Anybody who regularly travels by train knows of Laird’s Law, although they may not know it by that name.
Laird’s Law is an extension of Murphy’s law related specifically to fellow train passengers: If you are sitting next to an idiot — someone shouting into a mobile phone, rattling their brain cells with heavy metal music or shattering the harmony with boisterous intoxication for example — then this person will inevitably be travelling one stop further down the line than you are and you will thus have to endure their company for your entire journey.
It is Friday lunchtime and the group across the carriage are having an aperitif. Pernod. Neat. It is clearly not the first of the day. Beer bottles roll along the floor, the discussion is crude and lively.
They are loud. They have to be in order to talk over both each other and the stereo they have brought with them. At the next station they are joined by another group carrying beer crates between them, the knuckles of their sweaty hands pulsing under the weight.
“HEY LADS!” the one group shouts across the aisle to the other. “WHERE ARE YOU GOING?!” The aisle is two feet wide.
I will be stuck with them for the next six hours. This is also my station stop. I knew a trip to Saarbrücken was a bad idea.
Saarbrücken. Why the hell would anybody want to go to Saarbrücken? They eat their young in Saarbrücken. I’m not even convinced that Saarbrücken exists. I’ve never met anybody who comes from there, and I’ve also never met anybody who’s been there. It may well be a government conspiracy, much like Bielefeld.
There were pictures of Saarbrücken in my German book when I was at school but the books were so cheap and nasty that I can well believe they just took pictures of Watford or Luton and claimed it was a city in Germany.
So why, you might be asking, would I want to go to a place that might not be waiting for me when I get off the train at the other end?
The answer to that is that Saarbrücken is the capital city of the Saarland, the only one of the sixteen German federal states I have never been to. Before I become a German citizen I want to complete the set. I’m also slightly curious to see the city that was the basis for my German lessons when I was a kid.
For me, Saarbrücken was Germany back then. Nobody ever really went to Germany in those days. Even the German teachers were hesitant. Too expensive, they said. We’d have to fly because the only parts worth visiting are down in the south. And so we got a textbook about Saarbrücken.
Like I say, the books were cheap and nasty. You could rub out the ink if you pressed down on your eraser. They still had a borderline running between the Federal Republic of Germany in the west and the German Democratic Republic in the east.
I rubbed it out, just for fun. I also rubbed out the border between Germany and France, Germany and Poland, Germany and the Netherlands etc. Another thing that was cheap and nasty was my attitude.
In the book, Saarbrücken was supposed to be a typical German city but it is not. The French border is only a couple of miles away and the city has changed hands several times. Someone born in the Saarland at the dawn of the twentieth century would have changed nationality five times by the time they reached retirement age.
So here I am; I’m about to find out the truth. The railway station doesn’t inspire confidence. It is orange, it is a relic from the 1970s and it has one of the most impressive collection of drunks in all of Germany.
In most German cities the Bahnhofskneipe, the railway station pub, has been replaced by bagel bars and pink and green outlets selling vegan ice cream. Not in Saarbrücken. Saarbrücken still has several Bahnhofskneipen and my fellow travellers feel instantly at home. I hear loud cheers as they disappear through the door.
I feel like joining them for one. All sixteen states. Who would have thought? Back when I was learning German at school I would never have thought for a moment I would end up here. I much prefered French and so dropped German as soon as I could. Three years of cheap and nasty textbooks should have been the end of it.
That was until I met Frank. Frank came to our school as a German assistant teacher in the same year that I dropped the subject. The motive for him was to improve his English but he really didn’t need it — he had an accent that betrayed just how much of the language he’d picked up in the pubs of Blyth and Newcastle.
His “classroom” was a dark room in a cabin at the far end of the school, something which at least gave him the compensation of an easy escape route across the road and into the bar room of the Fat Ox. I think that’s where I met him, it’s a long time ago and I can’t be sure. In any case, he taught German to my best friend.
He took us both over to Germany one Easter time and introduced us to a world of Bahnhofskneipen and Borussia Dortmund. I was hooked.
Not that I ever thought I would ever end up living there. I was still more of a France fan, but that’s a story for another day. Right now is your German lesson and I’m going to take you on a tour of the Saarbrücken I learned about at school.
Stop one is der Bahnhof: the railway station; we won’t be stopping for reasons I’ve already outlined.
Stop two is die Fußgängerzone: the pedestrian zone. Note the elegant concrete structures, some of which date back to the 1960s. Reminiscent of Moscow, Minsk or Ulaanbaatar although the graffiti is local and contemporary.
From here we move to die Brücke: the bridge, over der Fluss the river. The bridges over the River Saar look like they could withstand a heavy-duty bomb because in the past they’ve often had to.
On the left das Theater and on the right der Landtag: the state parliament. The flags are flying at half mast, it is Helmut Kohl’s funeral tomorrow.
Kohl was the chancellor when I first came to Germany. The next time I came over some seven years later, he had been replaced by Gerhard Schröder — and Frank was also looking for a replacement.
He needed someone to take his job in Dortmund so that he could make a swift departure to his new and better job in Berlin. This was when the phone rang. I was in the area. Having just been fired from a top-level position building Venetian blinds in a factory in the nearby Netherlands, I was cheap, willing and had time on my hands. A solution was found.
I thought I’d stay for a year or so but in fact it was sixteen years ago today. Blimey. Sixteen years and sixteen states? Coincidence? Yes, totally. But I like the sound of it and I Facebook the details together with a photo of my rucksack, a beer glass and the German flag.
Frank is my witness. Sixteen years ago today, he picked me up from Dortmund railway station, we threw my bags into his spare room and headed out to a music festival. I didn’t have time to change: either my clothes (I still had a kilt on) or any money (I had pounds and Dutch guilders).
He lent me a hundred marks and it seemed to buy beers for an indefinite amount of time. I have no idea how I got home –apparently Frank put out an alert to all taxi drivers in the town telling them to look out for a man in a kilt and to take him to a designated address. It’s been hard at times but it’s also been fun, and it’s changed me totally.
Saarbrücken’s not so bad you know. Das Schloss: the castle is a harmonious mix of white baroque and modern glass. Die Kirche: the church, is also a fine bit of period architecture. Saarbrücken does baroque very well. Its problem is not the lack of attractive buildings, it’s the abundance of ugly ones.
There are few ugly buildings in the Fußgängerzone mark two. At the end of the grotty shopping street is a perfectly nice old town. It won’t win any Unesco awards but it’s well looked after.
It’s amazing what a lick of white paint, a few trees and a good selection of gastronomy can do. They take their eating and drinking seriously here: Something of France has rubbed off on them –and there’s plenty of choice.
It’s seven o’ clock and time for an aperitif. Saarbrücken is perhaps the only city in Germany that gets a good name both for beer and for wine. I go for beer and check my Facebook picture. Frank is one of the first to congratulate me.
“Cheers Frank…” I write.
“I’ll pay you that hundred back soon, I promise.”