NB I have decided to split this post into several parts - two(?) to recount the travel aspects of the tour, and one to cover the sniffing side of things, which was by no means all shop-based this time...
St Patrick's Day dawned bright and...what am I talking about? I was stirring well before dawn to catch a train to Birmingham airport. And having got up at the to me unimaginably early hour of 4.30am (says she, easing into the swing of German syntax before I have even left England!), I was uncharacteristically ravenous by 7am, and ordered French toast with bacon in a branch of the diner chain, Frankie and Benny.
So that little customer service coup put me in a cheerful frame of mind, which was further reinforced by a curious sign in the ladies toilets. The term 'multi-faith washing' seemed to imply that you must be a member of a minimum of two religions to qualify to use these facilities, which on the face of it seemed an unlikely scenario. Baptist and Buddhist? Methodist and Muslim? It was a conundrum.
After a quick shufty in the Duty Free (to be covered later in 'The scented bit'), it was soon time to board the flight. As I stood queuing on the jetway, I caught a glimpse of the two pilots in the cockpit and gave them a searching stare. It was just after the terrible business with the missing Malaysian plane, and the flying public everywhere was ultra-twitchy. One theory at the time was that - for whatever reason - the pilots of MH370 had deliberately deviated from their flight path, so I was trying to suss out if this Germanwings duo looked like the sort to have other, undisclosed travel plans. Suddenly, the first officer turned round and smiled broadly in my direction, and I decided that my fears were probably unfounded...
Germany began in fact the moment I set foot on the plane: for the flight attendant wished everyone 'Guten Morgen', even the passengers with a complimentary copy of the Birmingham Mail tucked under their arm. From this point on, there was no real milk, only the condensed travesty that is Kaffeesahne, and as we touched down, the captain wished us all a 'pleasant remaining day'.
|The Germans knit too - yay!|
|How could I miss it?!|
Back to Monday though, and the first gig at Monarch in Kreuzberg, a scruffily modish area south of the river. Even though I had been to two previous gigs bang next door to the club in question, I still couldn't find the entrance. 'Never being able to find the door of a venue, however many times you have been there before' is in fact an incontrovertible rule of the German indie scene, and after staring quizzically at assorted unmarked doors covered in a palimpsest of peeling posters and stickers, I was relieved to see the band's drummer suddenly hove into view, who was able to escort me the 10 yards to the club.
|Bass player's eye view|
The venue was upstairs, with a large expanse of windows along one wall overlooking the Kottbusser Tor metro station. This prompted the guitarist to quip, mid-set: 'I wonder how many bass players have been lost out this window? Look, the putty is still fresh!' Other trademark features of Monarch - and most such grungy venues - is that it was smoky(!) and very, very dark. I could just make out the flock wallpaper which was an eerie match for my blue brocade trousers.
This unexpected coincidence prompted the band to throw down the gauntlet and dare me to coordinate my trousers with the wall coverings in every venue. Given the capsule wardrobe I had brought with me and the unknown decor of all the clubs to come, I hadn't a hope in hell of pulling off this stunt, but airily accepted the challenge regardless.
Another 'running gag' on the tour was the vanishingly small dressing rooms. At Monarch, a table football table was pressed into service. By the time we got to Bavaria, the sight of band members stripped to the waist outside the men's toilets didn't prompt so much as a raised eyebrow.
The Monarch gig was enthusiastically received, with a number of regulars in the audience whom I recognised from previous tours. These included a Japanese lady with striking long blonde hair, who danced enthusiastically in the front row, thrusting two toy bunnies before her like a pair of furry maracas.
|The dancing bunnies|
After the gig, Jane and her husband headed straight back to their hotel with the merch case, while I did a spot of impromptu roadying. I carried the bass player's guitar part of the way back to their eclectic, comprehensively graffiti-daubed accommodation, then joined them at a nearby kebab shop for a quick snack. I took it upon myself to negotiate the menu in German, notably the various sauce options and choice between chips and pitta. Yet again I fell into that trap of 'involuntary raw onion consumption': trying to effect a triage between halloumi cheese and the mountains of accompanying lettuce and red onion garnish was a doomed undertaking.
After the abortive pool incident first thing, it was a relatively short train ride to Hamburg next day - just two hours - and I was lucky to be able to check into my hotel off the notorious Reeperbahn pretty much immediately. Jane and her husband were staying in a former brothel(!) that had been converted into a hotel, and it didn't open till 3pm. But of course not! For in the red light district no one does any business that early...;) Although my hotel was geared towards conventional check in times, it was bang next door to one of the many sex shops and lap dancing clubs in the street. Which you could say was entirely in keeping with its name - 'Grosse Freiheit' ('great freedom').
|My friends' rather blue - and bullish - ex-brothel|
|My deceptively saintly hotel, with en suite strip joint|
After a quick lie down, I decided to revisit some old haunts by the harbour and grab a bite to eat before the gig. In particular, I recalled a bijou and inconspicuous venue called the Goldener Pudel Klub, housed in a concrete bunker, and was curious to see if I could find it again after a long interval. I narrowed the field down to two 'bunker-esque' buildings, then caved in and asked someone...
|Goldener Pudel Klub - still surprisingly hard to find - the door takes even longer|
That night's venue, Astra-Stube, is a converted bakery that holds about 10 people comfortably, but is billed as having a capacity of 200. I am not sure how many were in that night, but suffice to say that ordering a drink on one side of the room or using the toilets on the other involved the burrowing skills and force of character normally associated with tunnel engineers. The audience was packed soooo cheek by jowl that when people posted photos of the gig on Facebook the next day, I recognised their avatars and cover photos from having had a forest of phones waved around just inches from my face. In this club the dressing room had shrunk to a small dark void under the merch table where sundry band members had risked chucking the odd belonging.
|Steve the drummer warily eyeing up on-stage 'sharps'|
The stage was similarly 'compact', and there was a very real concern that the band's guitar headstocks could do someone a mischief. Add a pall of cigarette smoke into the mix, a large brown dog threading itself between people's legs, and a suffusion of red light, and you had the quintessence of the alternative music scene in St Pauli...
After the gig, we flagged down taxis in the busy intersection outside. Jane couldn't resist ribbing me about 'standing on street corners', but I suppose it had to be done...
Coming up: Cologne, Augsburg - and Berlin again...and The Scented Bit!