Lazlo runs a brand new vinyl store in the clubby street; the late night old town, about half a hiccough from my bridge-side Heidelberg hotel. In his stylish shop window there’s a copy of the soundtrack to Stanley Donen’s European road movie, Two for the Road. Ah, those days when Europe – to catch a thief, pussycat don’t look back – was young again, and exciting.
The new Erasmus students, celebrating their pan-European cultural heritage and academic brilliance over cheap cocktails at the Brass Monkey (owner from Nottingham; ex-pat exile-drinkers unfriendly, suspicious of questions) talk party-party nonsense and watch Spain take a thumping from Argentina, live from Buenos Aires thanks to Mr. Murdoch. These kids look younger than policemen, not quite the heirs of Erasmus. Outside a boy and girl, complaining because one year in their supervisor has asked for evidence of work. Happy daze, I guess.
Earlier in lieu of England vs Switzerland – unsurprisingly absent from the plasmas of Heidelberg’s finest Gerwurtz-ing Establishments – I watch Germany rip through Azerbijan. 6:1 finally. I do so in a small bar with a pair of sisters. one a sports student, the other a young publisher. They have one of those traveller’s tales.
They grew up in Karlsruhe, not so far away, but it never felt like home. As they talk about Karlsruhe it feels as though they left some bad times behind when they moved, independently to Heidelberg. Both studied here. Their father is German; their mother from Brittany in France. Brittany is a kind of home, the parents have moved there finally. Beautiful, different, quiet. But not home-home.
The girls grew up in Buenos Aires, where their father taught German. First lessons were in Argentine Spanish. They still remember.
So where is “home”?
Florent says: “I was walking over the old bridge here, last year, it was cold, and I suddenly thought, this is home, this is where I want to be. It was a great feeling. I’m 24, and I’m home.” Boyfriends arrive, a golf-pro with a gamy knee. The German team keeps scoring. Everybody is happy.
They are four: from all parts of Britain, young and my age, two men, two women. Business travellers, but not so that you would notice. We’re in Destille, the Last Stop before Bed. They are IT people, work for a company that got bought, last year, by a German Corp. So now they need to upgrade the SAP, or whatever, here in H-berg. They are here a lot. In the modern way they live in different places in England but are connected by the network. One has been on the “tour” of Heidelberg, starts sprouting useful facts, facts I don’t know. They are buried now in a Moleskine. Something about the castle, the ….Oasis close down Destille, and for once a mass rendition of Wonderwall seems an affirmation rather than a Dirge. As the cathedral bell strikes two, everyone is “After all, you’re my…”
Heidelberg is split up for me by an emergency trip home, as careful readers of my Facebook pages may have spotted. Just five days, but it changes my attentiveness. On the mini-coach out to Frankfurt airport I meet an Iraqi Kurd who, at 44, has lived in many countries, fought a bloody war; survived. He was an art student, then conscripted aged 18, to fight against Iran for eight years. Then smuggled, fake passports, stick on photographs, to Moscow where he worked, but won’t say as what, for three years. Then Hungary, Slovenia, Chechnya, Turkey….Lebanon, then finally Germany, a wife, children. A job. Home. “It’s better now in north Iraq,” he says. “My family is happy.”
Back, days later, vibing into the mood. Angela is around my age, she writes about business travel. She woke up this morning in a South African themed hotel, all ostrich eggs and hunting rifles, in the Highlands of Scotland. Her luggage got left somewhere in Edinburgh. Tomorrow she flies to Malta; Monday to Japan. In the 1970s she visited Afghanistan. Everyone did. She studied at Heidelberg, so did her parents, and theirs. It is a family tradition, like taking a boat up the canal to Strasbourg for holidays.
There was an English boyfriend. He lives about fifteen inches from my old 1990s flat in Islington. Of course. For a long time Angela was a literary critic. She tells me about a highly autobiographical novel, just reprinted, by David Lodge, the Catholic-Campus guy that we all read and thought clever in about 1982. It’s set in 1950s Heidelberg. (But not electronic yet, so it can wait…) Angela asks about the big novelists; I’ve grown up with them, the usual suspects, and can’t suspend disbelief anymore, the offspring of their second marriages fleck the north London schools I know, pushy parents try and make their sons – those Tristrams – befriend them. And besides Saturday is quite simply the Worst Novel Ever Written.
“You will love Speyer, it’s very…mystical,” Angela says.
Lazlo is 30, his parents left Pest, well a little town just outside the Pest side of Budapest, in 1985, just as the Perestroikan Years kicked in. It seems a lifetime ago now. He’s a musician and his vinyl store is a week old. “If I make enough money to cover my costs and make some music I will be happy.” He plays me on ITunes some his moody modern jazz. Nice.
There is money in the rare vinyl biz. Lazlo sells old, cool, obscure, freeform, jazz on vinyl to Japanese buyers. He tells me about Drug Store, an old school men’s coffeeshop, oaky and full of chess-playing Magyars.
