4 Things that are abundant in Dizzelland of Plenty

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Since I moved to Düsseldorf more than two (?!) years ago, I’ve been observing the peculiarities of this city. There are some things that are scarce here (unpopulated green areas and sensible drivers) but there are also things that are extraordinarily abundant in Dizzel.

  1. Hairdressers

Given that I struggle with finding a hairdresser that really suits me, you would think maybe there is just not that much choice. But on the contrary, the density of hairdressers in Düssseldorf is absolutely amazing. I have lived in a few places, and also in, let’s say, place where vanity fairs were definitely going on. But never have I noticed so many hairdressers in a city. If I walk 500 metres from my house, I pass 5 hairdressers. By the time I get to work, I probably have seen around 27.

  1. Post boxes

This might not be relevant to the digital native super modern person. But for me who writes letters with real stamps, Düsseldorf is post box heaven. Turn left and walk 2 minutes – there’s your post box. Oh, you’d rather walk right for 4 minutes? Voila your little yellow box that will accept your love letter. In Germany, this is very unsual – usually you have to google before where there could possibly still be a place to leave your letters. Not in Düsseldorf. Here, post box anxiety is not an issue.

  1. Cars

Sometimes I feel like Düsseldorf is stuck in the Fifties. In a time before the green party was a thing, before we realized maybe cities should be for human beings and not only for automobiles. There are so many cars in Düsseldorf, even people who visit me comment on it. Because of a crazy amount of car commuters, the population seems to have completely accepted that traffic jams are God-given. I try to survive between all the steel. But sometimes I can hardly breathe.

  1. Well-dressed people

Germany does not have a particularily high standard when it comes to style and when I rate fashion choices, I compare them to Sweden. The fact that Düsseldorfers manage to regularily rank high in that comparison should say a lot. It is certainly mostly around the inner city and it’s boulevards, but there some people, especially ladies, know how to dress. Sometimes it’s a joy to look at!

 

Ora et labora et in omnibus glorificetur dominus

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“Why on earth would you do that?” and “Oh, I can’t wait to read the blog post on that” were the two reactions I got when I told people no, I couldn’t attend that party, no, I wasn’t going to that event, no, I couldn’t travel to this amazing destination because I was going to spend four days at a nunnery.

My high school was run by nuns and since then, I have had a fondness for sisters. Already back then, after deciding at age 13 that I could not become a nun myself, I resolved that if I ever needed peace and quiet and a place to think, I would knock on the doors of a convent. So I emailed them and asked if I could do the “ora et labora” program, which means you work with the nuns and, if you want to, attend their prayers.

Today’s German nunneries are a bit like retirement homes plus lots of Jesus. Apart from four women, I only met ladies born in the 1930s or 1940s. You think that sounds awfully boring? Think again. These nuns entered the order before Vatican II – the great ecclesiastical council in the 1960s – and could tell me about what changed in their lives afterwards.

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Beautiful church windows

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I cleaned four large ones

Did you know nuns were not allowed to choose their name but instead were given one? After Vatican II, they were allowed to change back to their maiden name, as they call their Christian name, and today, they get to propose their name themselves. I now know this because my “host nun” was even younger than me and told me.

I now know what a real attitude of gratitude is because there were the two sisters who sat with me during all meals. Over 80 and not able to walk well anymore, one of them unexpectedly sighed at lunch and said, “Isn’t life just beautiful?” and her sister replied, “It sure is.”

I now know nuns don’t just accept every teaching they are presented because there was the nun who, when we discussed the Scripture about God being the good shepherd, said, “Actually, I kind of mind being called a sheep in this metaphor!” And the nun who shook her head about the current quarrel among German bishops whether or not divorcees and protestants may join in communion, and agitatedly said, “Jesus would never have denied them that!”

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The little waterfall outside my winow

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Bike tour through the nunnery’s surroundings

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These fish were very hungry and as soon as one came near, they would come up and hope for food

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My evening hangout

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Part-time nun strolling through the garden, behind me the nunnery’s guest house

Convents are transformative. From my normal life including getting up at the latest possible, surviving the commute-road-battle, working at a screen for hours, chores and a Netflix episode at night, I went to attending prayer at 6:15 a.m., commuting for 45 seconds in the corridor, cleaning the crypt, reading psalms, and watching the sun go down in the abbey garden, sitting next to the graves of sisters long gone. (“Say hi when you go to the graves!”, my table nun joked.)

