Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Flag

I bought my flag today. It’s the only souvenir I usually buy for myself when I visit a different country since I consider my copious pictures reminder enough of my visit. The trend started in Greece when a cute Greek girl selling then out-of-date Athens Olympic banners hooked me with her eyelashes. It became a tradition when I inadvertently started haggling for a Kenyan flag in Malindi with a wily Indian woman.

Buying the flag usually caps the experience and often involves chatting with the proprietor about how much I enjoyed my visit. The flag usually requires a visit to a locally owned souvenir stand. Museums and trendy shopping districts never deal out the national banner. Ya gotta go for kitsch. Was it possible to find such an establishment in quietly dignified Bonn?

Crossing from the Poppelsdorfer Palace to the city center there’s a walking path that dives under the railroad tracks that divide the idyllic university from the equally idyllic - but slightly more bustling - city. This path gets a lot of foot and cyclist traffic. Because so many people pack the path, barriers have been installed to slow down the bike riders. They are forced to dismount and carefully weave through the posts. This operation provides hours of entertainment as tandem cyclists and mothers powering strollers equipped with bicycle rims try to weave through and end up enlisting about six spectators to help them lift their awkward burden over the barriers.

Once you’re in the bike-safe-zone between the posts there are five entrepreneurs who quietly peddle their wares to the pedestrians of Bonn. There’s a florist who sells sunflowers large enough to signal a rescue helicopter, a fruit stand that only seems to offer strawberries and “forest berries,” a bakery with cold cut sandwiches that are sterility lit with a battery of florescent lights, and…the shop. It seems to have begun its life as a place to get keys copied. Then the proprietor expanded into the bumper and novelty sticker market.

You can get an white oval with a letter designation for every country in the European Union. You can also get crossing signs for every animal you can imagine and several that you can’t, stickers with puns and double entendres in six different get the idea. But stickers weren’t quite bringing in the rent, so he tacked on ethnic souvenirs, displaying West African tribal masks and didgeridoos. Finally, and most importantly, he decided he needed a little color and he started selling flags.

I knew my flag would come from this stand on my first trip to Bonn when I saw the Black, Red, and God held in place on the path’s wall with a wooden toadstool and a plaster replica of Akhenaten. Every time I walked under the train tracks, I would look at my flag, waving next to the Tibetan colors and the Stars and Bars, and knew it would be mine in July.

So, today I bellied up to the shop’s small counter. The owner, roughly seventy years old and wearing a well-loved wool sweater, was tucked behind a table cluttered with non-descript nick-nacks and keys. He seemed surprised someone had actually stopped to make a purchase and was a little flustered about how to begin the transaction, so I took the lead:

Me: I would like a large German flag, please. I was hoping he would follow, “Would you like fries with that?” Sadly he replied…

Him: Yes, I have the German flag. He exited his shop to point out the existence of the faded Teutonic glory I had been checking out all year.

Me: Yes, I would like to buy it.

Him: Well, would you like a flag with the “Adler” or without the “Adler.”

I was prepared for “with or without mayo” given the my opening line, but this Adler thing was new to me.

Me: Could I see one with the “Adler” and one without the “Adler?”

He obliged. Apparently the “Adler” is the black imperial eagle that symbolizes Germany. It also looks a little…Fascist. I wondered if this was maybe an antiquated flag, perhaps the banner that flew over the Wiemar Republic.

Him: The flag with the eagle is very German. This eagle goes back to the Holy Roman Empire. This is 1200 years ago!

Me: Yes, but I think I will take the flag without the eagle. It’s more typical, isn’t it? I see this (indicating the flag without the coat-of-arms) in every city, but I am not sure if I have ever seen this one with the Adler.

Him: Yes, without the Adler is everywhere but it is less German. I think (leaning closely and checking over his shoulder) that young people are worried about it. They think it looks like a Nazi flag.

Well, I wasn’t going to tell him, but that was exactly the thought going through my head. I would put the stripes and eagle up on my wall and a regular conversation starter at chateau du Borths would be, “Hey Matt, I know you spent a lot of time in Germany, but did you really need to bring the Nazi pride back here?”

Him: There (he indicated a flag staked in the lawn, a blue field with a yellow eagle). That is the flag of the Roman Legions! See where the Adler comes from? It has so much history!

Me: Yes, I love how much history there is here in Germany (remember, praising the country is part of my ritual, even if the compliment would only be appreciated by a select few).

Two things were obvious. A) He really wanted me to take the Adler home and (B) I would be looking up the history of the German flag as soon as I got within striking distance of Wikipedia. Ultimately I just wanted the regular German flag, but to say as much felt like letting down my slightly-loopy German grandfather. So I did what any other polite, but cornered, American would do. I made up a blatant lie.

Me: Well, this flag is for my brother. He collects flags and I think he wanted the regular German flag. He didn't say anything about this Adler.

Him Ah yes, the flag without the eagle is probably the one he wants. You should tell him the eagle is a national symbol.

Me: I’ll be sure he knows.

Him: Do you know if he wants any other flags? I have these. And he produced a 8.5X11 sheet of paper with a random assortment of nations scrawled across it. I have Indonesia, Tibet, the USA, Texas, the Southern USA, Egypt…

Me: I think the German flag will be fine. He already has the American flag. I’ll come back if he wants Egypt.

Him: Well, have a lovely day, and remember, you should not be afraid of the eagle. This is not a Nazi symbol. This is history.

Rarely have I received so heartfelt a valediction.

So, now it’s time to bring you up to speed on the flag. You could follow this link to the Wikipedia page where I got most of this information. Or you could read on and I’ll summarize. If I'm wrong, at least fifty faceless Wiki-contributors agree with my errors.

So this is the flag of the Holy roman Emperor.
Both the Prussians and the Austrians have laid claim to the HRE as their cultural ancestors. And for good reason. It basically stretched across Central Europe. A one Adolf Hitler considered it the First Reich along with most Germans. The eagle can be found all over coats-of-arms in central and western Europe.

Later on, some revolutionaries in Frankfurt wanted to break away from their Austrian rulers. In 1848 they came up with this design, drawing on the banners created during the Napoleonic Wars. Out of darkness (black) through blood (red) broke the golden light of freedom. Ta-da.
In 1919 the Wiemar republic simplified things, dropping the eagle, creating the recognizable flag of Germany. Then in 1933, the National Socialists rose to power and Chancellor Hitler declared there was only one true flag of Germany. It dropped the yellow and used the black, red, and white of the former German Empire (1871-1918). It also added an ancient device that meant a variety of good things to many cultures throughout history, but now simply means evil.
With the fall of the Third Reich, there was some concern about which flag to use. Many people thought Germany should just revert to the flag of the Wiemar Republic since everyone was hoping to take the democratic ideals that got seeded in 1919 and build on them. One group proposed this flag which was suggested as the Wiemar flag and later became the flag of resistance to the Nazis.
Personally I think that's pretty neat, but people were wary of changing the flag of Germany too much while it was still divided. The above design would have represented the West while this was the flag of the East:
Gotta love a hammer and compass ensign. Eventually the flag of Western then united Germany was simply this:
A design approved in 1949. This is the flag I now own thanks to the guy under the bridge. But what about the Adler thing? Apparently this:
Was approved in 1950 as the Bundesdienstflagge or "State flag of federal authorities." That is, it's used by governmental offices as the eagle is the federal badge. It decorates the uniforms of German soldiers and use of the federal flag by any party unaffiliated with the federal government is a fineable offense.

So, I might have been charged for displaying the "Adler" too publicly. Dodged a bullet there.

Now I'm ready to leave. I have my flag. I had my conversation with a proud local. Now I just need to sample a little more Kölsch...


