Following our forefathers’ tracks

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Tempus fugit.

Sometimes I wonder why people are so interested in the future. The future is all speculation and “we worry about tomorrow like it’s promised.” But the past! The past is fascinating and in a way more real. At least for me and that’s why I studied history and love museums about the past. When I realized I live only some kilometres from where the Neanderthal people were first found, I had to visit.

So I took the chance of the free holiday Thursday and travelled 20 minutes east by commuter train. Already the journey was some kind of epiphany – going through the small towns with the unattractive names of Erkarth and Mettmann, I realized the area is extremely idyllic and pretty. Green as far as the eye can see! I understand that the Neanderthal people wanted to live there.

The Neanderthal (“Neander valley”) got his name from a painter called Joachim Neumann. Joachim’s dad translated their surname into Greek (totally en vogue in the 1600s) which became Neander. His son was in Düsseldorf for four years and hung out in the valley that later was named after him a lot. He also wrote a very famous German hymn “Lobe den Herren” which might have been inspired by the nature around there. (Swedes also know the song as “Herren, vÃ¥r Gud är en Konung i makt och i ära” and the English sing “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty”.)

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The museum did not disappoint, it was a display of very modern and well-done educational work, something you should never take for granted. You could learn about evolution, about how small we humans are in the scheme of things, why the monkeys came down from the trees, which different creation myths different peoples had and how some thing are the same for all humans – and Neanderthalers, like for example initiation rites.

Did you know it was when we started to walk upright that we lost the ape-like body hair? This became a problem for mothers and at the same time the start of the nuclear family. Offspring had no longer mom’s fur to cling to so they had to actively be carried and as the human baby is a premature creature that needs constant supervision, fathers became a more involved. New types of social interaction arose and a tightly-knit social unit was formed.

They even had a great installation where a baby on video tape was lying in the middle surrounded by stand-up displays with statements from people that were related to the baby. On the outside, the modern mother/sister/uncle was quoted, on the inside, the Neanderthal equivalent stated her views. Interestingly enough, the father’s role has – unlike basically all others – not changed dramatically.

Why did these fellows disappear then instead of living in Dizzel today? I learned that the Neanderthalers were much stronger than we are which eventually became their problem when the ice age took away most of their food resources. More muscles, higher metabolic rate – more need for food. The museum did however show how a Neanderthaler could look today. And I didn’t think he looked that unfamiliar.

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A visualization of how mankind is growing.

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These ears tell you the different creation myths

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A Neanderthaler burying her brother

 

 

 

Attendez le signal

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(Ce rapport incl. des citations est authorisé de Anna.)

Marseille did not meet my expectations – in both good and bad ways. The first thing that was not as expected was the beauty of the city. I was told that Marseille was “not that pretty” and “more of a bad kind of harbor town”. As a person who loves the water, I beg to differ: the Mediterrean Sea was glittering in turquoise shades right outside our window and the Vieux Port’s boats picturesquely lined up in the middle of town. Marseille is surrounded by green hills and above it all thrones the Church Notre Dame de la Garde.

What hugely disappointed me was the lack of interest Marseille showed in one of her most famous daughters, Désirée Clary. No museum, no house of birth, “we ‘ave a métro station called Désirée Clary!”, they informed us. If there was a woman born in Dizzel who later became queen of a country, there’d be memorials all over. I mean, Heinrich Heine left Düsseldorf as soon as he could and still, the university is named after him, the central street is Heinrich-Heine-Allee and there is an institute in his honor. Watch and learn, Marseille! I am starting to suspect it has to do with the fact that Désirée was a woman.

Something that was unexpected as well was that no place in all of the second-largest French city showed the Eurovision Song Contest. And yes, we even went to all the gay bars! That way, Anna, my 16-year-old travel companion, learned what the rainbow flag signifies, so I assume we must enter the endeavour on the educational credit site after all.

