An English Idyll in the Rheinland

This blog is getting too political lately. Now for something completely different.

I visited Heltorf Castle Park (g) yesterday, an English-style landscape park from the early 19th century located on the very northern outskirts of Düsseldorf. It's part of the private holdings of the Spee noble family (g) which has resided near Düsseldorf for centuries and has left its mark on the city and the surroundings in innumerable ways. 

The park was originally part of the private grounds of the nearby Castle Heltorf, an early 19th-century pile. A certain Abbé Biarelle conceived of the idea of creating an English-style park in 1796, and the renowned landscape architect Maximilan Weyhe (g) began the work in 1803. The park is 54 hectares, and open to the public only on weekends during spring and summer. I'd always meant to visit. I rarely met people who had, but the ones who did returned singing its praises. 

It's quite far outside the city center, a 20-minute streetcar ride away, but very much worth it. The place is magical, on a par with the finest English parks. The landscape is lush, slightly hilly, and dominated by a spectacular centuries-old trees from all over the world -- conifers, firs, maples, magnificent copper beeches (called "blood" beeches in German!) and the largest tulip tree in Europe, which must be at least 45 meters tall. A brook winds through the park, and forms several ponds in which fat carp meander and tadpoles squirm. There are innumerable rhododendrons throwing off blossoms in all colors.

And the best thing is visitors have it all to themselves, since the park isn't very well-known, is somewhat out of the way, and is only open for a small part of the year. I saw only 6 other people in the few hours I spent there. The park is located well outside the city, charges €3 entrance, and has no "attractions" or ice cream vendors or playgrounds or bandstands or trashcans or bathrooms or any other distractions. The only sounds are birdsong and occasionally a faraway hum of traffic. (This is the most densely-populated part of Europe, after all.)

If you need any more stimulation than nature, discreetly molded by men of impeccable refinement, you're in the wrong place. And probably quite unclubbable.

I saw not a single speck of litter anywhere. The park doesn't even have any seating (although there are a few simple log benches) or signs, except two discreet wooden arrows pointing you in the general direction of the exit. You can get a photocopied map of the park about the size of a postcard at the entrance, but it looks to be about 30 years old. Not that anything's changed much in that time, of course.

You're meant to meander around, pleasantly lost, until you encounter a moat or ha-ha. The modern Spee family runs a forestry business in the area, and a small corner of the park is apparently used for this purpose, since I saw a small, discreet sign asking visitors to keep out. But that just adds to the charm. Something's got to pay for the massive effort of work it takes to keep the park looking so unpretentious.

I even ran into the owner, Wilhelm Count of Spee (pronounced 'shpay'). He lives in fairly modest water castle on the edge of the property, and was out taking pictures on this fine spring day. Like every member of the German nobility I've ever met, he was quite friendly and laid-back, but also impeccably groomed and dressed. He looks a bit like Ulrich Mühe. He obviously loves this jewel of a park, and seems to know something about every tree in it. He says he's working on a detailed book on the park's history, which I'm looking forward to.

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Street Art is Over. And So Is Berlin.

Every time I visit Berlin, which I do every few months, it seems a bit lamer and tawdrier. More and more of the dopier kind of tourists, more signs of social decay (beggars, madmen screaming at nothing, fights, vandalism, subway stenches, puke puddles), more chain stores. Don't get me wrong; it's still an interesting place, but the 'there' that was there is fading fast. In fact, Berlin's cachet is fading right in sync with street art's cachet. Take it away, Alex Cocotas:

I first visited Berlin in March 2008. The highlight of my trip was the Alternative Berlin Tour. I found the flyer in my hostel; it described itself as an “anti-tourist tour.”

...[T]he tour lasted more than eight hours. We visited artists’ studios in the Tacheles building; we illegally mounted a section of the Berlin Wall; we broke into an abandoned prison and climbed onto the roof to watch the sunset.

Along the way we stopped at numerous street art installations. They were everywhere: on walls, on sheered sides of buildings, wrapping around whole apartment complexes: colorful, political, irreverent. I had never seen anything like it. I took tens of terrible photos to show family and friends.

A few years later Exit Through the Gift Shop came out and suddenly everyone with a stencil and spray paint thought they were Banksy, and social media gave aspirants a platform to distribute their work globally with the meme as their conceptual framework. But at the time, it was pretty unique: a city draped in public art to brighten the day of pedestrians and residents, to give fresh stimulus to dull buildings.

