We needed alcohol. Due to the lack of time and poor planning we had not picked up any before we started traveling. So we hit the streets of sleepy Trier in search of a shop that sold alcohol. But try as we might we could not find one. We drove through deserted neighborhoods and leafy suburbs but there no sign of alcohol on the horizon. We crossed the Mösel many times in our quest. It was as if we were living in a time of prohibition. All our impromptu plans of playing poker with a cold beer in hand at the camping ground were at risk of going waste. So we wandered some more. There were comparisons between the ease of finding alcohol after midnight in India and in the beer capital of the world, Germany. I found it strange that it was taking us so much time to find an open kiosk. Back in Cologne I only had to walk a few hundred yards from my house to find two. It seemed as if the people of Trier had no craving for alcohol after midnight. And so we found ourselves across the Mösel yet again. Cars passed us and their inhabitants seemed strangely content. Had they been more successful than us? Would we ever find what we were searching for? Or would we have to return empty handed and crawl into a tent without the cool balm of alcohol in our stomachs to ease the cold passage of night?
After crossing the Mösel another time we took a random turn to the left and found ourselves at an intersection. And standing right there to the right of the intersection like a lighthouse for floundering ships was an open döner shop. My friend ventured out full of desperate hope. I joined him. But our hopes did not last long. The shop did not sell any alcohol. Perhaps he saw our faces droop or felt our hopes slipping away, whatever the reason, as we were leaving the shop owner threw us a bone in the form of a suggestion. He pointed to a bar opposite his shop, tucked away on the corner and suggested to us to try our luck there. Hopes renewed we thanked him, crossed the road and approached the bar. From the outside it was unremarkable. I forgot its name as soon as I saw it. We passed through the open doors and strangely it felt like as if I had crossed some kind of special portal into another world. We walked into a land not often encountered.
The bar was a large room interspersed with wooden benches and tables. Along the walls at regular intervals were garishly bright game machines with blinking lights. At the far end, opposite the door was the bar counter. On the right side of the room were two doors. One presumably led to the toilets while the other opened into a room filled with a pale yellow light. I could not see clearly what the room contained or ascertain its function. It seemed rather odd and out of place as if it was added as an afterthought by a bored builder.
There was an air of impending decay about the place. The bar was not in disrepair but perhaps due to the sickly yellow light or the garish lights of the game machines the bar had an air of approaching apocalypse.
There were six people in the bar. Two young men were sitting in an alcove right next to the door. They were talking among themselves in the harsh guttural German that is characteristic of first generation Turkish immigrants. I was struck by their presence in that bar. It did not seem like a place for young people. What were they doing there? Had they also set out on a similar quest as us, wandered into that place and could not go back across the portal into the normal world outside? What was the strange attraction that the place held for them? I suddenly realized that sometimes when you spend too much time amidst mediocrity and routine and encounter anything out of the ordinary it exerts a force on you that is not easy to shake off. I could almost believe that the young men there were caught in the same force.
The remaining people in the place consisted of two women and a man with a white beard sitting at the bar and drinking. The fourth person was the bartender. He seemed ancient and had the same air of slow decay about him as the bar. His cheeks were sunken in gloom and he spoke in deep ponderous tones with long pauses between his words. It was as if he was measuring the passage of time in the spaces between his words. In this he reminded me strongly of Vajpayee, the former prime minister of India, whose speeches were also filled with such thoughtful pauses between words.
Of the two women, one woman sat alone facing the room in the far corner to the left of the bar counter. The other woman who was portly with short dirty blond hair and the man with the white beard were facing the bartender. Like the young men Whitebeard also seemed out of place. There was an air of quiet sophistication about him that seemed alien in that place of loud colors and gloomy yellow light. Perhaps it was his neatly trimmed white beard that lent him an aura of good grooming that also set him apart.
We walked up to the bar counter and waited patiently on the side for the bartender to finish serving refills to the two women and Whitebeard. The three looked to be about 45 years old but the faces of the women looked older and bore the unmistakable marks that alcohol inflicts on white human skin after years of heavy and continuous drinking. The red blotchy skin, the tired and heavy lines around the eyes and mouth spoke of a life spent drinking everyday late into the night.
While we were waiting for the bartender the portly woman who was closest to me turned and looked at me. Her eyes were glazed and as she began to speak her words slurred. It was with some difficulty that I understood her words even though she chose to speak in English. It was obvious that she had been drinking for quite some time. With her head lolling to one side she examined me keenly and addressed me in her halting English.
“I do not…want to buy…any flowers.”
At first I did not immediately understand what she had said. My friend had apparently understood and repeated her words with a perplexed smile. I was of course confused by her words. For some inexplicable reason I looked down at my shirt as if there was a flower on it that I had never noticed before. No, nothing of that kind. I looked back at the woman questioningly. As if sensing that her previous statement needed some explanation she leaned towards me and explained.
“You…uh…look like someone who tried…tried…to sell roses to me…uh…two days back, you see. He was charging two…what do you call it…ah yes….two euros per rose. I refused.”
As she was trying to repeat what she had just said my friend tried to interrupt and tell her that I was from Cologne and did not live in Trier. It did not seem as if she had heard my friend but she immediately started apologizing to me.
“Sorry…I’m just saying you see. You reminded me…uhh…of that flower seller. My name is Inge.”
And just like that she introduced herself and extended her hand. I shook her proffered hand and introduced myself. She did not let go of my hand until I had pronounced her name correctly. She then asked me to repeat my name twice but made no attempt to pronounce it. She just smiled blankly. I could see the haze of alcohol in her eyes and beads of sweat on her forehead. As suddenly as she had talked to me she turned back towards the bar and started talking to Whitebeard. He mumbled something in low tones to her. While they were conversing in their own fashion the other woman in the corner suddenly raised her glass and said in a raised voice.
But Inge gave no indication that she had heard the other woman. She was lost in her own world of drunken mumblings and blurred vision.
The bartender finally made his way towards us. He agreed to sell us a few bottles of cold beer. My friend ordered four bottles of Bitbürger and two bottles of Mixer. Finally, our quest for the special liquid had come to an end. I could not wait to get out of the place. My friend paid and we walked out. It again felt as if I was passing between two worlds. For once I was happy to return to a world that was comforting in its regularity. As we made our way back to the car my friend burst out.
“Were those the dregs of humanity or what?”
All I could do in return was to laugh cruelly and state that it was one singularly surreal experience.