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Achtung Bertie

A group of German cyclists nearly give some French fishermen a heart attack.

I’ve just been cycling through the borderlands of Germany, Luxembourg and France with a group of Germans. We were on a boat/bike tour, based on a Dutch barge travelling along the Moselle, and it all went pretty well. Good company, plenty of interest, and weather was temperate, with not too much headwind. But there was one rather surreal moment.

By way of background, I need to explain that these borderlands are territories which belonged first to one nation, then to another; Trier, for example, was once French – and Metz was German. It was in this region that the French created the Maginot Line of fortifications after the First World War, to keep the Germans permanently at bay (fat help that was, the Germans just went round through Belgium).

Anyway one morning, just by the old fortifications of the Maginot Line, we were passing through a wooded watery wilderness in the river valley, which was something of a fisherman’s paradise. A place of backwaters and pools lined with ramshackle huts and temporary fishing camps, with men murmuring gently to each other over shared packs of Gauloises.

The Germans I was with had a habit of warning each other of hazards they encountered on the cycle path, usually with the word ‘Achtung’. I’d gone ahead to take pictures and had stopped by one of the backwaters, close to a group of fishermen. All of us looked up as one as a series of guttural ‘Achtungs’ approached through the trees, getting louder and louder as they came. For a moment there was a look of real apprehension on the face of the French, who suddenly looked as if they wished they had something more martial than just a fishing rod in their hands.

But then they visibly relaxed as the phalanx of cyclists appeared out of the gloom. The average age of the party was around 65, and their helmets were brightly coloured, not camouflaged. One of the fishermen grinned, and waved. ‘Achtung Bertie’ he called out as the cyclists swept past.

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