Germany Dreaming. II: It’s Off to Cologne
von Michael Bracewell

Eine Deutschlandreise. Erste Station: Köln

[Zweiter Teil der BBC-Serie »Germany Dreaming« von Michael Bracewell. Der erste Teil ging weitgehend in den Essay »Germany Is Your America« von Bracewell ein, den wir unter dem Titel »Deutschland ist dein Amerika« in Heft 4 von »Pop. Kultur und Kritik« in deutscher Übersetzung abgedruckt haben. Veröffentlichung des Radiomanuskripts von Teil 2 mit freundlicher Genehmigung des Autors und der BBC.]

The tiny German airbus, having bounced through twenty minutes of extreme turbulence, now took what felt like a freefall plunge of several thousand feet.

I had boarded this aircraft – although the word seems grand for what felt little bigger than a flying car – in Amsterdam, en route to Cologne from the United Kingdom. I had imagined having all kinds of experiences during this, my first trip to Germany in the summer of 2003, but I had never envisaged a crash landing somewhere along the Rhine valley – the likelihood of which seemed to be drawing nearer by the minute.

The cause of this bumpy ride had also taken me surprise. In rapid, steady, somewhat Americanised English – an intonation that I was to grow to recognize – the German pilot had informed us that the local temperature in Cologne was a staggering 41 degrees Celcius or 106 degrees Farenheit, which even for early August was unnaturally hot. It also meant that our chirpy little aeroplane was being buffeted along a rumbling current of baking hot air. I glanced out of the window, to be dazzled by the white glare of fierce afternoon sunshine that was reflecting off the wing. Beyond this, pale blue sky merged into a shimmering heat haze, while somewhere far below, shining like pale copper, was a broad and majestically twisting river.

The airbus and its occupants had been my first introduction to what I should call the ‘real’ Germany. I don’t quite know what I had been expecting. Some sleek, modernist aircraft of audacious design, perhaps – with propellers facing backwards and the interior replete with a pink and black cocktail bar and coolly smiling stewardesses wearing ‘New Look’ uniforms. The plane in which I now found myself, however, was like a summary of modern German characteristics The graphics for the in-flight snack menu, for instance, were jaunty to the point of loud – a kind of declamatory cheerfulness. They reminded me of that period of British design in the mid 1970s, when a picture of a fried egg wearing running shoes was considered not only funny but trend setting. At the same time, the corporate identity of the airline seemed to uphold a jarring fusion of eco-aware liberalism and entrenched conservatism – as though hippies were running a bank.

My fellow passengers, all twelve of them, and all Germans, seemed unconcerned by the drama of the ride. One had clearly had too much drink, and was sitting fast asleep with his head thrown back and his mouth wide open. Others were solidly absorbed in their evening newspaper. A woman was sitting with her eyes closed, and her hands in her lap, wearing the serene smile of meditation. Clothes were drab and casual.

All in all, one might have been in Doncaster.

After an approach that was more of a fairground ride than a descent, the squeal of the undercarriage wheels confirmed our safe arrival on German soil. I unpeeled my hands from the arm rests, realised that my legs were still shaking and shuffled towards the open door. It seemed an inauspicious start, and the heat hit you with brutalising force, seemingly sucking the air out of your lungs and making every movement an effort. And then across the tarmac I saw another parked aircraft. The logo ‘Air Berlin’ was stamped down the length of its gleaming white fuselage. And for some bizarre reason, on seeing it, my entire romance with this beckoning country began to re-awaken.

Maybe Bob Dylan had felt the same way, the first time he visited Highway 69.

Cologne airport is a modern building, built of glass and steel, and with highly efficient air conditioning. As an environment, it exudes gracious welcome and modern efficiency. Each overhead announcement – spoken in a low, calm female voice – is introduced by an urgent but cheerful little sample of electronic music. It was like walking through a song by Kraftwerk. British airports, by comparison, suddenly felt as though they are made of damp cardboard and old yoghurt pots, staffed by lunatics and frequented by psychopaths.

Later, some German friends were to tell me that whenever they arrived at Heathrow, they felt sure that they had landed during a major security alert, because everyone looked so hunched, stressed and terrified. Then they realised that this was just what Londoners look like. With this, and other such thoughts about the greenness of the grass on the other side, I sauntered through the cool, gleaming precincts of the concourse, passed the impassive but courteous armed border guide, and soon found myself in a Mercedes taxi.

In the evening sunshine, the countryside flanking the motorway was hot and tranquil. From the bridge which crosses the wide, placid Rhine, I could see the soaring Gothic spires of the Dom cathedral, as black as coal, with the rest of the largely modern city spread out behind its vast medieval bulk. To one side were the low roofs of the railway station, and beside those, overlooking the river, the square, box-like buildings of the famous Museum Ludwig – home to one of the finest collections of modern art in the world, and which I had come specifically to visit.

