Monday, August 10, 2009

Bye-Bye Bonn

For the last week I've been wandering Ireland. By the end of this one I'll be back on U.S. soil. In case you want the skinny on Guinness versus Murphy's and the delights to be had biking in the rain in the Dingle Peninsula, I'll be uploading those adventures after I get back, along with final reflections/comments/wonderings on Europe, Germany, and the life of a paleontologist abroad. Chat with you then!

After cutting myself lose from every institution tying me to Bonn, I walked along the shaded lane leading from the Poppelsdorfer Schloss (featured in the title bar right now) to the Sauropod research group’s offices to meet Koen. The sky was perfectly clear, older couples were out for walks, and younger couples were out for jogs. I mused that this was probably the last time I would ever get to walk from work with a castle at my back. There are some things that just don’t happen at home.I met my host for the weekend and we rode the tram to his house where I could finally drop my bags and stretch my shoulders. Koen had been contacted earlier that day by Kristian, a post-doc in the department, who invited us out for a night on the town in Bonn. I was pretty excited to hit the Bonner clubs since I really hadn’t had the opportunity yet, and felt I might be missing a key ingredient to the city’s character. Koen assured me I hadn’t missed much.

Our first stop was to the fraternity house where I said good-bye to the crew, drank more Warsteiner and chatted with a history major about theoretical approaches to historical interpretation. I think I need to have a little more alcohol in my system before I attempt such a conversation again.

We met Kristian and his wife, Seiko, at a bar near the Bonn Opera House. Yes, there is an opera house. No, I never made time to see a performance in my own city. Yes, I feel slightly guilty about that. The bar had a bouncer who didn’t have very much to do since the place was pretty much dead. Kristian’s wife was excited to do some dancing on the floor in the bar’s basement. Unfortunately there were only four other people down there, and none of them were making a move to dance. We tried to get something started, but gave up when the Thong Song came on and I had a flashback to junior high. When Post-traumatic stress disorder sets in, I don’t do much dancing. I also tend to avoid the dance floor when there are five guys moving and only two women. This is not because I dance to pick up women. They just tend to be better dancers and I don’t get bored. As it stood, five guys lamely bouncing to the Thong Song was an experience worth missing.

Two of Seiko’s friends met us and we rolled on to Hofbar, a club connected to the Opera House. So I can at least say I’ve entered the building. Well, I entered it for a 5 Euro cover. There was also an age restriction. Only 25 years and up. How I got in, I will never really understand. Maybe the bouncer figured the kid who looked 18 would be able to pep things up a bit, because the Hofbar really needed some pepping. It looked like the perfect place to have a night of classy clubbing and dancing. The bar was smoked glass back-lit with neon green and pink lights. Most of the men were wearing sport coats and the women…well, once again there weren’t a lot of women.

A waiter came by our group as we stood on a narrow balcony overlooking the Rhine. I really wasn’t interested in beer, and ordered a Jack and Coke. This also helped introduce me to the new members of our group as The American. I regretted this decision almost immediately as the waiter asked for 7.50. Fortunately the cover charge got me a 5 Euro token to subsidize the beverage. After paying, the low-key vibe and near empty dance floor made a lot more sense. Germans aren’t want to shake their groove things or tail-feathers if they aren’t properly inebriated, and with beer running at 4 Euro a pop, there weren’t going to be many dancers, but soon Seiko and her friends led us to the floor. We were joining a middle-aged couple, and a lonely, lanky 50 year-old dude in the hopes of getting the party started.

I still don’t understand the German dance floor. There is not touching. There is no twirling. Everyone maintains an arm-length safety circle and glances around the circle of friends giggling slightly at the fact you’re dancing. This goes on for the rest of the evening. I think part of the problem is the music. There’s only so much you can do with electronic dance music that uses the exact same beat for six songs in a row.

Finally I reached a peak of boredom and reached out a hand to one of the Seiko’s friends. She wasn’t quite sure what to do with it, but eventually figured out she could put her hand in mine and I could spin her around. Then it was back to bored bouncing. If that’s Bonn nightlife, yeah, I didn’t miss much.