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

On the street where I live

Them: Ah, you are studying in Bonn for the year. So, where do you live?
Me: Uh, I live in Tennenbusch…near the Mitte tram stop.
Them: Tennenbusch (prolonged pause possibly with a nervous smile). This neighborhood…
Me: No, it’s really not bad at all.
Them: Yes of course, but you are American and this is maybe not a very difficult place to you.
Me: No, I don’t really think it’s rough. It maybe has a bad reputation, but it’s safe.
Them: Yes, well, you are American. Such places such as Detroit are normal.
Me: Detroit isn’t all bad. There are some neighborhoods to avoid…
Them: Yes, but you might be shot.

It’s become a common exchange. As I have stated repeatedly to various acquaintances, I live in Tennenbusch, a neighborhood just north of Downtown Bonn. Saying Bonn has a “Downtown” is a little aggrandizing. It has a quaint pedestrian shopping district where Beethoven’s glowering statue holds court along with a Medieval gate that had to be moved a block from the center for causing traffic jams. Many of the businesses splay out from this center.

South of the city center is a cluster of large office buildings that border on skyscraper-hood that include DHL’s regional office, Deutsche-Welle (the BBC of Germany), and T-Mobil’s headquarters. Bonn’s white-collar job opportunities come from it’s days as the campital. Also south of town is the United Nations campus that still functions as the UN’s base in Germany and Central Europe. If you want a perspective on Bonn as a capital, that heady time between 1949 and 1989 when a quiet university town was transformed into a reluctant world power, click here.

The swank businesses don’t make it to the north. Up here we have governmental housing and cheap apartments. The latter explains my presence; the former explains the bad reputation. In recent decades the cheap housing passed from German to immigrant hands. On the tram platform it is just as likely I will be waiting with a dark-haired woman with a headscarf, as I am to be waiting with a blond-haired German student.

Tennenbusch is populated by many first generation immigrant families that are ethnically Turkish. There is also a solid North African population, Lebanese population, and Syrian population. Most of my neighbors are working class with jobs in construction, maintenance, and manufacturing. Basically Tennenbusch is a first definition ghetto with ethic subsections and ethnic grocery stores.

There are some shady characters hanging around, as you would find in any lower-income neighborhood. When I walk through a strip-mall that surrounds my grocery store, I often pass through standing knots of young Turkish-German thugs. I’m fascinated by Tennenbusch’s version of the back-alley bruiser, the teenage gangster. They wear skinny-boy jeans, and jackets studded with rhinestones. Carefully gelled, curly mullets are smushed down with paisley trucker hats and fanny packs loop their waists. Sometimes the hair gets even greasier and the sides are shaved, leaving a mull-hawk limply cascading over the popped Polo collar.

Usually you can find a cluster of Tennen-punks behind the “Play Stop,” a small casino on the corner that decided to decorate with the same carpet as Golden Lanes Bowling Alley. The young clientele blow a few Euro then stand around giddily smoking each other’s cigarettes and are sometimes seen to be little extra giddy when there’s a whiff of marijuana in the air. They’ve never bothered me. In fact, they seem completely harmless, with a swaggering façade of misappropriated masculinity and little real angst to back it up.

Maybe these lanky thugs give the neighborhood its unruly reputation. Middle-aged German citizens venture North and are confronted with pseudo-gangs of young men who are bigger push-overs than your average Shark or Jet. But they may seem a little intimidating to this older German explorer as they spout slangy German and indecipherable Turkish.

It’s one of my dearest wishes to pluck one of them from Tennenbusch and drop him on the the South Side of Chicago or Over-the-Rhine in Cincinnati. I think they could use a little fashion advice and street cred and I am acutely aware I’m as nerdy and un-thuggish as they come.

I would then drop a young gangster from one of a rough American neighborhoods in Tennenbusch. He would rule the streets within days of arrival. The German visitor to the U.S. would be quickly humbled, proving that all transplanted species don’t become epidemically invasive. We can’t all be kudzu.

But then I wonder how much these greasy adolescents really affect the reputation of the neighborhood, and how much that reputation is affected by the women in headscarves. As you may or may not know, Europe is struggling with its growing Muslim population. As countries like France, Germany, and Italy grow wealthier, their populations shrink and natively born citizens are reluctant to take blue-collar jobs. Millions of Turkish citizens moved to Germany as guest workers and have established families in the land of pretzels and castles.

But, they are not always welcome. I have spoken with many Germans who worry that new immigrants are not German. They refuse to learn the language, will take over the government, and soon there will be no more jobs for Germans. Does this sound familiar? It’s been resonating throughout American history.

First the Quakers troubled the young American identity, later the Germans and Poles, then the Irish, and most recently Hispanic immigrants. Each time we worry that English well evaporate, that Democratic ideals will disappear, and we, the people descended from immigrants and who have forgotten this fact, will find ourselves oppressed in our own country.

But there’s an issue beyond cultural preservation that complicates the German mindset when immigrants cross the border to work. There is such a thing as an ethnic German. If you wanted me to get specific, I could tell you I am a German-Scots-Irish-English-French-Belgian-Cherokee. First you would nod with understanding when I tell you I needed a lot of orthodontic work. Then you would nod with understanding when I simply told you I am American. The first was a list of my particular ethnic cocktail. The second is my national identity. Being “American” carries no assumption about your ancestors’ languages or their favorite cuisine.

Being German, French, or Italian theoretically says something both about your ethic and nationalistic affiliation. There are no immigration laws for becoming a naturalized German citizen. If you are of Turkish descent and your family has been living in Germany for three generations, you are still Turkish, not German. You are treated like an outsider, and you self-identify as an outsider.

Nationalistic pride goes beyond xenophobia. It’s culturally entrenched in the identity of every European country. 150 years ago the continent was divided in the British Empire, the Prussian Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire, and the French Territories. These were multi-national bodies that didn’t care what language you spoke or the history of your region. Then revolutions started bubbling. Italian speakers shared a language and identity that was distinct from their French and Austrian overlords. They started a campaign to bring all ethnic Italians under one ruler. Serbian Nationalists kicked off the First World War in a move to separate Serbia from the Austro-Hungarians. Czechoslovakia was dissolved because the Slovaks wanted to govern themselves without cooperating with ethnic Czechs. National identity and ethnicity is part of the fabric of Europe. Now you have immigrants bending the rules of identity. Poles are moving to Ireland, and Turks are in Germany and no one is quite sure how to deal with it.

I’ve heard veiled - and even direct – assertions that the immigrant populations is stupider or lazier than their ethnically German counterparts. I don’t want to make the blanket accusation that the “Germans are all racist,” but it really is hard for me to hold myself back from a speech on the equality of human intelligence. There are stupid people, and lazy people, and brilliant people in every population. These immigrants are hardly intellectual lightweights. Many have learned German through after-work programs or by listening to their kids. They came here to work, not for a handout.

So, back to Tennenbusch. This has been my home for the last year. I live in a subsidized student dormitory that overlooks the bustling streets of Tennenbusch. I troop to and from work each day with an ethnic mix that would look normal on a tram in New York or Chicago, but worries many Germans. My message is one of relaxation. Just ease back. These new immigrants are necessary to keep Germany’s economic machine churning. German culture will survive. Everyone loves good beer, well-made cars, and efficient train networks. The culture may evolve in the process. Good. You’ve already adopted American pop-music from the 1980s, and readily incorporated the kebab into late night binges. I know you hate to hear it, Germany, but the U.S. might have some decent examples for how to deal and how to adapt.

