Saturday, March 14, 2015

Thoughts from Frankfurt

-I never tire while in foreign countries of seeing the subtle differences in appearance of people. German men often have a certain demeanor about them that always seems very recognisable - soft-spoken, small wry smile, horn-rimmed glasses, well-dressed with clothes that are cut a little tighter than American or Australian fashion. I actually was reminded of it just by the clerk at the front desk of the hotel when I arrived. It's a different look from, say, the Danes, where I've spent a bit of time. Of course, a good part of this is probably just the power of suggestion - recognising Germanness once you know the nationality is a lot easier than being able to guess German heritage based on appearance alone. Based on the number of questions I've received in German while walking through the streets, apparently I don't look sufficiently Australian (or American, as some might argue is more relevant these days) for me to be identifiable as a foreigner.

-Another contrast between Frankfurt and Copenhagen is the nature of the public squares. Both cities share the same narrow, walkable streets common to cities designed before the automobile. But in central Copenhagen, huge swathes are filled with gorgeous old architecture from centuries in the past. Frankfurt, by contrast, had the misfortune of being bombed flat in 1944. No, really:

File:Frankfurt Am Main-Altstadt-Zerstoerung-Luftbild 1944.jpg

This, as it turns out was doubly unfortunate. Firstly, being bombed flat is bad news at the best of times. But the mid-1940's was far from the best of times aesthetically, because it meant that the city was being rebuilt just as the west was getting into some of the most ghastly forms of architecture in history. Hence even in the Frankfurt squares with old-looking buildings, not only are they noticeably of recent vintage, but they're next to horrible 50's and 60's looking square concrete and glass monstrosities. A shame, really. Wars have consequences, that's for sure. At least things improved with the modern skyscrapers, which are much nicer. I got to see the Commerzbank Tower up close, which I remember from a desktop photo on my old computer years ago, where the shape made it look like it was only half finished with bits sticking up off the top.

Commerzbank Tower

-I wrote last time from Copenhagen about the pleasures of walking idly through foreign cities. I can't improve much on those notes, except that since then I learned that the French have a term for this kind of activity - Flânerie, with me taking the role of the Flâneur.

-For a recovering introvert who occasionally enjoys relapsing into his natural state, it is glorious to be a monolingual English speaker in Germany. Nearly all the service staff here speak English, so you can order whatever you want (when you're trying to spend money, most people will find a way to figure out what you want). In addition, the museums are courteous enough to put nearly all their explanations in English and German (there was even a public statue of Goethe that had a translation of the plaque in English too - not sure what Goethe would have thought of that). But more than that, it is an active pleasure to not speak German. Especially in museums, most people's conversations are inane and distracting. When they're in a language you understand, you can't help but listen, even when it's annoying. But when it's just unintelligible German, you observe the people at a pleasant sociological distance, and their conversation is just the linguistic curiosity of different sound combinations than what you're used to.

-I went to an Impressionist exhibit at the art museum here, helpfully titled 'Monet' in huge letters. Of course, at least half the paintings weren't actually by Monet, but the museum folks know what sells. Just show the rubes some paintings and call them all Monet, they won't know the difference! I imagine Cezanne and Degas are spinning in their graves, but hey, what are you going to do?

-There was one aspect of the Monet exhibit that was really striking. In some of the side rooms, they displayed some contemporaneous black and white photographs of some of the areas being depicted in the paintings - men in row boats on rivers with cypresses next to them, Parisian street scenes with horses and carts. The effect was really quite shocking. The photographs looked incredibly drab and mundane. All these glorious scenes that one had simply imagined to be like the beautiful paintings instead looked like everyday stuff that you would walk past. Of course, they looked old, but in a vaguely dirty and primitive way, not in a romantic way. The effect was rather similar to when one sees photos of famous celebrities without their makeup on, and they look ugly and ordinary. It struck me that Impressionist painting does a similar job to makeup and a soft focus lens - brushing out the details that make the world imperfect and familiar. No wonder people like it, especially when they have very little sense of what the original source material was.

-In the Paulskirche church, they have a fascinating history of German politics during the 19th century. The building was the house of the first German Parliament, after the Germanic states started to unite once Napoleon no longer ran the place. The stories of the politicians really emphasise the Moldbug point about how much the world has moved left over time. Back then, the 'radical far left' believed that there should be democracy under universal (male) suffrage. The far right wanted the restoration of rule by hereditory aristocrats. Worth bearing mind next time someone talks about how 'extreme' the modern Republican party has become. What was also remarkable reading the stories is seeing right wing movements actually win for once. And decisively, too - the German parliament was shuttered. Take that, modernity! Of course, seeing where this increased nationalism ended up puts a bit of a dampener on the whole thing. But it depends where you finish the line - if you chart things up to World War I, the Allies hardly come off looking more civilised or just in their cause than the Axis powers. If you see German politics as a continual line from the mid-1800s to the Nazi party (which I suspect most modern Germans do), then it's a lot more problematic. Then again, the continuation from socialism to Communist atrocities is hardly edifying either, but somehow the left never seems to lose much sleep over that one. Cthulu swims left, after all, except for a hundred odd years in Germany.

No comments:

Post a Comment