Tuesday 30 April 2013

Der gute Einstieg

It might not be anything out of the ordinary in these post-Schengen days, but living close to an international border still gives me goosepimples. Borders are nothing more than imaginary lines snaking across the landscape, but they divide communities, which - quite literally - live within spitting distance of each other: they speak different languages, watch different TV programmes and pay their taxes to different governments, just to name a few of the telltale signs. Pulled in opposite directions, their backs turned to each other, their focus is directed on everyday events in their own backyards.

The 44 is a cross-border bus service that links Heerlen in the Netherlands with Aachen in Germany. Journeys between the two conurbations are operated respectively by the bus companies Veolia and AachenerStraßenbahn und Energieversorgungs-AG (ASEAG). For most people who travel on it, it provides a convenient way of getting from A to B. For others, like me - also a regular traveller - it offers an intriguing insight into some of the  idiosyncrasies of the two cultures that straddle the border between Germany and the Netherlands.

The bus service that runs between Heerlen NS and Hauptbahnhof Aachen has been part of my life for the best part of ten years. When I started teaching at the Volkshochschule (VHS) in 2004, the 44 provided an ideal door-to-door service from my home in Heerlen into the centre of Aachen.

ASEAG designates the route a Schnellbuslinie, which means it functions as an ‘express’ service designed to connect transport nodes quickly by stopping at fewer stops. When the bus enters Dutch territory this becomes a misnomer: whilst it takes just 20 minutes for the 44 to cover the 10 or so kilometres from the centre of Aachen to the border at De Locht - stopping only at Laurensberg, Richterich and Horbach – when it arrives in the Netherlands it reverts to a Bummelbus, covering the last 7.2 kilometres from the border to Heerlen in just under half an hour.

The 44 carries an omnifarious mix of travellers, from the ubiquitous commuters and schoolchildren, to drug-tourists, night-clubbers, football fans, shoppers and English teachers. The route is plied by an alternating sequence of buses - sometimes articulated, but mainly rigid-bodied - operated by Veolia and ASEAG.

After leaving the bus station in Heerlen, the 44 follows a slow, circuitous, round-the-houses route as it labours through the neighbourhoods of Heesberg, Heerlerbaan and Spekholzerheide to the border. Take heed not to step aboard when school’s out or on match days when it’s standing room only. Once you’ve passed Parkstad Stadion, the home of Roda Kerkrade FC, and you arrive at Gracht, the bus will have set down most of its Dutch passengers. In fact, in both directions, few passengers on the 44 ever cross the border.

Since effectuation of the Schengen treaty, the border post at De Locht has no longer been manned by guards. More recently the bus has been an attraction for a special breed of tourist taking advantage of more relaxed narcotics laws in the Netherlands. Spot checks are frequently carried out here by the Bundesgrenzpolizei. More than once, travelling innocently with a satchel full of English course books, I’ve been asked Haben Sie Waffen oder Drogen?”, and it’s not unusual to see suspected drug carriers being pulled off the bus for questioning. Drugs policy in the Netherlands may have been tightened in recent years, but as long as coffee shops locate provocatively close to the border, drug tourism will continue to be a thorn in the side for the German authorities. 

On Friday and Saturday nights, the bus can fill up with revellers travelling in the opposite direction on their way to fleshpots just across the border in the Netherlands. A lot of ‘preloading’ goes on at the back of the bus on the way from Aachen. Drivers are relieved when the bus disgorges its boisterous load, leaving only the sound of empty bottles and cans rolling around the floor of the deserted bus in their ears.

Across the border into Germany, between De Locht and Horbach, the countryside opens out affording wide vistas and huge skies. It has the isolated feel of no-man’s-land. One cold and windy March evening, during a bus strike I came off my bike here, landing with a thud on my forehead. Fortunately, I survived, but it was a lonely place to come a cropper and none of the passing traffic stopped to help.

Beyond Horbach, the first (or last) village in Germany the road crosses a line of dragon’s teeth which were put in place on the orders of Hitler in 1936. A major landmark along this part of the route, they formed part of the Westwall, or Siegfried Line, which was built to defend the western approaches to Germany. These pyramid-shaped concrete blocks embedded in the ground served as tank traps to deter enemy attack. In fact, by the end of the war, specialist engineers were able to dispose of them so quickly they had become more or less redundant. Due to their huge numbers and their durable construction however, many thousands of these blocks of concrete can still be seen today in places like Horbach.

Richterich, the next village, has long been subsumed into the Aachen urban sprawl. Here the bus now fills up with German commuters. Because we are now on the ‘express’ part of the route, we are soon within sight of the Ponttor, one of the four major gates that guarded over Reichstadt Aachen from the middle ages onwards. Beyond are the delights of the Pontstrasse, a popular entertainment district with a profusion of bars and restaurants catering to Aachen’s huge student population.

The busiest stop in town is the Bushof, the city’s main bus station. In the hurly-burly of a weekday rush-hour or on dark December weekends when Aachen holds its Christmas market, long queues can be expected – that’s if you’re English like me. But oddly, for a country which prides itself on being ‘ordentlich’, waiting as they do at pedestrian crossings until the lights turn green and sticking fastidiously to speed limits on motorways, ‘queuing’ is not a word in a German’s vocabulary. Climbing aboard a bus at rush-hour is a free-for-all so make sure you have plenty of elbow room when you board. At least during Advent, ASEAG has the foresight to put on bendy buses, when they fill up with hoards of returning Limburgers tipsy on Glühwein and replete with shopping.

After the backcountry-ism of the journey so far, the terminus of the 44 at the Hauptbahnof, the city’s main station, comes somewhat as a relief for those with a more outward-looking mentality. With its Jugendstil architecture, its high-speed connections and its selection of international magazines and newspapers in the concourse bookshop, it has all the trappings of a main line station, and not without reason. There has been a railway station in Aachen since 1841 when the Rheinische Eisenbahngesellschaft opened a line that was later extended to the port of Antwerp (the Belgian border being only 7 kilometres away). The Deutsche Bahn classifies Aachen Hbf as a Category 2 station, which means that it functions as an important junction for long-distance traffic. Both Cologne and Liège (B) are less than an hour away, and you can be in Frankfurt within two. Brussels, Paris and London can all be reached within half a day. Needless to say there’s also a local line that links Aachen with Heerlen.

Thank goodness that somewhere on this bus route, there is a place that offers a wider window on the world.

See also: Living on the Edge

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