A few years ago, my Mum and Dad came to visit me in the heart of the Rhineland. It was a Saturday afternoon in early September and the towns were buzzing with visitors enjoying the last of the summer wine before the new stuff appeared later in the autumn.
It was approaching lunchtime in Ahrweiler, a tightly packed cluster of medieval origins on the banks of the Ahr, one of the Rhine’s many tributaries. Sensing there might be a rush, we dived into the nearest restaurant, a quaint old place with vines round the door.
The waiter, already rushed off his feet, showed us the last table in the place, a table for two to which he hurriedly brought an extra chair. It was only after we were sat in that we had the chance to look round and realise that my father and I were the only male patrons in the whole place.
The rest of the clientelle consisted entirely of a mothers’ outing, a coachload of jocular, well-dressed women in the magnetic prime of life who had come down on a day trip to enjoy the scenery over a glass or two of wine. Looks were exchanged between them, followed by sniggers, in-jokes and hoots of laughter.
“This all seems very…jolly”, exclaimed my mother slightly nervously.
“Isn’t it?” I said, forgetting momentarily how much my voice can echo on occasions.
“Don’t worry, you’ll love it. Just sit back, relax, and hang on to your man.”
The entire restaurant fell about laughing.
I tell this story for three reasons. Firstly as a warning that you must never, never assume that Germans don’t speak English. Secondly as a reminder that Germans like a laugh as much as British people do, possibly even more so. And thirdly in order to introduce the otherwise pointless revelation that ten years later I am standing in front of that very restaurant.
Every trip has to end somewhere. This is a big country and there’s so much more I’d like to have shown you. While I may still be an EU Brit, I am also a citizen of the Federal Republic of Germany. I started this tour nine months ago to explore what I was getting into and, having now signed on the dotted line, there’s no point in prolonging the deliberations. I’m only sad that we haven’t seen everything I had in store for us.
Unlike Heligoland, Kaub, Moresnet, Görlitz, Dortmund, Werningerode, Bergen, Ronneburg or even Duisburg; the Ahr valley has no wider significance in Germany’s story except perhaps to prove that you can get good red wine here if you know where to look — and that when you find it you should get in quick.
But’s nice here, full of happy memories, and it’s one of my favourite places in the whole country. Every journey must come to an end and in a couple of hours, this one will be over. But the Ahr is the kind of place where one can prolong a moment; if not indefinitely then for a few precious hours.
It’s just before lunch and the snow is falling. Lightly at first, splashing and disintegrating into puddles but slowly gaining momentum; settling at first on the trees and the vineyards which line the steep slopes of the hills then gaining in confidence and lying unchallenged on the roofs.
The Christmas markets are open and starting to turn a serious profit. Shoppers in immaculately presentable hiking gear pick their way over the film of ice that covers the bridge from the railway station to the market square. When it comes to Christmas in Germany, nothing is a showstopper. Germans are nice people really; open-minded, generous, welcoming, slow to judge, even-tempered. Just don’t fuck with their Christmas markets, that’s all.
Despite the terror headlines from last year it’s business as usual — as it is in the football stadium, on the train, and everywhere else. Germans love “Keep Calm and Carry On” merchandise actually. Like the British, it could have been written for them.
I stop long enough for one Glühwein before heading over the bridge to the station. Snow or no snow, we still have a little work to do. The train is delayed and immediately I get that feeling of disadvantagement that comes when one realises one has been deprived of seconds.
When it arrives, cutting deep gaps in the snow as it rolls up the single-track line, we are treated to one of the finest train rides in all Germany. The hills are bare now, but they sweep down to the track’s edge as we twist and turn and vanish though tunnels towards our final destination.
Forest creatures peer out from behind trees or pick their way cautiously across the steep slopes of the plantations. Nature is reclaiming the land; in spring the process will be reversed as the grapes start to sprout once more.
Journey’s end comes twenty minutes later, for me at least. The other passengers can continue uphill for the next twelve minutes where the land flattens out and the line stops — but I jump out a couple of stops earlier at the village of Altenahr.
