Four reasons why the U.S. are my favorite country

Okay, okay, that headline was obviously clickbait. It should read: “Four reasons why the U.S. is one of my favorite three countries” because naturally Sweden and Germany are also my favorites. Why the United States though – with their crazy president, gun laws, poor conditions for employees and social inequality? Because, as (probably not only) we Germans say, “Where there is light, there will be shadow”. Everyone talks about the American shadows (even the Americans themselves). But when I’m here, I encounter a lot of light, too. So here is my list of highly subjective reasons what’s awesome about America.

1. Friendliness

Americans have a reputation to be friendly and to engage with others. “You look summery”, “How’s your day going?”, “I like your shirt!” Other cultures often like to remark that this is just superficial friendliness and that’s probably true. But what’s the alternative? I have not yet been to a country where people at a fleeting first encounter display deep friendliness and entertain sincere conversation. And if I can chose between friendliness that is superficial or unfriendliness that is superficial, I will chose the American way. (Oh, and customer service is a part of this. Few things can compete with American customer service!)

2. Traces of History

So the U.S. is a super young nation and their ‘historical’ buildings on the West Coast are 200 years old, which make a European laugh. But what is extremely fascinating is how you can feel history’s impact everywhere you go. Everyone and everything here is a proof of living history. Names, customs, holidays, cultural attitudes – everything reflects the history of this place in a direct, hands-on way. From services with gospel music that originated in the black community to bilingual signage because this was a Mexican city not too long ago, it’s all there.
Americans don’t want the state to interfere with their lives? Ehm, well, that’s the very reason why they came here back in the day. Instead of having just Protestant and Catholic churches (and the occasional Muslim), there is a vast array of confessions, including ‘creative denominations’ – because 250 years ago, British, Swedish, German people left for the U.S. to finally be able to exercise their faith as they wished to. The list goes on. If you want to see the results of history in real life, go to the U.S. and look around (or keep reading).

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Freedom of faith

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American-Persian entrepreunerism

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Spanish well wishing

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Marketing to the Jewish traditions

3. Diversity

Needless to say, that kind of history leads to diversity. Different races, different religions, different traditions, different styles. Media might still portray the all American white girl or guy, but real life gives you all the options. (And media is starting to catch up on that.) All this diversity in at least the big cities also means you are never the odd one out. You can wear what you want, do what you want and be blonde, brown, black or whatever. Because everyone else is also special, you don’t stand out. What a relief.

4. Entrepreneurial spirit

You don’t settle in unknown territory and fight for independence from the Old World if you’re not a daring character. Americans get stuff done. At our potluck dinner, I learned about Emily’s friend’s business, a subscription service for parents and teachers. What I didn’t understand was that she did this on the side of her real job. She had a good idea and just did it. Non-Americans would probably find 100 reasons why this would not be feasible. Maybe the idea won’t work out. It might not be generating enough money. Tax declaration could become more difficult. And, eh, working a side hustle, so exhausting. In the U.S., there’s overall a stronger entrepreneurial spirit, Americans are characterized as optimists – and, frankly, that’s just inspiring.

 

El Pueblo de la Reyna de los Angeles

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As a historian, I am always intrigued to learn how a place came to be. Malicious gossip has it, L.A. is “ahistorical”. Not true! The exhibition “Becoming L.A.” walked me through the – kind of short – history of the city. Imagine that it was only founded a little more than 200 years ago and how much it’s developed! I spent a few hours going through what was a very carefully curated exhibition (with lots of really old things such as the very table at which the Mexican-American war was ended or the original crucifix the settlers brought to L.A.!) with what seemed like a strong focus on political correctness and inclusiveness to me. It could’ve been in Sweden, really. Anyone who says Americans are not aware of their historical and current societal conflicts…go there and reconsider.

