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…