I came across the mockumentary “Moments of Wonder” back in sixth form college. The pilot episode, entitled “Time”, sees persona Philomena Cunk arriving at the Greenwich Observatory in London to discover “the meaning of clocks.” A foot on either side of the meridian line, she makes the wry comment: “This is the only place in the world where I can be in the past and the future with the present running right up through me’ middle bits.”
I’d found her dead-pan delivery entertaining but couldn’t help feeling wistful; she looked so in control of it all, reassuring her viewers that time flows right out of “that time transmitter,” (the prime meridian sculpture in the observatory yard.) She need only flick a switch, and everything would stop.
This is day three of living in a van during a global pandemic. That’s three of 365 ¼, which means I’m still measuring things. Valentin and I decided on the road trip as a lifestyle experiment, but a part of me also wants to see whether I can change the way I view time. Fresh out of university, the last three years have been measured in terms and punctuated by deadlines. I have evolved into a list maker, a box ticker; and, considering I’m only 22, someone with a fear of timing passing.
In my final year of university, I had compartmentalised time, breaking life into routine chunks: an hour and a half for the supermarket, twenty minutes for showering, twenty-seven for a run around the student quarter. Out here, I feel something like relief. Valentin and I will sort tea out and I won’t question our time efficiency. I sit and peel the carrots; I live a little.
We’re coming towards the end of November and the daylight hours are getting shorter, meaning days seem fleeting. With limited battery power, we’re learning to use the car lighting frugally, to adapt our rhythm. We’re in the sleeping bags by nine-thirty and wake earlier in the morning. It feels less complicated, the only downside is we’re watching fewer repeats of Mr Bean.
Today we left Bavaria behind, driving 60 miles west to the university town of Constance in Baden-Württemberg, the third largest state in Germany. This will be my second visit. Back in the summer, Valentin and I had gone to visit his extended family in the area, which was lovely but meant navigating a six-person restaurant meal in broken German. This is like watching a Wimbledon Final while half sedated.
This time, we’re stopping for a few days with a support bubble of Valentin’s family. The aim is to fix the van’s Standheizung (stationary heating) as it’ll only get colder on the road to the Black Forest.
It seems fitting to stop in Constance. Located on the southern shore of the Bodensee — Germany’s largest lake — it occupies a liminal position as a border town on the Swiss-German frontier. It is the spot I’d imagine a child would point to when asked to identify the centre of Europe.
The Bodensee (or Lake Constance), at 273 kilometres long, belongs to no singular country, intersecting Austria, Switzerland and Germany. This, alongside a strangely Mediterranean climate, has given it the feeling of being stuck in a timeless holiday bubble, a landlocked seaside resort between the financial heart of Switzerland and Central Baden-Württemberg, a hub of manufacturing.
Any traveller to Constance is subject to the leisurely way of its people well before reaching the shore. To get there from Germany, you either drive a scenic one hour-thirty around the perimeter of the Bodensee or catch a 15-minute ferry from the city of Meersburg on the opposite side of the water. This ferry takes longer to board than to ride, reminding passengers that they have entered the Bodensee timeless dimension.
The Bodensee Dimension
The Bodensee seems inherently connected to timelessness, having only adopted Central European Time in 1895. Prior to this, a day tour of its lakeside towns could take you through five different time zones in less than 29 miles. This seems like an episode of Cunk’s mockumentary, but in truth, while Constance was part of the Duchy of Baden, it operated within the Karlsruhe time zone. On the northern shore, the town of Friedrichshafen adhered to the Duchy of Württemberg’s time zone — seven minutes slower, while Lindau on the eastern shore falls into the Bavarian, Munich time zone — eight minutes slower, Bregenz in Austria took Prague time — three minutes faster, while villages along the southern shore took Swiss Berne time. Getting a connection between harbour towns was an organisational nightmare — the Swiss village of Romanshorn had to install a harbour clock with three different faces. On board, time pieces were adjusted every few kilometres with captains announcing the departure of a vessel 15 minutes before it was due by firing a cannon. I can only imagine the joy of observing all this from a safe distance.
Such travel makes the world seem a lot bigger somehow. In this corner of Germany, the feeling still reigns. To look out on the Bodensee is to witness the illusion of a landlocked sea. It is a way of life as much as it is a lake, with locals famously enjoying a daily dunk before, after or during work.
Its surface is pocked with pleasure boaters and countless Swallows and Amazons style islands such as Mainau and Reichenau. Humid summers leave these spots brimming with rare floral species, while on the mainland, semi-detached gardens are festooned with grapes, figs and kiwis, in Valentin’s words — a little paradise.
This evening, we opted to reach Constance by ferry from the medieval city of Meersburg. Both Austrian and Swiss borders are currently open, but with Germany’s light lockdown, we decided against unnecessary border hopping. As we drew closer, the vineyards of Meersburg unfolded like a pastoral scene in the frame of the passenger side window. The city is famed for its wine production, the Bodensee acting as a microclimate that releases heat slowly throughout the year. It gives the place its oddly Mediterranean feel, incongruous with everything I associate with Germany and the starkness of the alps just a few kilometres south.
I have only ever seen Meersburg at sunset, but I’m quite convinced that this is the gateway to the Bodensee dimension — another world at the very least. Literally translating to “Castle by the sea”, it appears not unlike Kings Landing from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, the red roof of the 7th-century alte burg silhouetted from a rocky outcrop over the vast expanse of water below.
We drove down cobbled alleyways and hairpin bends of fachwerk builds that lent closer and closer together as if to whisper nefariously. We’ve only ever passed through, but Valentin has a soft spot for this place; it marks the end of a long journey from Bavaria, the gateway to some bygone age of simplicity. A 7th-century castle seemed like the perfect symbol for this time travel. (I have to shoehorn in here that its creator, King Dagobert I, had, at one point, three important women in his life: Gormatrude, his wife; Ragnetrude, his lover; and Haldetrude, his mother.) If that doesn’t capture Meersburg in all its medieval glory, then what does?
The conical towers of the alte burg shrank to a miniature as we sailed away, sunset turning the water to a churning, buttery apricot. Looking back, I think Philomena Cunk was wrong; I think the Bodensee is the only place in the world where I can be in the past and the future with the present running right up through me’ middle bits.
Written Nov.14 2020.