Wednesday, February 08, 2006

A little bit of autobiography

I’ve been working in Basel again recently, a town I’m a little in love with.

It’s an old town by Western European standards. The buildings around the Munster date back to the 14th Century and are still inhabited.

This is not some pickled-in-aspic heritage-industry town. It is a vital, dynamic place, although never flashy or loud. It’s Switzerland’s second largest city, home to their pharmaceutical industry (which explains my presence –Pharma companies attract consultants the way that horses have flies), and has a well respected university.

But this sounds too much like a guidebook. Next I’ll be telling you that Basel straddles the Rhine and snuggles up to France on one side and Germany on the other.

When you are in love with a town, you don’t describe it like this.

When you are in love with a woman you don’t offer her dress size or her body mass as description of who she is. Instead, you speak of the how the lines around her eyes are emblematic of humour, not fear; you share the memory of the weight of her hair pooling in your outstretched hand; the taste of her neck in your mouth; the guilt-propelled self-loathing that twists your stomach when you fail her; the peace the fills you when you watch her sleep; the envy you feel when irrepressible laughter breaks the surface of her concentration in the presence of her friends.

At the centre of this description lies not the woman but your love of her; not who she is but who you become when you think of her.

When you fall in love with a town, it is not the buildings or the avenues of trees or the sinuous track of the river, carved centuries deep through old stone that you fall in love with. You fall in love with the person that the city lets you become.

I lived in Basel for nearly two years at the end of the 90s, barely able to speak the language; alone throughout the week, working 12-14 hours a day, commuting back to England at the weekends.

I fell in love with a town that encouraged me to look into to myself and to learn to write, to value solitude rather than fear loneliness and to reach out across the web to people who were awake while those around me slept.

Although I lived through some hot summers in Basel, they seem like fleeting mood swings, not truly indicative of her character. For me, Basel is a city of cold winter nights, lit with bold white lights that make the frost on the tram lines sparkle. It was a town I travelled on foot or by tram, mostly alone and mostly happy. My work day would start at 7am and at least two nights a week I would try to be done by 8pm so that I could have some time to myself.

I worked on the Klein Basel (little Basle) side of the river. This has always been the rougher side – where the river traders landed their boats and spent their money on women and drink. Not much has changed. This is still the red light district, where Asian girls (very young, probably illegal, and depressingly likely to be there against their will) lean from red-lit windows and whistle to attract the attention of male passers-by and older, rounder, tougher white women stand on corners waiting for drive-thru customers who want a quickie on the way home. These days the sailors have been replaced by men in suits, attending conventions at the Messe, one of the largest exhibition halls in Europe. By day they struggle to increase the sales of ball bearings or plastic tubing or automotive components. At night Klein Basel opens its doors to their money and need: food and drink are followed by some time at the “cabaret”. It may sound strange for a writer of erotica, but these places make me uncomfortable: it’s as if the men who use them cannot or will not see what is going on. At best these are milking parlours for animals that must be squeezed and squirted on a regular basis. At worst they are places of desperate mutual exploitation. And yet, night after night, year after year they persist.

Thursday, which, in the days before e-banking, used to be pay day in Basel, is the evening for being out on the town. The shops are open later and families fill the restaurants and movie houses. On Thursdays I liked to leave Klein Basel by walking along the banks of Rhine.

Across the river the Alte Stadt (old town) sits confidently on a hill that drops sheer into the water. One look is all that’s needed to tell you this is where money and power have always resided. On a winter’s night the Alte Stadt rises like Gormenghast above the darkness of the wide flat river. Mounting the stone steps to Mittebrucke (middle bridge) the old trams look like a special effect from an RKO movie, lit in yellow on the ancient bridge.

A short walk brings me to Marktplatz (Market Place), where brightly lit shops dominated by a carefully (if garishly) restored Rathaus (town hall) echo to the rumble of trams. I always paused there to shrug off work and immerse myself in the exotic familiarity of the town before deciding whether to step into a side street and eat excellent Mexican food at La Fonda or continue on through the throngs of people in Barfusserplatz to the cinemas and restaurants in Theatrestrasse.

I loved being alone there, unknown, barely able to speak the language yet able to function

I lived in an early 19th century building converted into apartments, up the hill, near the city walls. I liked being in the heart of city. Somehow the beat of that heart makes it easier to be alone without feeling isolated.

The only problem was that Basel didn’t let me be who I should have been. It let me become who I might have been. I should have been someone who went home each night to his wife. I might have been an outsider who compensated for his almost crippling lack of small talk by chatting with semi-ghosts on the web and casting shadows on the wall of his cave with his writing. I should have been building friendships and visiting family. I might have been someone who travels so much that wherever they are feels like a hotel and friends and family take second place to sleep and recuperation.

So now, six years later, I’m back in Basel. This time I work in the centre of Basel, near the SBB Railway station. Tonight my hotel looks out over the square in front of the SBB Bahnhoff, which is lit like a movie set of a Germanic Gotham city. Large cream coloured clock faces, lit from behind so that the hands and numbers are shadow-dark, are set in broad sweeps of stone and under cupola roofs. Sparks flash from the rumbling trams. Frost sparkles on the tram lines. And even now, at midnight, there are people on foot heading for home.

I think Basel is still pretty much the same as it was but I am no longer the same person here. My home is a few hours away by train. I speak enough of the language to get by. And my heart seeks home and company. Now I come to Basel to earn the money to let me be who I want to be: someone who has time to spend with my wife and with friends, someone who writes because he has things to say rather than to break the isolation of the night, someone who can smile at Basel like a cherished ex-lover met by chance and then feel pleasure in turning his head towards home.

2 comments:

rosk said...

as an -almost- newcomer to Basel, I found your description of Basel as one of the most accurate I`ve found so far. I enjoyed your opinion on prostitution.

pramod said...

Hey thats a good post....