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“The Mongol nobles of Persia gaze…through doors of chamfered alabaster and across courtyards of lustrous marble into gardens built on the template of Paradise itself, where dragon-headed fountains feed pools of milk and wine. Within, gold candlesticks the size of trees and chandeliers of lacquered glass spread light across their palace interiors, glittering across cascades of stalactitic vaults and the iridescent glaze of star-shaped turquoise and cobalt tiles…”
I have been dreaming of Swindon again.
Not really. I quote from a travel book on Iran that I’m reading called Mirrors of the Unseen (reviewed critically here). There’s too much flowery waffle, but I enjoy the bits where the author runs about ancient ruins pretending to be Byron or befriends local geezers who smoke during Ramadan and complain of the black chadors that make women look like crows*.
It is one of several masculine books I have read recently (this can’t be at all blogworthy, but I will plough on): two Le Carres, something by Paul Auster, a Dick Francis (I’m an addict), the first two chapters of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (I’m a heathen) and Cormac McCarthy’s grim The Road (armageddon out of here). Please note: this reading list sounds vaguely intellectual, but this is extremely unusual. I am probably only mentioning Iran because I am unconsciously trying to brag about having read a book for once that you can’t buy in Tesco.
One of the Le Carres (A Small Town in Germany) is set in Bonn and, as the title suggests, doesn’t think much of my new home town, calling it grey, foggy and bureaucractic. So it isn’t some fragrant Persian citadel, but I find Bonn and its BRD past quite intriguing. Every so often you are reminded that you are living in a Cold War capital. The other day I was stopped on the way to work by two dark-haired men who wanted to know (I think) if you could still get work at the Hungarian embassy that stood brooding by the side of the road. But it had obviously been shut for some time – looks like they finally moved to Berlin last year. I hope the men hadn’t travelled far to Bonn, only to find they had 300 miles farther to go.
So, anyway, none of it particularly cheery reading. Perhaps partly for this reason, on Sunday I felt a dreariness and an absence of beauty all of a sudden, so I went to Cologne cathedral for a spiritual infusion. Unfortunately, I was unable to ignore the unholy congregation of tourists talking, photographing and generally cluttering up the place like pigeons. There must be some mathematical equation to work out how many tourists a beautiful space can accommodate before the atmosphere is wrecked**. This was certainly a high scorer.
The trip wasn’t in vain, however. On the streets outside I found the following German goodness:
– a white and silver husky dog
– a handsome old building that WASN’T YELLOW
– some delicate, ethereal haute couture:
– and a shop that Uncle Derek would have liked:
Well, I travelled in a taxi with a mattress today, which can mean only one thing: it’s house moving time. So I must stop procrastinating and go and clean out the back of the fridge.
*Since moving to Playmobilviertel I have seen many women in chadors and niqabs (hope I got that right); more than I have ever seen in England. There is even a shop selling them should you get tired of the attractive brown and denim combinations on offer elsewhere. I think it has been good for me, because whereas at first I would notice the veil and not much else, recently I have been able to see past it. I am not saying I like people wearing full veils, because I don’t at all, but now when I see them the women seem more like, well, women who happen to be wearing a lot of black rather than symbols of something.
**Holy annoyance factor = (height + incidence of carmine robes per square metre) + square root of the average temperature given off by votive candles (C) /(number of toddlers + camera flash rate)*visitor density/incense.
Saturday evening in Nordrhein-Westfalen, and I find myself in the middle of nowhere looking at a promontory of baa-ing sheep with the chimneys and tower blocks of what I assume is Dusseldorf far away on the horizon.
I had come for a sort of Indian-music-meets-electronica concert with new friend Lisa at a hippy commune near Leverkusen. Public transport all the way, woo hoo! Leverkusen did not strike me as one of Germany’s brightest jewels, but it was fun to see a huge ‘Bayer‘ symbol shaped like as an aspirin looming over the town.
From there to the sheep of Hitdorf village, where a street named ‘Werfstrasse’ (wharf street, I think) and a stranded crane varnished and garnished with hanging baskets hinted at a more industrious history. I have done a bit of Googling since at a local history website and found that Hitdorf did indeed have an important harbour on the Rhine between 1750 and 1950, after it had been ‘geplundert’ (golly!) by some dude in medieval times. I also discovered that a house I happened to take a photograph of…
… once housed an Alfred (born 1900) and Elsa (born 1888) Maier, until they were deported to Riga by the Nazis in 1941 and never heard of again.
