If you want to understand Sylt, it’s best to leave the island to others in the summer. Sylt reveals its true soul when the beaches are empty and the North Sea winds rage. Our author went to the island – and met a couple of accomplices
Seventeen years have passed since my first trip to the largest of the North Frisian Islands. It was early October, and raining. My girlfriend Swantje met me at Westerland station. She was beaming, and when she planted a welcome kiss on my cheek I could smell hot cocoa on her breath. Then she showed me my bicycle. We rode for ages, cycling in the twilight until we got to Keitum, where Swantje’s family was waiting for us. My legs were burning, and half my vacation wardrobe was hanging off me in wet, baggy bulges. I was exhausted, but in an oddly pleasant kind of way. Swantje just laughed at me.
Black tea was already steaming on the wooden table next to the fireplace. I soon warmed up, sinking into my armchair in a state of languid and sublime contentment. Her parents must have taken me for a good-natured deaf-mute. “Don’t worry,” said sunny Swantje, “it’s just the Sylt feeling.”
It’s based on a simple principle: First, you have to go outdoors, because the island’s clear air makes you happy – even when it’s raining or so cold that your breath comes out like cotton candy. And then, after an hour or two, you have to go back in to a cozy heated room, with numb fingers, a streaming nose and shining eyes, until you start feeling the warmth that begins in your toes and then slowly works its way up to your scalp – and that makes you feel happy, too. Then you repeat the process all day long: hot and cold and hot and cold … This feeling is the reason I keep coming back to Sylt in fall and winter. These days, I stay at little guesthouses, which are becoming increasingly scarce, and rejoice in every pub and restaurant that doesn’t make me feel as if my appetizer is financing the landlord’s next SUV.
And there you have it: the Sylt cliché. There’s no getting round it. There are two options: Firstly, you can lament the fate of an island groaning under the weight of too much prosperity. Bestseller author Meike Winnemuth sums it up splendidly: “I want to love Sylt, really I do. And there’s no denying it’s great: the dunes, the heath, the beach, the winds, the clouds. But the people. The wretched people. The men in their red pants and frantically casual shirts. The women so blond, so smooth of brow, so dripping with jewelry. And all too tanned. And too loud.”
Alternatively, you can take the bull by the horns, like Sylt cabaret artist Manfred Degen. People love his stories of “money, greed and vanity” and about how insanely life on Sylt has changed in the last 25 years, and tears of laughter roll down onto the polo shirts and college loafers of his listeners.
I love it when the wind whips the sea, preferably when it’s dark and dramatic
Now Degen is standing at Rantum harbor, gazing raptly at the mudflats. The sky is blue, the wind is whistling, and Degen is puzzled. “They never think I’m talking about them,” he says, “not even when they’ve just parked their Maybach outside and their pug is strutting its stuff in a mouflon vest.” He’s on his way to the club house of the old-established North Frisian Sailing Club Rantum, where he’s been a member for years. There’s no doubt this former railroad worker loves his adopted island home, in spite of the sometimes difficult visitors, in spite of everything. As it turns out, Degen’s ambivalent relationship to Sylt is part of a widespread pattern. Almost all the islanders I meet over the next few days feel exactly the same. They love Sylt, but in the high season – July, August and around New Year’s
Eve – they would prefer not to leave their own four walls at all.
“It’s the solitude of Sylt that appeals to me most,” says Indra Wussow, who is something like the island’s unofficial minister of culture. She heads a foundation by the name of “kunst:raum sylt quelle,” invites artists and writers from all over the world to Sylt and publishes South African literature. She herself only spends about three months of the year on the island nowadays, and only ever in the off-season. “I love it when the wind whips the sea,” she says, “preferably when it’s dark and dramatic. Walking along the beach by yourself, it makes you reflect on what’s really important to you, what drives you.”
I spend the next few days walking and jogging in the lonely places of Sylt. Not a single gathering place for rich vacationers in sight – no crowded Kupferkanne, no trendy Gogärtchen or Sansibar. Instead, just the Ellenbogen, an elbow-shaped sand spit near List. The white cliff between Munkmarsch and Braderup. The Kliffkante restaurant in Wenningstedt. Only a scattering of people and lots of unspoiled countryside. I can still hear Swantje’s voice from all those years ago, reassuring me before my first
visit to the island: “The great thing about Sylt is that you never have to worry about the weather.”
Fondly, I think of that now as I brace myself against the wind that’s filling my jacket out like a parachute. On days like this, you can’t hear your own panting for the noise of the crashing waves. The paths between Rantum and Hörnum on the southern tip of Sylt are some of the most beautiful I know. They lead past dunes, little thatched cottages and the peat-brown puddles of the Wadden Sea, past the designer prefab of a vacation resort and the Budersand, a no less modern but far more attractive version of a luxury hotel in the midst of the Sylt countryside. You see a lot on a walk like this – and get a sense of everything that constitutes Sylt’s appeal: its clear air, its vastness, its freshness. Sylt blows the cobwebs away – be they physical or mental.
Christoph Knorr understands. The 34-year-old from Hesse remained on the island after completing his alternative civilian service here. “The landscape, the surfing,” he says, almost groaning at the thought. Because it would have been much easier to set up shop if he’d fallen in love with a different island – maybe Amrum or Pellworm. But Knorr, together with his wife and child, found an apartment on the nearby mainland instead, from where he now commutes to Sylt to pursue his business idea.
He brews his own beer, Sørfers – the craft beer trend has arrived on Sylt too. For the time being, Sørfers is more of a hobby than a business: Knorr is forever setting up and dismantling his “brewing laboratory” on an organic farm in Braderup, depending on whether the space is needed for other purposes. Now Knorr is hoping for a sympathetic investor. “What we’re missing here is a brewhouse restaurant like the Altes Mädchen in Hamburg,” says Knorr. “Charmingly furnished and with good products – a totally different story to the usual Sylt bling-bling.” In a place like that, he could brew and serve his beer and put on a bit of a program for young people. “But there’s no affordable space for that kind of project on Sylt.” So why does he stay? Well, I’ve seen that wistful look on his face before – when I met Manfred Degen and Indra Wussow. It must be love.
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