Hearty Welcomes & Salutations! Originally an action-packed travel blog from a globe-trotting Scotsman, An Ache for the Distance has, over the years, slowed down (I post less often), mellowed out (my dogs and kid have found their way on here) and become more of an expat blog (I German things up). Take a look around, leave a comment and share the love if you like something.
Stuart Mathieson, Lübeck, Germany

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Kaffee und Kuchen

Seldom am I tempted to travel long distances purely for food. There are of course exceptions, like the legendary Mrs Macs meat pie from Western Australia which, purely for the pastry and gravy alone, I might actually consider walking over hot coals and simultaneously sacrificing small woodland creatures, but as a general rule I try and avoid lengthy trips solely for culinary purposes. Taking this latter point into consideration, you may then understand my mild confusion as to why, on a wet, Friday evening whilst whizzing down the Cologne bound Autobahn at a velocity previously unknown to this Scotsman at ground level, I find myself feeling strangely excited at the prospect of my impending Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee & cake) weekend in a friends cosy, familial abode somewhere in the depths of Rhineland-Palatinate.

I must at this point confess that, if you were to put a map of Germany in front of me right now, my fingers would scan searchingly across the it, much in the same manner as a blind man reading brail, and would likely never find the said Bundesland of Rhineland-Palatinate. In fact, unless a city is on the coast or near the edge of the country, it will probably elude the geography department of my goldfish like memory for all eternity. This is unfortunately the same with most other populous nations boasting a hectic central core. England for example is jam-packed with industrious communities at its heart and yet, were I to try and pick out Birmingham or Leeds it would be like Stevie Wonder playing pin the tail on the donkey. But I diverge…

Of course the coffee and cake aren’t my only reasons for heading into the German heartland, the opportunity to visit Cologne and take in the visual splendour of Germany’s countryside are also important, but the sweet homemade delicacies which had been promised in advance definitely hold a lofty position on my list of expectations for the weekend.

After six hours of Autobahn driving we pull up outside my friend’s home in the town of Brachbach. I stumble out of the car and attempt to make use of my sleeping legs. It’s almost 2am and, despite being a novice with German culture, I’m pretty sure that it’s too late for my first slice of sugary sweetness. We head inside, are greeted by the parents and immediately offered some refreshments and sustenance in the form of coffee and cake. A smile starts to creep across my face, I love these people already. Just as my head starts to nod and my belly rumble, my ears catch wind of my fellow weary travellers saying “nein danke...” Unfortunately the curse of coming from a culture which classes having a biscuit with your tea as mildly excessive means that, despite hankering for cake, if nobody else is having some then I can’t either. A British mental barrier that I will sadly never overcome and no amount of counselling can help. As such, an hour later I find myself tucked up in bed with beer in my belly and cakes drifting into my dreams.

The next morning we all take up residence at the dining table for a big German breakfast of meat, cheese, dark weighty bread and gallons of coffee before making our way to the station for the Cologne train. I spend the hour long journey watching the landscape roll by through a dirty, rain-drop smeared window. It’s a bleak, grey day outside and the generous lathering of industry in this part of Germany combines with the weather to create a dull depressive atmosphere. However the downbeat feeling is soon swept aside and replaced by an excited state of anticipation as we enter the city. Never in my life have my nostrils been so open in expectation when stepping off a train. As the place which gave it’s name to macho perfume, I have, for years, believed that Cologne must be a musky but pleasant smelling metropolis. And as such, during the languorous meander from the platform to the central plaza outside the station my nose is pointed skywards and my nostrils to the fore as I waft Cologne in, so to speak.

My sniffing is soon halted by the sight of Cologne’s hefty gothic cathedral parked right outside the station. The main square surrounding this impressive, twin-towered piece of religious brickwork looks like it has been designed with a concrete football pitch in mind. Such is the contrast between the two that the cathedral looks slightly out of place and ill-fitting, despite of course being more visually appealing. We head inside to see if the innards are as impressive. After passing through the large arched doorway we’re immediately confronted by a sea of camera-happy tourists shuffling over every imaginable square foot of the open space. I spy a corner with a table of tea-tree candles flickering happily beneath some sculpted religious scenes and I involuntarily shuffle over and start taking pictures. Normally when I’m surrounded by tourists going trigger happy with their umpteen mega pixels I can’t bear the thought of taking my camera out and being one of the crowd but for some reason this moment is different. Maybe subconsciously I feel the need to be part of a bigger entity whilst in a religious building and, as I’d rather read a Lonely Planet than a Bible, I subsequently open my arms and camera lens to the tourist brethren.

