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Thursday, 23 April 2015

Spargel Everywhere: The Monochrome Set Germany Tour 2015: Part 5 - Hannover & the journey home

Outside Faust, Hannover

I didn't see Val the next day, as we were due to leave at 9am, however, we had an animated exchange of messages via Facebook as I was getting dressed and packed. At one point I thought to send her a picture of my hotel room in complete disarray, by way of apology that I was not able to chat as much as I would like. Val took one look at the scene of devastation and said: 'I will leave you alone.' 

I should mention that by this stage in the tour, my normal standards of personal grooming had long since gone out the window. I hadn't ironed a single garment all week - not that I had an iron with me, but I could have made some kind of half-arsed attempt to borrow one from the hotels - and as a result, all my clothes were irredeemably crumpled aka 'zerknittert'.

I must say I was banking on the darkness of the venues obfuscating the worst of the creases, but the daytime just couldn't be helped. Then already by Frankfurt I had managed to sleep all night in my contact lenses. I was also washing less than my usual two showers a day - partly through lack of opportunity, partly exhaustion-induced apathy - and as a consequence the back of my left hand was a veritable palimpsest of inky venue stamps or 'Stempel'. Moreover, as the photo below shows, I was barely touching my travel-sized bottle of toner. It was simply an exfoliating step too far in my bleary-eyed morning - or evening - state!

Toner on the left, cleanser on the right...

And although I had brought actual shampoo with me, several times I went ahead and chanced those strange, multifunctional, 'one gel fits all' Hair & Body Shampoo dispensers affixed to shower walls. How bad could they be? Oh, and it is ironic that I was so worried on the first day about not having my usual hair 'product' on the trip, when by the last day or two I was leaving my hair to dry on its own rather than blow drying it. Which just a week previously would have felt like leaving the house with no clothes on. So yes, my personal care regime was fatefully on the slide, but I could at least construe this slatternly behaviour as 'rock 'n' roll'.

I don't remember very much about the drive up to Hannover, except that I had a very large piece of chicken at a service station somewhere near Fulda. Though I may even be wrong about that. And as this might have been our last visit to a service station, we all pooled our toilet vouchers and chucked them at Alaska - it costs 70c to use the facilities, of which 50c is redeemable against purchases in the shop or restaurant. He should have been able to buy himself a Wunderbar at the very least! ;)

Oh look - here's one that got away!


On this, the last night, there was no time to go to our respective accommodation - a mix of unspecified 'band flat' and an airport hotel - so we went to the venue and stayed put till the end of the night. This also meant that the notion of being on the guest list rather went by the board, for I wandered unchallenged into the auditorium through a side door. Indeed I realised by the time of the gig in Schorndorf that that old chestnut - 'ich bin mit der Band' (shameless Denglisch for 'I am with the band'!) - would probably have worked just as well at gaining me admittance. I guess you can't very well spend 10 days and several thousand km wodged in a van next to them and not consider that as being 'with'.

Of note at the Hannover venue were the pert-looking 'arrival snacks' in the green room, whose vintage furniture was also reminiscent of the funky cafe in Freiburg. Yes, from the mozzarella and tomato balls on sticks to the sheaves of pretzels in jars, everything seemed to be erect and standing to attention. Yet again, I have signally failed to capture these in a photograph, but here is one of John chilling out in the adjacent 'sitting room'.

My missions that day were to take pictures of the band posing with Alaska and the van - for the former to use on his Facebook page - and to find the drummer a taxi to take him to the hotel he had hastily booked before the gig, with the help of his girlfriend back in England. For he had been around the block enough for the words 'band flat' to strike an ominous note in his mind, and with the benefit of hindsight, his instinct was completely vindicated. Our accommodation was billed as having four bedrooms: one each for Alaska, John, Caryne & Dave and me (being the 'elders' in the band, Bid and Andy were booked into the airport hotel). However, when we finally climbed up the five flights of stairs to the flat, it was quickly apparent that there were in fact four beds, not four bedrooms. Alaska very chivalrously offered to sleep on the couch and give me a bedroom with two double beds in it all to myself. This didn't feel right to me at all, though, a) because Alaska had just driven 600 odd km and worked all night mixing the sound and b) because it was a waste of a bed in the same room.

