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Renato Redentor Constantino

Winter in Bremen

December 14, 2010 2:13pm
For days Europe was a white mess as snowstorms ploughed across the continent, snarling airports and stuffing railways and highways with snow.

The cold spell came early, disrupting transport across the continent.

On different days, different closures.

In France, heavy snowfall forced civil aviation authorities to cut back flights to and from Paris. London's Gatwick reeled along with Schiphol airport in Amsterdam.

Within days in Germany, Munich canceled 250 flights and in Frankfurt the number reached 150.

On German roads, 2,000 accidents register on a single day.[i] Some parts of the country plunge deeper than others, at -18 Celsius degrees. In Bremen, Advent found my shoes tamping frosted ground in -8 weather, mulling on the irony of Robert Louis Stevenson's muse.

"The great affair is to move," wrote Stevenson in 1878 as he hiked his way across south-central France, "to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints."

In lieu of hard quartz, perhaps a week of subzero temperatures might suffice, since ice is no pillow to the tropical creature.

A small city, lovely in its size, Bremen emanates the contrast of old-world charms through its Hanseatic references, the severity of arctic shadows cast by a towering dark cathedral, and the analgesic whimsy of Bremen's chosen icon, a rooster standing on top of a cat atop a dog standing on a donkey - the Town Musicians of the Brothers Grimm.

By scale closer to Brussels' Manneken Pis, the animal stack -- the donkey's legs and snout shiny from legions of hands that have caressed them -- greets visitors from one end of the grand Rathaus built in 1410. On the building's other end, a grim Charlemagne rides a massive horse with electors of the Holy Roman Empire.

This is a land of memory and myth.

Across the Rathaus towers the statue of Charlemagne's paladin, Roland, said to be the most famous among 26 other Roland statues in Germany.[ii] Erected in 1404, Roland stands guard over Bremen, "a symbol of freedom" and "a martyr who died in the struggle against heathens."[iii]

At 5.55 meters and clasping the legendary sword Durendal, the statue evokes The Song of Roland, an eleventh century epic written in verse that immortalized Roland's martyrdom a millenia ago at the hands of an Islamic horde.

The poem has become "a staple of Western Civilization classes" around the world which has "schooled generations of Judeo-Christians to view Muslims as perfidious enemies who once threatened the very foundations of Western Civilization." It "provides a handy preface for students before they delve into readings on the Crusades that began in 1095."[iv]

Advent in Germany begins four weeks before Christmas. Food stalls and gift shops that create the celebratory atmosphere fold up just before Christmas eve. Photo by Red Constantino
Yet the statue is gabled with fable. The army that slaughtered Roland and his Frankish soldiers in 778 was not Muslim; they were "Christian Basques furious at Charlemagne for pillaging their city of Pamplona."[v]

Only later, "as kings and popes and knights prepared to do battle in the First Crusade, did an anonymous bard repurpose the text to serve the needs of an emerging cross-against-crescent holy war."[vi]

Despite the chill of winter, festivities curl around the town's centers.

At the Hauptbanhof, booths near the entrance sell organic produce, including special honey beers. Inside the train station, a large mural depicts Bremen's colonialist, maritime past, showing sailors and ships and people from other lands carrying carrying the freight of tobacco and other goods.

Huge crowds mill around the main square till mid-evening, around stalls selling steaming gluhwein -- heated German wine spiced with cinnamon, cloves and honey served hot, sometimes with dash of calvados -- and eggnog spiked with rum and consumed with a straw.

From a storefront, a fragrance of licorice and in another festooned with blinking lights, smoke billows from dozens of grilling bratwursts and steaks.
A bar in Bremen visited by the author that evoked Manila's famous Oarhouse, owned and operated by the photographer Ben Razon.


There is dixie music in the air. Buskers are playing holiday tunes from different corners and a young group tipsy from the mulled wine suddenly break out in song, hands on shoulders and swaying, sticky liquid spilling from their cups, shouting Jingle Bells with the pomp of a football anthem.

Down Herdentor and towards Bahnhoffstrasse, doors open to a small bar called Big Ben, evocative of Manila's Oarhouse. It is warm inside. James Brown is playing and demanding the indulgence of a dozen drunk customers laughing and dancing with abandon, inviting newcomers to join the weird scrimmage.

"Was mache ich hier?" Bruce Chatwin asked in his seminal collection of essays. What am I doing here?

A humongous German bellows a request at the bartender who smiles and shouts something in return and everyone cheers. Another round has been ordered and it's on the house and Chatwin's question has been answered.


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Constantino is the author of The Poverty of Memory: Essays on History and Empire (FNS, 2006). Photos and notes on the piece are available at his blogsite http://redconstantino.blogspot.com

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[i] "Deadly weather hits Europe," International Herald Tribune, December 2, 2010.

[ii] Official Bremen City tourist information map.

[iii] The phrase "a symbol of freedom" is from the text of Bremen's tourist information map. The phrase "a martyr who died in the struggle against heathens" is from "Townhall and the Marketplace of Bremen" entry in the website of the World Heritage Convention of UNESCO. For more details, see http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1087

[iv] John Feffer, "The Lies of Islamophobia: The Three Unfinished Wars of the West against the Rest," TomDispatch.com, November 7, 2010.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.