Thursday, 11 June 2009

36 Steps to Vienna: 13 Slugs, Snails and Irish Girls (1)

In our cheap hotel in Limburg an den Lahr George and I enjoyed the best night's sleep that we'd had for about a week, deep, dreamless and untroubled by any of those disturbances we'd experienced so far. In chronological order they'd been:

1. Being urinated on in a rhododendron thicket in Brussels
2. An evangelist fighting with his wife in the next room
3. Vain searching in Aachen for an address in Stuttgart
4. Dirt and a Moh-scale concrete floor in predatory homosexual-haunted Cologne station

- and others were to follow, in due course: one night there was a sudden irruption of Pearly Kings and Queens; on another a dawn demolition gang moved in; and among the many uncomfortable conclusions to be drawn from this odyssey a priority has to be given to the inadvisability of unwittingly using an anthill as an alfresco pillow. As novice travellers the light of a holy innocence shone dimly about us: were these the nocturnal hallmarks of foreign travel? Could we expect things to improve, or were these disturbances the norm?

They didn't improve the following night, a Monday. We set off from Limburg an den Lahr, having changed into Deutschmarks the Belgian francs we'd earned by George pretending to be miraculously cured of a twisted ankle and by me singing Beethoven's Die Ehre Gottes aus der Natur, Nature's Praise of God, in Liège. We'd breakfasted well on coffee, fruit and fresh bread rolls with very white butter and blackcurrant jam. We were clean, shaven, and in an access of domesticity we'd even washed some of our clothes: no doubt very inefficiently with hotel bathbrush and a pumice-stone we found, but the wearing of a clean shirt and knickers was a rare luxury, even if they were still a bit stiff with unrinsed hard yellow soap.

An Amiable Dutchman and his wife, as placid and smiling as Prophet Gefängnisvogel had been maniacally devoured by speed, picked us up early. The following conversation took place:

Amiable Dutchman: Wo fahren Sie hin? [Where are you going?]
Me: Nach Wien. [To Vienna]
AD: Nach Wien! Wie lang unterwegs? [To Vienna! How long have you been travelling?]
Me, counting the days on my fingers: Sechs... [six]

... and now there was a problem: was the plural of Tag, day, Tage (pronounced 'taa-ge') or Täge (pronounced 'tay-ge')? A million panic-impelled brain-cells flashed, flitting at the speed of light through the cerebral maze for the connection that would lead to linguistic credibility: Tage or Täge? No tag from Schubert song or 'Battler' Britton war comic came to the rescue. In desperation I opted, as it happened correctly, for Tage.

Me: Sechs Tage.
AD, incredulously, wondering what kind of cretin he'd picked up if it took him that long to identify as basic a concept as the day: Sind Sie Deutsche? [Are you German?]
Me: Nein, wir sind Ëngländer. [No, we're English.]
AD: Then we can speak English!

The Amiable Dutchman and his wife (who produced a pack of marshmallows which we finished at her urging) eventually dropped us outside Karlsruhe, where the main thrust of the autobahn divides, eastwards for Stuttgart and Munich and southwards towards Strasbourg and Basel, which was where they were heading. There seemed to be a vast and incomprehensible tangle of motorways and slip roads. No roadsigns were designed for the benefit of English pedestrians, and it took much earnest rucksack-laden plodding under the August sun to find the eastern approach road.

When we finally reached it, we discovered a phenomenon that associates Karlsruhe in my mind as strongly with boredom and ill-tempered frustration as Cologne is with dirt and petty criminality. The approach road was dotted with about thirty sets of hitch-hikers, singletons or pairs, spaced regularly along the grass verge. Clearly this was a Great European Interchange for hitch-hikers. Ignorant of the conventions we set up a roadside thumb at the beginning of the approach road. Two Norwegian scouts a little beyond us, clearly far gone in boredom and frustration, shouted at us angrily to to clear off, this was their patch; we had to take our place in the queue. We asked where the end of the queue was: they waved up the slope to where the approach grafted itself into the autobahn.

By nightfall the queue had barely moved. As darkness fell we slipped away, not troubling to ask ourselves what would happen to our place in the queue if we abandoned it overnight. We climbed over a wooden fence and picked our way through a strip of woodland unappealingly littered with clumps of pink toilet paper. Beyond was a field of an unidentified root crop. We settled here for the night, brewing up yet more chicken noodle soup and regretting that we'd eaten all Mrs Amiable Dutchman's marshmallows. We talked of what we were going to do once this adventure was over. George was going to work in his father's insurance agency. I said I was going to write music. What else?

In the night I was woken by something tugging at my forehead and eyebrows. In horror I put my hand to my head to discover what it might be: it was a monstrous slug, crossing from one row of turnips to the next. I could not rid myself of its slime. Was there to be no end to nocturnal disturbances?

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