Author Topic: Of regrown leaves: three months in Frankfurt  (Read 575 times)

Jubal

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Of regrown leaves: three months in Frankfurt
« on: October 18, 2019, 10:30:14 PM »
Of regrown leaves: three months in Frankfurt

Spending three months in a city is a very different proposition to spending a few days there for a conference or visit, and it likewise leads to a very different feeling when considering the prospect of writing up such a stay. The plotlines and platitudes and brief histories with which one weaves together a brief impression of a city can no longer suffice so well, as bits of a place seep into you and you into them, memories left littered around municipal parks and emotions left tangling around tram station pillars when you finally leave. Between that, and life getting in the way, this piece has coalesced awkwardly over some months since I last set foot in the city – but I think is nonetheless better than if it had not been written at all, and that, sometimes, needs to be the bar one sets.

To say that Frankfurt-am-Main has a long history would be an understatement. The name derives from “Ford of the Franks”, hinting at its early medieval roots from before “Frankish” and “German” were really understood to differ. Even then, the first settlements in the area of the modern city were ancient, with a Roman complex present in the area. The period after the Roman retreat to the Rhine is shrouded in mystery, but by the late eighth century it was known as a significant settlement, and in the ninth it was the seat of Louis the Pious, becoming effective capital of the East Franks for a century, and further into the Middle Ages was the place where Bernard of Clairvaux called Conrad III to his place in the Second Crusade. Over time, it took its place as the major city in the region of Hesse, which gives its name to hessian sacking and was the source of many if not all of the feared Hessian jaegers who served as British-aligned mercenaries in America’s War of Independence.  Frankfurt itself was an Imperial Free City for many centuries, and at the end of the Middle Ages became the coronation site of Holy Roman Emperors (replacing Aachen) before being more properly merged into Hesse in recent centuries.


Old and very, very new together in the centre of Frankfurt.
That process was not, of course, smooth. Goethe, one of the city’s more famous sons, lived to see the end of the Holy Roman Empire, Frankfurt’s brief existence as a Napoleonic principality, its return to free city status and it becoming in effect the federal capital of Germany, all within the last three decades of his life. A decade later, Frankfurt would host Germany’s first elected parliament, whose unhappy two year attempts to form a constitution were eventually crushed by the might of Prussia. In the 1860s, Prussia did much the same to Frankfurt itself, whose intellectual cross-currents and harbouring of anti-Prussian writers and satirists needled Bismarck. How quickly Frankfurt could turn from refuge to place of fear was tested too many times over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – perhaps one of the last and most famous cases being that of a family whose name reflected that of their city, among many who fled Germany in the 1930s. Just one of them – Otto – was still alive twenty years later. That his daughter, Anne Frank, is one of the twentieth century’s most famous diarists would never be a consolation for his unspeakable loss. Nor for Frankfurt more widely could the loss be retrieved; until the 1930s and 1940s, Frankfurt had hosted one of the largest and oldest Jewish communities in Europe, first referred to in documents in the 1070s, although one which had suffered numerous pogroms and ghettoization at the hands of the city’s Christian residents at various points. Frankfurt Jews included the pioneer of international banking Mayer Amschel Rothschild and his family, and the liberal politician Ludwig Landmann, who became mayor of Frankfurt in the 1920s. Unlike the Franks, Landmann was never caught by the Nazis, but nor did he see the end of the war, dying malnourished and in hiding in the Netherlands in 1945.

Frankfurt was badly wounded in its physical as well as its human and moral fabric by the trials of the twentieth century, but it’s a fact only made obvious today by the comparative lack of older buildings and the more modern repaired nature of those that remain around the centre. The past is remembered, but it is by no means on display. It feels like a new city, not an old one, with skyscrapers continually shooting upwards and building works frequently visible in well maintained, wide streets, the latter (compared to, for example, Vienna) being one of the things I noticed most in my early reconnaissance of the city after arriving. Whilst the old centre is there, with some museums and old wood-frame buildings and cobbled areas, it feels very repaired, polished, and tourist-focused compared to the centres of more southern and eastern European cities. Parts of it reminded me of the towers and blocks of Chicago more than anything, complete with chattering suited groups of men and women swishing between glass-panelled offices - modern Frankfurt, in short, is back in business, has money and is very happy for you to know about it.


