It’s hard to believe that this T-bone in the road was once a capital city.
I’m back in Germany in the village of Odenthal, three streets at a junction near the industrial town of Leverkusen. I’ll give you the history lesson in a minute but I need a sit down first.
Getting here by public transport was stressful, as you might imagine. It’s the last day of the school holidays and, like in the UK, the roads and rails are clogged up with construction workers closing off sections of the route while they boil up hot drinks and shelter from the weather. It’s also the hottest day of the year.
If you’re in a bad mood then Leverkusen isn’t the place to come to cheer yourself up. The city of headaches and heartaches has to be about the ugliest town in Germany.
I’m the one who christened it that, so don’t go writing to the local tourist board telling them how cynical they are. The headaches association comes from Bayer, the pharmaceuticals giants who gave the world aspirin. Their headquarters are here and their plants dominate the horizon. It’s the first thing you smell when you get off the train.
The only other reason you would know Leverkusen is if you follow the failures of its football team. The men in red and black are the eternal runners-up of German football, gallant losers in a country which likes to win. Perhaps that’s why they’re all so damn miserable round here.
The town has the chemist Carl Leverkus to thank for its existence and it’s built very much for function rather than for form. At the moment they are rebuilding the main bus station in order to brighten the place up a bit but they are experiencing little in the way of success.
The crater opposite the railway line is where I should be getting my bus from; you don’t need to be a Pentagon expert in post-apocalyptic scenarios to realise that’s not going to happen.
A helpful map details the various relocated bus stops — helpful if you come from Leverkusen anyway.
It takes me about half an hour to trudge round the dustbowl, locate the new crossing over the bypass and cross back over the same four lanes to get to my bus stop. The stop is marked, but not as it is on the map. The sun is at its height.
The presence of timetables indicates that I am in the right place. They are scholarly, each one akin to a transcription of Hebrew scrolls where footnotes dwarf the actual text. Translating them makes ancient Hebrew easy in comparison. The 212, my stop, has footnotes ranging from ‘a’ right down to ‘m’.
Fortunately, the 212 is the next bus to pull up. I reason that I can ask the driver if the bus passes my stop. I do that very thing.
“No” she says. “It says that on the front of the bus. Can’t you read?”
A clear case of footnote ‘g’. I feel like a fool and I suspect this was her intention. I flip her off in the wing mirror as she drives away under a cloud of resentment.
“LEVERKUSEN IS BADLY PLANNED AND UNFRIENDLY!”
I shout to whoever will listen. I hold back on the expletives for dramatic effect.
As usual, whenever I let off steam there’s a group of youths not ten yards away pointing and laughing. I am in no mood to share the joke.
“Oh fuck off!” I shout. “The only reason you’re laughing is that you don’t know what a shit town you live in!”
Actually I didn’t say the second bit. That only came to me twenty minutes later when the second bus arrived. This always happens to me in arguments: Too late I think of good things to say and this annoys me even more.
Anyway, an hour later, I’m sitting in the shade in a beer garden in Odenthal and I’ve calmed down. You’ll laugh when I tell you why I’ve come here. Today’s entry is all about finding inner peace.
I haven’t been doing too badly on that front recently actually. Since I came back from Britain I’ve stopped torturing myself with the “betrayed by my country” incantations. I haven’t put a euro into my “Brexit swear box” for over a week now.
I no longer feel any resentment to those who voted for Britain to leave the EU– I only wish I could say the same for the politicians who gave them the false information on which to base their decision. I’m actually fairly relaxed at the moment, so long as the busses run on time.
Something like inner peace is starting to emerge and so I’ve come here today to one of the most tranquil places I know in Germany.
It’s actually a church, not that I’m a great churchgoer normally. I haven’t been in one for a service since I was at school, not without a cheque in my hand for the bride and groom anyway — but do I feel drawn to places built for reflection.
It doesn’t have to be a church; since I started that writing this I’ve also been in a synagogue and a Hindu temple. I believe in something, even if it’s only that there’s more to life than Leverkusen.
