The Road To Wredenhagen: Part One
It’s the middle of June, 2005. I’m currently playing bass on tour with Ox, an indie band from Sudbury, Ontario. We’ve played twenty-five shows in the UK, Ireland and The Netherlands and I’m exhausted. I’ve been drinking too much and sleeping too little. I’ve spent too many nights on hard floors, cold floors, floors without carpet and floors that I’ve wished had no carpet. I’ve woken up in squats amongst piles of discarded cigarette butts and empty lager cans and the sound of mice scurrying near my head. On a few occasions I’ve slept in the tour bus. The tour bus is not actually a bus but a medium-sized silver Audi car. I have gone for days without more than a quick splash of cold water on my face in the morning before getting into the car to drive to the next destination. The tour is almost over now. We have one final show to play in the tiny village of Wredenhagen which lies about 80 miles to the north of Berlin, before the band flies back to Canada and I return to my idle life in Kirtlington, just outside of Oxford. There is however a whole week to kill before the show so I’ve decided to take a road trip to Prague. I’ve never been to the Czech capital and have all kinds of ideas of drunken debauchery in my head.
Right now though I’m in Maastricht rearranging the contents of the car before setting off on the five hundred mile journey. It’s loaded up with stuff that we’re not going to need for another week but as we’re going straight to the show from Prague it has to come with us. Crammed into the boot are four guitars, three amplifiers, a bag of t-shirts, two boxes of records, two boxes of compact discs, my luggage, a tent, sleeping bag, camping stove, a couple of pans and a large cardboard box full of tinned food. Mark, the band’s singer and guitarist, has gone to Spain for the week with his girlfriend though he’s left most of his stuff with me. Ryan, the other guitar player, is coming with me so there’s all his baggage too.
Ryan finishes his cigarette while I clamber into the Audi and warm up the engine. The car has been through a lot these last few weeks. I’m not too worried about it but there are a couple of minor issues that are bugging me. Firstly, the speedometer doesn’t work any more. The needle just sits there, hovering shakily between zero and ten miles per hour. Sometimes that’s all it does. But occasionally it will impulsively shoot round counter-clockwise and confuse me into thinking I’m doing fifty miles an hour until I shut the engine off and it resets itself. It’s a little disconcerting but nothing more. The other thing I’ve noticed is that the oil light is on all the time. I know for a fact that the oil’s fine though as the car was just serviced the week before the tour. I find that if I give the dashboard a good thump the light goes off. Then I can relax about it.
It’s an overcast day which is not a bad thing as driving in the sun is no fun in the Audi as it doesn’t have AC and I don’t like to have to wind the windows down and put up with all the fumes and noise from the road. We set off in high spirits, glad to see the back of Maastricht having spent quite a bit of time there over the last ten days. Ryan and I, having had the pleasure of each other’s company for six weeks now, have nothing left to talk about so I drive in silence and Ryan quickly drifts into a light coma punctuated by loud snoring. It’s not an unpleasant journey but the scenery is dull and I soon begin to grow a little bored.
We’re about three hours into what could happily be described as a ‘routine journey’ when I’m alarmed to see thin wisps of white smoke coming from under the hood of the car.
“Oh shit!” I say.
Ryan wakes up and seems confused about where he is for a moment.
“What’s up?” he asks.
“We need to get off the road,” I say quickly and flick the indicator on so I can pull over safely.
The thin wisps of white have now grown into a dense cloud and the view from the windshield is suddenly nothing but smoke. Somehow I manage to pull off the autobahn into a deserted rest area before the engine sputters and dies. I put on the handbrake and pop open the hood. We both get out of the car and stand there, staring at the engine. Neither of us knows anything about cars so I’m not sure what we hope to achieve. Ryan takes a step back and lights a cigarette.
Suddenly a dirty yellow car pulls up. It looks a bit like a large wasp as it has big, black lettering on the side that says ‘ADAC.’ A little white-haired man gets out and comes over to greet us.
“Guten tag,” he says, then reels off a stream of incomprehensible German at us.
“Wir sprechen kein deutsch,” I say. “Englisch. Canadian.”
“Ah,” he says. “Ich spreche kein Englisch.”
