In which I contemplate a schism
My time as a Berliner has given me to understand that Berlin is no more Germany than London is England. This past Friday and Saturday proved it.
Or so I expected. What I found upon arriving was not a staunchly German counterpart to the capital city on the opposite border but a mishmash of overexcited people speaking on top of each other in a mishmash of overexcited languages. It turns out Köln is quite the destination for Karneval, and I was not prepared.
It wasn’t only that I was dressed like a rather ordinary human being in comparison to the friend clusters of cowboys, bishops, Elvises, and antenna-sporting aliens; or the families in which each member dressed as a different farm animal; or the lone dandies strutting the cobbled streets in paint-splattered three-piece suits. It was the contradictory offerings scattered throughout the city, the celebration and the condemnation, the shiny and the shadowy.
The main attraction for me was the cathedral, a staple of almost every European city whose history dates back to the Gothic period. I had no other local landmarks to refer to, so the cathedral was synonymous with Köln itself; it was the only site I really knew about before going (I’ve had a thing for cathedrals since childhood), and the one I wanted to visit. As it happened, I had only to exit the train station to be confronted by it. And it was everything I expected it to be and more: majestic, lofty, architecturally exquisite, wielding the kind of power only these buildings have—to put people in their place.
This isn’t to disparage humans, but we do have a tendency to get wrapped up in our own foibles and problems and lose our perspective. Cathedrals provide that perspective in spades. And this weekend specifically provided a fascinating twist on that perspective, because the typical crowd of tourists meandering through its archways comprised all manner of Karneval-goers bedecked in fur and latex and blue wigs. Watching these people marvel at an admittedly marvelous infrastructural feat while dressed in the garb that has evolved out of the commemoration of a traditionally religious festival (happy Mardi Gras, by the way) was all the more gratifying for it. There was a pervasive sense of solemnity in the sanctuary that afternoon; it felt almost as if people were seeking a moment’s respite and refuge before going out to their respective crazy nights. On top of which I loved hearing the murmurings of visitors from far and wide. I thought of it as a sort of pilgrimage, except we’d all only met up at our destination. In a matter of two hours, Köln had loaded me down with things to think about.
Luckily I had an enchanting walk to my lodging during which to entertain these thoughts. It was in these streets, narrowing and winding and roughening the farther they got from the cathedral, that I found the starkest differences to Berlin. This was a city that had weathered multiple wars and remained pretty much intact. I saw antique shops, as well as shops that looked antique; an old-fashioned Biergarten; and another, smaller church, St. Ursula, which looked as if the neighborhood had grown up around it over centuries. Unlike Berlin, whose postwar reconstruction has included something of a polyglot revolution, Köln would not be going out of its way to speak anything other than German.
Except in the city center, which is where I spent basically all my time. After an evening catching up on some reading and work of my own, I returned to the cathedral square in search of a colleague-recommended museum. The permanent exhibit at the Römisch-Germanisches Museum was being renovated; but there was an external display of stone tablets, complete with inscriptions, which gave at least a surface glimpse into the city’s Roman origins. Here I have to confess that, despite being the daughter of a classicist and professor of Greco-Roman literature, I still know relatively little about the culture and its famous figures. I couldn’t tell you a passage of Cicero from one of Catullus; I don’t remember who wrote those diatribes against Catiline; and, although I know a ‘Georgic’ has to do with farming, I don’t understand what it has to do with someone named George. Most of the Latin I know stems from my (often overlapping) experiences singing and churchgoing. Overall, I never get as much out of exhibits like these as I feel I should, and I fear I might not be interested at all if my dad weren’t so interested. Suffice it to say that staring at a bunch of rocks forced me to face my own ignorance.
Speaking of ignorance, I had no idea what lay in store at the neighboring museum, which I wandered into for lack of another specific destination. The Museum Ludwig is home to an impressive collection of Western art, with a special focus (at least right now) on junctures of identity—particularly national and ethnic. It seems to skew modern, with extensive photography collections and a variety of contemporary materials, including neon signage. (My relationship to modern art has grown and developed over the past five years, certainly since my first visit to London’s Tate Modern—remind me to talk about that later.) Many of the works I saw were by artists who spent (or, if living, have spent) different periods of their lives in different places, artists born in Europe who made their name in New York or vice versa.
The biggest shock came in the form of Jimmie Durham’s exhibit Building a Nation, which featured found objects, both natural and man-made, and direct quotations from American generals, presidents, and luminaries (all “heroes”) regarding the systemic destruction of Native Americans and their tribal identities. It felt like a giant archaeological dig, a ruin you could walk through—and the walk became a trek, an unflinching and painstaking look at the violence we’ve never heard about and the violence we’ve unwittingly come to accept, even cherish, in the media we absorb. The impression of the room was one of devastation, an invitation to investigate the debris which we have collectively left behind. A trial by fire.
I won’t lie: it brought me to tears, and I rather think it was meant to. As I have spent more and more time abroad—especially in the current political climate, or lack thereof—I have questioned more and more deeply the meaning of being American, or of belonging to any one nation. Identity is getting harder to grasp; the artificiality of the concept is revealing itself to me bit by bit. And yet the concept of identifying as one nationality or another, and the sense of superiority and righteousness that accompanies it, is so entrenched that it will probably never be possible to understand the full catalogue of crimes committed in its name. I’m still thinking about that exhibit, and I won’t stop trying to trace the evolutionary process that has brought me to where I am, however horrific sometimes. It’s just that it isn’t getting any easier.
A short while later I found myself in a room dedicated to the iconic ‘pop art’ movement of the 1950s and ’60s, spearheaded by Andy Warhol and others. While the gaudy colors of the form suggest joy, there is a deep undercurrent of criticism, the target being the proliferating culture of consumerism which has come to define contemporary America. Following the lead of their respective advertisements, the blown-up logos—Campbell’s, Coca-Cola—distort the products themselves in favor of the carefree, attractive lifestyle they promote. In this light, the colors become warning signs: beware of falling victim to the myth…the myth to which I subconsciously subscribe every day, even as a non-drinker of soda. Who would have thought a museum in a decidedly German city would bring me into such conflict with myself? But that is precisely what a good museum does.
After all that, my last evening in the city consisted of wandering the commercial strip directly adjacent to the cathedral square—the den of thieves, you might call it, which at times physically obscured the temple. I found the hallmarks of the commercialism I had just contended with at the museum: H&M, 4711 (“the original eau de cologne”), Claire’s. (Claire’s?!?) Not to mention I heard the noise of enough marching bands to drown in. Had I stumbled into Whoville?
In the midst of more sensory stimulation than my poor saturated brain could handle, it occurred to me that life proceeds in spite of (or maybe because of) the darkness and heaviness of the past. Another Karneval will come and go. There are moments to meditate and moments to enjoy. A few days removed, I feel I didn’t do enough of either. I still know very little of the history of Köln. Ironically, I learned more about myself and my native culture than about Germany. All the more reason to return.
Should that be at Karneval, I’ll be sure to have my habiliments in place. If Ida known this time, I woulda brought one of my favorite recent thrift-shop finds: a lime-green sequined fedora.
Image: my own, of the cathedral and Saturday-morning costumed procession