Ginnheim, in northwestern Frankfurt, where I lived.
The centre was not for the most part the main thing of interest for my stay, however – another difference to when one only has a short time in a city. I stayed in Ginnheim, northwest of the centre. This was once presumably a separate nearby village with its own cluster of older buildings, including its chapel and a very good restaurant which specialises in almost terrifyingly large portions of very good Balkan food. Public transport took me easily to and from the Bockenheim campus where I worked by tram, and the Airbnb I stayed in was a pleasant one-room rent from Dave and Suki, a respectively Dutch/Korean couple who worked between Frankfurt and Utrecht. The nearby shops other than the Lidl and Rewe supermarkets were largely run and owned by families of east Asian or Middle-eastern origin, including a grocer which did excellent baklava and a bakery café where I spent several pleasant afternoons working. The city outside the slickness of the centre has a quiet, comforting internationalism to it, displaying the multifaceted face of modern Germany.

My time in Frankfurt was inextricably bound up with another country entirely – Georgia. I was there to learn the language, and learn I certainly did. ახლა მე ვლაპარაკობ ქართულად, მაგრამ ცუდად - ფრანკფურტი კარგი იყო! Whilst to my knowledge there are no particular long term connections to Frankfurt or Hesse, German-Georgian relations have an almost surprisingly long and chequered history, including in the nineteenth century the presence of emigrant groups of Swabian Lutherans and other German settlers in eastern Georgia, whose architectural legacy can still be seen even if Stalin forcibly relocated the majority of them in the 1940s. Frankfurt is now, in any case, one of the main centres for linguistic studies of Georgian in Europe, and it was the academics there who I mainly went to see, particularly Professors Jost Gippert and Manana Tandaschwili (the latter surname transliteration being here in Georgian to German form – Tandashvili might make more sense for an English speaker)! To Manana in particular I owe a very great deal of gratitude for her time and for what limited ability with this complex but enchanting language I have been able to attain.


This family of Egyptian geese were regular sightings in Frankfurt's parks.
It was early in my stay when I first decided to go to the Gruneburg park, one of the more obvious locations on the map of Frankfurt and next to what is now officially the university’s main campus, which I never had occasion to go to. This is a fairly sizeable park, with wide grassy spaces at its southern end but also tree-shaded walkways around which red squirrels could often be seen, a cafe (which I never tried but looked very nice), and a pleasant Korean garden which contained bundles of tiny baby moorhen. In a small northern appanage (the first part of the park I actually came to), there was another a long pond which hosted various water-friendly birds and animals. Here man of my best wildlife pictures were taken, with a good diversity of habitat and animals relatively relaxed in the presence of humans. The first and most noticeable of the long pond's water-birds, on that initial visit, was a family of Egyptian geese, with a group of tiny ducklings (the nomenclature is confusing, but Egyptian geese are most closely related to shelducks rather than true geese). This family seemed to stay happily in place by the pond about as long as I was in Frankfurt, and I was able to see the chicks grow week by week from tiny balls of fluff into sleek young adults. Grey herons were also visible both on this pond and in the Korean garden’s pond, and the northern pond occasionally had small numbers of painted turtles – an American species originally which now via pet releases has stable populations across parts of Germany. It was not, after all, just the human inhabitants of Frankfurt that had an international diversity to their origins.

Just across the road from the Gruneburg park lies the botanical gardens, which I only visited rather later in my trip - whilst often packed with people, these sizeable gardens are also well worth a visit, and offer much more impressive bedding and ranges of plants than the other park areas in the city, as well as a fairly large array of food outlets and even a boating lake, one end of which is protected from boats and instead covered in a sizeable painted turtle colony (the Gruneburg park tortoises may well be an extension of this main colony - painted turtles can move a surprisingly long distance in search of places to live). I always tend to enjoy the greenhouses most - perhaps because the range of plants is more different to what I grew up with - and the one here did not disappoint, with an especially lovely range of bromeliads, which I have always had a soft spot for, only in part due to Terry Pratchett's memorable lines about them. In my one visit there, I also saw a bar-headed goose - which fitted with the Egyptian geese and painted turtles as a non-native, though a rarer one as bar-headed geese aren't thought to have significant European breeding populations. They are very pretty and regular escapes from private collections make them a not too uncommon sight in Europe, but Frankfurt is a far cry from their standard trans-Himalayan migration routes all the same.


