Scaffolding rises around the obelisk, frames of metal bars spider-webbed to provide support for the crumbling monument. Seated below on a patch of iridescent green grass, I tilt my head to better discern the meaning and image depicted on the grotesque statue above. The recent attempts to fix the statue, likely after wear from weather, obfuscate my view of the statue itself, whether that be a person or animal or tomato with glasses (no one knows at this point). In this way, one can often obscure history through the revisions we make in the present.
In Germany this year, one witnesses an era of reinvention, whether that be for better or worse. One sees construction cranes as often as buttered pretzels. With each skyline marred by the machinery of renovation, it seems as if the entire country is receiving a face lift.
One of the largest renovation projects in Germany today is called Stuttgart 21, which is a joint initiative between the state of Baden-Württemberg, the federal government, and the Deutsch Bahn (DB) to expand railroads through the state as well as build a state-of-the-art Hauptbahnhof (fancy German word for main train station). When one stands in today’s Hauptbahnhof, its massiveness is undercut by the intense renovation going on outside its walls; to even reach the main train platforms, one must travel through a specially-designed temporary walkway, which offers a glimpse of the massive destruction and reconstruction of the train station.
For many outsiders, the construction project seems like a non-issue; when I first heard about the project from my grandparents, I simply shrugged my shoulders and mumbled, “Cool,” in the same way someone might react to any calamity removed from their personal experiences. Due to the immense costs of the project, however, many people are incredibly unhappy with the idea, especially since the project has exceeded his budget by more than €2 billion euro as of 2013 (source: http://www.spiegel.de/international/business/berlin-alarmed-at-cost-overruns-of-stuttgart-21-station-project-a-880112.html). In fact, the project has received critical backlash ever since the idea’s inception in the mid 1980’s.
In 2010, the German government began in earnest to move forward with the building project, though since then they have encountered major delays and budgetary underestimations. At this point, several critics wonder whether the dream of a futuristic train station will ever truly become reality. The misanalysis of budget have risen questions among Berlin politicians concerning from where future funds will come.
But I don’t want to get bogged down in the specifics of the project itself, but would instead like to highlight its politics. In the wake of the final announcement that the Stuttgart train station project would indeed move forward, German citizens flooded the street to protest. What begins as a peaceful though passionate protest becomes later a violent clash between protestors and police; the police responded by shooting water cannons at the protesters. On one particular day (1 October 2010), the police helped protest construction crews as they cut down several trees in the Schlossgarten (very near the train station) in order to make room for the renovations. In the protest and subsequent backlash from police, more than a hundred people ended up injured. It is important, here, to note the incredible panache of German protestors standing up for what they believe. They marched against the renovations, citing the ever-climbing budget and the imminent destruction of both nature and culture. Because the project will include new rail lines through Baden-Württemberg’s countryside, one assumes that several more trees will fall before the project’s completion.
Because I cannot describe so well in words the spectacle of the protests, I will include a few pictures below (culled from the internet):
What interests me most about the Stuttgart 21 project is the ways in which both sides of an argument construct their narrative. On one hand, Angela Merkl and other proponents speak triumphantly of a doorway into the future, of the grand and efficient railway systems Germany will enjoy in just a few years. In the eyes of the proponents, no one is really destroying anything, but rather one is building a better future. Meanwhile, the opponents construct a narrative of wasteful spending and unnecessary destruction.
“Building the future” seems to be a good term for the ambitions of the project, but what I think is more appropriate is the term “building the past.” We write the future’s history in the present. Depending on what stories we tell about our motivations, our values, and our dreams, we manage to influence how history will view us. We shape the biases of tomorrow when we spin the right story.
The question, then, remains: is the Stuttgart 21 project truly helpful or more harmful? Will the project ever be completed, and more importantly, will those who protested be thankful for new facilities or remain resentful of the destruction and waste the project has yielded? Which side will claim victory in the hallowed halls of history?
When visiting the Kunst Museum in Stuttgart today, I encountered the art of Joseph Kosuth, an American conceptual artist who came to prominence in the 1960s. Much of his art questions the value and restrictions of art, expressed through neon letterings, physical books, and copy-printed definitions of words such as “meaning” or “idea.” Today at the museum, I spent an insane amount of time trying to translate the text of six books at wooden desks, each under a clock indicating different times. This piece creates an interesting thematic comment on the effect of time, how the time and space in which a text is read changes the meaning of the text. All of Kosuth’s art installations evoke a similar form of communication, asking the audience to react or comment upon his ideas.
For this reason, I scrawled a stick figure in pencil on the blank wall of the art museum next to one of Kosuth’s installations. The guard there (a kind older woman) asked me what I was doing. I told her that I was claiming this space as my own or rather inviting the question of ownership. She didn’t stop me, though I’m sure they will wash away the stick man I drew under Kosuth’s neon message.
