There Once Was a Small Town in Germany

Arriving by train, from the south along the Rhine, my sister and I slowly and gently approach Bad Honnef, where we spent some formative years as teenagers. A return to this small town 10 km south of Bonn beneath the Siebengebirge range (Seven hills) always warrants nostalgic thoughts and confirms current identities.

Still beautiful, these towns along the Rhine, each complete with rows of narrow, angle-roofed houses along the river bank and a few blocks up into the vineyards, a church in its midst with steeple over all, and from our vantage point looking like miniature Christmas towns in their quaintness and preservation of a simple, calm life. Ruins of castles appear frequently on hill tops, defenders still, now of their own history.

The train slows, wheels screech and scream as if in agony at having to stop at this now appearingly abandoned whistle stop station. There have been no updates to this station since the early 70s, except for the benches, which are now white metal but in the same place as before, on which we sat waiting for a rare departure in and out of the town. Nature, though, like animals, will assume ownership of a place if it is vacant long enough, and evidence of this is seen by not only the weeds growing tall along the still marigold colored Bahnhof building, but also by the assault of graffiti marring its exterior. The stairs which descend from this platform, which continue under the rails and up into the interior of the bahnhof, are littered, stained and neglected. Animals indeed. But still, if these exigent perturbations can be ignored, the stillness and simplicity of this unelectronic bahnhof exuded familiarity of an analogue and telegram time.

After standing there for a bit, feeling as if we were transported back in time, we emerge into the bahnhof itself, which is no longer attended with train personnel but which nevertheless still has the glass counters from which we once bought tickets. The blinds behind the glass are now drawn permanently, but a kiosk that sells candy, print publications, lottery tickets and tobacco still gives the place a bit of life. A large scale map of Bad Honnef lines the wall to the right of the main entrance, and we study it both dubiously and faithfully, uncertain that the streets still named the same and still geographically oriented as we remember will faithfully execute our meanderings and reflections.

We venture forth, up over the road that bridges over the north/south B42 highway along the Rhine, and into town. The sun beats down already, the heat rises, the light reflects off the stucco houses along Menzenbergerstrasse in strong and sharp angles. We decide to take the first left onto Bahnhofstrasse, deciding to take a tour of the town center first, before going by our house and then up the hill to our accommodations.

The Imbiss, from where I regularly bought wurst and frites, is by no surprise no longer there. Instead, a metal fence protects an industry from the corner road and its traffic. We walk on, and find a number of ethnic restaurants: Greek, a number of different Asian, Turkish, and of course, the regular German. Awy locates the bar that was once owned or operated by a “Harold” – whose intererior suggests it still pulls a strong pils.

Honnef on Sundays back in the day; peace here used subjectively, as we all had our own word for those days back then: doomy, dead, boring. The church still punctuates the quarter hours and then especially noon. Thank goodness for that. Back to the Bahnhofstrasse – very few buildings if any at all – stand empty. There are book shops, clothes stores, travel agents, two veterinarians and animals “spas”, professional offices, several banks, and the staple magazine, tobacco and wine store. The old post office still stands with its bus stops out front. Further up, and merging right onto Hauptstrasse and the now Fussgangerzone, pedestrian zone, Kaiser’s food store on the corner is now void of life, its windows empty and interior standing hollow. Like the bahnhof, it has been victimized by graffiti. Across the street from where Kaiser’s used to be, was once a drugstore, but it has also vanished, its interior now displaying nic nacks and bric-a-brac of indiscernible origin or theme.

Around the corner, and we find an esplanade of restaurants and outdoor cafe tables, something that all towns and cities across the world have latched onto as the evidence of a place that is modern yet quaint, chic yet old world, intellectual and bookish, Parisian and Greek, a place that wants to be visited, returned to, seen by the people walking through, referred to by the people who choose to live here and commute to Bonn or Koln or further every day. If you have outdoor seating in your town, you have earned a place on the map of the world. The Catholic Church is closed for renovations but the restaurants on this Sunday noon are all open and serving despite the heat and the bees, which people seem to accept as part of the privilege of being on the map. Back in the 70s, the opposite prevailed: the church remained open, and the restaurants were all closed. We walk on and around to Kietz, the main square hang out for teenagers, now named or always named Franz-Xaver-Trips Platz, and notice regrettable changes: a metal fence along the short retaining wall we all used to sit on and watch the mofas go by. On the grassy hill now stands a playground, and the cafe tables from the ice dealer on its left spill over and encroach on the area that used to Just be sidewalk.

Once in Self Hof, the neighborhood and section of Bad Honnef we lived in, we see that all of the shops and Kneipen we knew and frequented for daily sustenance are gone. Heinekamp, our once daily grocer, is shuttered behind drawn blinds. The fruit and vegetable man across the street has vanished into thin air, and some other house stands there now. We walk down Kirkenstrasse, and can make no reference as to where the bakery stood, where we bought our daily loaf of dark bread for 1.50 DM and penny candy for when we amassed enough pfennigs. The Kneipe where we got our Belgian Dalmation dog, Tasso, is gone and remodeled into something else. We come to the end of the street and turn right, and there stands our old townhome, one of five which still seems to be rented as its care and attention are not as current as those next to it. The windows are weathered, they are not framed in shutters, and the steps and walkway to the steps, the railing are all the same. Across the street from this, our old address at Mezenbergerstrasse 96, where once was an empty grassy lot, is now filled with apartment buildings. 

