Sunday, August 24, 2014

Germany: There and Back Again

I had never been to Europe... I mean, the "real" Europe, because Lithuania doesn't count, being one of those former 15 republics where a USSR child like me can still feel himself at home. So you can imagine how excited I was when my wife told me a few months ago that the next summer we would get to live in Germany for a whole month!

It wouldn’t exactly be a summer vacation, though – more like an assignment where you combine business with pleasure. You see, Diana, my wife, is a Germanist, teaching students at Vilnius University, and this was an academic mission for her to gather materials for her upcoming textbook. As for me, it would be a great opportunity to get a nice long rest from work, change the scenery and finally crawl outside the familiar post-Soviet shell to see how good old Europe really feels like.

We would be living in Essen, a relatively inconspicuous city in North Rhine-Westphalia, somewhere between Dortmund and Düsseldorf. It may not be as popular as other famous German cities, but it’s as good as any other place if you want to experience your typical Germany. Besides, it was an integral part of the mission – Diana would be working at the Duisburg-Essen University library.

So, we spent the remaining few months in preparation and anticipation. We bought a laptop, reserved a suitable apartment, told everyone about the upcoming trip (even those who didn’t really need to know), booked the tickets and sat on suitcases. Finally, on the 1st of June, we flew to Dortmund, where we would take a train to Essen.

The Arrival

You know what was the first thing I heard when we came out of the Dortmund U-Bahn? A mother yelling at her daughter to move it… in my native Georgian. It doesn’t necessarily mean Germany is full of Georgians (although, for argument’s sake, there are indeed a lot of Georgians living there), but wherever you may come from, there’s a big chance you’ll hear your native tongue while visiting Germany, and maybe more than once or twice. And it’s not just airports and stations, it’s everywhere. A sense of a big, international, multicultural hub never leaves you, no matter where you go. It’s in the streets, in the faces you see, in the sounds you hear.

It was at Dortmund train station where I first witnessed a real African “booty” with my own eyes, something I’d only seen in rap music videos before. There was this merry bunch of soccer fans from Cameroon (it was just days before the start of Brazil 2014 World Cup), and two of them were colorfully dressed girls with exceptionally voluminous rear parts. It took quite an effort for me to get dehypnotized by the sight.

Diana and I communicate mostly in Russian, so she advised me to refrain from using the Russian word for “negroes” (негры) in public, as it sounds very recognizable for a European ear (the word appears to be outdated in the West and may be considered politically incorrect, but it’s still widely used in everyday Russian language). When I proposed to use the Georgian word instead, which sounds completely different (zangebi), trusting that no one around us would understand it, Diana told me that she wouldn’t be so sure of that.

Our train arrived right on time (yeah, the famous German punctuality), and we got to share the wagon with the Eto’o-worshipping Cameroonian folks. Boy, that was some ride! They were singing, cheering and shouting non-stop, issuing some deeply ethnic sounds, and you can only imagine how loud they were on the scale from 1 to Tarzan.

Somewhere along the ride a German youngster walked through our wagon and stopped right by the Cameroonians. They talked, laughed and shook hands among all this deafening noise, and then he went on his way. It was beautiful! And that precise moment Diana heard a man nearby mumble to himself, shaking his head: “Zangebi, zangebi…” Yep, that’s right – “Negroes, negroes…” in Georgian.

Home, Sweet Temporary Home

Our hostess, whom for the privacy reasons I’m going to call Frau Opel (because she’s driving one), kindly picked us up from the Essen Hauptbahnhof (yeah, I could just write “Main Station”, but where’s fun in that?) and took us right to our apartment in Altendorf district. We were greeted by the neat rooms, pre-loaded fridge, fresh towels and other first necessities, providently prepared for us. And yes, of course, a working Wi-Fi connection.

The apartment was on the first floor in a four-storied building. Frau Opel herself lived on the fourth floor, and her mother – on the third. Behind the house there was a patio surrounded by a mini-garden full of silly gnomes and lush vegetation. In the center of the patio there was a wooden table with chairs, covered with a tarp for the moment. Our hostess promised to make use of that table as soon as the weather allowed.

