Monday, 14 December 2009

Schneider’s: in memoriam

The internet, or at least the English-language version, is unlikely to be alive with tributes to the sad passing of the Schneider department store in Kehl. So to ensure there was at least one, I thought I’d better write it myself.

Kehl is a pleasant little town in South West Germany, just across the border – just across the Rhine, in fact – from the city of Strasbourg, in France. To say ‘in France’ is, incidentally, as much a statement about history as about geography: Strasbourg has been German twice in the last 150 years. At those times, Kehl was a suburb of the city; at other times, it was a little market town in Baden-Württemberg. Today, it’s the market town again, but also, funnily enough, increasingly a suburb of Strasbourg too. Even to the point that right now the main bridge across the Rhine is being widened to take Strasbourg trams.

Kehl is also the place where Danielle and I were living until eighteen months ago.

Schneider’s was the department store in the centre of the town, on the market square. It was a bit old-fashioned, both in the sense of being a little dingy but also in the sense of offering good products and, above all, of having outstanding assistants. That made it a place where it was a real pleasure to shop.

I judge shop assistants on the ‘bookshop’ scale: have you noticed that it’s bookshops that generally have the best assistants? They know where everything is, they can recognise a book from a vague description of its contents without the name of the author or the title, they can advise you on the kind of book you want. Well, the Schneider assistants were like that. Helpful, well informed, good at their job. I always used to go in there with a few badly constructed sentences in German ready for use. It was easy enough when I wanted socks, slightly less easy when I wanted short-sleeved shirts, absolutely impossible when I wanted one of those round, flat batteries for the kind of electrical gear you get in kitchens these days – I don’t know what those batteries are called in English, let alone in German.

Every time, though, I came out with what I’d been looking for. I was served with a smile, by people who replied to my halting sentences in fluent, courteous German which they would explain when I didn’t understand it.

The real irony is that when I speak German, I sound French. I actually know French properly so I suppose that subconsciously I speak one foreign language with the accent of another foreign language I know rather better. Ironically, I realised over repeated visits to Schneider’s, that practically all the shop assistants were French. They spoke German as though they were from that side of the border, but they actually came from the other.

And they resisted the temptation to show me up by replying to my cracked German in their native French, even though they must have guessed it would have worked better. It would have been easier for me, it would have made the conversation quicker and simpler, but it would have been a sad dismissal of my poor attempts at speaking what I thought was the right language. Now being that respectful to a customer gets you way up on my bookshop-scale of shop assistant excellence.

Well, all that’s over. A new mall has opened in Kehl, closer to the main road where the Strasbourgers arrive and where the tram will stop when it reaches the town. Old Schneider’s couldn’t compete. The market square branch and the two others in nearby villages are all gone, and with them 145 jobs. Jobs occupied by some of the best qualified people I’ve ever known to hold them.

Time is the devourer of things, I’m told, and it has devoured Schneider’s. It only remains to raise a glass to the memory of a fine old institution. In Kehl, many of us will miss it.

1 comment:

Mark Reynolds said...

The staff there were also pretty good to those of us whose German stopped with "Français? English?" Shame it's gone.