Some days before starting the trip I had looked at Germany in Google Maps and I was startled to see that it does not have a shore at the Mediterranean. It came as a late discovery for me. All along I have had the impression that like all advanced nations of Europe it too must have had an intense and civilizing historical experience of Asia through the Mediterranean after Arab expansion under Islam and, indeed, must have pulled itself out of its medieval torpor like the others. It came as a shock and also a revelation. Germany has ports in the northern seas; its southern side is doubly blocked first by Switzerland and then by Italy. It is very significant that of all major European powers Germany alone never had a Mediterranean history – Britain and Russia were never quite fully European, and they aren`t to this day. It only spoke of my ignorance, of course, and while seeing things in Germany during the trip this idea returned to my mind as very significant many times.
T2 the new international airport terminal of Mumbai is designed on a huge and grand scale as if it will someday actually handle volume of business like Heathrow, Kennedy, etc. do and it is stylistically identical and imitative of all new airports of the world, all of which show a sameness and timidity of artistic design like all new cars of the world. We do live in creatively cowardly times. The airlines and the police, like all who do real work, finished their business quickly. Only the immigration staff took a self importantly long time. All bureaucracies have a streak of sadism. Indian immigration and customs cannot be different. Lufthansa took off on time and without fuss.
Sleep was out of question. My wife who has a simpler relationship with sleep tried a movie on the media screen at the back of the seat ahead and promptly fell asleep. The media screen for me was full of options, movies, games, and much else I didn’t understand, but as usual I watched the progress of the plane in its route across the planet over a realistically simulated landscape passing below. So much of the land is mountainous, or barren, or uninhabitable! No wonder ancient Persians were fighting wars not only in India but also as far as in Greece – and Greeks were returning the favour, in India, Egypt and Mesopotamia. Wars were for booty. It was the revenue model for the State, not very different in essence even today. Agricultural lands around fertile river valleys in China, India, Egypt and Iraq have been old targets of military campaigns. Just the right thoughts, it seemed, while flying towards Germany currently plundering West Asia as a NATO partner of USA. When sitting too became impossible I walked the aisles and the back alley of the plane, which helpfully had German magazines like Monopole, Der Spiegel and others relating to racing cars and fashion. The usual magazine repertory, only dubbed in German. I wished I could read the language, a thought which was to occur many times during the trip. I must have won the battle at some point and slept off. I woke up when Lufthansa was serving breakfast, before landing at Frankfurt.
Stepping out of the plane gave us the first whiff of Germany on a crisp morning in their summer at 16oC, coldish for brown tropical Indians. Again the long, long walk from the plane to the business end of the airport. This is a problem the airport designers need to solve: how to handle large number of aircrafts simultaneously as also to minimize exhausting trudges by the passengers. Walkways, electric trolleys for the infirm, show an awareness of the problem but not a solution. Not all travelers are athletic youth; in fact most are not. I remembered Heathrow which had seemed to somehow handle this issue far better. Unlike in India immigration, customs, security etc. were no bother. Immigration is handled by half a dozen federal Police officers, and all they wanted was to see our return air ticket back to India. I had been preparing for long and tough questioning by stern and suspicious racially hardened Gestapo. Nobody was bothered about us. Germany, of many mega wars, has fine-tuned its security mechanisms, or so it seemed.
The vast airport of Frankfurt is bordered by an equally vast maze of “facilitating” systems to help people connect with their onward transport. The profuse signage directing the arrivals tended to confuse rather than clarify. We wandered around like confused aliens. There was nobody to ask, and there were endless manned counters selling beers, banking products, and such. It you asked someone randomly they were polite and pointed to some other counter which was invisible and round some turning. Our arthritic legs had reached their tolerance limits. We remembered India where this job is nicely done by the smiling airline girls who swarm the airports, but in Germany smiling girls are much more expensive. We were outside the airport now but we were not going anywhere. We wanted to go to Karlsruhe in the south. Bullet train, plain train, bus, taxi? Everything seemed to be helpfully surrounding us, but we were lost and couldn’t find a ticket counter – any ticket counter – as we walked crisscrossing the fine roads and pavements full of passing cars and buses a amidst a maze of tall buildings, in the new, foreign-smelling cold morning air. There were many people, of mixed European origins it seemed, patiently waiting for their transport. We saw many people standing in clusters smoking cigarettes deeply and urgently in designated smoking areas, the harsh-smelling tobacco smoke whipping around in swirling breezes. This matter of widespread smoking will recur later. I saw the first derelict of Germany, sifting through trash bins – a reassuring sight, diluting the formidable image of Germany I had carried in my mind.
