Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Koln - Kleve - Nijmegen

Lobbing into Koln, I was keen to see whether Doug had showed up. I went to Poste Restante and retrieved a letter from him. Basically he said he'd been there and cut out early for Nijmegen, not really being in good health. "I'm a mess" is what he wrote. My interpretation was "hungover like a bastard, following an attack oby the primate population of 'Beneath the Planet of the Apes'". I checked out the extremely fucking impressive cathedral then made my way to the hostel. There was a notice in German which looked like an order to get in my tank and go and trample all over flower beds in Poland. The actual English translation was "Full for tonight." Hmmm. Bugger. I headed back into the centre of town and got out a map. Time for some planning. Doug would be in Nijmegen the day after tomorrow. Was that right? Better check his letter. No, tomorrow afternoon. What towns are between Koln and Nijmegen? There's one, Kleve. That'll do.

So I went off to Kleve. A cute little sign at the station read "Klever Kleve." How droll. I walked out to the hostel, noting bars and cafes on the way. When I checked in I found that the hostel was incredibly empty. There would have been half a dozen all up in a place which could house at least 60 people. I cooked up a pasta feed and then did a circuit of the grounds. It was well maintained parkland with good gardens and some great lawns which would be fantastic for cricket matches. That was all nice and touristy but I felt like a cool beer and headed back towards town. A couple of blocks in I stopped at a bar I'd mentally earmarked on my walk to the hostel. The Grotto Bar. I walked in with a big grin on my face;

"Ein Pils bitte." The Bieroberfuhrer duly poured one so I slipped him a few marks, took my change and had a look around. It was a weird bar. A melange of a nautical theme combined with rural. It had a horshoe bar service area with attendant wooden stools and a series of tables leading to the rear and side walls which had a stucco finish and sported tacky prints. The other striking feature was the modest number of patrons. I definitely hadn't found Kleve's 'It Place'. I wasn't that concerned, the beer was good and there was sport on TV. It was baseball! I didn't realise Germans liked baseball and given that this was pre-internet, pre-Euro cable TV it was surprising. I didn't recognise the teams at all. No Dodgers, Yankees, Blue Jays, Brewers, Cubs, Indians, Mets or Reds (the only teams I would have been able to pick out). Nevertheless, it was summer, I had beer and there were tasty slices of wurst being handed around. I settled in for some sports. I also checked out the other patrons. They were in a few groups of two and three, mixed gender, casually dressed and neither loud nor obnoxious. They looked like locals.

I ordered another pilsener but this time in a larger glass and the barman asked me where I was from. I explained and he said something about "Jugendherberge" (youth hostel) and I said "Ja".

I asked about the baseball but couldn't understand his reply. I apologised for my lack of German-speakingness and even held back on mentioning how I learnt my German from "Hogan's Heroes". He motioned for one of the other patrons to come over and asked him to act as interpreter. The local asked me where I was from in Australia and I told him Sydney. The barman said,


I replied that I knew where it was and how the fuck did he know of that inner-west home of the Western Suburbs Leagues Club, the Polish Club and a burgeoning Asian population? It turned out he had a cousin who had migrated and settled in Ashfield, running a plumbing supplies business. His cousin was looking to upgrade to the beach. This was before the deep ocean sewerage outfall at Bondi when the stuff used to be piped just slightly offshore. Bondi Mars Bars were a non delicious local delicacy. I advised,
"He should move to Bondi."
Then I explained. The barman laughed and promised to write to his cousin and suggest it, because it sounded like the sort of place which sorely needed plumbing supplies. His laugh was joined by another "grosse" beer, on the house.
"Prosit!" At least I knew a few drinking type phrases. They toasted back and we settled into the sort of conversation which flits about, trying to latch onto common meeting points. I told Hans a bit about Sydney and started in on my usual probes about the West/East German divide.