We’re off to a flying start. I’m put in mind of the practice conversations my German teacher, Mrs Brett, would make us engage in once a week. I remember Mrs Brett very clearly--a four-foot-five redhead who always wore a thickly knitted blue sweater. I remember how to ask for directions to the train station, the word for toothpaste and how to say that I’ve got diarrhea. But I don’t remember anything about cars breaking down.
The man walks round the car and has a quick look at the engine. He pokes and prods it for half a minute then looks at me and shakes his head.
“Es ist kaputt,” he says sadly and gives me a sympathetic smile.
“Kaputt?” I repeat feeling a sudden wave of panic.
He wanders back to his own car and reappears with a tow rope.
“Ok,” I say. “Where are we going?”
“Something something garage something something begeggen namen,” he says.
I seize on the one word I recognize.
“Garage,” I repeat. “Ok. Good.”
I feel a bit like I’m taking part in a game of charades.
The man gets back in the wasp and pulls up in front of the Audi and then attaches his tow rope to the front of it. He beckons for us to get back in the car and we oblige.
He drives away from the rest area with us in tow. I feel like a kid on a not very exciting fairground ride. Ryan and I sit in silence, trying to enjoy the boring landscape, pretending everything is just fine. Fifteen minutes later we pull up onto a garage forecourt. The name on the awning, I notice, says ‘Lucky Tank’ and I decide that this a good omen. It’s more petrol station than garage though.
Our new friend un-hitches the car and hands me a piece of paper.
“Morgen,” he says drawing a rainbow in the air toward me. “Ein Mechaniker kommt morgen.”
“Tomorrow?!” I yelp, surprising myself that I understand. We have to wait until tomorrow?”
“Ja. Morgen,” he says and gives me another sympathetic smile.
Then with a nod of the head he departs leaving us alone and friendless in Germany.
“Well,” says Ryan, lighting another cigarette. “Now what?”
Looking around us it doesn’t take long to realize that there’s nothing in the immediate vicinity to satisfy any of the needs I know will have to be met over the next twenty-four hours. There is a little shop at the petrol station and a closed car wash. As for a bed for the night--well, I absolutely refuse point blank to sleep in the car again after my experience in Limerick when I was woken at four in the morning by a very drunk man leaning against the door as he emptied his bowels.
“We’re going to have to find a hotel,” I say to Ryan. “There’s no choice.”
“How though?” he says. “We don’t even know where we are and we don’t speak German.”
He has a point, I realize.
“Well, we’ll ask in the shop,” I say.
A bell sounds as I walk through the door of the little shop. It’s empty but I browse the snacks for a couple of minutes as I work up the courage to speak to the girl at the checkout who looks dangerously unfriendly. After selecting a couple of Kit Kats, two bottles of Fanta and something called Super Dickmann’s, which I know will amuse Ryan, I approach the checkout.
“Guten tag,” I say cheerily. “Er. Sprechen sie Englisch?”
She shakes her head indifferently.
“Ah. I… er… Ich habe besoin de… No. Ein moment por favor… Saviez vous si il y a einen... Sorry… wir… need un hotel. Hotel.”
I’m banking on ‘hotel’ being the same in German as it is in English but from the girl’s inscrutable expression I worry it might mean something entirely different.
“Not hospital,” I add cryptically, “Hotel.”
I change my tack and abandon German entirely.
“Is there a town nearby?” I say slowly and loudly--the reliable fallback for Brits in a foreign land--as I know my hopeless mangling of the language will only confuse the situation further. “A town?” I attempt to mime ‘town’ but nothing comes to mind.
The girl gestures in the direction of the door and at first I think she’s asking me to leave. Then I realize she’s pointing towards a path that leads up a hill away from the main road.
“Danke!” I say and scurry back to Ryan who’s once again smoking by the car.
“Up there,” I say to him, pointing at the road. “There’s a town somewhere up there.”
We grab a few basics from the car and lock it. I’m a little nervous of leaving it unattended overnight with all our gear in it but there’s no choice. A minute we later we’ve crossed the road and are making our way up the steep path. It’s a sunny afternoon and despite our predicament I’m quite enjoying myself. Things can only get better from here, I tell myself.
Come back for Part Two next week...