Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Depravity of Anonymity

Arriving in Frankfurt, I feel like an alien. The only word I am capable of uttering in German is ‘mayonnaise’. Even when I am addressed in English, I continue to stare helplessly. What has happened to me? Have I not travelled in so long, at least to a country whose language I do not speak? Here everyone smokes and everyone rides a bicycle. Outside the railway station (is that the meaning of ‘Hauptbahnhof’?) there is a shop: WOS – World of Sex. I came (for the book fair) expecting culture.

Meanwhile a tram goes by, dressed up as a restaurant, so that the unassuming passengers look like diners. If I was an alien (and as a translator I am), I’d be in a state of shock (and I am). Everything seems designed to take my money. I go down to the lavatory in McDonald’s to find a man with a table. ‘I have to pay?’ I ask, using intonation instead of the usual auxiliary. ‘Any amount!’ he replies cheerfully.

A little further away from the station and I reach Moselstrasse, which is full of sex shops, starting with Dr. Müller’s Video-Show and Blue Movie Kino Center (why blue?). WOS was just the tip of the iceberg.

I am grateful for the sight of a florist’s – something natural. Old men look at me awry. Young women project their breasts provocatively. I have reached the Dolly Buster Center. Is the whole of Frankfurt a brothel?

By Gallusanlage I seem to have emerged into normality. An open thoroughfare, some trees, a drunk, a large euro sign, tall glass buildings which must be banks or departments of health. Well, it feels like normality. Lots of bikes. Bikes on the pavement, bikes jumping lights. Bikes for hire… can you just take one? I realise I’m standing in the middle of the cycle lane, watching an old lady complimenting a small child’s mother. There are glimmers of humanity, which remind this alien what life might once have been like, I suppose, in the briefest of interludes between Primitive Man and Primitive Man II. Even schoolboys seem obliged to text on their phones and drink Starbucks coffee. Coffee? I didn’t drink coffee until I went away to university.

After the depravity of the railway station, I am beginning to enjoy my otherness. I take a risk and dive into St Catherine’s Church. A bubble. Isn’t this what ‘other’ means? Lord, have mercy. I light three candles. ‘Alien’ might mean ‘alone’; ‘alone’, ‘all one’. A post-middle-aged man quietly recites prayers in German. The candles on the tray form a pool of light. ‘What does “belong” say to you?’ my wife once asked me. ‘“Alone”,’ I replied, ‘and “noble”.’