Like most West Germans these guys were convinced that Germany would one day become whole again. They just didn't want it to be as the result of another war. Also like a lot of other West Germans they only had sporadic contact with family in the East, had done compulsory military service and knew what to do if the Russians invaded. Their military designations would be reactivated, some of their friends would be part of "stay-behind" units if they were overrun by the Russians and they knew where to meet up to be issued weapons and other gear. I asked what the "stay-behinds" were about and was told their job was to melt away when the Russians were on top, and wait for them to pass by, establish ambush points, attack the enemy supply columns and provide intelligence to the NATO commands. That was enough war talk for me. A combination of their accents and their real war plans left me a bit cold. It just seemed that Germans always know what to do when a war comes along. I changed the subject to the baseball on TV. It turned out that the barman hooked into a feed from the US defence force TV network. It was an illegal patch job rigged up by one of his mates who'd been in a communications unit, but he did it because the American college kids staying at the hostel usually liked it and the locals enjoyed it as an occasional curiosity. I finished another grosse beer and accompanied by Germanic farewells, lurched back to the hostel.

There no Fruhstuck on offer in the morning due to the lack of punters so I breathed a sigh of relief and headed back into Kleve. The fuzziness of my brain needed attention. I grabbed a ham roll and hard boiled egg from a cafe type place and hit the station. At the station I was faced by a wait of 2 hours for my Nijmegen hook up. Once again I opened up "Ulysses". This time I lasted six pages before closing the thing in disgust. Jimmy fucking Joyce was a prize wanker. I noticed a few people having a morning beer so I joined them. I noticed this a lot in Germany, commuters at the station having a quick beer before heading to work. They certainly earned my respect. I had most of the day to sleep off a few beers and it was fun, propped at a railway bar, updating my diary and wondering what everyone else I'd met was up to. Fuck 'em. I got on the train, and had a nap. Missed my connection. Damn! What would Colonel Hogan do? Arrange for a bombing operation to hit Dusseldorf. Well, I wasn't interested in the ball bearing plant there but I was interested in the rail connection to Nijmegen. I jumped off the train, switched to one going to Dusseldorf then switched for one to Nijmegen. At last I got off the train and had a half hour wait for Doug to come and get me (we had organised a 5 p.m. meet). After changing money and grabbing a beer I hung in the waiting area. Sure enough, in walked Doug, ten minutes late. We just cracked up. It was both fear of what sort of mess we'd make and knowledge that whatever it was would be funny.

"So we're we headed? The local Fruhstuck Express or has that sheila decided to put us up?" I was fingering my YH card (Fruhstuck Express).

"Lucy's. Not too far to walk, unless you're a messed up Aussie drunk. If I'd known you were handicapped I'd have brought a wheelchair." He was straight at it, time to fire back,

"So is Lucy the name of your speech therapist or the hack who performed your lobotomy?"

"My drug dealer. Speaking of which you have to see the drug shop at the college. You'll love it. Just like Amsterdam but sort of nicer."

We stopped at a beer shop and bought a crate of Grolsch as a sweetener for us and some wine and flowers as a sweetener for Lucy. Nothing like getting in an apology present before the fact. We made it to Lucy's with our arms full of gifts and booze. She seemed happy to see me but I had my doubts as to how long that would last. Her connection with Doug was that she was a cousin of a family friend. She was Dutch, spent a lot of her school years in Toronto and was now studying in Nijmegen. She spoke perfect English (except for the Canuck accent, ay) and was looking forward to our visit. We'd planned on two days, it ended up being a day longer than that.

