24 September 2006

Un certain air de Cologne

I am just back from Cologne, where I had my first glimpse of the Water of My Forefathers, namely the Rhine. With all those boats sputtering up and down, and not a Lorelei within earshot, the Rhine is a lot less romantic than Mr. Goethe or Mr. Heine (or Mr. Twain, for that matter) would have you believe, but it’s a nice river nonetheless.

I had terrific weather, and despite my last-minute anxieties, I found a great little hotel, cheap and located within easy walking distance to all the points of interest, yet on a quiet street.

The city was pretty much razed during World War II, after which they made a heroic effort to rebuild the older churches. These are as a result nice to look at from the outside, though dull on the inside. The Dom, the city cathedral, was spared most damage, and it is indeed impressive, a massive structure in slavish imitation of French Gothic. (The city's other early churches are in Romanesque design.) The rest of the city's architecture is post-War, neat and prosperous-looking, but nothing you'd actually travel to look at.

Smaller objects survived the war intact, and thus, though the streets are mostly empty of ancient monuments, the museums are chock-a-block full of artifacts. "Colonia" was a Roman capital, and the excellent archaeological museum is crammed with statuary, pottery, utensils, grave-markers, and a number of beautiful mosaics. One, the size of a tennis court, depicts scenes from the myths of Dionysus; another is marked with dozens of swastikas. They're backwards, but still — you think that Roman decorator knew something? Almost everything was excavated locally, with present-day street addresses provided.

In medieval times, Cologne was an important artistic center, and I found two museums with extensive collections of really exquisite paintings (a much softer, more naturalistic style than other Western Europeans were practicing, and unfamiliar to me), gorgeous Romanesque stonework and wonderfully carved and painted late-Gothic wooden statuary. Perhaps to atone for the Roman swastikas, and the Nazi ones yet to come, the city's mikva (ritual bath for Jewish women) was placed directly in front of the town hall, the High-Renaissance façade of which looks onto "Jewish Street."

(Only too late did I realize that I'd booked my German excursion for the High Holidays. No one else seemed to notice. L'shanah tovah, everybody.)

Later local innovations include Cologne Water — I didn't buy any, but you can smell it just walking past either of the two rival stores that claim to sell the authentic article (one is the Oldest, the other has the Original Recipe). The prize-winner, however, is Kölsch beer, which is served ceaselessly in small, skinny glasses.

I was unable to figure out when the Germans sleep, work or eat. There were few restaurants, and these were usually empty. The Kölners are ferocious shoppers, and they do enjoy a good pastry: a few citizens are delegated to help them pursue these activities. Mostly, however, they drink. They start filling the terraces and taverns to order a glass of beer around ten in the morning, and they're still at it sixteen hours later, when they order coffee.

I was startled by a) how much German I remembered, and b) how seldom I remembered it when I needed it. Halting, humming and hawing, I got by, but I was grateful that the Cologne folk are so patient. I made idiotic mistakes of accent, vocabulary and grammar that, though I heard them as they happened, I was unable to correct or prevent. It was like riding in a car that someone else was driving smack into a brick wall.

I did enjoy one small triumph: somebody asked if I were from Schwabia. I realize that the Schwabish accent is considered hopelessly backward and nearly unintelligible by most other Germans — but hey, it's within the border.

Otherwise, no strange adventures. I managed to fill my hours, and I do recommend the place, but anything longer than my three nights and two days would have been a struggle.