I walked from the canoes of the Natives to the foundation of El Pueblo de la Reyna de los Angeles (that’s the original name and they only kept the last part. It would be weird if we did that – I live in Orf? I was born in Erg? I studied in Ala and am moving to Urg?), through the incorporation into the U.S., the Gold Rush, the emergence of the dominant industries (not only movies, also aviation!), the Great Depression and the Post-War-Era. Population growth was insane! In 1850, there was a little more than 1000 people living here. Thirty years later, it’s 11,000. Just fifty years later, they had more than a millon in the city. Today, it’s four million only in the city (that does not include cities like Santa Monica). Angelenos did, however, entice the influx with some pretty professional PR: they (I guess that’s the local Chamber of Commerce among others) had journalists write reports about the area that advertised the great climate and overall benefits of living in L.A..

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Actually, there are exact records of who founded the town. 22 Spanish/Mexican adults and 22 children settled here first and the museum lists them with their names and everything.

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Outside the museum is the Edible Garden that teaches visitors about nature and food. Not only is it beautiful, it is also very well done and informative.

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In the museum shop, you could buy edible insects. For real. I checked the ingredient list.

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“As wealth increases, the colors blue and green increase in a neighborhood”

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During the Second World War, Japanese Americans were deported from L.A.

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The L.A. area is very progressive when it comes to certain sustainability issues. To reduce plastic waste, there are refill stations for your water bottle.

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On the bus home, I caught sight of poetry on the road. What a lovely initative!

 

A People’s Journey

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While its history and present holds a lot of tragedy and drama, I also, or maybe therefore, think the US is an extremely intruiging country and culture. The immense diversity never ceases to enthrall me, so many cultural expressions, beliefs and identities that still all unite in one huge, huge country. When I went to school, we were studying the US a lot, manifest destiny and the American dream were our daily conversation topics, but still it feels that I never fully grasp all there is to the Land of Liberty.

Going to the new National Museum of African American History and Culture was thus an excellent way to add to my knowledge and understanding. It was at the same time an overwhelming exhibition that is hard to recount, with three chronological floors packed with information, and three thematic floors full of facts.

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The entire museum goes in an almost solemn brown and gold theme and its architecture is simply beautiful. The first thing I learned was that Portugal was a major player in slave trade, something I definitely had no idea about. It doesn’t seem like the Portuguese are very keen on discussing their role, but they transported nearly 6 million African captives to the Americas, only England outperformed them. The stories of the trip are heart-breaking, on some ships 350 out of 700 passengers died and many killed themselves by jumping into the Ocean.

It is impossible to deny that the bigger part of the museum is somewhat depressing. It tells the story of mothers who kill their children to spare them a live in slavery and of a new nation establishing a serious paradox with its Declaration of Independence that declared all men equal, but not quite all. The museum takes you all through the Civil War, mentions famous activists and – I find this worth mentioning as it sadly is not yet something you can take for granted in museum work – highlights in particular the women who were part of the movement. It continues in great detail about segregation and integration, sit-ins and the Civil Rights Movement, accompanied by many poignant quotes on the walls. When the chronological third floor ends with Obama, it’s hard not to be affected by what the museum calls A People’s Journey.

The three thematic floors were about sports and music, media and military, theater and travel. Because it took me so long to get through the lower part, I only had limited time to see those floors but I did learn about the 1968 Olympics Black Power Salute, it kind of occured to me that Oprah Winfrey is black (I guess I don’t think of her primarily as a person of color) and I realized how heavily influenced music was by African Americans.

Not only is this collection enormous and well-displayed, it is also entirely free of charge. The museum is a Smithsonian museum and I actually had to look up who this awesome Smithson person was who has really blessed the American people despite never having set foot on US soil himself. He was a British scientist who left all his wealth to his nephew, stipulating that it be used “”to found in Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” The Smithsonian Institution was created and is today running nineteen museums, nine research centers, and a zoo. And you get to visit all of them for free!

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Nobody seems concered about plastic waste.

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Outside the museum

 

Baby, it’s cold outside

Some say that the body changes every 7 years. If that’s true, my body has now, at change number five (I’m old?!), become a sissy that can totally not stand cold and is always tired. I seriously wonder how I survived all those harsh Swedish winters when here I feel close to death when it’s – 5 degrees Celsius. And yes, I wear gloves and hats and all that. I’m so cold I always wear my wool cardigan that used to be restricted to Polar Circle Trips mostly and I try to avoid being outside. Really, I don’t understand what’s happened to my inner heat. And I finally get why so many Swedes spend their entire January/February in Thailand.

