Included in a list of things to do before I get too doddery to do them, there is a visit to Cologne Cathedral. I recently crossed that “to do” off my list when I spent a memorable day in that classic of Gothic architecture. Yet, when I now re-visit it in memory, I find myself thinking of the young man I momentarily met in the train station under the great pile of the building.
My ambition to see Cologne Cathedral goes back to a long ago youth when my American cousin, Billy, visited my family in Clonmel. He (who was featured in a previous column) had been a soldier in the US airborne forces on the Rhine offensive in the last year of World War II.
He was briefly stationed in Cologne for a few months after the war, and amongst the pictures he brought with him to Ireland, there was one of a devastated city. But above the destruction and desolation, the cathedral rose, with its towering spires and flying buttresses. Its survival was a miracle, Billy said, and he, who had never before seen the wonders of Europe’s medieval architecture, loved it.
At a time when civilisation itself seemed to be disintegrating, that ancient building, in juxtaposition with ruin and wreckage, became a symbol of hope. It was a symbol that has become a reality. The city has been re-built, and the streets surrounding the cathedral are now busy and thriving; fashionable shops, and colourful restaurants filled with plants and flowers and people.
This area of Cologne is built on a cliff overhanging the great river Rhine. But the echoes of a terrible war have not entirely gone away, and within the past few weeks, an unexploded bomb was located in the river, just downstream of the cathedral.
No such echo disturbed our (husband, daughter, self) exploration on that recent visit. We joined a long straggle of people, of all races and nationalities, in that exploration. It seemed to me that we were, in a way, modern-day reflections of those groups of pilgrims who made long journeys down through the centuries, because, it was believed, the Cathedral held some relics of the Magi - the Three Wise Kings of the Gospels, within its walls.
Several hours later we emerged, to a quick cup of coffee and a dash to catch our train at the nearby station. And to a brief experience which remains in the forefront of memory.
While standing on the edges of a large group of waiting people, I was approached by a well-spoken, well-dressed, pale-faced young man (aged about 20). Speaking in English, he said: “Madam, I am short one Euro and 80 cent, can you help me?”
I opened my handbag and was just about to extract my purse when daughter sent me one of those telepathic eye-messages. Though no words were spoken, the message was clear. It said “STOP.” Seeing my nano-second hesitation, the young man said “Thank you, Madam,” and walked on.
He next approached a nearby family group, a woman with three children. He addressed her in German. She listened intently, and turned away.
Just then, our train came into the station, and from my window seat, I watched the pale young man walking slowly down the platform and approaching people, all of whom apparently listened to him, and then looked as if they hadn’t heard what he was saying. But he went on and on. Nobody reached for a purse or a wallet. He was unacknowledged. He evoked no gesture of common humanity from those from whom he begged. He had become a non-person.
When daughter found a seat beside me, I asked her why she had been so forceful, via eye message, in preventing me from helping the young man. “Mother,” she said with some impatience at my naivety “can’t you see he’s a druggie, and you don’t give money to druggies, and you don’t have eye-contact.”
In our brief exchange, I had not recognised him as a drug addict, but I did see a troubled, emaciated young man, with eyes that were slightly glazed and a slim frame that seemed to slant to one side. He was well-dressed and well-groomed. He might have been a student, but his smart dark suit, his fashionable shirt and tie and well-polished black shoes were all far too formal for student gear. In another time and another place he might have worn the uniform of one of Mrs Thatcher’s whizz-kid traders, who had it all, in The City.
Why was he begging, apparently unproductively, in at least two well-modulated languages, in the shadow of an ancient building? How did he manage to maintain his pristine wardrobe, his “respectable appearance” (as my mother would say), in the circumstances of his life on the streets?
Did he have parents? Or sisters or brothers? Or a grandmother? Or anybody who would pull him back from his downward trajectory? To me, he was an enigma, and he has remained a disturbing enigma.
As the train pulled out of the station, I could see him still mouthing “one Euro 80 cent.” I wished then, and I still wish, that I had done the right, the instinctive thing, and given him some money. Perhaps if I had, his pale face would not now intrude between me and my last memory of that glorious cathedral, its spires gleaming in the slanting sun of an Autumn evening.