Everything was perfect, except maybe the entrance hall, which proved to be so chilly even on the hottest day that Diana eventually came up with a witty nickname for it – Гранитный Мавзолей (Granite Mausoleum). See for yourself – the house entrance indeed resembles the famous Lenin Mausoleum at the Kremlin wall.

Turkish Essen

After unpacking we rested a bit and then decided to grab a bite somewhere nearby. We left the Mausoleum and joined the flow of Altendorfer Straße for the first time, and that’s when I got my first culture shock in Germany.

I had known about German cities being overpopulated by immigrants, mostly from Turkey. I was also aware about the district our apartment would be located in being one of the most multiracially populated areas in Essen. But still, it was more than I expected.

Turkish restaurants, kebab houses and shops dominated the scenery, but there were also Lebanese, Indian, Greek and numerous other establishments representing culture and cuisine from all over the world. The streets were full of folks of all possible races and colors – Black, White, East Asian, Arab, Hindi – many of them dressed in their ethnic outfits; you could see all these people of different origin walking side by side; you could hear a mix of dozens of different languages ringing in your ears. And for me, a cosmopolitan by nature, a multilingual and multicultural person, and a wannabe linguist, it was a thrilling experience. Although, I imagine, it would be a living nightmare for white supremacists, because walking in these streets would physically hurt them.

Diana speaks perfect German, but she had trouble communicating with local shop owners, as they were mostly not native and, truth be told, spoke horrible German, with rare exceptions. But at least they tried their best and all were polite, friendly and helpful. On the other hand, younger people had less problems with the language. I saw little Black and Arabic kids on numerous occasions, chatting in fluent German.

Still, among all this crazy mix of ethnicities and cultures, Turkish influence was clearly the strongest. Not only the majority of the establishments had Turkish signs, but you could also see the Ay Yıldız ads everywhere – the brand of a mobile operator, specifically targeting the Turkish diaspora. By the way, we purchased their pre-paid SIM-cards for ourselves, because all the local shop owners recommended it as being the smartest choice.

So, about grabbing that bite. There were a lot of sizeable restaurants, but for the starters we decided to visit one of the more modest joints, so we ended up in a tiny kebab house with only a couple of tables. We ordered two different dürüm döners to try each other’s and we liked them both. I generally favor anything wrapped in lavash and these were really tasty.

Black and White

The first few days turned out to be rather hot (our Granite Mausoleum still remained chilly, of course), and we witnessed quite a lot of people, mostly children, bathing in an artificial lake nearby. Neither I nor Diana can swim, so we were looking at them with jealousy as we passed the bridge over the lake. And that’s when we saw something quite symbolic and touching: Two little boys perched on the parapet, side by side, ready to jump. One of them ebony black, the other – ivory white. They were clearly friends, lively chatting with each other. Then they jumped and splashed into the water in sync.

Regretfully, I wasn’t quick enough to capture them on camera – that would be one really nice shot, worth many likes on Facebook. We all need reminders that children don’t really care about races and ethnicities, and it’s our job to maintain that attitude in them as they grow up.

Touring and Shopping: Early Attempts

Well, Diana may have had a mission to fulfill, but a little touring and shopping wouldn’t hurt along the way. So we took every opportunity to divert. Thankfully, there was no lack of such opportunities in Essen.

Like any other German city, Essen is a place where tradition meets modernity. Also, it’s a place of constant building and rebuilding. Generally I noticed that Germans like to build and repair things, especially roads. But we’ll discuss that later. For now, let’s explore the surroundings.

First thing to notice, of course, were churches (Kirche in German), lots of them. Nothing you wouldn’t expect from a European city founded in early Middle Ages. Tall, proud, beautiful churches, standing right next to the modern buildings, in the very hearts of the buzzing city districts.

We found these two nearby. There will be more of them later.