Visual Space Has Essentially No Owner.
This piece struck me for some reason. He questions, within the context of a gallery, the sanctity of the gallery. Where art exhibits express that the viewer should not touch or disturb the art, one must also confront the relationship of viewer and art. One view of art, anyways, insists that art cannot exist without the viewer’s eye, since sight itself evokes an image. Without an eye to perceive the art, the art cannot truly exist. This is, of course, debatable. In the same way, art might mean nothing without people to comment upon the art. What does a painting or installation mean without an audience?
If visual space has no owner and the “art museum” is a space for art, then does not the evocation of this idea invite people to draw on the walls? To perform trumpet in the halls of the art museum? To dance, to become art or make art themselves? To reclaim the spaces we have deemed holy, not only the streets but the museums, the galleries? If art must exist in galleries, then why ask the gate-keepers for permission? Why not thrust your voice into the conversation, for the sake of being heard? Claim not ownership but autonomy, because no one’s really stopping you.
And when an a museum guard taps you on the shoulder to ask what the hell you’re doing, answer, “Art.”
She might smile and comment, “I was wondering when someone would finally try that.”
No one, for the entire day in Germany, pinched me for not wearing Green. I’ve been waiting for this moment since 1st grade. Also, apparently it’s “a bit weird” to skip down the street with a joyous countenance as you listen to fantastic songs by the Wombats, feeling as if you’re in a movie and gliding straight through some fantastic adventure. They also seem a bit perturbed by someone sitting in a trance as they stream the new Kendrick Lamar album on Spotify. The Germans, I believe, can party, but they provide clear and definite borders to places of work and play. They are the living emodiment of the cliche-frat-honors-student-matra work hard, play hard. As seriously as do Germans take work, do they also take their play: a stern businessman might wander into the park, strip into the nude (pubic nudity is allowed in certain areas), and proceed to lay on his back and drink a beer, smoke a cigarette, to only ten minutes alter re-dress and return to work in some skyscraper, the austere mark of a German returning to his face.
Where these spaces of “play” and “work” become blurred: cafes, bars, where a professors of theology reads the Qur’ran aloud to himself beside a table of rowdy young students PROST!-ing for the fourth time in an hour, suds of hefeweizen splashing down their mugs. But not so mugs with green beer. Here, there exists on Irish Pub and exactly one Irish party this evening. This is to me surprising, because any chance to glorify binge drinking to social drinkers can make bars sees serious green (in this case: money). Otherwise, St. Patty’s has barely been mentioned (other than of course by me) asking others if they knew today was St. Patty’s Day.
Hong Kong: no.
Denmark: Yes, because they can drink.
Otherwise, the day passes on unmarked by puke puddles or garish green baby onesies. Today people sat in parks and spoke lightly (not nude, these imaginary people) of things other than cultural appropriation or how drunk they’re gonna get tonight. The sun winks at us from above, in on this cosmic joke. Below us, a swatch of green, green, green-as-shamrock-on-the-Lucky-Charms-Leprechaun green.
What I learned at the Museum of Art in Freiburg (old art, new art is next on the list):
1.) Vampires cannot enter here because there exist too many crosses. Most of which are made completely of gold.
2.) Flemish master artists typically enjoy painting four things: Bible stories, shipwrecks, fruit, and dead birds.
3.) I would love to have a pocket-sundial made of gold, just to carry around, pop out, angle in the sun, and figure out perhaps the celestial time and date at any given moment.
4.) The entire museum is a retro-fitted church and a very cool place for the architecture alone. Climb to the top and you can see the rafters above.
5.) Worth the trip for the organ alone. I’ll post a pic on Facebook later.
We’re late, but I’ve got nowhere to be. Planning on staying at a youth hostel tonight, maybe next two nights, as I explore the Black Forest. Reminds me of some mysterious forest in a fantasy novel—take your pick. But this ain’t exaggeration. As the bus trundles through uneven hills, forest spreading out on either side of the highway like gateways to some prehistoric scene of nature, one must remember these trees inspired the Brothers Grimm to pen blood-splattered fairy tales. Here, where Hansel and Gretel wandered into the woods and got cooked alive in a witch’s easy-bake oven. Here, where Little Red Riding Hood got disemboweled by a wolf that appeared very little like Johnny Depp.
Look out the window and it’s like a million Christmas trees sprang up in every direction, Christmas trees God forgot to cut down, so they kept growing, growing, growing until they’re towering high above snow-laden villages. Here, a church burdened by downy white. Or someone’s snow shoveled into piles, the un-melted snow mixed with dirt and resulting in brown sludge. Everything’s melting now, the sun like the lamp in a dentist’s office, peering down at us from the ether of storm-gray clouds. And before us, the hills only larger—you could start calling them mountains, depending on your definition.
