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Travelogue H16

May 13, 2016

Perhaps two kilometers down from where I had turned south, I found myself behind a hulking construction, concrete and of brutalist style, which signs noted as the Rathaus. I left my upriver exploration of the Rhein for another day, another trip, and crossed a bridge to join my colleagues before the entrance. A city representative shortly came to collect us from the way in and led us through a series of parking garages and exhibition spaces to an events room where the deputy mayor was soon to entertain.

At the foreseen time, he emerged from a side door to take his place behind the podium with speech in hand. His German poured through the speakers and washed over us, his regular cadence only broken by a pause every few paragraphs for the accompanying French translation. As our conference was a Franco-German collaboration, he often drew attention to the links between the two countries and, more particularly still, the city’s existence as German “Mainz” and French “Mayence”.

In the way of evidence, he highlighted the importance of wine to the city and Hessen. The city counted more Weinstub than beer gardens although I would take issue with the units of measurement employed in the comparison. Still, as he went on to say, wine could well accompany every course, and the city’s gastronomic sector continually adapted its offerings to the new vintages from the local vineyards.

Fermented grapes, be they “Wein” and “le vin”, represented more than a drink for the Mainzer as the associated French terms had even worked their way into area slang for varying levels of drunkenness or for a good meal. So do I recall the deputy mayor’s anecdote on the way French cropped up in local speak. Then again, perhaps memory does not serve, and the French language had instead entwined itself in other ways with Hessen German. With no record of my own or another on hand, I can no longer confirm the precise form of the telling, much less its veracity, but feel nonetheless compelled to tell.

After the collective laugh had passed, the speaker brought his careful retrieval of the “Mainz-Mayence” equation to an end with a few words on French-style republicanism and Napoléon. First proclaimed in March 1793 at the time of the First Republic’s eastward advance and officially joined to France in the same month, the République de Mayence held out against the Prussian riposte only until July, but the first democracy on German land is nonetheless commemorated November 11th of each year. I had just enough time to consider that the date might fall within the calendar of the 1797 République cisrhénane, centering on Mainz. The speaker was, however, swift to disabuse us of that notion by recalling that the 1797 Rhenish Republic had itself survived but two months, September and October, before a second annexation and incorporation into France as the new “département du Mont-Tonnère”.

The deputy visibly relished the opportunity to enlighten his audience on the odd choice of date, which fell outside of the République’s established chronology. The choice owed instead, as he took pains to make clear to the German-deaf among us, to linguistic contingency, November 11th being the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Written alphanumerically, this gave “eleven eleven” or, in German, “elf elf”, the three letters of which corresponded to the values guiding the revolution itself: “égalité, liberté, fraternité”, so long as one allowed for the transposition of the first two values from their established order. Here, German numbers had acted as a cipher for notions born of the French language.

To this instance of symbols standing in for symbols, one needed only join the alterations in the city’s heraldry. For, as in other cities, Mainz-Mayence’s leaders had made choice additions to the city’s arms: Napoléon’s three golden bees found their place above the city’s two wheels joined by bishop’s cross; a golden eagle, crown and wreath came to frame the coat of arms itself. Yet the département du Mont-Tonnère returned to other powers at the time of the First French Empire’s 1814 dismantling, and its arms, like the city, were purged of foreign influence.

The deputy mayor’s speech drew to a close, as he stood secure in the knowledge that Mainz-Mayence identity and Franco-German link had been demonstrably established for the newcomers. He gestured to waitresses hidden to either side to begin circling, bottles of Mainzer sparkling wine in hand, and invited us to consummate that identity over a glass or two before we returned to our efforts to burn each other away in the conceptual brilliance and force of our presentations that evening.

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