Notes from WYD 2005

I wrote this soon after returning from Cologne in the summer of 2005, but now seems an appropriate time to post it:


Tram No 7 is one of four trams that cross the Rhein from Deutzer Freiheit to Heumarkt. We could just as easily walk over the bridge, but the ritual of taking public transport makes us feel we belong here, beside the late-start commuters and pensioners with their small quaint dogs. We’ve been in Cologne for over a week and feel like old hands, our change counted out for the ticket machine on board, our mood relaxed.

So we’re startled and slightly miffed when the tram arrives to find it crammed with foreign teenagers squatting in the aisles on expensive brand new backpacks, shouting from one end of the tram to the other in a babble of tongues. Bare legs, the sort of serge-like dark blue shorts favoured by scouts on hefty legs, tanned or milky pale according to ethnic group. Already they seem to have separated out, like curds from whey; Italians loud and boisterous and turning inwards to their group, Americans dour, their backpacks protected by condom-like sheaths of coloured plastic, staring across the river towards the Dom, a sprinkling of Asiatics in cowls and dog collars lending a clerical air.

It’s been raining and dozens are draped in improvised protective wrappers, often flags. One girl, dark circles round her eyes, is sitting with a supermarket bag on her head, like a cloche. The habitual passengers have the air of embattled survivors under invasion. There are bursts of song, discordant and oddly hesitant. Anthems flare up, then stutter out. The strongest smell is of damp socks.

The fifteen-, maybe sixteen-year-old girl slumped in front of the ticket machine shrugs and sighs as Giuseppe eases his hand around her to touch the screen, her backpack still over the slot for the money, one Euro thirty. He asks her to move, politely, in English. She flounces to one side, the expression on her face a textbook example of Milanese affront. Un attimo, she snaps, and I watch Giuseppe resist the temptation to answer back in Italian as he feeds the appropriate coins into the slot. Thank you, he says, which seems to irritate her all the more, as he intends. By the time we have our tickets it’s time to get off.

Our house swap was arranged six months before we discovered that World Youth Day 2005 would be held in Cologne, and we couldn’t back out. We overlap with the event by two days, returning to Rome the morning Pope Benedict XVI arrives, our planes within spitting distance of each other somewhere above the Alps. An unwilling, often enraged, witness to WYD 2000 in Rome, I prefer to see the coincidence as just that, as bad luck; talk of fate plays too neatly into the hands of the people all round us, whom we’re supposed to call pilgrims I discover from the scrolling message on the bus stop at Heumarkt. Pilgrims. Pilgerin. Pellegrini. Pèlerins.

Special passes for public transport have been provided, so there’s no excuse for their grabbing a free ride, unless they only speak Japanese, which doesn’t appear on the scroll. I still feel that we’ve been followed though, despite myself. I wonder how many of the kids on the No. 7 have their pilgrim passes as they bustle across the street, the traffic light still red, the first shrill notes of something rousing on their lips, while the people of Cologne, obediently waiting for the bitte warten sign to change, just stand and watch.

Up to this morning, Cologne has been low key, as though nobody much cares about Ratzinger’s homecoming, trailing glory, about to become B16 just as his predecessor has been apostrophised to JP2. At WYD, acronyms rule. There are house-sized photographs of the two of them on the building diametrically opposite the cathedral, placed so that neither can see the other, nor anything else, their eyes aimed firmly horizonwards. Apart from that, and an iconoclastic Warholian portrait of the new pontiff in a nearby restaurant (see an earlier post), the city appears indifferent.

The porn shops, I discover later, are supposed to have cleaned up their windows, but Erotik für Damen still has an impressive display of double-headed dildos and pussy ticklers, while its neighbour flaunts a selection of studded cache-sexes alongside one with elephant ears and trunk in scarlet satin. There’s even a blow-up three-holed lovely in one shop made from the same pink plastic as the inflatable giant hands group leaders are holding above their heads to guide their flocks towards the cathedral.

The hands are the tip of the gadget iceberg, I discover. Apart from the T-shirts and baseball caps, registered pilgrims receive the official pilgrim package, containing a backpack with the WYD logo, refillable plastic bottle and biodegradable cutlery (15 Euro). Other merchandise includes candles of various dimensions, a silicon case for cell phones, lip balm and a chronograph with the legend Tempus fugit.

