In this journal:
- a man witnessing his own funeral
- a slut shaming church
- a manhole
[20 min/MEDIUM READ]
Radschläger wolle mer blieve, wie jeck et de Mensche och drieve.—A Düsseldorf Saying
(We will stay as cartwheelers, however crazy the world might be.)
Germany, My Old Freund
I woke up to a beautiful sunny day at the bank of Rhine River, and walked towards the center of all the action in Düsseldorf called Altstat, namely the old town. On the way, I took the main street of the city called Königsallee, nicknamed Kö by the locals. Two large streets hugged by wide shopping pedestrian malls are divided by a canal, lined up with very old trees in a perfect formation. Under the morning sky and a beautiful ray of sun, the area instantly became a hit on Instagram.
A little detour from the main axis was the neatly isolated church called Johanneskirche. Annihilated during the war, the Evangelical church had its exterior completely restored to its original glory, but the inside is as boring as a bowl of white rice, as it was not furnished to the original style. Thus I will show only the exterior for your enjoyment, and leave the other less appetizing parts to your imagination.
As you approach north, you will finally arrive at the heart that beats so rhythmically to circulate the joyous soul throughout the city, Altstat. The first thing that greeted me was a strange little pole with two people standing on it. Apparently, it is an art project by a Westphalian called Christoph Pöggeler. From 2003 to 2006, ten of these pillar saints were installed throughout the city, highlighting the individuality of normal human beings that can be seen on the streets by putting them on a pedestal, ranging from businessmen to tourists, children to couples.
Almost all of the Altstat were levelled by the ally bombings in 1940s, and every single building was reconstructed as the original appearance with updated interior after the war. All of them except one. In 1683, the year after all religions were allowed free practice here, the widely hated Protestants built their own church called Neanderkirche in the backyard of a building so it would not be visible from the streets. After the war, it was finally decided to not rebuild the house in front of it so it would finally see the light of the day.
Fun fact: the church is named Neander because of an assistant priest/choir composer Joachim Neander who worked here during 1670s. For inspiration he always went to a valley east of the city, which promptly got the name Neander valley. In 1856, prehistoric human-like bone fragments were found here in the valley, giving them the name of Neanderthals.
Of course, one of the most prominent buildings is the City Hall, where all the actions would take place since its creation in the middle of 16th century. Now completely rebuilt, the hall still houses the council of the city, and according to the lucky few who got to visit the interior, the city-signature silver coins and the rooftop paintings are marvellous.
In front of it housed a bustling Christmas market. Yes! The reason why I always come back to Germany or German-speaking areas during the frigid winter days are because of these heartwarming markets. Every single time, I was not disappointed, from the first time EuroHopping in 2015/16, to C.A.T. last year, and finally this time, it had always been my favourite part of life in Europe. No wonder most of the lists put more German cities on the most-liveable city index than any other country. In this market, I saw an old craftsman making brand new glass toys, cups, sculptures and playthings from one large unassuming tube, all within minutes. It was absolutely mindblowing to see the transition from flat to curved, straight to twisted, and opaque to vibrant. If you blink, you may have already missed it!
A short walk in the cobbled streets brought me to a bizarre existence in the city called Schneider-Wibbel-Gasse, which commemorates the legendary fake citizen, a tailor named Wibbel. This story comes from a comedy play in 1913, and became a folk legend later. Anton Wibbel opposed Napoleon’s rule so was sent to jail, but his assistant went under his name, and unfortunately died during incarceration. Thus he had to witness his own funeral, but became a massive celebrity after the French lost the Napoleonic War.
On the little lane commemorating this man, besides a myriad of Hispanic restaurants, also sat a large clock marking his name. At the hours indicated right underneath the ticking toks, 11, 13, 15, 18, 21, the mechanical components would reveal a procession and tell a story of this fictional tailor. However, even though I waited for the clock to show me the figurines, twice, the mechanical components never functioned, maybe because of the horrendously cold weather.
