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The German Notebook

This is my second time in Germany. Actually, make that my third time. When I was two or three years old, my parents took me on a Baltic beach holiday (it was – and continues to be – exactly as exciting as it sounds) to a town weirdly called Swinoujscie; since 1945 on the Polish side of River Oder, the new, post-war border with Germany. Weirdly called because its name can be inelegantly but accurately translated as the Outflow of Pigs, as if bacon, not water, flowed down the Oder into the sea. Now that would be one yummy river – and if Charles the Hammer has not stopped the Muslim invasion of Europe at Tours in 732, the advance of Allah’s holy warriors would have eventually come to a permanent half there.

Anyway, while on this seaside holiday in Swinoujscie (a Polish version of the Bay of Pigs, perhaps), for some reason unknown to me then as it still is now, for a few hours we crossed the Oder into the then East Germany. These are the first memories I have in my life, and interestingly they are connected with international travel.

I have not gone back to Germany for more than four decades, visiting Berlin for a few days last year. A quarter of a century after the reunification, it struck me as a melancholy and in some intangible ways still divided city, for all its continuing reputation as one of the hip capitals of the world. Now I’m off to the westernmost fringe of the west of the country, along the west bank of the Rhine – to the old cities of Aachen and Cologne (both, in fact, stretching back to the Roman times).

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Poles + German trains = not happy national memories.

Poles + anything German, really = not happy national memories. But I try to approach this brief journey as a tourist, and an Australian one too that. Not that the ephemeral Polish part of me is obsessed with Germany. I think the country has come a long way since the war to overcome its thousand plus years of “drang nach osten” and the long crusade against the Slavs, of which World War Two was but the last, if not by far the bloodiest episode. Today’s Germany is no threat, except perhaps to itself, and I feel – and certainly hope – that most people, particularly the young generations, our proverbial future, have moved on to a more productive state of collective mind than re-stroking old hatreds and being constantly imprisoned by the past. God knows, Europe needs more of that.

Anyway, the trains.

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Brunhild* at the Deutsche Bahn counter, handing me the ticket: Your train is at 7:50.

Me: Oh, so it’s not the 7:41 one?

Brunhild: No, the 7:41 was more expensive [by 1.5 Euro].

Me (thinking): Well, I’m glad you’ve asked me.

The 7:41 is not only more expensive; as it transpires it is also much faster. The 7:50 stops at just about every station between Aachen and Cologne and takes half an hour longer to get there.

(* not her real name)

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You should see the death stare the ticket inspector gives me. I have the correct ticket, I paid the right amount, I’m sitting in the right class – but I didn’t stamp it. Ah, the almost-eyeroll, the almost-sigh, the almost-headshake. For a moment, as he points in an accusatory way on the ticket to a sentence which I presume by the context to mean “Stamp here”, I fear he is going to lead me out of the train at the next station and hand me over to Gestapo, and I’m never heard from again. It was nice blogging for you.

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It might be that collective national memory again, somewhere deep in my ethnic genes, but the sound of the public announcements on the train sends shivers down my spine. It’s not that they are being angrily shouted at the passengers– they’re not; the delivery is more than polite – it’s just the language. It can’t help it, and I can’t help it.

“Nachste Hauptbahnhof ist Langerwehe.”

The next major station is Langerwehe

“But I imagine the voice will say “Nachste Hauftbahnhof ist Langerwehe. Ich scherzo nur [sinister laughter]. Nachste Hauptbahnhof ist Auschwitz-Birkenau.”

Just kidding.

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I get to Aachen on a bus from Maastricht, the southernmost city in the Netherlands. The German bus leaves five minutes earlier – because everyone who pre-bought tickets for it is already onboard, I hope – and arrives on the outskirts of Aachen half an hour before the bus company’s website told me it would. If that’s not the famed German efficiency then I don’t know what is.

The small intercity bus station is covered with Polish language signs and posters, including one announcing a concert by my all-time favourite Polish rock band, Lady Pank (phonetically in Polish), playing in Essen. But I don’t want to go to Essen, or indeed to Poland (just yet); I need to cross the road to catch an Aachen city bus to take me to the city centre.

I try, but fail, to do the right thing and buy a ticket. The first driver refuses to sell it to me since he’s getting off at the next stop. The new driver likewise declines, talking to me in German, mentioning something about Kaiserplatz, which is coincidentally where I need to get off anyway. Defeated by this very un-German display of indifference to ensuring a proper fare is paid, I consider the cost of the trip a part of war reparations owed to me, just because.

