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Tales from the Frontier - No. 5
I only go out for getting me a fresh appetite for being alone. – Lord Byron
One thing may be said of a weekend on the border – it is bustling. Several outlet centres have their home here and the out-of-town hordes pour in to pick up cheap jeans, shoes, handbags and other vital necessities. Many shoppers must have families with more members than the Labour Party. They buy by the gross. (That’s 144 for our young readers who haven’t encountered a peck, pole or perch nor a rod, chain or acre).
Once or twice in life I have added a second pair of socks or underwear to my purchases. It saves having to go out shopping next year, but never have I cleared a complete shelf of 34 inch waist, 32 inch inside leg stonewashed jeans as I saw one family quartermaster doing. I was only in the shop because it is a short cut avoiding the crowds queuing out the door for a fatty, tatty, double shot, soya mix crappy latte. (I think that’s what I heard someone calling out). Not that anyone was paying attention since they were huddled over their phones comparing what their pal further up the queue was going to order.
Crowds here are always a pain to negotiate. When I was a kid in the UK there were occasional gatherings of half a dozen shoppers who had saved enough money to make it worth while going into C&A or Marks and Sparks. If there was the smallest possibility of pedestrian collision a long exchange of ‘sorry’, ‘pardon me’, ‘after you’ and so forth ensued. Here, you get a short sharp Swiss elbow, an ice hockey style body-check, or several bruises round the knee area as they swing their overloaded carrier bags to clear the way. Only the Austrians can compare with the Swiss for lack of manners. (What do you mean, I shouldn’t generalise? Whose blog is this anyway?)
Large crowds ensure excellent business for the retailers but wide benefits also extend to the local council in the form of parking fine receipts.
Most traffic signs nowadays, especially in the EU, can be understood by one and all. And of course they may be ignored with equal ease. A huge new multi-storey car park has been built recently but that is pricey and widely avoided. Visitors seem unaware that nearby roads lie in controlled (and patrolled) parking zones. Some Saturdays it feels like I’m back on a packed parade ground during my military service, although the uniforms are less smart and the phalanx of traffic wardens are a lot snappier with their machines than we were with our SLRs.
There was a time when no-parking areas were clearly designated by multiple yellow lines, large coloured signs, and threats of hanging, drawing and quartering for the motorist who dared violate the regulations. That is clearly counter-productive since the new intention is not to prevent illegal parking but collect massive contributions for local government coffers.
French visitors and particularly the Swiss find this annoying. Actually the Swiss have no legitimate complaints because for a parking fine of a few dozen euros they could leave their gigantic SUVs in a side-road and hire them out by the hour to the local hookers. The majority of the wagons are roomier than most hotel suites in the neighbourhood. French drivers are less fortunate. Chances are if you intend to dally romantically in a Citroën deux chevaux then at least one limb will be poking out a window flap. A rumour abounded that the amatory spirit of the French ran to including a 2CV position in their version of the Karma Sutra and also in the vehicle’s operating manual. I cannot confirm this since no one I know is daft enough to own a French car when they can get a BMW/Merc/VW with more leg room.
Crowds at the weekend are not helped by us having a local minor league football team. ‘Minor’ is probably flattering since they are currently in the fourteenth level of German football and are having trouble hanging on to that honour. Their attendances are in treble figures since there’s nothing else to do in Germany on winter Sundays. You can go to church or hang around the football ground drinking lager, singing and barracking the opposition supporters for having a Smurf as a team mascot. One team did have a goat mascot. Our lot celebrated an unexpected victory over them by having an impromptu barbecue. Whether the two facts are related is not known.
So, if you enjoy being bustled by aggressive shoppers, hustled by uniformed flunkies, accosted by young ladies trying to lure you into the back of a camper van, or appreciate being screamed at by banner and scarf carrying football hooligans then our border town is right up your double-parked street.
Personally I follow Lord Byron’s advice and only take a trip out on the weekends to remind me I shouldn’t.
Tales from the Frontier - No. 4
Every day confirms my opinion on the superiority of a vicious life. – Lord Byron
If reports are to be believed, Mexican towns on the US border are packed with drug sellers, buyers, pushers and runners. As far as I know we have only one well-known pusher on our border. Let’s call him Wilhelm. We’ll call him that since it’s his real name. Why the heck should we protect the identity of a criminal?
I haven’t known many criminals in my life, or if I’ve met them I wasn’t aware of their occupation. The one I did know masqueraded as a builder. Let’s call him Bill. That isn’t his real name. I’m not mad. He’s a builder! Got muscles to match and fists the size of a Christmas turkey.
He and Wilhelm have a lot in common, they both like the trappings of a swell life. House, car, exotic holidays, tailored clothes, fine dining, pricey entertainment, the whole nine yards, or 8.23 metres as we say here in Euroland. And both love to flaunt it.
Wilhelm has a huge villa that overlooks the Rhine. It’s got its own dock and boathouse. In his powerboat he can be in France in two minutes and in Switzerland in four. I’m guessing that with some of his powdered products you can be in la-la-land in five minutes. Travel is a wonderful thing. On the other hand, if you lived in such a gorgeous house why would you want to take trips away? I inhabit an apartment the size of the toilet on an Airbus A300 and the airplane’s seats are more comfortable than mine.
