By Marcus Dysch
February 14, 2010
There’s something about foreign assignments that seems to not entirely agree with me.
After the shambles of the Stormont toilet lock-in , came the frustration in Frankfurt.
It all seemed so simple. Go to Frankfurt for the day, watch the handing back of some looted Nazi artwork, come back and write a nice colourful piece. Easy.
Things got off to a reasonable start. I managed to get up at 4am and get myself to Heathrow. It seemed a little too good to be true, however, getting from flat to departure gate in not much more than an hour.
All I had to do now was meet my Magen David Adom contact, Henry, who would accompany me and explain the charity’s role in reuniting the Matisse painting with the home city of the man it had belonged to before the Germans, and then the French, got their grubby paws on it.
I’d never met Henry and only knew I had to look for a man in a blue scarf. Not so easy on a cold February morning at a grim Heathrow.
Here’s where the fun began. Unable to locate Henry I text him to let him know I was at the gate. No response, for 20 minutes. By now our fellow passengers were boarding and I had two choices: wait and see where Henry is, risking missing the plane, or get on and risk arriving in Frankfurt to find he is back in London.
Eager to not miss the story, or waste my early rise, I boarded the plane.
Next hurdle – the snow at Frankfurt is so bad we can’t take off from Heathrow for 45 minutes, so we sit and wait to see if it’ll be safe to land at the other end.
Thankfully during this delay Henry replied, informing me he was in Munich, of all places, and would be meeting me at Frankfurt. Fair enough, just a slight misunderstanding in the end.
However when I eventually arrived in Germany worse was to come. Poor Henry was stuck in Munich’s snow for another two hours, leaving me stranded in Frankfurt with no Euros and no address to travel to for the Matisse press conference.
I always knew my A-Level German would come in useful one day. I just didn’t imagine it would take the best part of a decade for me to put my 'skills' to use.
Remarkably the taxi driver understood my rudimentary interpreting of “I don’t have any money and I don’t really know where I’m going. Can I pay by credit card and leave you to guess the way?”.
Within 20 minutes we happened upon the Jewish Museum, thanks in no small part to some rapid Googling by his colleagues back at base.
I’d only missed the first ten minutes of the conference but was somewhat disheartened to find the supposedly grand unveiling of the Matisse amounted to nothing more than five Germans sitting behind a table explaining the restitution process. For an hour. In German.
Getting a taxi was one thing, interpreting a whole press conference was another. So I sat patiently, picking up words here and there.
When they were finished I set about interviewing some of the key players – the museum director, Frankfurt’s culture secretary and so on. Remarkably I managed to do the interviews in a mix of broken English and German.
Henry arrived a little later, in time to join me and my interviewees for lunch. Sadly they decided that my few words of German meant I was sufficiently equipped for them to conduct the entire lunch conversation in their language, not mine.
After braving the freezing Frankfurt weather for a little post-lunch stroll back to the museum and a quick look round I returned to the airport. My flight was almost the only one still listed as on time, which I thought would be a small consolation for a 12-hour trip halfway across Europe for what amounted to a few paragraphs of quotes which, once deciphered, were not overly enlightening.
But having boarded the plane there was the inevitable announcement – flight delayed for an hour on the tarmac. Reason: more snow.
So much for German efficiency.
Anyway, if my translation skills are still up to it then you can look forward to reading in this Friday’s JC all about how a €200,000 Matisse found its way back to Frankfurt after a 60-year detour around Europe.
In light of such an achievement, I really shouldn’t complain.