Hitdorf’s song, the same website tells me, goes, “Bier gebraut so hell and rein, das gibt’s nur in Hitdorf, in Hitdorf allein.” Life always comes back to beer.
Meanwhile, in the nearby commune they were singing not about beer but love, Govinda and sundry other important themes. Naturally I didn’t feel 100% chez moi in a place where hugging strangers is obligatory, but it was full of colour, art and smiley people. The music was cool, lots of sitars and drumming and the like, but the Western fusion made it a bit Jazz FM for my liking. Apologies for the quality of the following picture, but I felt a bit like a white traveller snatching pictures of natives who believe photography steals your soul, so I had to take it on the sly:
I didn’t ask permission to take photos, but then no one asked me if I would mind being in the photos and film that women from the commune were taking all night, so we’re even. My face will probably now appear in gushing promotional material for the next Satsang retreat. Super.
Predictably there was much hippy dancing, yuk. And bralessness. Several dynamic yoga-related moves were being thrown in the aisles, at some risk to the brave few still sitting. At one point I looked behind me to see a whole new crowd of people lost in euphoria who I hadn’t even noticed, and it felt for a moment that they were advancing towards me like zombies. Well, I think they all had a lot of fun.
To break up the journey home we stopped off in Cologne for a drink. We miraculously found a spare table in a place called Bastard, which we quickly realised was a gay bar. Had a nice chat with a Manchester United supporter, then continued home to bed.
It does the soul good to hear words like “Feuchtigkeit” spoken on the train. Am back in the Playmobilviertel after my German lesson in town, having successfully disembarked despite the terrifyingly wide gap between the train and the platform:
Actually, here is one of Germany’s well-kept secrets: the trains don’t always run on time here. In fact, they are delayed quite a lot! Deutsche Bahn obviously has an excellent overseas PR division, because its international reputation for efficient zeal is unbeschmirched. Rest assured, however, that they do eat a lot of sausages here and do recycle absolutely everything, so we can take comfort in something.
Excitingly, I have finally been given permission to do some volunteering work for Medecins sans Frontieres (Artze ohne Grenzen), hurrah! I will be doing, er, editing and translating type stuff I think. I am not allowed to fraternise with political mischiefdoers like Greenpeace (I think that would be tantamount to joining the Baader-Meinhof gang in civil servant circles), so I am pleased that I can at least get some NGO action. Might look into whether there are any hippy tree planting/hugging groups in Bonn, too.
My things from Bath still haven’t arrived, so I have been living out of a suitcase for five and a half weeks now. Just like Woody Guthrie. Probably. I move next week to my new unfurnished room and am determined not to buy any furniture from Ikea, so perhaps I will take minimalist living one step further. Actually, I have located a secondhand furniture store in Bonn so I will investigate and report thereon at the weekend.
Went to the Netherlands at the weekend, but disappointly not much to report, (a) because it was Work Related and (b) because, well, the Netherlands looked just like Didcot. The part I went to anyway. Still, I found this cool place with a moat.
Much more interesting is this: a bona fide red squirrel!
I told you I keep seeing animals all over the place.
They were talking about the “Britische Luftwaffe” on the radio this evening (helping out people in the floods). I know there must have been a limit to how much of its tainted vocabulary Germany could throw out after The War, but it’s funny that they kept Luftwaffe. It makes you think of the Red Baron and Guernica, not humanitarian trips to Gloucestershire.
It is pretending to be a flower, but I am not fooled.
Also not fooling anyone is the following advertisement:
Advertising redux. I quite like it! But are they going to tell us – if Marlboro is not just a cigarette, is it…
(a) A way of life;
(b) A one-way trip to the emphysema ward; or
(c) A resilient brand with a 41% market share in the USA and whose performance in Germany has improved in recent times despite a challenging cigarette industry and economic environment, helping Philip Morris International to report a net revenue of $5.6 billion in the second quarter of 2007?
Is there a prize for the first correct entry?