Last weekend, at least I was warmed by the company of my little bonus sister who visited me to get some private history lessons for her A-Levels. First, I took her to the Nazi memorial museum in town . We spent the afternoon learning about what is was like to be young during the Nazi time. It was actually a rather good exhibit even though I am not too fond of occupying my brain with too much Hitler. But that was the motto for the weekend so once at home we continued for many more hours. Trying to be an innovative educator, I ran a search for all my remaining playmobil figures (or similar) to build up a scene explaning what happened during Appeasement politics.

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I also got a new intern at work. Today, he got to take over the now so called praktikantkudde. It’s not an award if that’s what you thought, it’s literally the Intern Pillow. Because I am not quite the helicopter internship adviser, the interns have to take care of many things themselves, including accomodation. Apparently, pillows are often not part of the furnished rooms that are rented out in this city and the former intern had bought himself a great pillow that he then did not want to return to Sweden so I, often hosting guests, inherited it. When the current intern told me of the poor quality of the pillow he acquired, I brought the Intern Pillow to work and handed it over. Sleep is important after all!

 

How to get up

The nanny state is real. Or was real. Maybe it still is. In the 1950-70s, it definitely was a thing in Sweden. The socialstyrelsen, the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare filmed and distributed several educational videos for housewives and stay-at-home-moms. These infomercials which were shown in the cinemas during weekday afternoons and are said to be a unique phenomenon for the Nordic countries. National celebrities appeared in the movies that instructed the good wives of Sweden on how to plan their housekeeping. (And of course, it was giant supermarkt chain ICA that was involved in the production.) A particularly popular film was “Fru Plotter och Fru Planér”, depicting two housewives that could not be more different: Fru Plotter, the negligent lady that has to go to the store every day because she is not planning well and Fru Planér, who buys large quantaties and sticks to her weekly meal plans.

My co-worker sent me a movie that’s circulating on Facebook right now and surely hits a nerve with us sleep-deprived young people. The Swedish state explaining how to get a good start in the morning:

My co-worker is actually extremely good at imitating the narrator voice. I now want to make a movie about our work place with her narrating in the 1970s voice.

Del 5 i citat-samlingen:

“Det var längesen vi kollade på prinsessan Estelle. Jag ska googla lite bilder”.

“Den här Ikeakatalogen luktar prutt”.

“We think it is way too warm here.” German external co-worker: “Yeah, for you polar bears it might be a little hot.”

 

Time Travel in Skåne

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Hello from 1831! I am writing this from a huge, huge house. A homestead to be more precise. My room mate Angelina just tried to go from the hallway back to our room and nearly got lost.

It looks like a mixture of a museum and a filmset, just that we are explicitly allowed to touch and use everything. Oh, and yes, it also belongs to my friend Michelle. This place is absolutely amazing, I stop and express my astonishment every other minute, and I have failed to capture it photographically and I feel probably also have trouble conveying it with words. There are antique gorgeous tiled stoves in every room, the furniture is from the 18th and 19th century, there are two pianos, several dining rooms and I accidentally pressed the bell to ring for a servant. Yes, you read right, there is a display of which room rang for the servants in the kitchen – just like in the Downton Abbey series!

The adorable dog, Tessan, Raphael and Michelle preparing song books, the homestead

Additionally, this carefully furnished filmset is inhabited by our lovely hosts, my friend Michelle and her parents who have fed us with homemade kanelbullar and waffles. We’re here to celebrate Michelle’s Master degree and little by little, more and more friends will come so that in the end we will be a party of 18 living here. So cool.

I also did lots of stuff in Gothenburg but I’ll just have time to give you a picture parade of that because the past three nights, I’ve finally mananged to fall asleep and I don’t want to mess with that pattern. Good night!

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Coincidentally, my aunts were in Gothenburg, too, so we met up.

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Short visit to the German Church of Gothenburg. Fancy!

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At the German church, they give you Bible words to take away.

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It didn’t rain all the time in Gothenburg.

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The latest Gothenburg shoe fashion….?

