What lies beneath the surface of the city

On Friday I had to make a journey across town from our flat, so I set off for the local tram stop. In the distance I can see a police car parked across the road, blocking it. When I get nearer I see more police cars and vans, now blocking the main road that runs past the Messe (huge exhibition hall that hosts the Frankfurt Book Fair amongst other events) and to the Hauptbahnhof. No people apart from police officers, no trams running. As I approach a policeman he holds up his hand to stop me coming any nearer.

A march, I wonder? An antifa or anti-racist march? Recently there have been a lot of demonstrations, loony anti-vax ones covertly organised by the AfD, counter-demos against the AfD, and this week Black Lives Matter gatherings. But I can’t see any demonstrators. In fact I can’t see anyone at all apart from police officers. This main street is eerily quiet.

‘Are the trams running?’ I ask the policeman in my hesitant German.

‘No,’ he replies in German and I’m grateful that I can have a conversation, no matter how slow and awkward, without having to revert to English.

‘Oh. When will they start again?’

‘Around 16:00 or 17:00, maybe.’

‘Ok.’ And I pause before asking, ‘Um, why?’

‘They have found a Second World War bomb,’ he tells me this in English. Excellent English, far better than my German. He’s making a point, but perhaps not consciously.

‘Oh. Right here?’ I continue speaking German as I point at the buildings behind him.

‘Yes, right here,’ he smiles.

‘Ah. Ok. Thank you!’ There is another pause while I try to think of something intelligent to say, something that acknowledges the immense history of which this bomb is a remnant, before I give up and go back to the flat.

I’ve spent the past month or so immersed in writing a non-fiction piece about how the past and the present are entwined so that you can’t separate the two into distinct epochs of time. I’ve been writing a lot about my grandmother and I found the effort of trying to portray her accurately on the page, as well as doing justice to her story, absolutely exhausting and overwhelming. Maybe because of this I feel a bit tearful as I thank the policeman and walk away.

I already knew that this was not an isolated incident in Germany. In fact it’s really common. Several thousand WWII bombs are discovered each year, causing regular mass evacuations. (This time 2700 people had to leave their homes for most of Friday.) It’s all a reminder to me that the local city streets I’ve been wandering around and getting to know, are shaped in the most visceral way by war and violence. And also, how long the delayed consequences of a single action can be, a decision to flick a switch in a plane more than 75 years ago is only now revealed.

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