Jun. 17th, 2007

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Today I landed in Cologne after some 21 hours of combined travel.  Groggy, hungry, and very excited, I made my way through customs to the S-Bahn station.  Despite having learned at least 90 percent of my German from Beethoven librettos, I made my way effortlessly (but not uneventfully) through a series of trains and trams to my tiny no-frills hotel in Neumarkt.

The eventful part came when I emerged from the Hauptbahnhof (central train station) directly in the shadow of Koln's massive Dom (cathedral).  The many steps all around it were littered with tourists, yes, but also with three times as many locals enjoying the summer sun.  Apparently sitting on the cathedral stoop is the Kolnischer (is that the word?) version of what Southerners in the U.S. call "porch sittin'".  It's an impressive sight to see teenagers with Technicolor hair and loud boom boxes next to Asian businessmen eating pizza and elderly locals with canes, all enjoying an afternoon sprawl in the sun.

It was at about this time that I started thinking about today's poem.  It's actually two days early - on Tuesday I will be in Brussels, and will indeed be visiting the Musee des Beaux-Arts, but there in a welter of language I mostly don't understand, I noticed how much I was paying attention - actively taking things in, automatically thinking about context.

Today's poem is in a way an anti-travel poem.  One of many ways to read it is as a comment on our human failure to see the wonderful and unusual and terrible taking place around us.  We're so busy with our own everyday lives that we don't realize that the foreign, the strange, the spectacular is right under our noses.

But I think that gets at the heart of why we travel.  It is less about the destination than it is about a way of thinking about place, a way of responding to everyday life.  Travel awakens our "pay attention" circuits and sets them on high alert.  We travel so that when we go home, we'll notice things there that we never saw before, because we come home thinking about context, treating every situation as an exercise in orienting ourselves and thereby possibly discovering a new angle from which we never saw our own little lives.

So, that brings us to the poem.  I love this poem because it's the first time a work of art made me love another work of art I had never even seen.  Later, when I found an image of the painting "The Fall Of Icarus", it was precisely as I had imagined it, and then I loved it twice as much.

Musee des Beaux-Arts

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the plowman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

- W. H. Auden

Speaking of suffering (forgive the segue), the fare at the venerable Brauerie Päffgen is the exact opposite of it.  The local breweries here all brew Kölsch, a light but complex and slighly bitter brew served in elegant little glass cylinders.  Combine that with a plate full of Wienerschnitzel, delicious potatoes bathed in a tartar-like sauce, and a cornucopia of other things I was unable to identify, and it makes for a very fine lunchtime feast.

That pretty handily crossed hunger off my list of ailments.  Let's hope the grogginess fades in time for tonight's entertainment: if I can find my way to Offenbachplatz, I am going to see the Oper Koln perform Handel's Giulio Cesare.  After that, if I have any energy left, I' going to a local club where DJ's from the excellent minimal techno label Kompakt man the decks every night of the week.


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