From there, we walk up Mezenbergertrasse, past St. Martin’s evangelical church, and onto Karl Simrock Strasse, which will lead us to Mezenberg and where a friend from long ago currently lives and offers us a place to stay. It’s longer than we thought or remembered, but again, many more houses line the roads which lead up into the woods. Eventually, away from the houses and into the woods, we arrive at Haus Perzival, built in 1840 and once a wine distillery when vineyards covered a vast portion of the hills in the area. Karl Simrock, a German poet during the 1900s lived and wrote here; according to the website, Byron and Longfellow visited and went for long walks along the Rhine. 

We hopped in our host’s open air Jeep Wrangler, and gave us the modern day tour and developments of Bad Honnef as we zipped through the narrow streets we knew so well as children. The Kneipe where we had goulash next to the small chapel is gone and its space has been remodeled into a residence. There is a shoe repair man down the road (where if memory serves me correctly we found Tasso a new home) who is still there, still living, and still repairs shoes. The Siebengebirgs Gymnasium where we went to school for a year and a half is still the same. There is still a store on the corner of Rommersdorfer Strasse that sells candy to school kids.  We learn that developers are going hog wild by tearing down and building up – literally up, to an extent that residents that are negatively affected these new plans are taking the developers to court over code violations and omissions in paperwork. We end up at Nottebrock Cafe, one of the very few remaining establishments which has retained its old furniture and wall paper, for coffee and tea while we wait for a Vietnamese restaurant to open. 

We walk to the Vietnamese restaurant on Bahnhofstrasse, which let’s simply call Asian due to the choices of foods on their menu. Would we have ever thought in 1974 that sushi would be available in Honnef in 2018? Did we even know what sushi was? Did it exist outside of Japan? Could we even find a place to eat on Sunday? These thoughts and others like them consume most of my time.  The food is good; but for me, this experience is anachronistic with my memories; for old friends who have been living here all along this change has been gradual and has been traveling at the same speed as their own daily experiences and memories.  When a certain store opens its doors or another closes becomes not only a blur but also unimportant to our constant state of movement through time. It’s through the leaving of a place, when it no longer moves through time with us, that it earns its static impression.

We park at the electric train, the bahn, that shuttles people back and forth from Bonn. The Schwimbad at the end of the bridge is now a hamburger place (how in the world did they fill in that basin?) but the bridge to the island is as we remember; the restaurant down to the right is for sale; but its cafe outside still serves a cold drink; the foot paths around the island’s perimeter offer the same respite from cars and noise as they always did; dogs and children run free and the barges still chug along. The Island, the school, certain corners and spaces are of course the same as our memory confirms, yet there is a modernity to Bad Honnef that is unbecoming; as if it wants to be someone else, somewhere else. Like a child, its personality has changed over the years. It’s trying on new clothes, and stretching its attitude into a persona that may change yet again.

We return to the house,  open a bottle of wine in the garden, a wildly growing backyard surrounding a small canopied stone patio. We look at a photo album from our long ago Honnef, each picture taking each of us 40 years back into both separate and similar memories.

The next morning we made ourselves breakfast with the cheeses and marmalade, coffee and tea, and afterwards we went to the cemetery, and paid some respects to people we once knew and laughed with.

We drove back to Menzenbergerstrasse 96 to take a walk around the back of the house. All the simple wire fences to simply mark boundaries or to keep rabbits or ducks in are now taller, solid, formidable structures that basically tell people to keep out and away. Our old yard has a couple of wooden sheds in it, no pear or cherry trees, and a huge bush or two that prevent us from getting a good look at the back of the house, but we could tell the whole kitchen extends further, and the porch is no longer there.

We talked and walked, and eventually, as always, arrived in Konigswinter, two towns north along the Rhine River.  The ferry that ferried us across to go the English library was making its crossing over to Bad Godesberg further to the north, and we found the Hotel Maritim across the street with a terrace and some embrellas just in time for a late lunch – a buffet of salad and desserts.

We took the bahn back, and walked the way back up to Sel Hof.  It could have been like old times.  But I left a long time ago, and my feet, steady as they go, no longer fit into those old shoes. 

2 Comments

  1. Der Bericht über Bad Honnef ist ebenso reizend und interessant wie die Autorin. Ich wünschte, ich wäre dabei gewesen. Aber vielleicht holen wir das irgendwann einmal gemeinsam nach. Herzallerliebste Grüße von Andreas.

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    1. Vielen Dank für deine Kommentar. Es würde mir ganz gefallen wenn wir das Erlebnis eines Tages nach holen könnten.

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