The next thing to catch my attention was the “greenness” of the city. Whole bunches of densely growing trees, some of them as tall as houses; big and small enclaves of nature everywhere; many places where you forget you’re actually in the middle of a city – that’s your typical Essen.

After our first visit to the University and setting up things for Diana’s future work, we went to Limbecker Platz, which is not far from there. It’s one of the central squares in Essen and there’s a big modern mall there, the very first one we braved to explore.

Guess where I headed first. Saturn, of course – the famous German chain of electronics stores, a place where no techno-junkie like me would mind having their ashes scattered after death.

Psst... Dude, got some kryptonite?

Personally, I’m against cremation, so please just bury me somewhere next to Lara Croft.


It’s time for you to learn that we were not exactly alone on this trip. Daumantas, Diana’s friend and colleague, arrived the very next day with his wife, Gina (no, you don’t read it as in Gina Lollobrigida, it’s a Lithuanian name, so spell the “G” like in “give,” be so kind). They traveled in their car, all the way from Lithuania through Poland to Germany, and it took them two days. Don’t try this at home, unless for some reasons you can’t part with your car.

The newlyweds (they’re married for a couple of years now, but I still like to call them that) settled in the same building as we. In fact, they occupied Frau Opel’s apartment, while our hostess herself temporarily moved with her mother. Both being Germanists, they were on the same assignment as Diana, so quite often they would go to the library together. Of course, we shared some of our touring activities, too.

So, later that day when Diana and I made our first humble attempt at touring the nearby parts of the city, Daumantas, together with his wife and a local friend (who actually was Macedonian, go figure) offered us a short evening stroll in Grugapark, which is basically Essen’s own botanical garden. Of course, we gladly accepted.

The Macedonian (who was, predictably, called Rade) proved to be an excellent guide. He showed us all the nooks and crannies of the garden and told us some interesting things about it. Like this “Magic Castle,” for instance, which in fact turned out to be a free hotel for the parents of the children who were undergoing expensive treatments in the nearby medical facility.

Grugapark was really beautiful. It was vast and had many things to see. Too bad it was after hours, so most of the special attractions, like pony riding, flamingo pond and loads of others were already closed, so we didn’t get to see everything. But what we did see was enough to make us “wow” on every step.

Hey, Diana, step away from that iron bird, it's not a toy!

They have not only plants from all around the world, but also an impressive collection of birds, especially owls and eagles. Most importantly, it’s a great place for family hangouts, picnics and general recreation. In fact, we stumbled upon at least three grill parties while we were there.

Our Friendly Neighbors

Speaking of grill parties… The very next day our friendly neighbors, led by none other than our hostess’s mother (Frau Opel had left on a business trip by that time), invited us to one of their backyard parties, which they were apparently having quite often. Daumantas and Gina were out of the city, exploring nearby sights, so Diana and I had to carry the torch. Diana made a salad from fresh vegetables and I brought a Krombacher six-pack with me, while the man next door (let’s call him Karl, because he had a beard), with some help from his wife, prepared the grill and started roasting some sausages and steak.

We were sitting there, on a pleasant afternoon, chatting and waiting for the roast… Well, they were chatting and Diana was interpreting the key parts of the conversation to me, as my German vocabulary is restricted to the knowledge I got from watching Soviet WWII movies in deep childhood… which is, basically, Hände hoch, Hitler kaputt and Jawohl, mein Führer. None of those will do in a modern German conversation, trust me on that.

Next time I visit Germany, please remind me to learn at least a few common phrases.

Schloss Burg

The next afternoon Daumantas, Gina and Rade decided to take a tour to a place called Schloss Burg an der Wupper, some 50 km drive south of Essen, and invited us along. It’s a medieval castle which is now a museum and a popular tourist attraction. According to Wikipedia, it’s the largest reconstructed castle in North-Rhine Westphalia.

And yes, it was indeed large, like a small town of its own, with lots of places to explore, dozens of interconnected buildings and towers, and several inner yards. There were even small streets with giftshops, restaurants, pubs and grillhouses.

