22nd September 2012 |
The summer has flown by. I launched the book, visited HorizonsUnlimited in Derbyshire, rode through Germany and France visiting old friends, took Lida on a tour of the UK, and spent ten days with Angel and Teresa in Madrid where they were launching an unbelievably luxurious 40th anniversary edition of Jupiter’s Travels.
Now I’m back in California trying to make up for lost time. Well, you could hardly call it lost, it was packed with good things.
One memory has haunted me, though, and that was an evening in Duisburg, so I’ve written a little essay about it.
Although I have a good friend in Duisburg, probably the only thing that keeps me going there is my old motorcycle. Duisburg would not be high on a list of picturesque and historically significant German towns.
It was a steel town, like Sheffield, or Gary, Indiana, one of the cities which make up that part of Germany called the Ruhr, where vast mills smoked up the heavens and spewed forth the tanks and artillery that overwhelmed Europe twice in the last century.
But the glory days of Krupps and Thyssen are over. The immense factories stand idle or are converted to other uses, such as offices or museums.
During my first visits, in the nineties, the town shared in the general prosperity of the economic miracle. Today it suffers seriously from unemployment, and is generally shabby, unkempt, and not at all what you expect to see in Germany.
My bike is an old BMW Funduro, and my friend Dirk Erker, a master mechanic, keeps it alive for me so that I can run around Europe in a pleasing and economic fashion. When I go to collect it I usually spend a night there, and in the nineties I got into the habit of visiting a particular restaurant in the centre of town.
It was the kind of place that’s dear to me Ð old-fashioned, comfortable, business-like and unpretentious. There were no windows onto the street so that it had a very private, almost club-like feeling. When you went in there was a large polished counter to the left, displaying various beer pumps, and a few tables to the right. All the furniture was wood and everything was very solid and grounded.
The back of the room was raised up like a dais, with a couple of steps and a railing, and there were more tables up there. The customers all looked as though they had been there for ever, and were obviously known to the two severely practical ladies who ran the visible part of the establishment.
The kitchen must have been in the basement because the food came up on a dumb waiter. The menu was quite broad and the wine was very reasonable. I was very fond of the North Sea muscles that were brought to the table in huge specially designed pans, but all the fish was good.
Duisburg is on the Rhine river, a broad and busy waterway, and all those cities on the Rhine feel very connected to the North Sea. I used to assume that the restaurant was eternal, a permanent part of the town’s social life, and although I only visited very rarely it comforted me to know it was there.
This summer, for the first time in many years, I had to spend a night in Duisburg again and I was looking forward with delight to an evening at that restaurant. The centre of Duisburg is quite small. I used to find my way easily without knowing the street names, and I knew the restaurant by the black beams and white plaster on the facade outside. I had never made a note of it’s name and I simply walked to the street where it should have been but when I got there I thought I’d made a mistake. The street was wider than I remembered and, as is the fashion in many European cities, it had become a pedestrian-only area. I seemed to have lost my bearings and I walked around the city in vain for almost an hour. Then, back where I started on that broad pedestrian precinct, I began to take in the scene.
It was decked out in the usual street furniture that indicates a prosperous and active community, clusters of globe street lamps, kiosks, benches, and little arcades. But the happy couples, the merry shoppers were missing. It had a miserable, neglected air. There were a few groups of young men looking lost and faintly aggressive, with beer bottles dangling from their fists. Women scurried past bent on some other business. There was melancholy, and litter.
Then it came to me that all this must have been accomplished in a great wave of euphoria since I was there last. To widen the street the restaurant must have been demolished to make way for a department store that was now desperately trying to move its goods at ridiculous discounts.
I noticed an older man sitting on a bench beside his bicycle. He was in shorts, almost bald, with a neatly trimmed grey beard and youthful, evenly tanned skin, but what struck me most was that, unlike everyone else in sight, he seemed eminently contented.
He had a gleam in his eye and gazed about him with a benign air as though everything was exactly as it should be. I asked him if he knew anything of my old restaurant where they serve North Sea muscles, and described it to him as best I could. He made an honest effort but he couldn’t help.
“There’s a fish restaurant at the end of this road called the Nordsee,” he said, pointing in the direction of the railway station. “Perhaps that’s the one. It’s very good.”
I walked there, about a quarter of a mile, but the Nordsee was like a fast food joint, new and shiny, and surrounded by glass windows. Over the counter were big, illuminated pictures of various fish dishes as though the clients couldn’t be counted on to read or, at the very least, imagine what a plate of fish would look like.
The place was empty but nevertheless I ate there and the food was unexpectedly good. I was the last customer, and the manager, probably Turkish, was making a minute inventory of every last morsel of food left on the counters before closing.
The woman who served me must have been at least sixty, a good-tempered, vigorous person. She said the Nordsee had been there for a very long time and she’d been working there for ages but she knew nothing of the place I’d been searching after.
I said if the Nordsee was old they must have renovated it quite recently but she seemed puzzled by my remark and said, No, and this failure to connect disturbed me.
When I walked out into the dusk I saw, to my surprise, the same elderly cyclist sitting in almost exactly the same pose on a similar bench outside the restaurant. Again he was surveying the desolate scene around him with approval, as though he had created it and found it good.
Facing me across the open space was one other restaurant, a brilliantly lit Subway. I have nothing against Subways, but it struck me as extraordinary that Germany, which boasts the most delicious bread rolls in the world, and stuffs them with the finest array of ingredients, could support a Subway. Although I still hope that somehow I got it all wrong, that my old restaurant still flourishes in some other parallel Duisburg that I missed, I am pretty sure it has gone for ever. Instead there’s a Subway and, beyond it, behind another group of disconsolate drunks, tucked into the corner of the square, a new casino. And this cycle of hope and decadence was all accomplished in little more than a decade.