Wednesday, June 10, 2009
Köln, Part Zwei
It's hard not to love this place. We flew yesterday about 7PM, and I had a spectacular view out my window of downtown CGN and the surrounding area. It was harder than hell not to snap a photo or two, and I was restrained only by my being so marginal in my job that I didn't dare handicap myself any further. (I had radio duties for the leg, and it's surprising how difficult it is when A) the person on the other end is not a native speaker of English, and B) they are clearing you by way of phraseology, or to fixes or points, that are unfamiliar. With fully 2/3 of the transmissions to us I either sat there blinkingly uncomprehending, or I had to ask my coworkers to clarify a word or phrase. I'm promised that it all becomes easier with a few repetitions.)
But what I could see was really spectacular. The towns and villages are completely without an orderly grid or any kind of North / South orientation, which betrays the relative age of things. Well, there is a grid of sorts, but it's like a Salvador Dali grid, with nothing running in a straight line; everything obeys the dictates of the terrain and wherever Friar Bubbles routinely walked his goat a buzillion years ago. And everything is pristine. Farm fields (which do follow a more orderly, grid-like pattern, though even then the grid is usually aligned with the predominating local geographical feature rather than the compass) are wonderfully ordered and look like someone has lovingly tended each individual plant; there are no underwatered or overfertilized patches or junky looking fallow sections. There's just no junky anywhere. It seems Germans don't do junky. The farm houses and villages are all perfectly manicured, and you have to search far afield to find any kind of clutter or disorder (about all I ever see is graffiti, and there seem a fair number of homeless youths, tattoed and pierced and mohawked and utterly filthy, living under bridges). The highways and rail systems are gleaming and in spectacular order, with fast-moving trains everywhere. Even the rivers seem picked-up and tidy.
And once again walking around the town this sense of order and meticulousness is everywhere. Even the city street crews seem to work more like surgery than hammer-swinging. One crew was meticulously removing a thin layer of asphalt over some cobbles, with one guy carefully chipping away small chunks of asphalt with a special hand tool and collecting any sprayed debris immediately, and the other ensuring the line of the remaining asphalt was arrow-straight and cauterized with a torch. All the mundane stuff of city life just seems a tick nicer here than what I'm used to: bridges and traffic lights and trains--especially the trains. There is not only (as mentioned) high-speed rail everywhere, but even the local trains are modern and clean and spacious and well lit.
There are extensive bike lanes, and one can bring one's bike on the trains, which makes it so very easy on every front to avoid using your car. And even the bicycles tell a subtle tale of Germany: bikes here are not fashion statements nor lifestyle markers nor signs of club membership. Everything is functional first, and then made cool secondarily. Or best yet, things are cool because they're so functional, bikes and trains and everything else. It's a refreshing change from image- and marketing-driven America. (I should hasten to add that kids here still seem to dress like kids, but there doesn't seem to be quite the same label-consciousness that I'm used to. Maybe it's only that the labels themselves are unfamiliar to me so I don't know when I'm seeing a trend.)
I walked along both sides of the Rhine, covering several miles of central Cologne. I felt obligated to pay a visit to the Lindt Chocolate Museum, which was fun until a couple busloads of junior-highschoolers went through. The museum covers the discovery and rise in popularity of chocolate, and talks about how it is grown and harvested and transported. It's a pretty involved process, actually. And chocolate is produced right in the museum, and we can watch each process and eat the result.
(Actually, the kids were pretty well behaved, but one does wonder whether they get anything out of the experience except a day out of the classroom. Most ran through noisily banging all the displays and interactive gadgets and trying to get through as quickly as possible without actually absorbing anything. Thank god I was never like that!)
Later, on the East side of the Rhine, I ran across a little church (well, little relative to the Dom) that was open. I often pop into churches, both because they're architecturally-interesting public buildings and also because they usually have an organ worth a photo or two (and, it must be said, they are often infused with the holy spirit of shut-the-hell-up, which makes for a cool and serene space for contemplation). This church had an interesting looking organ. In my travels I seem to have luck with organs, and, true to form, an organist was here working on registering a Bach chorale prelude (specifically, BWV 641 Wenn Wir In Hochsten Noten Sein--how very appropriate to hear Bach in Germany). The church was mostly empty, and it was a great opportunity to hear the sounds of the organ and how they interact with, it turns out, a pretty vast acoustic. One had a sense, as the organist tried out a variety of combinations, of how the builder had voiced the instrument strongly to cut through the large room. It's also cool to hear, as the organist toggled between this and that sound for each part, how Bach constructed these magical works, and how each component contributes to this greater-than-its-parts synergy. (There is no escaping Bach's genius; it hits you like a brick every time.) It's also a great reminder that organ music is a visceral thing, a physical experience. No stereo really does it justice. I walked around the interior as the organist played, seeing how the volume and balance of the sound changed depending on one's distance from the instrument. I wanted to talk to him about the instrument, which is clearly a product of the last 30 years or so, but the organ loft door was closed and he was clearly working, so I left him alone. Maybe next time.
Afterward, I ran across a particularly interesting little thing when crossing the famous Hohenzollern Bridge across the Rhine into the big rail station by the Cathedral (which one site says is the most heavily-traveled railroad bridge in Germany). I noticed a couple brass locks along the screenwork separating the walkway from the railroad tracks, and then several more. As the numbers grew, I wondered A) why so many people would forget their locks like this, and B) why people would want to lock their bikes along the railroad bridge in the first place. At some point it became clear that all was not as I thought.
Maybe this is a well-known phenomenon to everybody but me, but it took me by surprise. The locks turn out to be love declarations, most of them engraved (some inked) with couples' names and locked on the bridge in an impromptu "wall of love," a kind of spontaneous mass graffiti. I was walking West on the South side of the bridge, and as I looked across to the North side of the bridge (across some six rail lines) it was immediately clear to me that I was on the wrong side of the tracks. The other side had hundreds of them. So I had to trek to the other side to get a closer look. And it's a moving little collection; very, very cool. A pretty high proportion of them seem to be from gay men (though the gender of some German names is not always clear to me--see below: is Deniz for "Denise" or "Dennis?"). I wonder if this was originally an expression of the gay community or whether the phenomenon says anything about being gay in modern-day Germany. In any case, it seems a delightful little cultural meme.
One wonders if there is some protocol to this. What happens to the keys? Does each party keep one? Does one party unlock the lock at relationship's end? Is this how the other party learns? Are there hundreds of discarded locks (and relationships) on the river bottom? So many possibilities.
I'm back here in about a week, so more pictures to come.
Next stop: Warsaw!