Postcard from Wyk, Germany

(One from the personal archives that seemed apt as the summer comes to an end. Back in the summer of 2006 we took our new-born baby to a holiday island in the north sea… the World Cup had just taken place, which might explain the number of flags flying from the beach chairs)

Early morning and the town is waking up slowly. A few early risers stroll along the pavement towards the bakery. Dog walkers meander along the promenade, the North Sea glassy and still at the end of the sands. Council workers, their orange overalls bright in the early morning sunshine, pick litter and rake the beach between the uniform rows of wicker beach chairs waiting patiently to be rented.

As the morning progresses waiters appear from behind the shuttered interiors of cafes and ice cream parlours, to wipe down tables, unfurl sun umbrellas and distribute ashtrays and menus. The beach begins to fill up as holidaymakers erect windbreaks and washing lines between the beach chairs, flags fluttering in the slight breeze that has picked up as the morning moves lazily along. Children and pensioners take to the water with enthusiasm that is only differentiated by volume, whilst up on the viewed platform a lifeguard surveys the scene, scanning the beach with his binoculars or looking out onto the water, towards the German mainland and Denmark beyond.

Wyk is one of the oldest tourist resorts in Germany, but at the same time is the youngest settlement on the island. It has been welcoming guests since 1819, a year when sixty-one travellers braved the sea crossing in search of sand and salt air. As the traditional economy of these North Frisian islands – whaling, fishing, agriculture – have declined, the tourist deutschmark and later euro have become the most important source of income for the island. Over 150,000 travellers take the ferry over to Wyk each year, which even in this era of budget airlines and cheap flights to the south, is the highest it has been in the history of the resort.

This is a middle-market, mid-range kind of place, and the tourists that come over on the grunting workhorse of a ferry are overwhelmingly German. Foreign accents are in short supply, and foreign newspapers absent from the racks that stand on the pavements between postcard stands and plastic bins filled with plastic buckets and spades. You get the sense that this town exists purely for its tourists, devoted to the needs of the holidaymaker with such commitment that the amenities of everyday life –the supermarket, the school, the police station and the health centre – are all pushed to the fringes of the town, where the concrete meets the sandy soil of the farmers’ fields, leaving the pedestrianized centre free for the souvenir shops and fish restaurants.

There is a fish market down by the harbour, where shrimp rolls and smoked mackerel are sold by the truckload, eaten to a soundtrack of Schlager music played through the speakers of an otherwise empty bandstand. The holiday routine of most of the guests appears to be orientated around the moments of sustenance, from the lunchtime fish roll to the mid-afternoon cake and ice cream to the evening fish platter washed down with half litres of good Northern German beer.

People take things slow. Even the cyclists, many of whom are wobblingly overweight, perched unsteadily upon their rented saddles, are prone to dawdle along the well-marked bicycle routes. People stroll and stop. There is no reason to hurry. Old men play chess on oversized municipal boards laid into the pavement. Young boys watch, their ice creams dripping onto shiny sun-creamed arms, and wonder why it is taking so long. Excitement, if that’s what you are looking for, comes in the form of oh-so-crazy golf and the flumes of the open air swimming pool.

This is a sedate and generally happy place, of clean streets and well-tended flowers beds, where crime beyond the filching of a beach towel is almost unimaginable. It might appear to be a little boring, but it is pleasant and relaxed and many families keep coming back for generations. The summertime weather is mostly fine, everyone shares a language, and the fact that you need to catch a ferry gives you a sense of escape even if it is to something so very familiar.

Late in the evening the town is as quiet as it was at the start of the day. There are still some dog-walkers out on the promenade, their cigarette tips glowing beneath the orange street-lamps. Music drifts out from the terrace of a solitary bar. Another day of swimming and sun-bathing, ice cream and beers, a round of crazy-golf and a bike-ride along the dyke, has come to an end. Tomorrow we will all get up and do it over again, until the holiday comes to an end and we catch the ferry back to the mainland and real life. And as the nights draw in and the winter grabs Germany by the throat, even the most sceptical will think back to the fortnight in Wyk and its modest charms and think, oh we did like to be beside the seaside, oh we did like to be beside the sea.

Words & Pictures: Paul Scraton

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