Rescue came in the form of a thin young lad with a wispy beard and suffering eyes, who was stationed there by some sort of a church organization precisely to help out confused and tired passengers like us. He chose us and approached us offering help. He heard and understood our problem quickly and pointed the way where, 100 yards away, there would be a ticket counter of ICE bullet trains to take us to Karlsruhe. By then that 100 yards was very important to our legs. Church! Germany! In today’s Post-Everything-21st century? With its thousands of years of experience and wisdom the Church still beats all the modern management systems in “micro-managing” souls of the lost and the helpless. Yes, I saw this. In Frankfurt.
Lost and the bewildered souls attract other kind of people too. As we walked the hopefully last 100 yards a thin middle aged bearded Greek god attached himself to me and spoke fine English in mild, educated tones. Quickly I noted with shock the deep imprint of colonization on my mind, despite being weaned on Naipaul, Edward Said, and all, which gives me the first impulse of seeing Greek gods in all white people – mercifully only the first. Yes, the ICE (Inter City Express) counter of DP was indeed ahead. But trains were Euro 40 to Karlsruhe. We could take a bus at Euro 16 too! Seeing that I was wavering he was encouraged. He was keen. He said buses were 100 yards away too. But my mean-spirited Indian mind was immediately suspicious. He understood this too. Deprecatingly he explained that if he helped us we could also perhaps help him with an Euro or two? Despite my Asiatic distrust I liked him and also told myself to withhold this liking at the same time. No, I said, we would take the train. Very well, I will help you to the DP Company’s counter and interpret German maybe? Maybe, I said, and immediately regretted it.
“You are from India?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied shortly to discourage conversation, while also somehow enjoying the skillful nature of the palaver. I was on a holiday, after all.
“Too many people,” he said with friendly commiseration.
“Yes,” I bristled defensively. “But so many working hands too!”
“Yes, yes,” he quickly agreed, nodded wholeheartedly. “I am from Ireland, too,” he said.
This “too” floored me completely. Ireland! But we had reached the DP Company`s counter. A very helpful man there heard us, explained all options in plain English, typed and printed out the tickets, and also pointed to the escalator which would take us to the correct platform for our ICE train due in 20 minutes, and smiled. I asked the DP man whether I should help the Irishman, who had politely retreated well away from the brightly lit DP counter but was waiting expectantly as a distance. Not necessary, the DP man said, not unkindly. I couldn’t help myself. I had been given my first German coins by DP as change, but there was no time to indulge in my old habit and linger over these fascinating emblems of civilizations. Ireland spoke too many things to me – British colonization, Joyce, Yeats… I walked over and gave him a 1 Euro coin. It might have been 2 Euro for all I knew.
A plump, young teutonic girl doing the counter of hot buns and coffee for the fatigued and non-german-reading travellers on a cold, windy platform good-humouredly gave us the final help saying that second class coaches will have “2” painted large near the doors. On time, we were aboard on the slick bullet train, streaking across the German countryside just waking up under the mild summer morning sun.
Beautiful, seeing the passing landscape this was the word that came to the mind, again and again. Every bit of the passing scene was laid out like European landscape paintings of 19th century French, Dutch and German artists – like a work of art – which has formed even for 3/4th of the (colonized) world’s people like me their artistic templates, standards, and frames of reference. Large farms, but not extra large like in USA, with hedged boundaries surrounding small clusters of white single story picture-book houses with red and brown tiled sloping roofs. Why sloping tiles like in Inda south of Vindhyas, I wondered? Germany did not have heavy rains. Then I remembered: snow. The farms were of ripening wheat, vegetables – yellow, brown, gold and green. Trimmed, subdued trees, occasional neat rowed orchards of plum, apricot and other fruit I couldn’t quite identify. Gently rolling land, low wooded hills in the horizon. We were in the Rhine river’s basin. The sky was a delicate blue with small white wisps of transient clouds evaporating in the sun, like in a Vermeer painting.
