30 October 2005

Who is Karl Marx?

Something hilarious happened to me today and I just have to share.

At around lunchtime, I was out and about in the old town centre of Trier. I was walking along Brückenstraße (Bridge St.), which happens to contain the house in which Karl Marx was born (Yes, yes, Karl Marx was indeed born in Trier - you didn't know that, did you?)

Needless to say, the house in question is now a museum, with a big bronze plaque on the wall saying "This is the house in which Karl Marx was born, on 5th May 1818", or something in German to that effect. It's pretty hard to miss.

I was directly opposite the Karl-Marx-Haus when I was approached for directions by a balding gentleman in his sixties with a fantastic grey combover, which was being whipped around a bit in the breeze, and with a tourist map in his hand. Now, normally when I get approached for directions in Trier, the tourist in question wants to know the way to the Porta Nigra, so before this chap even started speaking I was already working out the the quickest way to get there from where were standing. But he didn't ask the way to the Porta Nigra. He asked something entirely different, and I was quite unprepared for what came next.

The conversation went something like this:


Gentleman with Combover: *speaking broken German with French accent* "Entschuldigung. .... ummm ... Karl-Marx-Haus?"

BerlinBear: *stunned, and quickly reassessing prepared answer* "Ah, das Karl Marx Haus? Das ist da, direkt gegenüber" (= Um, the Karl Marx house? That is right there, directly opposite)

GwC: *switching to English with French accent, since "Entschuldigung" appeared to be the extent of his German* "Oh, thank you. Can you tell me? Who is Karl Marx?"

BB: *laughs heartily, assuming GwC is joking*

GwC: *smiles and shifts uncomfortably, indicating very clearly that he is in fact not joking at all*

BB: *quickly stifling laughter*"Who is Karl Marx? Umm, well ..." *cracks up again* "Well ... Karl Marx was a Communist. You must have heard of Karl Marx? ... No? ... Well, in fact, along with Engels, he pretty much invented Communism. That was in the 19th Century. He was born here in Trier. In that house.

GwC: *completely failing to be embarrassed about not knowing who Karl Marx was* "Oh, I see. I saw it on the map and was wondering where it was, and what it was."

BB: Well, that's it right there, the house in which Karl Marx was born. There's a big plaque on the wall.

GwC: OK, thank you. Good bye.


And I swear, every word of that is true. It took me quite a while to regain my composure and I'm sure lots of people in town must have thought I was bonkers as I wandered through the pedestrian zone grinning maniacally and chuckling to myself. Quite apart from the fact that it's quite something to ask for directions to the house you are standing directly opposite, to say nothing of the fact that it is a pretty impressive achievement to be a European and reach sixty-odd without ever having heard of Karl Marx, what really got me was that this guy was taking the trouble to find the house in which someone he had never heard of was born, just to look at it from the outside (Today being a Sunday, there was no chance that the museum would be open, after all.) I guess he must have been working his way through all the numbered sights on his map, but still, the whole episode amused me immensely. So, thank you to the (presumably) French gentleman with a combover, you made my day.

PS: Just in case, the Wikipedia article on Karl Marx is here, though I'm sure none of you need it!