Stepping out onto the virgin snow, I’m conscious of how quiet it is. There isn’t much to Altenahr, just a street of faded-looking hotels and a ruined castle perched on a rock which dominates both the village and the narrow valley beyond. It’s normally peace and quiet I’m looking for when I come, but it doesn’t always work out like that.
This is not always bad. I once came down here on New Year’s Day and ended up falling in with a group of hikers straight out of the local college. Despite the decade-and-a-half’s age difference, we got on famously, enjoying a mutual love of staggering, bastardising popular folk songs and consuming our packed lunches out of a bottle.
The next year I got an invitation to come back and do the walk again, and the year after that another one. This I did each time, faithfully keeping my promise to bring gin and Dortmund beer. If you have a hobby in Germany then expect spontaneous friendship at every turn.
There wasn’t an invite last year, just a message saying that the group would be spread out all over Germany and thus unable to get together. As it was when I was their age, the lads have all gone their separate ways, to separate universities in towns all across the country. Time marches on; memories linger just that bit longer.
I climb the hill up to the castle, taking my time because the path is icy and today I don’t have to keep up with half-a-dozen eighteen-year-olds. A few more steps and we’ve reached journey’s end. The path turns sharply and drops me onto a small esplanade cut deep into the jagged rocks below the keep.
That’s it. No point in going any further. All you’ll see if you go any further is the inside of an knackered old castle. Before I came to Germany I was an incurable romantic, these days I’m an incurable pragmatist. On a good day, the view from here is spectacular but the snow is coming down thick and fast now; the first shades of darkness are creeping in across a dull white sky.
The silence is broken only by the occasional car making its way along the village street. In summer your eardrums will palpitate to the sound of motorbikes roaring round tight bends but this afternoon the silence and stillness are eery.
This is, after all, not how it’s supposed to be. Silence is golden but it is not the natural state of affairs. The flux, the constant to and fro, the cut and thrust and crash bang wallop of constant change are the way of the world. Things rarely stand still for long.
Up here in the snow and descending fog you feel cut off from reality but in the outside world too things are grinding towards a Christmas truce.
Borussia have fired their coach and appointed a new one. He has until the end of the season to make Dortmund great again. At the moment he is riding on a wave, with the team enjoying a new-manager-surge. It will last until Wednesday, when we meet Munich in the cup and we will lose.
Theresa has her understanding which may one day lead to a deal. Or at least she thinks she does. Already her own party are beginning to unpick it. Unpleasantness and discord will reign throughout the land, but that won’t be today. The knives will probably come out on Tuesday when she announces what Brexit really means.
Mrs Merkel has scarcely even that much breathing space. She has survived for now but she is wounded. The challenges presented are great; if everything goes wrong then I might be able to use my newly won power to vote against her in an early election.
I have great respect for her as a person. In the absence of creative solutions, only hard work and self-sacrifice are likely to take us forward. But having only ever voted for Tony Blair, I see no reason to change a winning formula.
I’m being sarcastic of course, mainly because the cold is biting now. But at the end of the day I’m a leftist, an intellectual, a poor chronicler with high ideals. And those are about the only people who vote for the Labour party or the SPD, its German equivalent, at the moment. I must do my bit for the cause.
One challenge is to change that view of politics. So often, Britain’s difficulties and Germany’s are the same. Continued generation of wealth in the face of global competition for one, distributing that wealth fairly so that age and social class do not become prohibiting factors, ensuring that vibrant diversity does not metamorphose into bitter discord and division. Oh yes, and maintaining a semblance of a functioning society now that the average smartphone user checks their screen 126 times a day.
The vineyards, the Christmas trees, the mulled wine and the half-timbered villages are not the real Germany. The real Germany is vast, it is complex and it throws up new challenges every day. At least the consensus is that going back is not an option. We must fight hard to keep it that way and I intend to play my part. I am German after all, something I acknowledge with gratitude and with pride.