Ah! I had been seeing pictures of this landscape for years since I was growing up, reading books, seeing films, forming ideas. This is where those pictures came from! A strange feeling came over me. At the same time reassuring like a long imagined home coming, and also unsettling, because it was so foreign, something seen for the first time. Somehow this type of landscape was the true and correct landscape, artistically beautiful, worthy of being painted, discussed endlessly, kept in museums, carried in the mind like a yardstick to judge all landscapes by! Landscapes of my own land were beautiful too, sure, but in a different, subordinated class, not artistically affirmed, somehow not worthy enough. Born in a free India, writing this in English language, an ex-colonial subject like me: how many cleavings do I carry buried in my innocent soul? How can I travel, and see the world without churning up old, unexamined sediments?
Hamlets. This was the word passing villages invoked – mainly single storey white houses of painted walls and sloping red and brown tiled roofs, some with gabled ornamentation, huddling around small, narrow churches with their steeples rising up clear above the houses. The smallness of the churches and their half hearted architectural ornamentation spoke of small parishes being tended, in the past and also today. Carefully tended lands, farms, orchards, dotted with carefully unfelled trees – in rows and clusters – spoke of decades and even centuries of studied and carefully cultivated fertility and fruitfulness of the soil and climate. Colors in pastel shades, passing before my eyes, speaking of orderliness and beauty, and human ingenuity and science, bathed in photogenic mild sunlight of July in southern Germany.
A thought, may be responding to all this gentle beauty: Germany is situated in the northern latitudes of mild, angled sun rays, with long winters and short summers. What causes all this grain, fruits, flowers, trees and colours and tastes to sprout from the soil after all? The sun, of course. The comparatively weak rays from the sun, due to upper latitudes and inclined axis of Earth`s rotation, can only do so much here and not more. All flora, and for that matter fauna at one remove, are what, exactly? Nothing but what the sun’s rays can extract out of the genetically programmed biotic possibilities inherent in the ensemble of soil, seeds and climate. So this: what I was seeing. The lower energy level of the pale sun in Germany can only realize pale thresholds of colours and tastes: Germany’s soil can manage to reach up only to yield apricots, apples, and cherries for example, not hot stuff like mangoes, bananas, sugarcane, chillies, spices and such like – these need hot, powerful sun rays of equatorial and tropical latitudes. Yet another layer of Germany opened up, as the trans-european bullet train speeded due south, towards Switzerland. Why only of Germany? Whole of Europe’s actually. Europe would not have got its Enlightenment had it not stumbled upon tropical fruits and spices of Asia and Africa and south America. The sun managed to reach European stomachs and spirits only through the 3rd world! Hold it there, I told myself, before you get carried away; look at the passing land instead.
What was passing was not only villages and a rural arcadia. Every 50 kms along the rail track there were small and not so small towns, although our hot shot trans-european train did not stop at these rail stations. Towns visibly being sustained by one or two large industrial units, but no overwhelming industry clusters which were created all over the world by the first, 19th century, mode of industrialization. Industrial buildings dominated the cityscapes, surrounded by large, populated car parks, feeder roads, warehouses, transport hubs, shopping malls, banks and schools. Busy and pulsating, I saw, but not frenetic or desperate; there was a stately calm and wholesomeness that gave a lie to the pictures of out-of-control industry-townscapes that we have got from Dickens, Detroit, or Djakarta. Small cities like Gross-Gerau, Riedstadt, Stockstadt am Rhein, Gernsheim, Lampertheim, Darmstadt… awake and calmly going about their daily business, as effortless and natural entities of a known and wholly owned civilization. These places did not have the crazed atmosphere of an alien eruption that envelops Indian industrial places and towns.
Neatness. Care. These ideas slowly made their way to the front of my mind, as I watched the villages and towns from the train. Every patch of land, every road, pavement, drains, culverts, parks, benches, traffic lights, bus and train stops, every public and civic works were clearly marked out and closely maintained and cared for, like it was posing for a brochure. Even smallest of villages with a dozen houses with a tiny church. This local thing, this municipal or local governance is of course the ultimate level of civilization, like good street paving and tap water is of urbanization. Germany is no doubt civilized, almost obsessively so.