A very tired Alaska

I initially offered to take the couch myself, though it was in a bit of a thoroughfare, plus there was some talk of a couple of our party staying up late drinking in the very living room where I would be trying to sleep. So when Caryne & Dave kindly offered me the spare bed in their room, I jumped at the chance. After a week on the road together, the time had passed to stand on ceremony or insist on the usual levels of personal space. I actually slept better that night than I had for ages, make of that what you will!

Of particular note in the flat was the idiosyncratic toilet, which had pride of place in the middle of the narrow bathroom. The shower toggled viciously between scalding and freezing cold, but that would be my only complaint, and the whole stay felt like a huge adventure! Alaska surpassed himself by calling out: 'Bathroom's free if anyone wants to know!' at the very moment when I was lying in bed, wondering just that, and he also left cups of perfectly brewed tea outside our door. Not for nothing did we dub him the '5th, 6th and 7th emergency services'...


After a flurry of emotional goodbyes to Alaska at Hannover station, we got on the first of three trains home - or four in my case, if you include the last leg up to Stafford. Bid and I went to fetch drinks for everyone from Starbucks. He had taken to writing people's names on the lids to avoid confusion about whose particular style of coffee - or tea - was whose. I decided to keep mine, amused at the wholly accidental juxtaposition of 'Vanessa' and 'hot contents'.

I am lucky he spelt Vanessa correctly too, mindful of Cheryl Krueger's longstanding battle with a seemingly Protean set of bastardisations of her first name.

Photo stolen from Cheryl's Facebook page

Now I wasn't present at the time, but I heard that the band cookie bucket was finally jettisoned at Cologne Hauptbahnhof. Not in a careless way, mind - oh no. They set it on a podium in the main concourse for maximum ambient promotional value.

We had a quick bite to eat at Brussels station - anyone who has taken the Eurostar there will know exactly what I mean by the 'quiche cafe'. (Also memorable for its giant replica of a zebra.) I ate my slice of chicken, coconut and ginger quiche surreptitiously while Bid went off for a smoke, knowing that he considered anything other than Quiche Lorraine to be a complete travesty.


In what seemed like no time at all, we were at St Pancras, the main parting of the ways, though John and I headed off together to Euston, and stopped for a quick al fresco pint (or G & T in my own case) before it was time for me to catch my train. I would see him and the rest of the band the following Friday in Manchester, so the leaving wasn't as much of a wrench as it might otherwise been. I hopped off the train in Stafford at 10.30pm and went straight to my friend Gillie's 60th birthday party! It was the perfect way to 'come down' from the excitement of the trip, and help me reconnect with my normal life and the great bunch of friends I have in my home town. But would I go on tour again if I was invited? In a heartbeat! Though I would try to remember to cleanse AND tone next time...

Sign in the ladies' toilets at the Hannover venue
NB A number of readers have pointed out the lamentable lack of Spargel in most of these posts. To which I can only say that the punning opportunity with the new CD's title 'Spaces Everywhere' was irresistible. There again, you could argue that this is entirely consistent with the theme of the album, namely that there are spaces everywhere where Spargel ought to be. Be that as it may, I am sorry if any diehard asparagus lovers - like Andy with his foiled pig excursion - felt shortchanged, and will close this series of travelogues with a picture of that noble yet elusive vegetable.

Source: Caspian Blue via Wikimedia Commons

PS Oh, and here is a link to Alaska's company, Pop und die Welt. If anyone reading needs a driver / sound engineer for their tour, he's your man!

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Spargel Everywhere: The Monochrome Set Germany Tour 2015: Part 4 - Schorndorf & Augsburg (including a meet up with Val the Cookie Queen and her husband!)

Backstage at Club Manufaktur

The following day we spent a leisurely morning in Freiburg before a relatively short drive through the Black Forest up to Stuttgart. My early morning mission consisted of accompanying the singer to a local supermarket to buy kefir. I had clocked the presence of this probiotic wonder drink the night before, when I popped in to buy some (not so healthy) crisps and wine.

The venue hadn't closed till 4am that morning, so the business of breaking down and loading the gear had been deferred till noon on our day of departure, the earliest time the promoter could reasonably be expected to roll out of bed and open up the club.

