Two and a half years ago, fresh from NZ on my first trip outside my country of birth, I stepped out of frankfurt airport and into a new world. As I took those first steps on foreign soil I felt something akin to debilitating panic take me over. Here I am in a strange land surrounded by strange people (of who I know nothing but for an unnatural obsession with cabbage and funny pants) who say strange things to me and who all think the same of me in return. How would I survive? And what if I had to go to the toilet??
Luckily, second time round, an experienced traveller by comparison, I landed in Dusseldorf armed with the German word for toilet, and thus was spared any feelings of culture shock as I caught a bus, then a taxi through the snow lined streets to Dusseldorf Backpackers.
It was at the hostel I first began to notice strange things…
1. The pillows were all big and square.
2. The lightswitches were all big and square.
3. The top of the glass doors would swing down towards you if you were silly enough to turn the handle more than exactly one quarter turn.
As I didnt recall any of these oddities from my first trip to Germany I at first put these down to the unique character of this hostel only. I was later to find these odd dimensions extended to nearly all pillow, lightswitch and door dimensions across the whole of Germany….
While in Dusseldorf, I did find time out frome examining interior fittings to indulge my artistic sensibilities at Dusseldorf’s excellent K21 Contemporary art gallery. Where upon my inadequacies when it comes to the German language were exposed. It is one thing to ask for a ticket, quite another to enquire as to the state of the contemporary art scene in Germany and its current position in a post-post-modern world…
I spent half my time at the gallery exploring the works, and the other half of the time with my mind occupied by the ‘click…click…click…click’ of the gallery attendant’s high-heels on the wooden floor behind me as she proceeded to follow me from one work to another. Eventually it became a sort of a game. I’d duck around a wall or down behind a sculpture and stifle giggles as her clicking footsteps became more and more frantic in her search for me, lest I start licking the paintings or straddling the sculptures. Theres nothing worse than the sound of high-heels when you are trying to consider the relevance of a resin leg protruding from a wall to the overall state of the modern world. It really should be mandatory for all gallery workers to wear slippers. Fluffy pink ones at that – then maybe theyd crack a smile once in a while (though I dont imagine a job that requires being in a constant state of painting -licker paranoia to be particularly ‘happy’ work).
I left Dusseldorf and its highheel weilding maniac behind the next day for the cathederal city of Koln, and the Station backpackers where all my lightswitch and pillow dimension suspicions were confirmed. Some may say I have a bad memory, but personally, I believe it more likely that over the last few years Germany has had a serious law reform regarding pillows, lightswitches and doors.
I set off shortly after arrival to view the world renowned cathederal, but what I was soon to find outside it was just as worthy of my attention. As I climbed the steps to the square surrounding the impressive Gothic building, a high pitched giggling arose from within a cluster of people across the way. I approached, intrigued, and caught a glimpse of something tan, something moving and wriggling and jiggling between the onlookers. I heard another explosion of giggles before I saw the source. A sack. No, a man in a giant sack. A giant laughing sack apparently. A button invited bemused passersby to stop and push, at which point the’sack’ would break into howls of laughter, which would quickly spread infectiously around the onlookers (as is the nature of laughter). Laughter in itself is an absurd thing when you stop and think about it. And here was a man dressed in a giant sack with holes cut out for his eyes laughing for his living.
As I dragged myself away, feeling I should at least give the cathederal a look rather than stand around all afternoon laughing with a man in a sack, I was left wondering how he came up with the idea and whether he ever laughs on his time off…
The interior of the cathedral was beautiful in the peaceful way cathederals are, the dim light filtering through multicoloured stained glass high above. To the right of the entrance I spotted an entry for the bell tower. Ah yes, the promise of spectacular views and the feeling of being ontop of the world. But how I would soon come to regret ever laying eyes on that sign of pure evil.
I began my ascent of the stone spiral staircase in high spirits and counting the stairs as I went to satisfy my obsessive compulsive ways. Somewhere after 100 I lost count as my brain responsibly began to rank certain things slightly more important that counting. Little things, like maintaining an upright position, and breathing. Another hour (or so it seemed) and I was praying for an end to the dizzying spiral imprisonment. At one point, I’ll admit, I considered turning around, but what if the end was just around the next bend? Or worse, what if everyone followed me and I deprived them of an experience that would be their best – or last? I couldnt have that on my conscience, so the only way was up. Finally, a light at the end of the tunnel and I emerged gasping into an open space, dragging my legs behind me and praying that my eyes did deceive me. I leaned against a wall and watched with a perverse sense of satisfaction as people behind me stumbled in, their expressions quickly changing from relief to undisguised horror as they too saw the staircase rising from the middle of the room. Here I was not alone in my suffering. I imagine perhaps this was used by the church as an ancient torture method for punishing the sinners. Send them up to ring the bells – if they made it back then God had forgiven them, if they perished then obviously their hearts were not pure.
Somehow by the will of God I made it up that final stairway to heaven to the bells and looking out over Koln I was rewarded with a glorious view of snow falling down on the city below. My first ever snowfall. It didnt seem to be settling, but not being experienced in the nature of such things, I did wonder if it might impede my exit from the tower, dooming me to a sinners death after all.
I made my way down with some difficulty, my jelly legs unwilling to offer me much support. I couldnt resist an inward smirk at the huffing puffing tourists on their way up, so innocent and unaware of the trials that lay ahead.
I later found out the staircase held 519 steps…I was one of the lucky ones.
That night I wandered the streets of Koln, which all oddly look the same. The same chain of clothing store, electrical appliances outlet, fast food restaurants on every street, their gaudy fluorescent signs serving to confuse me despite my ‘straight ahead, no turning alowwed’ street policy. A city full of German sausage lovers, Koln offered little of appeal to an anti-sausage campaigner such as myself. Determined not to help fund McDs quest for world domination, I instead settled for the equally u-German, and possibly equally-positioned-towards-world-domination Korean buffet.
Several greasy platefuls and one night later I caught a train to Manheim, from where I would be whisked away to Chateau Radetz, in the enigmatic town of Bohl-Iggelheim….