130 years ago, my great-great grandmother was baptized as Caroline Kuehl in the Koelner Dom in Cologne, Germany. This was shortly after the Franco-Prussian war, and the people of Germany were facing seriously difficult times, so she and her husband, William August Kuehl, emigrated to the United States to start farming in the small town of Riesel, Texas, where most of my family still resides today.
Sitting in my grandmother’s living room, listening to her tell this story many times over a nice cinnamon roll or two, I would have never have thought that I would make my way to Cologne someday.
As I stepped out of the Hauptbahnhof of Koeln, partly in shock that I made it so easily, the dark cathedral was looming over me. Smoked by the bombs of WWII, it still majestically stands with its extreme Gothic design.
I decided to go ahead and go inside, lugging my suitcase around. Indeed I was a tourist, but my family was once a part of this city, and there is something warm and welcoming to be derived from that. It is like that feeling you get from seeing someone you think you know.
That feeling, however, was heightened once I walked in to the cathedral; the organist unexpectedly began to play this grandly ornate and powerful prelude. It felt like the ground shook. I think what made this even more exciting is the stained-glass windows that truly function in league with the sunlight, making the crystalline upper registers of the organ music shine brilliantly.
Everywhere, beams of light pierced the dark grey walls of the cathedral, making it seem like God had just appeared or something. More than Notre Dame in Paris, this cathedral meets the demands of Gothic architecture, a notion presented by many clergymen and architects.
I took some German in high school, and I had short conversations with my grandmother on occasion, but I was surprised to observe how much of it came back to me. After reading some newspapers and conversing with locals, I found myself above survival-German status. I even carried on a couple of conversations at times, but at others, I was completely confused.
For instance, a waiter at an Italian restaurant said “Bon appetit,” and that completely threw me off! But, the fact that I drank Koelsch (the beer of Cologne) and liked Bratwurst went a long way, and then telling people I descended from this city helped a lot too, although I did not know enough German to warrant a genealogical conversation (but most people spoke a good deal of English).
So after my visit to the cathedral, I went to my hotel. What a great hotel! It was a Hilton, so I shouldn’t have expected less, but the huge comfortable bed and towel warmers made my weekend so relaxing. And, the cheap prices of everything in Cologne helped a lot too! For instance, I paid 5 Euros (7.50 USD) for toothpaste, a huge bottle of water, and a cherry Coke. Pretty awesome.
The rest of Friday was spent at Museum Ludwig and the Roman-German history museum, where I experienced some quite moving pieces of art. At the Roman-German history museum, I learned about how Cologne used to be a colony of the Roman empire, but there are cave paintings and pottery pointing back to Neolithic and Celtic eras.
Most surprising, though, was to find in Museum Ludwig art from pop-art artists who lived in Texas, like Rauschenberg. There were also pieces of the photographic Russian avant-garde, Picasso and something by the artist Darboven concerning the face of humans in light of sociology, something I fancied quite a lot. Lots of inspiration to be found in Germany!
I ate a typical German dinner after the museum visits of bratwurst with some sort of potato salad and Koelsch before going to the orchestra concert. Tasty, es schmeckt sehr gut!
I then went to an orchestral concert, where they played the daunting Mahler 9 and Berg’s 3 Pieces for Orchestra. Well-played and interesting pieces, they left me with the whole night to write music, and the whole Saturday morning to sleep in!
On Saturday, once I woke up and ate breakfast (at 12 PM), I ventured to the chocolate museum. YUM! They do give you free chocolate there, and it was SO GOOD! It was along the Rhein (like the cathedral and museums), and it made me realize how small Cologne is actually. Nice for tourists, but maybe not so great for those who get antsy. It was quite chilly too, and even the short 10-minute walk from the museum back to the concert hall for my second concert was a little bone-chilling.
This concert featured the chamber music of Schoenberg, Webern, and Korngold. The Schoenberg was the best, I thought. It was “Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte,” a chamber piece for two violins, viola, cello, piano, and speaker. Well done, I believe, like the rest of the concert. It is so much fun to hear Germans playing German music, especially that of the early 20th century avant-garde (minus Korngold). The frequency of concerts in Koeln is immense; this and the opera were just a taste of what was all going on during the weekend.
The opera I saw a couple of hours later was Orfeo et Euridice. It was a modern production set in the 1950s with all that Jung and Freud influence, and the cast was phenomenal, as well as the lighting. It was at this point that I realized how awesome music is in this city. It’s just a city of a million people, and they beat Dallas when it comes to choice and diversity in the realm of classical music. I thought that maybe I just hit the right weekend, but looking at the rest of the concert season, it just gets even heavier! I wish I could get back, or, maybe I’ll find some way!
On Sunday, I found my latest love, the Berliner. It is like a cherry-filled donut with sugar all around, so good. I bought two, just to make sure I wouldn’t forget how the first one tasted! German food is quite good, and their little dessert stands like this are even better and loaded with pretzels, giant Gingerbread-men, these Berliner things, and other stuff that makes you gain weight but in a noble way. I worked it off though by walking around all the time, and it seems that as of late, it is impossible for me to gain weight. Weird.
I also attended Mass at the cathedral that morning. The music was absolutely outstanding. The choir, made up of boys and men, walked around the cathedral singing Gregorian chant before settling down in their place on the right transept. The organist was impeccable as usual, and the priests and bishop sang so well I felt embarrassed to even open the hymn book. A moving experience, and I understood a bit of the sermon, but I did not know the Catholic procedures like 50 percent of the rest of the congregation. I wonder how the main congregation must feel about tourism, although it brings in a ton of money for the cathedral!
On the way back to Paris, I felt a sense of accomplishment. I unlocked the history of my family’s past, I guess, and I really fell in love with Cologne. Maybe too much, since coming back to Paris seemed a little dreadful at first. But the prospect of chocolate macaroons and strawberry tarts keeps me going!
Das ist alles!