Wednesday, June 22, 2011


Cobblestones are extremely practical. In Germany there are lots of words to describe them and the surface they make. In general, the surface is called Pflaster, from Latin, plastrum. It refers to any of a number of different stone surfaces that cover roads, sidewalks or plazas. I'm only familar with the one word in English, but it really isn't accurate for most of what I see in Germany. A cobble is rounded at the edges, usually from rolling around in a river bed for a couple of hundred thousand years. Most of the stones I see used in Germany have relatively sharp edges, and when they're rounded, it's usually from the traffic that rolls over them.

Many times I've watched as a new electric line or water pipe was laid under a Pflaster sidewalk in Germany and marveled at how simple it is. The stones are removed to uncover a 10 - 20 meter stretch and then, as the pipe is laid, the earth is filled back in and the stones are replaced. The stone surface is porous and flexible. Unlike the concrete sidewalks common in the States, as trees grow, the layer of stones stretches naturally to accomodate the the root ball. In the town I live in, the city forester has another solution: cut down the trees.

There's a down side to Pflaster too. The individual stones make wonderful ammunition for the many demos that take place in Europe. I watched a movie just last night that dealt with the years of student protests in Germany and it made me wonder why the Pflaster tradition has lasted so long here, while in American asphalt and concrete are king. The movie was Neue Vahr Süd, the latest in a series of books (and movies made from those books) from Sven Regener. Herr Regener is one of the driving forces behind a German alternative rock band called Element of Crime and he's written some surprisingly successful books. The books have appeared in reverse chronological order, (or at least, I read them in that order) beginning with Herr Lehman, which reaches it's climax with the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was translated into English by John Brownjohn under the title Berlin Blues. The book I read most recently is, Neue Vahr Süd, which climaxes with a demonstration at Weserstadion, where stones are thrown and some find their mark.

I'm not sure why I enjoy these books/films so much. Frank Lehman, the main character, doesn't do much. Mostly he moves though life like a modern-day German Hamlet, allowing things to happen to him. But it's also true that he can't keep his mouth shut in a difficult situation, where discretion really would have been the better part of valor. He's an interesting Mischung of conflicting characteristics like many of us, and I find that I'm completely sympathetic to his situations. I also find it fascinating to revisit historical events that I'm just barely familiar with from another point of view. I read about the Red Brigade and student unrest in the Norwalk Hour when I was a paperboy, and I experienced the fall of the Berlin Wall mostly on NPR. Now, through Sven Regener's books I'm experiencing them both from a completely different point view. I guess that's what this "Art" thing is all about.

And today is the 70th anniversary of the opening of Operation Barbarossa, Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union. Somehow that seems like just another link in the chain. Sven Regener's books deal very much with German history, but his character, Frank, was born far too late to have any direct experiences with the Second World War. In the early 1960's, when Frank Lehman was born in Bremen, the last of the German soldiers held by the Soviet Union had already been released. Some prisoners were held for more than ten years after the war's end. And the Soviet troops held as prisoners of war in Germany had all either died of hunger in captivity, or been shipped back to Russia, where Stalin gave them all a long furlough in Siberia. All in all, it makes this question of concrete or Pflaster seem pretty insignificant.


Charlie H said...

We visited a town named Napflion in Greece, and there several of the streets and the central plaza are paved with polished marble. It first struck me as rather extravagant, before I realized that marble just was what was at hand there - cheap building material. The kids playing soccer on it had perfected righting themselves after constant slipping while playing.

Christopher T. Terry said...

Marble??? So that's where all the money is going: into luxury paving for those gold-bricking Greeks! The Greek crisis is on the radio everyday here and there's a definite feeling that Greece might not be doing everything it can to save money. News of the marble plazas won't be helpful!

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