At the end of the street, I saw an absolute gem plastered at the side of a bank, a little guy shitting gold coins into a pouch. I scoured the internet looking for answers, spending hours trying to find out the history behind this specific public display of defecation, to no avail. However, I found out that this is a depiction of a popular German folktale of Dukatenscheisser, which rolls right off the tongue. Strangely, Germans have always had an affinity to the real end, ranging from Hitler’s favourite word Scheisskerl(shithead) to Motzart’s loving letter to his cousin “to shit an explosive one on the bed for me tonight”. This little guy is someone who poops out gold coins, and the words surround him plays on the idea:”This folktale will never come true; life teaches you to be smart and save up!” This is so obscure of a thing that I had to read a full article in German in order to write you this, and this is no less of a torture than waterboarding while tickling my armpits.
To the north of the old city was the most beautiful plaza in Germany voted in the 1950s, Burgplatz. Originally the place of a magnificent castle that burned down in 1872, its ruins was cleared to make way for a beautiful riverside public space that is survived by the last castle tower standing. Now, during the festive season, a large paper medieval town sprang up out of nowhere to serve as the beautiful backdrop of an enormous ferris wheel that dominated the skyline.
The tower, called Schlossturm, now houses the inland marine transportation museum, since the river it sits upon has always been one of the most important arteries of transportation of inland Europe. However, due to the limited hours and pretty outrageous pricing, I elected not to venture inside.
Just a bit further north, one can start seeing the strange-looking Lambertushaus, or in human language, St. Lambertus Basilica. This Catholic church owes its fame to the bizarre twisted spiral that is not seen anywhere else. How did it come to be such way? One explanation says that after a fire in 1815, the hasty reconstruction used wet arbors to finish up the dome, thus resulting in its shape being distorted by the elements. However, I heard a better explanation.
It was rumored that once a bride wearing white dress came to the church, pretending to be a virgin and stepped onto the altar. The tower, overwhelmed by shame, twisted its facade away, and remained like this for more than a hundred years. People say if a real virgin appears on the altar, the building would straighten again. Regardless of its validity, the citizens of Düsseldorf love this so much that they reconstructed the tower in its twisted shape after the war.
Inside was rather a standard display of Christ’s birth, as mandated by the holiday traditions. Just around the corner, on the little stream that gave the city its name, sat another strange symbol of the place, the city monument. Donated by the city’s people at the 700th anniversary of the settlement establishment, the bronze art piece is probably the quickest lesson in local history you can see. From the 4 popes born here to the Battle of Worringen, to the local produce section and the soldiers on the left signalling the year of 1288, the year that the battle of Worringen is won. This battle is very crucial to the city, and I will explain in detail later.
Continue south along the bank of Rhine, one would witness possibly the best view of all city. Wide, open space of water flanked by beautiful old buildings, along with incredibly modern backdrop of the newer port district way in the distance. It was simply an incredible walk any time of the day.
The promenade is created by rerouting the traffic through a tunnel more inland 25 years ago and give the space back to pedestrians, resulting in an incredibly wide walkway that can house artists, cafes, cultural centers and much more. Many musicians would play here during warm summer nights, and it is the best place to sit down, grab a coffee, watch some people, or be watched.
A small tower sits at the bank, protruding out of the relatively smooth view with a sharp edge. This is Düsseldorfer Pegeluhr, an old marker of the city that helps with measuring the height of the river. The speed of the waterflow in Rhine is very fast, so many sand dunes tend to shift about in the river, making it important to know the depth at many places if one wants to sail alive.
All the way down the promenade, after a long walk, it is finally the location of the city-famous Düsseldorf harbour. Like many other port towns, Düsseldorf suffered severely from globalization and modernization of transportation. The entire developed world started shifting from resources and manufacturing to finance and services, and the first to take the hit are towns like this. Mannesmann, the biggest employer of the region, shut down right at this harbour during the end of last century, bringing about a massive wave of negative impact on the city. As the gangways and factories crumble and fall into the water that literally raised them up, the city, especially this Media Harbour, needed a solution.
They found the classic solution, and got the man that started it all: Frank Gehry. This architect single-handedly revived the dilapidated port town of Bilbao with his Guggenheim Museum, and they hoped the magic of the famous “Bilbao Effect” could be replicated here. With Los Angeles’ universally appraised Walt Disney Concert Hall and Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture under his belt, the mad lad Gehry did it again, creating the Gehry Buildings at this little bend of the waters, attracting many banks and institutions that flooded the harbour like the afternoon tide, quickly bringing life back to the dying district. Though the mirrored walls and off-white facade seem a bit worse for wear, the building symbolized the artist’s aspiration for a beautiful future.
