At least once in our lifetime, we all have bumped into a Smileeater.
I was visiting my friend Silvia in Düsseldorf, the German city of fashion and trade fairs, and we had just come down from its highest building, the Rheinturm (Rhein tower), after having admired the beauty of the landscape from its observation deck at a height of 170 meters. Walking away from the tower, I continuously turned my head back towards the light sculpture on its shaft, which Silvia had told me to be meant to work as a clock, the Lichtzeitpegel (light time level), the largest digital clock in the world.
“And what are those?”, I asked in the childish overexcitement that dominates my traveling self, as we kept on walking along the Media Harbor. I was pointing my finger at 3 buildings, each one a jumble of leaning towers. “It’s the Neuer Zollhof by American architect Gehry, the one of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao”, Silvia answered with her usual know-it-all air, as if that piece of information could immediately reveal why the floor plans and the facades of those constructions were curve and lean as in a photoshop distorted pic. I approached the central building and noticed that its stainless steel facade could reflect the colors and shapes of the neighbor edifices, and, as I got closer, I saw a deconstructed reflection of myself. I felt the architect’s urge to disrupt expectations in the unpredictability and controlled chaos of the manipulated, non rectilinear shapes. And then again I stared at that smooth, rounded version of me. I knew I needed to tell Silvia the all story. That was, after all, the reason for my visit.
I had tried to start with it as we were strolling along the famous “Kö“, the Königsallee (King’s Avenue), Germany’s busiest upscale shopping street, popular for its fashion showrooms and luxury retail stores. But then she had began to tell me about the avenue, going back as far as 1848, when horse manure was thrown at King Friedrich Wilhelm IV and the street had to be renamed “King’s Avenue” as a gesture of reconciliation. Silvia would have also never forgiven herself for omitting that the Kö runs along a canal fed by the Düssel, the river from which the city gets its name, and so began to talk about the city’s foundation.
I actually already wanted to mention my new resolution during lunch. But there again, she managed to leave me speechless while ordering Himmel und Äd (Heaven and Earth), one of the region’s traditional dishes. Even if I was to acknowledge that my palate would never be a great fan of that black pudding with stewed apples mixed with mashed potatoes, I loved the way she introduced it to me: “Well, you are the writer here, but I wanted for once to be the one who dedicates you a poem!”. In fact, not many people had promised me heaven and earth for lunch before. So I ended up enjoying eating those apples representing the sky were they come from – flourishing on trees – and hence heaven, and those potatoes standing for the soil, the earth, where they grow.
The idyll was soon over though, as the time to order beer came. As many of you might already know, Düsseldorf and Cologne have a “fierce rivalry”. This includes carnival parades, football and, of course, beer. People in Cologne drink their beloved Kölsch while people in Düsseldorf prefer Alt. Waiters and patrons will scorn people who order Alt in Cologne and Kölsch in Düsseldorf. Having made Cologne my adopted city, I was longing for a fresh Kölsch when Silvia glared at me. Of course she wouldn’t let me have one. I smiled at what was the perfect summary of our friendship. We loved each other very much and had supported one another through storms and parties since we were ten. And yet a certain rivalry had always tacitly existed. Just as for Cologne and Düsseldorf, ours was a love-hate relationship.
My mom used to say that Silvia had a talent for destroying other people’s self-esteem. I never wanted to see things that way. But the fact was that, for Silvia, I whether was too fat or too thin, after a cut my hair only looked too short or still too long, and even after the umpteenth success I appeared mainly boring to her. I could hardly find a glimpse of enthusiasm in her looks after I took the time to share my ideas. She always had a better theory to apply to my good spirit and destroy it. Nothing that couldn’t improve her own situation interested her. She was a Smileeater.
And there we were, crossing a bridge in the Media Harbor and looking at the “Flossis“, 29 colorful resin sculptures by German artist Rosalie, as they climb up a couple of buildings in the struggle for a new, wider perspective from which to look at things.
“I read about this cartwheeler thing”, I broke the silence. “You mean the boy who does cartwheels pictured in the souvenirs?”, she didn’t like the idea of me knowing something about her new city that she didn’t. “I read the different stories from which the tradition might originate”, I went on. “Some people say that it all began after the battle of Worringen in 1288, as a consequence of which the victorious Düsseldorf received town privileges so that the citizens, especially the children, ran joyfully on the streets and performed cartwheels. Another version suggests that cartwheelers displaying their skills next to her carriage, made smile the miserable Maryane von Baden on the day of her marriage with Johann Wilhelm. Numerous travelers were attracted to the city by great exhibitions and during that time the children found out that cartwheeling was a profitable source of income. The bourgeoisie accepted it in good humor, perceiving it as a symbol of local patriotism so the practice was spread. But the nice thing is that the tradition is still kept alive by annual cartwheel competitions. About 500 boys and girls participate to the event every year since 1971. What a cry for cheerfulness those days must be!”. “I will make sure not to miss the event”, she smiled.
“I’m quitting that business project”, I heard myself saying in a firm voice. “You got a job?”, she was ready to celebrate something. “Nope. And I’m never getting one”. So she stared at me as a frustrated wife that has to deal with a husband renouncing to some CEO position because his new lover asked him to. “You really are not ready for Alt beer!”, she resolved to laugh. “I will focus my energies and creativity to be what I always wanted to”. “A naive dreamer?”. “An artist!”. “Which is pretty much the same”. “Are you going to support me?”. “You know I love you too much for that. You’d better talk again with your colleagues. I’m sure you can find a compromise so that you can have more free time for your stuff.”. “My stuff!”.
I took a piece of paper from my pocket and put it in her hands. I had pictured that moment in my mind for months, wondering what she would be wearing the last time I see her and in which part of the world we would say goodbye. So I did a cartwheel. “It’s our passions that keep us alive, all the dreams we have when we are awake”. Then did another one. “I will write about you!”. And as I gave her a last look before going away, I could see her unfolding the piece of paper. It was the last lines of a poem I had written ages ago, when I thought to be a 2.0 Blake or maybe even a Wordsworth. One of those poems I knew would have no other audience than my most melancholic days.
“And if I can’t fight distances, not even with ideas
If some people are harm to others when they act upon their fears
If when stress devours our energies, “us” is a pronoun that cannot be
I shall be content with nothing more than know I love you and you love me”