So, yes, slightly worried German conversation partner, I live in Tennenbusch. Where the streets are clean, the rent is cheap, and the children are above average (even if they go through a greasy-Guido phase).

A link to an NPR story about German minorities that tackles some of these issues.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Die Kneipe

or, Yes Fulbright, I went to a German Frat Party, but it was all for the new cultural experience

I started packing two weeks ago. I loaded books, papers, and pamphlets into DHL boxes and sent them home ahead of me. This left my bookshelf and desk an empty expanse of sterile space. Nothing agitates me like an empty book shelf and now I’m living with eight. On Friday I started the second stage of packing. Because I’m flying from Dublin to Frankfurt, then turning around the next day and flying to Ohio, I asked Katie, a Fulbrighter in Frankfurt, to hang onto my extra bags while I’m in Ireland. Saturday she would pop up to Bonn to collect my luggage, meaning I had to pack everything for Ireland on Friday and squirrel the rest of it away in bags that will sit dormant for the next three weeks in her dorm.

Down came my decorative pictures of famous German buildings. Down came the maps of Europe (gifts from Aunt Karen and Uncle Troy before I left). My room is blank, all dusty white walls and clothing. My return feels starkly real.
I picked up Katie from the train station and stashed my non-Irish luggage in a locker so we could briefly explore the city. She’s staying until the end of August, but has several friends who are headed home and she wanted to squeeze in parties Friday night and Saturday night, so she only had the afternoon tour to the former western capital. Because of a late night celebrating, she didn’t get a lot of sleep the night before and didn’t have time to grab breakfast before boarding the train. This building hunger becomes key to the following story:

I lead the way past Beethoven’s statue and the disturbing, massive heads of Bonn’s favorite martyrs to the beer garden on the banks of the Rhine.

As soon as we were seated, a waitress wandered over to take our orders. Our Kölsch quickly appeared and we could share stories of the 4th of July, her travels in Scandinavia, and my frequent sojourns to Belgium with mugs of the local brew. We also had the opportunity to watch the towering sycamore, which provides the entire garden with shade, rain slabs of bark on the tables and strollers of unsuspecting patrons.

In fact we got to chat and watch bark for an inordinate amount of time since our pizza refused to make an appearance. Like good, acculturated Germans we just assumed the proprietors were encouraging us to linger over conversation and not rush to the entrée and out the door. After forty-five minutes and a finished glass of beer, our hunger brought our American service expectations raging to the fore. Where the hell was our food? Honestly, it’s just pizza! We tried to catch our waitress’s eye, but she never glanced our way. We tried a polite “Entschuldigung.” Nothing.

Finally I was up and caught her carrying a tray between the tables. “Uh, ist unser Pizza…” “It will be out immediately.” This second part was in English with a perfect German clip on the end of the sentence. I was sent scurrying like a shameful kinder. Our food arrived after a few more minutes. Sweet relief. Sated, I lead a tour of the main campus buildings i.e. the University’s castles. In desperate need of a bathroom we dove into my department’s labs where Katie was appropriately awed by my master key and inclusion in the department’s annual who’s who photo collage.
With a stop for coffee and a stroll by Beethoven’s home it was time to pack Katie off to Frankfurt with my few worldly possessions. Appropriately Bonn also saw fit to send her off with a good Rhenish drenching.
Of course the train was significantly delayed and the arrival board was on the fritz. As trains and destinations appeared over the track that had nothing to do with Frankfurt, we were confused and concerned we had missed a detail in the garbled announcements. Then we saw the native Germans on the platform were looking equally befuddled. While bewildered Germans would normally be a terrifying sight, here it was comforting.

With Katie finally headed back to Hesse it was time to turn my attention to my evening. At the farewell barbecue, Nils, a paleobotany graduate student, invited me to a “Beerfest” at his fraternity to enjoy an authentically German experience. His one request, “Wear something nice. Do you have a smoking jacket? This is something nice.” This made me a little uneasy. While I remembered my rock hammer, Chuck Taylors, and hot sauce, I never bothered to bring my Hefner-designed wardrobe. I hoped a blazer would do the trick.

I’ve checked in on these fraternity boys periodically through the year as Nils suggested it might be a way to practice my German. They put up with my stuttering attempts to communicate in my new second language and seem willing to teach me news turns of phrase. They are also willing to share their beer. I just hoped they would serve it if I was a little underdressed for whatever this ‘Fest turned into.

The fraternity system (Studentenverbindung auf Deutsch) in Germany is stuffed with traditions and rituals that go back to the 18th century, some even originating in the 14th century with the founding of European universities. Apparently Bonn has one of the highest concentrations of fraternities in the country along with Heidelberg, Gottingen, and Marburg, all old university towns. German fraternities were the testing grounds for democratic thought, though some took on a strong, nationalistic bent that made them controversial through the Second World War and its aftermath.

Politics aside, they seem to function much like American fraternities with older members mentoring the younger classes, and the Alumni (Alte Herren) serving to financially support the house and help them professionally network. Unlike American fraternities, there is no fee for participation. Living in the fraternity’s house is one of the best deals in town (Bonn has notoriously high rent, thus my dormitory accommodations). Most of the guys in the fraternity seem to participate simply for the cheap rent and not because of some long-standing family tradition. Along the way they all become friends, and enjoy hosting events like this Beerfest.

I showed up in a sportcoat and slacks, with hardly any further information. Katie and I had seen guys wandering around that day wearing fraternity colors and riding boots, sporting fencing foils on their hips. Nils confirmed these guys were also celebrating the end of the semester with a fraternity party. Would this be a massive social, like a fraternity formal in the States with every member bringing his orange-tanned girlfriend for drunken dancing in formal wear? If so, this could be a little awkward without a date. Or would this be a fencing bout as described by Mr. Twain when he visited the University of Heidelberg. If so, this could be awesome and maybe a little bloody.

When I entered I was greeted by the fraternity president who took down my name and its pronunciation. “When this is read, simply stand and toast the group.” Apparently seats would be involved in the events. More clues were accumulating. I went downstairs to the bar and saw a lot of Y-chromosomes. This was not a co-ed affair. New clue. It was good to have one.

Koen, a graduate student from the department and another guest of Nils, joined me to offer some explanation of the event. He told me this was a Kneipe, a night of singing and drinking that goes all the way back to the Dark Ages. The tradition is so old that the word “Kneipe” is now synonymous with a tavern, pub, or any place where singing and alchol can be enjoyed in equal measure. With this fresh nugget of trivia we were summoned to the meeting room where a long wooden table was decked out with candles and the wood-paneled walls festooned with coats-of-arms and dusty flags. Here I switched into Anthropologist mode as a well-practiced, familiar-yet-foreign ritual took place around me.

I took a seat near the middle of the table, far from two long boards that were laid across the ends of the table. These seemed to have an official function and I needed to avoid finding myself in the way of the ceremony (if that’s what “singing and drinking” become in Germany).

Koen took a seat on one side, and a older man who was probably seventy years old sat on the other. He and a companion represented the Alte Harren and their presence immediately signaled this was a different kind of frat party. I would spend the next couple of hours trying to keep pace with my grandfather.

