Fear and Loathing in Lego-Land.
A tour of the surrounding villages. An introduction to the local fermented beverage.
The importance of location.
All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.
- Martin Buber
Fremdes Pferd und eigne Sporen haben bald den Wind verloren.
- Old German proverb
Finally, a bus belched its way into view and just two changes and 90 minutes later I was at my next appointment, at a town-house on Bonn’s eastern outskirts. The suburb was relatively new and the houses looked like they had been built that very morning out of Lego – right down to the cone-shaped conifers in the front gardens and the white-painted fences separating their tiny patches of lawn. As I rang the bell, a man in the next garden was moving his conifer two nipples to the left. He eyed me suspiciously, removed his plastic hair and wiped his brow.
The flat had been furnished exclusively from IKEA and laid out exactly like an IKEA showroom, right down to the generic “art” on the walls. Everything had been arranged to the nearest tenth of a millimetre, including the curly bamboo (a firm favourite in German households, bistros and business-hotel buffets) in the “Kastar upp” vase and the “Järnväg” placemats on the “Smör” dining table, the “Spigfisk” throw-rugs on the “Växjo” sofa, and the IKEA catalogues on the “Snusfläck” coffee table.
“I like to cook”, whined the bleached blonde twenty-something girl as she showed me the kitchen, replete with unused “Gubbil” cooking utensils, “Tomten” stools and “Juligen” crockery. A rack of “Färlikt” knives had been hung for ornamental purposes on the wall above the “Snygg” sink.
“But usually I am too tired”, she continued, “so I just get pizza and watch the TV”.
She scratched disconsolately at a pimple on her cheek which the layers of foundation hadn’t quite concealed.
“It’s really very well connected with transport here,” she ventured.
“Only 40 minutes to Bonn Hauptbahnhof.”
She pulled out a tape-measure to realign the “Hjävla” rug in the hall with the “Äcklig” sideboard. I thanked her and let myself out. I walked to the bus-stop on the corner; but realised that I would have to wait nearly an hour before the next one came by.
A thimble-full of clear yellow liquid, trying desperately to fizz, materialised from the murk.
I headed towards where I thought there was a main road, to see what other connections there might be; but I soon became disoriented in the tangle of identical residential cul-de-sacs and crescents, stacked with identical houses with identical flower boxes, identical ornamental shrubs and identical garden gnomes. Finally I found a small corner pub and decided it would be best to call a taxi. Through the smoke haze I ordered a beer, and a thimble-full of clear yellow liquid trying desperately to fizz materialized from the murk. This was my first encounter with “Kölsch”, the brew which is religiously consumed within a 30km radius of Cologne. After a second “Stange”, (translated literally it means a “rod” and is an apt description for the tiny, narrow 200ml glasses that Kölsch is served in) I asked the barmaid if she could call me a cab.
Two beers later a blast from the horn of a Mercedes informed me that the cab was waiting. I paid and found my way through the smoke into the street.
It was now fifteen minutes since I had asked the taxi driver to take me to the nearest train station and for some reason we were on an Autobahn.
“Is this really the shortest way to a train station?” I asked.
“It’s much quicker this way”, the driver assured me.
“Where are you from?” he asked, to distract me from my line of questioning.
“Oh, Australia, very far away. Australia very large, very beautiful land. People very nice.”
“Where are you from?” I asked him.
“Anatolia. South Turkey. Turkey very large, very beautiful land. People very nice.”
“How long have you been here?”
“How do you find Germany?”
“It is very large land. Many people.”
Ten minutes later we were in the Bonn Sudstadt and I thought, this place is either bigger than I thought, or we’ve been driving in circles. My next appointment was in Poppelsdorf in a quarter of an hour, so I told
him to forget about a train station and take me to Poppelsdorf. After another ten minutes of seemingly random motion I saw a sign pointing to Poppelsdorfer Schloss and I realised we had, once again, been driving in circles. I told him to stop and let me out where we were. We argued about the fare; he wanted 35 euro and I said it wasn’t my fault he didn’t know his way around and the most I was prepared to pay was 20 euro, but that I thought even that was too much. When I pulled out my notebook and started writing down his name and taxi number, he agreed grumpily to accept 25. I gave him 20 and got out. Later people told me that there are bad German cabbies too; and that it wasn’t uncommon for drivers to try and boost the fare if they knew their passenger was from out of town, especially if the client didn’t speak German.
In spite of the warning, it was the first and only time I had a problem with a taxi driver in Germany. It was also my only negative experience with a member of the Turkish community, in spite of the vitriol which many Germans direct at them.
The look of hopelessness and resignation in the eyes of the existing tenants was usually enough.
I looked at a succession of filthy dumps, almost all of them inhabited by three or four chain smokers, the kitchens like the bathrooms were grey with grime and stank of old grease. The look of hopelessness and resignation in the eyes of the existing tenants was usually enough to scare me off.
The ninth or tenth room on my list was in a fairly modern townhouse in Alfter, a little way out of Bonn to the north on the number 18 tram line. The transport situation was good, and the room was big, with its own balcony and a view over muddy fields which would be populated by strawberries and cabbages in the coming months.
Stephanie was around 40, and her strenuously plucked eyebrows gave her face a look of constant surprise. A double-bass and an accordion leaned casually in the corner of the living room. We talked music over a cup of tea as she helped me interpret the German instructions for the mobile phone I had bought that morning.
Now at least I had a working “Handy”, the English word which some German marketing genius decided should be borrowed and reassigned to mean “Mobile telephone.” Using an English adjective as a noun connected to something totally unrelated to its original meaning seemed strange at the time but gradually felt less unusual – like putting on someone else’s shoes and walking around in them for a while. We had a little laugh about it and Stefanie assured me that it was by no means the worst example of Gerglish in circulation. I would, indeed, later discover far more egregious examples.
The room would have been perfect, except that as Stephanie made a third cup of tea and I was preparing to say I would take the room, two fat, sleek cats walked in through the door; and I’m allergic to the little buggers. My search would have to continue.
I maintained some kind of sporadic friendship with Stephanie for the duration of my time in Bonn, but as the years went by, the ever-less-predictable nature of my shift work meant that maintaining contact with people became more and more difficult. About six months later we bumped into each other and she told me that the cats had run away about a month after I’d looked at the room and now she had a dog instead. That’s better, I thought, I like dogs. Unfortunately the room was no longer vacant. I often wondered how different my experience of Bonn may have been had I moved in there in spite of my cat allergy. Maybe they would have run away sooner. Although, it’s equally possible they would have sensed my discomfort and stayed. Cats are like that. Cat lovers regard it as an endearing quality. The rest of us do not.
Eventually I found a room in Dransdorf, a once separate village on the same tram line as Stefanie but one stop closer to the town centre; and just around the corner from Konrad Adenauer’s childhood home. There were plenty of trees, the area seemed nice and quiet, the flat was five minutes’ walk from the tram, across the road from a second-hand store, and there was a Greek take-away just around the corner. Location, location, location. My soon-to-be flatmates Sebastian the Bavarian, Matthias the Christian and Armin and Sarah the vegetarian goth couple, seemed relaxed and pleasant. They all spoke English reasonably well (better than my German, at any rate), the apartment seemed clean, with a fairly well-equipped kitchen and a small grocery store nearby. I was ready for my first experience of a German “living community.”
But, it was still a couple of days before I could move in and there was no room back at the Jugendherberge for me. The Düsseldorf and District Hiking Club for the Old and Old at Heart had booked every one of the hostel’s 550 beds for the weekend; so I decided to make the best of it and do some sight-seeing. It’s not every day you wind up in Germany, after all. I took a little train ride into the countryside.