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We rented a car (so easy! so cheap! so convenient!) and went to Tjolöholms Castle in Halland to look at a castle that was build by some English Sweden at the turn of the century in Elizabethean style. It had a small Jane Austen exhibition. Very small, actually, But nice merch!

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Joraine and Nathalie in the gardens

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Being Jane Auste

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Quite an okay view those living in the castle had.

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Mrs Blanche Dickson was one of the first to buy a vacuum cleaner. It was rather big.

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In the former worker’s assembly house, they now had a lovely fika place…

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…where an artist displayed illustrations I fell in love with

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The old workers’ village

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On the way back, we stopped at a garden shop

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And Joraine bought plants and paid them via Swish which enables you to textmessage money.

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We went to Henriksbergsterrassen and saw Stand Up Comedy. It was the worst I’ve seen. 3 out of 5 comedians joked about sexual abuse of children. In which universe is that funny?

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Swedish advertising: The labored, worried man.

Pile them high

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One of the locations I looked at today was very close to one of Leipzig’s most famous landmarks, the Völkerschlachtdenkmal, the Monument to the Battle of the Nations.

It commemorates the soldiers who lost their lives in the battle of Leipzig in 1813, the Battle of the Nations, which was the the biggest bloodshed in history before the World Wars. More than half a million were on the battlefield, 92,000 were killed or injured. This battle was the decisive one in defeating Napoelon. Even though parts (or most?) of the Leipzigers were fighting on the French side, they built a monument. It made me think that maybe the whole thing is more about honoring the losses than who won. But that’s just me speculating, I didn’t have time to go inside.

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The pond in front of the monument is called, “Pond of Tears for the Fallen Soldiers”

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Around the monument, there are other little monuments for different anniversaries. This one says, hard to translate, “The voice of your brother’s blood screams to me from the earth”.

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work—
                                          I am the grass; I cover all.
And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
                                          What place is this?
                                          Where are we now?
                                          I am the grass.
                                          Let me work.

Following our forefathers’ tracks

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Tempus fugit.

Sometimes I wonder why people are so interested in the future. The future is all speculation and “we worry about tomorrow like it’s promised.” But the past! The past is fascinating and in a way more real. At least for me and that’s why I studied history and love museums about the past. When I realized I live only some kilometres from where the Neanderthal people were first found, I had to visit.

So I took the chance of the free holiday Thursday and travelled 20 minutes east by commuter train. Already the journey was some kind of epiphany – going through the small towns with the unattractive names of Erkarth and Mettmann, I realized the area is extremely idyllic and pretty. Green as far as the eye can see! I understand that the Neanderthal people wanted to live there.

The Neanderthal (“Neander valley”) got his name from a painter called Joachim Neumann. Joachim’s dad translated their surname into Greek (totally en vogue in the 1600s) which became Neander. His son was in Düsseldorf for four years and hung out in the valley that later was named after him a lot. He also wrote a very famous German hymn “Lobe den Herren” which might have been inspired by the nature around there. (Swedes also know the song as “Herren, vår Gud är en Konung i makt och i ära” and the English sing “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty”.)

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The museum did not disappoint, it was a display of very modern and well-done educational work, something you should never take for granted. You could learn about evolution, about how small we humans are in the scheme of things, why the monkeys came down from the trees, which different creation myths different peoples had and how some thing are the same for all humans – and Neanderthalers, like for example initiation rites.

Did you know it was when we started to walk upright that we lost the ape-like body hair? This became a problem for mothers and at the same time the start of the nuclear family. Offspring had no longer mom’s fur to cling to so they had to actively be carried and as the human baby is a premature creature that needs constant supervision, fathers became a more involved. New types of social interaction arose and a tightly-knit social unit was formed.

They even had a great installation where a baby on video tape was lying in the middle surrounded by stand-up displays with statements from people that were related to the baby. On the outside, the modern mother/sister/uncle was quoted, on the inside, the Neanderthal equivalent stated her views. Interestingly enough, the father’s role has – unlike basically all others – not changed dramatically.

Why did these fellows disappear then instead of living in Dizzel today? I learned that the Neanderthalers were much stronger than we are which eventually became their problem when the ice age took away most of their food resources. More muscles, higher metabolic rate – more need for food. The museum did however show how a Neanderthaler could look today. And I didn’t think he looked that unfamiliar.