A brother struck up a march on a piano in the corner, and two other members tromped in, decked out in red jackets hung with red, black, and white ribbons. Each wielded a sword that was also decorated with the fraternity’s colors. We stood as they marched to the end of the table and rapped their swords on the boards to call us to attention. I deemed it a good choice to be in the middle as the concussion from the blade rang through the room. We were directed to open small green song books to number 143 and we started in on a hymn-like student song penned in 1875. It occurred to me that Luther revolutionized the mass by adapting drinking songs as hymns. “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” never seemed like a very rousing tune for the inebriated, but it has a passing resemblance to much of the material we performed last night.
Between each verse a uniformed guard would introduce a different group. First the visitors who were all too bewildered to offer a toast, then the members form other chapters, then the alumni, and finally the current house residents. After six verses of formal German text we fell back into conversation. A few minutes lapsed, the swords hit the table and we struck up a new song, this one the anthem of Bonn. The lyrics refer to the city but the tune was originally composed in the 1600s for Heidelberg University and everyone just copied the melody. We received a report of that semester’s accomplishments and a piece of paper went around that some people signed. I started to, thinking it was some kind of attendance sheet, until my septuagenarian neighbor warned me, “This is for speaking. Perhaps it is better to take action rather than make words.” I agreed and hurriedly passed the page on.
Speeches were offered, toasts shared, and we sang. Repeat. We were dismissed to use the facilities. When we came back, there had been a changing of the guard, and we swung into a chorus of “Gaudeamus Igitur.” Then jokes started. The guard would point his sword and you stood and delivered some comedy bit, maybe a skit or long form joke. After the punchline we knocked the table in approval and took a swig from ceramic steins that would probably find a happy home in a historical museum. Two senior members were called to stand on their chairs for a rhetorical challenge. The first launched into a speech, the sword would slam down and the guard would yell one of the words in the speech. The opposition would take that word and start his own speech. They volleyed words and insults and I doggedly tried to follow, usually just laughing when everyone else did. And we continued to drink.
As the beer continued to flow the songs began to involve a lot more swaying and shout-outs and challenges to see the bottoms of glasses. I started to gets some ideas of how to bring this home. This was a drinking party, not a party where you drink. The alcohol makes the jokes funnier, and the speeches more spontaneous. This needs exportation, a true symposium where the group shares wit and insight, and Warsteiner. I think its key to have a kind of program, someone at the head of the table calling out which song needs to be cued up, and who should speak next. But then, I may be one of the few American twenty-somethings who thinks improvised speeches and good jokes are a way to pass a Saturday night.

After jokes and a snack of wurst with Bavarian mustard that caused a Bavarian brother to wax philosophical about the beauties of his homeland, the ceremony broke and went on the road. We trooped to the Rhine with mugs of beer to watch a “friendship sealing.”

Each fraternity member has a collection of ribbons. Each ribbon has the fraternity’s coats-of-arms, and something personal to the brother, usually a quote. You receive your first ribbon from a sponsoring older brother and you collect smaller ribbons from brothers who are your equal. On the river, near a cannon used to defend the city from roving Prussians and French, the ribbons were unveiled. They each had an Ernest Hemingway quote that said something about the promise of the morning. With this sealing swig:
the ribbons were pinned and a German copy of “The Old Man and the Sea” handed off. I took a little American pride in the moment as Papa’s words stirred German hearts.

We adjured to the city for late-night pizza and bleary rides and walks home. While the pizza might be a new addition to the tradition, I have a feeling the latter woozy journey back to the dorm is part of the ancient tradition, stretching back to the 13th century when swords were used for more than calling the next verse.

I hope you’ve managed to wander into a new cultural experience recently or maybe learned a new song from new friends. If not, try tracking down a German fraternity brother. He’ll teach you a tune and offer up a “Prost!” even if you’re not wearing your smoking jacket.


Friday, July 24, 2009

Saying Goodbye in German: Fire up the Grill

For the first twenty-three years of my life I labored under the mistaken impression that the barbeque was a strictly American pastime. On some level I thought the rusty communal grill in the middle of a leafy State park was a fitting symbol of my country. Then I came to Germany. The grill is a staple of every social gathering, maybe even more central than it is in the land of the Stars and Stripes.

Every sunny day is a cherished event on the German social calendar, maybe because winters are so dark and seem to stretch on ad infinatum. And sunny days are best enjoyed with charcoal. Once semi-warm weather moves in, the grill rolls out and every opportunity is seized to get people together with raw meat and beer. Maybe Ohio State was the exception, but we never had department grill-outs on Tuesdays to celebrate a faculty member achieving tenure. In short, they like to grill and they do it a lot. Maybe I should have seen this coming. This is the country famous for metts and brats. They must cook them communally every now and then.

So, when the Fulbrighters in the western half of Germany started kicking around ideas for the 4th of July, we knew we were guaranteed a typical backyard grill-out. The park would have a grilling section, and we would be able to bring everything our overburdened limbs could carry. We just needed to bring some patriotism and maybe track down some pyrotechnics to make it a truly American affair. We also had to bring our goodbyes as everyone started winding down in Germany and started preparing for life on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

We decided to meet in Heidelberg, a beautiful city along the Necker River in Southwestern Germany. I was particularly excited to see the legendary castle and the river Mark Twain compared to the Mississippi. My ride to the city was made particularly exciting by the domestic dispute at the next table over from mine which started with hushed angry whisper and ended with the Bee Gees-look-alike husband receiving a full purse to the face. Somehow the woman across from me managed to nap and I managed to hide my shock.

Upon arrival, Ben lead a tour through the shopping and restaurant district which basically involved following a single, mile-long street. The town is hemmed in by its river and the hills that support the massive castle, leaving a narrow but lengthy sliver of land for some urban sprawl. At a Schwäbisch bar we met Erin and Elise. In our enthusiastic catch-up we never figured out what we were doing to prepare for the next day’s festivities. This lead to what may be my third ring of Hell: unplanned group shopping. We are Fulbright scholars though, so we were able to organize our menu and divide duties with relative ease, surrounded by fresh produce and frustrated German women picking up the weekend’s groceries.

We walked out with just enough beer and more than enough meat. Marty, Marco, Ben, and I hauled our party across the river to a municipal park on the bank just as lighting started to illuminate the sky with natural fireworks. (Side note: When you buy a crate of beer in Germany, you're getting twenty glass bottles. That is a lot of liquid and a lot of glass to haul any distance. I believe transporting these weighty cases of alcohol has lead directly to the necessity of the German car in a country that could function solely on its public transportation.) Marty and Marco stayed with our supplies while Ben and I hiked back to his apartment so I could prepare Skyline dip in his apartment’s oven before looping back again. Ben’s apartment was conveniently located exactly one thunderstorm’s walk from the park. I would spend the rest of the day trying to get my underwear to dry out without perpetuating any ugly stereotypes about my homeland.

Eventually the dip was packed in a cooler with Elise’s fresh hamburger patties, my shorts were sufficiently wrung, and the party could begin. The next eleven hours were spent on the banks of the Neckar, grilling, eating, drinking, talking, and throwing around a football. Every now and then Ben would cut in with a rousing chorus of God Bless America, or the Coast Guard’s Anthem. It was the most authentic 4th of July I’ve ever experienced on either side of the Atlantic Ocean.

As the evening aged we started to say good-bye, promising to keep in touch as we each embark on the exciting lives as exhausted graduate students. I really have made some incredible friendships over the last year with people who will – unfortunately- be scattered across the lower 48. Of course, this dispersal provides a handy excuse to visit Chicago, LA, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and college towns of the Midwest like West Lafayette, Champaign-Urbana, and Madison. A year ago, these people were just names on a spreadsheet that Fulbright sent along to my in-box. I knew I wanted to travel, and wondered if any of these people would climb a mountain with me, or take a weekend trip to the Iberian Peninsula, or join me in a cavernous beer hall. Turns out they would.

The next day Marco, Ben, and I rolled back upriver to Bonn, ooh-ing and aah-ing at the castle-lined corridor that leads home. When I got back, I began furiously puzzling my way through my project, acutely aware that I only had my precious fossils for a few more weeks.