Marie-Bittorf-Anlage was home to many fieldfares like this one.
Walking to or from the parks, another feature that was very noticeable about Frankfurt was the streets. These were wider and far more traffic-heavy than their Viennese equivalents: large arterial roads blazed their way through the modern city, with the aforementioned northern appanage of the Gruneburg park being connected to the larger southern section only by a thin footbridge over a multi-lane highway. Whilst Frankfurt’s public transport network is well maintained, slickly run, and inexpensive, this does not seem to allay the fact that it is a car-heavy city all the same.

It was a week or so more before I discovered two other parks. One, was the closest little patch of green to my house, was named in 2015 for the twentieth century trade unionist and socialist Marie Bittorf, a consistent feature of local politics from the 1920s to late 1950s except during the 1933-45 period when she was forced out of office by the Nazis. This small pocket of grass and a few trees was far from expansive, but it was frequented heavily by fieldfares, a winter bird in my native UK but nesting and breeding down here in Germany. Treecreepers, blue-tits, goldfinches and chaffinches were also all common enough sightings, as were the ever present red squirrels, which seemed to be considerably more common in Frankfurt than I have ever found them to be in Vienna. Later in the evening, glimpses of bats whistling past were common, though unlike many of the other common animals of the city I never found a way to capture the sight of these wonderfully nimble fliers. It was the other nearby park to Ginnheim, however - the Niddapark - that perhaps most captivated me of all the green spots I found in the city.

The Niddapark, named for the Nidda river which runs through its very northern end, is the largest of Frankfurt’s urban parks, containing several blocks of woodland, some orchard-like areas of planted trees, and wide open spaces largely used by Frankfurt’s many dog owners. The area had been proposed as a park as early as the 1910s, and was later debated as a site for Frankfurt’s zoo, but it was not until the 1980s that a federal garden show became the impetus for its eventual turning into a public park. It is now popular with dog walkers, runners, and cyclists, though the high footfall and dog presence does not seem to have hampered the wildlife much. The river itself is sadly not as exciting as it might be, with steep canalised banks and little of the water-side vegetation that might be needed for a more interesting range of wildlife. It is the woodland that is probably most interesting, though much of the grassland is also rarely cut and as a result hosts butterflies, solitary wasps, and other insects at the right times of year.


Buzzards, one of the Niddapark's most characteristic birds.
The range of animal and bird species on offer in the Niddapark is wide, and plenty are quite easily visible, the most spectacular being European buzzards whose wide wings are very rarely lacking from the skies overhead. I got a particularly good glimpse of one that led to a decent photograph just once, a chance sighting of one on a tree branch deep in the shade of a hot day. Most of the time, they move too fast or are simply too far away for an amateur photographer, but their wheeling flights are nonetheless a majestic part of the skies above the park. Jays are also a beautiful and fairly common sight as are both great spotted and green woodpeckers, not to mention the omnipresent red squirrels and a wide variety of small birds. Perhaps my most interesting record of the latter was a single sighting of a hawfinch, the reclusive powerhouses of the finch world whose heavy beaks are adapted to crack through cherry and plum stones. In the evenings mice were also quite easy to see, especially in Ginnheim wood on the east side of the park, with a little patience.

Whilst I spent much of my time in Frankfurt with my nose to the proverbial grindstone (and literal pages of Georgian notes), I was fortunate enough to meet some of its residents as well, including running two one-shot games of the Savage Worlds RPG system, which I was trialling for the first time. My hastily assembled gaming group hailed collectively from four countries across three continents – modern Frankfurt at its finest – and all happily settled in to the two mystery adventures I played through with them, and I was pleased how those went. The setting I was working on had already grown out of two small computer games I’ve written, most notably a text adventure mostly written about seven years ago called Adventures of Soros. More recently I’ve been returning to it and expanding it, and these sessions were an opportunity to test-run a few of my ideas and remind myself of the basic skills needed to take players through a game – there’s a couple of creatures I definitely now think of as the “Frankfurt monsters” as a result!