Convents also have, I have always found, a particular peaceful atmosphere. Located on the top of a hill in the (surprisingly beautiful!) Sauerland region, one was safe from all bustle. No city noise, no crowds. Just nature and heavenly tranquility. I recommend it.

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“And lead us not into temptation”: The nunnery snack bar

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The convent is located next to an official bike route that follows the Ruhr river

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I decided to bike the first few kilometres home

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There was even art on the bike path

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Proof that nothing could upset me when I just had left the convent:

The train arrived, lots of people boarded. I got on as the last person with my bike. When I turned around to pick up my baggage that was still on the platform, the automatic doors closed before me. (If you stick your arm in the door, it will crush your arm, not halt.) The train started moving, my suitcase stayed on the platform, my bike and I travelled. So I scrambled through the entire, very crowded train until I reached the train driver and politely with a serenity only the nunnery could’ve given me, explained my situation to him. “Would you please inform someone that my suitcase is not a bomb?” I asked. He told me the schedule was designed that he had 20 seconds (!) to stop at that station (making it nearly impossible for everyone to get onboard, especially for my luggage). Half an hour later, he informed me my suitcase would now travel after me. The little black thing had become an unaccompanied minor! I had to wait an hour longer than planned to secure our reunion but then a cheerful train driver hoisted my precious bag out of his window. Thank God!

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90 minutes at the station in the glamorous town of Schwerte – I got to read almost the entirety of magazines in their newspaper store!

 

 

 

 

On a bright cloud of music

Almost four years ago now, my uncle and godfather celebrated his Silver Wedding. It was a grand celebration, the kind you find in Northern Germany in the countryside. Ball gowns, more than a hundred guests – and ballroom dancing. Tradition demands that the bride and groom open the dance floor with the so called honor dance. Then their parents join in, then their children, and slowly the dance floor is filled with couples elegantly waltzing around the room. When it was time for the honor dance, my cousin, their son, came up to me, asking me if I would do the dance with him. Imagine my glee! And then imagine my terror: I can’t dance. I can’t put myself in the center of a watching crowd and do ballroom dancing. So I turned him down. And that was the night I thought, “One day, I really have to learn this stuff”.

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The last time I was doing ballroom dancing, 2002 in school. You can see on my face how much I liked it.

Fast forward to last night: Here I am, in the crammed ballroom of a Düsseldorf dance school. Around me a very young Japanese couple, two best agers who are both equally superslim, several probably soon-to-be-wed ladies and gentlemen, and my friends Anja and Micke. And A – because four years after the Silver Wedding debacle, I am dating a guy who is the exception from the men-don’t-dance-rule: he wants to dance and knows how to do it.

A’s been telling me we should take dancing classes pretty much since he met me and I always replied that it would be agonzing for him to live through the beginner’s course with me when he could do all the fancy stuff with a real dance partner. “True, but I still wanna dance with you“, he replied.

So, remembering that I actually want to know how to dance, I actually want to be able to do that waltz at my godfather’s Golden Wedding, we signed up at the local dance school. Yesterday we had the first of twelve lessons. (“To go to dancing classes as two couples”, the intern commented, “is such an adult thing to do!”)

They say all problems you might have in a relationship come to light on the dance floor. Your troubles manifest on the dance floor. If that’s true, we have only one issue: I love discofox. And he doesn’t.

 

 

 

Solingen’s favorite pastime

Things you would really not expect in urban Germany:

zero degrees in April,

a fully occupied Catholic cathedral,

and dedicated baseball fanbase

Yet, I have experienced all three in the past week!

Last Saturday, A took me out to the ball game. 

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Isn’t it very hard on the knees to be squatting like that all the time? #worriedaboutpeoplesjoints

I was entirely unaware that it was at all possible to watch baseball in this country, that this sport, America’s favorite pastime, even had teams in Germany. But, lo and behold!, there is a whole scene out there: The Hamburg Stealers, the Cologne Cardinals, the Mannheim Tornados, the Mainz Athletics and, most relevant, the Solingen Alligators. That’s A’s team and that’s where I got to go. The German baseball teams are divided into the North League and the South League, with the latter being better, A tells me, possibly because South Germany was occupied by the Americans after the war. (Yes, history matters.)

