Skip to content

Penguin and Paper

A conglomerate of my random thoughts

4711 Glockengasse

Cologne, as you might guess, originally came from Cologne. More precisely, it comes from the corner of Krebsgasse and Glockengasse.  This is where the Muelhens lived in the late 18th Century. A Carthusian monk had given the couple the secret recipe for “aqua mirablis” as a wedding present. Realizing the great value of smelling good, the Muelhens marketed the fragrant water, named it after their address, 4711, and got very wealthy. Incidentally, aqua mirablis was originally also drunk as a tonic, making me think it’s got to be a lot less toxic than it’s modern competition (imagine drinking Juicy Coutour). Over 200 years later 4711 is the only kind of perfume my mother will wear, so I stock up.

Cologne, WWII

During WWII the Gothic Church of St. Kolumba was bombed into untidy heaps of rubble. But incredibly, in the middle of the destruction, a statue of the Madonna remained standing.  So the battered residents of Cologne began to call the bombed church “Madonna in the Ruins.” At the end of the war, the ruble was cleared away and people had a chance to survey the gaping holes left by the bombs. What they found under the floor of the bombed church was the foundation of an old Romanesque church, and below that, old Roman apartments. It is a palimpsest. In the ‘70s, Peter Zumther, a Swiss architect designed the restored chapel, leaving an area of open excavation where it is possible to see the foundations of Gothic pillars sunk into the vaulted ceiling of a Roman living room.

The Dom. Stone masons have been doing the same job here for 800 years.

It is incredible to me, the fact that all across Europe people saw their homes and their histories obliterated daily. And they responded so stoically. In Cologne, where the bridges were destroyed and every building and road thoroughly mangled, apparently people would say “as long as the Dom is still standing, it’s all ok”.

Which says a lot about the relationship between inanimate buildings and the humans that gather in and around them. Köln’s Cathedral is gothic, and looks like Notre Dame, but much bigger. It’s older too. It’s been in the process of being built for the last 800 years, and they are still working on it.

Over the next few days we will cross the Rhine, drink champagne with a handbag merchant, visit the Neanderthal museum, and eat, drink and get very merry.

I’m looking for Zeitcafe, in the Köln (Cologne) train station, which is where I am supposed to meet Anna. I find it at the end of a long corridor and step out the doors to a plaza. And then I know this was all worthwhile, and that I will be fine, because there is this:  The Dom cathedral of Köln with the moon rising over its shoulder. And people sitting on its steps, and a busker.

The Dom Cathedral, as seen from the train station at midnight

I take a seat on the stone steps, joining the ranks of fellow travelers, and drunken students, and artists.  Beside me a guy is crying – unashamed, visibly, audibly sobbing with what can only be heartbreak. His friend is trying to comfort him. A group of young French students are exchanging email addresses, jokes and kisses. Others are quietly, calmly smoking cigarettes. And here, in this monumental setting, it seems as if the great range of human emotion has been laid out on the lap of history.

Then Anna and I find each other in the train station. We hug, we jump, we laugh, we create a small scene amid the business-minded Germans moving efficiently toward their trains.

Anna and her boyfriend live only a few blocks from the Central Station, and we walk back through Cologne’s sleeping and shuttered downtown. I should be totally exhausted, but instead we chat until 3 am over wine and cheese.

Landing in Copenhagen airport is a humbling experience. Everyone looks better than me. The women are beautiful and stylish and perfectly coiffed. Every man looks like he’s just stepped out of a wrist-watch ad. Nobody seems to have adopted the greasy-haired, sleepless-transatlantic-flight look that I am sporting.

Despite having tried to brush up on my Swedish by watching Bergman movies several times over prior to leaving, I can’t seem to make it come out right. In the elevator, a flawless stewardess asks in Danish, “you want to get out at this floor?” This is how I respond:  “si – oui – no, no, ja.” I say “ja” triumphantly, as if I have just solved a great mystery.

I have four hours in Copenhagen before flying to Germany to meet my friend Anna. So I decide to buck-up and take the 15-minute train into town.  It is a fateful decision.