During a short break from puzzling to get lunch, I ran into three other graduate students from the Institute. They invited me to join them at the Mensa where I explained I would be skipping town at the end of the month. They were shocked I was leaving “so soon! You just got here, yes?” Man, I know that feeling. “Well, we must say a proper goodbye. We must have a barbeque!” I was a little skeptical of this idea. Would enough people really show up to see me off? They waved off my thought and decided we should hold the party on the 23rd, before Dr. Martin left with his family for vacation.

So yesterday I brought a case of Pilsner and some sausages. The graduate students – Julia and Sandra – tracked down the picnic tables, dragged out the grill, and brought the charcoal. Then people actually started showing up bearing a variety of salads and plenty of meat to grill. We passed wine and beer around at 1PM on a Thursday and enjoyed a cake that Sandra had baked to see me off. Then they presented me with a t-shirt. The front has the scowl of Beethoven and proclaims “Beethovenstadt Bonn.” The back was signed by the well-wishers, and each name was accompanied by a doodle depicting their specialty so I won’t forget Sandra works on ancient horses and Vincent works on rodent teeth. Along with the shirt, I opened a card everyone signed which was tricked out with a limerick composed by a Belgian:

A young lad from Ohio came to Germany
To expand his knowledge on paleontology
He only stayed for a year
Did he learn enough, you might fear
I assure you, he is ready for that PhD degree!

Beautiful. Maybe a few extra syllables wedged in there then would normally be acceptable, but the intention of the poem is much more important. After all this attention I really wasn’t sure how to fully express my gratitude to a group of people who have tolerated my meager aptitude for German, and my staggering aptitude for stupid questions.

I realize I haven’t written very much about Bonn on this blog, but know that I really have felt welcome and comfortable as I toiled on a project that I barely understood until very recently. I feel like I’ve just rounded the corner of calling many of these students and professors “friends” and now I need to say goodbye. A goodbye best said with a barbeque. (Another side note: A party hosted by a separate someone is a rare event. Normally you are responsible for bringing your own cake, and orchestrating the logistics. This leads to dirty German/Hobbit comparisons. A party hosted by other graduate students was an incredible gift that I attempted to repay by editing their English abstracts.)

I hope you have had the chance to gather around a gas or charcoal grill with people you love to spend time with and don’t ever want to say goodbye to. Just don’t do that in a public place with open containers. That’s a privilege strictly reserved for us German grillers, thank you very much.


Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Final Arrival Home

The random photo album with some images of Luxembourg and this final sweep through Benelux.

Before we left for this short excursion, I contemplated the extra space in my massive Kelty backpack. The extra payload was necessary for hauling the tent, but it still had plenty of flapping fabric. I wondered aloud if there were any comforts that would make my backpack more shapely. Marty looked down at the air mattress he had spent the night on. “We could bring this.” Normally when I sleep in a tent I have a thin ¾ length Thermarest offering me minimal lumbar support. The mattress seemed excessive, but it might fit.

Cut to urban campsite in Brussels. After setting up my tent, which is starting to show its age and experience with bleached colors and exposed fibers, I unrolled the massive mattress and started stomping on the foot pump. The pump has a long, ribbed, plastic tube that connects to a valve on the mattress. As anyone who has spent some time at a carnival or amusement park where crinkled straws are sold will know, ridged plastic makes a piercing whistle whenever you blow air through it. With every pump, the tube screeched and I felt like every other camper had their eyes trained on the prissy American who needed his eight inch thick mattress for a good night’s sleep. With every whistle I wanted to explain “I’ve hiked the AT!” Weeeet! “I’ve slept on top of a scorpion!” Wheeet! “I’m a friggin’ geologist!”

But the next morning as the alarm started chirping, I felt like hauling and pumping the thing - and all the soreness and embarrassment this decision might have caused - was absolutely worth it. I was sleeping outside and more comfortably than I do on my low German-dorm-issued cot. The only problem was things had gotten a little damp. The night before I had rolled open a flap near our heads to let the interior breath a bit. During the night and early morning a slow, drenching rain had moved through as slow drenching rains are want to do in this part of the world. We had happily slept on while our jackets and daypacks soaked up the invasive drops.

The rain made for a messy escape, but we had everything rolled up in time to catch our train at the Gare de Luxembourg station in Brussels which was right next to the EU campus. The plaza in front of the parliament building is named for the other capital of the EU making for some confusing train schedules as we tried to figure out which way was up (“We need to get to Gare de Luxembourg in Luxembourg, is that the same as this Gare de Luxembourg?” “Why are you asking me as if I would have a clue?”). As we searched for the station I was able to bust out the one French phrase I command on an unsuspecting grocer, “Excusez-moi, où est la Gare de Luxembourg?” I received some hand waving in a left-ish direction. It was enough to get us to the train where we slowly chugged half the length of Belgium and Luxembourg in three hours.

Normally I wouldn’t mind a chance to sit and read or journal with new European scenery whizzing by the window, but we didn’t grab breakfast before leaving Brussels (we thought it might be at the station. Turns out the “Gare” is pretty dead on a Sunday morning.). We wouldn’t arrive in Luxembourg until 1PM and there were no food carts on our comically small train. So we grumbled audibly while our stomachs did likewise.

We had two missions in Luxembourg: Get food and find the Internet. Marty still hadn’t heard from his friend. Meanwhile, I was trying to figure out my evening, anticipating a call from Dr. Sander from the University of Bonn. After my “History of Creationism” talk the previous Tuesday he invited me to meet Don Lessem, a visiting American journalist-turned-dinosaur educator who makes it his life’s work to get the wider public interested in the past. We had vague plans of meeting for dinner Sunday night. As Marty searched for wireless access (a scarce commodity in these parts of Europe) I received a call to meet at the Institute at 6:30PM. That was about what I expected. What I didn’t foresee was a meager train schedule. I suppose Luxembourgers are just as reluctant as Belgians to leave the homeland. I would need to leave at 2:25 if I wanted to make it to dinner in time (key to the first impression). If I missed that, the next train bound for Germany would make me wait around 1.5 hours.

So, after a three-hour haul across Benelux, I only had an hour-and-a-half to explore before I needed to abandon Marty. We had to get moving. We crossed the soaring bridge to the Old Town and searched for a place with traditional Luxembourger fare, whatever that is. We found a trendy, but rustic restaurant with a potato dish that looked hearty and local. We sat down and a waiter, who suspiciously raised an eyebrow at our presence, laid out a tablecloth and presented the menus. We made our decisions and started glancing at the clock. Slowly we realized this wouldn’t work. Our preferred dishes would need to be baked. We only had an hour and hadn’t received our drinks. Time slipped away. Yeah, we had terrible luck with service and we just needed to take our stomachs into our own hands. So we got up. We also felt terrible.

What impression were we leaving of hassled Americans? We wanted to explain that we wanted to sit and savor good food, stretching our Sunday lunch into a three-hour excursion into the culinary offerings of Luxembourg. That there needed to be more trains looping through this part of the world. But we couldn’t explain. There was no one around to tell.

So, we moved on to a bakery recommended by Lonely Planet where soups and salads were the standard, quick bill-of-fare. We thought we would order at the counter and be filling our shrunken stomachs in ten minutes. Instead we found a seating area with knots of old women and couples lounging around Pottery Barn tables, savoring their coffee and not acting like they had a train to catch. We made our selections from the on-table menu. No one came for ten minutes. Cursed and hungry, we departed again doomed to roam barren Luxembourg for enternity. At least this time we were assured no one heard our accents and no national stereotypes were perpetuated by our actions.

