The D&O Diary was on assignment in Germany this past week, with stops for meetings in Cologne and for a conference in Frankfurt. January, it turns out, is a less than optimal month in which to visit Northern Europe. The conditions are generally cold, grey and dark. When composing their timeless folk tales the Brothers Grimm undoubtedly assembled their story ideas throughout the year but waited until the third week in January to put pen to paper, in order to summon just the right mood of forbidding gloom.
The Rhine river city known as Colonia to the Romans, Cologne to the Rhineland-coveting French, and Köln to the natives, presently has a population of about 1 million. The predominant (and omnipresent) landmark in Cologne is its towering, dark cathedral, in German called the Kölner Dom(pictured at the top of the post, with the Rathaus, or City Hall, to the left of the cathedral’s twin spires). The Dom is just about the only building in the city that survived the war, its structure preserved because allied bomber pilots depended on the sight the twin spires rising about the flat Rhine basin as a navigational reference.
In prior visits to Cologne, I wondered how the city planners had allowed the major railroad lines and the main railroad terminal (the Hauptbahnhof) to be built literally right next to the Dom (as depicted in the two pictures below). It turns out that the railroad lines actually were completed before the Dom. Though construction on the Dom commenced in 1248, work paused in 1473 for, oh, about four hundred years, until a nineteenth century wave of romantic enthusiasm for the Middle Ages and a flood of Prussian money finally brought the Dom to completion in 1880, after the railroad lines were well established.
Beyond the Dom, the rest of Cologne was rebuilt almost in its entirety after the war – which creates a challenge for 21st century visitors to many German cities. The unavoidable question is: how do you feel about historic reconstructions? The façades and structures of many of the “old” buildings in both Cologne and Frankfurt are restored versions of historic buildings destroyed in the war. This aesthetic problem is not unique to Germany; the Temple of Heaven in Beijing is a 19th century reconstruction. The fabulous fortress city of Carcasonne to be seen today in southwest France is essentially a 19th century enhancement of an older structure. Just the same, the reconstructed older building problem is omnipresent in Germany because so much of its urban fabric was obliterated between 1941 and 1945. There is something less than satisfying about the city centers in places like Cologne and Frankfurt where the rustic, half-beamed houses in each city’s Altstadt are barely 60 years old.(The pictures below reflects the restored buildings in old town in Frankfurt.)
I have visited Cologne several times before. It is actually (and perhaps unusually) one of my favorite cities in Europe. It is sufficiently familiar that I have favored routine when I visit. For me, no visit to Cologne would be complete without a vigorous walk along the Rhine. Fleets of barges work in both directions on the river, with south-bound vessels struggling powerfully against the strong north-bound current.
A series of traffic and rail bridges now traverse the waterway, crossing the riparian barrier that two millennia ago arrested the Roman imperial advance at the river’s western shore. (A fascinating museum in the city center preserves the remnants of the Roman outpost that guarded the river frontier against the menacing Teutonic tribes on the river’s far shore.) The paved pathway that now runs along the river’s east side leads quickly into the countryside and rolls for miles and miles to the South. On a different occasion, I would have welcomed the chance to follow the path wherever it might eventually go, who knows, perhaps all the way to the river’s headwaters in the Alps. As it was, frigid temperatures and frosty winds imposed certain time limits. After an interval of brisk riverside walking, a retreat to a quiet table and a glass of beer seemed like a much better idea.
And drinking beer in Cologne is a particularly good idea, because Cologne is the only place in the world where beer called kölsch (pronounced “kulsh”), a distinctive pale lager, properly may be brewed (according to the Kölsch-Konvention of 1986). Traditionally, the beer is served in slender cylindrical glasses. In one of the world’s greatest beer-drinking customs, the waiter will replace your empty glass with a full one (marking your coaster each time to keep a tally the number of cumulative rounds) and continue to do so until you signal you have had enough by taking your coaster and placing it over the top of your empty glass. On a prior visit, before I learned the code, the constantly replenishing supply of lager just about inundated me. This time, I soon shifted the coaster to the top of the glass out of a healthy sense of self-preservation – and an awareness that I had a train to catch early the next morning.
There was a bit of a surprise on Saturday morning as I readied to leave Cologne. A sudden but serious snow storm hit town just before I left for the train station. Fortunately, the quickly accumulating snow had no effect on the train schedule. I took the high-speed Deutsche Bahn Intercity-Express (ICE as the locals know it), which glided smoothly southward. The deceptively quick train took only 55 minutes to cover the 120 miles between Cologne and the Frankfurt Airport. Earlier this month, The Economist had an article critical of this type of highly subsidized transport, but all I can say is that it is a remarkably civilized and stress-free way to move quickly between cities.