The inner grounds met us with mandatory attributes for any medieval castle: a guillotine (a rather nasty looking one, but apparently fun for children) and a balloon-blowing jester with a lute (definitely fun for children).

We took one of the entrances into the main complex and immediately got lost and separated inside the numerous chambers and halls, filled with history and medieval atmosphere.

I was especially dumbfounded by this miniature battlefield with hundreds of detailed plastic figures.

And Diana found this wonderful stash of stuffed animals in the attic.

We could have spent hours and hours exploring all the wanders inside the castle buildings, but it was a lovely day outside and we wanted to see some live action we were promised in the brochure: there was a knights’ tournament held in one of the inner yards, a staged historical performance of sorts, which had already started as we arrived. So, as soon as we managed to find our way out and happily reunited in the courtyard, we rushed to the event.

It was really something. The fights weren’t exactly those from Game of Thrones, but the actors surely did their best, and the interludes between the fights were filled with humorous performances, which apparently were rather good, judging from the reaction of the audience. I made a short video where you can watch a couple of most hilarious fights.

We continued exploring the castle and eventually climbed into the highest tower which presented us with an astounding view of the surroundings. Looking below I noticed a beautiful church inside the castle walls, with a graveyard next to it, and asked Diana to take a photo of it, because at the moment my ancient Nokia was busy struggling with her panorama application.

The castle still had many wonders left for us to discover, but it was time to head back. Auf Wiedersehen, Schloss Burg!

The Hanging Trains of Wuppertal

On the halfway back to Essen we made a stop in Wuppertal. In case you didn’t know, it’s the city where Aspirin was invented, but we were interested in something different the city could offer – its famous suspended railway. So after having some burgers at a local McDonald’s, we headed straight to one of the nearby railway stations and bought the tickets.

What's wrong with this picture?
It was quite a ride, I must say. The railway mostly runs over the riverbeds, but there are also many locations where it arches over the populated areas, so you can see the buildings and streets full of cars and people down below as you fly over them in a shaky wagon slanting like carousel seats on steep turns. And my adrenalin levels went even higher as I learned that the railway has been operating since 1901. God bless German quality…

The Storm of the Century

The very same night as we returned from our Schloss Burg/Wuppertal tour, a terrible rainstorm broke out in the area. We were lucky to be safe inside a building, because what I saw through the windows made my eyes pop out. The waves of water were literally flying in the air, along with the branches torn from the trees. But only the following morning we truly learned how devastating the storm in fact was. According to this BBC report, six people were killed that night: three in Düsseldorf where a tree fell on a garden shed, two cyclists in Cologne and Krefeld, also by fallen trees, and one person in Essen.

As I mentioned earlier, Essen is a green city, with numerous open areas filled with trees, and it paid a heavy price for that, as the unhindered wind was able to reach enough speed to snap the large trees in half and even uproot them.

You can see a car somewhere in there...

Most of the traffic lights stopped working throughout the city, causing chaos and accidents in the streets. One of the following days, as I walked down the Altendorfer Straße, I even had a chance to play a hero: A black woman with a baby pram was unable to cross the pedestrian crosswalk, because the traffic lights were out and the cars just wouldn’t stop, so after a while I had to step on the roadway and use my superpower – mind-controlling the nearest driver with the outstretched palm of my hand. It worked like a charm, and the grateful woman was able to carry on.  

Touring and Shopping: Advanced Stage

With the city recovering from the act of God (easy there, it’s an insurance term), life slowly returned to its normal course, inviting us to continue with our touring and shopping activities. As architecture junkies, we scanned the nearby areas for interesting buildings and sights, and Essen really provided in that department.

As for shopping, besides a deeper exploration of the already familiar Limbecker Platz mall (the photo below shows me in the process), we also discovered Rathaus Galerie, another great spot for shopaholics.

More importantly, we had great time just by walking in the streets and soaking up the atmosphere of the careless urban summer.