While the European countries strutted their stuff on Stockholm (and I got countless texts from everywhere asking what I thought even though I could not watch it), Anna and I ate some traditional galettes. It became obvious during our meal that her teachers had neglected to thoroughly inform her about the French Revolution so the next half hour I tortured her with Richelieu, Ancien Regime, the Storming of the Bastille, Citoyen Louis Capet, the Tennis Court Oath, Robespierre, the Declaration of Human Rights and Boneparte crowing himself. “You forgot the guillontine!”, she just commented as she read what I typed. So you can tell my effort got across to her!

I also tried to  leave some of the navigating to her since she speaks fluent French but she made a point out of letting us end up in a locked tram in the depot so I realized she did not want to take on the role of chief guide…After a while,  with me constantly reminding my co-German to “attender le signal” at the traffic lights, we finally made it to the park we intended to go to (because Anna wanted to itemize birds). This public garden was graced with a giant statues and fountains, called Palais Longchamps, in the front with engravings of famous men: Lamarck, Buffon, Linné. Trying to arouse Anna’s curiousity for natural history, I asked if those names rang a bell to which she replied, “Yeah, isn’t Buffon the Italian goalkeeper?” Well, yes, he is. As I started to explain Lamarck’s and Linné’s role in science, she sighed and said:“Helen, you’re too interested in things”.

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The Désirée station

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In th Notre Dame de la Garde, you could offer candles for 10 – ten! – euros each

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Because you always wanted Merkel on your phone

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In the Mucem

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Grandmas knitting histperware

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We were strolling through the Old Town Le Panier when suddenly a Zumba class was held right in front of us – very entertaining!

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Lavender chips and Orangina – feeling very Provencal.

Germany’s secret capital

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Everyone knows Berlin, history-conscious people know Bonn – but do you know the secret, would-be capital of Germany? I went there last weekend.

The city, located quite centrally in Germany, is one of the most underestimated: Frankfurt. The largest city of the federal state of Hesse (and not even there it gained the title state capital) is known for being the financial center of Germany, it’s where the stock exchange has its home, the European Central Bank resides here and literally every bank imagineable has an office in the town by the river Main. Most people think of Frankfurt as the grey bank place I guess. It’s important to call it Frankfurt/Main because there is also Frankfurt by the river Oder which is east of Berlin, bordering Poland. Apparently, we had so many cities in Germany we ran out of names so some have to share now.

Frankfurt is also the airport of Germany. When we approached the city on the Autobahn, I caught sight of a – for Germany very unusual – skyline of modern skyscrapers to the left, the reason for Frankfurt’s nickname Mainhattan. As I looked back to the front, five planes were flying towards us at the same time. Like in a movie! The planes go down right next to the cars, it’s quite a view!

Speaking of views, I was rather surprised by the landscape on the way between Düsseldorf and Frankfurt – it’s so scenic! Rolling hills show off their green colors, every now and then a little river meanders through the land and you pass by some picturesque castles. The route, however, is much longer than I thought. For some reasons, my distance perception is really off: it takes the same time to drive to my parents or to Brussels but those places feel much farther than Frankfurt.

I was there to attend my former roommate’s housewarming party. We met back when we were both studying in Stockholm, now a long time ago. Her guests, knowledgeable about Frankfurt, recommended museums to me because my original ambition was to visit one. (Yeah, that never happened.) One gentleman phrased the difference between the Commmunications Museum and the renowed art museum Städel as, “You need to decide whether you are looking for an aha!-experience or a wow!-expierence”. This actually made me very curious so I will probably have to return. The party continued into the early morning when one of the Frankfurters saw me sitting in an armchair and said, “I can see you are feeling dapper, you are feeling Waterloo”. What sounds like a line of out some indie band’s song came to him spontaneously and I could not find out what he meant by that. It’s a matter of perspective after all: if he was French, he’d mean I feel defeated, if English, I’d be feeling victorious and if he was a Swede, he’d just mean I was having a great party in weird costumes.

St. Paul’s: German Democracy’s Birthplace

Anyway, the next day after recovering,  I set out to join the Alternative Walking Tour. It lasted 2,5 hours which I found too much, especially since one hour was about drug addicts and prostitution. Apparently, Frankfurt is the German crime capital (“but that is counting the bank crimes in the skyscrapers as well”), has the most frequented central station and 18 spidermen statues hidden in the inner city. It also used to be the city with most Jewish inhabitants, Anne Frank was born here, and famous poet Goethe’s birthplace is also located here (he was not Jewish though). They have an active Freemason Lodge and “Batman begins” was filmed here because the director needed a skyscraper street and New York, Tokyo and Chicago were too expensive to close off for a movie shooting.