We crossed the street and entered a kebab stand; the preferred first stop of most twenty-something males exploring Europe’s geography, but not its culinary variety. We had the thrill of ordering döner kebab in an ornate basket topped by delicious French fries (I will freely admit that I never expected Europeans to fully grasp the power of the fry. I’ve been proven wrong on multiple counts.). Filled with grease and mystery meat, we turned and power-walked back towards the train station (never a good second step after filling with said meat). With only a few minutes to spare I grabbed my luggage and hobble-jogged to my waiting train. Marty remained to try for contact one more time before leaving for Stuttgart and his final preparations before leaving for home this week.

Two weekends earlier, when I made a last-minute decision to visit Luxembourg, I consoled myself with this thought as I rolled out of town without walking through the diving chasms or lush gardens: I would be back soon with Marty and plenty of time to exhaust the micro-state of its riches. Well, the trains had other plans. At least I can say I’m intimately familiar with the route between the Old Town and the distant train station.

I got back to Bonn with just enough time to drop off my gear and hustle to Dr. Sander’s office. He was still discussing sauropod research with Mr. Lessem and I got to eavesdrop on the interview. I experienced the wonder these massive animals inspire one more time before hopping the Atlantic Ocean. Dinner was at a biergarten along the Rhine that I checked out back in October. The dogs and children romped and the barges chugged by while we discussed science education, how sauropods got their crazy necks, and the art of navigating Chinese regional politics. What more can you ask for from a good dinner?

And thus concluded my final European Continental excursion. As I type this I have about one more real week in Germany before I grab a flight to the island of Ireland and the arms of my Carolyn. The next few posts will deal with saying good-bye. Look forward to astute observations on German behavior, my living situation, and lists of things I will miss and things that I won’t. I bet you can just feel those curiosity juices percolating through your higher faculties.


The album one more time.

A Final Brussels Bout

A photo album that has some Luxembourg, a little Independence Day (a little on that later), and some images of this final border-skipping gallivant. In the next few posts it will all make sense.

I’m feeling nostalgic. I’ve been flipping through digital photo albums from last August, musing on how far I’ve wandered and how little I’ve gotten done. In less than two weeks I say goodbye to Deutschland…kind of. Carolyn is meeting me in Dublin at the beginning of August. We’ll wander for ten days then I fly back to Frankfurt. The next day I fly out again, bound for parts west. So technically, I say goodbye to Germany on the 14th of August, but my real goodbyes have been going on for a while. Here I say goodbye to Continental exploration:

Two weekends ago I took my last international weekend ramble with Marty who you may remember as the Aeronautical Engineer who accompanied me to Prague, Vienna, and Copenhagen. His stated goal in taking on this Fulbright thing was to visit every country that borders Germany. There are nine. Can you list them (hint, how well do you know your WWII trivia?). In case you missed one or two, here’s the rundown: Denmark, Poland, The Czech Republic, Austria, Switzerland, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, and The Netherlands. He had knocked seven off the list leaving Luxembourg and Belgium as the only obstacles to his Circumnavigation of Germany Merit Badge.

I knew I wouldn’t be able to accomplish this goal. A jaunt to Krakow or Warsaw will have to wait until I take a trip to Eastern Europe to check out Russia, Estonia, Poland etc. at some distant, as yet determined time (I have determined it will be at a time when my wallet isn’t quite this lean). But I'll be damned if I was going to watch someone else get so close to this noble goal then stumble at the finish because no one wanted to see Brussels. So, I was going back to Belgium.

Marty met me in Bonn. Both of us had spent the previous week furiously working on our projects since our time is quickly winding down. Our preparation for the weekend basically consisted of Marty saying, “Hey, I’ll be in around 8. Oh, and we might be meeting a friend of mine in Luxembourg.” So, when he arrived, one would think we would sit down to do some itinerary work. Neh, we had Kölsch to sample.

We bar hopped and re-hashed the following conversation for about two hours:

Me/Marty: I can’t believe it’s almost over.
Me/Marty: I know, isn’t it crazy?
Me/Marty: Yeah. Yeah, it’s crazy.

When we decided to call it a night, we remembered to check our train times. We would go to Belgium first, getting there as early as possible, explore Brussels, then drop down to Luxembourg for the night. It was also established I should bring my tent. We didn’t bother to look up campgrounds, but figured we might as well have a place to sleep in case the airport was booked for the night.

We discovered there was only one way to get to Brussels before 1PM (I really don't understand how the city functions with so few connections to the wider world) and that was on a train that left at 8:30AM from Cologne. It would be an early morning, but we managed to drag ourselves out the door and caught the tram to the Bonn station. About 1.5 km from the station, we came to a screeching halt and sat…on…the…tracks for about ten minutes. Our connection to Cologne was long gone.

Desperately we tried to figure out a way to get to Cologne so could catch that 8:30. We had one shot. The our train pulled into Bonn at 8:08 and into Cologne at 8:28, leaving us about a minute-and-a-half to make the jump to our Brussels-bound train somewhere in the massive Cologne train station. We were pacing by the doors as we pulled into Cologne, throwing ourselves onto the platform as soon as the door rattled open. My lopsided, tent-filled pack threatened to take out septuagenarians and four-year-olds as we sprinted down the stairs, got held up by a woman really taking her time with those steps, and up to our Brussels-bound platform.

We hopped onto the train and slowed down to look at the platform’s sign. It declared half the train was headed for Amsterdam, the other half for Brussels. But which half were we on? An overheard conversation told us Amsterdam. We tried to jog through the aisle to make the Brussels section, but middle-aged women carefully arranging their overhead luggage, and giggling tweens clogged the flow. Then we reached a dead end. The aisle terminated into an engine. We hoped off and had the distinct pleasure of watching our ride to Brussels receding to the horizon after disconnecting from the engine we had just discovered. Damn.

We found an automated ticket machine and established that the next train to Brussels wouldn’t get us there until 1:20PM and would involve two half-hour layovers en route. This would be a long ride.

The up-shot was we had a half-hour to kill in Cologne, so Marty and I were able to scamper to the neighboring Cologne Cathedral. Marty was properly awed by the towering height of the Gothic structure and it's soaring windows and I provided a little of my commentary, but not too much. We had the first of three trains to catch.

It dumped us off in Aachen, a German town on the border of The Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany (where they have the best deals in the Tri-Country area). We had a half-hour. Anyone up for another cathedral?

Back in November I visited Charlemagne’s Byzantine-inspired church and saw his golden casket, but I wouldn’t see it a second time. A couple hundred yards from the steeple we had to scramble back to the station for a ride to Liege, Belgium on a train that somehow timewarped from 1880s Wyoming. The red paint was photogenically peeling from the battered exterior as we slowly chugged across the border to the grungy, industrial city that is best known for its less grungy waffles.
A Liege waffle is an ovoid affair with caramelized sugar grilled right into the dough. We were able to track down this Belgian staple near the space-age station before finally boarding for Brussels.
With three and half hours of travel under our belts we rolled into capital of Europe, a third visit to a city I never expected to see once. Despite previous experiences, there was still confusion over where exactly to get off. Instead of building one massive station as a central hub for trans-Belgian travel, Brussels has three stations. Each sports a Flemish and French name giving a person six unfamiliar words to juggle as they try to plan an excursion. Of course, we really didn’t plan our excursion, compounding our confusion when we stepped off at “Midi” then decided to hop to “Centraal.”

At the station we found out we would need to leave in about three hours if we wanted to make it to Luxembourg to see Marty’s friend who was being frustratingly coy about when/if he would even be able to meet us. After following a winding route that might have doubled as a rat-maze experiment, we dropped our bags and scrambled for food. We managed to take out two-birds with one stone by getting a Frikadeller (fried, meat-ball like sausage) sandwich with fresh Belgian French fries between the bun. I don’t recall the Flemish word for this entree, but I think roughly translated it meant “Heart attack on a bun.” It as also delicious.

