By Miranda Metheny
Few members of my generation have even heard of the city where I’m going to study abroad. History has quickly forgotten Bonn’s main claim to fame – that it was the capital of West Germany for a number of years, while Berlin was trapped in the East. Bonn was not chosen as its temporary replacement despite its small size, but in fact because of it – it was selected precisely because it did not represent a threat to the future return of Berlin.
Just as intended, Bonn made a rather silly capital. It built fancy museums and houses of culture to keep the politicians who had to live there entertained, and these still stand today, but a few years in the spotlight could not magically transform Bonn into one of the world’s great capitals. Some guy named John le Carré wrote a spy thriller set in that time, and called it “A Small Town in Germany”. He was talking about Bonn, and that’s more or less become the city’s nickname over the years.
That’s where I’m going – where I’m going to spend the better part of 2011. And I can’t wait. Some would like to paint Bonn as nothing more than a wannabe capital, but that’s just the cover story. People simplify things. They want Pamplona to exist just for the Running of the Bulls. They imagine Barcelona as Gaudi’s city-sized dreamscape. It’s so easy for people to mock Bonn as a has-been that never really was. But Bonn never needed to be or asked to be the capital of Germany. It was Bonn first, it served a need all knew to be temporary, and afterwards, quietly, it went back to being Bonn.
And what is Bonn? It’s 2000 years old, the site of a Roman fort that was the largest of its kind in all the Ancient World. It’s the birthplace of Beethoven, a rapper named Bushido and an American politician named Phelps Phelps (yes, really). It’s home to the Haribo gummy bear factory and an old and famous University, which counts among its alumni and faculty Karl Marx, Friedriche Nietzche and the current Pope Benedict. It’s part of Germany’s most populous and economically powerful state, a stone’s throw from Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. It’s a small city that spreads out leisurely along the Rhine, surrounded by low, hazy-blue mountains (where Siegfried is said to have slain a dragon) and dozens of castles. And, yes, it’s a city that was once its country’s capital, still holds the special title of “Federal City”, and retains nearly half of government jobs.
I’m quite eager to see the place that has all this, and is still called a “Small Town in Germany.”