Marx Comes First


Karl Marx was a true bourgeois (burzhuy, burger). A group of communist officials from South China visiting his birthplace in Trier readily agreed with me on that. One would be hard pressed to come to a different conclusion after viewing the three-story house with a courtyard adorned with red carnations, which belonged to his parents but is now filled with medium-to-mild propaganda of his and Friedrich Engels’ oeuvre and heritage. There is a Marx family tree diagram and a bronze statue of Karl and buddy Friedrich (“a friendship great and touching “ in the words of one V.I.Lenin, himself a connoisseur of relationships except when it came to Joe Dzhugashvili, a.k.a. Stalin). Many rooms are devoted to the influence of their teachings on other bearded and sideburn-sporting thinkers of the Victorian age. The consequences of the application of the oeuvre in the following hundred years are not as well reflected.  The heritage part, sadly, does not include even a single piece of furniture from the appropriate times.

A group of Chinese tourists, 30-person strong, was already blocking my view when I walked down the street and tried to take a picture of the house. Each and every one of them had to have his picture taken in front of Karla Marla’s famously coiffed and barbered profile, in bronze and attached to the wall next to the entrance.  Once the only person in the group speaking a non-Chinese language (English) was identified, the conversation was decidedly far from typical small talk. When my Soviet, morphing into American, background was revealed the pilgrims wanted to know if I had really studied Marx, in particular Das Kapital, (I did), and then, what I thought about the giver of the true creed. Using all the diplomacy I could muster I replied that in my view Washington was better. I paused for a second and added Jefferson. The “new communists” grinned broadly and all nodded in agreement. Nevertheless, they refused the honor of having their picture taken by me, citing unspecified potential problems back home. It was my turn to smile and profess complete understanding.

While Karl’s shrine certainly ranks as an attraction for tourists, the locals are sure to patronize another Marx, two blocks away. Modehaus Marx is a high couture establishment whose billboards around town solidly proclaim “Zuerst zu Marx” (first to Marx). Marxism is alive in its birthplace, at least in the not-quite orthodox interpretation of some relatives of its founder.

Halfway between the Marx Haus (the propaganda one) and the local imperial Roman Therme stands a recently built synagogue. This is the place where the Modehaus owners fulfill their spiritual needs. As for others, they have no shortage of spiritual houses of the dominant denomination some dating from the late Roman times. As in many European cities, balalaika music reached my ears when I was approaching the main cathedral in town. This time the musicians were from St. Petersburg and they even heard of the St. Petersburg Lyceum #239 whose North-American reunion memorial t-shirt I was wearing. They claimed that Trier was the best of all the places they had tried for summer gigs. I wondered if the residents of this delightful and prosperous town by the Moselle felt a moral obligation to make up for all the ills their notorious townsman inflicted on the lands of their eastern neighbors. The street musicians were certainly not paying for their shelter but stayed with friends. However, they knew cheap places to sleep in the neighborhood. I ended up staying almost next door to the founder of scientific communism, but had to struggle first with an ingenious German invention: Tiefgarage (recessed garage). This is an underground contraption consisting primarily of a hydraulic lift which requires an as yet unattainable precision of a Mars landing unit to drive into, and the help of a skilled hotel clerk to get out of.

 The sun was setting when I strolled through the park to a cutest, pink, XVIIIth century Kurfurstische Schloss. Alabaster, not marble (no Summer Garden of the Czars for you), statues of German heroes stood on the shores of a reflecting pond. They included such soulmates as Charlemagne and Moshe the Lawgiver.

That evening a Sekt Gala (local bubbly feast) was taking place in the open air under the shadow of the ancient Roman gate for which Trier is primarily famous. The gate was almost jumping with the crowd to the strains of, yes, an American style jazz band. I was too tired to jump after a dinner which included “juschka gribnaja” (mushroom soup, in Ukrainian) and “Rehnuesschen” (roe testicles) a la Zar Nikolai at the establishment owned by Herr and Frau Belostenniy, a Cossack name if there is one.  Instead, I ordered a glass of ayran, a sour milk drink, which I strongly recommend, at a Turkish fast-food place near Karl-Marx Haus, and returned to my hotel.

Turning on the TV I bumped into a channel called Arte, which seemed to specialize in Russian movies with subtitles. That night, the one called “The First Teacher” on the fight against illiteracy in Kyrgyzstan was on. This was a familiar (to me) classic, filmed in the 60’s but taking place in the 20’s . The German translation was especially enjoyable. Thus, the German for “bay” (Kyrgyz for “kulak”) turned out to be “Grossbauer”. It was followed by  “Burnt by the Sun”, the Oscar-winning paean to the revolutionary elite destroyed by Stalin. The shadow of the most famous local son was hard to escape.