Frankfurt is a modern, prosperous city, located on the Main River (pronounced “Mine”). Unusually for a European city, its center city has a skyline of tall steel and glass office buildings. The local joke, invoking both the river’s name and the phalanx of office towers, is to refer to the city as “Mainhattan.” The river, which the Franks long ago forded, giving the city its name, runs east to west and joins the Rhine at Wiesbaden, and traditionally was the border dividing catholic Southern Germany from Protestant Northern Germany. Frankfurt has long been a financial center for continental Europe; the Rothschild banking firm, for example, started there in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Today, the European Central Bank and the Deutsche Bundesbank are both located there, as are the headquarters of a host of commercial banks.
Saturday was propitious day to have arrived in Frankfurt, as it was market day. The central, pedestrianized shopping district was thronged with shoppers, undeterred by the chilly, wet snow that started to fall shortly after I left my hotel to explore the city.
Because of the raw weather, I was happy to make my way into the Kleinmarkethalle, a covered market with butchers, fish mongers, bakers, florists and green grocers. In no hurry to head back out into the snow, I decided to have lunch at a small restaurant on the second floor of the market hall. I confess that on this trip to Germany I had poor luck trying to order off of the restaurant menus. It seemed that no matter what I ordered, what arrived was a fried breaded pork cutlet with potatoes. So for this lunch I tried a different approach. I asked the waiter “Was empfehlen Sie?” (What do you recommend?) He suggested the daily special, which he said was very good, so I agreed to give it a try.
The daily special turned out to be a large sausage on a bed of dark green mush. The sausage presumably included some form of meat product, but I am not sure what the green mush involved. It wasn’t bad; I suppose it is all part of the adventure of traveling. At least it wasn’t a breaded pork cutlet.
On Sunday, I decided to attend the church service at the Frankfurt Cathedral (officially Kaiserdom Sankt Bartholomäus, pictured left). I missed the early service (it began at 10 am rather than 11 am as I had assumed ) so I walked along the river until the time for the Noon service. I was surprised when I arrived a few minutes before Noon; the sanctuary was packed. It was literally standing room only. I was in for another surprise when the service, a Catholic mass, began. The priest was only a few words in before I realized he wasn’t speaking German. Not that it mattered much, since I know very little German. But I couldn’t figure out what language he was speaking. It sounded like Russian, at first. But then some other words sounded Italian. It was as if it was Russian being spoken by an Italian. I thought, maybe it is a Balkan language, one of the South Slav tongues.
The final clue came during the sermon, when the priest, saying some numbers, used three words that I recognized: he said “jedan, dva, tri” which I recognized as one, two, three in Croatian. (It is a very long story about how I happen to know a few Croatian words). Sure enough, on the way out, the sign outside the door confirmed that the service was “kroatisch.” It was quite something; the sanctuary was full, there were several hundred people there. Most everyone, except for a few interlopers like me, participated in all of the hymns and prayer responses. Unknowingly, I had wandered into a large gathering of the Croatian community in Frankfurt.
After the service, and after a bit more strolling, I made my way to a café near the river. I arrived after the lunch rush, so I had a chance to try to chat with the waitress. I have only recently tried to learn German. I had to overcome an irrational bias against the language based on a childhood of watching black-and-white World War II movies in which vulpine Wehrmacht officers shouted single-word German imprecations at their troops, their horse, their prisoners. The German spoken by the pretty waitress with the shy smile at the café was a different language entirely. If I had heard her speak her language when I was, say, about 14 years old, I would have devoted myself then to learning the language without restraint. Unfortunately, having started to try to learn German only recently, my ability to chat with the waitress was comically constrained. I had pretty much exhausted my selection of phrases after I got past “What is your name?” and “Where are you from?” After that — unless I wanted to say “I would like to buy some batteries” or “Is this the train for Düsseldorf?” — I really had nothing else to work with. So I tried to suffice with a few smiles and head nods. She smiled in return, but I could read the thought-bubble over her head – it said, “Are there even more morons back in America like this one?”
The Frankfurt conference itself, focused on the topic of litigation financing, was quite an interesting event. A group of very sharp lawyers, financiers, and representatives of institutional investors gathered on Monday to discuss the latest developments in collective actions in Europe and around the world. Given my demonstrated incompetence in German, I was fortunate that the sessions were largely conducted in English. The threatening snow storm gathering in the East coast of the U. S. managed to thoroughly disrupt my return travel plans, which in turn cut into my ability to attend all of the sessions, as I beat a premature retreat back to the States to try to get ahead of the storm.
Despite the wintry weather both in Germany and at home, I had a great trip to a couple of great German cities. Next time, however, I think I will try to travel in, say, June, rather than January.
Here’s a picture with my good friend and former colleague, Ed Mrakovcic of Gen Re (based in Cologne), sharing a couple of glasses of kölsch.