Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Cologne (Köln)

Happy (uncelebrated) Valentines Day!!

My host dad, Clemens, decided suddenly to take a drive to Cologne on Sunday (4 hours by car each way) so that I could see the cathedral located there, apparently a World Heritage Site and the final resting place of the 3 Kings of the Orient or the 3 Wise Men (.... to brush up on the bible story, the 3 Kings that visited Jesus in Bethlehem with gifts of Frankinsence, Gold, and Myrr, sp?). ... And there is a thorn from the crown Jesus wore as well... but that is what a sign said infront of a massive golden chalice thing with a center section made of thick, clouded glass of which relics are placed behind. But I couldn't actually see it. I suppose there were a lot of other significant relics as well, but I didn't see them either... the cathedral is a little bit big. Plus there was a pretty bad break-in in the 70's that caused most of the treasuy to be stolen or destroyed.

But anyway, how do you describe what it is like to step into a Cathedral? Well... start from the outside. They are ususally so tall that you have no idea where one part starts and another ends and you can't see the top very well without dropping your head back at a 90 degree angle. Depending on the style, there will be a range of decorations, towers, and ''Flying Butresses!'' (supporing arches). When you look at the size of the Cologne Cathedral, plus the fact that it is so spiky and prickly looking from all the ornamentation it makes you wonder how on earth it was built, and maybe even how it manages to defy gravity and not tumble down.

As you walk through the arched doorways, ringed by statued saints and gargolyes (to scare away the deamons!) you enter into a hall that absolutely feels like a magnificent underground cavern, meticulously sculpted, except that the walls are covered in brilliant stained glass that would normally anywhere else be breathtaking but are only blend into the background here. The scent of fresh incense hangs heavy in the air, clung to the distant memories of priests (bishops in the case of cathedrals) and the prayers of worshipers. Tourists crawl over the entire building, each wandering in a daze. At one time, the churchs were designed as protection for the people, so if there was an attack on the city, there was some place stong and safe to hide in. Over the centuries, they became more decorative and less about protection, but the original intention, in terms of size and strenth has not disapeared, even in the newer ones. Chairs now fill the massive hall between the columns, but when they are all taken out, there is an impression of a royal court on a much grander, heavenly scale...

The smooth, plastered arched ceilings and bold, thick columns create optical illusions with the angles created by wings and half hidden rooms. These are filled with priceless paintings older than the discovery of the Americas and the sculptures within threaten to conquer all space as they tower over everything below. At the very center is a huge platform where only the priests and other holy men are permitted to traverse, composed of podiums at the front and extends far beyond, lined in painted wood pannels and rows of chairs facing each other from each side so that they box the whole area in. At the end is the alter, and in the case of Cologne, there is a large golden shaped coffin that contains the remains of the 3 wise men. All the Catholic cathedrals I have visited have this coffin shaped thing, but I have never seen it this big. Usually it is accompanied by painted pannels with hinged wing and scultures of Jesus. Often the ceiling is lavishly adorned above the alter with mosaics or paintings, sometimes even frescos.

Surrounding the alter area are chapel rooms, which are ''carved'' out areas of the overall dome of the cathedral that encases the alter. You can walk around behind the alter to all these tiny little chapels, filled with the sarcofigous (sp???) of bishops and other holy people and prescious art to the point that there is hardly enough room for 5 people to squeeze into the spaces that are left within each chapel. Far fewer if you want to acually move. Then try to get an acurate look at the (much) bigger than life scultupes mounted only a few feet from you (if you stand on the other side) and you will feel absolutely tiny as an ant in this coloseum of stone, history, culture, and reverance. Several hours in a cathedral would not be enough to thoughly read the picture stories on the walls, windows, floors, and ceilings, look at the treasures and holy relics, read about and look at all the sarcofigous in the walls, in the crypt, under the floors, and in massive stone containers tucked into every corner, and truely pay respect to what these buildings are designed to provoke... a feeling of humbleness, reverance, awe, and holiness. I guess that is one of the reasons that there are more candles in a European church (or cathedral) than one can count. However, imagine that large European cities will have at least a few of these types buildings and a dozens of ''smaller'' ones that even so, still rival some of the biggest churches I have ever seen in America.

... unfortunately, my description doesn't even begin to describe this defiance of nature. As for the rest of my day in Cologne, we ate at an Argentinian chain resturant (a south amerian version of olive garten or something) and briefly saw a Romantic style church (Cologne is reportedly famous for these) before going home. Although I wish I could have seen more of the city, I am still satisfyed by my visit to the Cathedral. And I am definately glad I actually got a chance to go to Cologne after I wasn't able to this summer during World Youth Day. It is pretty cool to think that I was standing in the same place the Pope did only 6 months earlier. From what I saw of the city, it is very pretty. And on my trip to France, my train went though the station there, and I can easily say that the Cologne train station is the nicest, best looking, and most modern one I have ever seen.