From Life in the Germanic Shires

We soon move onto a communal pilgrimage of sorts, marching upwards in a spiralling fashion, our aim being the top of the cathedrals towers. The staircase boasts over 500 steps, all of which lead you in a never ending clockwise twirling ascent. They’re the kind of stairs where if you were to take the roof off the cathedral and look down, you’d be faced with a large concrete washing machine with people inside on a very slow and tightly packed spin. Upon emerging from the cycle at the top, not only are you greeted by some impressive, heaven bound spires but also a generous helping of wire mesh hindering every possible view point. This leaves me slightly unnerved as, in my mind, there are only two possible reasons why the wire is there. Either the cathedral is a popular spot for suicide cases looking for an adrenalin rush before a squishy end or the birds of Cologne are very possessive of their airspace and the pilgrims need to be protected.

Now, if I were to lose my lust for life and thus see no future, I don’t think I’d put myself through a rigorous 500 step, spinning workout before leaping off a tower to meet my maker. I haven’t given suicide much thought but I imagine if I had to then I’d go for a much easier way that doesn’t leave a stain on the pavement. And so with this in mind I’m grateful for wire mesh, despite it hindering an otherwise clear view down towards the Rhine and central Cologne, for I do not wish to have my eyes pecked out by a demonic crow.

From Life in the Germanic Shires

After 10 minutes of wandering around the top and reading the graffiti etched onto the historic walls we make for the stairs again. Going down is far more interesting than the upward slog as not only do you have the benefit of the wider side of the triangular, “wedge of cake style” stairs, complete with a banister and little windows, but also you get to watch others struggling whilst going up. About two thirds of the way down we pass an Indian family and for one of the uncles it is clearly a little too claustrophobic. He had stopped dead in his ascent and clung to the wall much in the same manner as a 3rd class passenger to a lifeboat on the titanic. He doesn't look as if he's going anywhere in a hurry and so I refrain from telling him about the remaining 300 steps.

We stumble dizzily onto the streets outside the cathedral and weave our way down towards the Rhine. The sky is still hanging low like a grey blanket over the city and it makes the Rhine look suspiciously murky and unappealing. The tourist ferries are, however, still doing a bustling trade and the bars and restaurants near the river front are packed with happy, contented folks. There’s a weird feeling of seasonal confusion as the summer joggers bounce along the riverside promenade but in amongst the bars there is a Christmassy twinkle to the lights and the sense of an approaching winter as some outdoor drinkers sport scarves and various other winter regalia.

We walk along the water front before meandering into the old town and enjoying the sudden transformation in architecture. Such was the destruction of many German cities during the war, Cologne included, that in the post-war reconstruction period, architects who seemed to be primarily inspired by shoeboxes and concrete, were given free reign to design a new city. And so it is that when you suddenly find yourself in a world of cobbled streets and narrow lanes away from the modern Cologne of grey, square boxes it’s a highly unexpected pleasure. I find a beer museum on a side street but decide not to go in for fear of spending the entire day there. Instead I content myself with a quick photograph before continuing the exploration of the old world. We wander up a small narrow lane and step out into a large rectangular square the size of a football pitch. It’s surrounded on all four sides with bars and restaurants and when faced with such a plethora of establishments boasting beer taps, it’s difficult to say no. A small but refreshing Kölsch beer is soon quaffed and a plan of action is hatched involving a tour of the main shopping street, followed by a consolidation of drinking activity in the Cölner Hofbräu.

From Life in the Germanic Shires

We subsequently do our best to enjoy a relaxing amble down Cologne’s main shopping thoroughfare but the density of shoppers means that it feels more like dodgeball than a leisurely stroll. By the time we reach the end of the street I’m more than happy to dive into the aforementioned beer house. As I step through the front door I have a strange sense of having been here before. However it’s not until we’ve ordered a round of beers from the particularly smarmy waiter that I realise this place is exactly like a small version of Munich’s legendary kitsch Hofbräu Haus, except here there are no buxom waitresses or lederhosen clad oompah band.

Another distinct difference being that in Bavaria a litre of beer will lighten your pocket to the tune of €7 whilst in this particular establishment you are bestowed a mere 200ml’s for €3. Now, maths is most definitely not my forte but when it comes to beer related numericals I know when I’m being had. However love, money and logic do not always mix well and as such I find myself ordering a second with a view to possibly stealing a glass. The waiter, a perfect example of arrogance personified, seems to be able to read my thoughts on this small matter of theft and he eyes me cautiously for the remainder of my patronage. He flicks a quick smirk as we leave and I instantly regret not smearing the table with mustard and accidentally spilling the salt and pepper.

Despite the unique brand of service in the bräuhaus, we’re in a happy, buoyant mood as we hop down the steps next to the cathedral and make our way over the plaza del concrete and on into central station. A quick scan of the departures board reveals that we are an hour too early and so we retreat back to the steps by the cathedral and join the youth of Cologne lazing outside in the weak autumnal sunshine. The hour soon passes and I’m slightly amazed at how quickly it disappears. Sitting on your backside doing nothing for 60 minutes should, by definition be boring. But when confronted with a large area packed with people happily minding their own business and shuffling from one unknown destination to the next, it takes on a zoo like quality. I had even started to think about information boards for some of the more permanent members of the exhibition. Nothing too fancy, maybe just a brief definition of the word “emo” or perhaps the daily habits and routines of an average tramp. It could be Cologne’s newest tourist attraction with guides and an interactive corner where you can prod at a drunken hobo. The kids will love it…

However I’m soon whisked away from my grand venture by one of Deutsche-Bahn’s double-decker trains and left to ponder what could have been. The landscape outside is slowly being covered by a veil of darkness and by the time we reach my friends house in Brachbach there is a definite chill in the air. His house looks warm and inviting from outside and as we step through the front door into a sea of warmth I hear those beautiful words, “Kaffee und Kuchen?”