This gave us a chance to hang out in another of Alaska's 'Geheimtipps' - a characterful cafe quite close to our hotel stuffed with vintage furniture, posters and a motley assortment of eclectic artefacts. There was a toboggan on the wall - but of course! And a motorbike in an archway. Every object had been carefully curated, down to the 'period' toilet roll holder, which I have conspicuously failed to photograph.

Alaska, Dave and Caryne at the cafe

After a pleasant pitstop, we foregathered outside the club at the appointed 'get out' time. I am not sure if this is the correct opposite of 'get in', but it is now. Within moments of our arrival, a series of small tasks fell to me: the first of these was retrieving the bass player's gloves, which had fallen under his seat at the back of the van. I basically 'dived' head first over the front bench seat to recover them, with Andy holding me by the ankles, like a tourist kissing the Blarney Stone. I then had to hold the gloves for a while, until he needed them as extra protection when manhandling the gig bags. Meanwhile, Bid asked me to hold his cigarette while he went to retrieve some item of gear or other. I am quite surprised no one parked their hat on my head or hooked an umbrella over my elbow. I have got this holding lark - of so many different items, indeed - off to a 't' now.

Shortly after this, I really needed the loo, but decided against using the one in the club, as there was no water in the ladies, assuming I could even have remembered which door was which.

The only foolproof way to 'sex' these toilets is to wait for someone to come out

So I popped into the restaurant where we had eaten the night before (with the imposing green door above), only to encounter yet another memorable toilet roll dispenser.

Is it just me, or is this plain greedy?

Then no description of Freiburg would be complete without mentioned the dreaded 'c' word. That's 'c' for 'cyclists', obviously. The town is positively overrun with them, much like Oxford or Cambridge or the whole of that benighted bicycle-ridden car park known as Holland. When I have visited Freiburg for work, it has always been by car, and as a motorist you are doing quite well if you only come away having mowed down half a dozen cyclists or fewer. And there is an additional hazard I have not come across anywhere else - small water channels at the side of the road, the purpose of which may be purely decorative, I don't know. If the cyclists don't get you, the 'water torture feature' (to quote ex-Mr Bonkers) most certainly will.

By half past twelve we were rolling, the weather still fine and warm. Even in that scenic area of the Black Forest, there were 'ghost interviews' lurking just off the main drag (Donaueschingen - children's shoe soles, I'm looking at you!). By the time we hit the outskirts of Stuttgart, 'the cradle of the automobile', as well as home to a myriad of engineering firms, it was like a veritable spooks' convention, a gaggle - nay, Gaggenau - of career ghosts, if you will.

I also spotted a sign to a place where I had spent several happy weekends on past business trips - a chocolate box-pretty place called Ebersbach. I told the band that this quaint little town was only down the road and that the streets were dotted with bronze pigs. The bass player got quite excited by this, and suggested a scenic detour so that the band could take whimsical photographs of themselves posing with this posse of porcine sculptures. Unfortunately, I realised about two seconds later that I had got Ebersbach mixed up with Eberbach, a completely different town near Heidelberg, that was not remotely on our way to Stuttgart. 'You raised our hopes of a fun time with the pigs and now you've gone and dashed them!' piped up the bass player from the back of the bus in a forlorn voice.

The proper Eberbach and its pigs ~ Source:


Because of 'get in' time constraints, we all went straight to the venue rather than checking in at the hotel first. Alaska had promised us 'arrival snacks', which turned out to be a souped up version of what ex-Mr Bonkers calls 'the cheese and ham rider', though with a perky Easter twist.

Photo courtesy of Caryne

Club Manufaktur was pretty wacky - even by our jaded standards, and we had seen a fair few variants of 'funky / mad / dilapidated / graffiti-strewn / generally bonkers' buildings in our touring time. There were beaten up old sofas with audibly boing-ing springs, stylised signs on the doors of the toilets, and a platter of complimentary tampons in the ladies. 'I should have got here earlier', I thought ruefully.

Then I was thrilled to be able to redeem myself for the pig fiasco, when the bass player asked if I could organise some photocopies of the set list. I put in a polite request with the lady in the venue's main office, and in a trice we had 10 copies ready for the band to use, and for fans to nick at the end of the night, as is the immutable way of such things.

John, digesting the arrival snacks.

