2. November, 2014 So many cities here are defined by their connection to specific artists and thinkers in Germany’s past. Mainz, for instance, is the Johannes Gutenberg city–Bayreuth is Richard Wagner’s–Frankfurt (along with Weimar, of course) belongs to Goethe. One has the feeling that these figures are still very much present, as much a part of local rhythms as the marketplace, theater, Rathaus. There are streets and universities and drugstores named after them, statues on every square, museums and memorial associations that hold lectures and concert series in their honor. The past is exceedingly alive.
Bonn, where I was last weekend after the DAAD Conference in Cologne, is the city of Beethoven–he was born there, and spent the first 22 years of his life in the city before moving to Vienna. I was able to visit his house, which was converted to an archival museum in his honor over a century ago.
Surreal, to see Beethoven’s pianos arranged side-by-side, his reading glasses, his viola, the organ he played on as a boy. On his desk, there was a hand-written copy of a poem by Schiller, who had himself taken it from some ancient inscription in Egypt:
Ich Bin, was da ist
Ich Bin alles, was ist,
was war und was sein wird
Kein sterblicher Mensch
hat meinen Schleier
aufgehoben.I am what is there.I am everything that isthat was and that will be.No mortal manhas lifted my veil.
Beethoven had written it out on a slip of paper and it sat on his desk for years. A sort of life-motto, according to the elderly gentleman who worked in the museum.
Downstairs, there were newsreels from 1945, showing American soldiers entering the house, half-destroyed, and removing furniture and instruments covered in ashes. And there were pages from a guestbook dating back to 1890, containing the signatures and notes of the hundreds of famous men and women who had been there–Heinrich Böll, the Clintons, Isaac Stern, Indira Ghandi, Claudio Abbado, Joachim Gauck, the Dalai Llama. They were humbled, they wrote, and inspired, and grateful. Strange, to be sharing an experience with so many luminaries.
So there it was: standing in the house of yet another giant.
Beethoven aside, Bonn is a fascinating city. It was the de facto capital of West Germany until the fall of the Berlin wall, and remained the seat of government until 1999. Today, over twenty years later, the main evidence of its former position is the excessively extensive public transportation system–S-Bahn, buses, and subways galore, and a huge Autobahn that cuts right through the middle of the city.
Even during Bonn’s time as capital, the city’s position did not go unquestioned: due to its relatively small size it was referred to, more or less jokingly, as the Bundeshauptstadt ohne nennenswertes Nachtleben (Federal capital without nightlife worthy of the name) or the Bundesdorf (Federal Village). To me, it didn’t seem to fit: after having visited Berlin, the current capital of Germany, it’s hard for me to imagine Germany’s government anywhere else. That restless and crazy city, as I have written about before, seems to me to be supremely suited for the capital of a country like Germany. Bonn just doesn’t make one think in the way that Berlin does.
All the same, though, it’s a lovely place, especially at this time of year. It’s foliage season in Germany, which is automatically noteworthy to me, since I grew up in the one spot on earth known perhaps above all others for its autumns. Here, the colors are more muted than anything in Vermont, but still grand, especially in the vineyards along the Rhine. In Bonn, the yellow-gold-orange color scheme of many of the buildings complemented the leaves perfectly.
Of course, though, on the way back to Mainz a fog bank rolled in, and it’s been damp, drippy, and freezing ever since. Welcome to winter in the Pfalz!