It is an odd kind of confession to make, but to be sitting in a Mercedes, purring along the autobahn was for me the realisation of a fantasy. Imagine how another type of traveller might have felt in a Greyhound bus, heading from New York to L.A, their head full of the blues and ‘On The Road’.

As a teenager I had studied the artwork on the sleeve of Kraftwerk’s album, ‘Autobahn’, in the which the neatly groomed electronic synthesiser quartet from Dusseldorf are depicted seated in an old Mercedes, speeding along the smooth, efficient road into an equally smooth and efficient landscape – as though The Beach Boys had tutored with Friedrich Schiller. The first autobahn connected Cologne and Bonn, and had been opened in 1931 – the network was not a Nazi invention. Kraftwerk, I had later read, were interested in the moment when modern phenomena – motorways, power stations, neon lights – were new. A kind of anti-history, or as they preferred it: industrial folk music.

But I also realised, as I looked down from my very democratic, eco-friendly luxury saloon car, that the boot print of history is far more distinct on the surface of Germany than it seems to be in Great Britain.

Later, in Munich and Berlin, I would feel this even more intensely. It was a very visceral and immediate experience – not like looking at the past under protective glass, or as a pasteurised cultural commodity, but feeling it as history still warm, its consequences still very much alive. I am an avid reader of the works by the English literary visitors to Germany during the 1920s and 1930s – W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood and Stephen Spender.

In his autobiography, ‘World Within World’, Spender had described his first visit to Germany during the 1920s, and how he had travelled from Hamburg to meet with Isherwood in Berlin. It was of course a terrible and troubled time in Germany’s modern history, and Spender recalled how they wondered whether, against the backdrop of so much upheaval and drama – and while living on a diet of horse flesh, black coffee and lung soup – he and the others had looked to Germany for what he termed: “a cure for our personal problems”

This was such an interesting thought, that I barely realised we had arrived at my hotel, and that a young man in a smart grey suit, wearing delicate, metal framed glasses, was advancing to greet me with a smile of welcome. This being the holiday season, many of Cologne’s citizens were out of town – vacationing in the south of France, northern Italy and other such effortlessly glamorous places – and so the hotel had time to make an extra fuss of its few guests.

I had chosen this particular hotel because it was housed in a former water tower. An ingenious architectural conversion had created large balconied rooms, while the lobby was a seductively dark and cool maze of pillared spaces. Two vast Andy Warhol paintings of Beethoven were hanging beside the bar, which in turn looked out on to a little garden. The memory of Brian Eno’s cameo appearance in my dream, to inform me that Germany was my America, seemed spookily endorsed by the fact that the first art which I encountered on German soil was quintessentially American.

Most Germans, like most Scots, possess a natural and charming politeness which to the Englishman can appear very formal. It reflects perhaps an indigenous cultural personality, in which order, logic and conservatism mask an appetite for hearty humour, and a deep rooted and at times somewhat sentimental romanticism. This can lend a beguiling simplicity to a race of deeply soul searching philosophers. Only in Germany, for example, could you have a conversation in which it is agreed after some discussion that all dogs are funny, and that women like to wear pretty dresses in order to go dancing.

But then a sudden melancholy can sometimes show through, and with it darkness. Chatting with a taxi driver one evening, he suddenly asked: “And how is it with you in England, the great problem?” I asked him which problem he meant. “Why, that of teenage suicide.” he replied, glancing up at me in his rear view mirror, as though surprised that I could mean any other. The ghost of Young Werther still walked, it would seem.

This would be my first of many trips to Cologne – a city of rather quiet, elegant streets, which avoid both the pomp and splendour of central Munich, and the austere grey vastness of Berlin. The neon signs along the shop fronts seem to speak, in shades of pastel blue, pale yellow and peppermint green and powder pink, of an earlier and less complicated modernity. Not the 1920s and 1930s – that world seems largely eradicated – but of the 1950s and early 1960s. It is a city, to the first time cultural tourist, of extravagant cakes and avant-garde electronic music. And, true, there are squads of young men wearing amusing hats while they collectively pedal a mobile bar and drink too much beer. There is that stereotypical heartiness.

But my impression during those first days was of a gentle, slightly melancholy city, at once intellectual and dreaming… dazed by the heat beside a vast and quickening river.


Michael Bracewell ist Schriftsteller und Kunstkritiker. Buchveröffentlichung u.a.: »Re-Make/Re-Model: Becoming Roxy Music«.