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A visualization of how mankind is growing.

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These ears tell you the different creation myths

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A Neanderthaler burying her brother

 

 

 

Attendez le signal

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(Ce rapport incl. des citations est authorisé de Anna.)

Marseille did not meet my expectations – in both good and bad ways. The first thing that was not as expected was the beauty of the city. I was told that Marseille was “not that pretty” and “more of a bad kind of harbor town”. As a person who loves the water, I beg to differ: the Mediterrean Sea was glittering in turquoise shades right outside our window and the Vieux Port’s boats picturesquely lined up in the middle of town. Marseille is surrounded by green hills and above it all thrones the Church Notre Dame de la Garde.

What hugely disappointed me was the lack of interest Marseille showed in one of her most famous daughters, Désirée Clary. No museum, no house of birth, “we ‘ave a métro station called Désirée Clary!”, they informed us. If there was a woman born in Dizzel who later became queen of a country, there’d be memorials all over. I mean, Heinrich Heine left Düsseldorf as soon as he could and still, the university is named after him, the central street is Heinrich-Heine-Allee and there is an institute in his honor. Watch and learn, Marseille! I am starting to suspect it has to do with the fact that Désirée was a woman.

Something that was unexpected as well was that no place in all of the second-largest French city showed the Eurovision Song Contest. And yes, we even went to all the gay bars! That way, Anna, my 16-year-old travel companion, learned what the rainbow flag signifies, so I assume we must enter the endeavour on the educational credit site after all.

While the European countries strutted their stuff on Stockholm (and I got countless texts from everywhere asking what I thought even though I could not watch it), Anna and I ate some traditional galettes. It became obvious during our meal that her teachers had neglected to thoroughly inform her about the French Revolution so the next half hour I tortured her with Richelieu, Ancien Regime, the Storming of the Bastille, Citoyen Louis Capet, the Tennis Court Oath, Robespierre, the Declaration of Human Rights and Boneparte crowing himself. “You forgot the guillontine!”, she just commented as she read what I typed. So you can tell my effort got across to her!

I also tried to  leave some of the navigating to her since she speaks fluent French but she made a point out of letting us end up in a locked tram in the depot so I realized she did not want to take on the role of chief guide…After a while,  with me constantly reminding my co-German to “attender le signal” at the traffic lights, we finally made it to the park we intended to go to (because Anna wanted to itemize birds). This public garden was graced with a giant statues and fountains, called Palais Longchamps, in the front with engravings of famous men: Lamarck, Buffon, Linné. Trying to arouse Anna’s curiousity for natural history, I asked if those names rang a bell to which she replied, “Yeah, isn’t Buffon the Italian goalkeeper?” Well, yes, he is. As I started to explain Lamarck’s and Linné’s role in science, she sighed and said:“Helen, you’re too interested in things”.

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The Désirée station

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In th Notre Dame de la Garde, you could offer candles for 10 – ten! – euros each

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Because you always wanted Merkel on your phone

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In the Mucem

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Grandmas knitting histperware

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We were strolling through the Old Town Le Panier when suddenly a Zumba class was held right in front of us – very entertaining!

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Lavender chips and Orangina – feeling very Provencal.

Germany’s secret capital

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Everyone knows Berlin, history-conscious people know Bonn – but do you know the secret, would-be capital of Germany? I went there last weekend.

The city, located quite centrally in Germany, is one of the most underestimated: Frankfurt. The largest city of the federal state of Hesse (and not even there it gained the title state capital) is known for being the financial center of Germany, it’s where the stock exchange has its home, the European Central Bank resides here and literally every bank imagineable has an office in the town by the river Main. Most people think of Frankfurt as the grey bank place I guess. It’s important to call it Frankfurt/Main because there is also Frankfurt by the river Oder which is east of Berlin, bordering Poland. Apparently, we had so many cities in Germany we ran out of names so some have to share now.