My knowledge about baseball was almost non-existent. I knew that people keep baseball bats at home to defend themselves against burglars. When A started explaining the rules of the game, I immediately linked it to brännboll, only to make unqualified comments such as “Oh, and if he can’t reach the base, he’s burned?”, or to the famous Baseball metaphors for physical intimacy. Sometimes I even accidentally said basketball. (Sorry!)

When we got to the diamond (that’s what the playing field is called. You’re welcome.), I instantly felt transferred to America. The baseball apparel, those light-colored pants, the iconic caps, are so connected in my brain with the U.S. (and Modern Family),  I really had to briefly remind myself that I was not in the Yankee Stadium but in fact in Solingen, a German town of 160.000 inhabitants.

But that did certainly not keep the Solingen Alligators from bringing on the true American spirit: at the “Gator Diner”, you could buy burgers and fries, the players’ girlfriends have shirts saying “Gatorgirl” on them, one German lady (that we nicknamed “Head of Fans”) even shouted every now and then, “One for the books!” in English, and during the Seventh-Inning-Stretch, as tradition demands, someone performed “Take me out to the ball game”. A explained to me what to do during that: between the halves of the seventh inning of a game (an inning is the game unit during which one team bats, with the other team playing defense. Again, you’re welcome.), you are supposed to get up and stretch. When the seventh inning came, I certainly understood the point of that. A game can take hours and you are basically sitting all the time, so the seventh-inning-strech is a brilliant custom. Actually, I would want to put forward a motion to introduce a third and fifth inning stretch.

Baseball is complicated. I mean, with soccer, you just have two teams running after one ball, wanting to get it into one of the two goals. Baseball I still didn’t fully grasp after watching it for four hours. When I felt like I’d just gotten the hang of it, A said, “Did you see what the pitcher just did? That was an exception from the rules”.

“We” were playing the Berlin Flamingos which for me prophesied the result of the match. I mean if alligators and flamingos meet, who eats whom, eh? The German teams consist mostly of German amateurs but each team has some American players who seem to actually live on playing baseball in Germany. When teams meet, they always play two matches on one day to make the travel across Germany worth it.

Baseball has been around for a while with the first reference dating from 1791 and latest after the Civil War, it became the thing in the U.S.. In 1876, they formed a national league and I think their clothing still is still reminiscent of that time. (Which is a good thing because the mid-19th-century was totally fascinating.) Baseball seems to have been, and maybe still is, more of a white man’s sport. The New York team, the Yankees, are the champion of champions – they have won like a gazillion times – and one of the most successful sports clubs in the world.

Now this trip to the ball park has instilled two new wishes in me: I kind of wanna go see the Yankees play. And I am really hoping to encounter a baseball player soon to show off my newly acquired small talk knowledge!

The overcrowded Catholic Cathedral: Apparently, during Easter Night Mass, all existent Catholics in Cologne and its surroundings come out to the cathedral and take up every single of the 1200 seats more than an two hours before mass starts. This relegated me to an awfully cold stone bench next to an UISS (Unidentified Stone Saint). It was so chilly I had to put my pyjamas under myself to avoid serious bladder infection (no, I don’t always carry my sleepwear in my handbag, but I had spent the previous night away). The girls’ choir was uncomparably angelic but otherwise I am sorry to say that the mass did not at all live up to my expectations and no Easter spirit was to be felt. Next year I’ll be back at a little local church.

I still love the supermarket

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Remember how much I loved the supermarkets in the U.S.? It is not like I am an avid grocery shopper, actually I buy the exact same things at the same store each week. But I am amazed by a well-sorted grocery store with a pleasant atmosphere. German stores are okay but they are hardly an exciting experience if you are not into the adrenaline rush packing your stuff more quickly than the cashier will throw them at you at the check out.