As we strolled through the streets of Brussels in search of the Mannequin Pis, Marty managed to find an internet connection outside a bar. He checked his e-mail and found out his friend wouldn’t be able to meet us that night and would shoot for a rendezvous the next day. Through the wonders of technology we discovered we had the rest of the afternoon and evening to spend savoring Brussels rather than sprinting off for a 6th city in one day. This newly discovered time was crucial because Marty had one Belgian goal: sample as many varieties of their legendary beers as possible before moving on to wine-guzzling Luxembourg the next day. With that goal in mind I had a new appreciation for the Mannequin Pis as a symbol of the city.

I led a now practiced tour through the winding Medieval streets of Brussels. I will freely admit I never planned to have the capital so perfectly mapped in my head when I touched down last August, but I can now describe the most efficient path from St. Michael’s Cathedral to the Grand Place. Just in case you need it at some point.
As we swung through the tangled mess that is the seafood café district I pointed out Delirium Cafe, an establishment that holds the record for most available varieties of beer in one establishment. Erin and I checked it out back in February. Marty wanted to check it out today. It was time to start checking brews off the list.
Because it was early in the afternoon, the place had a subdued local vibe with people sitting around massive barrels discussing their beer selections and circuitous routes to Brussels (it’s never direct unless you’re Eurocrat). Marty drank a sweet thing called a “Pink Killer” and I had a Trappist triple. We had no idea where we were spending the night, but we knew we would feel good once we got there.

For a shift from the shadowy subterranean to the roaring ‘20s, I lead the way to Mort Subite, the bar Mike, Tim, and I discovered two weeks earlier, and I would happily revisit any chance I get. The waiters are appropriately brusque and home brewed beer appropriately delicious. The clientele ranged from families of exhausted tourists to elderly, Belgian couples out for some Saturday shopping (who managed to look much peppier than the Italian ten-year-olds).
It was time to sort out where we would rest our heads for the night. While the airport sounded appealing, I was short on digestive biscuits and had hauled my tent along, so I miraculously remembered where the youth tourism office was and inquired if there was a campground within an easy bus ride of the city center. They said they could do me one better and circled a campground within walking distance that called the European Parliament its next-door neighbor. This we had to see, so we went back to the station, saddled up with our gear and started the familiar walk uphill towards the Old England and the Royal Palace.
The U.S. really needs to import some better street performers. I would pay good money to watch something like this parade by my window on a daily basis. To pay up I would put it on my bill.

After a stroll through more suburban Brussels we arrived at the designated address. We saw a small neighborhood church and a cracking asphalt driveway leading into an unseen parking lot. Things weren’t looking too promising. We ascended a short flight of crumbling concrete steps and discovered a storage facility and parking lot that would have worked for a West Side Story set.
I briefly scanned the ground for a tent-sized patch of gravel and pavement without obvious shards of glass. As I tracked the parking lot, Marty noticed a promising sign for “Camping” pointing to an enclosed lot next to the storage yard. We stepped through a chain-link gate and a wild garden spread before us, punctuated by neon rain-flies. This would be a good place to call home…assuming it didn’t rain. We paid our 9 Euro, probably the most expensive camp site I’ve ever stayed in. To be fair, I would be sleeping on the most expensive ground I’ve ever pitched a tent on, so it all worked out.
Following a Lonely Planet tip, we found a tiny pasta café along one of the fashionable shopping boulevards just outside the Old Town. There were three items on the menu: spaghetti carbonara, Pasta Bolognese, and Pasta Marinera. There were three drinks: soda, beer, and wine. Nine combinations yet the waitress brought along her notepad in case things got complicated.

It was delicious and relatively cheap for a mountain of noodles. With a solid base, it was time to pub crawl. As we dove into the winding alleys of Brussels, we heard thudding bass echoing off the baroque façades. We followed the music to the Grand Place where a massive stage had been erected to support a twenty piece band, a half-acre of LCD screens, and a lead singer belting in Spanish. You will understand our confusion when we learned this was in celebration of Flemish Pride.

Belgium is a divided country. The Northern half is Flanders and when they look south to Wallonia, the southern French speaking half of Belgium, they see nothing they like. Okay, it’s not that rabid a rivalry, but there is a political party in Flanders that agitates for secession from the French. This concert wasn’t really a demonstrative political act, it was just an event on a day that celebrates Flemish pride, but I did wonder what the Wallonian perspective would be on the whole undertaking. I guess it’s like going to a Civil War reenactment, or Alaskan Secession meeting, and wondering what people in the North or the lower 48 think. In all probability, no one really cares. They just want spectacle.
And spectacle we got as digital fireworks exploded behind the troop of artists who had performed and now joined voices in what Marty and I assumed was a Flemish standard. The crowd didn’t seem to know the words. Everyone lingered on stage after their bows hoping for a call for encore. None came. The square, filled with mostly subdued gawkers to begin with, quickly drained to the bars. Marty and I followed.

We settled on the pub Marty had used to check his e-mail earlier so he could digitally touch base again. After leeching their wi-fi, it was the least we could do to buy a drink. That is, if they wanted to sell us one. We sat in the Biergarten for fifteen minutes, then a half-hour, then forty-five minutes, praying a waitress would arrive. People around us had beverages, maybe we should go in? I checked after waiting twenty and was shooed out the door by an overwhelmed waitress who had a bachelor party on her hands.

So we sat and waited. There’s nothing as sobering as sitting in a bar without a beer. Another pair was also waiting. We would make disbelieving eye contact then look hopefully towards the door. After a certain amount of time elapses it becomes an investment. You continue to wait because leaving would prove the preceeding minutes were wasted. When our drinks finally arrived we could say we were drinking 3.50 Euros and 45 minutes of sitting worth of Belgian beer. After one we were done with Kwak Café.
Marty enjoys his Kwak, a type of lambic beer named for the sound the liquid makes when it sloshes through the neck.

We were getting tired and ready to collapse into the tent, but decided we needed at least one more authentic Belgian brew in our systems before calling it a night, and Marty had a hankering for some superlatives. Back to Delirium.
This time it was late on a Saturday night. Two floor of bars were operating and the local dive bar had evaporated, leaving a fraternity residue. The place was packed with young tourists from roughly 20 different countries. Indians carried two liter boots of beer, and Canadians drained a dozen varieties before shouldering their way back to the bar for another round. Marty was a little disappointed that the atmosphere had lost a little local flavor. The laughing and people-watching at least re-energized me (along with my honey beer) for the long walk back to the campsite where we could bask in the glow of European Unity and broken fluorescent street lights before drifting into a well-earned dreams of sampling each of Delirium’s 2,200 offerings.

The photo album of random excursions from the final weeks.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Luxembourg City, or, Crossing Three International Borders in 12 hours,

My alarm beeped me awake just in time to hear a flight bound for Budapest was going to be delayed. I was only a little stiff from a night on an airport bench and felt ready to finally get home. I had a breakfast of chocolate-dipped digestive biscuits and rode back to the Brussels Midi station to catch my ride to Cologne.

The train was a German ICE (high-speed rail) and I felt like I was safely back in Germany as soon as I saw the royal blue upholstery and “Mobil” magazines. We were flying across the Belgian country side, bound for Aachen, a German town on the border, when we had to stop. No explanation was offered. All we could do was stare out the window at the confused horses and sneaky barn cats who took a passing interest in our presence. We continued to wait. Then we backed up on the tracks and waited some more.
Eventually an announcement came over the intercom. There were electrical problems at the Aachen station. It would be a while longer. And it was. After an hour-and-a-half sitting on the tracks we slowly ran backwards to a tiny Belgian station that already had a massive Thalys (an independent French/Belgian/German company) train unloading its passengers. Lemming-like we followed each other around the station and waited by the curb for the buses the conductors promised were on their way. We waited for another half-hour.