Frankfurt is also the airport of Germany. When we approached the city on the Autobahn, I caught sight of a – for Germany very unusual – skyline of modern skyscrapers to the left, the reason for Frankfurt’s nickname Mainhattan. As I looked back to the front, five planes were flying towards us at the same time. Like in a movie! The planes go down right next to the cars, it’s quite a view!

Speaking of views, I was rather surprised by the landscape on the way between Düsseldorf and Frankfurt – it’s so scenic! Rolling hills show off their green colors, every now and then a little river meanders through the land and you pass by some picturesque castles. The route, however, is much longer than I thought. For some reasons, my distance perception is really off: it takes the same time to drive to my parents or to Brussels but those places feel much farther than Frankfurt.

I was there to attend my former roommate’s housewarming party. We met back when we were both studying in Stockholm, now a long time ago. Her guests, knowledgeable about Frankfurt, recommended museums to me because my original ambition was to visit one. (Yeah, that never happened.) One gentleman phrased the difference between the Commmunications Museum and the renowed art museum Städel as, “You need to decide whether you are looking for an aha!-experience or a wow!-expierence”. This actually made me very curious so I will probably have to return. The party continued into the early morning when one of the Frankfurters saw me sitting in an armchair and said, “I can see you are feeling dapper, you are feeling Waterloo”. What sounds like a line of out some indie band’s song came to him spontaneously and I could not find out what he meant by that. It’s a matter of perspective after all: if he was French, he’d mean I feel defeated, if English, I’d be feeling victorious and if he was a Swede, he’d just mean I was having a great party in weird costumes.

St. Paul’s: German Democracy’s Birthplace

Anyway, the next day after recovering,  I set out to join the Alternative Walking Tour. It lasted 2,5 hours which I found too much, especially since one hour was about drug addicts and prostitution. Apparently, Frankfurt is the German crime capital (“but that is counting the bank crimes in the skyscrapers as well”), has the most frequented central station and 18 spidermen statues hidden in the inner city. It also used to be the city with most Jewish inhabitants, Anne Frank was born here, and famous poet Goethe’s birthplace is also located here (he was not Jewish though). They have an active Freemason Lodge and “Batman begins” was filmed here because the director needed a skyscraper street and New York, Tokyo and Chicago were too expensive to close off for a movie shooting.

Frankfurt unites old architecture with the modern bank towers and some typical after-war ugliness. The market square should make any tourist’s heart miss a beat: Germany just how you imagined it! Half-timered houses, traditional apple wine and churches. Actually, it was one church I was most interested in: Saint Paul’s. This building is the birthplace of German democracy where in 1848, they formed the ‘Before-parliament’ which prepared the election for the National Assembly, the first publicly and freely-elected German legislative body. As a historian, you can’t but marvel at the church in awe-stricken silence. Spoiler alert though: after a year of working on a first constitution for Germany, the resistance of Prussia, Austria and some smaller German states put an end to the dream of democratic Germany, with the Prussian king rejecting the crown offered by the German people as “coming from the gutter”. It’s sad because imagine what Germany could have been if we had steered toward a solid democracy already then…

The market had some very interesting signs. Sorry, only funny if you know German.

But back to Frankfurt where I got lots of Southern-German vibes. Somehow it reminded me of Heidelberg with its red-ish sandstone buildings, sunny weather and cheerful dialect people. What’s with the capital stuff then, you wonder. Well, because of its central location and economic significance, Frankfurt considered itself to be the natural choice for Germany’s capital when it became clear that Berlin would be divided. Their post-war-mayor had the town rebuilt rapidly to present an intact city ready to house parliament.

But – this is how the legend goes – the first chancellor Konrad Adenauer who was from Cologne didn’t want to move and made Cologne’s neighboring town Bonn the capital. Bummer for Frankfurt! Historians would, by the way, argue that Bonn was chosen because of its temporary character, a small town not really fit to be the capital, the institutionalized “We will never give up Berlin”- statement. Some say Frankfurt still suffers from this missed opportunity, but I’d disagree: Frankfurt’s thriving!

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In former times, Frankfurt had a tax on each window you built (See the three-windowed half-timbered house above.) They should have kept that tax when the skyscrapers came!

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Good to know the next locomotive is only 5 metres away!

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This fancy house is actually a club. Like, a disco.