Yikes, I have a backblog of events to cover. Firstly is my triumphant search for a new place to live. The spoils are a new top-floor room and some jolly nice housemates right in the centre of Bonn. It’s waffly pretty there, all leafy and be-stuccoed, and a bit closer to the action (not that I could get much further away…). During my marvellous bicycle escapade last weekend I timed how long it will take me to bike to work: about 30 minutes, or more like 60 if you take the charming but not recommended diversion of getting lost in the pedestrianised cobbled shopping district…
Actually, I may have lost my geek points now that I don’t work on a computer magazine any more, but I think I get cool points here just by being English, because I had a choice of places to move into in the end. Of course, magnetism like mine isn’t easily resisted. Looking forward to getting to know my cohabitants, who appear at this early stage to occupy that prized space in the Venn diagram of life where German and Interesting overlap.
Received some sad news from home in the week, which I won’t dwell on here because it would just be trite. Also felt a bit poorly in the last few days, but like any good foreign correspondent I will file my weekend report all the same. On Friday night I went to an Indonesian restaurant (foreshadowing our upcoming visit to Bali in December) in big bad Cologne with some colleagues. They are good company and all, but after a while they started talking about work A LOT. Still, nice masks:
On Saturday I had a nasty sandwich: a horrible riding lesson preceded and followed by a tobogganing trip and a late night card game respectively. The tobogganing was extremely cool. How could it not be? Sitting on a plastic sled, you are pulled up a hill by a cable and then let loose to slide (“hurtle” would probably suggest greater speeds than those actually achievable) down again. Like shotput and darts, being heavy in this sport is, I’d guess, a distinct advantage.
Got dropped off in a village called Pech for my weekly humiliation. It may be instructive to note that Pech can mean bad luck in German. Arrived at the stables to hear a woman literally shrieking at her students. I had a much younger teacher but she seemed to be equally exasperated. Mind you, it’s very hard to know if the teacher is angry with me or with the horse. I certainly didn’t have any fun, anyway. In a renewed attempt to learn to say more than “hilfe!” and “nein! Nicht Gallopp!”, I have bought a horse magazine that mainly contains disgusting photographs of inflamed gums and hoof ailments, and hope to persuade my new German tutor to talk horsey things with me at our next lesson.
I really needed a shower before the card game but there was a soprano giving a concert at my house (long story) and I was afraid the water pipes would not add to the kleine Nachtmusik, so I went to play poker smelling faintly of horse. I felt like a western gunslinger! Met a very interesting elderly gentleman who spoke of knowing Nina Simone in North Carolina in the fifties and used to be a journalist. Ooh, journalism: even hearing the word makes me swoon. Perhaps that’s what working as a civil servant does to you.
Lunchtime. Escape from the office via the lift, shared with the nice woman from Bhutan. Headphones on for some musical relief from the hum of my computer. Through the gates and hit the pavement, sticking to the shady parts like Boo Radley. On the radio: Maximo Park, Depeche Mode (natch) and German hip hop. Despite the suspicious glances of housewives shepherding their children on the streets, decide to investigate what’s behind this wall:
It’s a large yellow building. Not a huge surprise, then.
Tempted by the following item:
Luckily for my bank account, the shop is shut. German shops are all shut at lunchtime. This makes no sense, given that lunchtime is the only time professionals like me can browse for German flag-decorated toilet seats with mini subutteo games in the lid, but hey, who am I to question national retail policy?
Just time to narrowly avoid getting run over (there is an eccentric system here of allowing cars to turn on to roads where the green man is blinking at pedestrians to cross regardless) before returning to work for the afternoon. No one at all from Bhutan in the lift on the way up.
I don’t like it when people wear white trousers or skirts and you can see their underwear through the material.
Just had to get that off my chest.
This is my new favourite painting, Easter Procession in the Region of Kursk by Ilya Repin. I saw it in the Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle art museum in Bonn last weekend. Here, you don’t get the sense of the clouds of dust generated by the procession of people or of their grinding momentum along the road. Apparently the man with the stick is trying to push the hunchback out of the way to make room for the priest and self-important lady (both in yellow).
It was part of many wonderful paintings in an exhibition called Russlands Seele (“Russia’s Soul”), a collection of important (so I believe) Russian works. I usually find art galleries rather boring, but the colour and realism of the paintings I saw last week were so good I went round twice. I pretended to be Russian for a while so I could attach myself to a guided Russian party and soak up the atmosphere properly, but I think my gormless British expression and scorn for the icons section marked me out, and we parted company.
