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Travelogue H18

May 15, 2016

Back in the streets, the guide felt the group to be sufficiently warmed up and so launched into the final act. First, he called our attention to the two street signs affixed to either side of a corner building, noting of them only that one bore a red background and the other a blue. Good showman that he was, he invited his audience to elaborate any number of theories as to why civil authorities would feel the need to color code their streets. Some hazarded a guess at different municipal divisions; others wagered that it owed to historical preservation. The guide was on the verge of declaring victory when I put forward that the blue-signed streets ran the length of the Rhein whereas the red-signed streets instead ran into the river. He looked a touch crestfallen but confirmed that blue connoted “parallel” and red stood in for “perpendicular” and muttered something to the effect that someone had plainly read an online entry for Mainz before arriving.

In fact, he had the right of it. I had read up on the city and its history before submitting to the conference. Were I to go through the trouble of writing, registering and travelling, it would naturally fall to me to determine whether the host city and institution were worth my attention. Eager to reestablish his unquestioned authority with his listeners, he decided to flesh out my description with a few words of his own. So he added that Mainz had long served as an important stop for river traffic and had, accordingly, bustled with sailors and river travellers in various states of mindfulness, even clearheadedness. As such men often lacked for bearings in unfamiliar settings, the street signs’ color enabled them, at least in part, to orient themselves with respect to the river though they might still trudge off away from the river depending on the hour and lighting.

Ordinarily, I avoided rote presentations, but this was plainly a master of the craft, little different than a living breathing guide book. The thought stuck with me for some time, and I later entertained how one might go about making a book of a person or a person of a book. Such processes undoubtedly belonged to the obscure, if not the occult, for I could only imagine them involving, for instance, tattooing a person’s entire “text” on his skin and stripping him bare to be held lifelong within a glass cage, ready to be picked up and discarded at the reader’s whim. Or perhaps they might require incorporating flesh and blood into the book, making the book’s “spine” and the writing’s “body” more than mere metaphor but veritable substitutions.

Returning to the task at hand, I at last committed to the role of gadfly and held my thoughts together long enough to challenge the guide on one lingering question that had bothered me no little amount. Early on, I had noted that the squares bore signs just as the streets did, complete with a blue or red designation. Yet I had seen no clear criteria by which to determine whether a square, not a line but an extension, runs along or into the river. While I had my own theory on the matter, I laid my question before the guide as the witless would before the wise.

He paused a moment, as though caught off guard by a question which it had never occurred to him to consider, but found in short order both a retort and a hypothesis. For the first, he commented, to the audience’s general amusement, that it was a mere philosopher’s question; for the second, that squares ordinarily had one dimension greater than the other such that civil authorities could deem it either parallel or perpendicular. He closed his explanation with a smile.

For onlookers, I seemingly contented myself as well with the given explanation although, in reality, I knew it to be a mere invention on his part. For the square in which we then stood bore a red sign. Its greater dimension was not, however, perpendicular to the river but parallel. According to the guide’s take on the matter, either the sign should then have been blue or the perpendicular dimension the greater of the two. As the others marched on to the Pfarrkirche Sankt Stephan, I crouched in order to get a better look at the ground and noticed that the square in question showed a slight slope towards the river. Perhaps I had the right of it; perhaps I had the wrong of it. All the same, a mere philosopher’s question can prove of more worth than a mere guide’s answer.

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