Frankfurt unites old architecture with the modern bank towers and some typical after-war ugliness. The market square should make any tourist’s heart miss a beat: Germany just how you imagined it! Half-timered houses, traditional apple wine and churches. Actually, it was one church I was most interested in: Saint Paul’s. This building is the birthplace of German democracy where in 1848, they formed the ‘Before-parliament’ which prepared the election for the National Assembly, the first publicly and freely-elected German legislative body. As a historian, you can’t but marvel at the church in awe-stricken silence. Spoiler alert though: after a year of working on a first constitution for Germany, the resistance of Prussia, Austria and some smaller German states put an end to the dream of democratic Germany, with the Prussian king rejecting the crown offered by the German people as “coming from the gutter”. It’s sad because imagine what Germany could have been if we had steered toward a solid democracy already then…

The market had some very interesting signs. Sorry, only funny if you know German.

But back to Frankfurt where I got lots of Southern-German vibes. Somehow it reminded me of Heidelberg with its red-ish sandstone buildings, sunny weather and cheerful dialect people. What’s with the capital stuff then, you wonder. Well, because of its central location and economic significance, Frankfurt considered itself to be the natural choice for Germany’s capital when it became clear that Berlin would be divided. Their post-war-mayor had the town rebuilt rapidly to present an intact city ready to house parliament.

But – this is how the legend goes – the first chancellor Konrad Adenauer who was from Cologne didn’t want to move and made Cologne’s neighboring town Bonn the capital. Bummer for Frankfurt! Historians would, by the way, argue that Bonn was chosen because of its temporary character, a small town not really fit to be the capital, the institutionalized “We will never give up Berlin”- statement. Some say Frankfurt still suffers from this missed opportunity, but I’d disagree: Frankfurt’s thriving!

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In former times, Frankfurt had a tax on each window you built (See the three-windowed half-timbered house above.) They should have kept that tax when the skyscrapers came!

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Good to know the next locomotive is only 5 metres away!

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This fancy house is actually a club. Like, a disco.

Nine reasons to read The Goldfinch

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The Persians say, a good book is like a garden you carry in your pocket. I just finished a book like that, a book that has been so highly acclaimed that I started reading it sceptically. Whenever something has been talked up, I expect it to not bear up to the enormous expectations created. But “The Goldfinch”, the book that took Donna Tartt ten years to write, did not disappoint.(After finishing it, I am not at all surprised it took a decade to write.)

It is her unique combination of details (which make everything seem more real), in depth research (she must have spent months or years with art historians and antiquity experts) and unerring linguistic mastery to describe feelings and situations. While reading the book, I frequently stopped to jot down the way she had formulated things, something that happens very rarely with me.

Ten reasons that should convince you to spend reading time with “The Goldfinch”

  1. Donna Tartt describes adaquaetly what it is like to start noticing that you miss a deeper connection with some people.

But those sparkling blue shallows – so enticing at first glance – had not yet graded into depths, so that sometimes I got the disconcerting sensation of wading around in knee-high waters hoping to step into a drop-off, a place deep enough to swim.

2. She envisions what comes after death in the most beautful way.

But maybe that’s what’s waiting for us at the end of the journey, a majesty unimaginable until the very moment we find ourselves walking through the doors of it, what we find ourselves gazing at in astonishment when God finally takes His hand off our eyes and says: Look!

3. She elegantly phrases the fugacity of superficial beauty.

[He said] The pursuit of pure beauty is a trap, a fast track to bitterness and sorrow, that beauty had to be wedded to something more meaninful.

4. Even the quotes she picks from others to open her chapters are eye-opening true.

We are so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others that in the end, we become disguised to ourselves. (F. de la Roucefoucauld)

5. She touches the reader with her relatable protagonist and expresses his deepest pain gracefully.

When I lost her, I lost sight of any landmark that might have led me someplace happier, to some more populated or congengial life.

