Written on the city

I haven’t been able to see much of Frankfurt, apart from the immediate neighbourhood where I take my daily ‘exercise’ around the same few streets in Bockenheim. Because my German isn’t (yet) fluent I’m very conscious of all the language I encounter on my walks. Passers-by talk to each other and their words dissipate into the air before I can capture and make sense of them.

Similarly, the written words seem much more visible than they would be if I could automatically understand them without having to think so hard about them. We live on ‘Schloß Straße’, where that scharfes S symbol ‘ß’ always reminds me that I have moved to another country, where not just the words but also the individual letters of the alphabet are experienced differently.

I have become aware of words everywhere around me. Official words include street signs, public notices about corona, tram stops and traffic signs. Then there are the unofficial posters and adverts, and the extremely unofficial stickers on lampposts (‘FCK AFD’ is popular around here)  and graffiti.

The city is a book – but it is a book that changes. Old posters get covered up, graffiti is crossed out. The first of May is a public holiday here, and I was intrigued to see posters everywhere advertising marches and rallies in the name of socialism and against capitalism. Equally, some people have gone to a lot of trouble to try and tear down these posters. Much of the graffiti is also political, such as the hammers and sickles, and the slogans ‘Corona totet, Grenzen auch’ (‘Corona kills, so do borders’) and ‘Frauenkampf ist auch Klassenkampf’ (‘women’s struggle is also a class struggle’). I find this evidence of leftwing politics intriguing in a city more noted for its banking and financial activities.

Aspects of the written city that are designed to be more permanent than the graffiti are the memorials. There are many, many memorials here, and they take different forms – from the monumental to the small. The Stolpersteine are squares of bronze a few centimetres across set into the pavements outside the former homes of Jewish people who were victims of the Holocaust. Each Stolperstein has the names and dates of the person engraved on it. They manage to be both unobtrusive and yet once I notice one, it is impossible to unnotice it.

A memorial in the local ‘Grüneburg’ park commemorates the construction and destruction of the large villa that once stood there. This villa originally belonged to the Rothschild family, was stolen from them by the Third Reich and subsequently destroyed in an Allied bombing raid. Where the villa stood in the middle of the park is marked by a rectangle of low plants, what was an elaborate stone building is now nothing more than air. Nearby, the inscription on a monolith of blackened wood gives information about the fate of the villa. When I stand and read this, I can see the city’s television tower (the Europaturm) a few miles away in the distance, and I think of all the pictures and words it’s transmitting.


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