Sifting through some old photographs in my digital archive, I came across a collection of images from a visit last year to Wuppertal, a city at the edge of the Rühr, about three hours from here. The photographs unlocked strange memories of a forgotten visit.
A week before this visit I had watched the 3D documentary Pina by Wim Wenders. The film, containing extracts of dance performances choreographed by Pina Bausch, left me dazzled and breathless: I wanted to see more. The Pina Bausch dance theatre’s programme for spring 2011 included a performance of Kontakthof at Wuppertal, the dance company’s home. I booked a ticket for the show, made a train reservation, and a few days later I found myself at Wuppertal station, looking at a board with a strange icon of an inverted train carriage.
That hanging carriage, a symbol of the suspension railway — Schwebebahn — gives Wuppertal an unusual character. It also dominates the experience of a first-time visitor. Through my visit I had the recurring thought of being elsewhere: inside a large set of a science fiction movie, or on a planet where people traveled on hanging trams.
The Schwebebahn runs for the most part along the Wupper, a tributary of the Rhine, and occasionally crosses traffic intersections. Scenes from Pina show couples dancing on a sidewalk as cars drive past and a hanging tram floats by.
Each tram has two small carriages, which sway gently as the tram starts from a station. Once it gathers speed, which rarely exceeds 50 kmph, you feel as though you are on an elevated rail track that offers panoramic views of the neighbourhoods passing by. I took the tram from the main railway station to Adlerbrücke, a stop close to Opernhaus where Kontakthof was being staged.
The dance performance, lasting nearly three hours, explored the theme of meetings (Kontakt) between people, its joys, absurdities, and limits. “Weird, funny, and elevating.” I wrote in my journal that night.
After the show I took a taxi to the youth hostel. This was unusual, but the trip was planned on short notice and I could not find a room in a decent hotel nearby. The taxi driver, a middle-aged German with a long beard, responded with a chuckle when he heard my destination. “The people who go to the youth hostel these days are getting older and older,” he said. I laughed with him, and through the fifteen minute drive I had the feeling I was in a movie by a director whose name I could not recollect.
The youth hostel was situated on a mountain slope next to the city. It was late when I arrived; a boy in his teens, mild-mannered and courteous, gave me the keys and explained the rules. The room had six beds, he said, but I would not be sharing it with anyone that night. The next morning, on a walk through the woods that surround the hostel, I discovered views of the Wupper valley. The city clings to both sides of the Wupper, parts of it extending onto the slopes on either side. The trees were bare (this was still early March), but some bushes had begun to sprout buds, green all around and reddish at the tip.
The dining room in the hostel was as sparse as the woods outside. Six wooden tables with benches on either side, a tray in one corner with items for breakfast: bread, butter, marmalade, and fruits. I finished breakfast quickly and waited in the foyer for the reception to open. The clock on the wall showed ten to eight. I picked up a travel brochure from a shelf nearby.
The foyer was empty, but soon a boy entered from the corridor on the left and came up to me.
“Hallo!” he says, with a wide grin. “Was machst du hier?”
He is about six or seven years old, wearing an oversized red T-shirt, its back on his front.
“Morgen!” I reply. The next instant he’s at my side, on the sofa, peering into the brochure in my hands.
“What are you doing here?” he repeats, in German.
“I’m reading this.”
“Where did you find it?”
“Over there, on the shelf.”
He walks over and picks up a brochure. “Is it this one?”
“Yes, that’s the one.”
Back at the sofa, he opens the brochure and, slowly comparing his pages to mine, he reaches the page I’m reading.
“Is this what you’re reading?”
“Yes.” I reply. “What’s your name?”
“Andreas Marwinski. What’s yours?”
He closes the brochure and looks around. “Do you know what’s behind that door?” he asks, pointing to the dining hall door.
He walks to the door, opens it, and gasps: “It’s the dining room! Come and see!”
I join him at the door; there is no one inside.
“Are you alone here?” I ask. “What are you doing in Wuppertal?”
He does not answer me. Instead, he runs to the other side of the foyer, next to a stairway leading downstairs.
“Do you know what’s down there?” he asks.
“There are lots of sweets! Chocolates, Bon-Bons, Cakes – lots of sweet things. And there’s a billiards table too! Want to come down with me?”
At this moment someone from the corridor calls out to him. “Bye!” he says, still grinning widely, and runs inside.
The foyer had turned silent, and I was alone again, with my brochure open on the same page. It was as if the last five minutes had been a dream.
At eight a lady arrived at the reception, collected my room keys and the charges for the night: 20 Euros. I wished her goodbye and left.
* * *
Wuppertal for me is still unfinished business. I know there is a story there, waiting to be written, the way I knew there was a story after I visited a remote Swiss town a few years ago which later led to a short story, The Inflection Point. I still don’t know what form the Wuppertal experience will take, but writing this post has made me curious once more about this unusual city and my encounters during the visit. I went there to watch Kontakthof, a performance about meetings between people, but I came away with the feeling that I was in such a performance, and others were watching me.