Copenhagen Central Train Station

I step out of the train into Copenhagen’s Central Station and am given my first jolt

of “oh, Europe!” giddiness. I love the architecture. I love the history. I love how the light in the train station washes down from the skylights like a benediction. I love the old pillars and the progress.

The giddy feeling continues up on the street where bicycles ridden by pretty people zip by beneath pretty steeples.

And then it rains. Suddenly, Biblically, the skies descend. The whole town goes dark and is underwater in an instant.  My yoga pants are soaked, which makes their loose waistband something of a liability. Having to hold my pants up does nothing to restore my dignity.

But I press on. I want to go to the National Museum where there is a fantastic collection of Bronze Age artifacts and extremely well-preserved burials.

The museum is free – this is Denmark after all. Naturally, the exhibits are beautifully designed and well-organized. And in the atmosphere of controlled temperature and humidity, my yoga pants are restored.

But it is time to get back to the airport, so I’m walking back through the streets, and the sky is alternating between sun and black clouds, and the wind howls around corners. At one point I reach a central square with outdoor cafes. The wind flips several large patio umbrellas inside out, and sends potted plants crashing to the cobblestones. It’s starting to feel a little ominous.

And then I get to the station, where I go to buy my ticket. Except that the Danish kroners I have kept in a ziplock bag in my pocket, separate from Euros and dollars, have fallen out. “No matter” I think, “these machines take debit and credit cards.” – but not Canadian cards. So then I race around looking for a bank, and after a few failed attempts at ATMs, decide to risk it and take the train back without a ticket, and am cursing myself, because I already checked-in for this flight before leaving the airport, and my bag will be going to Düsseldorf without me and, Jesus, why didn’t I leave myself a little more time?

In the end I miss my flight. I miss my flight.

I’ve never missed a flight before in my life, and doing so here, now, in the land of good order and punctuality makes me feel substantially shitty. So I sit in a chair and I stare at the floor. Which is a good use of time when you have seven hours to kill and have just spent $400 dollars you can ill-afford.

On that late flight to Düsseldorf, as I record this adventure in my journal, my pen explodes.

Today I learned a story about a song:

Detroit 1967

There was this after hours bar in Detroit called the Blind Pig, on the corner of 12th Street and Clairmont (that was a Black neighborhood.) And on July 22, 1967, there was a party going on there two vets who’d just returned from Vietnam. At that point America had been fighting a war in Vietnam for 12 years, and it would continue for another 8, until 1975. But this story is about a different war.

There were a lot of people in the Blind Pig that night: eighty-two is the official number. And there were 4 officers in each Tac Squad. Tac Squads were these police units that roamed black neighbourhoods; they would demand identification from residents, harass people with racial slurs, and find excuses for use of excessive force. So when the Tac Sqaud busted into the Blind Pig in the early hours of July 23, the rage spilled out onto the street. The ensuing 12th street riots lasted for 5 days. In that time forty-three people died, 467 people were injured, and over 2000 buildings were burned.

Now while all that was going on, Isaac Hayes, a song-writer and music producer was watching the news coverage of the riots on TV, and noticed that someone had written the word “soul” on the doors of buildings that had not been torched. So Hayes, seeing pride and resiliency in the midst of destruction, wrote this song:

A guy walks below my window just now – tall, bald, mid 30’s. I’ve seen him before: Yesterday he was walking across the street from me, talking on his cell phone about quitting smoking, about how it was hard at parties; about people who just get to step outside for a minute, about how he couldn’t do that anymore. I felt a brief pang of guilt because I occasionally step outside for a minute during parties too, and I silently wished him luck with quitting.

Just now, down on the sidewalk below my window, he has a cigarette in his hand. I guess some days are harder than others.

A recently discovered dinosaur who attracted mates by means of an alluring heart-shaped frill on its head. Mojoceratops was a distant relative of the well known Triceratops who sported a similar frill, apparently for the same purpose.

Farraginous: Composed of varied or unsorted materials; miscellaneous; indiscriminate; a hotch-potch. Eg. This blog is a farraginous collection of rambling tangents