Sitting high high above, at a completely different angle of both perspective and approach, is the Rheinturm, tallest building in the city till this day. Built in 1981 when hairstyles were as whacky as the TV shows of the time, the 240-meter tower was designed as a center of relay, with an observation deck at 170m. An overpriced revolving restaurant also sits at the top, given you are willing to pay for the entrance first. A large clock sits physically on the building called Lichtzeitpegel, which is the largest digital clock in the world.
As you may see at the beginning of the journal, it seems like Düsseldorf has some strange relationship with the unholy act of cartwheeling. This all trace back to the Battle of Worringen, as the Earl of Berg which ruled the village of Düsseldorf had a bloody struggle against Archbishop of Cologne, which just sat 30 minutes to the south by train. The decisive victory led to the founding of the town of Düsseldorf, effectively elevating it to the status equal to Cologne. Upon hearing the news that the war was won with barely any casualties on the northern side, the children of Düsseldorf decided to show their joy by cartwheeling up and down the streets.
The tradition carried on till this very day. Everywhere you go, you are reminded of the strange act of spinning your body vertically, in shops, in media, in food, and everywhere in between. A statue of kids cartwheeling represents the city’s hope, and gingerbread sold in the markets all have cartwheelers printed on them. Every year, a large competition is held to commemorate the issue.
Around the corner from Altstat is the plaza of local markets named Carlsplatz. Situated in the middle of the district aptly named Carlstat, this plaza offers all the market items with a local flair, ranging from flowers, sausages, cheese, wine to artwork, music and many more. The baroque facade of the local buildings attracted many boutique shops, antiquaries and artist galleries, thus giving the entire community a higher-class vibe.
As I explored, the sun had slowly disappeared from the sky, so it was time to hide away from the cold winds by going deep into the night Christmas market that lit up the entire sky. The warmth of some nice currywurst definitely would compensate for the lack of anyone in my life, right? Right?
I got my share of the warmth through the nice little snack, and walked along the main streets of Altstat. The entire district is sometimes referred to as the longest bar in the world, since just this small square kilometer of area contains more than 260 bars and brewing houses. At night, the entire region lights up in a festive congregation as the cheering crowds, regardless for sports, celebrations or for nothing at all, spewed from the bars into the streets, and into each other’s territories. It was hard to tell one establishment’s folks from another, since it did not matter anyway.
Around each corner stood a tiny cluster of stalls serving all kinds of festive food, which you can learn all about that during my past years of adventure in Germany Christmas Markets in Mainz, Bonn, Cologne and many more. Such love is this little establishment selling all kinds of sausages, because it is Germany and without sausages they can survive at most 20 minutes.
I filled myself up with mushrooms, kale and sausage in a godly sauce, and began my way back home, whatever that means. I passed by many other people just making their way to the night scene; I passed by a large skating ring with Christmas lights frozen in the ice; I passed by couples making out by the lovely canals, but I could not stay and look at them any longer. Food coma was pushing me towards the edge of sleeping on the streets again, and I could not have that. As much as I love this city, there was nobody to love it with me: there was nobody to love. I fell asleep, face down, on my bed, without realizing my pyjama was on backwards.
But it is not time to be sad, Young. This is a time of joy. Even though I have always had so many friends here in Germany, the sense of loneliness never disappeared. Maybe that is not a bad thing. It is good to be reminded; ultimately, we are all alone, no matter how popular or well-loved we are. A correct attitude towards facing it is salvation, otherwise, sooner or later, we all fall victim to being trapped in a social animal’s body. That is why I love Germany, because no matter how the world changes, they will always be the jolly cartwheelers. No matter where I go, I always feel like, I just belong here. I still do not understand why or how, but that is such blessing that I will not question.
As I hopped onto an ICE towards Hamburg, my face was contorted by a big smile.
I am alone, that is okay, because with my old friend Germany, we can be lonely, together.