I arrived in Frankfurt am Main on my 21st birthday, and I didn’t know a soul in town.
The Manhattan nickname stuck, because this is Germany’s city of skyscrapers, the economic heart of the country, and banker for the whole EU. Andy described a sleepy river town, suddenly grown into a huge commerce center, and into the most expensive city in the country.
I’d already visited a number of other German cities:
Mainz – old, historic, and charming, nestled among vineyards along a beautiful stretch of the Rhine.
Hamburg – impressive seaport, impressive industries
Cologne – a university town with a fun atmosphere
Dusseldorf – giving off a feeling of establishment and security.
So perhaps because I was so impressed with these other cities, my first impression of Frankfurt was not favorable. A glassy and tall city with no soul.
Companies, corporations and conglomerates. Businessmen in expensive cars and suits, emerging from skyscrapers at lunchtime to be served kebabs and doner by the poorer working people.
Even the old center of town felt like a designated meeting place for ad execs and CEOs; the old buildings surrounding us, were now converted into offices for Lufthansa, etc. or stores selling watches and clothing. The riverfront was peaceful and beautiful, but felt devoid of real personality. Among the half-timbered buildings of the Altstadt (the historic district) or inside the Frankfurter Dom (their cathedral), the modern city felt far away. But the medieval-looking buildings were all post-war reconstructions, and looming over them were the skyscrapers of European capitalism. The crowds of businessmen and the tourists, many from Eastern Asia, taking pictures of currywurst and pseudo-antique buildings made the city center feel hollow.
It was only after Andreas left for his home in Stuttgart, that I crossed the Main river and began to feel the place had an actual soul. Here, a bridge away from the hubbub of the central city, you can walk among modest homes, little shops, cafes, and a beautiful park with old buildings, now housing museums.
I visited the museums, and then went into a small grocery to buy water, and just sat down in the park for a while, after a day of walking on cobblestones, on the hottest day I experienced during my trip. It was April, I had just survived a winter in Yorkshire, and I’d dressed for Hamburg and frigid Copenhagen, and to me, Frankfurt felt like the Costa del Sol.
This was the last day of my spring break, and I had loved everything about both Germany and Denmark, but the whirlwind of trains and meeting people and seeing places, had left me unable to assemble my thoughts. Finally at rest, sitting there in a small park with people chatting pleasantly, and a few dogs playing, I was able to realize how much I loved Germany, and my entire experience of the country and its people.
Frankfurt is what I remember best of my time in Germany, even if I liked the other cities better. I can clearly remember details of the port of Hamburg, the lock bridge of Koln, the taste of a currywurst in Dusseldorf, walking along the old walls of Mainz, etc. But Frankfurt always is freshest in my mind. I was no longer worrying about trains schedules, finding my way to meet up with friends at a specified hour, finding hotels, etc. I could just relax and take it all in. And, after I realized that Frankfurt, like everywhere, has a character or soul, just hidden under the mighty corporate piles, I was able to enjoy the city more, feeling it’s subtle vibes, and finding the old city in among the new.
I have often been critical of cities that seem soul-less (Washington, D.C. being the sterilized poster boy), and have always appreciated the cities that have maintained a unique character and an infectious vibe.
Frankfurt surprised me, and in a good way. Despite its steely, glassy look, it turned out to occupied by human beings. I looked down at it from the cathedral tower, looked up at it from the river, watched it go by from a park bench, and somehow fell in love with Germany.