|German Romantic poetry|
Most of us were after a cuckoo clock. Some of us still go all the way to Germany to buy one, as evidenced by the customers in a shop in Triberg in the Black Forest. In the shop, Portillo has a go at carving a leaf under the watchful eye of the master carver. Afterwards the carver allows Portillo to keep the leaf as a "souvenir", too polite to say that it's because the result is too shit for him to use. Apparently, the traditional triangular shape of the Black Forest cuckoo clock was inspired by the roofs of new houses built along the Black Forest railway. And originally the cuckoo clock was intended to be a "cockerel clock", but this involved the internal bellows having to play too many notes.
Soon Michael is tucking into a Black Forest Gateau, at pains to point out that we leave out the most important ingredient - the boozy Kirsch - in the English translation. However, the most significant ingredient in his slice appears to be thickly whipped cream, which of course makes it very authentically German. The slab is gigantic, mouthwatering, covered in dark chocolate shavings, and sums up so much of what is marvellous about the world. "Yummy," as Portillo says.
|Heidelberg Schloss, spot on as ruins go|
|View of Heidelberg from the Philosophenweg|
|Nazi Thingstaette on the Heiligenberg|
|European Central Bank|
|Gaenseliesel, Goettingen, kissed and decorated by graduating students|
Portillo's final stop is Hannover, where I have only ever spent an afternoon. Portillo visits its spectacular Rathaus (city hall), which signifies Hannover's importance at the time of the Kaiser, when it was built. Given that I have a photograph of the view from the top of the Rathaus dome, I must also have travelled up the unusual curved lift with sloping floor that Portillo rides. Yet I have absolutely no memory of doing so. Maybe my host was feeling stingy and made me take the stairs. Maybe the lift was closed for refurbishment. Or maybe my vertigo just means I have blocked the experience out entirely.
|View from Hannover Rathaus|
My afternoon in Hannover was at the end of a month-long interrailing trip I took aged 25, finally done with study but not yet in the world of work. I was trying to brush up my German ready to seek employment. I travelled by train all the way from Luebeck in the north of Germany to Lugano in Italian-speaking Switzerland, which makes this the first of Portillo's railway journeys that I have covered in its entirety, and more. Thanks to the kindness of friends, I didn't pay for a single night's accommodation during the whole trip. I mostly slept on floors, with the odd blissful night on a futon (if such a thing is possible). In Lugano, I had to cram into a narrow single bed with a Danish architecture student. As it was the days before wifi and mobile internet, I finalised my itinerary by sending postcards from one destination to the next and making fleeting calls from coin-guzzling payphones. Yet I was always met on time at each station by whoever I was visiting: it seems that in the pre-Instagram era somehow we coped.
I always refer to the trip as "the march for open windows" owing to the Germans' fear of draughts and penchant for stuffy rooms, which made some of the long train journeys unbearable. In answer to Portillo's quest, for me, Germanness is about strange dichotomies. It's Ordnung surrounded by decadent cake. It's an open-door policy in the midst of blinding bureaucracy. It's the vegetarian health freak in a country whose restaurants serve up the Schlachtplatte (slaughter plate). It's the hypochondriac who on the one hand regularly takes a Kur, peers obsessively into a Flachspueler (stage toilet) and plays team sport, but chain smokes on the other. It's the cultural hybrid of someone who loves David Hasselhoff for his music as much as they do Beethoven. It's rimless glasses to see with, and men wearing jackets so brightly coloured that it's clear they don't use them. (Heck, some of them make Portillo's look if not stylish then at least very much at home.) But for all this, it's a place I love - and miss. If only for the cake.