Return to Bristol

As I emerge into Bristol streets after my three month absence, their familiarity hits me like a sound wave, a bass line thrumming, veins pounding faster to meet the rhythms. I am crushed by it, flattened like an imaginary wolf by a microscooter on the Kindergarten route, rendered breathless by the rawness of returning to the place that means home. While I know I can live elsewhere, possibly for a long time, I will always experience this surging rush of love for Bristol upon every return. Sunset over the suspension bridge and mud entrenched banks of the river below, multi-coloured houses blinking on the hill, hot air balloons hanging in the sky above Victorian architecture, the streets I played in as a child, roamed around drinking illicit beer and smoking nervous cigarettes as a teenager, laughed my way home from the pub through as a young adult, left, returned to, left, returned to, again and again, paved right into my consciousness. They say to me with a sort of relieved sigh, ah yes, hello, you are back now.

The manmade river slicks onwards, depositing the best of its waters into Underfall Yard to keep sailboats and canoes aloft, bobbing in reflected sunlight. We walk down the chunky slabs of the chocolate path and through the ship building yard, steeped in history and scattered with mysterious boat parts, waiting, like I, to be formed by old Bristol lore into a whole.

Outside the cottage inn, the steps leading down to the water overspill with Sunday afternoon drinkers. To the left, Nova Scotia bench veterans overlook the water and sip real ale. Across from here, the allegedly more upmarket Pump House hosts grizzled Bristolian men encased in a fug of hot chip fumes, patterns of clouds drifting across the sun and their old bare chests.

I have new short self-conscious hair for this new part of life. Bristol is the same but everyone is different. Sands have shifted. I must choose to impose a strict routine on myself, or drift along for a while in lost confusion until life shuffles itself into a new order to catch up with me, or presents some new objective. I don’t know. Returning is always a heady mix of similarity, nostalgia and strange differences.

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A Walk

Today I feel oppressed by cabin fever, too many people, spitting three year olds. I want to climb a hill and sit at the top, but Frankfurt is flat. I reconcile myself to a walk through Gruneburg park, blissfully, utterly alone in the tall grass. Sun and shade battle it out for ownership of the flat green plane, and strong, warm winds whip through the leaves of high trees, sounding like crashing water, or the storming applause of great crowds. The park is empty following sporadic bouts of morning rain. I have some bees for company. Like so often I am mistaken for a flower, and end up disappointing. The grass is tipped with silver when brushed by the sun, and stone-blue in the covering of clouds. I lie on my front, my back burning and my knees wet.

I think about T.S. Eliot and Joni Mitchell and a lot of stupid things I’ve done in the past and the fear of the future and form sentences in German in my head. A wispy cloud shaped like England moves across the sun. More people are arriving in the park, but stick to the fringes on paths lined with silver birches, standing like frail ghosts of the oaks in the middle. A man sits smoking in a yoga pose, centered, ironic. Bored girls throw garish toys for ugly dogs. A siren wails.

I walk north and stumble across the Korean Garden. It was designed with four areas for each of the seasons, lilly strewn ponds in the shade of wooden Korean cabins. This haven of retreat and tranquility has been comandeered by a group of teenagers drinking sugary alcohol and smoking dope. The “balance of Yin and Yang energies” is somewhat disrupted.

Further north again, I find myself in the University grounds. There is a large hollow sculpture of a half-man with his knees drawn up made of white letters and symbols from many languages. I walk right inside him and look up through his head at the sheer emptiness and the low sky.

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Princesses and Cowboys

The kindergarten is having a summer party. I make a cake for the occasion, rising up around sticky apples and chunks of almond. The party begins with a show, kindergarten cuties in costume, the performance of a fairytale. Three princesses are seeking three princes. They consult a wizard, but he is not the best wizard in the world, and accidentally produces three cowboys, resplendent with hobby horses, howdy-m’am hats, and penned-on stubble. The princesses try to turn the cowboys into princes; a four year old girl paints shaving foam onto the face of a four year old boy as he complains that he misses his horses and cows.

During the scene of a royal ball, all actors wearing golden masks and dancing to Django Reinhardt on the jungle gym, the play inevitably goes completely awry and descends into utter chaos. Princesses cavort about on hobby horses, cowboys yell into microphones, and no one stands where they are supposed to. Hilarious. Flustered kindergarten teachers shepherd the runaway play off the stage, and attempt to resuscitate the performance with a song haltingly blurted out by small children in carboard frog masks and duck beaks. Much clapping, cake and coffee later, I make my excuses and depart for another summer party, for animated conversation, aromatic spicy food, and alcoholic beverages.