Wilhelm owns several cars. He’s very patriotic. He has a classic Mercedes, a BMW Series 7, and a sporty Audi Quattro. I’m more socially responsible with regard to pollution so I use the tram. He’s also got a VW Golf cabriolet for sunny days. Most days for Wilhelm must be sunny because he’s got a permanent tan. I’m a little bit pale. My wife made me buy coloured bed sheets because with white ones she said she was never sure whether I’d come to bed yet. We generally have to take our own sheets when we go on holiday to our extra-economy no-star hotel.
Wilhelm holidays in hotels with more stars than the Milky Way. Black silk sheets to order are probably his choice. He picked up his wife on holiday. She was Miss Thailand or Miss India or maybe Miss Universe – he can afford to go anywhere. She’s certainly the most gorgeous looking lady on this planet. Not that my lady isn’t a looker. She came third in a contest at Butlins. Okay, it was a knobbly knees contest but they’re a smart pair of patellas. Although you don’t get to view them often because she wears a polyester leisure suit most of the time.
Wilhelm wears suits made for him in Rome by Caraceni. He gets them there because that’s where Humphrey Bogart sometimes got his. Wilhelm probably saw Casablanca once too often and models himself on Rick. I had a suit once. Okay, the trousers didn’t match the jacket and it was really two halves of two suits but it was pretty sharp if you ignored one or two ketchup stains down the front.
That’s one thing Wilhelm’s suits never had. He probably hasn’t been in the same room as a bottle of ketchup for years. He only eats things with French names that look like abstract paintings on a plate. Like most drug dealers he started life grabbing a burger on a windy corner while palming off the odd Eight Ball; it didn’t take him long to realise that Swiss users had more money than those in Berlin and Brandenburg. He came to the border and widened his horizons and expanded his product range. He made money faster than the Royal Mint and the quality of his victuals rose accordingly. Rumour has it he has his own herd of Charolais in Burgundy and a château and vineyard to go with it. I was twenty before I realised meat came in an unminced form and wine didn’t necessarily have to taste like brass polish or come in boxes.
People complain that drug pushers like Wilhelm spread misery, which may be true, but I don’t buy his wares and have quite enough misery of my own. It’s getting harder and harder to watch Wilhelm flash by in his open-top dream car, with his unmatchable wife both looking like models of perfection on their way to fly off in their Lear jet to Mustique while I finger the coin in my pocket hoping it’s a euro and not just fifty cents. Virtue is its own reward so I guess I’m pretty rich but I bet Wilhelm looks at me and firmly believes that Lord Byron got it right.
Tales from the Frontier - No. 3
This is the age of oddities let loose. – Lord Byron
It seems that weird, eccentric, unwashed itinerants are particularly drawn to the border areas.
In old movies you sometimes see an Apache medicine man dancing around the corpses of a tribe massacred by the Seventh Cavalry. This bouncing traditional one-step is often accompanied by a rhythmic wailing. I’ve never been to the American plains but I’ve seen an identical performance here in front of the shopping centre. The dancer was no Indian brave in tasselled buckskin although his grubby jacket was leather as were his trousers and greasy shapeless cap. It must have been a regular performance; the Rottweiler lying beside the blanket and the bulging backpack barely flicked an eye in his master’s direction. The lean and hungry dog concentrated his wistful glances at passing toddlers which was disconcerting since he licked his chops at the same time and showed rows of glistening fangs.
The dancing, if the stomping circulation could be called dancing, was not for public consumption. I had believed otherwise because there was a brown cardboard mug sitting on the pavement in front of the gyrating dog-owner and I thought it was meant for the offerings of sympathetic passers-by. This was clearly not the case as a do-gooder tossed a twenty cent coin into the mug as they swept by and a column of coffee splashed upwards. Both the dog and man looked at the resulting puddle and the man gave a belated, “Oi,” at the retreating defiler of his refreshment.
A wide assortment of beggars do hope for the odd tossed contribution into their bowls, mugs, hats or instrument cases. I lived in Berlin shortly after the wall came down and there were dozens of wonderful former Soviet musicians busking in the U-bahn. Here the level of musical aptitude is more ex-kindergarten than ex-philharmonic. Not that there are many buskers. Most of the indigents are women colourlessly bundled like extras in a Mexican cowboy movie or as peasants from a Spanish civil war epic – metres of shapeless cloth: scarves, shawls, headdresses or ankle-length black skirts. These poor damsels at least look as if they need money which is more than can be said for the men who slouch on a precinct corner with a can of lager, a cigarette, and the obligatory mongrel, and hope for contributions to their off-licence, filter tip, and tin of Pedigree Chum funds.
