We were working as translators for a wine company in the Rhineland. The bottling plant and company offices were in Burg Layen, a small village nestling snugly amid the ranks of vine terraces built back from the river Nahe. The area was filled with timbered, white-walled houses bearing paintings of bunches of grapes and beaming countrywomen (which I considered hugely tasteful at the time). And the air was sweet with alcohol. During that summer in Germany I learned seven new words for varieties of drunkenness. Sadly for my liver, it marked the beginning of the end of my hitherto puritanical aversion to wine-drinking.
Our job included translating promotional material. I learned all about the differences between Spatlese and Auslese, and between Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese - right through to defining the tooth-rotting sweetness of Eiswein. I learned to write things like "with an elegant bouquet" without laughing. But, above all, I got to grips with the important business of wine-sampling.
The neighbourhood was relentlessly and uproariously convivial. From village to village there were wine festivals every weekend. There were festivals to say an emotional farewell to the last vintage and to empty the barrels in readiness for the next. There were festivals to try out the new vintage, and compare it enthusiastically with those of previous years. And then there were the local "Kirmes" festivals - a particularly riotous set of celebrations, held in honour of each village's special saint. It was, if only in theory, a strongly Catholic area.
I soon learned that Rhineland wine villages looked sleepy by day only, because they were snoozing off their hangovers. Come nightfall, it would always be party time again. Whole villages were transformed into gypsy camps, blazing with fairy lights and crammed with side-shows, food stalls and a forest of beer and wine tents. Early on in the summer, at one of those food stalls, I had a further fatal taste of corruption - a paper tray of Currywurst (German sausage smothered in raw curry powder and a dollop of ketchup), which I embraced as the height of sophistication and attempted to reproduce subsequently at many a dinner party back home.
The corned beef never got eaten. We were too overwhelmed by hospitality, as people bombarded us with invitations to suppers of Sauerbraten (a delicious regional pot roast) and Streuselkuchen (a sort of cherry crumble cake). It was as a guest at one of those suppers that I ate my very first frozen pizza. It took a few more years before the UK caught on to that particular treat.
We were a local curiosity. Everybody in the village seemed to know about us - something I put down to personal charisma at the time. In truth, I now realise, we were unmissable: my boyfriend with his lion's mane of red hair and penchant for purple loons, myself in full and flowing pre- Raphaelite regalia topped and tailed with a cowboy hat and a pair of desert boots. At this point, the mini-skirt - by then definitely demode back in England - had only just hit the Rhineland.
When I think back to that summer I remember it with huge affection. I remember the evening of our very first day at work, when the company boss took us to a Carole King concert in Frankfurt and we all held up lighted matches and sang "You Got a Friend". I remember betting on a horse at Baden-Baden on the assumption that age was a sign of experience, and being dumbfounded when my nag hobbled home last. I remember countless excursions, courtesy of workmates and their families, to mountains and castles and riverside beauty spots.
It was a great time. I arrived back in England in early October with a wine enthusiasm, a Currywurst addiction and a cigarette habit (born - I'm ashamed to say - of the discovery that you could put British 5p coins into the 1DM slot of German cigarette machines). I also had an embarrassingly large stash of Deutschmarks. We had been ludicrously well paid by English standards and no one had allowed us to spend any money. I bought the latest Leonard Cohen album, a copy of The Little Prince and a new pair of desert boots, and got ready for the business of being a student.Reuse content