For the first fifty-three years of my life at no point did I ever have the slightest desire whatsoever to visit Germany. Now whilst admittedly there is a lot that this country has contributed to the world, be it literature, art, philosophy, science or a host of other stuff, quite frankly none of that made it in the least bit interesting, in short it held none of the allure I felt for lands further south, where there was sunshine & beaches, to sum it up it Germany was purely & simply un-sexy.
Had therefore anyone told me not so long ago that either Frankfurt or Freiburg would be cities that I would want to go to quite frankly I would have thought them nuts. The thing is though life seems to have an unfailing ability to bring you the unexpected and so here I am on a sunday morning cycling through the cosy suburban gentility of Freiburg in southern Germany. The streets a little distance from the centre of town are a lattice of tree lined roads fronted by nineteenth century mansion-houses converted long ago to apartments, balconies bedecked with window boxes over-flow with summer flowers and one is acutely aware that bicycles far outnumber cars. This is a free-wheeling velocipede heaven where two wheels take priority, souped up bikes have trailers carrying straw haired children, enormous bolt on trailers no two of which seem to be the same. This is also the Reich of multiple waste-bins, organised recycling in a society that is green thinking in a neoliberal haven kind of way. An ancient town with a university adds a layer of youth to the older generations bronzed by a life lived in sunshine. I park my Freiburg vehicle of choice at a cafe and sit at a table, the aroma of freshly baked bread mingles with the scent of my capucino & there I sit and watch the world go by.
I am merely a visitor to this city and thus my impressions can be no more than glimpses of how life is lived here and even then coloured by my own thoughts & ideas, but I have a rather strong sense of this town being comfortable with itself, a left of centre liberal ideology in the majority, a richness in the culture, theatres, music venues, opera, a thriving night-time street scene where people meet and eat and drink at a multitude of cafes & bars. Being in the south of Germany closer to Italy than Berlin the weather is somewhat kinder and warmer than more northern climes. The Black Forest on the doorstep has miles and miles of trails and nature to explore. In the city socialists socialise in an open air mittel-klass mass of peacefulness, parents perambulate their children of the corn through leafy streets, kindergartens & steiner schools abound. On street corners covered book niches with free to take book swaps are full of titles in more than one language. Trams ply the boulevards effortlessly moving the good Burghers of the City from one place to another. This is a place to bring up children & to live comfortably, to be part of a family, the idea of which I had almost forgotten, twenty five years later it occurs to me once again.
On a sunshine filled morning the reason I came to Freiburg – a young woman by the name of Anna who I met on a beach in India five months earlier suggests we go for a swim in one of the lakes close to the Black Forest. This appeals to me, and I immediately say yes, she then adds as if it is just incidental that we are to do so butt naked.
I am ill prepared for this but I cannot let my trepidation show. Sure, no problem.
A little later after a bike we arrive at a park, people are out and about, children playing, this could be England, but then when we reach the lakeside an enclave of around thirty or forty Germans festoon the waters edge like a herd of water buffalo. Some stand and chat, others lie prostrate, all are seemingly oblivious to the plethora of bodies around them, every size and shape, penises and boobs dangling everywhere, everybody has not even the merest hint of a tan line. I remove my clothes and lie on my stomach, my genitalia hidden from view and survey the scene, me and my big lily white English ass.
I remain rooted to the spot, and get hotter and hotter with the sun, beads of sweat begin to collect into little rivulets on my skin and drip earthwards. When I can lie there no more I stand up, self consciously, me and my lily white ass and we waddle down to the water to swim with the ducks.
It is cool & delicious, the liberation of being as naked as the day I was born outweighs my Englishness and it’s a rather pleasant feeling.
We spend the remainder of the day swimming and basking in the sun. I after a while begin to feel rather Adonis like, given the fact that many of the other male bathers are getting on a bit. My lily white ass gets a bit of colour. By evening we are sitting in the city square ( in our clothes ) A brass band plays martial music & stalls serve wines from across the continent as well as local vineyards for a euro or two a glass.
Tressle tables and benches fill the square, food stalls serve pizza & snacks. At the table we sit up at an old lady sups at her vino, she smiles beatifically as the music plays on and sways to the rhythm, her spindly old lady fingers tap out a beat on the tabletop. Every few minutes she gets up and refills her glass with a new wine from the menu. She seems blissfully happy. Anna talks to her and I learn that she hailed from the East of Germany, she escaped the iron curtain at the end of the war and has lived her adult years in Freiburg. She carries her own wine glass ( we have paid a two euro deposit for ours) . Me thinks she is a regular visitor to this wine stall in summer. A couple also sit at the table, a similar age to me, when the woman realises Anna & I are speaking English she joins in. Ruth as she tells us her name is, teaches English in Bonn, she is happy to practice with me. We talk and we chatter. At some point I feel duty bound to apologise for being British and for Brexit. I shake my head tellingly to explain where my allegiances lie. Ruth says it’s the first time she has ever heard someone other than a German apologising for their nationality. Ruth talks about her travels to England, how much she enjoyed them, we talk about Trump & the state of the world. Her husband joins in, we find that as well as our age in common we were both once long ago choristers & trumpet players. After several glasses of wine Anna & I wander off into the night, tipsy & happy.
As I walk along the cobbled streets I look at the little brass squares that appear under foot every few metres in the town centre. I am walking too quickly and the light is too dim to read the names engraved on each little square, but I know that each gives the name and the birth date of a German Jew and the concentration camp in which they perished. This city that reminds me how cosy family life can be also reminds me that there are darker times to.
In the street a busker has an upright piano on wheels, he bangs away at the keyboard, on old Piaf song. Rien de Rien. I like the sentiment, not being a slave of the past.
My thoughts inconsequential as they are settle on four :
1) The bicycle was invented by a German.
2) Germany is still not sexy.
3) However at least two German women I know most definitely are.
4) Tomorrow I will ride my German bicycle to the lake and work on a tan line free me.