For in the deepest, most unshakeable part of myself, reason was useless. She was the missing kingdom,the unbruised part of myself I’d lost with my mother.

6. She provides you with excellent compliments to use for the next person you like.

Everything about her was a snowstorm of fascination.

7. She portrays her heros in a way that you see them right before your inner eye because you know someone who is just that person.

Everything came alive in her company; she cast a charmed theatrical light about her so that to see anything through her eyes was to see it in brighter colors than ordinary.

My standoffish dad had hated this about her – her tendency to engage in conversation with waitresses, doormen, the wheezy old gus at the dry cleaner’s.

8. She gives you orientation for life.

That maybe even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway; wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open.

9. She has the awareness for history worked out and she knows how to convey it to you.

It is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch. […] And I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire and sought them when they were lost and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.

Do yourself a favor and read “The Goldfinch”!

 

Picture Parade

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It is never a good idea when I go to bed too late or sleep with disregard to the sleep cycles which I have identified as a source of regeneration (maybe it’s just placebo effect but that’s fine with me). So today, I was not a happy camper. All the people who did not answer my important emails, all the interns who said stupid things in their interviews and the elevator that is superslow, it all irritated me a little more than usual.

So instead of continuing to nag about who everythingissoannoyingandwhydoiliveindüsseldorfwherenoneofmyfriendslive I invite you to a picture parade from the weekend that I spent with my mom, aunt and cat at home.

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Last Friday, I decided to not take the very expensive train because I feel that I am soon to be an unofficial stockholder in the Deutsche Bahn just that I put lots of money into the company without getting official representation at the annual genereal meeting. Also, it takes four hours to my parents’ place by train and two and a half, three by car.

So I thought I should be young and free-spirited and opt for carpooling. The website that you use for that answers to the very sophisticated name of Blablacar and claims to be world’s leading long distance ridesharing service, connecting drivers with empty seats to people travelling the same way. In reality, I waited two hours in the central station because the driver got stuck in a traffic jam. I could not even be mad at her really because she obviously didn’t cause the traffic jam. On the way to the station, I walked (unlike all other days when I take the bike) and had time to look at the rather peculiar houses and decorations. The East European Institute, for example, has chimes on their facade. Each bell represents a region from which East Germans were expelled (the whole refugee thing is not that new to Germany as millions of Very East Germans fled to the West 1945). The  former eastern territories of Germany and the expulsion is still a big deal today. Under the chimes it said, “In Memory of the Old Homeland. In Thanks of the New Homeland”. Rather touching indeed.

 

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I also passed the Lohnsteuerhilfeverein which is an association that helps you do your taxes. Still wondering why they thought all kinds of different houseplants would be the most fitting decoration for a tax office. Also, I love how this picture could have been taken 1991 without you noticing. True Dizzel style.

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My mother does not really share my historical interest so much. Or rather, she did not have very inspiring teachers that ignited the spark of historical inquisitiveness in her. So since 15 years, I try to educate her about history. I don’t even remember how the subject of the Prussian kings came up but apparently I deemed it very neccesary to make her a post-it list of all the kings with easy-to-memorize cues. Really, you never know when you end up on a quiz show needing to know which one of the Prussian kings liked men.

Spring, my favorite season (I think), has found its way into Germany this weekend. We greeted spring with apple cake and sitting outside without a jacket because I can’t find my transition jacket (as we Germans call the not-so-warm-but-not-really-summery-clothes you wear in spring and fall).

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Even on the way home, I booked a ride with Blablacar and by then, I realized that their name does have a meaning, that is to say that they want you to keep the driver company and talk (hence “blabla”). I, despite being talkative most others times, love to watch movies, read or listen to podcasts while travelling. Instead, I bombed down the Autobahn with a 50plus commuter who liked listening to Gothic Rock and Pop. At least I was home in 2 hours and 15 minutes (!) which gave me time to watch the new Swedish series “Finaste familjen”. The show can hardly be described as high quality tv but at the same time it is fun to watch the quirks of the Swedish upper class as a comedy. It is just a little too close to reality I suppose.