That’s about as much as my toes will allow me to say. The snow has covered my hat and is up well above my ankles and I still have to get down off this hill.
The way ahead is anything but clear but half an hour later I am back on the main street. There are plenty of places to eat and drink and plenty of them are closed, some permanently. I look around for my old favourite, a traditional-looking place with a sign outside the door in English:
“BRITISH TOURISTS!! Get your half-litre of German beer HERE!!! ONLY FOUR EUROS!!!!”
Know your market and target it aggressively, I drink to that.
He is closed but the one by the railway station is receiving guests and has an impressive selection. I go for Schnitzel and Spätburgunder, a super-dry red with a complex bouquet, notes of blackcurrant and raspberry and a lingering finish. It’s good, wasted on good honest drinkers like myself.
It is also tinged with regret. There really is so much more I’d like to have taken in. We could have gone to Munich and deep into the mountains. I could have shown you the Zugspitze, the highest mountain in Germany and the only one I’ve ever failed to climb three times. Or Herzogenaurach, a town divided by the infamous Dassler brothers and their rival sportswear firms Puma and Addidas. I don’t know why but I’ve always wanted to go there.
We could have taken Mainhattan and the opulence of Frankurt’s business districts. Grabbed sushi in Düsseldorf among the largest Japanese expat population in the whole world. Gone to the opera. Or the ice hockey. My Dad will never forgive me for not going to the Wacken rock festival, which lays four kilometres of piping under the ground to transport beer for the thirsty punters. The Nürburgring, the world-famous racing track and home to Rock am Ring, the country’s biggest music festival, is just over the hill from where we are now. We didn’t so much as touch the surface of the weird and wonderful world of German pop music.
We didn’t even go to Oer-Erkenschwick, the village just next to Herne whose most famous son is none other than Leonardo DiCaprio. His mother was born there, he has visited often and once came third in the local breakdancing competition.
We should have gone over the borders more often. Germany has nine of them after all. Only China, Russia and Brazil have more. If you remember that fact then perhaps Germany’s attitude to European integration makes more sense. In any case, we only crossed five. We didn’t even go to the gaggle of places that always make British tourists laugh: Towns like Titz, Kissing, Wankum and Groin. I’m getting silly now, but I’m sure Germany will forgive me. Britain is straight-laced by comparison. I made it up the Zugspitze at the fourth attempt by the way.
Out of the window, the clock on the platform ticks ever onwards. We are being counted out. The glass, once half-full, is now almost empty. The snow has stopped now and sunlight bounces off the white platform. It’s now or never. I drain my glass and step outside. I wish the moment could last a little longer and my wish comes true: The train is two minutes late. Standards are really slipping. I fumble for the ticket in my vast assortment of pockets, grateful that this will be the last time I have to go through this ritual for a while, but conscious that as an addictive traveller the urge to go on will strike soon enough.
The ticket is there, and so is my transport. I take one last deep breath of cold air, appreciate the stillness for one last time, open the door and jump on the train home.
That was, as you might have guessed, the last edition of “Brian’s Brexit Chronicle”. Some people are asking why stop now so I shall tell you: Quite simply, I have run out of stuff to write about. When I started nine months ago, the idea was to write about the experience of being a Brit living in the EU during these troubled times.
The focus has shifted since. What has emerged instead is the story of how I decided to become a German, and exploring I was getting into. Now that I have done the deed, such considerations are academic and it seems a natural time to break.
While I still have strong views about Brexit, to continue airing them here would eventually become repetitive. I am no expert and any such musings would be no more than a private citizen’s rant.
As each post takes the equivalent of a working day I have frankly no idea what I will do with the time but I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience of writing and greatly appreciate the feedback and support that so many people have given me. Without that, I doubt I would have made it. It also means that the chances are good that I’ll start a new project in the near future.
This site and the “Brian’s Brexit Chronicle” Facebook page will remain open, so feel free to browse for anything you’ve missed. I’ll keep you updated as to new developments.
Thanks to all of you and season’s greetings,