Wednesday, July 28, 2010

I Heart Deutschland

Here's another half-finished, abandoned post from a month or so ago (19 June specifically).


This walking tour of cultures is most interesting. We flew yesterday from Almaty Westward through Warsaw (without getting off the airport property) and onward to Cologne, getting to the hotel around 11:30 PM local. Everything runs smoothly in Germany, from all aspects of the airline operation to our scheduled ground transportation to customs to the hotel. It's all a well-oiled machine.

Sleep came about midnight, which is ideal but a little unexpected. After eleven days on the road and six changes of sleep schedule in four different and widely-spaced time zones, the body just becomes bleary. Sleep at the wrong time, however welcome, can be difficult to come by, and while I find that melatonin helps it doesn't shift the body's clock. After a few days of this, even if well rested, one just feels a bit dampened. But last night you'd have thought I lived my whole life in Germany. Asleep at midnight and awake at 8:AM, just like the owner's manual says. And so I'm out the door and off in a random direction on foot.

Well, not really a random direction. First stop, the main train station, the Hauptbahnhoff, for some breakfast. I realize of course that my little exposés of these different cultures would be more valid or valuable (or at least much more interesting) if I had some culinary adventurousness in my makeup. Surely food is one of the great hallmarks of culture, and the cuisine changes as surely as the landscape as we go. But alas I'm not a very adventurous eater, and the deficits in this approach are exacerbated by my being a creature of habit. Once I find something that works, once a pleasant experience is had and a thing becomes familiar, I tend to revisit that thing again and again rather than risk something unfamiliar (hence my eating the same custom Qdoba salad nearly every single day at lunchtime for the past eight years). The train station in Cologne is something of a double-draw for me. Not only do I tend to like street food (a habit formed and reinforced in New York and Chicago and Philly), and the train station serves mostly stand-up food, but I then eat my meal sitting upstairs in the train shed, watching and the people and trains come and go. That to me is an unbeatable combination.

I've discovered in my walks around the city that Germans love their sausages, and there are places all over town that serve various wursts. My favorite is the currywurst, a light sausage that is sliced into a little plastic dish and covered with a kind of barbecue sauce and sprinkled with a curry powder and a second, undefined powder (different vendors seem still to use two separate powders). Typically you eat the chunks with a miniature wooden fork or tiny plastic trident. These can be had with or without fries. I usually get fries, and nobody looks askance at me when I ask for mayo on them. The place at the train station uses a little automatic chunker, where the sausage is dropped into a hole in the top and uniform chunks come out the bottom--on the street they just slice them the old-fashioned way, with a big knife. I find I crave these when I'm gone, they're that good. (An aside, and please forgive the clumsy attempt at linguistics: the Germans refer to french fries as pommes. This strikes me as a bit odd. Pommes is French for apple, I think, and in this case a shortcut for the French phrase for potato, which is "pomme de terre," or "apple of the earth." If this is all accurate, then it's odd for the Germans to call french fries "apples." But then again, we call them "fries," which is a shortening from "french-fried potatoes," so I guess all is fair in language. Maybe my ex-wife, who is a linguistic whiz, can set me straight on these matters.)

(Breakfast of champions!)

After my morning sustenance I head off to the West in search of some part of the city I've not seen before. Like most old cities, Cologne lacks an extensive right-angle grid of streets. But it has a number of features that make it an easy place to navigate. (If you've walked around central Paris, you know that the Tour Eiffel is always there as a beacon.) There is the Rhine, of course, that cuts a North / South line through the Eastern side of the city, and the city itself is enclosed within a couple circular streets which have demarcated the city's perimeter at different periods of history. My goal was to walk at least a ring further out than I had previously gone and then head North and take another thoroughfare back into town. Along the way I hoped to get lost. After all, I had the whole day to kill and tolerable weather. In a pinch I figured I could always find some free wifi and check my location on my phone or buy a map if absolutely necessary. But it's just not that hard to get around here. One of the outer perimeter rings takes the form of a circular park, which is a giveaway. Plus you can see the Dom from a long ways off, and also the Colonius tower, which looks like a 800' space needle with a structure near the top.

I happened upon a cemetery, which I duly wandered thru. A pretty big place, really. It was beyond the innermost perimeter ring, so I'm guessing it dates from fairly recent history. And true to form there aren't many very old headstones. I couldn't help looking for death dates around WWII, but I found virtually none of these. There were a number of birth dates around the 1935-1945 range, but not many, and these had fairly modern death dates. I just wonder at the remnants of such a momentous period in a country's history. Life has moved on for everyone, of course, but this history is a part of the landscape too (pictures of a decimated Cologne at the end of the war are in all the tourist shops.) Anyway, it was a beautiful place overall, as cemeteries often are, and with a slightly different feel than the big cemeteries I've wandered around in Louisville and Appleton and Paris. From there I just made my way through a bunch of different regions, stopping for a dreaded Coke Light when it began to rain.

(A boy of 18 dying in 1937. Could be anything, but I wonder at his story.)

I did a kind of ongoing survey and discovered that stick shifts in the cars here outnumber automatics by something like 20 or 30 to one. It became so lopsided so quickly that I gave up the hunt.

It's magical for me to take a couple minutes to sit in the little quiet squares and wander the residential side streets and see the locals going about their lives. I passed a dormitory-style building with the sounds of piano practice coming from several opened windows. I ran across an old Honda CX-500 motorcycle which, in a very un-German detail, was decayed beyond use by sitting out in the weather for, it appeared, some years. I always think "I could wander strange places for a living." Well, I kinda do, I guess.

An approximate map of today's wanderings is here.

(A street underpass and underground shopping plaza leading to a subway station.)

(A little churchyard market.)

(This little machine is what it looks like for a society not to be in denial about the Facts Of Life.)

(Street musicians here seem consistently good, like in New York.)

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