I watched the people going about their business in neat streets amidst neat buildings. Fresh faced teenage children with pink and healthy white skins joyously racing one another on their school bicycles, senior matrons chatting in pairs, pushing strollers filled with daily shopping from the nearby superstore or bakery, big stolid men trundling past on cute looking delivery vans: daily life of white race. Race. This word too started appearing in my uneasy, liberal educated mind, as I watched the civilized German people living out routine lives in German settings. The word also evoked echoes. Race is such a real thing; however abused the idea might have been politically in the last two centuries, and continues to be even today. Seeing a white man or woman in India is different; we see them with native, secure eyes.Here I watched the passing landscape with a divided intent, bifocally.
Even an ICE bullet train has to stop somewhere. Our train was slowing down and the landscape showed the approach of a big industrial city and also glimpses of a broad river quite busy with commercial freight boats, and even huge ocean going container ships! Rhine, surely, I thought with a thrill as the train announced in several languages that we were approaching Mannheim for a stop. Rhine river. So much of Germany’s ancient lore and legends are bound up with this river, which flows down from the Swiss Alps in the southern border of Germany and traverses the whole country northwards to its destination in the North Sea. Again the thought returned: Germany is a North Sea type of land, not a Mediterranean one – by geography, by history, by culture.
The train took a long time to gently roll onto its platform in Mannheim station. This was good. I could see a lot of the big industrial city, a contrast from the idyllic picture book scenery of rural Germany I had been seeing. Container trucks with logos of Siemens, ABB, Daimler, and Temasek etc. explained the huge industrial plants. Siemens and ABB alone account for about half of electricity generation equipment of the planet. The road system was complex and two-storied, but orderly – oh yes, with very Germanic orderliness. In one railway siding I saw huge rakes with gleaming new cars under polythene wraps in 3 storeyed carriages, waiting to be transported for the distant European markets. No pollution visible, no traffic jams, none of that apocalyptic, heedless atmosphere of Indian industrial areas. German industrialists have a calm and trustful understanding of modern industry mainly because they are among the inventors of it. Indian industrialists have got hold of industry by accidental windfall, as a money spinning, mysterious and imported milch-cow which they don’t even attempt to understand; they use it as if there is no tomorrow. Nothing intrinsic to India in this of course. The Satanic Mills of 19th century England were also like this – the feeling of shock and bewilderment that runs through Dickens` novels came from this. Europeans have learnt their lessons and reformed; Indian are still learning the early lessons.
With such somber thoughts I watched the people in and around the Mannheim rail station – my train was at an outer platform and I could see the city outside the station too. Huge men with heavy, large limbs – and stomachs (from beer and meat) – standing silently in clusters and smoking furiously. Ditto for women.The smoking business again. Part of the reason was that these were smoking zones with huge ash trays and the law abiding Germans were clustering around these to smoke. But the dedicated and concentrated smoking looked like something else something deeper– what I don’t know. Men and women not smoking were standing in singles or pairs sunk in glum and brooding silence on the platforms. They looked tired, and somehow silenced. These were the most advanced industrial workers in the world, working with most modern, complex and demanding industrial machinery. Sure to drain the workers of all their vitality which they traded for globally highest wage levels. May be I was looking at exhausted workers at the end of a shift. A curious sight was provocatively dressed middle aged women with faces lined like grandmothers but with sculpted and well-displayed athletic bodies like gymnasts, and painted like ad models. Then I remembered, Mannheim also has many media related companies based on IT expertise. Marveling at these sights I watched the most advanced workers of the world after their night shift.
The train had halted for quite some time. Some people came into my coach. Young families with beautiful, white, children in prams, their older brothers and sisters prancing around and their educated, careful parents, all white. The coach was filled with chatter and childrens` laughter. Clean, well dressed, white children with pink faces and blue eyes looked lovely like we see in TV – and global TV is mostly white. Businessmen in suits with briefcases and streamlined, assessing eyes. Men and women with arms thicker than my thighs. Backpacking youth with new beards and breasts, many reading books. Books. This was another thing I was to see in this trip, like smoking: Germans reading books in buses, trams, trains. I watched, trying not to stare. People nodded to one another, friendly but guarded. Nodded to me too, a non-white. The idea of race came to me again, seeing the train full of red-faced, white-skinned, large sized Germans going about their lives. Race remains such an enormous fact. The idea of a nation, born in the 19th century, was built around race after all. And remains so even today. Contrary to expectations capitalism – also starting in the 19th century – did not dissolve the fact of race because it was not true to its founding doctrine of free market movement of men, materials and money. Denying free movement of men has kept capitalism hobbled by this vestige of feudalism. No wonder capitalism has failed repeatedly – as the basis of a democratic civilization. Ironically, the expected remedy promised by socialism also retained this feudal unfreedom of the people. When the train started again apron-wearing white young men with curly new beards and blue eyes like disciples of Socrates were serving coffee and snacks to us. Again, waiters evoking ancient Greek elite! Despite so much of cultivated anti-colonialism how deeply conditioned is my dark-skinned ex-colonized mind!