There seems to be far fewer young females than young men. Maybe the qualifying conditions for the fairer sex are difficult to fulfil. From observation it seems that certain traits are vital for successful indigence; feminine allure is not one of them. You have heard the expression, ‘dragged through a hedge backwards’ concerning a rather wild hair arrangement but here this seems to be a literal description of the complete package. Add the facial ironware, piercings, colourful tattoos and Gothic application of eye made-up and you have a fair idea of the female denizens of our border street corners. I have seen primly-attired matrons cross over the road rather than pass within coin-tossing distance of these zombie film extras and their begging bowls.
Do not be fooled. In my limited experience these ‘ladies’ are by no means as ghastly as they look. I had a very pleasant conversation with one who sounded as if she had attended the Sorbonne or a Swiss finishing school by the scope of her knowledge and the cadences of her refined accent. She resembled the formerly mentioned Indian brave since she had a Mohican haircut but she was quite charming. I donated fifty cents towards her tonsorial and sartorial outgoings.
As with most western societies there is a lack of social funding here; more mentally-challenged folk are appearing on the streets. I have sat beside them on benches as they rip newspaper into squares before tucking them in a pocket and continuing with another sheet of Das Bild. (They might merely have read the paper – I’ve often felt the impulse). I’ve seen middle-aged men fill a carrier bag from a rubbish bin before hurrying on to the next one and emptying the bag again. I don’t know what to do to help them. I did try last week. I saw a long-haired girl in jeans and tee shirt. The jeans had rips, not only in the knees but in the thighs and rear. She was muttering to herself and walking round in tight circles occasionally waving her arms. I had to act when she headed towards the busy road still mumbling. I put out a saving arm. She pushed me away, flicked back her hair revealing her mobile phone earpiece, and jumped into her parked open-top Mercedes with the words, “Sorry, love, just been accosted by a tramp. This town is full of crazies.”
Tales from the Frontier - No. 2
The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold. – Lord Byron
You know who’ll rule the world if a dystopian nightmare ever becomes reality? The Swiss.
The Swiss? What have they got to offer besides numbered bank accounts, insurance and Roger Federer?
A multi-functional Army knife, comically dressed Papal guards and holey cheese.
True, but quality tools, primary-coloured stripey uniforms, and smelly Emmental aren’t the things that will count in a devastated world.
Right! Prompt, efficient snaffling up of available resources will be the prime directive.
So what can bankers, insurance-sellers, chocolate munchers and cuckoo clock makers bring to the survival table?
I’ll tell you. The majority of the Swiss population have border-town shopping experience in Germany.
And nipping into Merkel-land to fill a Lidl carrier bag with bratwurst, Black Forest gateau, Bitburger lager and pumpernickel helps in what way?
You obviously haven’t been on the frontier front line. The hordes of Genghis Khan galloping over the Steppes on hairy ponies have nothing on our neighbours when it comes to marauding. The Swiss pour over the mountains in SUVs the size of two garden sheds. The roads across the border are as clogged as the Honiton by-pass during bank holidays in the 1960s.
Picture the scene. From every canton come columns of mechanised soldier ants pillaging the frontier supermarkets. The Women’s Institute Special Shopping Forces could do no better job of clearing Marktkauf, Lidl and Aldi shelves. The tills hum to frantic beepings of barcode readers. High denomination sheaves of colourful Franken notes are thrust at sweating checkout personnel while till receipts the length of loo rolls are offered in return. Empty trolleys once filled beyond their acceptable weight limit, wheels akimbo, lie abandoned resembling a modern retreat from Moscow. Departing vehicles are packed like Japanese underground carriages at rush hour. Parking attendants shoulder doors closed compressing drivers and purchases into the bulging compartments. It’s not a pretty sight.
Not just the Swiss, surely? What about the French? They’re as close aren’t they?
True. A bridge not far enough. Two actually. A footbridge and road bridge across the Rhine. The French have more style but less money than the world’s bankers. Added to which an ageing 2CV or Peugot 306 can’t carry the provisions that a mobile Alpine chalet with a Zurich numberplate can. Anyway, the French think they have better wine, tastier cheese, and prefer vegetables that don’t look as if the trip from Spain was too much for them. The French come to fulfil their Manifest Destiny – to shrug, be a nuisance and get in the way. The really ancient ones’ memories are a bit dodgy so they aren’t sure whether Alsace is in Germany or France this year since they didn’t have to cross a border.
The Swiss do have border posts don’t they?
In name only. All the Customs boys do is stamp forms so that the neutrals can get the VAT back from their pillaging. Better than smuggling because it’s legal. The Swiss are only intent on ‘filling their boots’, or any other container for that matter. The Urban Dictionary defines the expression ‘fill your boots’ as: ‘an invitation to partake with gusto’ and you rarely see so much gusto in one place.
So if the North Koreans, Israelis, Iranians or Trump cause a holocaust, the Swiss will be okay?
Yup. they’ll have the experience to expertly hoover up all the remaining resources and head back to the mountains.
But only the ones who live on the frontier, surely?
Well, that’s the beauty of the country – nowhere is more than 45 miles from a frontier as the vulture flies, so all the Swiss should have some border shopping experience. On Doomsday they’ll be singing their national song stolen from the Bee Gees, ‘We win again’ as they unload their trucks.