Wednesday, October 7, 2009

My German Life: Downtown

As a kid, I remember listening to my mom singing along to the B52's song, "Downtown." You know, the one that goes, "When you're alone / and life is making you lonely / You can always go Downtown / When you've got worries, / All the noise and the hurry / Seems to help, I know, Downtown." This song never made sense to me growing up. I lived in suburbia and we went to the air-conditioned mall. Downtown was a wreck of a place, littered with drug dealers and gun-toting gangsters, and every respectable merchant had long ago deserted it. As an adult, I've moved quite a bit, but always to southern suburbia, with air-conditioned malls and no character. Until Heidelberg.
A couple of days ago I hopped on the strassenbahn with Helen and her stroller and we headed downtown. In Heidelberg, the old song just makes sense. There really is something magical about strolling the Hauptstrasse (main street) all the way down to the heart of the city, the altstadt (old town). This was the first time I'd gone to town alone and I reveled in the experience, the strange way being alone in a crowd made me feel so NOT alone. I tried to slow down a bit and notice things I hadn't before: the smells for instance. Downtown smells like tobacco smoke and food. The ubiquitous Turkish kebap stands send our their aroma which mingles with the traditional smells of schnitzels and bratwurst. The sounds are varied by the day of the week, traveling bands set up on the hauptstrasse and play music from their native Spain or Turkey, or stringed quartets pay homage to classical greats. On this day it was a lone accordian-player looking for a few euro cents. The sights run the gamut from exquisite to disturbing. There are beautiful German students and fashionable Italian tourists. There are alleys holding secret gardens and fountains that beg for company. There are shops bursting with ethnic goods from all over the world. The architecture in downtown is really stunning for its detail, and I noticed you can tell who the tourists are because they are the ones looking up, staring awestruck at roofs corniced with knights and walls stuccoed with mermaids. But there are not-so-lovely sights too, beggars dot the Haupt, displaying missing limbs and horribly frostbitten legs in hopes that the horror will bring more euros from tourists.
Being alone in downtown affords one the ability to chat easily with strangers in shops; I suppose I looked approachable as a young mother with a bubbly little girl. I ended up at my destination, a Morroccan shop that sells wall-sconces I wanted. The dear old shop-owner tried his level best to speak English with me. "No sprechen sie deutsch" I apologized. "French?" he questioned eagerly. "Nein" I was embarrased to reply, and so he soldiered on in English for me. He kept apologizing for his "not-so-good English" as we negotiated our terms for the sale and I laughed to think he knows at least two and a half languages and I know only one. A customer came in and he helped translate for us, and I left the shop amused and fulfilled with my interactions. People are so fascinating for both their strangeness and sameness.
The air took on a different scent at this point, the smell of rain. And then it began to sprinkle lightly, as it does on many a German afternoon, but instead of dispersing the crowds, it seemed to heighten the mood of the streetgoers. People seemed to be smiling even more, as if we were all now part of each other, a single body snaking the strasse, enjoying a cool mist on our collective face.
What is it about a new place, a foreign place, that lightens the heart? Why have famous authors like Mark Twain and Henry James tried so hard to convey their delight in their travels? I know I haven't really described Heidelberg for you. You were not there, and cannot know the way it really feels to walk the cobblestones. Just as Innocents Abroad fails to touch my heart, I suppose my blogging will not touch yours. You must experience it for yourself. You must come to Heidelberg some day. Call me, and I will meet you at the Bismarkplatz in ten minutes :)


  1. I'm coming as soon as I can, and I want to go downtown with you.

  2. "And you may find somebody kind to help and understand you / Someone who is just like you and needs a gentle hand to guide them along /..."

    So perfect!

    And au contraire, ma soeur, you did a fine job conveying Heidelberg...the only thing missing is a melancholy soundtrack tripping along the cobblestones behind you. I think we all deserve a soundtrack to accompany our lives...except I guess downtown would be too noisy to enjoy then with all the clashing melodies...or would it become a collective soundtrack? Like the accordian player serenading passersby. Or those damned pan flutist Indians. When did they migrate to Europe anyhow? :)

  3. "people are so fascinating for both their strangeness and sameness."


  4. I don't think that you can ever truly convey the fullness of an experience like being abroad. The best you can hope to accomplish, I think, is to awaken an echo, a resonance, in those who have traveled before. I know you have connected with that parallel in me with this article; both for the times I traveled the network of trains in Germany and western Europe alone, as well as wandering with Joy upon the countrysides of England. I know exactly what you mean, yet none of the specifics of our experiences will match. Perhaps that is the magic of traveling: the experiences and discovery that can only be shared to us through the vibrancy of our own travels.