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Living and all that jazz

I have just finished making a ‘Piratenhaus’ with the three year old. It is layered with many different coloured bricks, it has aeroplane wings forming part of the roof with flowers growing from them, and a pig watching the tv in a chair. We have become very good friends this last week. I spend much time running away from invisible wolves, soaking them with a watering can, beating them to death with plastic garden rakes and carrying the heavy corpses to the rubbish bin. In that wonderful pause before gender stereotypes kick in, he also has a keen interest in ballet and dancing, usually performed with an angelic expression and feet on the Tisch while we fail to cajole him into concentrating on eating dinner.

On Wednesday evening I had made plans to meet friends after my language class, in a bar called ‘Living’ whose upmarketness I had no concept of. I rolled up in chunky black metaller boots, a cardigan much drizzled with baby dribble and crusted with baby food, and a nerdy rucksack holding all of my Deutsch textbooks and my Easy-Learning German Dictionary. The bouncers looked me up and down incredulously, and gently informed me that this was a ‘business party’ (which as far as I could make out from my lowly position in the gutter was code for rich men and hookers). I dragged my friends instead to the soothing dimly lit black and white pasted cave, the Jazzkeller. We drank too much wine, listened to too much live jazz, talked too loudly and got told off. The hazards of drinking with vocal Americans. A man came around with a basket of bread, illuminated by a tiny lightbulb attached, and we snaffled up käse coated laugenbretzeln to soak up the wine. Thursday I was amazed by how much of the final of Germany’s next top model I understood, while we drank from tiny bottles of cheap cava and ate peppery homemade avocado dip and pretzels.

I stretch between England and Germany, tearing like freetorn tin foil in twisted, jagged clumps. I want to stay here. I want to go back to Bristol. I want to carry on learning German in Germany. I want to work creatively with the English language. I want to stay with all my new friends. I want to return to my old friends. I want to be able to buy amazingly good, staggeringly inexpensive meat and cheese from deli counters in utterly normal Rewe supermarkts. I want to get my healthcare for free. I want to buy old rusty furniture for 5 euros at the flohmarkt to möblieren a cosy flat or room in a Wohngemeinschaft, and sit on a balcony drinking (white) German wine. I want to wander Bristol streets in summer drinking beer by the harbour watching live music. I want a German boyfriend, mostly in order to improve my German. I want to drive all over England in my little purple Nissan Micra visiting University friends. I want more Frankfurt creative writing group meetings under trees on old tables and chairs with wine and cheese crackers and reading and writing and talking while bats fly overhead. I want to discover possible career paths (devoid of children) which must be in English as I cannot be creative in German. But let me try…

German ‘ich will’, ich weiß nicht. So English ‘will’ – German ‘werden’. Whatever will be, becomes. Was wird sein, werden. Was will ich, wird klar, mit Zeit.

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Week of the German Salad Crisis

After watching a well intentioned but abominbally executed piece of theatre (American), I make a firm resolution not to go out drinking again, and smugly take a homeward bound U-Bahn. I have caught the 11pm Friday night rush of party-goers heading towards town. Filling the carriage to the brim, sloshing against the sides, is an abundance of sticky lipgloss, stick thin heels that I fear will pierce through my leather boots if enough pressure is applied, short skirts, perfume fumes, and testosterone, this last the sole but prolific male contribution. After Konstablewache, or Konsti as it is affectionatelly known to the locals, a blissful peace resumes as they all aussteigen, leaving a smeary film around the rim. I watch the reflection in the window of a young guy, early 20 something, with completely grey salt and pepper hair who is sitting on the left side of the train. He is beautiful. An old man with a crinkled face like the tough skin of a dried apple sits opposite me and stares. I think he is on his way to the nightly homeless gathering in Hauptbanhof.

When I, last of the U4 veterans, disembark at Messe, I walk out into some strange dim vampyric half-light and realise how little illumination the tall streetlights provide. The age of energy saving lightbulbs. The corner of my eye catches a covered motorbike in a darkened driveway, and I expect it to snort and stomp and fume like a phantom horse. The tricks the night plays.