The answer, ”Only what we have on the shelf“ is often given when you ask for something a little out of the ordinary, in the cheap stores things go out of stock on a Saturday night, and generally, you just want to get the shopping over with.

But now – a new giant supermarket opened in central Düsseldorf. It is not just a supermarket, it is an attraction. For months, maybe years, they have been building it. It was all over the media last week when they opened. They say it takes ten visits before you really know everything that it is in there. Did consume-loving Helen have to go there? Of course!

Luckily, this buyers‘ paradise lies just a short walk from my office so I could use my lunch break for a reconnaissance visit. They advertised their new store as the place where you could find a great variety of everything and also very special things. I had my first real life encounter with aloe vera and yam roots there. They sell everything from ginger-flavored hazelnut crisp bread to quince juice. They have any candy you can ask for, including the nostalgic PEZ thingies, and endless rows of chips. They have an entire counter just for mozzarella and a champagne bar where the most expensive bottle costs 888 euro. Of course, you can buy handmade pasta there, too. This food mecca offers 65.000 products on 10.000 square metres. Needless to say, they offer maps at the entrance.

It is bizarre and gives you a sensory overload, yes. But until I can go back and marvel at an American supermarket, I now have an alternative to look at. And if I ever need to get fresh aloe vera, I now where to go.

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Thou shalt not dance

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At regular intervals, the German media, internet or quiz shows like to inform about „the craziest U.S. laws“. Like you are not allowed to drive in a bikini in Iowa, or that cutting a cactus gives you 25 years in prison in Arizona. Aren’t the Americans funny with their ridiculous laws, the German laughs. But as we are approaching Easter, I would like to say: review the German law and think again.

Good Friday is a so called ”silent holiday“ in Germany. In 12 out of 16 of German states, this means dancing is forbidden. It seems to be that in North-Rhine-Westphalia, where I currently reside and which is especially Catholic, the laws are even stricter. The dance ban  already starts on Maundy Thursday at 6 p.m. and last still Saturday 6 a.m.. On Good Friday, is is prohibited to do circus performances and to swap stamps at stamp collection gatherings. All stores must close and it is not allowed to hold sport events, putting the German soccer league on hold. Movies may only be shown if the ministry of culture has deemed them appropriate. The state law also asserts that radio stations should in their choices be considerate of the serious nature of the day. And: you are not allowed to move house. I think that rather inconvenient, considering how all your friends would be free on this holiday to help you relocate.

So what do law-abiding Germans do during Easter? They hang out with their friends and family at home (or maybe they go to an art gallery or zoo because those are actually allowed to open). For those gatherings, they might stop by the bakery in the morning and get freshly baked rolls or braided yeast buns that are a popular Easter food. But you can only do that until Sunday – after that, there is a bake ban.

 

 

Call me Chicken Princess

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I am probably what marketers think of as the young sophisticated professional. Cultured, educated, interested in new experiences and with at least a certain degree of purchasing power. The kind of people who travel to, I don’t know, rural Chile and eat experimental Balinese food.

But then there’s the real me: I would only go to Chile if you paid me to (no offense, Chile) and when A asked me on our penultimate day of vacation what I would like to eat, I blurted, „Rotisserie chicken!“ From one of the large grills outside the local supermarket, where the chickens are skewered on a large sword, rotating via an electric motor. That’s how sophisticated I am.

A googled the closest chicken grill and located it 20 minutes away from us by car. For those of you unfamiliar with the German chicken grill infrastructure: that’s pretty far. Normally, you would just abandon the plan and go to McDonald’s instead. But A, unflinchingly, got in his car with me to go to what was called „Der Hähnchenprinz“, the Chicken Prince. If the whole expedition wasn’t already tacky, the name made sure we were steering away from high class experimental cuisine. But does that matter when you (after 25 minutes in line) get to eat delicious roasted chicken that reminds you of when mom surprised you with chicken for dinner after having been to the supermarket? I feasted on the greasy chicken with ketchup and fries, evidently content with my meal. „You’re my chicken princess“, A commented amused.

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The Chicken Prince sign without the roasted chicken on it. Sad.

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Afterwards, we went to the park Utkiek. It is apparently a former rubbish tip.

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A was somewhat concerned, as it had a ghettoesque charm to it