Before going to University I took two months to travel around Europe with a flashy InterRail ticket. The first stop I made was in the picturesque German town where I spent some of my childhood: Koblenz. Returning there as an adult (well, young adult) was a stirring experience from start to finish.
I arrived at Hamburg Airport with my giant rucksack strapped to my back and a smaller “day back-pack” strapped to my front like a massive beer-belly. One of the key items I held in my inventory was a large book, about as thick as a dictionary, of all the major train schedules across almost all of Europe. It’s fascinating to consider how I lugged that massive pain-in-the-ass book around half a continent when now, some ten years later, I can access all that information and more from my tiny touch-screen pocket computer. Anyway, at the time it was an incredibly useful book. The first thing I did with it was find an over-night train from Hamburg to somewhere on the other side of the country. My plan was to over-shoot my actual destination in order to have a free night’s accomodation. This ingenious plan did slightly back-fire however as most of the seating was reserved so for a good few hours I stood at one end of the train carriage with both of my back-packs still on. I was so tired that I tried to lay my head down on the top of the bag strapped to my front. And that’s how I fell asleep. Standing up.
Storming the Castle
Koblenz stands on the Rhine river. Over-looking the city is it’s towering protector: the fortress of Ehrenbreitstein. Although there are still a couple of rusty cannons dotted along its walls the structure has turned its corridors into a museum and opened up some of its main rooms to be a youth hostel. Clearly the idea of spending a night in a castle was intensely appealing, so after my night of sleep-standing I made my way across town to the site of the castle.
From my youth I recognised the name of the place but I couldn’t recall ever having been there, so I was reliant upon the vague map in my guide-book to get me there. The structure stood atop something bigger than a hill but smaller than a mountain. So finding the actual place wasn’t that hard, it was the getting in part that I struggled with. After at least an hour of traipsing around the area, which included going up and down the hill twice due to wrongly reading signage, I finally found the youth hostel perched at the very top of the castle. As I approached the entrance I noticed a sign pointing in the direction of a cable car. It seems most people take a ten-minute cable car ride to get to this point. I guess I’ll use that next time.
Once I’d finally checked in it was time to retrace my tiny footsteps from yester-year. I started off by going to the apartment where I lived with my mother, father and newborn sister from the ages of four to eight. I’d already decided that I wasn’t brave enough to ring the bell and ask a total stranger if it was cool for me to wander through their abode. I was happy enough to look at the building from the outside. Around the back I spied our balcony. I used to play in the large rectangular flower-pot there with my X-Men figures. The plants were as trees to them. Below the balcony was a parking lot in which my mum had tried to teach me how to ride a bike. Unfortunately I wasn’t too hot on the idea and it wasn’t until many years later that I finally learned.
A lot of things happened in that apartment. I cracked my sister’s head open by pushing her off the couch. I stole two Deutschmarks from my dad. My mum made awesome cakes. My dad stayed up all night assembling a giant Lego pirate ship as a surprise for me. Playing Hide and Seek one time my sister paused her seeking, while I was hiding, and began peeing; I began laughing. I tried to climb a cabinet only for it to come smashing down on top of me – I was unscathed but my dad’s valued beer glass collection was completely wrecked (he’s still a bit sore about that …). My Mum tried to teach me how to use an Iron – I burned my thumb. I discovered Heavy Metal via a Billboard cassette of Iron Maiden’s Piece Of Mind album – the first time I played it I ran out of the room, terrified. Me and my sister played together in a large cardboard box for days, maybe even weeks. And I had the best birthday of my life. I spent nearly all day playing with my new Transformer (a big Decepticon truck), eating giant orange Tic Tacs (they were individually wrapped, roughly blueberry sized, and came in a huge version of the classic container), and endlessly rewinding and playing my new VHS tape of the Ghostbusters cartoon (not the movie one).
Actually, I think I’d still enjoy doing that now.
After the apartment I made my way to my first Primary School. It was a tall, impressive-looking brick building that stood at the end of a long street. It didn’t seem quite as daunting a place as it once was. I remembered lunch times. I remembered my desk. I remembered impressing my friends with my Game Boy collection. I remembered buying yoghurt from the school snack shop (yeh, that’s the kinda thing German schools sell to the kids – yoghurt and healthy crackers). I remembered my first fight, two red-faces circling each other, a whirl of fury followed by the feel of the ground. I remembered the time a girl I liked was walking on the opposite pavement to me; as we neared school we shouted things to each other; suddenly she whipped up her long skirt, flashing what was underneath with a cheeky grin; I, stunned, smacked into a lamp-post and landed a few feet back.
After being wistful in front of the old school for a few minutes it suddenly occurred to me that scruffy, bearded men standing in front of schools is not such a great look, so I scampered off. I wandered aimlessly through a river-side park. It was not long before I came across a memorable sight. There was a playground I used to play in which I always remembered for having an enormous wooden pirate ship. In my mind I saw a captain’s cabin, I saw a functional crow’s nest, I saw billows of smoke floating off into the sky as we blew our enemies to smithereens. All of this was still present except it was about a quarter the size of my memory-ship. The captain’s cabin was little more than a hole and space beneath one end of the deck that kids could crawl into. The crow’s nest worked as one would expect but it wasn’t nearly as high as I thought. As for the smoke and smithereens, kids were still running all about the place, blasting bad-guys and spraying spittle-smoke with explosive raspberries.
For a cheap lunch I bought some food in a supermarket and sat down for a picnic in the park by the river. As I sat there making simple sandwiches, a man came over and addressed me in German. Once it was clear that I couldn’t understand him he used simple English and gestures to explain himself. He was asking for some food. He was unkempt and draped in dark scruffy clothes. I didn’t see any harm in sharing my budget lunch, so I gave him some bread and meat. He sat down on the grass next to me and started to chow down. I thought he would leave after he finished eating, but he stayed. Our conversation was minimal. People gave us side-way looks as they passed by. Yeah, it was awkward.
I gave my farewells and vowed to never have a picnic again unless I was accompanied by a hamper, a playful dog, a beautiful woman, or at the very least someone who doesn’t look like a hobo.
The time I spent back in Koblenz was kind of like walking through a dream or flicking through the pages of an old dusty book. I welcomed all of those distant memories gladly, for even the bad ones form integral blocks in the building of me.
What are your experiences in Germany? What are your fondest childhood memories? Please share them with us in the comments!