Raising a glass to Teutonic hospitality

In his book Cycling Back to Happiness, English journalist Bernie Friend covers 6,000 kilometres of northern Europe on a bicycle in a bid to overcome his hypochondria. His first impressions of Germany weren’t too positive, but Wilhelmshaven couple Horst and Ursula give him a taste of real German hospitality.

Raising a glass to Teutonic hospitality

What appeared to be a plate of vomit awaited me at Ursula’s dining room table. This culinary delight was called Labskaus and was usually served up on High Street pavements on Saturday nights. It really did resemble sick, in both colour and texture, but actually tasted quite good.

This was a meal favoured by sailors, made from corned beef, onion and potato, which was simple and cheap to make and cooked up in a boiling hot galley cauldron. Ursula’s brand was accompanied by fried eggs and gherkins and went down well enough, but I had to turn my head away from the plate as I forked this gunk down as quickly as possible. Looking at what I was eating actually made me gag. It did the job as I felt well stuffed afterwards. No wonder this grub was the staple diet of Wilhelmshaven’s mariners on long distance sea voyages. It filled you to the brim, but you certainly wouldn’t deplete the stores by rushing back for more.

Horst had popped out for a serious networking session with his council chums, which allowed me to prise Ursula out of the kitchen for 10 minutes. She was a lovely lady and reminded me of my mum in a lot of ways. Here I was a complete stranger and she couldn’t do enough for me.

I’d only been inside her home a few minutes when she had insisted on unpacking all my bags and washing everything straight away. ‘So! We will dry them on the line outside as it always smells better and fresher. It is no problem. My pleasure.’

Ursula had a kind rounded face, but behind all the goodness there was a lifetime of sadness and hard knocks. Stranded in communist East Germany after the war she had to wait until 1948 to make a break for freedom over the Iron Curtain by motorbike. Steve McQueen would have been proud. She was desperate to escape. Her grandfather had died in a concentration camp controlled by the Russians after the conflict had finished and her grandmother had been run over and hospitalised by a Red Army truck driver. She never fully recovered. But an even bigger tragedy shrouded in mystery had taken away Ursula’s mother during the fighting.

The last message was that her mother was boarding a boat to visit her, but she was never seen or heard of again. Ursula believes her mother was condemned to a watery grave by a torpedo attack on what she led me to believe was a passenger ship. I didn’t know if this was an accidental sinking or something more sinister.

Her father had been a German navy officer, who was captured by the Allies and made a prisoner of war. His smartly dressed picture hung inside an oval frame on the wall outside my temporary bedroom door and he was certainly a handsome chap. Once the war was over he helped out in the clean up exercise, dismantling bombs and German sea defences on the North Sea island fortification of Hegoland.

Ursula can still remember her risky dash over the closed border to escape the ‘cruelty’ of the Russians. ‘There were certain times when you had a chance to make it into West Germany, when there maybe weren’t border guards about,’ she explained. ‘I got a phone call telling me it was my time to go. It was my only chance and it was very scary as I could have been shot if I had been seen. I paid a man to take me on his motorbike over the border as fast as he could and I escaped. Others weren’t so lucky. I made my way to Emden and knocked on my father’s door. He went white. He couldn’t believe I was standing there in front of him. It was a great day.’

Horst had returned at this point and pushed a tall long glass in front of me, plus an accompanying cool green bottle of Jever to toast the next stage of my journey. I thanked the couple for their hospitality and complimented them on their excellent English.

‘It has been so nice talking to you as I have had a lot of language problems since I arrived in Germany,’ I said.

‘Really?’ replied Horst. ‘This is unusual and would certainly not be a problem in the big cities. But we are in the middle of nowhere here, right off the beaten track. No main roads pass through this part of Germany, so we don’t get many foreign visitors. There is no reason for people to come to Wilhelmshaven, but that will all change once the new deep water cargo terminal is built. Cheers.’

We all raised our glasses and as I sat there with mein perfect hosts huge pangs of guilt vibrated through my body. I’d been far too quick to write off the Germans and felt quite bad about it. The Radmers had taken me in off the street and treated me like their own son. It had proved once and for all that Germans were human after all. Thanks to the kindness of the Radmers I would stop being so judgemental and share this new love with every single one of their rude, robotic, money orientated and stubborn non-English speaking countrymen.

‘Cycling Back to Happiness’ (ISBN 9781906206710) is published by Pen Press and is available to buy and order in all book stores across Europe. For the rest of the world visit or contact [email protected]