The next day Koen and I were invited to see a friend of his off to Mongolia. She was having a massive barbeque in an even more massive park tucked into suburban Bonn. I got my now regular workout of schlepping a crate of beer for about two kilometers. I love drinking out of real glass bottles, but packing thirty of them into a heavy plastic crate flies in the face of the car-less European lifestyle. Without a vehicle, you should probably just plan on partying in the parking lot, or inviting a body builder to help you set up.

At the barbeque I took on the job usually reserved for the slightly shy new-guy. I tended the fire. I was also starving and ready to tear into the potato salad Koen and I had brought along, but no one else seemed ready to eat and I didn’t want to perpetuate any nasty stereotypes about ravenous Americans.

As the meat sizzled, I struck up a conversation with a boyfriend who had been dragged along and didn’t know anyone at the party either. We talked about German soccer, and all the teams I should have seen while I was in country. I’ve been on the lookout for the entire year for someone who could impart such information. Figures I find him my last weekend. His girlfriend will be studying in San Diego for a semester, and I was asked, “what we should see in America.” I was at a loss for what to say. I told her she should see the zoo near where she’ll be living, but then what do I say? See wide open spaces, see skyscrapers, see lines, ice cubes, and bottom-less coffee. See screened windows, excessive air-conditioning, and beef under 7 Euro a pound.

Sunday, my last day in Bonn, I finally visited the home of it’s favorite son. Every visitor who has swung through my city has been treated to the coral façade of the fronting building, but it was time to see the room where little Ludwig von Beethoven came into the world, and the room where his family celebrated his departure for Vienna at age 22.

The house was encrusted with verdant grape vines and filled with artifacts from the composer’s life. They had his first viola, a reproduction of the advertisement for his first performance, and portraits of brooding B’hoven. For his first public performance he played the piano in Cologne at the age of eight, but his father lied on the ad, saying he was six, to get a little extra attention for the next “wunderkind Mozart.”

The most interesting artifacts were a collection of ear horns he used, and the a selection of the notebooks he used for conversations with friends and for jotting ideas during his long walks through the Viennese countryside.

Part of the problem with a museum dedicated to Beethoven, is that his greatest accomplishments can’t be seen. It was cool to see his pianos from Vienna, and the organ he played for the Elector in Bonn, but I really wanted to hear the melodies he was able to draw from them.

I was also fascinated by the paintings adorning the walls of 18th and 19th century Bonn. The University building that now adorns the logo for the University used to be the residence of the Emperor’s Elector in Cologne. The Prince didn’t really like the congestion and grime of larger Cologne, so he retreated to the sleepy university town of Bonn. The pictures showed stately carriages unloading ladies in froofy hoop skirts onto the steps that are populated by aging, drunk punks today.

Other pictures showed the Poppelsdorfer Palace with its expansive botanical gardens filled with masked party guests at a spring ball. Beethoven became a member of the Elector’s symphony when he was ten and attended these parties as his grandfather and father had before him. A map of the city in 1770, the year Beethoven was born, showed a layout nearly identical to its present footprint.

The final stop on my tour through the house was the “Digital Archive” where you could cue up hundreds of recordings of Ludwig’s compositions and read his scrawling notation as the music played. I holed myself up at a terminal, reading about statues of Beethoven around the world (Bonn’s was the first memorial erected in his honor) until participating in an art installation that pairs the climatic jail scene from Beethoven’s one opera “Fidelio” with high definition abstract, animated figures that could be controlled by audience members. The blobs of color didn’t do very much emoting, and despite being three dimensional (with the requisite Ray-ban-like glasses) weren’t nearly as engaging as watching actual people perform and emote. Maybe it would have been more interesting if more people had hopped up to move the figures, but we all stayed reserved and German.