Pass a village, the red-clay roofs outfitted with solar panels. Medieval meets modern, ancient meets updated. But here, you feel something preternatural, something magical maybe that causes the trees to space themselves so evenly apart.
Once you get the lay of the land, everything’s sprawled out underneath you. You’re sliding through the sky, an angel or anything more sinister. The whole world’s white and smooth as glass. Then you’re back in thick of it again, forests enclosing around you like a tunnel.
If you peer through their entwined branches, you begin to see the forest and then only darkness. You see little patches of light, the snow ablaze like goblin’s silver, but then nothing. Then just a quiet, blank space. Then just a shrouded secret.
Sitting upon a toilet at a German university—a toilet much cleaner than the typical American university toilet—one reads also superior graffiti. No paltry gang warfare. No jokes about sex with your mother. No homophobic or racist slurs. Instead, radical social and political commentary.
In broad red font: The American dollar is the origin of modern imperialism.
Below this, an argument over the comparable importance of revolutionary theory against revolutionary action (after much back-and-forth, the proponent of theory convinces the proponent of action that both are equally dependent on the other).
An Obey sticker featuring Rachel Carson cuddling with a pug instead of Andre the Giant’s fearsome face.
Below this, a sage quote: When you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die.
I stand up from my throne and depart from this quiet kingdom.
Cold here, yet the city flirts with Spring. In the park where I sit, purple-white blooms poke their dainty heads through the soil. A flock of pigeons nip at breadcrumbs that a crew of elderly ladies feed them, the flock spotted with a few stealthy blackbirds. In the old town, where the uneven cobblestone avenues rival the ruined streets of Charleston, violins, squabbles, tourists. A world of noise disrupting the afternoon air. I stop to eat schnitzel at a pub and struggle through a children’s book written in German.
In the park near the river, two toddlers meet each other (tiny humans, these) and bestow fits to one another (stick, then flower). Though they are strangers, the retain some deep knowledge of the other. I grieve for the loss of instinctual intelligence we held as toddlers (ice cream good! falling down bad! ants bad! must destroy ants!). Craving a return to the primal, the immediate, I wish not to feel so distant.
Today, then, I have become a toddler. I wander with no sense of direction and latch to whatever joy idles by. Turns out, there’s much joy to grasp. Turns out, blackbirds mimic pigeons to coax bread crumbs from elderly ladies. Turns out, you can pretend to become anything so that your mind or gut might be fed.
Today I woke at 7am—unheard of in my life as writer, student, and professional slacker. Usually I wake early only if someone promises free pancakes or perhaps a magic genie lamp (though, much to my chagrin, this has yet to occur). But today I have agreed to matriculate in the University of Tuebingen, despite not fully understanding what the phrase “matriculation” actually means. I think it must be a medieval word for torture, something that the Catholic Church did to heathens during the Inquisition. Imagine hanging by your pinky toes upside down when a staunch vaguely-European voice threatens to matriculate you. Truly scary stuff, I swear.
While I sit at a bus stop hacking my lungs out, waiting to return to my underground apartment after undergoing the absurdly difficult process of matriculation, I observe two boys (12, 13) smoking cigarettes. Both strike the same pose, the ubiquitous pose of youthful boredom as popular in Germany as Macklemore haircuts. The older boy rolls a cigarette on his lap with an open canister of tobacco (brand: unknown) and surreptitiously accepts a shared lit cigarette into his mouth from his friend. He inhales deeply and then allows his friend to pluck the cigarette from between his lips to take a few puffs himself.
Because they are young, perhaps they cannot afford each their own cigarettes. Perhaps they enjoy sharing because Germany seems to be a country on the verge of embracing socialism (public transport that actually works! taxes that provide for public schools! retirement benefits!). But naturally they must hide the cigarette in case someone reproaches them. Though underage smoking is illegal, no police will approach, no; police only come when called and barely make rounds except in large train stations and even there they drive hilariously cute automobiles with calming sirens. When a German police car passes blaring its siren and flashing its light, one might mistake this for an ice cream truck.
I ignore the boys for awhile and cough heartily into my scarf. I am sick after walking for hours, lost, in search of the city offices where I might apply for a residence permit. In a few weeks, when I begin my German classes, they promised to guide us through matriculation, and I regret now not waiting, for I need a guide. I need a Virgil to guide me (Dante in this metaphor) through the Seven Rings of German Bureaucratic Hell. I’m seeing a long-form poem already writing itself—rather than The Inferno, I will call this poem The Büro, the journey of one man through the impossible difficulties of German paperwork. If I wanted to be so harassed for coming to a place I would have worn an Obama HOPE t-shirt to a Texas rodeo.