It was a short trip the next day over to Augsburg, preceded by a fair bit of hanging around at the hotel for Alaska-related reasons we never did quite fathom, but a mountainous backlog of emails may have been involved. Bid was complaining of a sore neck and shoulders, so I offered to apply that universal panacea for aches of all kinds - 4HEAD - to the affected areas. 'Balm me, balm me!' he pleaded in what can best be described as a strangled yet enthusiastic tone. I also caught a most agreeable whiff of the drummer's cologne, which turned out to be Activist from The Body Shop, a citrus-woody-ambery number that most definitely punches above its price range.

On the way to Augsburg, my excitement was mounting about meeting Val there, eclipsing even multiple further sightings of asparagus fields. She and her husband were driving up from Austria at the same time, and in a flurry of in-car messaging, she sent me a teaser photo of cookie buckets to come...;) She had the new album, Spaces Everywhere, playing at full blast on the stereo. At least I assume so - Val strikes me as someone who would engage with every aspect of life at full blast.

Photo courtesy of Val


Soon after checking into my hotel, I headed out to a street called Hinterer Lech that I had picked for our rendez-vous, for no other reason than that it was fairly central and blessed with a pleasingly louche name. I make no apologies for the fact that our meeting was like an urban parody of the classic scene of lovers running towards each other in slow motion through a meadow filled with flowers - I was just so darn pleased to see Val, and also took an instant like to her easy-going, warm and chatty husband, Chris.

Photos courtesy of Chris (by a process of elimination indeed!)

Val was wearing Rozy edp (like Anka - Twilight Zone-y!), and of course I had to give her a thorough olfactory going over, just moments after our ecstatic embrace.

Photo courtesy of Chris

Our first port of call was a little gift shop selling knick-knacks, gemstones, scarves, bags and a modicum of 'hippie tat'. Val was instantly drawn to a beautiful white wood cabinet, with a set of little ceramic drawers - absolutely perfect for her perfume samples - and Chris bought it for her on the spot.

Photo courtesy of Val

The shop was about to close, so the owner kindly offered to stash the parcel in a shed round the back where no one would think to go rummaging with thieving intent. I bought a little semi-precious stone - it was a toss up between a swirly one and a spotty one in shades of black and grey, but Chris observed that the spotty one looked worryingly like the diseased lung of a chronic smoker, so that settled that then.

Managed to catch Val's happy snapper hubby in the act!

Photo courtesy of Chris ~ more navigating(!), albeit less mission-critical
After a bit of a wander round town and a bite to eat in a steakhouse, we went back to our hotels to change and get ready for the gig. Val turned up outside the City Club armed with not one but TWO buckets of cookies for the band and Caryne - who got her own bucket because she was a vegan - together with a generous selection of perfumes for us both, and a travel spray of Hermes Cuir d'Ange ('Angel Leather'). She had in mind to scent the band with the latter - openly or by stealth if necessary - instantly turning them into rock gods. Given that the singer is notorious for his 'leather trouser phase' in the early 90s, he arguably didn't have all that far to go, and submitted his décolleté to a vigorous spritz or three by Val as he emerged from the dressing room in search of a drink.

The band in the 90s ~ unknown source
I asked Bid later in an email what he had made of Cuir d'Ange:

"I thought that it initially smelled of electrical malfunction, but it became ok."

Speaking of electrical malfunctions, I was asked to tap a microphone at some point in the evening. I was crestfallen, mind. not to be asked to say: 'One two, one two' with that. For the first time since Freiburg, I was also summoned on stage again to do my little announcement at the end of the set about the band staying put. This time the issue was not so much the lack of a dressing room as the distance to it. I was ready at last with the right word for dressing room - and clapping, for that matter - but I never even got to finish my sentence about the band playing on, before the already lively crowd broke into an uproar at the mention of whooping and several encores swiftly ensued. I am still puzzling over where the verb should have gone in my sentence, or what it was, even. The endless meandering of German sentence structure has that effect. Oh, I should also mention that after a bit of priming, Val stepped forward and posed with a Wunderbar chocolate bar at exactly the correct point in the song, Alphaville, where the word 'wunderbar' features in the lyrics. Someone took a blurry picture of her in action, but I can't put my hand on it for the moment.

Photo courtesy of Caryne

There was a bit of milling after the gig, chatting to Val and Chris and the band, as well as to Augsburg fans and musicians I met on the tour last year. Meanwile, the Cookie Monster snuck off and had a little go on the drum kit before it was packed away.