I met Koen at the office where he announced, “I can’t explain it, but have am craving Mexican food.” So, my final meal in Bonn was a burrito con carne and half-priced margarita. Pavel joined us, “Matchew, if you are leaving Germany, why do you eat Mexican food now?” Koen looked a little sheepish, “Oh, that’s right. It’s my fault, but I know a good German dive we can go to so we can put some final Kölsch in your system.”

At Spleen, a low ceilinged, wood paneled affair with cushy couches and tables polished by elbows and coasters, we raised our glasses and toasted the country that none of us call home.

The next morning I was up before 5AM, throwing my few possessions into my backpack and scampering down the street to catch the first tram of the morning towards the train station. I entered through the neo-classical façade for the last time, and began to roll away from my home.

Leaving Marburg, I mentioned how quickly it had come to feel like home, and wondered if Bonn would have the same hominess. I was leaving a place that was decidedly not my home, but also where I had managed to make a lot of new friends. Would I be able to pull it off in the next town without the extensive support network? Yes, yes I did. The ride along the Rhine past 12th century castle ruins is like my driveway, and I pulled out of it for the last time waving over my shoulder at the people who had helped me settle into two semesters of the good German life.

But, the exploring wasn’t over yet. That train was heading south to Frankfurt where I managed to navigate the massive terminals to the Aer Lingus counter with a German tour group that was headed to the home of Guinness and Gab. They formed what I hope will be the final German blob I participate in, and all checked in with ease. There was much confusion upon landing in Dublin as they tried to remember where they had stashed their passports, and the line of other travelers had to wait for a dozen methodical German grandmothers to recover their identification cards. I was a little antsy. I just wanted to get to the Arrivals gate. A certain someone from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean had hopped the pond to meet me, and the Germans weren’t going to delay the reunion if I could do anything about it. But I couldn’t. I was no match for their blobbing, and had to wait my (possible) turn.

Finally I burst from the baggage claim and there she was. Carolyn was standing next to her pack and I was treated to much more romantic reunion than our harried hug at the Frankfurt gate back in December. Then we turned to set our sights on Dublin…


Sunday, August 2, 2009

Movin’ Out

Germans are bureaucracy fanatics. Paperwork is as German as pretzels and beer.

At first glance, it may seem like the copious red tape is related to a lust for efficiency and order. But, the real reason Germans require forms for every television in the house or change of address is they love collecting stamps. Every document handled by an official – professor, conductor, DMV employee – gets smacked with purple and blue ink, letting you know you can move on to the next round of paperwork wrangling. Your reward will be a new stamp.

Paperwork is just the most socially acceptable way for adults to get excited about rubber stamps. It’s unfortunate they no longer read “Good Job!” or “Superb!” Exclamation points have been sacrificed for streams of legalese, but Germans voraciously collect them anyway.

I, however, am not German. I’d just as soon forsake the paperwork/stamp ritual as it has a nasty habit of perturbing my already delicate state of mind. So, it was with a certain trepidation I started gathering the stamps necessary for me to move back to the United States.

First to city hall to deregister from the city. It was a miraculously painless process. I found the office, got a number, waited for my number to pop up on the screen above my head and went to the desk listed on the screen. I explained I was moving out of Bonn on Sunday, and the secretary looked up my name, glanced at my passport, and presented me with signatures and stamps. In fifteen minutes I was back on the street. The ease of the process left me weirdly giddy. Easily earning my stamps and papers making me grin…maybe I’ve become more German than I thought.

On to the University of Bonn’s International Students and Fellowship office where I walked right in, explained I had a lovely time in Bonn, but it was time for me zip West and “ex- matrikulieren” from the University. A paper was printed, stamped, and I was euphoric.

I had budgeted most of the morning for this process, but I was done in time for elevensies. This left enough time for me to go back to my dorm before the office closed at noon to figure out how exactly I should move out. The Hausmeisterin is a lovely woman, the doting aunt-type who happens to have a lot of keys in her desk and a very German love of getting all your paperwork together in the right order. She also has a very German way of only speaking German It’s good to have someone who is forced to listen to me stumble my way through the language without relieving me with English. Unfortunately it also means there are details that get lost in translation as I try to figure out what she’s getting at.