But the sludge through offices is over and my fingers may rest from clutching pen after pen after endless pen, and I may now sit watching these young boys smoke a cigarette together. Once they finish the first, they immediately light up the second. Strange, I think, to be addicted so young, but in Germany this is the most popular vice (after perhaps wefeheisen beer and techno clubs). Almost everyone I have so far met smokes cigarettes. These are no casual smokers, no, not one-a-day smokers or evening smokers, but honest-to-Angela-Merkl cigarette addicts. Everyone on the bus is jouncy to leap off the bus at the nearest stop so they can light up the next cigarette. In bars and clubs, smoking is completely allowed. Smoke fills nearly every room. I learned last night I am allowed even to smoke in my apartment as long as I open the tiny window near the ceiling.
I find this all hilarious, but I do not try to judge. Let be, I think. Let them have their tobacco and smoke it too. Being an American, I try to act very laissez-faire about the entire affair. But I learn quickly that perhaps Americans are not so live-let-live as Germans, at least on the issue of smoking. In America , for example, long ago did lobbies manage to outlaw smoking in restaurants, in the vicinity of restaurants, on public transport, and nearly everywhere else, while in Germany, despite the government wielding a large amount of control over personal life (one must recycle, one must pay various taxes for healthcare, one must go through wildly complicated registration processes), any person can smoke almost anywhere. Despite this idea, on each pack of cigarettes reads the warning: Smoking can be deadly.
But in Germany, smoking can only be deadly cool. The absolute most popular death (save perhaps heart attack after consuming too many sausages).
The sooner a German smokes, the better. So here stand two boys (12, 13) smoking at the bus stop with fervent passion. The bus arrives a moment later, and one boy smothers the cigarette with the bottom of his shoe before boarding the bus. I sit in the seat in front of them, coughing still into my scarf. And then a mighty sneeze builds in my chest, exploding up my throat until—aah, aah, achooo! I sneeze into my scarf. One boy leans forward and says quite genuinely, “Gesundheit,” which is the German version of “Bless you.”
I tell him, thanks. At least the youth of Germany care about their health.
The bar would be cramped on any other night, but tonight there sit only a few students, refugees floating upon wooden detritus in the aftermath of exam shipwreck. I sit down with a group of three Germans who claim to study law and later on, two Americans from Sacramento. They paint their lives in vivid colors and broad strokes, and I listen, nursing a Tom Collins. The conversation floats toward the future and films and far-out imaginings.
Above me, the speakers leak a lullaby of nineties grunge songs—all the tunes you might have listened to in middle school in order to feel superior and dangerous—and I’m rocking my head lightly as my skull flushes out. Become Mr. Lighthead.
Three drinks later, the bar is a tilt-a-whirl of colors and faces. I must hold each new name on my tongue like a secret, whispering over and over these incantations so that tomorrow I might remember the right words. Though students crowd inside, there still remain many places where one can sit down.
This student bar, not a flashy place by any stretch of the imagination, no special light show or dramatic flair: a few cheap bottles of spirits, a lazy bartender consumed with playing cards and taking shots, nostalgic music floating through the air like midday church bells, beers priced far lower than what one might call cheap, viola, a student bar where many twenty-something’s living in close vicinity might squeeze together into a small space. A final space where closing time becomes a joke, where consciousness becomes a myth, and I become a cartoon awash in an ocean of conversation bubbles.
I am consumed too often by boredom, residing now in a great yawning giant’s gut. Like the pit of an apricot, I snuggle into layers of fatty flesh, content for now to be inert. To be the eight ball untouched. To be the husk of not what once was, but rather of what will soon be: a harbinger of action, a foreshadowing of a grandiose scheme that has yet to unfold. The problem, of course, is that inaction becomes the norm. I live with a status quo of zero, the only expectation a complete lack of expectation. As if to do nothing at all should be considerably commendable, as if the dice in the air should remain forever aloft and never land on a single number, no choice made, no fate achieved. Just the constancy of incomplete longing, the nagging feeling that you live on the edge, teetering against gravity’s lust, while remaining too perfectly poised on that strange, motionless precipice.
I want nothing more than to plummet or back away, to crash-land or soar into clouds, to make up my mind already. But I’m too comfortable at the crossroads. I have made a home for myself at every fork in the road, as if one could live forever without ever truly growing up. That’s the name we give indecision: Neverland. A place we’re not really supposed to visit, only in dreams perhaps, and yet here I have built an entire civilization upon this terra forma of adolescence, molded for myself the culture of indecision. We even have our own music, which is the crescendo of any symphony that must sustain fermata forever, a build-up without sufficient conclusion. We have too our own dance, which is the moment one leaps into the air and never lands. We have too our own language, full of umms and errs and ahhs without proper words, speech that signifies nothing more than a lack of meaning.
That’s what it means to be bored, no? To lack meaning, perhaps. To be perpetually on the threshold of creating a meaning for oneself. To fail again and again in that foolish endeavor.