Janos is pushing – well old. He has his own seat at Drug Store. He left Hungary just after the second world war, in 48, long before the failed revolution. He studied, but never got to work in his field. “I ended up in gastronomy,” he says. With a chuckle. I show him the street in which I lived in Pest on my GMapp, app thing. Janos points at Margit island, nearby, where I used to run most, some, mornings. “Ah very beautiful,” Janos says. “When I was a boy I went to the therme, the baths. Beautiful.”
Across the smoke, yup despite the laws, there are ways around the smoking ban, it all depends on the size of a place and whether there is food cooked, old men open, defend, ponder and endgame. Often with audiences. Chess: never got it, but it looks cool.
Later a Scotsman with a wounded dog, who dates a barmaid here, tells me about his times in Budapest with a bunch of subsidised artists. After the wall came down and everything changed they lost their state salary. So they sued the new government – and won. Won the right to be paid to be artists. The free-market Insead-ers of Basel would not be happy.
And I don’t think they’re still getting their salaries.
There’s jazz on somewhere, a little way out of the old town, almost no distance at all, but most centrists don’t know. At nine, the newspaper says. I turn up fashionably late at 9.10 but there’s just a guitarist and three guys in wooly jumpers, big bellies, beards. “The singer will be here within an hour,” the guitarist says.
“Stay,” says a wooly beard, “we brew our own beer.”
It is 9.11, and I’m drinking wine in a restaurant opposite the unhappening jazz bar. Trestle tables, lots of them, platter food, big plates. An atrium, a back room full of 200 men talking turkey, in what sounds suspiciously, vaguely, like English.
I smoke, meet a marketing executive for a hedge fund guy, who is, in fact, heavily tattoo’d, I see the legal ones. When she divorced she got an abdominal one which reads, “through the darkness into the light”. Saucy. Doesn’t it hurt?
Not just a marketing person, she also owns a couple of bars in Hamburg: one burlesque, one punky 1976, Ramoney Pistolian. I must visit, she says: then back to her bankers. Work, work…
I’m trying to figure out the ciggy machine. Down by the men’s toilets. I’ve got my plastic ziggy card, I’ve dialled the number, and paid out my Euros. Nichts.
Three men, English speakers. We’re all trying. They go get a “native” German speaker. I put in my credit card…Nichts again.
Who are you guys?
American military, sir. (I know, but what kind?)
Ok, what you all doing here?
We’re at a conference.
Ok, about what?
Come on, who can I tell, I can’t even buy a pack of (don’t say fags, don’t)…cigarettes.
It’s about Europe.
(Slightly drunk guy, ominously): And Russia.
Ah. So 200 plus, Spook-sytle, intelligence men and analysts – because these guys don’t look like the ones who hide behind bushes in Kabul – are two-day conferencing about Russia? What now? Bomb the spa towns, invade the Sushi bars?
Every morning, four times in total, I philospheweg. I cross the old bridge, climb an abrupt narrow trail, that puffing opens up to areas to “think”, look across the river, and “philosophise.” There’s a circuit, old bridge to new bridge for those with the lungs to climb; other way around for those without. A famous route. Everyone’s been at it, Goethe to Weber. Fashionable first in the early 1800s, in fact the Romans did much the same – only the walk was through their vineyards. Can’t fail but feel connection to smart people doing this. Read Holderlin on the IPAD up high, contemplating the ruined castle. If I stay long enough, I figure. I’ll write the Great European Novel.
Everyone should have a philospheweg.
In Destille three Siberians – one who is uncannily ABBA, despite being 17 – tell me that the Russian money in Baden-Baden in “new”. No shit, Sherlockski. Actually, there’s a lot of old money there too.
A Californian firegfigher, over – early – for Octoberfest, with many tatts too, wants to argue about mosques in New York. Do my elderly liberal stickt, and despite it being late o’clock he says, “yeah dude, you’re right.”
An electrician from a small town twenty kilometres away is in Heidelberg for an electrician’s conference. In November he’s going to New Zealand for three months. “Once in a lifetime thing,” he says. “It will be so marvellous. Maybe there will be The Girl.”
Going home now, a guy and two girls, trainee teachers, sitting out, wrapping. “Cool town,” I say. “Is this it, nothing else tonight?”
A guy in a linen jacket, polyester pants, comb-over hair, comes over. “Where’s the action?”
“No action,” says the guy.
“We’re talking to Robin, he’s fun.”
“No, he’s scary, I saw him before.”
Linen/Polyster man disappears to his Travel Pussy, and I to my Happy Hof Hotel. Speyer in the morning. And mystical things, we hope. Back at the hotel a late night smoke with the night porter, Michael. He comes from a village in East Germany, there’s no work there, everyone drinks. He commutes 90 kilometres to do this shift. A nice man.
Somewhere in another country the Pope is talking rubbish about atheists. He needs a philospheweg.
Or a travel pussy.