One of the items on the website is a technical description of the Popemobile. It has a getaway speed of 80 mph, just in case the armoured body isn’t enough. Inside, the footrest can be moved electronically. The organisers use the word pilgrim, but I’m not convinced. They’ve been flown and bussed here by the church’s travel agencies, with insurance against accident and theft included in the deal. They haven’t suffered. Their jeans are ironed. Their lunches packed.

A dozen French kids huddle round a stand of public telephones to call their homes. Individually, they look untried, untested, as though they’d been beamed down from the mother ship for some sort of initiation. They might be the vanguard of an invading force, or sacrificial lambs. It’s all a question of numbers, which must be why they move in anxious packs behind their flags and blow-up hands. It shouldn’t matter, but I’m struck by how many of them look like the kind of teenagers who get beaten up and bullied: overweight, nerdish, spot-disguising cream caked on their cheeks, unfashionable hair cuts. Wholesome, certainly. But wholesome multiplied by half a million turns into something else, uncontrollable and rather sinister.

When one pack passes another, there’s a surge of antagonistic pride and flag-waving, the equivalent of youths pushing each other to see how far they can go. The rest of us, lay tourists, citizens, don’t count. A small screaming woman in a black suit, carrying a briefcase, struggles to cross the Altermarkt, her voice distorted by exasperated rage, but nobody shifts their backpack or draws in their feet to let her pass. The Ludwig Museum foyer is filled with bivouacking youth but the only pilgrims prepared to buy tickets seem to be Americans, a group of whom use an installation of Patti Smith videos to improvise a picnic until they’re moved on by a visibly shocked custodian in his late fifties.

A show called Naked Drawings, political graffiti-like doodles by the Romanian artist Dan Perjovschi covering the walls of a high-ceilinged white room (see an earlier post), attracts larger numbers, though what they make of his telegraphically astute comments on terrorism and global warming is hard to say. The twin-spired profile of the Dom runs through the drawings like a leitmotiv. In one sketch, the tower on the right says ‘I’m tired’ and the one on the left replies ‘Me too’, which neatly undercuts the aggressive-triumphal mood outside. In another, a man in a turban is standing alone in the centre of a tramcar, with the other passengers crushed at each end in their effort to avoid him.

In Peters Brauhaus our final evening, the waiter delivers another round of beers and schnapps to the next table, thirteen men and one woman speaking Canadian English. Their voices rise in the flow and warmth of alcohol and it isn’t difficult to overhear talk of community and Father Brice, who couldn’t come. The waiter’s a friend of ours by now. He downs a glass of the local Kölsch in one and confesses that the train ride to work was hell, too many people, too many pilgrims. ‘I think you are here for the Pope,’ he says, ‘but then you tell me you come from Rome and I think, no way.’ He smiles and clinks his empty glass against our almost full ones.

Crossing the bridge on foot, we watch a tram go past, flushed faces squashed against the glass. The Dom behind us is lit unearthly blue, the Romanesque apse of Saint Martin a warmer honey-coloured ochre. Beyond the railway bridge, one side of the building that houses the regional government is covered by part of the WYD logo, a swoosh of yellow, a star, suitably ecumenical. Halfway across the Rhine, we come up against the last few flag-bearing ragtag bands, all male by now, laddish as religious sentiment morphs into testosterone, and it could be anywhere, any provincial city after the match. They might as well be singing We Are the Champions, I think, and, as if on cue, some of them do. They’re primed for the Big Day, oiled up for some chance encounter. They’re up for it, whatever it is.

The sales of condoms in Rome rose by 30 percent during the 2000 edition; it may be only an urban myth that three tons of them (used) were collected after the Pope’s sermon, but I doubt it. I shouldn’t, I know, but I think of men the same age as these in Srebrenica and a hundred other places, this century and last. I think of them moving through Berlin, victorious, with everything allowed. And I’m anxious as I always am when faced by mobs. I unlink my arm from Giuseppe’s and move an inch or two away.

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2 Responses to Notes from WYD 2005

  1. Chancelucky says:

    Charles, though I have kids, I taught school for a few years and don’t consider being around thousands of teenagers for prolonged periods of time any kind of vacation.Wonderfully vivid description of WYD atmosphere in Germany. Made me feel like I was there, but not like I wanted to be there in any way. I do honestly think it would be more helpful if we were more like toads and that our various stages of life were simply much more clearly delineated.

  2. Glad you enjoyed it! I’m not sure whether I want to be a toad but I can certainly see the advantages…

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