Lucy had a number of student friends who were keen to meet up that night. First up we had a beer and Lucy served spaghetti bolognese to fuel us up. It was great to see that student cooking is the same in Europe as back home. Spag Bol. It was delicious, she had a fine touch. Next on the agenda was the local campus and their drug shop. It was a casual thing based in the student union office. I checked out all their products from Lebanese Blond to Durban Redhead. Doug settled on some Moroccan hash and after a smell test, I bought some Jamacian heads. We didn't buy a lot, just enough for a couple of days. Then it was off to Swing Bar. It was on a nighclub/cafe strip and when I walked in it reminded me of some bars and cafes in Amsterdam. We got some beers and sat on lounges, rolling up spliffs. I took it easy, not knowing the strength of the gear and was glad. My stuff was a creeper, the sort of smoke which doesn't smack you around the head but gradually builds up. And build it did. There was a group of six of us but I had no clue as to who the others were. Well, I had some clue but their names all blurred into each other as the music cranked in and they all started passing funny smokes around. The locals started in on playing mind games with Doug who was grinning and laughing at my tales of France and Germany. The students would say something in perfect English and then continue on in Dutch. When he asked them to repeat they'd do it all in English. Then Dutch. After the third time he caught on but couldn't do much about it, being monolingual. I simply cracked up. These Dutch had been out with Doug the previous two nights and had a game plan for fucking with his mind. I learned to recognise the warning signs by Doug's admission,

"They're playing mind games again."

We left Swing Bar in fine form and ended up at another bar for a few beers and swapping war stories. Eventually we headed back to Lucy's on bicycles. Where the fuck had they come from? Oh yeah, we'd ridden them. When we arrived back we munched out on left over spag bol and bread rolls. We washed this down with more beers and sat around chatting and listening to music. After a few months of mainly living in hostels, under canvas, in cheap dives and sleeping on trains, ferries and an occasional bus it was great being in a proper loungeroom. It had real house furniture and finishes, all the bits and pieces which make something a home, not a dive for the night. The warm glow I felt wasn't just the booze or the smoke, it was feeling of being at someone's home. I just went all hippy like and grooved on the vibe. Doug and I caught up again, explaining where we'd been and what we'd been up to. He'd biked around mainly in northern Europe getting up to mischief in Germany, Holland and Belgium. He had a couple of ideas of what to do after Nijmegen, as did I.

I crashed out very pleased with myself on a few counts; firstly I hadn't made an arse of myself under the influence; secondly I hadn't made any dyke jokes and lastly I was in the company of fine people. We stumbled out of our beds around ten the next morning and I cooked up some breakfast of suitably greasy consistency. Fuck the bread rolls and hot chocolate, I forced bacon and eggs onto them, even adding some mushrooms and tomatoes, with thick wedges of toast to mop up the yolky bits. It went down a treat. Once we were back in tune with the day we headed off to visit one of Lucy's friends, a guy called Joss. We hung there all afternoon, having a few beers, listening to music and once again the strange smokes were passed around. We left in late afternoon and went back to Lucy's where we helped her whip up some soup and potato salad, washed down with Grolsch. We were kicking back listening to some tunes when Joss came in, accompanied by Karen. It was a chilled out night, relaxing, cracking jokes and trying to rile up Doug. He wasn't really the sort who would get riled up, more likely just bust up laughing. Once again it was a very late night, 4.00 a.m., but that seemed de riguer with these student types.

After a quick breakfast Doug went and collected his bike from storage. We were moving out the next day. The two of us held a brief tactical meeting and headed off to the shops. We bought a couple of gifts for Lucy, embellished them with a bottle of wine and flowers. Doug needed a pack as he was going to be abandoning his tour d'Europe and hitting the trains and buses for the next month or so before heading back to Toronto. It was also getting close to me leaving the continent as well and getting back to London to meet up with Jerry and Chris, the guys who'd missed me in Basel all those weeks ago. The two of us still had a week to get around a few places and Doug was keen. So was I.

