I’ve got a thing for steel. In construction, it’s the real deal. I’ve no engineering cred, and failed metalwork (and woodwork and leatherwork and music and art). But I have this thing for steel. The Sydney Harbour Bridge, its gray and thrusting glory, its curves, its brutal functionality – I choose her, over 100 Sydney Opera Houses. (And I choose the hammerhead crane at Garden Island, doomed as she is.)
I was late to love. I’d been to Paris many times but delayed gratification as long as I could; I think it pays to leave another reason to visit. So when I finally touched the Eiffel Tower in mid-2004, I was ready to commit. That busy and almost-embroidered superstructure, that soaring summit surrounded by lawn and river and six storey walk-ups. Amazing from a distance, and even more so up close. There was a firefighter stopwork meeting held beneath the buttresses, firecrackers and foghorns, an ampitheatre of solidity and sensitivity.
Later I researched Eiffel and how his innovative use of steel girders was applied to skyscraper design and construction. Even if the Tower had been dismantled as planned, his legacy would have been secured.
Years passed – six years, years of stopping and starting and false starts – it was time for another trip, with partner and child and grandparents. Paris was obviously on the list, but I decided to adopt a broader “steel” theme. Paris-Wuppertal-Bilbao. The latter was an obvious choice because we had always meant to “do” Northern Spain but had wavered and fizzled, the Guggenheim was there and so was the Bizkaia at Portugelate. More of that later…
Wuppertal was the one that had everyone scratching their heads. Especially the Germans. Why the fuck Wuppertal? It’s just a smallish provincial city northeast of Cologne. But it has the Schwebebahn, the gondola monorail. Built in brutal steel. Innovative, effective, but an engineering dead-end.
I had been obsessed with the Schwebebahn since it starred in Tom Tykwer’s film The Princess and The Warrior. Franke Potente also starred. It’s a fascinating, arid love story of misfits, and the dreamlike sequences shot on the Schwebebahn captivated me. Round and round the city it went, straddled over dense streets and the river, a giant eel, fishing and gliding. In my past life, it became a running joke for me to proffer up a Schwebebahn as the solution to Sydney’s transport problems – it wasn’t the dumbest idea I had; you should have heard the one about a metro from… never mind : (
When we had visited Europe in 2004, we had to travel from Luzern to Lyon, and someone had left a copy of a newspaper on my train seat. On the front page was a story about the 100-year anniversary of the Schwebebahn! Even through the jetlag, I was resonating with coincidence. But we didn’t go that time.
Jump back with me to 2010 and the detailed itinerary planning. I figure I can sneak to Wuppertal by highspeed train and be back the same day. This is it, it’s now or never. So I book a ticket to Cologne on the Thalys and it’s cheap and I’m excited and everyone else thinks I am weird and consistently I treat that as a compliment and that is how I live my life and will keep on living it.
We come to Paris and I revisit the Eiffel, this time with my daughter, aged two and a half. She buys a small pink replica to hang off her backpack. Her grandparents are in Paris for the first time and he, a fitter and turner of some genius and decades of resilience, is also in awe of the engineering masterpiece. And he can explain it to me and translate the structural principles into a sort-of English. On our first night we had looked out and the Tower had been lit with flashing lights and fireworks, kitsch but we were kids in the kitschen, rushing to get our cameras.
Then the day dawns for me to go Wuppertal. My Thalys leaves at 6:30 so I’m up at 4, having a shower in our rented apartment and scalding myself on a baroque piece of exposed pipe. It wakes me up properly, and I am grateful of a variety, I see the irony in pain inflicted by metal on this day of all days. I take the metro to Gare du Nord and have a breakfast and decide to buy the last book in the Lisbeth Salander trilogy even though I haven’t read the other two. The Thalys is red and sleek, bound for Brussels then either Cologne or Amsterdam, one being an IT and media headquarters and the other still a mercantile wet dream. Even on Sunday, there are business people being propelled along this great economic corridor at 320km/h, blowing away the BMWs on the motorways, throwing shadows as fast as hurricanes on the golden fields.
Belgium arrives and I remember from a much earlier trip how British the coal towns look. It’s as if Orwell or someone wrote a “coalmining towns for dummies” and franchised it in Benelux languages. And then we’re through Aachen into Germany for the first time in 15 years despite saying I would never go back. But that was before the Schwebebahn.
The Deutsche Bahn office in Cologne is a monument to efficiency and courtesy, and integration of each and every transport need is achievable with the push of the right button, the periodic advancement in a queue and the exchange of Euros. There is a pass that lets you travel to Wuppertal and use all public transport – including the Schwebebahn – and that is what I buy. It is about 10am by now and I am feeling so fucking smart, and start getting the camera ready.