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Not that I can say for certain, hardly having seen the rest of Germany, but Rhineland strikes me as the spiritually closest to me part of the country. It is the anti-Prussia: liberal, Catholic, more open to the rest of Europe, more easy-going and relaxed. Unlike its fellow Catholic Bavaria to the south-east, Rhineland had some of the lowest Nazi vote in the country, when the Nazis were still subject to a vote. Before the war, this has been the heartland of the Centre Party, after the war of its successor, the Christian Democrats. Rhineland has produced both of Germany’s greatest democratic politicians of the 20th century; Conrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl, the resurrecter of (one half of) Germany and the unifier of (the whole of) Germany respectively. Even today I do not see one election poster for the Social Democrats, though there are a few for various fringe woke German parties (the national election is set for 24 September). Maybe it’s the Rhine, one of the great European arteries of commerce throughout the centuries, that waters this unique west German spirit. Maybe simply it’s the general proximity to France and the Low Countries and the cultural cross-fertilisation this inevitably brings (by contrast, the other, eastern marches of Germany, on the perpetually bleeding border with the Slavdom, have always been ur-German; the proximity of your civilizational enemy makes for a hard and uncompromising approach to life).

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Both Aachen and Cologne are nowadays largely famous for their cathedrals. And not much else to be honest. In the case of Aachen, because it hasn’t really mattered for the past 1200 years; in the case of Cologne because the British and the American bombers have levelled most of the city.

Aachen’s fame is connected to that of Charles the Great, or Karl der Grosse as the Germans call him, or Charlemagne as the French do (and now you know why everyone prefers the French version). Charlemagne has briefly stitched together the most significant kingdom of the European Dark Ages (or the early Middle Ages), comprising much of the modern France, Germany, Belgium and northern Italy. He fancied himself resurrecting the western Roman Empire. It didn’t quite work out like that, but his was the beginning of the Holy Roman Empire, one of the great constants of the European history (and by the 18th century, in Voltaire’s oft-quoted words, neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire, and soon to be abolished for good after a millennium of fame by another Frenchman, Napoleon).

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Aachen’s cathedral is therefore also Charlemagne’s cathedral, built over the following centuries around the original octagonal church of St Mary, ca. 800. It is that oldest part of the cathedral, that like Charles, is still the great. Pre-Romanesque, quite late-Roman or Byzantine in style, and certainly in its sumptuous internal decoration, it is perhaps the most stunningly beautiful church in the entire Christendom, a sort of a miniature western version of Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia, the like of which Europe has not seen for centuries before nor after its completion, until the wave of Gothic cathedrals introduced a more monumental, starker and colder version of sacral beauty to the western civilisation.

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Hence the Cologne cathedral. To call it a mountain of a building is to shower it with a faint praise; it is a whole mountain range suddenly erupting from an alluvial plane on the west bank of the Rhine. It is so enormous it does not fit whole in a single frame of an average camera. Originally sandstone, but largely covered in black soot (thank you, Ruhr) it looks unworldly, like a computer-generated piece of “Game of Thrones” or a wreck of a giant alien spacecraft. And to call its survival during the war, while so much of the rest of Cologne ended up in ruins, a miracle would suggest that God is much more partial to His houses than His people. There are other explanations; one story has the bomber navigators leaving the structure alone as a useful landmark to navigate by, a sort of a mute and dark lighthouse for the missions of carnage and destruction around and further afield. Others would note that the cathedral was hit fourteen times during the war, but never fatally.

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Coincidentally, the other two historical buildings of note in both cities are the old city halls. The one in Aachen, strangely the larger of the two (for Cologne is much bigger a city), fronts a charming square girded with open air restaurants and cafes. The Cologne Rathaus (not called thus because local government politicians are a rodent vermin) fronts a smaller and less charming square. Both have the obligatory fountains in the middle, though someone in Cologne improved one of the statues with a pair of sunglasses and a bottle of beer. Very un-German.  But very funny. But I repeat myself.

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The other highlight of Cologne for me is the largest second-hand CD and DVD shop in the city. I worship at this cathedral of music as long as I sightsee around and inside the Kolnischer Dom. You see, being the child of the 1980s in communist Poland, I grew up with the German electronic/techno/dance music. The Beatles, or even the Monkees, they have not produced, but give a German a synthesiser and he will bang out a tune as cold as a Lutheran’s heart and as catchy as a the Black Plague. The names that will mean nothing to you – Sandra, Alphaville, Silent Circle, Camouflage, X-Perience, TXT, the Twins – are the soundtrack of my youth (Sandra married her song-writer and producer, a Romanian expat Michel Cretu, later much better known as Enigma). Alphaville’s “Forever Young”, originally a techno ballad but much better known as a cover by Australia’s Youth Group, which made it to number 1 off the back of playing in one of the episodes of “The OC”, is still probably my all-time favourite song.

So yes, I manage to buy a number of CD I wouldn’t be able to get anywhere else (except online, which I don’t do), including by In Extremo, a sort of medievally and religiously-influenced Rammstein, whose hard rock-and-bagpipes version of an old German Crusader song “Palestinalied” (she didn’t, “lied” simply means “song” in German) is one of my happiest musical discoveries of recent years. By the way, I’m lucky to be in Cologne in the week I am, because the shop is celebrating its 30th anniversary and giving everyone an extra 30 per cent off. Bless.

The German – it’s not exactly the language of love. And the German music is not exactly suited to romancing but to invading countries. Fortunately in 2017 AD it can be enjoyed even by a Slav.

(All photos (except the bombed out Cologne, needless to say) copyright Arthur Chrenkoff)

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