'I don't get what you were moaning about all this time, it's beautiful here', he says while he tears another piece off the bread roll and throws it to the ducks, which swim towards us, ravenously pecking at the morsels of food. I look downriver, towards the cornfields, and sigh. We're sitting bythe duck pond of the town that I grew up in, except the duck pond these days is no longer the simple square pond by the river, but has been replaced by a fancy 'architectural project'.
'Let's get some pastries', he says, and we walk through the medieval city gate with its dark red bricks and hanging flower baskets into the tiny cobbled alley that says 'Steintor (ehemals Kuhstraat)' – literally, in German 'at the stone gate', and then in Dutch 'previously Cow Street'. Many cultures have left their traces in the town of Goch in Northrhine-Westphalia, located just a few miles from the Dutch border. Over the centuries, the area also belonged to France at one point, and was later a popular quarter for the British Air Force (who hung around in Germany for 50 years after WWII, just to make sure). When I was born, a quarter of the town's population was British. These days, every street has at least one kebab shops, mostly run by Turkish people, but some by former Yugoslavian refugees from Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia – of course to the locals, it's all the same.
We stop by the traditional German bakery/café, one of half a dozen in town, where the same staff has been working for the past 25 years, including the burly patisserie chef who looks like a cliché Italian pizza baker. As we pick up some danishes, everyone turns away from their coffee cups and towards us, wondering what these strangers are doing in town. I know most of them, but they don't recognise me any more.
We wander along the cobbled pedestrian shopping street, which is about a quarter of a mile long, and look at the shops – very nice ones, expensive and creative boutiques. Most of them are empty and the only other people on the street are the teenagers hanging out by the Italian gelateria.Nothing ever happens here, and never has.
These days, I can visit here without having a panic attack, but the memory of the pain of living here, 80 miles from the next town of interest, of coming out as a teenager lesbian in a place where even a new haircut makes you stand out, it prevents me from appreciating any of it.
On the way to the airport, he starts again. 'It's so lovely and tranquil here. Great for bringing up children'. He was raised in 1980's Dublin, an urban wasteland with one of Europe's highest crime rates at the time. Now, he lives a 90 minute drive from where I grew up. And I live a 90 minute drive from where he grew up.
He thinks I'm as crazy as I think he is.