Day 32-38: Essen in Essen

Essen always had a curious name, since it sounds like the German word for “Food”, or “to eat”. There doesn’t appear to be any connection. I was tempted to feature the food we ate in town, but it wasn’t anything remarkable. A side trip from Dusseldorf to nearby Essen takes only a half hour by train, so friend Helena and I planned a full day excursion there.

At the recommendation of a fellow architect and German student, we spent the afternoon exploring the massive Zollverein, a coal mine converted to a museum for explaining the extraction, production and transport of black gold. As a UNESCO world site, this was the heart of the famous Ruhr Valley.

Like the African-Americans who migrated from the Deep South to the San Francisco Bay Area after World War II, many migrants came from Poland at the end of the 19th Century to this rapidly developing industrialized area. In the 1950’s and 1980’s, many new migrants from Italy, Spain, Portugal, Turkey, Russia and Romania arrived in this area and other parts of Germany to search for a better life.

The museum had a you-name it-we have it approach to anything and everything to do with coal and beyond. The plant area was so extensive, it could be a quarry for humanity. Integrated with the coal production factory itself, the collections included dinosaurs, Roman ruins, Greek urns, geological rock samples, and memorabilia. It felt a bit like the Tate Gallery and the High-Line concept in New York City thrown into one gigantic area, but it tries very hard to not be a theme park.

I amused myself by looking for the oldest fossil and located coral imprints that were 600 million years old!! My favorite though, was just a tender young fish print checking in at a measly 60 million years.

In addition to the actual production lines, scaled models were used to demonstrate the work flow. The tidiness and efficient Bauhaus-designed buildings didn’t reduce the cast of sadness and grueling work that must have taken place there. Work conditions were so poor that many workers did not live long. Below is a short clip of one of the videos presented (unfortunately in German only) that shows how the coal could be delivered from the shaft to the ground in 30 seconds:

In the evening, Helena and I saw Romeo and Juliet, the ballet by Prokofiev. The music was stirring and the performers expressive. We experienced a rare standing ovation by a primarily local crowd (i.e., no tourists), so it was definitely worth seeing. Recognition by the audience in such a warm way has been a rarity in my experience in Germany, but when it happens, you know you have seen something amazing.

The ballet was performed in the famous theater designed by Finland’s namesake architect, Alvar Alto. The flat panels of granite covering the building seemed strange on curved surfaces. He didn’t seem to think that poured-in-place concrete would be acceptable for such a noble building.

I couldn’t resist sharing this photogenic shot of Helena, my friend and traveling companion from Switzerland.  Every year, we attend music festivals in Germany or Switzerland. Some of you may remember seeing her in previous posts in Dresden. We keep threatening to tackle Salzburg together, or maybe a music festival near where she lives next. She prefers ballet over opera, but we compromise and go to both as well as concerts.

As a physician and therapist, she has traveled the world and lived in many places. She has an admirable life, from moving to Switzerland in high school from the States, to studying in China (where she and Gee Kin met), building a hospital in Mozambique, and working at a sleep clinic in Switzerland! She also has an amazing outlook on life that is energetic and contagious. She kept me on my toes (literally, trying to keep up with her pace), and fit enough for a queen.

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At the end of the weekend Helena and I went to another local event at Düsseldorf’s Oper am Rhein with a joint Russian and German concert. The program included arias from many popular operas, including Eugene Onegin, Don Giovanni, and Puccini. If that weren’t enough, we were in for another standing ovation.

The warm crowd (maybe a lot of passionate Russians?) clearly loved the performers and the music. We did too. But two in a row? If I don’t watch out, I will have to amend my comments on the rarity of standing ovations among German audiences. I could swear I didn’t detect any over-enthusiastic Americans or their accents prompting or provoking the crowd. In any event, it was a very satisfying weekend of walking, talking, listening, watching and enjoying life.

(Forgive me for cheating: the dish on the feature is from Düsseldorf, not Essen! We searched high and low for an American Breakfast on Mother’s Day, but only found a fancy hotel on the way serving yucky healthy food. Ironically, the scrambled egg on salad with sweet potato chips was delicious).

2 thoughts on “Day 32-38: Essen in Essen”

  1. You and Helena seem to be perfectly matched travel companions with similar energy level and passion for the arts and culture of Germany & Switzerland. The Zollverein seems very interesting. Like you, think I’d be fascinated with the section on millions of years old fossils and dinosaur skeletons since paleontology is one of my several side fields of interest.
    Rock on, ladies!

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    1. You are right in sync with us girls here! After Italy, Germany has one of the highest numbers of UNESCO world sites. The coal deposits indicate a natural site for prehistory to be documented here. As a scientist, you have a better understanding than I do as to how this all came about! The Neanderthal Museum is nearby and I hope I can visit there next week. Anthropology always fascinated me since taking classes as an undergrad, but I never could figure out what to do with them. Can you imagine sifting sand in the blazing heat for years? Who said working in an office is sterile?!?
      I posted a new short clip that shows how quickly the coal was brought up in a mechanized shaft. You might find it interesting. Thanks again for commenting, and following the posts as they appear! Eine gute Reise!

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