I would like to say the road to Wuppertal was paved with good intentions, but I went by train, and the carriages were mostly filled by people seemingly going from village to village for church services. After about 40 minutes we started to come into the outer suburbs of Wuppertal, and I was like a laughing clown, turning from side to side to catch a first glimpse of the green supports and the rails. There she was. Between some buildings. And again, over there, as the track looped around. The train pulled into the Hauptbahnhoff and I grabbed my daypack and threw the camera around my neck, expecting to join the swarm of daytrippers and trainspotters on the platform.
It was pretty dead. Germany is quiet on Sundays. Most retail is shut. It’s none of my business if they want none of my business. I grab a map and discern where the main Schwebebahn station is. I see the rails, and a train sitting there. I decide not to run, the frequency is pretty high. So I control my excitement and just walk around the corner into the station. The barriers are down. I look for another entrance. Barriers. WTF? Maybe this station is closed on weekends. I go to the ticket office. And there it is, the simple handwritten notice, “closed for repairs Sunday 12 October. Buses operating.” I gag. I have had 4 or 5 coffees and too much pastry and I can taste it all. Or is that it? Could that be something else in my mouth, a sad taste of rude awakening?
I check the date and my ticket and the sign and gesture and swear and the drunks who are everywhere gesture and swear and drink their beer. And I walk, I follow a crowd of people who don’t look drunk, into a modern shopping complex, where I figure I will hide and recover my haughty and work out my next move or how to spin this all to my advantage. But the shops are shut, people are window shopping in a mall on a Sunday because there is FUCKING NOTHING TO DO IN WUPPERTAL! And I know I deserve this, because I have been told, by multiple Germans with no axe to grind. I am the dictionary definition of bathos. In my own bathysphere, big enough for one.
Now I am convinced I will die and be buried in Wuppertal and I just have to get the hell out of there. A souvenir shop yields two postcards and no mugs except this one. So I run to the station and jump a train back to Cologne, I know that there is a Thalys back to Paris at 13:00. I realise I can blame the DB attendant who sold me the pass for Wuppertal, she could have told me the line was closed. It would have made a small difference. I can blame her. So I head to her counter but she is gone and they won’t let me change my ticket without paying a supplement twice what I paid for the whole return ticket. I am starting to feel like Cary Grant in North by Northwest. I curse, tell everyone ahem that Sydney has a better transport system, or at least more caring staff, and head out into the wilds of Cologne with 6 hours to kill till my train to Paris. Did I mention it’s Sunday and everything in Germany is closed? Cathedral, trains, town square, beer, a third lunch. 5 hours to kill. Internet cafe, Australia doing ok in India, check work emails. Beer. Cathedral at dusk. Train station.
I have loaded up on German beer and have plans to drink to forget. I flirt with the idea of spinning it that the camera didn’t work but I still enjoyed the ride. But some deep, generally unrecognisable wellspring of maturity tells me that would make me even more pathetic. And then the beer goes flat because my heart isn’t really in it. I head up the carriage at 320 km/h to put it in the bin and we hit a curve at 320 km/h and the carriage jerks sideways and this jerk jerks sideways and throws his hands to the sides to brace and the wheat beer of great distinction essays a perfect curve all across the chest and face of a terribly nice and sympathetic woman of no easily identifiable lineage. Fuck me dead. This is it. They will kill me as a lager lout or softcock who can’t hold his beer, and it is OK, because i want and need to die. Right now.
She’s actually fine with being lathered in stale ale. Almost apologetic. Maybe my pathetic apologies and genuine harrow transcend the language barriers. Everyone nods and smiles and waves and does the old palms upturned peace man thing. Except for the prick in C32 who tuts and tuts and tuts. All the way to Paris.
Then my last metro ticket gets eaten at Gare du Nord and it’s almost midnight and I am convinced I will be eating by a dragon or mugged or at least fined for not having a ticket. But it’s OK, I walk through our arrondissement with the immigrants and the cats and the lovers. And by now I am enjoying the pain. You have to laugh, if not least because you know everyone else will – might as well get in first. So I laugh, a big head back, shrieking laugh. Like Sean Penn at the end of U-Turn. With better teeth. It’s after midnight when I get home and everyone’s asleep so I kiss my girl gently and tell her mum I’ll share my story in the morning.
The moral of the story is that only a dickhead would leave Paris and travel halfway across Europe and back in a day to ride around in a bloody toy train they saw in a movie. Guilty, as charged. But the story is better this way. I got to draw a line under my Schwebebahn obsession… if I had managed to ride the bloody ungainly beast that may have been the end of my transport planning career. I had to work much harder than that to reach the endgame.
We did get to Bilbao and ride the glorious Bizkaia transporter bridge, which we could see out the window of our swish room in a converted old palace. It’s a great town, Bilbao, and you could get seriously hard for titanium once you see the Guggenheim glistening in the sun. The guy who built the transporter bridge – a mechanism that hangs from turrets and shunts cars and people across a waterway without blocking shipping – was a disciple of Eiffel’s, and it shows. There’s only two or three left in the world that function, but that’s another story…