Sunday, April 24, 2011


Thursday I set out for the Irish pub across town, since there's a bi-weekly English speaking group that meets there. I arrived and looked around, and finding no familiar faces from last time, and no table that looked particularly welcome to strangers peering around inquisitively, I didn't stay. Deciding that since it was a beautiful evening, I thought it'd be nice to take a stroll towards the cathedral instead. Its black spires dominate the skyline from nearly anywhere downtown, and it's the focal center for Köln - all streets and all history of the city's significance point back to that building. It shares a wall with the old Roman city boundary and as such is part of the oldest section of the city, and from my student apartment on the 10th floor I can see and hear it from even a significant distance away.

So stepped back out and wandered around through the narrow little streets, away from the traffic and crowds in the bar/restaurant-festooned yuppie district. Coming to one street corner I saw a funny round building with decorative bricks, and upon closer inspection realized I'd just run into a tower from the days of Rome*, built in 50 AD and preserved by its inclusion in a monastery (where it served as a latrine. Ew.) These days one side of the structure is completely black from the air pollution and there doesn't seem to be anything actually protecting the structure, so I suppose it won't last another two thousand years. Embedded in the sidewalk is a map of the old Roman wall, so I decided to head from the tower (the northwestern point on this map) along the north wall, the other end of which lies under the cathedral. Along the otherwise modern road are short chunks of Roman wall, marked as such. None of them seem to draw any special attention besides my own or have anything other than old brass plaques and the occasional sidewalk map. Further along the wall was built into a huge 17th century building, which is now the city museum of Köln. Definitely a place to visit sometime. Eventually I came to the cathedral square itself, where part of the Roman gate has been reconstructed and is fully accessible. People sleep on it and press beer bottle caps into the pits in the rock. My inner conservationist dies a little.

Even from the square I could hear some activity from the cathedral, and as it was the Thursday before Easter, I figured that the Catholic celebrations get started early and would probably continue until Tuesday. The smell of incense drew me in through the doors where a mass of some sort was underway. There was a fantastic choir singing and big puffs of incense coming from the censer as the officiant swung it back and forth. I stood for awhile at the back, leaning against a pillar and imagining myself at the heart of the medieval Holy Roman Empire. I understood only parts of the German and even less of the Latin, but enjoyed seeing the cathedral in use instead of simply as a tourist destination. There were still a few with cameras, luckily standing at the back as I was. I stayed for a little over an hour and left after 9 pm, though the service was showing no signs of being over anytime soon.

I went back this morning, hoping to see a Catholic Easter mass in all its epicness and ceremony. And arriving early meant that I had a good spot right up at the front, when there were hundreds of people arriving later that had to stand. I'm not religious and I have little love for the Catholic church as an organization, but I will say that for a grandiose traditional church ceremony, they really do pull out all the stops. There was a huge pipe organ whose lower notes you could hear with your stomach, a girls' choir, incense clouds thick enough to cut with a knife, about two dozen altar boys and about eight or ten priestly looking old guys, and the service was led by Cardinal Archbishop of Köln himself. Afterwards there was a procession outside with a huge silver cross decorated with flowers, and everyone crowded around the Archbishop to shake his hand, like I've seen in pictures when the Pope walks around. I was glad I didn't bring my camera with me, as one guy also in the front took his camera out when the sermon started, and an old guy behind him tapped him on the shoulder and angrily (but very softly and politely) let the guy know that cameras during the service were not acceptable.

During the outdoors procession I remembered that my phone also had a camera and took a few shots of the procession and the Cardinal:

Also, just now, a pigeon almost strolled right into my room - from my tenth floor balcony! That's living in the city for you, I guess. :)

*these pictures of the Roman things belong to other people, since I had expected to simply spend the evening at a pub and didn't have my camera.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Heim sweet Heim

And now I'm in Köln for my exchange semester. The trip went fairly smoothly, two flights and a train trip later and I found myself outside of the city's famous cathedral. I made my way to the hostel my Austrian colleague Georg had reserved for us, and spent the rainy afternoon chatting with some other random travelers from Australia and Quebec who were also staying there. It was a comfortable and colorful little place fairly close to the university area. The plaza it's located on was a busy intersection of cars, tram lines, bicycles speeding by, and people standing around in front of shops (including the ubiquitous McDonald's). I was exhausted after a 21-hour day and slept like a rock that night.

The next day was a day of waiting in lines. Of course I couldn't wait to get my apartment key and drop off my ~35 kg of stuff, but first I had to go to the International Office to ensure that I was registered for the university, as I still hadn't ever received paperwork that I had been expecting for weeks in Finland. Luckily their policy was to not send such things abroad, which made me a little more relaxed knowing that I was in the system, but a little frustrated about the language barrier. Perhaps it was in the paperwork all along and I simply missed it. One thing that was interesting was when the registrar was looking for my name in the system, and her monitor was facing me so I could see that she was scrolling through pages and pages of Ernsts to find me. Normally I'm used to there being maybe one or two others, but not dozens. At least I won't need to worry about anyone mispronouncing my name while I'm here.

Another Ernst who's apparently from here is Max Ernst, a Surrealist/Dada artist born in the nearby suburb of Brühl. There's a museum nearby that I decided to visit today since it was raining again (slightly disappointing after yesterday's sunny day of apartment-stuff shopping and simply being outside in 25 degrees C - the first time I could wear a t-shirt since October). I took the tram south for about 20 minutes and found myself in a small suburb more pleasant than the main city where I live. Nearby there's also a couple of palaces and a market square which would have been a nice place to hang out had it not been a) raining and b) a Sunday. The museum itself is in a renovated old ballroom and is on a beautiful property, and the collection was really interesting - most of Ernst's famous paintings are in places like the Met and the private collections of people like Peggy Guggenheim, so the museum seemed to focus on a lot of his early work and sculptures. Nearly all of it were things I hadn't ever seen before, even in a book. I had read a bit about the artist way back in high school because of an early identification with someone who shared my last name, which was pretty rare in the States, and of course as an aspiring artist the connection was pretty much there. One summer I went to this camp for art nerds called Governor's School, and when it was apparent that the main idea of the course was to introduce high school kids to the Dada movement, I ended up going by the name of Max all summer when all the other kids were like, hey, he's got the same name as you! Even before that I had told my eighth-grade art teacher that I was related to him - mostly as a joke, but she was so impressed and proud that I didn't have the heart to let her know I had made it all up. Dada in theory and practice, I guess!

One of the most interesting series of his art that I hadn't even heard about were the D Paintings, named after Dorothea Tanning (who is apparently still alive), who Ernst met in 1942 shortly after emigrating to the US. For her birthday each year for nearly the rest of his life he made a small painting as a gift, each with the letter D, like little private love letters. They were all displayed in order from 1943 until 1974, two years before his death. I thought it was really touching that a collection of small, memento-like works over such a long period could all be collected and displayed at once.

The museum wasn't particularly huge, but it was nice to see a sizeable collection of work that's not published in a hundred art books already. And a really great surprise to find a museum for one of my old favorites of the art world. Near the cathedral is another museum that will just have to wait for the next rainy afternoon, the Roman-Germanic museum documenting the Rhein area's early history. And of course the cathedral itself!

Now if I could only get my German language skills going again, I'd be in good shape. That's the only thing that's been a little frustrating so far. Even the other foreign students speak German to each other. Luckily, I have a German class as part of the Erasmus program, and there's even a conversational Finnish course as well, assuming my schedule leaves Thursday afternoons free. :)