Saturday, 14 January 2012

Look, no Borders!

Strasbourg, evening light

La piste des forts is the name of the bicycle path that goes from Strasbourg, in France, over the Rhine and into Germany. It's well named. If you were not strong before you started you will be less so once you've done it. Huge trucks barrel along the main road and while the cycle path is off to one side, I still get showered with murky moisture from the puddles that sprayed out from the truck wheels. But it's only a few kilometers, to the border, over the Pont de l'Europe, and I reach Kehl, the small town on the German side.

The first time I went to Kehl I stopped for a coffee in the town centre, where there's a near empty square, with dried leaves scuttling across it, caught up in snatches of wind like fitful half-remembered prayers. Bright lights on one side of the square announce a Euro shop. There's a café bar in the middle, with outside tables underneath large awnings. Only one client sitting outside, an elderly man drinking coffee and looking out over the empty square. Next to him is one of these admirable heaters for outside clientèle, but it's not on. When the friendly waitress brings me my coffee she also places in front of the man a large dish of ice cream, layered in white, cream and caramel colours.

The next time I visit Kehl, in the heart of the holiday season, the town square is totally deserted - even the euro shop is closed. No more garish yellow blinking lights with signs saying Jedes Teil €1 against the bright red background paint. The tourist information office is closed as is the café-bar where the elderly man sat, eating his dish of ice cream.

The chill wind cuts icily into my face as I cycle along. Only one person in sight, a man leaning out of a window, smoking, above a large sign that says Kehler Zeitung. Perhaps he's the editor gazing out across the empty streets, looking for signs of any life at all, anything to write about in his paper. But he saw nothing - apart perhaps from a woman on a bicycle, heading for the piste des forts, which has turned into fahhradweg den forten, now that we're in Germany. The cycle path goes beside a canal and then slips under a bridge past a marshy pond where a group of white herons with black tails have gathered. Mountains in the distance, streaked with snow on the peaks. One or two joggers, a few people on bikes, along the way.

Passerelle over the Rhine, joining France and Germany

And coming back through Kehl an hour or so later, I find there is one hub of activity - the Döner Merguez, with three tourists buying doner kebabs. I go up to it and ask if they have any coffee. They do. Later, one of the tourists takes a photo of the Doner Merguez. I'm glad when my drink is served, though it can barely be called coffee. I idly wonder how they could make something that tastes so little of what it claims to be. But I don't really mind for at least it's hot.

And when I leave, cycling past the Euro shop to head for the passerelle, the pedestrian and cycle bridge over the Rhine, I pass another shop, closed of course, an ice cream shop displaying a sign, Lust auf Eis. Remembering the elderly gentleman's heaped dish, I have a sudden longing for ice cream.

Morelle Smith

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