“The Bauhaus you wrote about in your last post reminded me of Darmstadt” Francesca said. “Let´s write about Darmstadt”.
This time it was my turn to be polite: “Darmstadt, of course …”.
Why should I know anything about Darmstadt?
Maybe, because it is only 35 km away from where I live? Or because it would only take 31 minutes to get there?
In 15 years I have been there once. The only place I know in Darmstadt is the dirt track at the college sports field. Amongst runners, Darmstadt is quite famous, because one of the best German triathletes, Lothar Leder, lives in Darmstadt. The local running club and the sports medicine department at Darmstadt University are known to produce good athletes. Therefore, ten years ago, I went to Darmstadt in an attempt to improve my running style.
I had decided on a workshop with a highly acclaimed triathlon coach after I had come second to last in a 10km public run–the last one was 84 years old.
The weekend started with a cardiac fitness check. While everybody else got his or her optimized range of heartbeat for serious running, the computer analysis told me rather to excercise in light walking. Then we hit the dirt track, and I met my fate.
I ran and ran, panting. My blood whooshed and swooshed. My head turned red. Sweat trickled into my eyes. My T-shirt clung to my body. My lungs ached. I ran as fast as never before, only to see the other students pass me twice in four rounds. “We do have special workshops for overweight people”, the coach said, and I decided to erase Darmstadt from my map.
My map shows a lot of blank spots, when it comes to the cities surrounding Frankfurt: Mainz, Gießen, Marburg, Aschaffenburg, Limburg. I have been to London four times, to Marburg (50 km away, a medieveal Fachwerk-gem and home of one of the oldest German universities) … once.
Germans are proud to be the tourist champions of the world. When it comes to travelling, they ignore the wisdom of Goethe, the most famous German poet, who wrote, three hundred years ago:
Willst du immer weiter schweifen?
Sieh, das Gute liegt so nah.
Lerne nur das Glück ergreifen,
Denn das Glück ist immer da.
In English shorthand: Why travel far? Look, and you will find the good things in your neighbourhood.
Said Goethe, and set out on a year long voyage through Italy, the first “Bildungsreise” or “Grand Tour” in history. This journey and the book he wrote about it started the trend of travelling in Germany. In the 19th century any well-off young man, who wanted to be part of the in-crowd, had to go to Italy. In the 20th century, everybody had to go to the Canary Islands. In the 21st century you fly to New York for Christmas shopping.
Goethe didn´t go to Darmstadt, though he grew up in Frankfurt. But he did go to Offenbach, a city only 10 km away from Frankfurt. He must have been the only citizen of Frankfurt to do so.
These two cities live in deliberate ignorance of each other. Thus, they recall the times when Germany consisted of more than 100 little kingdoms and dukedoms – Kleinstaaten. Till the 19th century, each of them minted its own money, ran its own mail system and provided its own transportation system. Every few miles, travellers had to pass custom controls. Furthermore, they had to get out of the stagecoach and change into a new one. This still happened in the 1990ies between Frankfurt and Offenbach. As an innocent newcomer to Frankfurt, I one day decided to go on a sightseeing tour to Offenbach. I took the tram saying Offenbach and expected to arrive in Offenbach. But suddenly the tramway stopped in the middle of nowhere and a loudspeaker announced: “Stadtgrenze-city limit”. I had to get out and wait 15 minutes (to get rid of any Frankfurt germs?). After buying a new ticket, I was finally allowed into Offenbach.
As all those little German states couldn´t sustain themselves by agriculture and industry any more in the 18th century, they found new means of filling the “Staatssäckel”, like selling their male population to the British to fight in the American War of Independence. The duke of Hessen-Nassau, his capital Wiesbaden only 40 km away from Frankfurt, was one of the most notorious of these slave traders. Thus, one fourth of the British army in the Revolutionary Wars was made up of Hessians.
Traces of the old Kleinstaaten are still found in German legislation and administration, like federalism. Today, Germany consists of 16 Länder-states, which can act autonomous in a few fields like culture and education. And there are Landkreise-counties, that play an important role in daily life administration. Darmstadt, the former capital of Hessen-Darmstadt, now is the political center of Landkreis Darmstadt-Dieburg.
The most adventureous thing about Darmstadt I know is that they built their new congress center exactly on the Oberrhein fault, the line where earthquakes generate. I admit, this is not the St. Andreas Fault, and earthquakes aren´t as disastrous in Germany as in other regions of the world. But why run any risks deliberately? They are even proud of it and show off the technical knick-knacks Darmstadt´s technical university engineered to minimize the effects of an earthquake on the building.
Jedem Tierchen sein Pläsierchen-every little animal has its own version of fun. I won´t organize any congresses in Darmstadt. But when I have finished this, I will take the next S-Bahn to Darmstadt.
Darmstadt owns a Museum for the Art of Printing, with a working Linotype printing machine on show. From the way the inventor of the Linotype, Ottmar Mergenthaler, is honoured in their information material, I inferred that he was a son of Darmstadt, and his revolutionary new printing process therefore a German invention.
Internet research showed that he wasn´t a son of Darmstadt, but of Bad Mergentheim, and that he invented Linotype after his emmigration to Baltimore in the USA.
Irren ist menschlich-nothing more human than to be wrong. So allow me to be proud of the invention of newspaper printing in Darmstadt, as long a President Obama believes that cars where invented in the USA.
But this is another story.