I don’t make Dortmund’s game against Frankfurt. I am ill. I have what is known in the medical profession as “shit on the lungs”. I’ve been coughing up slimy crap for the past couple of days and don’t want to jeopardise my recovery by an afternoon’s forcefeeding of beer on a wet April afternoon.
I have to go to Dortmund anyway though. I still have The Chief’s ticket from the last game. If I stay at home, so does he.
Don’t feel too sorry for me: I am well enough that I can watch the game in the pub. A couple of beers won’t do me any harm; it’s just that the dosage prescribed at the stadium would probably hospitalise a Belarussian.
So I am alone in Dortmund. Repeat, don’t feel sorry for me. I lived in this city for ten years. That’s longer than I’ve ever lived anywhere else and in many ways it still feels like home. All my friends are at the match, so I get the chance to walk around at my own pace. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to walk around Dortmund free and unfettered, without having to be at a certain place at a certain time, without the telephone ringing and asking me where I am. Peace at last. Time to enjoy some nostalgia.
I watch the game down at The Bridge. Dortmund is a colourful city and this is its convivial heart. The streets around The Bridge are home to drinking dens, tattoo shops, head shops and street food of all nations. On Saturdays it bubbles with renegades, waterbongs, seventy-cent bottled beer and Sri Lankan curries. Next to The Bridge is The Stube, once the most famous pub in Dortmund. The Stube is the only pub I know to have ever employed a one-armed barman. Think about that for a second: a one-armed barman. It’s the stuff of local legend. Beyond The Bridge, the whores hang out and the clients lie low.
Dortmund has character, that’s for sure. Not everyone likes it –and if it’s not to your taste then we’ll happily show you the door. On the other hand, if you show your enthusiasm then the locals will welcome you with open arms.
I have many happy memories of Dortmund, and its characters play a role in most of them. As I walk through the narrow streets of The Bridge I am reminded of the first time I met The Brahmin.
The Brahmin was actually an Englishman from Portsmouth. The Brahmin used to sit outside the old Karstadt shop, legs crossed, playing on a flute. His hair was long, grey and matted with dirt; his formerly white skin coloured with filth, or jaundice, or both. The first time I saw him there, sat upon the floor, I really thought he was an untouchable from New Delhi.
As I walked past him in my kilt, he struck up the Skye Boat Song on his flute. It was fairly obvious that I was the target audience, so I turned round and dropped a euro into his hat.
“Thank ya kindly. Gawd bless ya sir!”
“Are you English?”
He was. It was like a scene from Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. From Portsmouth, begging your pardon sir, although the streets of Dortmund were now his home.
Living abroad, even the most liberal of us feel pain for a countryman in need. Even the most fervent nationalist Scot will feel a bond to an Englishman down on his luck.
Don’t worry, he said. The Germans were good to him. He got a hot meal, fresh clothes and a bed for the night when he really needed it. He had his “regulars”, people who dropped a coin into his hat and asked how he was. Scots, English and Irish mainly –no surprise there. One German lady always brought him sandwiches; she hardly ever missed a day. In the winter he went back to England because he didn’t like the cold here. The British government paid him benefits.
Over the next few years, he came part of the matchday ritual. I’d pass him, drop a coin into his hat and get the latest about his beloved Portsmouth FC. It turns out that all my mates knew him; the story was always the same. Skye Boat Song for the Scots, Fields of Athenry for the Irish, Football’s Coming Home for the English. We all met him in the same way, sitting cross-legged in the old shop doorway, flute in hand like a snake charmer. We were all his “regulars”. We all got his weekly updates. Where he’d slept that week, how he was getting on with the authorities, where all the blood and shit stains had come from.
One day I saw him and asked him how he was.
“Fine” he says, cracking a smile “You’ll never believe this…”
He said that phrase a lot. He was always cheerful but you knew that whenever he said it then bad news was coming.
“I’ve been to the doctor. He says I’ve got 235,000 hepatitis antibodies! He reckoned that any more than 150,000 and by rights you should be dead! You coulda’ knocked me down with a feather!”
“Are…you alright?” I asked. I had no idea what to say.
“Oh yeah. No worries. Right as rain. What I reckon is, I’ll go back to England and they should give me a bit more money. Na, lookin’ forward ta goin’ ‘ome. They’ve been good to me ‘ere, but it’s time I went back. Ere, I want you to ‘ave this”
He pulled out a blood-and-shit stained copy of the history of Portsmouth FC. He looked at me. We both knew I wasn’t going to take it.
“You’re okay mate. You’ll want something to read on the boat over. Here, take this.” I dropped him a fiver.
“Gawd bless you sir!”
I still think about him, though I never feel sorry for him. Because he never felt sorry for himself.
I take the train home and change in Bochum. Bochum is smaller than Dortmund but also has its fair share of characters. Bochum has a town drunk. 400,000 people and he had to be the one. Imagine.
Bochum also has the Wheelchair Guy. Come rain, hail or shine he rides up and down the platforms of the railway station shouting abuse at the passengers. They annoy him for the strangest of reasons. The last time I saw him he shouted that the warm air from people’s bodies had almost blown him onto the platform and that we shouldn’t be wearing coats in this weather. That was in mid-January. When he gets really mad then he jumps out of the wheelchair. Few people expect that.
Herne is full of weirdos. The cloth shopping bag guy. The bus stop guy in the army beret and the pink trousers. The Pipe Major, who walks round in a tam-o-shanter and white piper’s spats over his jeans. Mad Alex, the guy with the six-inch thick glasses who takes the tram every day to the university –although he hasn’t studied there since 1996.
There are thousands of weird people in the Ruhr. We are one big city and not everybody’s brain works in the same way. You come to accept it after a while. At the end of the day, I don’t know what they say about the crazy guy in the kilt and Borussia Dortmund scarf. Most of these people are harmless. It’s not the weird people you need to watch for, it’s the angry people. And they are much more difficult to spot.
A few weeks ago we had an angry guy in Herne who killed two people because his application to join the German army was rejected. We are all still a little shocked, although we know that this could happen anywhere. There are a lot of angry guys around at the moment –and not just here.
In Herne we also have a town drunk. He stands at the corner of our street, he’s polite, he’s softly spoken and he’s friendly. Most town drunks are. I haven’t seen him for a few weeks. I hope he’s okay.