Every time I stumble upon one of these murals or buildings I am always a bit amazed to find this fugitive artifact of memory disinterred from the phantasmagoria of impression. What then seemed so radical is now in the most generic and sterilized neighborhoods of Berlin, places I try my best to avoid. The Tacheles building, which I returned to after the tour and where I happened upon an impromptu concert in an artist’s studio that shocked my somewhat provincial perception of things, now sits empty, awaiting demolition and conversion to condominiums.

Street art was “discovered” and now covers every city with pretensions to cool. Developers use it to raise real estate prices; some artists are happy to go along, others keep their distance. What once appeared as semi-anonymous benevolence on the part of its creators now seems like an intentional act of brand building. Much street art I see today operates at the nexus of tired clichés and exhausted ideas. It sadly waits for someone to take its picture, unable to conceal its lack of joy and hollow origins.

And now it has been institutionalized by Berlin’s city government as the “Berlin Street Art Festival,” undoubtedly the brainchild of some mid-level bureaucrat tasked with dreaming up schemes to financially capitalize on Berlin’s accrued social capital.

 


An American in Berghain

Schlecky Silberstein stumbled upon this instant Internet classic -- an American from San Antonio decides on the spur of the moment to visit legendary Berlin nightclub Berghain and, as his Yelp review indicates, is scarred for life. I'm putting it after the fold because, well, this is Berghain we're talking about. You've been warned.

Continue reading "An American in Berghain" »


Junkies to the Right of me, Dealers to the Left

Selbstsicher-die-dealer-in-der

Underneath the central train station in Frankfurt am Main is a large network of underground passageways lined with shops. It's ugly, but it lets you navigate to the various parts of this massive central transportation hub without crossing the busy streets which surround the central station.

And now, as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reports (g), it's home to gangs of drug dealers, mostly young males from North Africa who "arrived with the stream of refugees". They hang around in small groups, openly offering and selling marijuana, crack, heroin, and pills. With them, of course, come the junkies, who sometimes shoot up in crevices and under stairways, in view of passers-by.

The police no longer bother to arrest them, since simple drug dealing is not a jailable offense in Germany, and they're back later the same day. The fact that these are illegal immigrants committing crimes on German soil in a highly public place means nothing, since drug dealing does not affect their asylum applications. Of course, the vast majority of these applications are frivolous, but they will take years to decide anyway. And, of course, won't result in actual deportation even if the asylum application is rejected.

This is all happening in literally one of the busiest transport hubs in the world, used by 450,000 (g) people every day. Which means every day, probably hundreds of parents have to come up with answers to questions from their curious children: What's wrong with that man? What' sticking out of that woman's arm? What's 'grass'? And thousands of foreigners get their first impression of the financial capital of Europe as a place where the state is so disorganized or bankrupt or weak that it can't even stop a drug market in the heart of the city.

And, of course, thousands of Germans commuters will ask why their elected representatives and their legal system can't seem to stop this humiliating spectacle. They live in a heavily-regulated society which has red-light cameras to detect traffic violations, requires an ever-increasing number of special permits which motorists must buy to drive various places, and has teams of roving enforcers making sure mom-and-pop shop owners don't play the radio without paying royalty fees.

But this state cannot prevent people who are not even legally in the country from openly dealing drugs and ruining yet another public place.

I find it hard to blame more and more Germans for voting for the only political party to bluntly say: "This is unacceptable and must stop immediately, and if that requires changes to the law and to our funding priorities and especially to our immigration policies, the time to start with those changes was yesterday." What mainstream opinion denounces with that tiresome cliche "populism" sounds like common sense to more and more Germans. The AfD is quickly catching up with the rapidly-imploding Social Democratic Party.

Americans are familiar with cities like Frankfurt going to hell in a handbasket, 'cause we watched it happen to New York on our TV sets: "New York City is depicted as a dysfunctional, crime-plagued, vermin-infested, smog-choked, polluted, grimy, sleazy, seedy, corrupt, racially-divided, poverty-ridden, morally-and-financially-bankrupt Wretched Hive filled with Apathetic Citizens, hostile jerkasses, violent psychotics, drug addicts, deviants, a crumbling infrastructure, and not enough parking spots."