“Be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be” wrote Max Ehrmann and be it His house or Her house, whenever I enter a church I feel like I’m entering a house of God. It’s all the more special because I don’t get to do it very often.
The only trouble is that in August God gets evicted. I was in Glasgow Cathedral a couple of weeks ago surrounded by selfie sticks and Australian accents complaining that Edinburgh’s just soo much nicer than Glasgow.
“Fuck off ya bastards!” I thought to myself, before remembering where I was and that God hears everything.
Down the road in from here in Cologne it isn’t any better — but I reason Odenthal might be different. Odenthal might only be three streets, a petrol station and a supermarket, famous for nothing except a couple of witch hunts in the seventeenth century, but Odenthal has a cathedral.
Only the Germans could build a cathedral in the middle of nowhere because only German history allows for such an eventuality.
Back in the middle ages when Germany was a patchwork of de facto independent mini states these three streets were the capital of the Duchy of Berg, whose rulers lived in a castle on one side of the valley. It was they who donated the land to the Cistercian order in 1133 and the order subsequently built the cathedral in question.
It isn’t really a cathedral in the technical sense because it was never the seat of a bishop but it’s known as such in both German and English. It’s certainly big enough and there is an archbishop buried here, along with several of the Dukes of Berg, distant ancestors of Anne of Cleves, who was born just over the hill.
These days nobody has heard of Odenthal and everybody has heard of Cologne, but back when they were both autonomous entities this was no foregone conclusion. It was Anne of Cleves that Henry VIII married after all not Anne of Cologne — whoever that might be.
I have to walk about half an hour out of Odenthal to get to it. The first time I came here on a wet November morning two years ago I felt like I was the first visitor in a hundred years. It’s fine countryside out here, shut off by steep wooded slopes on all sides.
Like its neighbour in Cologne, the cathedral is a survivor. It fell out of use in 1803 when Napoleon got sick of Germany’s patchwork politics and decided to clean up the map.
He dissolved independent church estates all across Germany and turned them over to the state. The building here was left to rot. Fire destroyed much of what was left and had it not been for the efforts of the locals and the finances of the King of Prussia it would have fallen into permanent ruin.
In 1857 it was reopened after decades of restoration and is now used by both Catholics and Protestants. I still find it ironic that in the country which launched the Reformation, coexistence is so much less of an issue than it is in Scotland. In Odenthal one cathedral fulfills the function of three in Glasgow.
Alas, I regret, it’s also being used by tourists — and loud ones at that. A coach party pulls up outside, cameras flash, tour guides talk over each other, babies cry in pushchairs. God is either out of town on business or on the phone to the council about the noise.
“For fuck’s sake!” I think to myself — then once again remember where I am.
I sit in the pews for about half an hour but there’s no getting round it. It’s school holidays and this is the most populous state in Germany. Protesting infants are dragged round the nave, spilling precious ice cream and gummy bears as they go. Tears follow.
“Shut up for Christ’s sake!” I am thinking, before I correct myself. God is watching us.
They go back to school tomorrow, no wonder they’re in such a bad mood. I should have thought of that really and come a day later.
“Christ!” I think to myself “you’re an idiot sometimes”.
“Duly noted” says God.
It’s no easy matter trying to find your inner peace in August — I think mine takes an extended vacation — but I am trying hard.
I head back to the village. It is still unbearably hot. There’s another church in Odenthal, a purely Catholic affair, and I have half an hour to wait. I enter and am quite alone. It is cool, it is quiet and the effect is instant.
With my attitude to profanity I doubt I’ll ever make Archbishop but I don’t think I’ll ever quite dismiss Christian teaching entirely. I like the stuff about forgiveness and reconciliation too much, hard work though it always is.
I walk down the street to the bus stop. As I do, a youth on a skateboard flies past me, misjudges his balance and flies into a hedge.
I resist the urge to point and laugh — surely I’m not the only person that gets this — but God knows what I’m thinking on the inside.
No matter. God forgives. God understands. God made the hedges and the laws of physics.
God works in mysterious ways — and is probably having a good laugh at all of us right now.