The Football Madness

I don’t always watch football, but when I do, it’s usually a FIFA World Cup. And since there was one starting on June 12, I started preparing for it, along with the whole country.

I don’t really have a favorite team, but since we were in Germany, it deemed appropriate (and possibly safer in terms of bodily integrity) for me to support the German team. So, on June 16, the day when Germans were to play their first match, here I was, wearing the colors, with all the necessary attributes, like beer and chips, close at hand, both laptop and TV fired up, all ready to show those Portuguese who’s the boss on the field.

And Germans really showed: They won 4:0 against Portugal and made Ronaldo cry like a baby. And you can imagine what was going on around in Essen in that precise moment – cars honking their guts out, people shouting and singing, streets roaring with celebration… I had a feeling I was right in the middle of a stadium in Brazil.  

The Hattingen Experiment

Well, it wasn’t much of an experiment, more like a test drive before real adventure, but I’m running past the hounds here, so why don’t I start from the beginning.

The thing is, I’m still a fresh driver (or a beta driver, as I like to call myself), having received my driver’s license only a year and a half ago. Therefore, this whole driving thing is still very exciting for me, and what could be more exciting than driving? Driving in Germany, of course!

That’s why I had planned to rent a car for a couple of days while being in Germany, just for the fun of it. And the next weekend seemed as good as any for putting this plan into action.

So, on a Friday morning, we went to STARCAR, which seemed to have the most affordable rental offers, just to discover that they were fresh out of available vehicles. Frustrated, we went back home to grieve upon this development and explore other possibilities. This is how we ended up reserving a car online at the SIXT website. Their prices were a bit stingier, but I was more than willing to cough up some extra Euros for my adulthood dream.

Back home I’m driving a Volkswagen Golf Plus, and while trying a different car would be exciting, I kinda hoped I could grab something similar, just to be safe and comfortable. But the Fate laughed at my face: the keys they gave me were of a Mini Cooper.

As I suspected, that car was nothing like Golf. The first 10 minutes or so I just spent trying to figure out how to start the damn thing. I never did, so I asked Diana to bring back the guy who gave me the keys and ask him in proper German to show me where to stick them.

As it turned out, you don’t stick them anywhere, you just need to have the keys with you, because they allow the car to recognize its master and be ready for ignition, which happens by simply turning a knob on the panel. Go figure…

At least, the car had a manual gearshift, so I was in a familiar territory there. Yet, there were enough quirks and peculiarities to keep my brain occupied on the way home from the rentals

We were planning to drive to Düsseldorf and Cologne that weekend, so I really needed some real practice before that – not just some chilled driving-in-da-hood, but a serious test-drive allowing me to explore the car thoroughly and master its controls.

Luckily for us, Daumantas came up with a plan which was exactly what the doctor had ordered: a trip to Hattingen, a town not far from Essen, would allow us to kill two birds with one stone – it would provide a nice scenic route for a test-drive, and we would get to see another beautiful German town.

We ventured forth immediately. Daumantas, along with Gina and Rade, was driving ahead in his car, and I, with Diana as my passenger, followed his lead in our rented Mini.

After some 15 kilometers straight, we exited the autobahn and that’s when the fun began. Daumantas took a rather challenging route – a twisted narrow road through some hilly forests, with many ascents and descents. Yeah, I mastered the controls alright.

As we arrived in Hattingen and parked our cars on the roof of a multi-storey parking building, the town welcomed us with a breathtaking panorama of church domes and tiled rooftops. From there, we walked straight to the town center, where we found ourselves surrounded with the serene magic of classic German small-town buildings, narrow streets and tidy facades.

That’s where I saw a crooked spire of a church for the first time. As I was told, this one was built this way on purpose – allegedly, a fire caused the original spire to collapse onto the nearby houses, so they replaced it with a curved one, slanted away from the houses, so that in case of another fire it would fall in different direction. But seeing as there are houses in all directions, I don’t think the story really holds true – a most likely explanation could be, like in many other cases of crooked church spires in Europe, the use of unseasoned wood for building, which causes the spires to deform over time.