Unless there's a big change, many of these German citizens (and not just the ethnic Germans) will turn their back on the decaying, increasingly lawless public sphere by sealing themselves off in gated communities and secure apartment blocks, putting their children in private schools, and buying a car.

Germans, to escape all this, will begin living like Americans. Just look up the phrase "white flight".


Spotting Berlin Gentrification -- Follow the Blond Dreadlocks

I popped over to Berlin for the weekend and this time stayed in Friedrichshain. Friedrichshain is part of the former East Berlin which was pretty rundown 10 years ago, last time I visited, but is now gentrifying, as the phrase goes. I'd say the process is about 65% complete in Friedrichshain. You still have some hard-rock bars and blotchy, disgruntled East German retirees, but they increasingly look bewildered by what is happening to their Kiez ('hood). What you get instead are:

  • Boutiques with aggressively unique handmade purses and clothes out of rescued fabrics or ancient leather.
  • Self-consciously crudely hand-drawn posters for various kinds of punk that were all the rage when I was in college 25 years ago (Psycho-Trash Punkabilly from France, Runaway Monks Buddhist punk, Ska-Punk from Ipswich).
  • Small clever cryptic stickers showing faces in silhouette, Third World children, or bearing mysterious slogans like '435%' or 'BBAN' or 'whyisnow.com'
  • Posters demanding solidarity with Blockupy, with migrant workers seeking back wages, with the political prisoner Sürgül Amedölügcülügünülcü, with refugees, with the 'anti-Fascist resistance', with Mumia Abu-Jamal, with Pussy Riot, Gaza, homosexuals, squatters, and so many more!
  • Spray-painted anarchist symbols, haunting symbols of the imminent Revolution that will soon sweep us all into the Spree.
  • Small, ancient travel vans with faded stickers for bands, political causes, and football teams. 
  • That most insufferable of all claques, white people with dreadlocks. These people should be forcibly shaved, and their greasy hairworms used to make comfy pillows for refugees. After thorough sanitization, of course -- the refugees deserve no less.
  • Community centers surrounded by multicolored murals with vaguely Eastern or ethnic themes.
  • Ads featuring ironic clipart of clean-cut, smiling 1950s housewives and businessmen. Again, all the rage in the US in 1988.

Did I miss anything?


The Neander Valley and Ultra-Rectilinear Mettman

Over the weekend I set out for the Neander Valley, where the first Neanderthal skeleton was found. It's also an ultra-pleasant hiking destination, complete with babbling brooks, succulent green meadows, winding forest pathways, mildly dramatic shale rock formations, and quaint villages where people set out bookcases full of old horse magazines by the side of the road. The leaves were, to use Oscar Wilde's phrase, 'ruined gold'.

During the hike I made a wrong turn or two and ended up in Mettman, famed as one of the epicenters of German Spießbürgerlichkeit (g) (petit-bourgeois stodginess). Everything there was quiet, respectable, recently-cleaned, and terrifyingly rectilinear.

Perhaps you readers can help me clear up a few mysteries in the pictures below. First, those metal studs pounded into the (mold-yellowed) wooden electricity pole? Who puts them there and  what do they mean? Second, the old stone markers by the side of the road in Bracken, Germany. What was their original purpose. Any clues would be appreciated.

Moss on rotting tree stumpPath and Meadow near Düsssel in Neander valleyPath in sunlight in Neander valleyRuined gold chestnut leaves in Neander valleySignal Studs in Wooden Electricity PoleStone marker in BrackenStone markers in BrackenUprooted tree roots amid broken slate Neander valleyView of Mettman Creek ValleyHouse in MettmanRectilinear neat garages in MettmanIch hase Zigreten machine in Mettman











Beech roots Neander valley
Bookshelf and door near BrackenDetail of mountain creek wildlife info posterDüssel river in fall Neander valleyEsel Nicht Füttern Don't Feed the DonkeyGaststätte im kühlen Grund Christmas festInformation poster about molesIvy and beech leaves Neander valleyIvy Covered Rocky OutcropMaple leaf caugh in twigs Neander ValleyMeadows in Neander valleyMein Pferd magazines in outdoor bookshelf BrackenMigrating geese and doves in Neander valleyMoss covered rotting tree branch Neander valley