A part of the city forest - mandarin ducks were common here.
The museums of Frankfurt are also well worth a mention. There were several I didn’t get to, including unfortunately the main museum of the city’s history, but I saw some, mainly by joining some friendly locals for the Long Night at the Museums (a “one ticket, one evening, many museums” arrangement that a number of Frankfurt’s museums take part in). Those I did see included the natural history (Senckenberg) museum which is a well presented medium sized museum of its kind with a wide range of impressive fossils and taxidermied animals, near to the city’s astronomical museum which hosts an observatory at the top with excellent views. The other thing I managed to do during the Long Night at the Museum was to pay a visit to the city’s cathedral, St. Bartholomew’s, which hosted a choral music performance. Frankfurt Cathedral is quite modern, having been rebuilt after its destruction in a nineteenth century fire and then heavily repaired after twentieth century bombing. There has been a city church on this site since the seventh century or so, and the modern building represents the third complete reconstruction of the building – a cycle of renewal that perhaps makes the cathedral fit the city all too well. I nonetheless found it quite a beautiful building, perhaps partly because the somewhat sombre pseudo-medievalism of the experience was a relief from my usual feelings about overly visually busy, over-decorated baroque styles of church and church art, which I’ve never quite managed to reconcile myself to liking. Curiously, the building is not in the true sense of the term a cathedral, despite it usually being referred to as such, being the city’s main church and the previous coronation seat of Holy Roman Emperors. It is nonetheless not a bishop’s seat and not the centre of a see, being traditionally a collegiate church linked to the city’s former Imperial residence.

One of Frankfurt’s final beauties, and one I should perhaps have discovered earlier than I did, was the city’s forest, an ancient part of Frankfurt’s amenities that was the subject of a century or so of fourteenth and fifteenth century legal wrangling between the Teutonic Knights who held the grazing rights and the city who had purchased the land itself back from the Emperor. The forest is vast, and my single day’s explorations of it barely scraped the surface, besides it being a hot summer’s day and thus poor for seeing much. Various features are tucked away in the woods – of particular note is the Konigsbrunnen, a rushing spring with a picturesque nineteenth century stone setup around it, though other oddments like an unexpected well with old heraldic stonework around the rim were certainly charming too. Parts of the forest at least are quite accessible: trams can be taken right into the middle of the forest, with a restaurant and some other buildings close to the tram stop. Large ponds and watercourses create a good level of habitat diversity, though the most noticeable birds here which I hadn’t seen in Frankfurt itself were some mandarin ducks, the males just starting to head into their dull “eclipse” winter plumage but still startlingly beautiful. Doing poorly in much of their native range, especially in China, the prospect that the introduced mandarin ducks of Europe may in a decade or two have a larger population than their native cousins is by no means unthinkable.

Frankfurt is an old city and a new city alike, but perhaps more than anything it feels like a city that is about turning over new leaves. It’s a feeling both born out of the intense, deep pain of the city’s past that makes it a struggle to look backwards, and out of the changing needs of the city’s chrome and glass rebirth going forward. Standing prosperous, and hopeful that it can be the city that it wasn’t able to be at times in the past, Frankfurt’s memories are as barely visible as my own after I left – which of course I had to, as the crickets chirred louder and louder in the trees, their leaves now fully grown, and the high summer came in to the sound of their strigillating violins. Britain and Georgia both loomed near in my future, but the train on which I alighted out of the city, after a few last days of final walks, last buzzard sightings low across the Niddapark, and rounds all too brief farewells, was the direct one to Vienna. Even if a shadow of a shadow of my footstep still sounds below the breeze in Ginnheim wood, some days, Frankfurt had to look to its future, and I had to do likewise. Southward, homeward, and on.



The nearly full grown Egyptian geese - this is the same family shown above, taken a few days before I left Frankfurt.
« Last Edit: October 18, 2019, 10:43:55 PM by Jubal »
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Tusky

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Re: Of regrown leaves: three months in Frankfurt
« Reply #1 on: October 19, 2019, 05:57:59 PM »
Fascinating insight. This taught me a lot about the city (felt oddly like a bot writing that).

I know what you mean about writing a piece on somewhere that you have lived for a time, rather than the digest of actions that result from writing about spending a few days in a city. I was recently in limmassol for 3 months,  and don't know where i would begin writing about it!
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Jubal

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Re: Of regrown leaves: three months in Frankfurt
« Reply #2 on: October 22, 2019, 12:49:25 PM »
Yeah, exactly. It made me worry about a lot of my other writings though, and how superficial and projection-y my reflections on a lot of places must be from my very brief visits.

Does the potted history bit work in this one? I worried that I was regurgitating bits of Wikipedia a bit rather than wrapping it better into the narrative.
The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...