I saw a portrait of a rich merchant’s wife pictured with the status symbols of the day, a lemon and a porcelain cup; golden rye fields symbolising the endless bounty of Mother Russia; a pile of skulls from the Turkestan wars, which took place in the mid-eighteenth century (I hope I have remembered that right); a vast pearlescent landscape with the Dniepr (ditto) running through it; and that famous study of an alcoholic Modest Mussorgsky in his dressing gown (actually the last painting of him before his death). All extremely pleasing.
By the way, I found the Russian phrase for the title of this blog entry at www.dating-world.net/Russian%20phrases.htm, which I recommend if you’d like to know the Russian for “good day” (Dobry den), “sorry, I can’t speak Russian” (Mne ochen ponravilas vasha photographiya i pismo) or “I liked your photo and message very much” (Mne ochen ponravilas vasha photographiya i pismo).
Good Lord. I am listening to a lady playing tinny Euro-rai music very loudly on her computer as I type this. Oh to be a Plains Indian chasing buffalo on a Spanish horse in the eighteenth century, with the sound of thundering hooves and the wind about me and the promise of some tasty dried buffalo fat for dinner*. Sadly, that option is not currently open to me. Which I personally resent. Whose decision was it to live like this, in suburbs and slums and office cubicles?
Well, whoever made that decision, they made it a long time ago. From the moment our ancestral peeps started farming, the human race was impelled down a path of urbanisation, rapid population growth and, of course, ecological tomfoolery on a grand scale. So we get artisanship and opera houses (which Tim Flannery seems to think are important) and women’s rights (in some places) and modern medicine, but we also get overcrowding and exhaust fumes and absolutely no chance to hunt buffalo on a Saturday morning in Bonn, as far as I can tell from the leaflets I picked up in the tourist office.
Actually, I was just reading a book that reminds us that, yes, modern life has brought us medical advantages, but the most damaging diseases came about from our decision to stop being hunter-gatherers and start with agriculture in the first place. Closeness to animals brought us smallpox and tuberculosis (cattle), leprosy (water buffalo), influenza (pigs or birds I think) and the cold (from the horse, I’m afraid, my Comanche brothers).
Indeed, writes Clive Ponting (whose expertise in this area I cannot testify to), “agriculture does not necessarily provide more nutritious food, nor does it offer greater security because it depends on a far smaller range of plants and animals. In a poor season food shortages and even famine are much more likely.” It also “involves clearing the natural ecosystem in order to create an artificial habitat where humans can grow plants and stock the animals they want.”
With hunting and gathering on the other hand, there isn’t the problem of storing food, you get more nutrition from wild varieties, you don’t have the risky dependence on a limited range of animals or crops and you don’t rip all the forests down because the chief of the village happens to really love maize tortillas with every meal. Some frood called Bill Ruddiman believes that mild global warming has actually been going on for 8,000 years, caused by methane emissions from early irrigated agriculture and carbon dioxide emissions from forest clearance.
Back on the Great Plains again, in Nutritional Success on the Great Plains: Nineteenth-Century Equestrian Nomads, Joseph Prince and Richard Steckel, using data gathered in 1892, found that “the Plains nomads were tallest in the world during the mid-nineteenth century”. (Incidentally, only men were measured: “Szathmary [some scholar dude] notes that most women, including aboriginal women today, dislike being touched by strange men”. No s**t, Szathmary.) “We link this extraordinary achievement,” Prince and Steckel say, “to a rich and varied diet, modest disease loads other than epidemics, a remarkable facility at reorganization following demographic disasters, and egalitarian principles of operation.” Obviously I note that Plains Indians used domesticated animals and traded with farmers and other groups; they were not hunter-gathering nomads intactos.
So why did humans take this course? Unfortunately I have forgotten everything I ever read on this subject at university. Dufus. But I do remember that the agricultural revolution happened over centuries, a couple of thousand years I think, and in China and Mesoamerica as well as in Iraq – this was no single invention that spread around the world like the Irish bar or the hula hoop. I believe we did it because we are too clever; we were able to respond to population pressure and climate change by experimenting with different way to harvest food and by looking at a sheep and thinking not “yikes!” but “yoghurt!”. Thus it is that I can’t help thinking human sapiens is an evolutionary mistake – a species too large-brained (and simultaneously too stupid) for this planet to accommodate. “We are in our present mess through our intelligence and inventiveness,” writes James Lovelock. “It could have started as long as 100,000 years ago, when we first set fire to forests as a lazy way of hunting. We had ceased to be just another animal and begun the demolition of the Earth.”
