On my book tours I often venture to places few others visit. There are book festivals in tiny provincial towns. Readings at bookshops in small rural villages. This week I spoke in a German town that many Germans are convinced doesn’t even exist.
Bielefeld (population 330,000) is a town in North Rhine-Westphalia. Or is it?
Since the 1990s, there has been a widespread internet campaign to convince Germans that this town doesn’t exist. It began as a light-hearted battle over computer codings between some fellows in Bielefeld and others elsewhere (who took a different view of the coding and decided to fight back.) Even though most of them know it exists (or do they?), Germans often respond to mention of Bielefeld with the words, “Bielefeld doesn’t exist.”
This is because the town is rarely visited, doesn’t have a regional accent of its own, isn’t mentioned in the news very often, and had for a long time a railway station that looked boarded up. There are also few monuments or great buildings there, because…well, you can thank the USAAF and the RAF for that. (Bielefeld isn’t far from the Ruhr and was heavily bombed in World War II.)
The city council once released a statement titled “Bielefeld does exist,” but they released it on April Fools Day. So it looked as though the city council even was saying Bielefeld didn’t exist.
But I went there. And it does exist. In fact, it’s quite nice.
I did a reading before a good crowd at the Beit Tikwa Synagogue. Which used to be a church until the congregation grew too small. (A year and a half ago, there was a protest against the conversion of a Christian place of worship to a Jewish one. The protest was lead by a fellow named Riefenstahl, nephew of Hitler’s favorite filmmaker Leni, and frankly someone who ought to, shall we say, avoid Jewish issues, just as a matter of good taste.) Beit Tikwa is beautiful, as is Katharina Lustgarten, who organized and introduced my reading.
If a synagogue seems like a good use for an old church, a restaurant is even better. A one-time church in Bielefeld is now Gluekundseligkeit, a swanky Asian restaurant with a long bar down the aisle. In armchairs on the altar, you can drink wine where the pastor used to bless the holy wine. I had a very fine stewed duck.
I dined there with Andreas Schnadwinkel, a pal who writes for the Westfalenblatt newspaper, and Thomas Wolff, an imposing actor at Theater Bielefeld, who read from my work at the synagogue and at another reading in nearby Bad Oeynhausen the previous night.
Thomas and I repaired to the old part of town and a bar, where we chatted about the kinds of things only writers and actors would find interesting or useful (how to tap into spirit energies to create a character and to experience an emotion…) That central area also was quite lovely.
Then I was on to Cologne. On a local radio station, I mentioned during my interview that I had been to Bielefeld the previous day. “You know,” said the hostess, “Bielefeld doesn’t exist.”
Maybe I was tricked.