A few weeks ago I was at a street fest in Cologne with some friends and friends of friends. There was a concert and Wanda, an Austrian band, was scheduled to take the stage as the last act of the night. I was talking to a friend of a friend, someone who grew up elsewhere in Germany but worked as an admissions counselor at a local German university and spent a year in Wisconsin in high school. We joked about casseroles and politeness and the American Midwest. Then he asked me how I like Cologne.
About thirteen months ago during my first week in city, I met a woman who was responsible for helping me get a residency permit, find an apartment, find my way in the city. We toured a handful of apartments in a handful of different neighborhoods of the city. She pointed out the banks, restaurants and ice cream parlors—always the ice cream parlors—within walking distance.
She spoke of the Lokalpatriotismus—a sense of local patriotism—that unites the people of Cologne. “I’m not from here so I don’t know why,” she started. “But something makes the people happy to be from Cologne.”
But her own accounts of the city belied her testimony that she hadn’t caught her own case of late onset Lokalpatriotismus. “In the 80s there were more art galleries in Cologne than in New York City,” she told me. In the thirteen months since, I have been unable to corroborate it but repeat it to all of my guests.
Cologne is a city that at first glance resists the eye’s affection and on second glance repels it. One can walk a kilometer perimeter around the cathedral, the city’s one true landmark and geographical center, and struggle to find a street or individual building on which the eye willingly rests. Beauty might lie in the eye of the beholder, but in a city decimated by war less than a century ago, there’s little to behold. In this sense, Cologne is Vienna’s opposite. Vienna’s core is immaculate and imperial and Cologne’s is a reminder of how imperialism ends.
Then spring comes and the beech trees lining the modest streets grow leaves. Slowly, one expands the perimeter. Walking further and further from the Cathedral, one comes across Eigelsteintorburg, a twelfth century former gate that stands at the axis of an ancient Roman city. Eigelstein remains the name of the surrounding neighborhood, once populated by tombstones bearing pinecones, or Eicheln, signifying immortality.
One learns of the people who passed through the city’s gates: Romans, Franks, Prussians, and Friesians. The stories of the admissions counselor and the relocation agent aren’t that unique. Everyone in Cologne comes from somewhere else. Here again, the city contrasts Vienna, which twice won wars staving off outsiders.
Then one discovers the Aachener Weiher, a square manmade pond dug to occasion the inauguration of then mayor Konrad Adenauer, who would live through the Nazi regime, spend part of it imprisoned, and become, with his city still smoldering, the revered first German chancellor after the fall of National Socialism. Today a museum of Japanese culture sits adjacent to the pond. Less than 500 meters away is Adenauer’s former school, which today hosts Syrian refugees in its gymnasium.
Then one stumbles across the former home of Heinrich Böll, Nobel Prize winning author, who in his book “City of Old Faces,” wrote of Cologne: “It’s too easy to convince oneself that one knows Cologne after looking at the Cathedral from out of a hotel window. Cologne is a city of unknown people, whom I know.”
On my way home from work the train moves south alone the Rhine and slowly breaks east over the river and into the city, nearing the Cathedral, which depending on the weather either looms grey and sullen or shimmers in resplendent gold. Then we move past the Cathedral, past the shabby Appartel am Dom, on whose exterior wall in blue block letters it is written: YOUR SECOND HOME. Then we travel two more stops, I get out, and walk home.
When you move through the city enough, you learn things about Cologne. It’s a city with Roman roots, a city that was destroyed, then rebuilt, and has been home to Romans, chancellors, and refugees. You begin to recognize it for what it is: a mélange of cultures and histories and faces built on top of each other, sharing the same land but stemming from somewhere else, each with former homes of their own. It’s a familiar sound in an unfamiliar place, like a band singing in a Viennese lilt or a friend of a friend telling you “Cologne is a city you learn to love.”