Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Karneval 2007

Except for the burning of the straw witch, Karneval is nearly over here in Cologne. His Holiness threw himself into it this year, singing the songs and dressing up and asking to be allowed to be outside a little longer each day in order to observe the people in costume and to take in the weird and wonderful atmosphere that envelopes the city at this time each year. If I ever harbored a smidgen of doubt about whether he considers himself a German or an American I can put that doubt to rest, although he may be more a Kölner than a German. His loyalty seems to be to his adopted city of Cologne and already, at the ripe old age of three, his speech is sprinkled with the genuinely foreign (to me) Kölsch dialect that his mother and grandmother and aunts speak with him whenever I am out of earshot. He came home recently from a weekend at his Oma’s singing, “Ich bin ein Kölsche Junge” or something to that effect, meaning that he was a Cologne Boy and proud of it. I don’t think I mind the fact that my son is becoming a real German – but my mind’s not fully made up.

Early this afternoon, after the obligatory journey to the Rosenmontag Parade, where we were mobbed by hundreds of soon-to-be very drunk but otherwise jolly folk, we retired to the relative calm of the playground in the Brüsseler Platz near our apartment. There we ran into a new friend from the neighborhood, a respectable businessman and father who was sporting a bright yellow wig, a blood red double-knit sport jacket, terribly soiled baby blue bell-bottom pants and an array of such truly tacky jewelry that even the late Anna Nicole Smith in all her glory would have hesitated to clutter her cleavage with it. He had been out drinking in the town for the last week and the man must have a remarkable constitution because he was able to carry on a lucid conversation after all that self-inflicted damage to his brain and liver.

We are just getting to know each other so a good bit of our banter is about who we are and what we do. One of, if not the first questions I always get is: “Why are you here?” I turned the tables a bit and anticipated the question by asking it of him first. He told me that he comes from southern Germany, which can mean one of two things; he is either from a rural backwater or from Munich. Munich is a word that seems to actually make people here in Cologne ill – I’m not exactly sure why but I think study will prove that these two cities are about as different from one another as it is possible to be even given the fact that they are both known to the rest of the world as places where huge quantities of beer are consumed. One significant difference, at least from what I’ve been able to deduce, is that in Munich the majority of beer is drunk by foreigners on vacation whereas in Cologne, it’s the locals who do the drinking.

Our new friend told me that when he first moved here (he never actually said where he was from) he thought Karneval was just plain stupid but that after a few years it started growing on him; the songs, the traditions, the feeling of camaraderie and so on. Today, he’s the guy with the yellow wig and the tacky Elvis outfit drinking and singing his way through Old Town every night for a week or so in mid February.

I have mixed feelings about a great many things. It’s the poison of being born a Gemini perhaps, but when I hear and see my one and only son, the fruit of my aging loins, becoming a foreigner it gives me a good bit of pause. Last night I sat up very late watching Terrence Maklick’s film, “The New World.” I think it is a perfectly brilliant film, the very rationale for the medium. Not only was the story telling moving but the story itself resonated with me. My family, HH’s family, was one of the first to settle what is now the United States. We have been living and dying and making our way on the continent of North America for 400 years or so and the move back across the ocean was not one that was made without a good deal of thought. Watching Malick’s film made me think again about what we had left behind and what might be in store for us here.

I think anyone who leaves the known for the unknown has to be a little desperate, a bit brave and a little bit of a dreamer and it is the dreamer part of the equation that interests me. Coming here was a choice, but even the most conscious choices are often met with surprising consequences and so it is with the decision to live in a foreign land. The dream was that HH might have a life rich with a variety of experience in a region of the world where tradition resonates with history and where the pace of life permits some living.

I never imagined having a son but once having him I never imagined that he might grow up in a culture that was foreign to my own and although HH was born in New York City his mother-tongue is German, he speaks it more confidently than he does English, he constructs more complicated sentences in German than he does in English: his thoughts are formed in a foreign tongue.

Karneval may be just another pre-Lenten festival, but is also much more than that. Sitting on the park bench in the Brüsseler Platz this afternoon I noted a new episode in HH’s life unfolding, the stuff of his memories being recorded. His childhood will not be filled as mine was with baseball games in vacant lots on summer afternoons, but with all of this, with the songs and tastes and laughter of Karneval and of this new world.