I was born on 19 March 1957 in the German industrial town of Castrop-Rauxel in the heart of the Ruhr valley, an area affectionately referred to by locals as the Kohlenpott, meaning coal pot. I don’t know if my Papa was able to witness my earthly arrival, since it was Tuesday, and he may well have been at the coal mine making the wheels go round, but I know for a fact that my Mama attended the happy occasion. She must have liked me a lot, because she even took me home with her when she left the hospital, an act of kindness she has never regretted despite all the heartache I was to give her in the years to come. Truly a remarkable woman!

I remember a carefree childhood, playing in grimy backyards between chicken coops and rhubarb patches, and sliding down the dusty coal dumps by the power station behind our house, which was of course strictly prohibited and therefore twice as exciting. My horizon consisted of smoke-belching coal mines, coking ovens and steel mills, and the sights and sounds of those massive green electric locomotives with endless coal trains in tow left a lasting impression on me.

Among the performers in this industrial drama I had one hero: My Papa! Not only did he have the guts to go into the belly of that fire-spitting dragon every morning, but he came out again in the evening to bring home a sandwich left over from his lunch, just for me. The aroma of coal, oil and welding grime that impregnated those sandwiches made them the best in the world, and I loved them because they smelled just like my Papa after work.

In 1962 my Papa took me on a holiday to the Baltic Sea. We went there every year, but this time my Mama didn’t join us. I wasn’t offered an explanation, and the excitement of a trip to the sea overrode my desire to know why she was staying behind, but I was confronted with the devastating truth upon our return. In my absence my Mama had betrayed me! In her arms she held a baby girl, whom she introduced as my sister Astrid, and to whom I was supposed to be nice, despite the fact that this little brat had just invaded my territory. I swore a solemn oath by all the smoking chimneys of the Kohlenpott that I would make my sister’s life as difficult as possible, and by her own admission, I did. Mission accomplished!