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Strangely wonderful and wonderfully strange

How an English schoolboy fell in love with Speyer, his special second home.

I grew up in England in the 1950s, and as a seven-year-old I re-enacted World War Two battles in the school playground. I knew the ‘Tommies’ were the goodies and the ‘Krauts’ the baddies. The only German I knew were phrases like Achtung! and Donner und Blitzen! gleaned from the war comics of the day.

There was one difference between me and my playmates, though. My dad was German. I wasn’t of course; I was born in England and only English! There was nothing German about our life… apart from my lederhosen and my German schoolbag. My dad never spoke German at home. We did, though, spend two or three weeks most summers going back to visit my dad’s home and family in Speyer, in the Rhineland Palatinate. Because our life in England was quite chaotic, living in several different parts of the country in quick succession, I think I began to think of Speyer as the home I didn’t live in.

I can now recall quite vividly all those numerous small differences between life in England and the life in Speyer which I found so exciting and exotic.

The one thing that refreshes these memories most evocatively is the smells, and the feelings associated with them. England seemed to have a moist smell, of dark earth and trees and the damp grass in the country, the smell of rose and daffodils in the gardens, homemade pickled onions and ginger beer in the pantry and of coal fires and kitchen gas stoves. The German smells of Speyer on the other hand seemed to be less natural but more immediate and enticing, like the Christmas smells from the Lebkuchen and sweets my aunt always sent in a Christmas parcel. Most memorable was that of the German bakery. The mornings’ Brötchen filling the air with the scent of poppy and caraway seeds, to be mixed in the kitchen with the smell of freshly hand-milled coffee. In the afternoon, the bread smells were replaced with those of Torten filled with strawberries or plums or cherries.

I loved the smell of the red-coated nuts for sale in the fairground of the Speyer Brezelfest, and the secret slightly dangerous smell of the damp unlit cellars. I particularly remember the cellars because when I lost my ball through the cellar opening in my grandparents Hof I had to venture down alone, open an old creaking door and stand there patiently in the almost pitch black waiting for my eyes to become accustomed. It was like a minute of sensory deprivation with the damp cellar smell and a pencil of light as the only exceptions.

There were many things that I found strange during my early visits. Zebra crossings were not to be considered as guarantees of safe passage. Some children’s bikes had no pedals. Adult bikes required you to pedal backwards to stop. This was almost fatal for me as I attempted my usual casual free-wheeling back-peddle at just the wrong time! Germans drove on the ‘wrong’ side of the road and their cars were quite different, especially the colours. English cars were black, forest green, grey, brown, and dull matt red (like dried blood). German cars had bolder colours like crimson, lemon yellow, orange and lime green.

I was told not to drink unboiled tapwater in Speyer, but only bottled water. I later suspected this to be poor advice as my family apparently had at one time been water sellers fetching water from the Rhine and had some ongoing family resentment concerning water that came out of a tap.

Then there were the sounds. The sounds should have been the same as in England but somehow sounded so different. Didn’t I hear a German accent in the rooster’s morning call? Didn’t the dogs bark in German? The ticking of the clocks and the chimes of the church bells seemed different too. In England clocks went ‘tick tock’, in Speyer ‘tick tack’. English church bells went ‘ding dong’ in Speyer they went ‘bim bam’. It even seemed like I could hear the difference. I found it very pleasing to be woken on a summer’s Sunday morning by the bells of Speyer’s Dom and the Gedächtniskirche, to realize where I was before even opening my eyes!


This article, plus more of Peter’s account of Speyer, then and now, continues on our Facebook page – with photos.

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