As you may remember from last October, my move in to my dorm – Tennenbusch II – was not a particularly smooth process as it began with the statement, “I do not have you entered in my computer. I don’t know if I have a room for you.” She ended up offering me a room for the night so I could go to the housing office which had closed at noon.

I was hoping for a little flexibility for my move out, too. Technically my contract ended on the 31st of July, but I wanted to know if there was any way to stay for the weekend, so I didn’t have to worry about moving my bags around before departing for Frankfurt on Monday for my trip to Ireland.

“You have no friends you can stay with?”

“Well, yes I do, but I was just wondering if it was possible to stay put. If not, it’s not a problem. I just wanted to ask.”

“And you have no friends?”

“Yes, I do, but I think it’s easier to stay in one place instead of moving all of my luggage twice.”

“But you could stay with a friend.”

“So it isn’t possible to stay for the weekend?”

“Well, what would you do with the key?”

I thought this might be a problem. Her office is only open from 9 to 12 on workdays. I needed to be in Frankfurt to catch a plane long before she unlocked the door.

“Well, I could leave my key with a friend and they could give it to you Monday.”

She blinked, befuddled. Apparently it was fine for me to crash with a friend for three nights, but trusting them to bring her my keys was too much.

“You should stay with a friend and move out on Friday.”

Okay, fine. The three people I knew well who lived on my floor were all out of town or already hosting people for the weekend. It is the semester break doncha-know, so I got a hold of Koen, a graduate student in the department, to see if his floor was available. No worries. He even had an extra mattress.

“How do I get my deposit back?” There were 160 Euros floating out there that I had scrubbed my floors to get back in full.

“You will be returning to the United States?”

“That’s the plan.”

“And you will be closing your German bank account before you leave?”

“Another part of the plan.”

“Then you will receive it in cash when you check out.”

Rad. Now I just needed to extract myself from the room. I packed and scrubbed for the better part of a day. My departure from Marburg had scarred me. There the Hausfrau had walked in, flipped on a light that I didn’t know existed and berated me for not removing the streaks from the stove top that could only be seen when that light was illuminated. Fortunately I didn’t have any massive blue stains to contend with and my room was (eventually) spotless.

Friday morning I trooped downstairs, lugging my mysteriously hefty backpack, guitar case, and daypack. Three other students were sitting around the office door, expectantly waiting while another student talked to the Hausmeisterin. I dropped my stuff and waited. The guy in the office came out, but no one went in. I scrutinized each face, trying to figure out if they were waiting for some kind of signal. Why weren’t we just waiting in a line? Most of us were international students. We know the blob is a silly German tradition.

Finally I asked the girl next to me, “Are you next?” She was stunned someone would say something and confused I would assume she had anything to do with the office. “No, no.” Okay. Apparently the Native Spanish enjoy lounging near office doors.

I went in and plunked my key down on the desk. “And what is this?”

“It’s my key, I’m ready to go to my friend’s.”

“You have not been inspected.” “

“When will that happen?”

“Are you ready for the inspection?”

“Yes, I am ready to leave.”

“Then go to your room and wait for Herr Brener.”

I dutifully squeezed back into the elevator with my stuff and walked back to my room, banging doors and walls with my tent and guitar. I sat and waited; acutely aware we were fast approaching the noon mark. If my luck held, we would be geschlossen before Herr Brener reached me, and I wouldn’t be allowed to leave Germany. I would spend the weekend waiting for the Herr to show up on Monday.

At 11:55 he entered. I had the gumption to doze off in my chair and he wanted me out waiting in the hall as soon as he busted in. I scurried past his mustache and anxiously waited for him to discover a corner I had left a little skuzzy.

After a quick glance, he noted something on his clipboard and asked for my key. “Am I finished?” “You must see Frau Schultz.” Back to the office and the amorphous blob of expectant students and luggage.