Photo courtesy of Val

Then at one point some bonus Prosecco appeared from nowhere and my glass of white wine simultaneously vanished. And all too soon it seemed, Val and Chris had vanished too - we had a long journey the next day, plus they are used to early nights on account of the cookie business. But brief as our meet up was, the memories will linger for far longer. The cookies, meanwhile, were all gone by Brussels.

Photo courtesy of Caryne

PS This happens to be my 500th post!!! It seems fitting that it should be one about a perfumista meet up. 'Friends before perfume' as we have now taken to saying...

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Spargel Everywhere: The Monochrome Set Germany Tour 2015: Part 3 - Frankfurt & Freiburg (including a belated cameo appearance by asparagus!)

An Alaska's eye view of the Frankfurt gig

The next day started early and on a somewhat surreal note. For as I was paying my hotel bill, the receptionist asked if I wanted to cancel my entire booking and book it all over again. 'Er...but I have just been here for two nights?' I replied weakly, whereupon the woman muttered something about this being a way of helping her to dodge's fees while securing me a better rate. However, her cunning plan messed with my preconceptions of time in such a profoundly disorientating way that after another robust exchange at complete cross-purposes, I ended up jabbing my credit card at her, and settling the bill for the stay I had actually had. Yes, on balance I shall leave all that time travelling malarkey to H G Wells, Dr Who, and Cher.

For my scent of the day I had picked out Amouage Honour Woman, in a valiant attempt to keep the rhubarb theme going as we headed south, and out of Rhabarberschorle country. We still had a goodly on-board stash though - more rhubarb drinks than you could could shake a stalk at, indeed.

Molluscs and fatty mediums

No sooner were we all loaded and on the bus than my missions for that day cracked off, starting with a series of random requests to google octopuses and squid and sundry other cephalopods to confirm whether they were in fact all molluscs or not. In the course of my research, I chanced upon a German news article about a woman who had been made accidentally pregnant by calamari - after experiencing a 'pricking and foreign body sensation'. ;). It seems the story has also been covered by The Daily Mail. Anyway, as you might imagine, the ensuing tittering and savouring of terms such as 'spermatophore', 'octo-mum' and 'squid insemination' lasted well into Thuringia. Further amusement was prompted by my verdict on a vegan chocolate bar Caryne passed round the bus: 'Um, it's like someone just poured cocoa powder over a fatty medium.' Cue comedy visions of curvy spiritualists dusted with a light patina of Bournville.

Eisenach, courtesy of Caryne
Stau, Stau Stau auf der Autobahn

We stopped for lunch in the picturesque town of Eisenach, where Dave's vegetarian baked potato came generously topped with bacon sprinkles. I must say I thoroughly enjoyed my pork goulash with dumplings and red cabbage, and it was lucky in hindsight that we had had a substantial meal as the day started to unravel at that point - or 'go in the trousers' as the Germans say. Ugly traffic jams greeted us on the approach to Frankfurt, and once again Alaska tossed the road atlas into the back and asked me to figure out an alternative route parallel to the motorway, but still taking a southerly course. Having wiggled round the jam, Alaska checked the satnav again. It was set on taking us back north - presumably with a view to skirting round the top of Frankfurt and dropping down the west side, which it clearly thought was quicker. But we didn't know the prevailing traffic conditions over there, and I had a split second in which to advise Alaska on this fateful choice. 'Ignore the GPS, and carry on down to Hanau!'  I squeaked, not at all convinced that it was wise to flout the satnav at this decisive point in our journey. It was the most stressful moment of the whole tour for me, as there was no turning back, and I just had to hope that we would get to the venue before the doors opened(!), in time for the band to sound check. After a sprint down the A45 and west on the A3, we  made it with 40 minutes to spare, but it was a stomach churning, white knuckle ride of a near miss!



My human post-it note moment and Chinese carry out challenge

By showtime, I was able to relax and enjoy the gig. Just before the end of the set, Alaska unexpectedly broke off from his sound engineer duties, came right to the front where I was standing, and whispered urgently in my ear. Three times. On each occasion I only caught the word 'desk', as in 'mixing desk', no doubt. Now why would he want me to go up there, I wondered? I am completely clueless about all matters sound related, unless something's broken and he needs me to fetch a tool or keep a knob or a switch in a certain position while he fixes whatever the fault is. It seemed unlikely, so I decided to ignore him, and stayed in my spot. Then, a minute or two later, Alaska came bounding up to me again and this time slapped a sticky note on the lapel of my jacket, which I couldn't possibly ignore! (Since transferred for posterity to my tour notebook.)

