In the summer of 1986, I worked at a hotel in Germany. This post tells the story.
There was a book back then, which offered endless possibility. The title was Summer Jobs Abroad. It listed jobs in fruit picking, hospitality and anything else requiring cheap, seasonal labour. France, Italy, Spain, Germany and Israel featured mainly.
‘Waiters, waitresses, porters – 48 hours per week – accommodation and meals provided – DM800 per month plus tips – German speaking – July to September. If interested, apply to Frau Pirsch, Parkhotel Haarlass, Ziegelhausener Strasse, Heidelberg, Germany.’
I applied for the position of porter, preferring something physical and not having a good feeling about serving food and drinks. A while later, I received a one page letter containing good news, and which was memorable for several reasons. Firstly, the top fifth was filled with photos of the hotel and the sights of Heidelberg. Now I caught my first sight of where I would spend the summer, and it looked enticing. Secondly, I had not seen a foreign typeface like this before. Lastly, the way it briefly stated the agreement – you’ve got the job, here is the salary and uniform, and the date and time for arrival. Signed, Pirsch.
I took an afternoon train from York, changed at Peterborough, crossed Cambridgeshire, before, hours after leaving York, arriving in the Essex port of Harwich. I spent the night in a shared cabin, and the next morning sat in a compartment with seven others, heading across the Netherlands. Cologne, Frankfurt, and by the early afternoon Heidelberg Hauptbahnhof. I enjoyed my first taste of a German taxi – spacious Mercedes, yellow outside and quiet inside.
The hotel was separated from the river Neckar by a busy road and a footpath, the latter on the river side. Another road and a railway line were situated on the opposite bank. Big barges plied the wide river during the day, and tourists would look up at the vineyards and woods on the steep slopes. Standing with the river to your back, you would drive through a wide entrance into a courtyard, the size of about four tennis courts. The hotel buildings, three stories high, were located on either side, and were of a pale yellow colour. Reception, the restaurant, bar, kitchen and offices lay to the right, together with rooms, while to the left it was rooms only. The large windows in the restaurant afforded a fantastic view across the Neckar. In front of you were two garages, on top of which was our accommodation. An apple orchard and vegetable garden were situated behind the garages, and both clawed their way up the lower slopes.
Each day I worked 8am-midday and 4pm-8pm. Japanese and American tour groups constituted about half of the people staying, and of course private guests stayed too. A tour bus typically arrived at 6pm, the people collected their key and tried to find their way to one of the 100 rooms. Armed with chalk and a list of guest names by room, and checking the name on the bag tag, I then wrote the room number on the case. I, usually with help from Alfredo and Tino (of whom, more later), then schlepped the cases to outside each door. If the bus had arrived late, then the guests would be in the dining room by the time we delivered the luggage. If the bus showed up at ten, then the tour guide usually decided to leave the bags on the bus overnight. With private guests, there was time to chat, answer questions and wait the crucial second for the tip (Trinkgeld or drink money).
Frau Pirsch ran Haarlass with an iron fist, and I think Herr Pirsch was frightened of her. Tino, Italian and grey, was responsible for maintenance, the gardens and portering out of season. Alfredo, Spanish and still with black hair, ran the laundry with his wife. Frau Pirsch saved her greatest wrath for them. After decades in Germany, they still spoke their own version of the language. I still remember the look of fear in Tino’s eyes. Alfredo was more the type to have been thinking ‘don’t talk to me like that, tosser.’ She was in her fifties and knew how to run a business as a cash cow. The rooms were adequate, as was the food for the groups. The food for other guests was good. Tino kept the flower beds by the entrance looking beautiful.
The best tippers were the Americans, who would often give five or ten Deutschemarks. I could feel a five Mark coin being pressed into my hand, and paper felt even better. We made steady money from the buses, where we earned one or two Marks per case. This covered delivery and collection. We were paid whether the suitcase left the bus or not.
The room was a basic, but I didn’t care. It had a Neckarblick, river view. Two other Brits, a couple who had been there a few years, shared the other room and were nice enough. I got to know the reception staff, because I spent time waiting there. They wore traditional, long skirts and white blouses. I got on well with Petra, and we went on a few trips.
I used to ride a bike into the city. The cycle path meant that I did not have to think about traffic. My legs burned as I raced barges, buses and of course other cyclists. I just couldn’t believe it was me, who was there. In the city, I used to relax in the cafés, enjoying the atmosphere inside or watching people outside. The newspapers were attached to a wooden pole, and hung from hooks. I always enjoyed the local paper, and Stern and Der Spiegel. I discovered Spezi, a mix of Coke and lemonade, I think.
In the afternoons, I would often help Tino in the orchard. I remember picking apples one September afternoon, with Tino muttering about Frau Pirsch most of the time. I loved being outside, speaking German and enjoying a beer. I was amazed how Alfredo and his wife could stand the heat of the laundry, and I was scared of trapping my fingers in the rollers for ironing the linens. More enjoyable was the cellar, where I would help with the crates and wine.
A crate of beer, containing 20, 0.5 litre bottles cost about the same as four cans back home. I took the bus to the drinks depot, chose my beer, paid the deposit for the bottles and crate and paid for the beer. Then back on the bus and home. Everybody did it. I discovered that people drank the local wine, which was available at the drinks market. I liked the dry, white wine of the nearby Baden region the best. Beer and wine were a part of everyday life.
Baden-Württemberg formed part of the post-war American sector of Germany. Big cars, big radio cassette players, crew cuts and American accents contributed to the mix in 1986 Heidelberg.
I took the train to Stuttgart, Baden Baden, Mannheim and Strasbourg. Mannheim, never on the tourist trail, was where I saw perhaps a more normal side of Germany. It looked OK to me. In Stuttgart, I visited a modern art gallery and in Strasbourg, I remember Pfannkuchen and thinking how cool it was to be in France for lunch.
As the heat of summer ebbed away, September was less busy, and I knew that this marvellous time was coming to an end. We harvested the apples and it was time to say farewells.
In the Spring of 2013, we spent five days in Heidelberg. Parkhotel Haarlass had been knocked down and replaced by a training centre for a company. Heidelberg was still a fantastic city, and I am so pleased that we all went there.
This photo of the site was taken by Ralph in August 2017 .