On the way back we made a slight detour to see Burg Altendorf, a medieval tower located in the southeastern part of Essen. It was already too late for visitors, so we didn’t hang out much, just took a couple of shots and hopped back into the cars.

We still didn’t quite feel like calling it a day, so we headed to the Lake Baldeney, which is one of the famous recreation areas in Essen. Usually, there’s a lot of activity going on there, but again, it was already late and there was nothing much too see here, except the calm beauty of the lake and its surroundings.


Apparently, Germans have a knack for outdoor culinary festivals. Add the concurrent football fever to that and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what was going on in the center of Düsseldorf when we arrived there on Saturday. People eating and drinking all around us, walking in pairs, threesomes or whole groups, or just standing and talking. The streets were full of loud music, delicious smells, and cheering crowds – mostly football fans who’d already had a couple of beers.

Düsseldorf is not such a big city (only slightly bigger than Essen), but still you can’t possibly see everything it has to offer in a single day. So we just decided to hang out in the old town, plowing through the crowds, enjoying the beautiful day and soaking up the atmosphere.

We stopped by every interesting sight in the vicinity – buildings, statues, fountains – taking a lot of photos in the process. And we didn’t just look, but also read the plaques and imbibed all the information we could obtain. Diana even engaged in exploring some of the statues more… intimately.

We also witnessed some local wonder…

… and learned some local wisdom.

The inscription says: “This fairytale may never come true.
Life teaches us to be smart and save.”

After a while we decided to take a break from all this sightseeing, so we returned to our parking place and drove to the nearest shopping mall (Düsseldorf Bilk Arcaden, I believe). We used the facilities (where I discovered a condom machine for the first time in my life), had a dinner at Mr. Chicken (which, unsurprisingly, turned out to be a Turkish establishment) and immediately headed back to the old town, having stoically resisted a shopping urge.

More walking, more sightseeing, more atmosphere inhalation… until we were tired enough to call it a day and drive back to Essen.

On the way out of the city, this beautiful church caught our eye and we absolutely had to stop and take some pictures of it.

Cologne (the City, not the Perfume)

Touring Cologne started for us right in the parking garage under the Cologne Cathedral, with a carefully preserved ancient well, now obviously defunct. Nearby, you could also see some ruins of a building base, fenced off from the rest of the parking area.

Seeing the Cologne Cathedral was naturally the first thing to do, especially as we just literally climbed out from underneath it. And you really need to see it for yourself, because no photograph can convey the true feeling you get at the feet of this awe-inspiring stone giant, like a little bug crawling on the face of ancient Earth. And we literally had to crawl around in order to fit this baby into the frame somehow – it took a while before we managed to get some decent shots. But first, let us take a selfie!

After some circling around, we finally dared to enter the Cathedral. I don’t always visit churches, but when I do, I like to light candles and negotiate health for my parents. And so does my wife, only a bit more comfortably and naturally, being a semi-practicing Catholic and all. This time the main topic of negotiation for us was the well-being of Diana’s father, who was diagnosed with an early stage of a prostate cancer, as we had learned just days earlier from one of the regular phone conversations with Homeland Security (that’s how I mentally called my mother-in-law during our trip to Germany).

At first we didn’t dare to unsheathe our mobile devices, respecting the entrance signs prohibiting us from using cameras and cellphones. But then we noticed that nobody actually cared, including the staff (not sure if that word is applicable here), so we started taking some pictures of the interior, having switched off camera sounds beforehand.

Like in Düsseldorf, our touring was confined to the old town, because, given only one day, a concentrated thematic exploration seemed to have more sense. So we started covering the sights in the vicinity, slowly and methodically expanding the area, scanning for any interesting details…

…and interesting people, like this slightly overweight guest from Krypton, who apparently was not impressed by the local architecture as much as we were, because after a while he went on bantering and shaking his head.

Obviously, we couldn't miss the chance to plagiarize the well-known series of romantic photographs. Lead the way, Susanina!