The few climate change-y books I have with me naturally link the environment to all this, though I am sure the more knowledgeable anthropologists and archaeologists would say the agricultural revolution had more to do with power, gender relations or the nice art effects you can achieve with ochre powder. “The long summer [that is, the present interglacial] that has been the last 8,000 years is without doubt the crucial event in human history,” writes (the scientist) Tim Flannery. “Although agriculture commenced earlier, it was during this period that we acquired most of our major crops and domestic animals, the first cities came into being, the first irrigation ditches were dug, the first words were written down and the first Big Brother was filmed.” (I may have made the last one up.) “It is as if the human mind had sheltered a template for the city all along, and was just waiting until conditions permitted to manifest it.”
So a changing climate both forced hunter gatherers to change their way of life and allowed them to exploit new food sources, according to Flannery and others. And now we are changing the climate ourselves. Ha ha.
Well, I would love to dribble more on this topic, but I can’t procrastinate any longer. Like an idiot I agreed to join a poker night at a colleague’s house tonight, even though I can’t play poker, so I have an hour in this now-suspiciously-silent internet cafe to research the rules.
*I concede I would probably have to be a man. “The nineteenth century was a difficult time for women of the Plains tribes,” note Joseph Prince and Richard Steckel cheerfully. “With the rise of export-based trade in hides and furs, the health of women tended to deteriorate. Preparing furs and buffalo hides for sale was arduous women’s work, which was often combined or added to traditional work responsibilities.”
Readers, I may not be at my effervescent, brilliant best this evening. I have just spent 45 minutes thwonking my tired brain against the “Konjunktiv II”: the German past or imperfect subjunctive. I now know how to say, “Wenn ich nicht diese scheisse Grammatik hätte lernen müssen”, which is German for “Do your cucumber sandwiches come without crusts?”.
Yes, I have a new German instructor: mid-thirties I’d guess, greying hair, and a jogger. I know this because he told me. In German. I am Spartacus.
I also have a new Ausweis, or identity card. I should probably use the arrival of said card to begin a searing Gregorian invective on the fascist state, but actually all I’m interested in is that I can now join Bonn Central Library. This is particularly pleasing, because when I tried to join last week without one, the officious lady at the desk was rather rude and clearly toyed with the idea of taking me to the nearest police station (little did she know I have diplomatic immunity). Now I can seek my revenge by promptly joining and returning all my books at least seven weeks late, as is my wont. I probably shouldn’t, having read this week that librarians are the most fed up of all workers as it is, but then my late fines will swell Bonn’s civil coffers substantially, so it’s swings and roundabouts.
I have a new house too (more of which to come), but more importantly I have a new theory on how to save the world. It is: comfy bike saddles. Here is how it goes. I spent a gorgeous day on Sunday whizzing around Bonn’s ritzier districts on a bike that I rented. Twas one of those European affairs, with bouncy tires, curved handlebars and an enormous black leather saddle of sofa-level comfort. So comfy was it, in fact, that I stayed on it for several hours and zipped along the Rhine and down to the museum area too. It is obvious to me that if you owned such a bicycle you would never want to walk, drive or even go indoors ever again. Now I understand why I have seen old women cycling with specially adapted bike baskets to carry their pets: the poor dog would starve otherwise.
I think that if we can hand out a German bike to every citizen of the developed world, we would arrest climate change and stabilise greenhouse gas emissions for just a small cycle-shaped dent in global GDP. People would stop heating their homes, because they’d be so hot from cycling and would hardly go inside the house anyway. No one would fly, because there wouldn’t be enough cycle racks at the airports. We could even lessen methane-releasing landfill, because you simply don’t have enough hands free when cycling to unwrap shrink-wrapped oranges and the like. I am just putting the finishing touches to my new policy, which I will call The Green Revolution: Saddles, Spokes and GHG Mitigation, then will post it first class to nice Mr Benn.
Edit: Actually I will call it Green Revolutions: Putting a Spoke in the Wheel of Global Warming.