Thursday, 6 May 2010

First inklings of Culture Shock: Dom und Deutsche

In Köln, I had my first major culture shocks: linguistic and architectural.

The first architectural shock was the station itself. It is a massive thick chunky iron structure, which looks like a statement of sheer German Imperialist power. "Look at our big gristly iron station" it seems to say: "Show that to your puny Victorian cast-iron prettiness."

From somewhere (perhaps Seaton's diary of a similar journey and a recommendation by Alasdair) it has entered my awareness that the Cathedral is the thing to see if one has an hour in Köln. Remembering just in time that "Dom" is German for Cathedral, I exited the right side of the station into the rainy evening. I was hit with such a visual force as to stop me in my tracks in disbelief.

I had seen the the towers from a long way off along the railway line, so I knew the cathedral was coming - but i had no inkling of quite how magnificently huge it is. It is like a large bat or raven, just landed, wings furled, ready to pounce back into the sky having devoured as many mere mortals as it can glean. In the post-dusk darkness it sits there, filling half the sky and shouting magnificent gloominess down into the small square below.

This is without doubt the house of a God to Fear.

Enthralled, I donned my head camera and wandered towards it, up the thoughtfully landscaped concrete steps, past the illuminated gift shops and around to the other side. The structure is clad in close, careful, fine ornamentation, and seems to have layers that fold over and over, the next layer up bursting out of the lower ones in an ascension of cold stone, causing the upper pinnacles to tower impossibly in the air like the castle in Magritte's painting Le Chateau des Pyrenées.

My shaky, excited, fish-eye-warped photos hardly do justice to this apparition - after all, how can anyone condense centuries of labour and this vastness of height and volume into a few mere megapixels? It may have been the weather and the time of day, but it seemed to me that this cathedral does not sit serenely, as does, say, Durham, nor does it have the warmth of colour and friendly octagonal tower of Liverpool - it towers, somewhat menacingly... waiting as we run in circles around our petty little lives....

The Cathedral was closed, so I walked back down to the station, turning every now and then to convince myself that what I had just seen was real. Just inside the station, a man I had trouble understanding eventually made it clear in broken English that he had just come down off a big drug trip, and asked "Can you put on me some amphetamine or crystal meth?" Not knowing quite where to source such exotic substances, I politely declined, and ironically went off in search of a pharmacy. Then occurred the first major linguistic challenge: trying to buy some wet wipes. The pharmacy was easy enough to find - Apteka is quite clear in meaning to anyone familiar with the story of Romeo and Juliet - and the snake symbol on the sign was easily recognized, as my friend Dan keeps reminding me of its importance. But once inside, I was confronted with a plethora of packaged items. Were these wet wipes, or some other kind of sanitary product that I would have no need for? With the help of one or two helpful but very-little-English-speaking shop assistants and a bit of miming, I narrowed my selection down to two packs, one which seemed to be drier than the other. I opted for the wetter, heavier ones, and also a little bottle of anti-bacterial gel.
The wet wipes turned out to be facial refreshment wipes, which, coupled with the gel, serve well my intended purpose for them as well as providing a good supply of German refreshment for an over-travelled face.

In my bag I have phrasebooks for Russia, Mongolia, and 14 languages of China, but little did I think that the first stumbling block would be so comparatively close to home.

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