Clemens is looking forward to taking me to Hamburg and Amsterdam as well before the year is over and I am glad that we are getting along so well. Although I don't see much of my host brother because he is always locked up in his room with his girlfriend (she pretty much lives here), everything is great with my host parents. Saturday I made baked beans with hotdogs (... no premade beans in cans here!) with carrots and rice as side dishes. I guess my host mom liked not having to cook because she wants me to make lunch (lunch is the main meal of the day) next weekend too. She is sort of funny when it comes to me and food. One day I was making a salad with an iceburg head and I slammed it on the counter (like I always do) to get the core out and she thought it was so revolutionary in salad making that she told everyone she met over the following week. I think she found the beans funny too, because she nick-named them ''Cowboy Food''.

Piano is going great, although I am not making an extrodinary strides in ability or talant. But I did discover that I can still play the flute (And much better than the piano too). That was sort of nice to pick the flute up after 5 years or so. Clemens is now scemeing to find a song I can play along with in his little church choir.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

My trip to France

Wow... I am finally home after a very busy few days in France and then at my Dad's cousin's house for the weekend. Last Saturday I left for Osnabrueck and spent the night with an exchange student, Marie (coincidentally from France). We went out to the movies and saw Harry Potter 4, which I thought was really good. It was a little creepy that Harry Potter indeed really does look like Rob, my high school sweetheart. The next morning I caught the train and spent almost 12 hours riding all the way south, through the Rhine Valley (that was really cool!!!!!... see the map to see the route of the train) and across the boarder somewhere near Stuttgart. That night, at 10 pm, I pulled into the station in Verdun, France and met Trevor. It was really great to see someone from home and I really enjoyed getting to know Trevor better. We talked until 5 in the morning and then slept in a little.

Monday we walked around Verdun. Verdun was the site of a very important battle in WWI with a lot of casualties. The 90th anniversary is this year, so there is a lot of talk and stuff. We visited a rather impressive cathedral (the picture of the stained glass window) for such a small town (approx. 30,000 inhabitants) and then a museum which explained a little bit about the Battle of Verdun. I was having a terrible time remembering my high school french (6 years!) but after about 2 days, I could understand a lot. By the time I left I could understand about the same amount of German that took me 4 months here to learn! On the other hand... my speaking skills are horrendous... vitually non-exsistant. Getting German and French mixed up was my biggest problem, but I am proud of the fact that I can say that I know 3 languages well enough to get around! Monday night we went to a Rotary meeting for Trevor's club and saw a presentation about the 60th, 70th, and 80th anniversary celebrations of the Battle of Verdun. Then (starting at at 9:15 pm!) we had dinner which lasted for over 2 hours! Unfortunatley the food wasn't all that great... the wine was good, as was the chocolate and the quail, but I guess it is a well know fact (???) that french food is much better on an international scale than the food eaten domestically. The bread was great (baguettes!) but I couldn't eat that much white bread every day. ... I actually was homesick for German food!

Tuesday morning we woke up early and caught the train at 6 am to Paris (so cool!!). We spend the whole day there, just seeing the sights. Sacre de coeur, the bohemian quarter, the painters, the moulin rouge, Notre Dame, Le Louvre, Champs d'elysse, l'arc de Triumph, and finally the Eiffel tower. (Please excuse my terrible misspellings... but trying to translate between 3 different languages and with the british english here, I have no idea how things are spelled anymore.) But, it was a really neat day of sight seeing. I even ate chocolate croissants and cafe au lait at a cafe across the street from the Notre Dame and a real Crepe at the Eiffel tower! We got back home late, caught a few hours of sleep and then had to get up early, after so much walking around Paris, to go to school. I find French schools not that different than what you find in the movies (that is if you have ever seen a french film... by the way a really good one won awards at the Grammys? last year, and it was actually about a french boarding school). Then wednesday night we went to a bar and celebrated a birthday of one of the foriegn language assistants (there is a whole gang of them at the schools in Verdun, hired by the government, and a really neat alternative to exchange programs!). There were a lot of cool people from all over the world.

Thursday morning I caught the train early and traveled a more direct path (instead of through the georgeous Rhine valley) towards Dortmund, where I spend the weekend with my Dad's cousin, Bobby, and his family. It was nice to see them again after visiting them in the first few weeks I was here. I spent most of the time at the house, trying to recuperate from France, but on Saturday I went with Bobby to a city called Soest, which has not changed a whole lot since the medeavel times. We took a tour and walked around a bit on our own. It was a really neat place. In these types of towns, the streets are built in circles, supposedly so an army cannot march directly into town but will get confused. ...I definately got very confused. But Bobby supposedly knew the way!

So, finally I'm back home. It is strange to think that this past weekend was exactly half way for me in my year. 6 months behind me, 6 months in front of me.... I even finnished up my first diary book today and will start a new one soon, but this time only in german. I can't help but think about how much I've seen and learned in the past 6 months and how much more is to come! I know it will only go by so much faster (and my english will only get worse... hang in there with me folks!)