The next day after a glorious morning at the Flohmarkt, where I drool over old cutlery and volumes of Shakespeare in archaic German script, I return home to help with the kids. The baby wees down my front as I hold him. I forgive him I suppose, but the experience somewhat lessens the romance of au pairing. Otherwise, I am completely immersed in some crazy childhood renaissance mentality. The adrenaline of being chased by a wolf and imprisoned on a street corner as we drive our rollers to the kindergarten. The thrill of holding and handling glass marbles, their colours swirling and twining inside them, miniature galaxies, the smooth cool roundness of them. The strong desire to build with lego, cities like those me and Pete used to construct across an entire room, transport running on string tied between the bed and the window, pulley systems of lifts carrying things (lego people, sweets, secret messages) up and down and across, sneakily eating large spoonfuls of honey and writing newspaper reports about ‘The Notorious Honey Stealers’ to put the adults off the scent…but I digress from lego. Basically I am itching to jump in and play, and could too – this is the perfect excuse. But the three year old is jealous with his toys and tantrums when anyone else touches them. I suppose maybe he is telling me to grow up.

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Yves

A new friend springs upon me on the U-bahn platform at Konstablerwache. He tells me he is trying to re-invent himself as he nears the end of his 20s, by calling himself Yves, silent s, “like Saint Laurent”. I decide not to inform him that to me this sounds like a girl’s name. In the four stops between here and my house, we cover the finer points of my current situation, the English and German economies, politics, education systems and other pieces of drivel. He is blinky, fumbling, and doesn’t stop talking. He almost manages to ask for my phone number a few times, and while he is the absolute antithesis of my ‘type’, and though I stand poised for potential rags and chloroform, as he looks somewhat the sort, I feel sorry for him and suggest the number exchange myself. As he struggles to get to grips with his phone I think, I can always enforce platonicity if necessary, if he calls. Which he does.

We meet in the suntrap outside the extrablatt cafe, me drinking weinschorle and him pineapple juice. His tongue flickers out to lick his lips wetly before he kisses me on both cheeks in greeting, and I hope he doesn’t notice my shudder. He describes himself as a crazy professor and it is fitting: notes spilling everywhere, glasses slipping down his nose, a blazer and enormously oversized shirt over painstakingly casual jeans. I feel so cool and calm in contrast, hiding behind sunglasses, sipping delicately, nodding politely. He tells me about his doctorate on Wagner and that he has problems with his ears since having twelve operations on them as a child. He speaks almost the entire time with his eyes closed, his hands wringing the air and flapping wildly about. He is profoundly nervous, and I curse myself for not making the rules clear from the start. He obviously thinks this is a date, asking if he can ‘invite me’ to let him pay for my drink (which I refuse), asking if he may accompany me to my language class (which I cannot find reason to). On the train in awkward silences he nods like a windscreen dog for long minutes. He shouts that he has been told he must be a German man with an Italian temperament. Oh God, I think, and joke that this isn’t possible. “There are very few things in life that are not possible”, he tells me gravely. I grasp the opportunity of his suggesting future meetings to bulldoze his hopes and dreams, telling him I don’t want to give him the wrong impression, and pretending I have a boyfriend. He apologises profusely, as he has done for the last hour, for anything I might perceive as presumptuous. I tell him we can be friends, but those two wet kisses to my cheeks in parting make me wonder if I can bring myself to withstand another such meeting.

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The Spargel Party

The delicate green stalks and buds of the British asparagul preference are foppish weaklings, diminutive in stature and sickly in pallor. This is the real stuff, the bolshy white spargel. The German spargel season is upon us and my au pair family are throwing a spargel dinner party. Foot long, thick, pap-white trunks and soft heads, drizzled with melted butter, that mush rather than crunch. I can’t say it’s entirely appetising, but maybe because it feels like all pigment and rigidity have been sucked from the stem, leaving a limp colourless pulp, like eating in black and white. The plate as a whole is rescued by three types of ham, smoky-pink and crumbling, and the Frankfurt classic Grüne Soße, which is very green, and seems to be a mixture of creme fraiche and a selection of herbs. We are outside eating on the terrace.Oil burners sear holes of light into the dark tapestry of the garden, table candles flicker ghoulish shadows on the faces of my au pair family and their friends. We have fresh local strawberries that smell like my granny on a childhood summer day.

Earlier we spent an hour moving wood. It was like some rural vision, albeit featuring an ikea delivery rather than axe and block. We formed a chain and stacked logs against the wall, under the terrace, up the steps. Why they are stocking up on an absurd weight of firewood when the summer is beating against Frankfurt’s windowpanes like an angry ghost I cannot fathom. I enjoyed the sweaty splintery manual labour and the smell of resin that even now lingers in my clothes as the dregs of wine are drained from their bottles and my eyes close slowly on the spargel party scene.

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