© Ulrich Sonnenschein

"Wasserhäuschen"

A phenomenon of the region

"Trinkhallen" are a typical Frankfurt institution, were originally kiosks offering beverages, but have far more to offer than just liquid sustenance

They were having the time of their lives in a Frankfurt that is now slowly beginning to fade from sight. A Frankfurt where traditional cider was still termed “Apple Wine” and not yet known by a fashionable label such as “Äppler”. Where department stores had names like “Ammerschläger” or “M. Schneider” – not “My Zeil”. Where Joschka Fischer would play soccer in Ostpark and where the Suhrkamp publishing house still epitomized the kind of intellectual, critical and original political thinking that no Berliner would ever dare to imitate. It was a city where the shops still closed at 6.30 p.m. sharp, as they should. In our neatly arranged world on the banks of the River Main, this last point alone meant there was an institution that was essential to Frankfurt’s survival: the Trinkhalle, or “Wasserhäuschen”. These were kiosks that originally simply had a license to sell beverages, “watering holes” for anyone who felt thirsty and was passing by. Located on practically every corner in the days of yore, they had so much more to offer than plain mineral water – crammed high with all kinds of drinks, cigarettes, sweets, sliced bread and gherkins, with cans of ravioli, tins of coffee, and washing powder packs. I know a lot of people who, up to a few years ago, right on the dot of 6.30 p.m. when the shops closed, would suddenly develop a craving for tinned sardines, water melons, chorizos or caramel pudding. Driven insane by the wish to quench their thirst or fill an empty belly, they would wander from one Trinkhalle to the next until they finally found the object of their desire. Which might not come cheap, but was at least available. And on sale until late at night at that. The vendors tended not to be of the chatty type, while the people outside (usually gents with a beer bottle in hand) were busy contemplating the meaning of life, tersely and forever to the point. Sometimes their presence would frighten off the non-locals, sensitive types or women, and prevent them from shopping at the little hut. However, once new customers had overcome their shyness and broken the spell, most would come flocking back. For a packet of cigarettes, a bottle of beer – or a good joke.

What was once such an institution has long since changed. Most of the bottle-holding gents have disappeared. And the people behind the counter have become more talkative. Sometimes you can be drawn into a full-fledged discussion – often held fluently in several languages. Many a vendor’s expertise and range is truly amazing. From the “New Yorker” to “Hunting and Hound”, no media publication seems to escape their knowledge. They are familiar with the nutritional value of their five-grain rolls, just as they have committed the local subway departure times to memory. What is more, the Trinkhallen have expanded their product range: Some now boast more newspapers and specialist magazines than are to be found even at the train station newsagent’s. Others offer fresh rolls and croissants. And yet others again make their living mainly from the lottery business. What has remained is the staple range of goods. From canned ravioli to Binding beer. It is all still there. Strange, actually, come to think of it. A flashback to the past? No. The basics are still being bought, despite the fact that there is a supermarket around the corner – now open until ten p.m. and definitely cheaper. How reassuring. True to that old chestnut that “only he who changes remains true to himself,” the Frankfurt “watering holes” are well on their way to replicating their heyday. Despite the fact that Frankfurt as we used to know it is slowly fading away. Or perhaps even because of it. After all, life would not be the same if at least one thing from the good old days did not survive.

Michael Herl