First Time in Frankfurt, Again

We couldn't wait to leave town. So why did returning feel like coming home?

By / July 2015

It had been about two years since we had moved to the Ruhr when we suddenly had to make a trip back to the US Consulate in Frankfurt. We’d lived in Frankfurt — home to the European Central Bank, sleek skyscrapers, endless construction, frankfurters with green sauce, and the nerve-grating S-Bahn — for several years. To put it mildly, we had been happy to move north. Sometimes called the pit of Germany, the Ruhr is pockmarked with coal mines and landscaped with rusty pipes and old steel plants, but it’s ethnically diverse and expressly blue-collar.

For all it’s hard edges, we had come to love the region. So when the call came from Frankfurt, we were less than thrilled. We left on a Wednesday morning. Traffic on the A3 barely moved. Our Ford minivan felt small, sandwiched between lurching diesel trucks. Brake lights from an endless stream of vehicles flashed on and off and on again. What should have been a 3-hour trip according to the “Navi” was going to take at least 5 and a half. I felt myself sliding into the old uptightness that had marked our lives in Frankfurt.

There was one law that was particularly baffling. Every afternoon between 1 and 3, and all day Sunday, there is no noise allowed. Period. Don’t even think about running a vacuum cleaner or mowing the grass unless you want a visit from the police. The Ruhr is more untucked. People have a way of letting things slide.

“I’ve got to go!” my son shouted from the backseat.

We pulled into the next rest stop. Just past the trucker’s lot was the car parking. There was one spot left. We pulled in between two cars, both with their hatchbacks open for picnicking. For a roadside rest stop, this place was better than average. The Italian coffee, fresh fruit, salads and burgers were expensive, but of good quality. For 50 cents our son did his business in the super clean facilities.

Back out on the A3, the traffic inexplicably began to loosen up somewhere around Limburg and we were able to pick up speed. First we cruised at 120 kph, which is about 75 mph, and then, in a stretch with no speed limit, we got up to a comfortable 190 kph (118 mph). Even at that speed, however, there were Audis and BMWs screaming past us. Everyone was trying to make up for time lost in the jam.

I sat back in my seat and tried to enjoy the ride. Out my window, white sheep grazed on green valley grass. Villages dotted the land with clusters of houses and shops, each one nestled around an ancient church. In the distance stood the Taunus Mountain Range, small compared to the Alps, but gigantic compared to the Halde in the Ruhr, which are essentially man-made heaps of earth scooped out of the mines.

Seeing the Taunus Mountains reminded me of one my favorite spots around Frankfurt: Königstein Kurbad, a heated swimming pool high on a slope. Even in the winter, it is so enjoyable to relax in the pool on one of the bubble beds, breathe the fresh air from the pine forest, and take in the castle ruins at Königstein.

Just at the edge of town, the traffic thickened but kept moving. We were swept over a bridge crossing the Rhine. The sun was setting, but there was still enough sunlight to see the sparkling river. People were out, riding bikes or walking across the bridge. Music issued from a boat, a dinner cruise, possibly. Those glossy buildings towering over us beamed welcoming lights.

“It’s so beautiful!” I heard myself cry out. It was as if I was seeing Frankfurt for the first time. I began snapping photos with my phone and saying things like, “There’s the Pencil!” “Over there is the Euro Sign!” “Look, it’s the Old Opera House! I began to notice familiar things. “That’s my old hair salon, I wonder if Sema is working!” “There’s Remzi’s Döner shop, we have to eat there before we leave!” “Oh, remember that Eis Café that has the best Spaghetti Eis!”

“Hey,” I said to my husband, no longer with the wonder of a tourist but with the exhilaration of someone returning home, “I wonder if we’ll have time to get some frankfurters and green sauce? Wouldn’t that be delicious? We can take the S-Bahn. I miss the S-Bahn!”


Tara Thomas lives and writes in Germany.