Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Atlantis in the City of Serendipity

Alone in the fine old Swiss city of Basel, I felt I needed to find somewhere a bit different, perhaps even a bit special, to spend my evening.

As it happens, Basel’s a city I know well. It’s because I needed to consult documents in the university library here that I came to stay for a weeks in Hegenheim, just across the border in the French province of Alsace, way back in 1981. It was because I was in Hegenheim, that I met a pleasant nine-year-old who wanted to talk about the planets, and ended up spending the evening with him drawing a map of the solar system. It was because of that boy and that map that I met his mother. And, 37 years and two sons on, that boy’s my stepson and that mother’s my wife.

There was a place that did rather wonderful open sandwiches I knew, but it’s shut up shop and been replaced by a slightly garish bar. There was a sushi restaurant that tempted me but, hey, they’re two a penny around Europe now. Nothing special there, certainly. But then I saw a sign, on the door of a restaurant that looked definitely closed (lights off, chairs piled on tables): ‘roof terrace this way’.
Door to the sun terrace
I walked this way, following several more signs. Eventually I reached a door marked ‘Sun Terrace’. Now, that sounded special. Particularly to an Englishman, in other words someone from a country where, as a general rule, there’s far too little sun to encourage anyone to build a terrace.

I climbed a flight of stairs, then another, then a third. The encouraging signs kept urging me upwards. I emerged on a kind of high courtyard that would have been completely open to the sky had a large portion of it not been covered by canvas awnings. Another set of steps took me to the very top, close enough to the canvas to touch it, and where I could see out to a narrow vista of three or four roof tops and typical Basel house walls, plastered and moulded and painted attractive colours.

Hardly had I placed my order and wondered whether the awnings would actually hold out the rain, when the elements provided me with a conclusive answer. 

They wouldn’t.

The sun terrace turning into a rain terrace
Not much makes me proud of being British these days, since a small majority of my compatriots decided that what the world most needed was a country that turned its back on its neighbours. But I have sufficient pride in my British stoicism, and the resistance it gives me to the weather, to want to stay put despite the downpour that gradually developed above – a few drops, a shower or two, then rain, then a true summer storm, lightning and all.

The waiter was good enough to rub down my table from time to time, even wiping the surface of my increasingly moist Kindle – if I have to eat alone I do find being able to read while I do it is the only way to make the experience pleasurable. But I ate my way stoically through my excellent first course despite the increasing evidence that the position was becoming untenable.
Excellent first course.
Note the raindrops in the background
“It won’t last long,” a waitress told me, expressing what was – as I told her – my firm conviction too. Though I suspect conviction didn’t really come into it, so much as a willingness to encourage each other’s denial of the evidence.

Things finally came to a head when that same waitress wondered whether I really needed another bottle of water, but couldn’t instead just leave my glass on the table a while to see it fill up all by itself.

I retreated, Brit or no, to the slightly better shelter offered by the roof courtyard below. And there enjoyed my equally excellent second course.

It was over the chocolate mousse that I heard the waitress explaining to another client that the lease on the building was being terminated and within a few weeks the restaurant would close. She seemed unfazed by the knowledge – ‘it was very badly run,’ she announced – but to me it seemed sad that a place I’d discovered after 37 years was only going to last a short time longer. It was called Atlantis, oddly enough, and it seems I’ve merely caught a glimpse of it before it’s swallowed up by the waves.

Pity after serendipity, I suppose. But at least Basel gave me my wife and she’ll still be there when I head home the day after tomorrow. With a story about a certainly rather different – perhaps, indeed, special – dinner experience to tell her.

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