Bar in Brussels at 18:30”.
I then buy a Bologna-Brussels plane ticket leaving Monday morning and returning Tuesday morning. I ask M. to host me at his family’s home, go to work ballot counting for the Italian elections, finish work at five o’clock in the morning, get dressed and then head for the airport, with only a book and pyjamas in my backpack.
Frank is a robust man with white hair and a beard, sensitive and intelligent. We sit down at the London bar and start talking about our lives, at one point I say something he finds moving and he starts to cry. He tells me about his adventures and I tell him about mine. I really don’t understand why he wanted to meet me. After hours of chatting, I tell him that I have to go, and that I had a plane the next day in the morning. To which he replies ‘No, you don’t have a plane tomorrow. This week in the European Parliament there is the Brexit vote and you have to come to see it. I want to introduce you to the leader of the Khmer Anti-Poverty Party of Cambodia who is coming to see me and I have to introduce you to some people in the Parliament. Change your flight, meet me here tomorrow at nine in the morning. And your blouse is too low-cut, take this scarf and put it on tomorrow. Ah, I forgot to bring the money for a taxi, can you please lend me 50 euros?” A little shocked, without asking any questions I go with him to an ATM, withdrew 50 euros and give it to him. “See you tomorrow,” I tell him.
Being friends with very special people around the world I have come to learn that they are guided by total trust in destiny and in other human beings and that they expect the same in return.
For the whole week, I have no idea what I am doing. Every morning we meet at the same café, me and Frank’s trainees from all over the world. Every morning at the café Frank hands out the itinerary of meetings within the Parliament and for upcoming events within the EU quarter for the day and everyone decides which sessions they want to attend. Frank often comes with me and introduces me to other visitors and Members of Parliament I knew about from studying them at university, making the week feel totally surreal. He was well accustomed to the EP rules in regard to access to meetings allowing me the privilege to attend numerous meetings of committees and delegations.
Frank doesn’t give explanations, he often vanishes into thin air. He doesn’t have a mobile phone. The only way to contact him is either to send him an email to which he rarely replies or to phone the landline in the London bar and ask if Frank is there. When we are in the bar, calls often come in and the bartender shouts “Frank!!!”. Whenever he sees interesting people he gets up and goes and asks them who they are, what they are doing there, and what they believe in. Frank has his own way of always being the centre of attention: primarily through his unpredictability and sudden disappearances, but also because he acts as a conduit, connecting interesting people to one another and making them feel as if they were the navel of the world.
The first time I was with a group of Frank’s friends, he introduced us to each other like this: ‘Can you guess, which of you is an international Karate champion who won gold medals at championships in Asia? Which of you was forced to bury tens of thousands of bodies in a genocide and was kept alive to bury the bodies just because he could play the accordion at night for the soldiers? Who hitchhiked 5600 km in 15 days to protest against Brexit, transports organs for transplantation around the world and worked with the Inuit in Greenland? Who elected Miss in her country of origin?” The seemingly normal people from all over the world around me laughed and tried to guess. Once a month Frank organises an international dinner where 30 to 40 extraordinary people are invited and he introduces them to each other.
When Frank introduces you to someone, highlighting all the things you always thought were flaws as if they were unimaginable virtues, you suddenly feel special. And that’s the secret of influential people: not that they do great things, but that they make you feel great.
Frank never said anything about himself. The little information I knew about him came from snippets of conversations we had, from googling him, and from indiscretions of people who knew him.
As a young man, Frank grew up in an exclusively female family in the forest of Bismark in Northern Germany and has been in charge of the European Union office of Greenpeace. Being a student of literature, politics and philosophy in a medieval city, he would buy roses and when he saw a sad woman in the street he would give them to her to see her smile and then walk away.
He was one of the first Green parliamentarians in a German state, an ecologist and a pacifist. A difficult position to hold during the Cold War. One day in that Parliament there was an official ceremony in which American generals were to be honoured. Before the ceremony, Frank had gone to a laboratory to have two vials of blood taken, and during the ceremony, he protested the stationing of US nuclear missiles in Germany by spilling his own blood on the medals of the perfectly clean uniform of the commander of the V US Army Corps, General Paul S Williams. Because even if they are on your side, generals are still indirect murderers.
After that episode, Frank fell out of favour, and just like Puidgemont did, he then continued his political career in the European Parliament. While he was an MEP he gave most of his salary, which he considered too high, to charity. One day we were attending a parliamentary session and he pointed out to me that some MEPs were missing. He explained to me that sometimes parliamentarians have to go to work on committees and that when he was a parliamentarian he would leave a plant in his place to make it clear that he was not absent but working in another room.
Every morning before entering parliament, Frank would take all the scooters that had been left haphazardly near the entrance and put them into an orderly line. And he would say, ‘Take a look when you leave, all the scooters will be in a line. You only have to arrange things once to inspire people who come later to behave properly.”
On 23 January 2020, MEPs voted in favour of a positive recommendation regarding the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement. After the vote, Farage and the happy MEPs pulled out UK flags and started laughing and waving them around. Over the microphone, they were told “put the flags away!” The Brits kept waving and laughing. The voice said, “I repeat, put the flags away”. No reaction. The President ordered “Get out of the room!” The British left laughing.
Adults only pretend to be grown up and to have outgrown childhood, but it’s a lie.
The whole week I was there, I couldn’t figure out what I was doing there. Every time I asked Frank he would run away or avoid answering me. If I asked M. questions, he would tell me that he didn’t know Frank very well and had no idea what he was up to.
On the last day, after meeting Puidgemont in the canteen and learning that before the referendum in Catalonia, he had been in Corsica studying my beloved Corsican rebels, Frank gave me back my 50 euros without a word.
At the end of the day, Frank pleaded with me “Don’t go away!” “Frank, I can’t stay. I have to get back to my son and hand in my thesis!” “All right, never mind, I’ll see you in March anyway” “I can’t come back in March” “Yes you can, here, I have something for you” and handed me a flyer advertising the European Women’s Leadership Award 2020 at the European Parliament, with my name written among the awardees. Apparently, most of the people I had met during the week were in whatever way involved with that selection committee to decide whether I deserved the award, an award given to “women who at a certain moment of their lives, have decided to follow their dreams, to break with traditional obligations around them, to challenge male-dominated areas, to act in a respectful way in order to provide an example to those women who do not (yet) dare to raise their voices and to develop their potential.”
A prize given to women who had surely been punished their whole lives for the same actions and attitudes for which they were now being lauded: for their rebellion. An award that only Frank could have come up with. Therefore I came back to Brussels in March and received together with women from Afghanistan, Belgium, Cambodia, Congo, Israel, Morocco and Taiwan during an intensive ceremony that award.
Yesterday, I wrote an email. “Frank, What’s the most important thing life has taught you?”
He replied: “Just being born is a present, the best present there is. I am grateful to have the chance to take an active role in contributing to the well-being of this world, guided by my five main values: respect, responsibility, empathy, compassion and authenticity.”