Herr Brener returned, handed off the clipboard and I was back across the desk. “So, is there anything I need to do or am I ready to get my deposit?”

“Herr Brener says you are missing your pillow, duvet, and…(there was some confusion over the translation of the final item that should have been under my bed).”

“I never had those things in my room.”

“Yes you did, and you do not have them now.”

“No, I used dirty laundry as a pillow for weeks, my sleeping bag for a blanket, and the only thing I put under my bed was my luggage.”

“You used dirty laundry for a pillow?”


“And you didn’t get sick.”

“It wasn’t that dirty.”

“This is, maybe, an American thing to do.” I continue to be a stellar model for my countrymen.

“So will I be charged for these things? Can I get my deposit back?”

“Well, you are missing three things.”

“I know, but they were never there.” She could have said, “Herr Brener also noticed you were missing your giant inflatable gorilla? Where is the gorilla?” and I couldn’t have proven otherwise. I never signed or saw a form detailing my room’s inventory. I was getting annoyed. Come to think of it, I would have preferred the gorilla to a pillow. “Can I visit someone’s room to look at this bed thing I’m missing?”

“This is very confusing. You are leaving when?”


“The Studentenwerk (where I would get my deposit) will be closed I think.” Of course they’re closed. It’s an office in Germany, they only stay open until noon. Who would ever need to deal with bureaucracy after lunch? “Can you talk to a friend who can get your deposit?”

“Why would that help? Can’t you just transfer the deposit into my bank account? Either way, I get charged for an international transfer.”

“Well, can you talk to a friend?” We were very hung up on my acquaintances.

“I need my key back so I can go knock on their doors to ask for help.” Remember I have three locked doors to plow through to get to my room.

“I can’t give you your key back. Are you sure a friend cannot get your deposit?”

“I need to talk to them, and to do that I need my key. But I still don’t see why that would help. If I can’t get the money before I leave, why should a third person get involved in this?”

“Here.” In frustration she handed me a stamped form for my full deposit. “I am not supposed to do this. You are missing three things. Take this to the Studentenwerk if they are still open. They will give you your deposit. You must go quickly.”

“What if they are closed?” She shrugged. She wanted me gone. It was 12:35. She was ready to start her weekend. I took the paper and bolted before the missing gorilla was noticed.

Lugging all of my worldly possessions, I scampered to the tram and rode to the necessary offices. The sun was shining and so was I. Shining with sweat anyway as I hobble-jogged to the Studentenwerk.

I plowed through a gaggle of German students who though the front steps were a great place to gather twenty people for a chat. I clipped someone with my guitar, and didn’t look back. I had to get my cash-money.

At the top of the stairs I was greeted with a dark hallway and empty offices. I pounded on the main door, hoping Frau Schultz had maybe called ahead to let someone know to stick around for me. No one had. All the offices were closed on the next floor, too. Everyone was probably taking their two hour lunch. I trooped to the university Kasse where I paid the deposit in the first place. Also closed. A helpful loading dock worker suggested I come back at two, so I dragged myself and my possessions to the Institute, the only place left in Bonn that would welcome me.

Pavel was surprised to see me and my massive pack. He said the secretary had been in looking for my key. I went up to her office and handed over my final connection to the city. Homeless and office-less, I walked back to the Studentenwerk so I would be on hand when everyone got back from lunch. Everyone in the housing department was gone for the day as a harried worker explained to me on the way to the copier, but the Kasse lady was back.

She took one look at my form, “No, I cannot help.”

“Please, all the other offices are closed and I’m leaving Monday before they reopen.”

“I can’t help.”

“Can you make sure this is deposited into my account. I don’t need it in cash. I can transfer the money.”

“It will take six weeks.”

“I know, I just can’t do anything else.”

Grudgingly she took the paper, stamped it, and filed it away with an “Auf Wiedersehen.” My day shot, I shuffled back to my office, knocked on the window, and was let in by Pavel so I could put my fossils and bones away.

I like collecting this dead stuff. I think I’ll leave the stamp collecting to the Germans.