Earlier this week I was in Frankfurt to speak at a press conference about New Zealand's literary and cultural programme at this year's Frankfurt Book Fair (where NZ will be Guest of Honour). An impressive 120+ members of the media attended. Equally impressive: the Frankfurter Buchmesse building, a serene mix of old and new, with big windows and secret courtyards; everyone in the press conference putting up with English speeches, and asking questions in English; and us lazy English speakers getting a live translation whenever director Jurgen Boos spoke in German. (Less impressive: three people hired to dress as a Hobbit, an Elf and one other LOTR creature - not sure who insisted on their presence, but I'm sure it wasn't the Book Fair.)
Afterwards I did various interviews while everyone else enjoyed a barbeque in the sunshine. By the time I made it out into the courtyard everyone was eating these odd biscuits, which were masquerading as pavlovas:
I've been to Frankfurt a number of times in my life - at different phases of my life, I guess - and every time it seems like a completely new place to me, perhaps because I've rarely had the time to just wander around.
My first trip there was in the late 70s, with my parents and brother, when we were visiting family friends who live in nearby Offenbach. I don't remember much that was Frankfurt-specific from that trip, because we went to a number of places in Germany and my chief memories from those visits are a) placing everyone's orders at breakfast, lunch and dinner in my third-form German; b) buying gigantic grapes in a market (and eating them); and c) beginning my life-long love affair with German Christmas decorations and the shops that sell them. Did we go to the Goethehaus? I don't remember. At that point in my life I didn't realize that Goethe stayed absolutely everywhere, or that any inn that housed him for a night would nail up an historic plaque the next day. Really, you could be in Amarillo, Texas, and discover that Goethe had spent the night there once. Schiller might have popped by as well. They are the Muck and Brass of German lit.
I digress. When I was in my 20s, and a university student in England, I went back to Frankfurt with my brother and sister. (My sister was studying in Freiburg for a semester.) It was grey and cold - November or December, maybe. I have a photo of my brother standing outside Kaufhof and grinning. My sister was pregnant (with my nephew), and all she could keep down was a McDonald's filet o' fish. All WE wanted were the delicious sliced dumplings that Mrs Bauer made, remembered, with fond greediness, from our visit in 1978.
After that Frankfurt was reduced in my life to an airport I passed through while travelling on business, especially once I'd moved to the US. For a time I was working for a German company based in Munich, and as well as attending meetings there I had to go to a festival in Badenweiler in the Black Forest every year. Frankfurt was the place my bags went astray. In those days my first impression of Frankfurt airport was always the same: smoke. (You can't smoke in the airport anymore, though this didn't stop the Korean men in the immigration queue with me on Sunday buying and carrying vast quantities of duty-free cigarettes.)
When that phase of my life (happily) was over, I went back a few times to stay with my sister and her family, who were spending six months living and working there. In the summer we went to the Botanical Garden for my nephew's tenth birthday; in the winter, when my niece turned seven, we set off for Sleeping Beauty's Castle. In the weeks before Christmas we drank Gluhwein in the Weinachtsmarkt, where there were real-life miniature ponies in the carousel.
Frankfurt was my setting-off point for train trips to Prague in the summer and Italy in the winter, and the city I was delighted to see again after coming down with a nasty flu in Italy, getting stranded by a train strike, and being told, by an Italian travel agent, that I couldn't use a credit card to buy a plane ticket back.
Frankfurt was a place of calm and order after the chaos of that particular trip. I was so happy to see my brother-in-law and nephew waiting for me at the airport, and to go home to the cheery comfort of their one-bedroom, seventeenth-floor flat. My sister was conducting an experiment into how many visiting friends could be squeezed in for an overnight stay. I think the most at any one time was four adults and four children, with my poor nephew in the hallway behind the front door. Once when I was there, two people - New Zealanders, needless to say - were sleeping outside on the small terrace. When the landlady came around, we tried to pretend everyone had just dropped in for a cup of tea.
Back then TMiddy was a boyfriend rather than a husband (or indentured servant, as he would no doubt say), so he didn't come to Frankfurt with me. Whenever we got stuck playing 'Where in the USA is Carmen Sandiego?' we would ring him, until he found out his phone bill was out of control and had to throw himself on the mercy of AT&T.
His first visit to Frankfurt was just last year: we flew there to meet my niece, who was studying in Heidelberg. Another birthday: this time, her 20th. (It felt like one minute since we were driving off to Sleeping Beauty's Castle in Sababurg for her seventh birthday: now we were driving to Zurich to visit friends, and she was more keen on a Zara gift voucher than Barbie's Vet Office.) TM's only interaction with a Frankfurter, aside from the guy at the rental car desk, was a typical encounter for us at the end of a trip when we're trying to return the car. Because we can never find a petrol station nearby, we end up driving too far into the airport; getting ensnared in its one-way system; finding ourselves snagged in traffic or trapped by barriers or herded into a carpark; and relying on the kindness of a stranger (usually uniformed) to point us in the right direction and let us off whatever fee we'd incurred by driving into some security zone. Frankfurt was no exception, but the difference was the perfect English of the uniformed stranger.
Visiting Frankfurt this week felt odd, in part because I stayed at a hotel rather than with family or friends, and in part because I was here for the first time as a writer, getting the chance to talk about my own books rather than coming to Germany to sell other people's creative work. Euro 2012 is going on right now, so the day I arrived, Diana (my minder - you can see her in the 'beer' picture below) and I wandered the streets, looking for a place to sit outside and watch that night's game. Every bar and restaurant had multiple TV screens, so we were just trying to secure a decent view. We found somewhere in the end - a place to sit in the street, cheer for Germany and eat currywurst. And, of course, to inhale vast amounts of smoke from everyone sitting around us. The airport may have banned them, but German smokers persevere.
The pictures below are Frankfurt, or a very small sliver of it, over two sunny days in June 2012, when Germany beat Denmark and all was well with the world. I'm looking forward to coming back in October for six days during the Book Fair, and for seeing and doing much more.