There’s an outlet in the ceiling of my apartment. True to its Altbau design, the ceilings in my unit are four meters tall and adorned with baroque moldings. The elevated ceilings add an elegant touch to the apartment, a touch that doesn’t always correspond to the lifestyle of a twenty-seven-year-old bachelor tenant. More than two years have passed since I moved in, but it’s always 8:46 on the frozen living room clock because I still haven’t bothered to change the batteries.
Still, it’s the electrical outlet on the ceiling that attracts the most attention from visitors. Four meters high and situated in a corner, the outlet would be out of reach for Yao Ming and fulfills no practical purpose, like lighting. I don’t know why it’s there, have never used it, and still haven’t found the perfect answer for the guest’s inevitable question: “What’s that for?” Of all the guests I’ve had, it’s the Germans who seem the most perplexed. Constitutionally perturbed by the impracticality of an outlet affixed to a twelve-foot ceiling, the Germans probe until they reach either a passable proposal—“It was probably necessary in the construction of the building”—or the point of imaginative exasperation—“Could you use it for your refrigerator? No? Okay I give up. Pass me another beer.”
Built in the middle of the twentieth century, the apartment building climbs four stories into the Cologne sky, which means that tenants on the top floor have a near-unobstructed view of the cathedral, the Kölner Dom, a centuries-old Gothic masterpiece, the one and only marker of distinction in the city’s skyline.
There’s a Dutch phrase about the Dom, my grandpa claims. “See the Cologne Cathedral and you can die.” I saw the cathedral for the first time in 2006. I was on a high school trip with my German class. We exited the train station and walked right into the shadow of the two towering steeples.
Since then, I’ve passed those steeples on the train daily on my way to work. I’ve taken friends and family to see the Dom, have gone down into its subterranean foundations, and climbed the 327 steps to the top of the south steeple. I’ve seen it in the sun when the oxidized façade starts to shimmer. I’ve seen it in the rain when its arches pierce falling drops. I’ve seen it at dawn and at dusk, and in the endless variations of “rainy and forty-three degrees” that play out in Cologne’s continental weather system. In September when my parents came to visit, we sat on the steps of the cathedral and ate train station pastries in the cold.
According to my grandpa’s phrase, visitors, be they of Dutch or any other descent, can go satisfied to their graves as long as they’ve glimpsed the cathedral. Whether or not the saying actually exists remains unverified, but the sentiment behind it makes me wonder. Must one have really seen the Kölner Dom before dying? Why? What about the experience readies one for death? Can my myriad visits atone for at least a handful of those who can’t and won’t make it? Perhaps Andy Warhol’s popular paintings of the cathedral can have an indulgence effect?
“See the Cologne Cathedral and you can die.” Perhaps the phrase is getting at something else entirely. If there’s such a thing as a checklist to living a satisfied life, there’s likely not a line item that reads “See the Kölner Dom.” And there’s certainly no space for anything related to an electrical outlet in the ceiling. But there needs to be room for those things we see once, then again and again, that still make us wonder.