Thursday, June 13, 2013

Death of a memory

This week, in spite of the deadline for my next book, The Demons of Ghent, looming large on the horizon, I have taken some time off to recover from last week's very nasty virus. This has meant that I have had a bit of time not only to rest and watch rubbishy horror films, but also to catch up with friends online and do a bit of blogging.

Even though my current work in progress is set in Flanders, I have spent much of this week thinking about my former home town of Bad Münstereifel in Germany. I have submitted a guest post about the town and its influence on my writing to another blog and I've recently exchanged emails with some of my friends there. I've also been watching a documentary about Bad Münstereifel by German channel WDR online this morning, with tears running down my face.

Here is a link to the programme on WDR's website: DieStory: Unsere Stadt soll Outlet werden. The programme is (naturally) in German but if you don't speak German there are still some wonderful shots of the town and there are several scenes in which the images speak for themselves even if you can't understand the dialogue; these include the opening aerial panorama of the town which shows the twin towers of the collegiate church and the famous red Rathaus (town hall).

The documentary is all about changes that are taking place in the town. Like many other towns in these difficult economic times, Bad Münstereifel has been struggling. It shares much in common with my current home town of Crieff, where the energetic Crieff Community Trust are currently working hard to find solutions to some major challenges. Both are historic tourist towns in rural areas, with a number of empty buildings, and businesses struggling to stay afloat.

Even when we left Bad Münstereifel in 2008, there were a few empty buildings on the main shopping streets, and since then the situation has worsened. Clearly, the town needed a boost. Now a possible solution has appeared in the form of investors who have put together a plan to turn the town into "City Outlet Bad Münstereifel", an outlet centre selling designer clothes. The programme follows the investors, the town's mayor, the civil servants in charge of liaising with the public, the existing traders who are affected by the changes, and also those who object to or are concerned about the proposals. Some of the issues raised are practical ones: where will all the new shoppers park? where will the school buses park if the parking places are needed for shoppers? One resident who moved to the town specifically because of its wonderful atmosphere is afraid that it will be irrevocably changed.

I can't say what is right or wrong in this situation. I have not lived in Bad Münstereifel for five years, and so I feel I have forfeited my right to pontificate about what ought to happen there. I love the town very much; every time I visit, it still feels like home. But I don't live there any more, so I don't have to live with the consequences of developing or not developing the town centre. It is depressing living somewhere where shops are closing and buildings are derelict; that is why the Community Trust in my new home town are working hard to solve the issues here. An outsider feeling (perhaps sentimentally) that nothing should ever change shouldn't carry any weight.

All the same, I was terribly sad seeing footage of my very favourite bakery-cum-cafe, the Erft-Cafe, closing down. The landlord decided to sell the property to the outlet investors and therefore the Cafe closed last winter. The documentary follows Herr and Frau Nipp, who ran the bakery and cafe, through the last day of opening to the closure of the Erft-Cafe and the dismantling and removal of all the fittings.   (If you want a quick peep rather than watching the whole film, you can meet Herr Nipp and his wife at 7:20 in the video.)

I know Herr and Frau Nipp personally. When we first moved to Bad Münstereifel, the children were very young and their behaviour in polite settings was always a bit unpredictable. The Erft-Cafe was one place where we were always sure of a welcome regardless. On several occasions one of the children dropped a glass on the tiles or actually broke an ornament, but the staff were always understanding.

When I came to research my third novel, Wish me dead, which has a baker's daughter as a heroine, Herr Nipp was one of the people who advised me about the background details for the novel. If you turn to the acknowledgements page at the back of the book, it reads, "Special thanks are due to...Herr Nipp and the team at the Erft-Cafe and the Cafe am Salzmarkt in Bad Münstereifel, for their advice about the running of a German bakery and German bakery products." The Nipps (and also the Quastens at the Bäckerei Cafe Quasten in Kommern) kindly allowed me behind the scenes in the bakery and answered all my probing questions about murder methods in a bakery kitchen with perfect Teutonic composure.

It makes me very sad to think that the Erft-Cafe no longer exists; it feels as though a part of the children's childhood has been rooted up and thrown away. By the end of the documentary I was watching through tears. Of course, change has to happen; nothing can remain the same forever. Herr and Frau Nipp were as philosophical as possible, as were some of the other traders in the town; some of those who are hanging onto their existing businesses are hoping that the increased footfall the outlet will bring will boost their own sales. I wish them all well. We are not able to visit Bad Münstereifel this summer, but I hope to go over next year again; I hope it will still feel like home.

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