So I went to the mixing desk(!), where I was charged with the important mission of picking up a Chinese meal for the band from a restaurant a few doors along from the venue. It had to be collected on the dot of 10.30pm, which meant missing the encore. I did get invited to share the food, mind, which turned out to be the best Chinese takeaway of my life, all the more welcome after the stress of the long drive and its associated navigational trauma. ;)

Caryne caught me taking the photo of the mixing desk above!


Spargel Everywhere!

The next day dawned bright and warm, with temperatures topping 20C. There was genuine concern amongst the band that we might easily end up with a 'baked Alaska' on our hands, so we encouraged him to keep his pork pie hat on at all times.

Courtesy of Caryne ~ a momentarily baked Vanessa

The sunshine put us all in particularly silly mood, and someone had the idea to get the band to stage a mock police hold up.

It was also on this leg of the trip that we spied our first asparagus crops, which inspired the bass player to promptly rename the new album 'Spargel Everywhere'!

Source: Zumthie via Wikimedia Commons

For throughout our time in the south of Germany, we encountered numerous expanses of these tell-tale polythene furrows. Surprisingly, we never did eat any asparagus on this trip, though it is a delicacy I have enjoyed in the past. Here is an extract from a travel column I used to write for a business magazine (from 2007):

"I spent the last night of my trip in Trochtelfingen, which despite its small size, turned out to be a major hub of vegetable festivities, simultaneously showcasing leek pesto and asparagus.  There were entire “Spargel-Menus”, boasting asparagus in every course.  At breakfast, I spied a couple of spears nestling in the muesli, which I put down to a dish washing error rather than a case of fusion cuisine gone bonkers.  But you never know…"

Never let it be said that the Germans are risk averse and law abiding

We reached Freiburg in the early afternoon, and after a tasty lunch in a Sri Lankan restaurant - yet another of Alaska's secret tips - checked into our hotels. I had been to Freiburg a few times before, but not lately as a tourist, and was excited to explore the historic centre again. Set against a backdrop of bright blue sky, the coloured facades of the buildings lived up to even the most vibrant postcards on sale in the main square...

A logistically complex scented cuckoo clock idea

I was not completely without focus in my wanderings, however, as the singer had entrusted me with a trio of missions: pricing cuckoo clocks, looking for a particularly avant-garde style of shopping basket (I failed miserably on this one!), and buying pink and/or green roller ball pens, so that he could carry on his graffiti apprenticeship in more novel colourways. Oh, and Bid came up with a silly idea about cuckoo clocks as it happens, namely that someone could consider developing ones that emit a different scent each hour. I don't think he meant the cuckoo itself to be redundant exactly, but I am not sure how the poor bird wouldn't quickly end up smelling of 24 different perfumes by virtue of popping out in broadly the same area as these supposed scent puffs. I sense the idea, while ingenious, may need more work.

Bright lights, stage fright, and whipping up whooping

At the gig that night there was one further, unexpected task to perform...After the set, the singer beckoned me to come on stage. As with Alaska's urgent instructions the night before, I ignored the beckoning for quite some time, till it dawned on me that I really was being summoned on stage, who knows for what. Once up there, and blinded by the lights, Bid whispered in my ear: 'Tell them in German that we would normally go off now as it is the end of the set, only we can't because there isn't a dressing room! So we are just going to stand here instead and if they would like to clap and whatnot we will play an encore.' Thoroughly put on the spot, I did my best to render this in German, except that I asked them simply to 'scream'/'whoop' instead of clap, as I couldn't remember the word for applause, and also came up with a non-existent word for dressing room - 'Umzugsraum' (removal / moving room!??) instead of 'Umkleideraum', or better still, 'Künstlerumkleide', which has more of a sense of backstage dressing room. It didn't seem to matter though, as the audience brought the house down with their whooping and screaming, and the band played an unprecedented four encores...

Yay! We caught the nightlife!

Courtesy of Caryne ~ the Herz Jesu church in Freiburg