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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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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Gefangene deiner Liebe

It it crazy hot and glorious, but it seems the whole of Frankfurt is sequestered in offices. The Freßgass fest runs along from Alte Oper to Hauptwache. The street is commandeered by local food and drink stalls, and at night fantastic music plays as hundreds of people released from work steam in the warm evening air, glasses of rose apfelwein and strawberries cupped in their hands. I eat bratwurst, spilling mustard and ketchup everywhere, and feel both touristy and local in equal measure.

I walk to the sizzling, empty riverside to do my Hausaufgarben. A man plays saxophone under the bridge and it echoes so lonely like a hardboiled film-noir soundtrack. I imagine heels on cobbles at night, red lipstick, the discovery of a gun and fast paced derisive dialogue in New York accents.

Each evening now I have my German learning class. It’s a brilliant group, and really fun speaking German with people at around my own level. Every day now I to speak, text and think more and more in German. What bored me senseless at school I now find fun and exciting. To learn another language, even just the basics, is so rewarding.

I decide to buy a children’s book in German to read and translate, but none of the selection in the Hugendubal sale takes my fancy. Instead what catches my eye is a mills and boon style trashy historical romance. The cover depicts a hairy chested man pulling the corset strings on the front of a woman’s dress as she twines her leg around him and pulls up her skirt. The title is ‘Gefangene deiner Liebe’: Prisoner of Your Love. The prologue begins: Durch die große Halle von Castle Roseneath, das hoch über der schottischen Küste aufragte, gellten die Schreie der Sterbenden. Die Eindringlinge kannten weder Gnade noch Erbarmen. Which translates roughly as: Throughout the great hall of castle Roseneath, which loomed high over the scottish coast, rang the screams of the dying. The intruders knew neither mercy nor pity.

I think my German is not quite ready for this. But it’s funny stuff. It can also be regarded as research for when I write my own trashy romance novel to earn a bit of money. Under a steamy sounding nom de plume, natürlich.

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Ein Wochenende

Friday night I decide to walk to Hauptwache. It is warm and still, like a real summer evening. Restaurants I pass every day, sleepily blinking themselves into life at 9am, are now 12 hours later emitting soft light, the musical tinkling of glasses and the buzzing of business people.

As I turn from the cosy Kettenhofweg evening into the open spaces of Alte Oper, I pass bored policemen on motorbikes, as angry teenage girls attempt to provoke them with rebellious glares. Music blares from a stage on wheels, and the crowd drift and surge like magnetic currents. Lights flash and people cavort. This is an anti-‘atomcraft’, or nuclear power, protest. While in Britain it lately felt to me that politics comprised hot headed squabbles and tantrums, sneakily avoiding responsibility and placing blame for the economic situation, and wondering what the Big Society truly means (if anyone knows), here there are regular, genuine protests and debate about more important, existential issues. It is refreshing.

As I wander down Hauptwache, the nature of central Frankfurt on a Friday night is layed out before me. The lack of puking teenagers, angry chavs, offensively small skirts and loud, vulgar talk is strikingly apparent. Here is sophistication, professionalism, business, an adult world. Perhaps not without a glimmer of superiority, smarm and smugness. The streetside seating areas stretch out across the road, spilling happy yuppies and candlelight across cobbles.

The Friday Night Drinking Club and I, over 20 of us I think, have a splendid evening in the Volkswirt. It is a strange thing about expats. Jana is right. She waxes lyrical (möglich ‘wächst’ auf Deutsch?) about new beginnings, all of us severing ties, leaving behind oppressive or stifling past lives to come here. We all have this in common. I stay out much later than I mean to and even dance.

The next morning I travel to Dornbusch, to an English Book Sale. In a vast and eerie housing complex that smacks of a University campus, hundreds of expat families gather and run little stalls selling off their old crap. It feels like I have walked into picket fence suburban America. But I find the book sale at the heart of it all, in an enormous white tent keeping the 27 degree sun off the thousands and thousands of books lined up neatly beneath. I run my hand along rows of paperback spines, gasping in the heat, drinking in that wholesome book dust. It’s almost overwhelming. They are selling books for 50 cents or 1 euro, and I buy more than I can carry.

The festival atmosphere of Römer Platz on the Night of Museums shakes me: it is bright and vibrant and wonderful. But following a rather fun and rather late dinner party I am exhausted and fall asleep standing up as we graffiti the historiches museum, watch some explosions, some old people dancing, and stumble around some art. I make it to 2 out of the 48 or so museums and I cannot go on.

The next day is spent under a tree on a blanket in Gruneberg park. We have staked our claim for territory in a sea of trash; discarded glass bottles and assorted junk scattered across the grass. With our slight hangovers we feel part of it, ourselves the remnants of last night’s parties. We eat salami and warm potato salad. The heat dies down. Das Wochenende ist fertig.

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Thoughts around Frankfurt

The Palmgarten spielplatz is filled with gallivanting savages, shooting jets of water at each other, clambering along wooden constructs, covering every surface, a moving carpet of dirty faced children. As I tread softly through a shaded jungle I half expect a bespiked and rotting pigs head, alive with crawling flies, and a chubby child face down in the rocky streams of the water garden. These are no longer children, but nature red in tooth and claw. Until one falls down, and cries, and runs to his mother’s side, and then reality is restored.

I walk through the centre of town trying to avoid the Royal Wedding, though this has thusfar proved impossible. The weather plummets from a strict sun to bluster, flicks of rain, and the promise of a storm. I duck inside the Kaiserdom. A hundred tortured christs are cast in stone along the walls, hanging from their crosses, their arms bound with real rope and their faces the expression of true suffering. Some languish in the pitying laps of their mothers, and others crawl along the ground bleeding from many wounds. The pain pours out from the walls, supposedly designed to humble you. The pipes of the huge organ jut out at strange angles, like an exercise in modern architecture. The upright pipes stand at varying heights, seeming to reflect the Frankfurt skyline like musical skyscrapers, snug within dirty stained glass. A Japanese tourist in khaki trousers curtsies to a statue of Mary. No one sees but me.

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