At some point we found ourselves at the bank of Rhine, where Diana had a chance of making another of her panoramic shots. This one, as we discovered afterwards, included a part of my head – nose, mostly.

On the deck of one of the moored cruise ships we saw a giant chess set. I don’t know how heavy the pieces were, but I imagine it would surely take a certain amount of physical effort to play a game of this particular chess.

Not far from the river bank we encountered this house, completely covered in ivy. In fact, you can see quite a lot of such “green houses” in Germany. Back in Essen, on the way to Grugapark, we saw a whole street covered in ivy.

Eventually, we got hungry and picked one of the numerous establishments to stop by and eat. As we were waiting for our order under the awnings, some technicians were installing two large flat screens, in preparation for a football match that was starting soon.

We spent the rest of the day in the same vein: more walking and exploring, just in a slower pace – digesting a full portion of German pork stake is no easy task, you know...

We concluded our tour by heading back to the Cathedral area, buying some souvenirs in a nearby shop and taking one last look at the Cathedral in the somber evening light. Now it was time to drive back to Essen…

Not so fast, buddy! Remember when I told you about how Germans like building and repairing stuff? Roads, in particular? Generally, it’s a good thing, but when you drive through an unfamiliar location, placing your trust entirely in the hands of a GPS navigator, coming across a roadblock is the last thing you need, trust me.

That’s exactly what happened to us on the way back. We had to cross a bridge, but the road leading to it was closed off for repairs and the GPS woman (yeah, I like my GPS navigators female, in their twenties or early thirties... commanding voice… mmm… sorry, I digress) was hell-bent on driving us through the roadblock, refusing any other alternatives.

I honestly tried to find another way on my own, but I failed miserably. It was getting dark, there was not a soul around to ask for directions, and I did the only thing there was left to do: squeeze through the barriers (fortunately, there was just enough gap for our tiny Mini Cooper) and brave the unfinished road.

I’m sure I broke a whole bunch of German road rules in the process, but there was nothing I could do about it, so I just drove on, hoping there were no cameras around to capture the road atrocities committed by a savage foreigner…

The Epic Tale of Buying a Volkswagen Keychain

When I returned the rented Mini Cooper on Monday morning, I felt lonely and miserable, as every man should feel without his car. In order to fill that bottomless void, I decided to… buy a keychain with a Volkswagen logo on it.

So the next day, Tuesday, while Diana was at the library, I went to the nearest Volkswagen center – which, luckily, turned out to be located just in about 20-minute walk from our place of residence.

It was a dull day, but I still decided to take some photos along the way. After all, it wasn’t a photography contest, just a way to remember things for the future reference.

As I was passing by the ThyssenKrupp premises, I noticed this monument, illustrating the glorious process of steel manufacturing in some social realism style. Flashbacks of heavy Soviet childhood popped in my head, but I quickly dismissed them and went on.

Further down the road I encountered more industrial history – this time, in the form of Krupp family house, preserved with care in all its modest beauty.

And, finally, here it was: Volkswagen Zentrum Essen, the place where all your Volkswagen dreams and fantasies come true.

No, seriously, they had EVERYTHING, from cars and their parts to baseball caps, multitools and even portable grills. And, as I was standing in the middle of this Volkswagen temple, so vast and impeccably clean, listening to the humble murmur of the fellow worshippers, I felt… shame.

Yes, shame, because I was here only for a 4,99€ keychain. Come on, who goes to Calvin Klein’s just to buy a pair of socks? That’s when I suddenly felt an urgent need to buy a whole set of rubber mats for 2007 Golf Plus. And so I bought them. Plus the keychain, of course – to my immense joy, they had exactly the one I wanted…

Mmmm… my precious...

As I headed back home, it started raining. I imagine it’s an odd sight, someone carrying car mats on foot, especially in the rain. I mean, dude, if you have a car, why go on foot to buy car stuff? Wait, what? Your car is parked in another country? Then why the… Ah, forget it.