Back at Lucy's we cracked another case of Grolsch which I'd procured and started in on some more of the Jamaican smoke. For those who've had Mullimbimby Madness it was mainly like that but a bit mellower with a longer lasting effect. Joss and Jacques rocked up with the makings of dinner so we got stuck into making and eating that and then headed off to Karen's place. There was a fair crew hanging out there so we cracked some more beers, people smoked funny stuff and they wound up the mind games with Doug for our last night in Nijmegen. We danced, laughed, drank and said stupid stuff, with a backbeat of kickarse rock moving us along. At around three-thirty morning time it was time to go back to Nancy's. Doug was a mess and crashed out in one of the student's beds. Bastard must have teed this up on the sly. There was however only one bike. Nancy was an expert cyclist who knew the local roads and cycle ways, short cuts, all that sort of thing. I was this solid, drunk, stoned Aussie who was in no condition to pilot the bicycle. So I did. The journey was fun with Nancy screaming all sorts of stuff in English and Dutch while I peddled and swerved like a demented clown. I enjoyed myself thoroughly. Nancy didn't. We made it back in one piece and as I dragged the bike inside Nancy could only make one comment;

"That was the most terrifying bike ride I have ever had! Never again!"

"Anything I can do to calm your nerves?" I added a cheesy wiggle of the eyebrows.

"Definitely not! It would be frightening." Now was this mind-game time or was she playing a straight bat. Then I remembered Joss. He'd been hanging around a fair bit and seemed keen. I had to find out,

"You're seeing Joss?"

"Not officially so please don't say anything to anyone. He's about to break up with someone else." Clarity and frustration met sleepiness so I kissed her goodnight and went and started up my nasal chainsaw. Nancy was just a bridge too far for me that night.

Doug made it back to Nancy's in time for breakfast. He didn't look like a bloke who'd just had a great night's lovin' so I left those questions for a later time. We had our breakfast and cleaned up our mess, even doing some vacuuming and bathroom cleaning. We may have been wasted messes but we did have pride. Nancy appreciated it especially when we gave her the second round of presents, including a nice bottle of Moselle. Doug said bye-bye to his bicycle, it was being coralled at Nancy's for a couple of weeks. It seemed a bit like how farmers in Australia send cattle off for agistment to fatten them up or when there's a drought. In Holland they put bikes on agistment. We said bye-bye to Nancy with Doug warning her about another visit. She seemed happy about that which was a complete puzzle to me. Maybe she was just being polite. Who the fuck would want Doug fronting up again for seconds or thirds? Nevertheless that was us off to the station and for me at least, the end of my Nijmegen experience. I was just fucking glad I hadn't had to hold a bridge from a bunch of Kraut bastards in tanks. When we reached the station I pulled out a coin and said to Doug;

"Heads its Germany, tails its Belgium." I was about to toss the coin when Doug piped up with,

"No, hows about we go to Bingen. I told Jim we'd meet up with him there today."

Oh yeah, the other night Doug had mentioned some American party dude called Jim and how they'd planned to meet up again. Fair enough, it could be fun. Bingen it was.

I hear the train a comin'; its rollin' 'round the bend.


  1. Bingen - the ideal town to drink too much in, I'm guessing.

    Great stuff. Really enjoying it.

  2. You no doubt set Australian-European relations back several years during your trip.

    Kind of figured any German establishment showing baseball was getting the Armed Forces Network feed or catered to our guys there. When the World League of American Football was started (now NFL Europe), it's no accident that the teams were placed near big US military concentrations (Rheinland, Barcelona, London).

    Nice 'Bridge Too Far' reference for Nijmegen. Of course if you go to where either the 82nd ABN or 101st AASLT are based, 'Nijmegen' will crop up on some sign or building or whatever.

    Well done account! Oh, too bad this isn't an Etch-A-Sketch, because I could draw comics and illustrations to match the story!

  3. Dr Y - A syou'll see you are spot on about Bingen. Just had to be done.

    YD - Yeah, the Europeans can be sensitive but we didn't really give a toss about that. Had to sneak in a bridge reference. Whenever I later talked about Nijmegen the reference to that bridge assault would always come up. I can see why it would stand tall in the culture of the units which participated. That Grotto bar was a curious place. I can see why Americans would enjoy it.
    I'd add illustrations myself but as has become obvious I'm no artist.