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Cloud Machines

William Stewart | Tuesday, October 5, 2010

There is a cloud machine that rises up behind what was my one-room apartment this summer in Mannheim, Germany, a factory belching out fluffy whiteness into the blue expanse above. It doesn’t rain much during the summer in the Rhine Valley, so one begins to question if the clouds whose only purpose is offering the occasional, passing shade onto a lazy Sunday nap along the river, really are clouds. Walking back home in the early afternoon, I would watch the wispy cotton puffs progress slowly past overhead and smile at the smokestack from which they came.

This smokestack, though, and its many other brothers planted throughout the skyline like a series of fence posts truly define Mannheim, both in marking the geographical edge of the city and being the primary shapers of the area’s economy. With the European industrial headquarters of John Deere, a large Mercedes-Benz bus plant, as well as the national headquarters of BASF just across the river in Ludwigshafen, the metropolitan region created at the crux of the confluence of the Rhine and Neckar rivers in western Germany is unabashedly blue-collar. The stock markets and skyscrapers are half an hour north in Frankfurt, while the tourists flock to the picturesque Altstadt in Heidelberg, twenty minutes to the east. But in Mannheim, the rent is low, the architecture functional, the downtown modest, and the life completely routine. My study abroad offered few postcard views or historical monuments with which to associate it.

But did I really need (or want) that? We live in such a marvelous capsule here of picturesque quads and landmarks recognized by the majority of Americans, it can be refreshing in a way to leave it behind for a few months to experience how the other 99.9 percent exists. If I wanted my summer to be a time of escape, then I had to separate myself from this perceived perfection here if I wanted to claim with any honesty that I achieved a removal from what I experience during the rest of the year.

Simply put, during my two months in Germany, I lived in a situation that was truly mundane. But I use the word mundane to mean something slightly different than the often-negative connotation that is carries. I use mundane here to mean ‘worldly’, ‘routine,’ ‘normal.’ True, my weekend excursions this summer to other, larger cities often devolved, just like the days during a previous vacation to Italy, into a collage of tourism and a checklist of clichéd landmarks. I do not doubt that any experience travelling abroad holds value, even if the that picture taken while preventing the leaning Tower of Pisa from crashing to the ground gets counted among the high points of the trip. But the time in Mannheim revealed something that no visit to the Berlin Wall or the Vatican could: a taste and understanding of real life in Europe. True, if I ever find myself vacationing in Germany later in my life, I will probably stop in Mannheim only to change trains. Yet the summer experience in this middle-sized, middle-class, middle-aged metropolis taught me more about the daily routine, the neighborhood cafes, the four stores in all of downtown open on Sunday, the blue-collar regulars at bar on the corner, the absolute stillness that fills the streets between 4:00 and 5:00 a.m., what it truly means to be a citizen of Germany, of Europe, than any double-decker tour bus could ever offer.

Mannheim, with its proud fence of smoking white towers, offers its visitor an unadulterated, non-masqueraded snapshot of the German life, a picture wholly unconcerned with upholding appearances, impressions and reputations. The society I joined for two months is far from high, but rather, about as average as they come. And though, as students at this university, that word may have been crossed-out again and again in our mental lexicon, I couldn’t think of a more inviting description for last summer’s home: average, maybe, but without a doubt, real. There is invaluable worth in the experiences generated from an environment of normalcy, of reality.

The cloud machines behind my window are the paradox that they symbolize: enormous pipes of exhaust and waste from the dirtiest labor transformed into the transcendental objects of lazy day dreams, reveries that float past slowly for all the city to gaze upon. It doesn’t take an Eiffel Tower or a Statue of Liberty to build a city of dreams.

William Stewart is a junior. He can be contacted at wstewar1@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.