Naturally, by the time I got home, everything was wet, including the rubber mats (good thing they’re made of rubber). I needed a place where I could hang them to dry, and the kitchen seemed to be a logical choice at the moment...


It was still raining outside, Diana was still at the library, and the momentary joy delivered by the keychain purchase was rapidly evaporating. Having nothing better to do, I crashed on the couch and started thinking about my place in the Universe.

Who am I? Why am I here? What is my purpose? And the voice answered in my head: “Dude, seriously?”

“Aw, come on,” continued the voice, “you packed a goddamn half suitcase with drawing utensils, paper and whatnot, hoping this trip would end the artist’s block you’ve been having since you got that effing permanent job in 2012… And to what end?”

“Well, I…”

“Where are the sketches of people and places of Essen? Where are the semi-nude portraits of your beautiful (and very drawing-friendly) wife?”

“But I…”

“Or at least a goddamn effing still life?” the voice persisted. “Something? Anything? A doodle, maybe?”

I wanted to respond, to say something in my defense, like how the trip and all the stuff to do and the new surroundings had been overwhelming me, or how the tourist in me ousted the artist, or any other crap like that. But the voice was right, I had no excuse. So I cast one last look on my shiny keychain, touched the rubber mats one last time, issued a long, deep sigh, opened the cupboard and grabbed the bag of drawing utensils, stashed far in its depths on the very first day of our arrival.

And I started doing something I wanted to do for almost a month – drawing the most ridiculous chandelier I’ve ever seen, which was hanging in our guest room.

At first, I wanted to do just a graphite drawing, but I got carried away and ended up using colored pencils. Oh, how I missed them, my little babies… More than two years had passed since the last time I held them in my arms… well… fingers. Oh, sweet muscle memories… Sorry, got distracted – here’s the result of my relapse in art, fresh and unframed. But I already had plans for changing that…

The Flu Conspiracy

Speaking of plans… The very next day, completely out of the blue, I got sick. I was just fine, exploring a new shiny mega-store discovered by Diana not far from our place, and the next thing I know, I’m sneezing, nose running and all, having a full-on summertime flu, the worst kind of them all.

Naturally, all our touring plans for the last days of the trip were royally screwed. We had to cancel the visit to the Zollverein Mines and, most regrettably, Margaretenhöhe – probably the most beautiful place in whole Essen, of which we had only a glimpse when passing by in a car.

Instead, I was lying on the couch, sneezing my heart out and cursing the greedy pharmaceutical corporations who conspired to prevent the invention of the ultimate flu cure in the 21st century. Also, from time to time, I cried out “Medic!” in a Team Fortress 2 character’s voice, just to make Diana laugh.

Last Minute Things

In a couple of days I fully recovered, but we didn’t have much time left before departure, and we needed to do quite a lot of last minute things, like last minute shopping, last minute touring and even last minute picture-framing.

You may ask, why on earth frame a picture, especially in glass, when it’s a lot safer to transport it unframed. Because, silly, we weren’t going to transport anything, we were going to leave the picture as a gift for Frau Opel. And this is what I wrote on the passe-partout:

“Sometimes art has to be strange and pointless.”

Deep, huh?


Those last couple of days I had rather mixed feelings. I still had not enough Germany in my bloodstream, but I was getting homesick, too – it had been a month, after all. Russians would call it светлая печаль – sweet sorrow.

Goodbye, Germany!

Daumantas and Co. had already departed on Friday, the 27th, because they had to drive all the way back to Lithuania and needed a head start. He generously agreed to take some of our cargo with him (including my rubber mats), making our packing lives so much easier. And two days later, on Sunday morning, it was our turn to say goodbyes.

Essen saw us crying with heavy rain. Frau Opel kindly offered to take us right to the Dortmund airport, saving us a lot of time and effort, especially in such weather. We presented her the picture, thanked her mom and the neighbors for the hospitality, squeezed our suitcases into the car and took off.

There was still so much left to do for us in Essen, so many things we couldn’t see, but hey, you must leave something for the next time, right?