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Week 1: First Impressions, Fireworks, Carnival and Cologne

After a packed first week, I can already tell this is going to be a wild ride. Welcome to Week 1!


First Impressions

After 24 hours, involving two flights between Las Vegas and Dusseldorf and an extensive layover with a delicious airport panini, I finally arrived in Germany at 8 in the morning. I and two of my first Ruhr Fellow friends, Dominique and Lauren, were happily greeted by three of our doubles (think, host friends), who brought us our first taste of Germany: freshly baked pretzels. On the train ride to Dortmund, where we'd be staying, I got a taste of what was to come: this was not the Germany I expected.

I'm not sure exactly what I expected, but I thought at least I was going to see centuries-old buildings amidst pastoral outskirts. What I forgot was that I was right at the heart of the Ruhrgebiet, the historically industrial hub of Germany, built upon coal and steel. In fact, Dortmund was almost completely destroyed during World War II, leaving most of the buildings less than a century old. As we sped towards Dusseldorf, Essen, and finally Dortmund, we saw colorful row houses, intermittent expanses of field, and surprisingly, an array of graffiti gracing the walls astride the railroads.

Yet, despite its tall weeds, graffitied surfaces, and tattered billboards, there is a sense of small-town charm in the Ruhr's cities. It's quiet here. At the train station, on the street, practically everywhere we went, people didn't talk as loudly as we did. Often on the trains, when our conversation or laughter gave in to a rare bit of silence, we realized we were the loudest on the train, certainly giving way to our foreign identities.

That night, we went to Hovels, one of the oldest beer factories in the area, where I had my first taste of German food and beer. I ordered an assortment of sausages, ham, potatoes, and sauerkraut, probably a bit too meat-heavy than I had intended. Regardless, the food was fantastic, even the blood sausage, which was a lot saltier than I expected. Afterwards we had dessert, which I found was a lot less sweet than American dessert, but nonetheless tasty. 

Now, it's no secret that Germans like their beer. In a later post, I'll tell you just how much they love it, but I will say that beer really is cheaper than water here, especially since restaurants don't serve water gratis, and the water they do serve is sparkling. That's another thing about Germany and its drinks. I honestly think it's the sparkling drink capital of the world; juices, water, you name it, and it's been carbonated. 



The next day, our doubles took us to a Japanese festival in the city of Dusseldorf, which has the largest Japanese population outside of Japan. I must admit that we didn't spend much time at the actual fair, but instead ate a lunch of Döner, bought some drinks, and walked to the other side of the river to grab a spot for the fireworks show. To pass the time, a few of us walked down to the bank of the Rhine and tried to skip stones. After many failed attempts at chucking stones into the river with the advised sideways forehand wrist flick, I found a bit more success with the backhand, achieving (only once) 4 skips. Yay!

At this point I guess I should mention Germany's weather went absolutely berserk the week of our arrival. I'd wake up in the morning with the sun bright in my eyes, yet only half an hour later head outside to a gloomy sky and rain. And I don't mean just any sort of rain. I mean the sort of rain that lingers in the air a bit and comes at you from all sides, the sort of rain I thought was native to Boston.  Our Saturday in Dusseldorf was one of those unseasonably cold days, so you can imagine we continued to skip rocks partly because it kept us mildly warm, and partly just because we could say we skipped rocks on the Rhine.

To warm up a bit, the group of us walked around to find a cafe, and ended up in a very quaint but very busy gelato shop. For about 1.50 euros, I was able to get some of the richest chocolate and coffee gelatos I've ever had. Yes, I know I said it was cold, but I couldn't resist. When we headed back for the fireworks show, the entire bank of the river and the bridge connecting the two sides of the Rhine were absolutely packed with thousands of people. The show was dazzling in the darkening sky, with the moon just peeking through the clouds and thousands of others around me, just soaking in the moment.

The weekdays included our very first lessons in German, a couple of lectures, and a tour of Thyssen Krupp, major producer of iron and steel (not just elevators). At Thyssen Krupp, we toured the facilities, getting up close to the manufacturing process. We watched a gigantic cauldron containing tons of molten iron being poured and transported to be made into steel. It was really an incredible engineering feat happening right before our eyes, and was only the first of rarities we would encounter.

The Carnival

Thursday was Corpus Christi, so because all stores were closed, we did what anyone else would do: go to the carnival! We made our way over to Oberhausen, where the annual fair was in full swing, as it had been for the past 400 or so years. I had my very first taste of bratwurst and a local delicacy called currywurst, which is basically sliced bratwurst doused in curried ketchup sauce and served with a roll. If that doesn't sound too appealing to you, I'll have you know bratwurst tastes good in any form. We had cream-flavored ice cream, a delicacy that apparently only comes out at the fair, and munched on chocolate-covered fruits.

Weekend Trip 1: Köln


On Saturday, a group of us took a day trip to Cologne (which, by the way is actually spelled Köln, pronounced as one syllable, rather than the bi-syllabic KOL-own we are used to). Just looking out of the window as we approached the station, we could see the gorgeous Kölner Dom looming above us. I imagined this must have been how Harry Potter felt the first time his train neared Hogwarts castle.

I don't think I've ever seen a building so gorgeous and breathtaking as the Kölner Dom. Within a minute of walking inside, I recall telling Allison, one of the other Ruhr Fellows, that there was no possible way to capture its beauty with my camera, although I did try. I won't elaborate here, for sake of brevity, but I believe the photos should help show its beauty.

Next, we headed to the EL-DE House, an old Nazi prison. Never before had I been so close to history. The basement once served as a living nightmare, a jail for many wrongly accused of crimes against the Third Reich. The inscriptions of agony, terror, and torture that were etched into the yellowed walls were absolutely chilling. It was so strange to think that decades ago, the innocent were forced into the very cells we were freely walking in and out of. Seeing artifacts in a museum was one thing, but this, this was something different.

After lunch on the river, we took a more lighthearted tour of the famous chocolate museum, which was mostly a history museum with a rainforest and a few chocolate samples. It also served as easy advertising for chocolate companies like Lindt and Kinder, mostly because I'm sure I wasn't the only one craving for the stuff the entire time.

That night, we got back just in time for the first German Euro Cup game, and made it over to Westfalenhallen for a public viewing. There, we found thousands of rowdy (and many drunk) German fans watching. I'm not a huge fan of fussball, but the experience of watching with thousands of devoted fans was certainly more enjoyable than anything I could watch on TV. At every yellow card pulled on the German team, hisses and boos, with every German move towards the imminent win, cheering and beer thrown into the air. We won, 1-0. Yes, I'm definitely rooting for the German team. 

It was an incredibly packed week, but also a really relaxing one. The days seem longer here. In any case, the sky (with or without sun) is still fairly light outside even at 9 PM, which is really disorienting after being inside for awhile. Here, time seems to slow. I'm usually the slowest eater in a group of friends or family, but here, even after my meal is finished, the group almost always sticks around for dessert or another round of drinks, just enjoying each other's company, actually taking time to taste the life around them. I'm going to make the most of these couple of months, drink it in, and savor every last drop.


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