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

The Woes Of An Addict (Part One)

Travel is an addiction. It’s as simple as that. It shares with drug abuse and alcoholism all the major addiction symptoms. Withdrawal effects, desire for a bigger and better highs and, quite often, no real control over ones actions.

This latter point is very much on my mind as I sit in my Hamburg apartment, glued to my computer, scanning the outskirts of the city on Google maps. It’s a beautiful 30C summers day outside, there isn’t a cloud in the sky and the majority of the populace are doing the right thing by lounging in parks, relaxing and generally enjoying a lazy day. I, on the other hand, am hatching a plan involving four train rides, kilometres of physical labour on a bicycle and a morbid tourist attraction in the form of Neuengamme concentration camp. Like I say, it’s an addiction…

My tourist attraction of choice is actually so far from the city that it’s completely off my Hamburg map and as such I desperately resort to scribbling a route from Google onto a piece of paper. I turn the computer off, get myself ready and head off. I study my home-made map as I lock the front door and realise it looks like a treasure map drawn by a retarded pirate. The possibility of getting lost in suburbia looks quite likely.

I walk out of the apartment block into a wall of heat and make my way to the U-Bahn (underground) station. It’s an easy 2 minute cycle but by the time I get there I feel disgustingly hot and sticky. I take comfort from the chap standing next to me at a pedestrian crossing, his light grey t-shirt informs the world just how hot it is by being almost entirely dark grey with sweat. I haul my bike up the station stairs and onto the platform. A train pulls up almost immediately and I inwardly thank the public transport gods for the efficiency of the Germans. Three stops later I’m at Berliner Tor station and looking to change onto a suburbia bound S-Bahn train. I get lost in the myriad of tunnels and I’m forced to surface onto street level to hunt down the different section of the station.

I manage to find the adjacent S-Bahn quite easily but, my pride in my own simple accomplishments is soon shattered by the realisation that by breaking away from the rest of the human traffic, I’ve made myself more vulnerable to attacks from the clip-board and question wielding fraternity. I’m accosted at the entrance by a Frau armed with the board, a pen and a plethora of guilt inducing scenarios complete with monetary solutions stemming from my bank account. Being very aware of my own financial plight, it crosses my mind to strike the first blow and ask her for money but instead I claim complete ignorance of the German language and, with an apologetic look, walk straight past her. She shouts questions at me in fluent English and we have an increasingly distant conversation as I continue walking towards the platform.

The train arrives after a couple of minutes, I wheel my bike on and realise that outside it’s 30C but inside the compartment it’s 40C. Everyone looks like they're being cooked. It dawns on me that these carriages are almost completely air-tight for rain protection (Hamburg’s normal weather) and little thought has been given to the occasional hot summer’s day. Only two small windows at the front can be opened and air-conditioning is non-existent. Death by public transport, a novel idea…

The train driver announces each station we arrive at, but he does so with a very distinctive muffle, as though he might be eating socks for lunch. I resort to counting the number of stops to go instead of trying to understand what he might be saying. I slide off the train after 10 minutes of baking, 3 kilograms lighter and with a thoroughly soaked t-shirt, confirm that I can count by checking I’m at the right station and then make for the streets. As I walk out into the sunshine and hop onto my bike, I realise that my hastily drawn and increasingly retarded looking map has no directions from the station itself. Brushing any doubt about my navigation skills aside, I set off in search of the first street on my map. I quickly make my presence felt amongst the locals as I free-wheel along on the wrong side of the pavement. At least I think that’s why the old women are scowling at me. Or maybe I’m on the wrong side of the street too? Perhaps it’s a no cycle zone? Do I need a license to ride a bike in Germany? This is after all the spiritual home of bureaucracy. Whatever the reason behind the scowls, I flash them a big toothy smile that I hope they interpret as “Feck off crinkly!”

I find my first road on the treasure map after a brief but extensive tour of the local vicinity and I’m soon fighting my way past roadworks, building sites and throngs of shoppers. Not the leisurely country amble I had envisioned. I persevere nevertheless, perhaps because the idea of getting back on a sauna train so soon strikes sweaty fear into my core, and I’m soon wheeling my way down a large but mainly empty thoroughfare, skirted on either side by red brick houses, more reminiscent of Manchester than Germany. After 5 minutes of brisk pedalling I reach a sign for Neuengamme. I swing right onto the long straight countryside road toward the camp and begin my 6km slog in the afternoon heat…

From Life in the Germanic Shires



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