IMG_3047Now you know how I spent my weekend. As a bonus, I am posting a photo of my adorable cat. You’re welcome.

Productive Saturday

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Recently, I have been wondering a lot about how I managed to be so active and do so many things when I still lived in Sweden. I literally participated in everything [in my opinion] cool going on in Uppsala and in Stockholm, I’ve visited every museum and cinema and was on top of things. Mind you, I did do that alongside working and studying at the same time, so it can’t be that I just had sooo much free time. Nowadays, I pass my free time with cleaning, grocery shopping and tax declarations, but every once in a while, I retrieve some of my exploratory spirit and it makes me so very content when I manage to do something out of banal daily routine. Like today when I cleaned and took a trip to Benrath Palace and hosted a little Melodifestivalen party and now I even blog about it.

My friend Henrike and I went to the Benrath Palace because a) the weather was sunny for the third day in a row (a sensationan unheard of in Dizzel!), b) the new app “Duu” by the local newspaper suggested a guided tour through “Hidden Rooms” c) I had obtained a coupon booklet for new inhabitants of Dizzel where you get discount on local sights. The bad part was only that the newspaper’s app never mentioned you had to sign up for the tour which was quickly fully booked so we had to take the regular tour which was also interesting (isn’t everything historic awesomely fascinating?) but sadly, we didn’t get to go inside the attic or see the false ceilings. We did however see a palace that took 20 years to build and then never was used by their owners, Prince Elector Carl Theodor and his wife Elisabeth Auguste because Düsseldorf was too remote (their words, not mine…)

The palace now belongs to the city of Düsseldorf and I guess it’s not the worst crib to have, actually. They’ve invited the Queen and Mahatma Gandhi there and forced them to put felt slippers over their shoes to preserve the precious floors.

We learned that because this was a pleasure palace, there were no signs of power or potency but instead the lions greeting the visitors lay peacefully like kittens and the rooms were decorated with godesses, girl angels (rather unsual) and the seasons. The palace has only six rooms and a hall and the Prince and Princess resided on the ground floor which is very uncommon as the belétage (on the first floor) is usually reserved for the blue-blooded. But in a summer house like this, they wanted to emphasize the nearness to nature so that Elisabeth Auguste could step out of her bedroom through the window to her private garden.

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A true event manager, I kept thinking about how you could arrange festive events here

We got home to my place just in time before my Swedish co-worker and her mom sought Melodifestivalen-asylum with us. Her mom was visiting from Stockholm and wanted to see the final of the Swedish preselection for Eurovision. Tonight was actually the reason I scrounged the flat screen tv from my stepdad: it is 100 times cooler to watch Melodifestivalen on an actual screen than on my mini laptop. Henrike and I rearranged my living room furniture in order to make it easy to watch. The entire two hours I was bemused by the fact that most people always have their sofas positioned so that the tv is the center. (I realize I sound like an egghead.) In any case, watching Melodifestivalen like a real grown up was a true pleasure even if the wrong person won, I mean, obviously Ace Wilder had the most Eurovision-compatible song? But I suppose Sweden does not actually want to win again as it is a costly victory.

My closing pondering is this: Have you ever realized how many snacks you have at home when you think you have nothing to offer? I could feed a children’s birthday party with the left-overs!

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I realize the mattreses and bunting behind the screen don’t look too grown-uppy

Five things I (and you) didn’t know about the Last German Kaiser

Last night was my first night without Wilhelm. It was an unaccustomed feeling indeed. Every night the past weeks, I would take up the three-kilogram-book and continue to learn about the last German emperor. Sadly, my assistant co-worker who had borrowed the book for me from the library had now renewed the loan three times and now I had to give it back because you cannot keep it longer than that. I haven’t gotten to the end of Wilhelm’s fascinating life but I followed him into young adulthood at least. And I learned lots of things I didn’t know (and while those evoke sympathy for Wilhelm, I still believe he was a catastrophe as Kaiser.)