Two city buses had been drummed up on a Sunday morning to rescue us. Each was packed with luggage and people (I should note my ICE was bound for the Frankfurt Airport so a lot of people were schlepping some pretty chunky bags) but everyone couldn’t pile on. Another half-hour and another bus pulled up.

We drove across the Belgian border and, 14 hours after I had hoped to do so, we crossed into Germany. I was finally free of Belgium's surprisingly tenacious grasp. Tired and frustrated, the passengers tried to sort out their connections at the Aachen station, debating if they would need a separate ticket to get to the next stop. I had my rail pass, so I just stepped onto the next regional train bound for Cologne. I’ve never been so happy to see the Cathedral pull into view.

I arrived in Cologne just in time for noon Mass. Before going to the service I remembered to check my options for getting to Bonn. In five minutes there was a train leaving for my home Bonn. That wouldn’t work. I wanted to get to Mass. Then I noticed its terminal destination: Luxembourg. My rail pass covered me for the day and it was good for Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany, and Luxembourg. Only one left on the docket. I was going to Luxembourg. I think God will forgive me.

The problem was I really had no idea what there was to do in Luxembourg. I knew it is a small place and it has a lot of important European Union Buildings and…no that was about it. I also didn’t tear the Luxembourg pages from my guide book to bring with me so I was flying blind.

It took about three hours to get to Luxembourg so I had plenty of time to stare idly out the window, reflecting on the beautiful castles and vineyards that populate the Rhine river valley. I really did luck into living in one of the prettiest corners of Germany.
When the train finally pulled into the station I checked my escape routes as only someone who spent the previous night in an airport can. If I wanted to be home by midnight, I had to leave on the 6:30 train. That left three hours in Luxembourg. It’s small, right?

I stashed my bag in a locker (apparently Luxembourgers don’t worry about their homeland’s security like the British) and found the tourism office. They provided me a map of the city that had all the major sights numbered with pictures of them along the margins. Of course, there was no explanation of the importance of each sight. The map just proved they existed. Well, I wasn’t going to pay for a tour guide, so the map and context clues would do.
Luxembourg takes a lot of pride in its architectural diversity. A street lined with Art Nouveau buildings? Yes please.

I set out along Avenue de la Liberte. I felt pretty free. A street festival was underway with a carousel blasting “Before He Cheats” by Carrie Underwood while seven-year-olds pretended to drive motorcycles and pick-up trucks into each other. Then the ground gave out.
One of the reasons Luxembourg has managed to remain neutral for decades is because it started life as a fortress. The city is perched on a plateau surrounded by rivers that carved deep chasms into the rock around town. Now you cross massive bridges to actually get into the oldest part of the town.
Far below the bridges are parks and entire villages that can only be reached via tight winding roads or Dr. Seuss-like staircases. I could have taken in the view for hours. But, I only had three.
I walked along the valley’s margin and spotted a soaring steeple. If there’s a massive church, I’ll check it out. It’s usually a free art and history museum coupled with a few meditative moments. The church was the Gothic Notre Dame (Luxembourg speaks a dialect of French).
It was renovated throughout the 20th century and didn’t have the ancient, dignified feel of most Gothic churches, so I spun out the front door towards the sounds of live music.

I walked into one of the main squares of Luxembourg City where the town was celebrating Latin Day. Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico, and Cuba had booths set up with freebies and beverages from each country. The stage was being prepared for the next act and mariachi music filled the silence. When I think of celebrating Hispanic heritage I naively imagine a lot of color and dancing with some spicy food and beautiful people. None of these things seemed to be present. There were a few Brazilian soccer jerseys and people were sipping the caipirinhas, a South American rum cocktail. But that was about it. No tango. No salsa. I’m going to the park.
On the site of a fortress from the middle ages sits a beautifully groomed English park where I heard weird combinations of French and German being tossed through the air along with Frisbees. When I got through all the greenery, I decided to see the rest of the European Union. In Frankfurt I had seen the EU’s Central Bank, and in Brussels I saw the Commission and one of the Parliament Buildings. Might as well complete the collection (except Strasbourg, still need to see the Parliament in Strasbourg).
I crossed John F. Kennedy Bridge towards the campus which was originally home to the European Coal and Steel Community, the proto-EU which was established by Western Germany, Italy, France, and the Benelux countries after WWII as a supranational trade organization that would hopefully prevent WWIII. The buildings are showing their age.

Tarnished windows framed in ugly steel and concrete populate the plateau. My impression of the place wasn’t improved by the poor signage and an ambiguous map. Was this the Secretariat of the Parliament or the Court of Justice? Was it just an unsightly building ripe for destruction? Could it be all of the above?

As I grumbled about modern architecture, I took a moment to reflect on the symbolic meaning of these buildings. Nearly sixty years ago, Europe decided it was done beating itself up. People transcended their national biases and worked to build a peaceable community through economic obligations to each other. The EU continues to grow, but has reached the critical point of deciding on a constitution. How much sovereignty should countries be allowed? Should people be Germans first then Europeans or vice versa? It’s big stuff, and it’s fascinating to watch millions weigh in on the role they think government should play in their lives. Then I stopped reflecting. It was time to eat.

I had worked my way into a far corner of the city that lacked restaurants. What the “Eurocrats” do when they need to get a bite after work is beyond me. I pivoted and walked back through town. Because it was early on a Sunday night, most people seemed to be out for drinks. I was still feeling very poor and Luxembourg is a pretty expensive place, so I kept walking past swanky bars and swankier cafés.

Newer additions to the EU campus landscape. On the left is the Philharmonic where they probably play Beethoven's 9th, the EU anthem, on a regular basis. On the right are the towers of the European Conference center. Not sure who convenes there.

I eventually found myself back at the street festival with the carousel. This time it was blasting a country version of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” Nothing makes me think of good times with the family quite like Madonna. I ordered a Luxembourger sausage – it tasted just like a German sausage – and a beer. My hope was to try the local brew. Again, it would probably taste very familiar, but I wanted to find out. When I got to an empty picnic table I read the label and found out I was sipping Portuguese beer. So much for exotic local fare.

Festivals offer the lone traveler a feast of people-watching opportunities and I tried to take full advantage of my solo status: An exhausted father and his exhausting four-year-old son sat down nearby. They each had a sausage for dinner. As dad dug into his meal, the boy tried to do likewise. The mayo-slathered bun shot the wurst through his tiny fists and onto the gravel. Dad looked like he was on the point of collapse. The boy tried to eat the sausage off the ground while dad shuffled back up to the counter to get another. I watched anxiously as the boy got ready for another bite. Would the meat slip-and-slide its way to the floor again? Fortunately dad intervened at the last minute, breaking the wurst into bite-sized pieces. This scene concluded, I could leave Luxembourg behind.

As the sun set over the Rhine, I finally pulled into Bonn, nearly 24 hours later than I had originally intended. It had been an exhausting trip, the kind that seems impossibly long, the kind where you make a reference to the events of yesterday as if they occurred a week previously. But, as I stood at the Bonn Central Tram Station, I felt like I had never left. Except now I was packing digestive biscuits.

The next day I was back in the office, scrutinizing little fossil claws and feeling like I had just left this routine for a weekend. Regardless of how much time had passed, after all that exploring, it felt good to be home.