Monday, June 27, 2011

Some mental meanderings on the train to Aachen yesterday morning

In Finland this past weekend was Juhannus, the midsummer celebration that's the cultural culmination of all things summertime. In a country with only a few months of summer, people take it vary seriouly and the long days mean that celebrations, festivals, parties, and so on do not stop at all from June through August. It's really something to behold. But this year, at least, I'm in Germany, where the nights still get dark and the event of midsummer passes without a second thought. In my mind there are thoughts of bonfires on lake shores, pale night skies and midnight barbeques and saunas; the reality is and endless procession of cold grey days punctuated with rain and sirens, holed up in my tiny apartment wishing I had something interesting to do besides my school-related reading.

After 15 consecutive days of rain, my cabin fever reached its peak and I decided that getting out of the shadow of my 40-story apartment building would be a good change. One place I had been trying to visit for weeks is Aachen, far to the west of Germany by the border of the Netherlands and Belgium. As part of being a student in the state of NRW it's possible for me to hop on the regional train for free, and in spite of the low grey skies I decieded that now was a good a time as any to try to escape city life for a few hours. I'd hoped to be able to visit during my holiday from classes for a week, but it rained the entire time so I spent the week visiting indoor things such as museums and exhibitions.

My favorite parts of Germany so far have been outside of Köln. Growing up and living in cities of a million people is pretty common in the US, so I don't share my colleagues' fascination with the big city. I find living in the city itself rather stressful compared to the quieter suburbs, and unlike the others I don't find it particularly exciting or enriching. What makes a place exciting for me is the presence of things that are interesting or entertaining and people whose company I enjoy, not the number of bars or overpriced concerts of music whose genre I don't appreciate. So to keep myself sane, I make my occasional excursions to places with their history and culture still intact. Köln's history, though fascinating, only exists in museums today - the rest was bombed away in 1945 and hastily built over, with the exception of a few lucky cathedrals.

It's actually Aachen's cathedral that brings me out to the city - built in 800, it's the oldest cathedral in northern Europe, and the resting place of Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, or as I prefer, Big Chuck. And if you haven’t heard of the town’s German name, even the briefest glance at medieval history should make you famliar with its French name, Aix-la-Chapelle. Through history about thirty German kings have been crowned at that cathedral before making their royal pilgrimage to Köln. Architecturally, it’s also notable in its Oriental appearance, its mosaics, and its octagonal instead of cruciform shape. Partially it was because it was a cathedral built when the very idea of cathedrals north of Italy was still new. For 200 years after its construction, according to the Interwebs, it was the tallest building north of the Alps. There's also supposedly an interesting town hall also built by the Big C, but I doubt it will take more than half a day to fully explore the area.

The ride itself is half the fun. I really enjoy traveling by train, especially when it's free, and always feels like a breath of fresh air from the dusty, claustrophobic city. It's a reminder that there's a world outside of my apartment building. Even though rain still looks likely, the sun occasionally breaks through to really bring out the colors of the countryside - the seemingly infinite amount of rain makes for brilliantly green gardens, fields and woods. This train has an upper berth, and the relaxing swaying of the coach up here is even more pronounced, lulling me halfway into a nap. But I don't sleep on trains unless it's night, since I prefer looking out the windows and looking for hints of old houses, castles, or other fascinating architecture.

NRW is far from the most scenic area in Germany - I'd compare it to New Jersey, actually, in all its dirty, graffiti-festooned industrialism. And it's about as far across the country from anything stereotypically German (ie. Bavarian) as Jersey is from Navajo reservations. But at least it's easy to get around and explore, and occasionally one can find small patches of beauty coming through, in the smaller towns and the needly spires of the towns between the industry, and in the few blackened but ornate buildings that managed to survive the war. It's all in how much you want to look for them.

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