  1. Wilhelm was sure that Jesus had whiskers.

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As a child, Wilhelm had a dispute with his younger sister Charlotte about faith. His governess witnessed a discussion between the two about which of them had God in their heart. Wilhelm quickly decided that “if you have God in your heart, I will have Jesus Christ in mine”. The governess tried to explain the idea of trinity to the Kaiser-to-be and God’s power to be in all children’s heart at the same time. Wilhelm refuted the concept of Jesus and God being the same by stating, “Oh non, Mademoiselle, Jésus et Dieu n’est pas la mème chose. Jesus Christ has some whiskers, I saw it in my book, and I am sure der liebe Gott has no whiskers”. (Wilhelm was educated trilingually, obviously, with a German dad, an English mom and a French governess.)

2. He made up interesting nicknames for his relatives (including his super-famous grandma)

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The Duck

The relationship with England is one of the most intriguing parts in Wilhelm’s biography. He was fond of his British grandmother, legendary Queen Victoria. Wilhelm loved his grandma but once she had died, he started an arms race against England resulting in the First World War.

He had an ambivalent bond with his mother, British Princess Royal Victoria, called Vicky. Yeah, everyone had the same name back then which is why it was so important to obtain a nice nickname. Wilhelm’s sister Charlotte became “Ditta” for life because Wilhelm as a toddler tried to call her “dear sister”. While this nickname makes sense, he called everyone else a “pickle” and his grandmother, Empress of India, Queen of the Commonwealth, Legend of Britian, “a duck”.

3. His mother wrote awful letters to him.

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As mentioned above, the relationship with is mother was to say the least difficult. Vicky was ashamed of her son who had a disabled arm due to complications during his birth and at the same time she was determined to raise a perfect liberal emperor of Germany. (Spoiler alert: That did not go well. At all.)

Her letters to her son reflect the tough mother-son ties: Vicky writes downright cruel messages like “I fear you three oldest [siblings] will be very stupid at drawing or do you consider that an insult?” interspersed with lectures on how to formulate letters: “I cannot give you any compliment for your handwriting, dear boy, both your hand and your orthography are bad, there is not one word without a mistake or a missing letter” or “Why do you write ‘Aunt Alexis’? That is quite a major mistake, her name is Alexandrine and the abbreviation is Alex”. She even corrected his letters and sent them back and never tired of commenting, often almost hostile, on what he had written. “Also, you begin with letters with ‘Dear Mama’ which is find rather cold – don’t you think you could find a word that sounds more loving? Then I believe you should sign your letters with respect to your parents, you write ‘Your loving son’ which would be appropriate for a sibling”. Give me a break, really. And she expected more than one letter a week and wondered why his letters became more scarce the older he got.

4. He was forced to put his arm into a dead rabbit. Every day.

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Wilhelm’s arm was crippled from day one of his life. Believing that the right treatment could cure the little body, doctors subjected baby Wilhelm to futile treatments ranging from having a freshly slaughtered hare wrapped around his arm, to electrotherapy treatment and metal restraints to keep his posture upright. Of course it did not work and possibly the only result was a traumatized tormented boy.

5. Bonn used to be the finest university

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Bonn University is indeed today one of the 100 best university in the world

If you ask the average German about a renowed German university, they might say: Heidelberg. Göttingen. Marburg. Maybe Freiburg, Munich, Tübingen. They will not think of Bonn of all places. But apparently, the West German provincial village (population 50,000 back then) was a hotspot for young nobility. All the gentry sons were sent there and also the rich bourgeousie studied in Bonn. Wilhelm immediately joined a fraternity, something that was not well-established until the late 19th century in Germany. Only when the Prussian Prince became a frat boy, the student league florurished!

6. (extra one that I didn’t learn from the biography): The Hamburg Dammtor Train Station was built solely for the Kaiser

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A popular story in Hamburg is that  Wilhelm II., as an adult, decided to visit Hamburg and wanted to arrive by train from Berlin. When he heard that the central station was constructed in a way that you take the staris from the tracks up to the street level, he rejected the idea stating that an Emperor “does not crawl up to his people”. The Hamburgers, obviously desperate for this visit, started to build what is today the Dammtor, a big station almost next to the central one, but with the tracks above ground level and stairs leading down to the people. Even today it is still used to receive important guests and still bears the byname “Emperor Station”.