Last week began the process of saying good-bye to Hessen, the hopping central state in Germany where Marburg nestles.
Way back two Fridays ago we (the Fulbrighters) took a trip to Frankfurt, the largest city in Hessen, and the center of German Financial Business. The city kinda gets short-shrift because it's an "American city" by which the taunters mean it has skyscrapers. The skyline really doesn't look much more impressive then Columbus, but German visitors resent the attempt to look like Germany's Manhattan.
Our class ventured to Frankfurt to visit the Euopean Central Bank, the European Union's equivalent to the Fed. Our visit accidentally coincided with the beginning of the financial chaos in the States, so everyone was a bit more interested in visiting a large bank than we probably would have been otherwise.
(It is about an hour drive from Marburg to Frankfurt so some of us passed the time trying to play Six Degrees of relatively-obscure-or-old-actor-to-another. It's that kind of group. I challenge you to get from Weird Al to Michael Keaton without IMDB. I'll let you know how we did it in the comments section of you really care.)
The bank is currently renting a series of buildings and will break ground on their own skyscraper next year, and boy do they need a new one. The lobby of the current building is decorated with mosaics which would be fine, except the centerpiece of the room is this one: This may be one of the creepiest examples of public art I've ever seen. I think I'm supposed to notice diversity exists even among bald people. I mostly noticed we would all look like aliens if we didn't have hair.
I was given an extended period of time to contemplate this image as I waited in line to fork over my passport at the ECB's front desk. Because the building is owned by the EU, by entering the place were were leaving German territory and entering "European territory." Try to wrap your head around that border distinction. That means every employee at the bank is divorced from Nationality and is instead working toward European interests. It's really not that strange of a concept when you just think of the EU as a Federal government governing sovereign states, something like the U.S. But never refer to the "United States of Europe." Feathers will get ruffled and declarations of national loyalty and sovereignty made.
We heard a a lecture on the formation of the EU and the necessity of the bank from Gabriel, the assistant to the VP of the ECB. That's a lot of letters. He spoke for a bit more than an hour and so perfectly summarized the problems and successes of the EU experiment that all the Fulbrighters were a bit in shock. "That was actually really interesting!" Multiple people sheepishly then wonderingly admitted. I won't try to replicate the lecture here. Suffice it to say, the Euro is doing well.
I'll take this moment to actually comment on the money in Europe. I'm fascinated by what countries choose to put on their cash. It's a great clue to national pride. Americans love their historical mythology and thus the founding fathers grace our coinage along with historical sites like Independence Hall and Monticello, places that are the American equivalent of the Roman Forum or Ur. Concepts more than places. The Aussies put their wildlife on their coins, including the Platypus. I don't know exactly what that means about the country except that Australians are wonderful people for giving the Platypus her due.
The Euro, on the other hand, is decorated with the continent of Europe and a series of door and bridges. The doors and bridges look vaguely European, but actually do not represent a specific door or window. There is nothing distinctively European about the coinage. Famous authors and political figures from European history are ignored. How would you choose who to put on the money anyway? The only opportunity to express any national pride is on the one Euro coin. Each Nation's mint leaves their mark on the one Euro. The German Euro is a very Roman looking Eagle. The French have a tree that looks something like the White Tree of Gondor.
While I am slightly disappointed by how undecorated the coinage is, I am always excited to reach into my pocket of change to find I have real money in there. Between the two and one Euro coins, I could pay for dinner with pocket change. It never gets old.
Anyway, after the lecture we left Frankfurt. We just got up, returned our used coffee mugs and cookie platters we had been issued by the bank and got back on the buses (I should note here that this was not the first time a bank had given me free coffee. When I went to open my bank account with two other Fulbrighters, we were asked if we would like coffee, tee or espresso. We were a little confused, but eventually made our orders. We were then shown a small conference room where our beverages awaited us. We sat and sipped our coffee while the details of our accounts were explained to us and we felt like we were the CEOs of some Fortune 500 company. Apparently it doesn't take much to make me feel important. Just a free cup of Joe. Service is not always a German concept in restaurants and stores, but in the banks, we felt like kings). Frankfurt may not be as classic as Munich, Hamburg or trendy as Berlin, but I feel like a little time to explore wouldn't have been wasted. At least I was able to snap this shot off before the city disappeared into the distance and I was left to contemplate the future of the European Union, national identity and the shortest distance between Eric Bana and John Wayne.