Feeling profoundly flawed I couldn’t focus on the passing landscape which was mostly small towns interspersing the now familiar farming lands. Companies like ABB and Siemens in Mannheim would need to be fed by many ancillary industries situated not very far away. Although in the low hills banking the Rhine there could be seen neat rows of carefully tended vineyards, I was now drawn more to watching the white passengers with averted eyes. This is the white race, cool and assured of its place in the scheme of things. Men and women absorbed in their laptops, books, and music through ipods or mobile phones. One or two solitary men curiously sat clutching their briefcases. Not very long ago this was the race which had claimed itself as the Master Race and had done a whole holocaust and fought unthinkable wars for this claim. Although these were in German language many of the title pages of the books being read looked like serious stuff, not just potboiler pulp fiction. What do Germans think now of their recent past as the Master Race? My thoughts tumbled around in this disturbing terrain. What kind of world we would be seeing today if capitalism had been practiced in its canonical form and allowed free movement of men along with material and money around the planet? Would we have created a uniform cross-bred peoples’ world – the varnasankara anathema of Puranic Brahmins of India, ancient and modern? Or would we have made a world of mixed race societies with distinct cultures but shared ethos? Would we still have had nations, nationalisms, and consequent wars? The old ifs and buts of history. Useless no doubt, but are they wholly pointless?
It was almost mid noon and I could see sunlight glinting on the occasional views of the blue-grey waters of the Rhine. The sky was getting overcast with light, grey rain clouds as we started approaching the town of Karlsruhe, our destination. It did not have the industrial, cluttered landscape of heavy industry, so our train’s approach was gentle and suburban. I later learnt that Karlsruhe was mainly a base of IT based industry – even its one complete suburb in the north, Siemensallee, seems to be meant for some office-based, white-collar division of Siemens. Although it had the usual and heavy complement of international shopping arcades inseparable from all cities in the trans-european grid the Karlsruhe station was small and all of it at the ground level. The information counter people promptly supplied us with many maps and seemed earnest and eager to help, unlike in Frankfurt. There were only a dozen taxies – nearly all Mercedes – and they were also eager to take us to our hotel in an expensive ride. Taxis in Germany are even more expensive than in Delhi – in all Europe, I was told. As we drove along the unfamiliar right lane driving system through well paved, well painted, well signaged and well traffic-signaled streets there was a shower of rain in large, clean drops. In the small dash to the hotel’s entrance we got a little wet. The rain was cold but it was pleasant and seemed to be welcoming us.
After a long twilight zone which passes for jetlagged sleep we eagerly ventured out to eat in our first German restaurant. It was 9 pm and the sun had not set. Clean, wide, nearly empty roads, neat pavements, tramlines being plied by charming looking trams, modern 3-storeyed buildings with sloping roofs for the winter snows and small gable-like, cute, and historical looking projections(I don’t quite remember what these are actually called), very little traffic, no pollution of the air, hedged green areas and gardens. What cities dream of becoming when they grow up. In the ornate lights sent by the setting sun Karlsruhe looked breathtakingly beautiful. It looked good, easy, and friendly, it looked like what a good city in today’s world should look like. The rain clouds had lifted but the breeze was too cold for us not dressed for it. Googled weather said 16 degrees, Celsius of course – only the arrogant Americans still cling to the unwieldy, non-metric, Fahrenheit, Mile, Gallon etc. and even feel proud of it. No restaurant nearby beckoned to us with inviting lights and most shops were closed. Most hotels do not have restaurants of their own. Shivering, we chickened out (ha, ha) and abandoned our fantasies of much googled German food, collected whatever we could gather from a neighbourhood supermarket and timidly hastened back to our hotel.
(… to be contd)