The Neglected, Overgrown, Eldritch Hubbelrath Valley

A few days ago I took Tapio, my mountain bike, out for a ride through Düsseldorf’s most neglected nature preserve: Hubbelrath Valley Creek.

This is a narrow valley around Hubbelrath Creek, a narrow, slow-moving creek originating in the hilly Bergisches Land about 10 km northwest of Düsseldorf.  The valley was formed by erosion and has fairly steep sides called ‘Siepen‘ (g) in the local dialect. The valley’s rich loess soil made it an ideal place for farms, and several large estates still survive.

The valley itself, and the trail within it, are pretty neglected. The main reason for this, as an account by a local nature group (g) attests, was the placement of a large landfill for household trash on one side of the valley. The landfill was found to be seeping chemicals into the valley, so it was excavated, and the household trash was removed and incinerated. The landfill was later used for construction waste, but is now in the process of being sealed and reforested. Ironically, though, the nearby landfill probably helped the valley regain its natural characteristics, since it kept people away.

The trail proper starts next to a huge country house and stable complex called Mydlinghoven Farm:

Der OrtThe oldest parts of the historically-protected complex date to 1460, and it was most recently expanded into a stable in 1915. After the stables closed, the area was transformed into a restaurant, then into a seniors’ home. After those closed, the future of the complex was uncertain until 2016, when a cooperative bought and removated it. It’s now a mixed-use “alternative living” community called “Wir vom Gut“, (“Us from the Farm”) which combines senior residence with apartments for young families and for people who just want to get somewhat (but not completely) away from it all. It’s sort of like a semi-commune, in which people share tasks and hang out a lot. They seem to enjoy living there.

To reach the trail, you ride past this estate into a meadow behind it. There are no signs for the trail, the trail-head is nothing more than a slight gap in the vegetation. I tried to enter it last year, but it was closed off with red-and-white tape. This time, I vowed to ride it no matter what. And lo and behold, no tape.

The trail is narrow single-track lined with stinging nettle and thorny bushes and creepers, including blackberries. I wish I’d brought a machete. The trail is also crossed by roots and fallen branches which create tripping hazards. I didn’t even think of trying to bike it — thorny branches and stinging nettle flaying my eyeballs isn’t my idea of fun, although I won’t kink-shame you if it’s yours. The first part of the trail, heading due south from Mydlinghoven Farm, is also interrupted by fallen trees seemingly about every 100 meters on average. Some of them have been chainsawed to free the trail, but most have just been left as they are, with their massive root-clusters sticking up into the air. The final problem with the trail is that you can’t see the creek from it. The creek runs off to one side, screened by vegetation. Parts of the creek-bed are actually fenced-off to prevent the organic Galloway cattle who graze nearby from trampling it. But the attraction is not really the creek, as such, but the marshy lowland surrounding it.

So, the trail’s poorly-maintained, muddy, blocked by fallen trees, runs by the side of a former landfill, and isn’t even a proper creek-side trail. So much for the downsides. There are plenty of upsides, though. First, alder, fir, and birch trees provide plenty of shade. There’s an amazing density of birdsong. The tall grass, the marshy patches, the standing and fallen trees, the bird and bat boxes, and the lack of humans or dogs make for an ideal avian retreat — 55 species have been spotted here, including black woodpeckers, red kites, kingfishers, herons, and sandpipers. There are also plenty of somewhat exotic plants which thrive in marshy conditions, such as loosestrife, great horsetail, and meadowsweet. Rich, pungent odors (most of them pleasant, all of them interesting) abound — every few steps brings a fresh olfactory bonanza.

About 400 meters south of Mydlinghoven Farm there’s an abandoned house in a small clearing that’s decaying most picturesquely. A bit further south is a large meadow with two rusty fence-gates standing in isolation. There are also a few metal measuring-station tubes in the meadow, presumably from the time when the landfill was in operation. Given that there are no humans around for kilometers, the traces of former use lend the trail a pleasantly spooky, slightly post-apocalyptic flair. Next time I’m going to wear hiking boots, bring a machete, and do some more exploring.

‘Victoria’ is a Mesmerizing One-Shot Thriller

Long-time readers know I approach contemporary German movies with a bit of trepidation. So I was amazed by Victoria, an gem of a German film from 2015.

The plot could hardly be simpler: Victoria (Laia Costa) is a Spanish music student who’s living in Berlin and working as a waitress. She goes clubbing one night, and meets a group of four young German guys who charm her with their broken high-school English, frisky late-night hi-jinks, and friendly, non-threatening manner. Sparks fly, in particular, between one of them, nicknamed ‘Sonne’ (Sun, played by Frederick Lau). Victoria decides to hang around with them after they all leave the nightclub together at around 4:30 AM. As she gets to know them, it turns out they’re a bit sleazier than she originally thought — one hints at a criminal record, another gets blackout drunk — but that’s all part of the no-strings-attached, exchange-student experience. Then one of four gets a fateful call from an old prison buddy, and things turn rather dark. That’s all I’ll say; avoid spoilers at all costs.

Victoria is one of the very few movies made in one continuous take. And what a take it is! We follow them through the club, out on the streets of Kreuzberg and Mitte, up to building roofs, down to parking garages, into banks, into apartments, and through courtyards. Much of the dialogue was improvised, and lots is in English (which disqualified the film for the Oscar foreign-language category). Of course, the one-take movie is a bit of a gimmick, but done well, it can ratchet up the tension and drama in an organic way. Which is precisely what happens here. Further, Victoria has none of the ‘choreographed’ look of some one-take movies. The action is seamless, fluid and convincing; you never doubt for a second that you’re ‘in the moment’ with the characters. And as the movie progresses, the fact that it was all done in one take became ever more jaw-droppingly astounding.

The performances are intense, believable and moving. Costa and Lau received German film prize awards, and deservedly so. Some people have called the plot a bit hare-brained, but I didn’t: The main event is a robbery by a bunch of hopped-up amateurs which goes horribly wrong. Most robberies are done by hopped-up amateurs, and most do go horribly wrong. The chaotic, violent final scenes are the sort of thing that’s becoming all too familiar on German streets.

Victoria’s a bit overlong, but just a bit. Other than that, it’s a minor cinematic masterpiece. It avoids all the weaknesses of German movies (sermonizing, heavy-handed symbolism, lack of drama), and draws on all the strengths (outstanding set design, awesomely talented actors, convincing improvisation drawn from extensive stage experience). I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

German Word of the Week: Schneckenkönig

Yesterday I biked near Lake Unterbach south of Düsseldorf and noticed something white in the path. It was this snail:

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This is a Roman or Burgundy snail in English, in German they’re called Weinbergschnecke: vineyard snail. These big, juicy bastards are common here (these are the snails from which escargot is made), but I’d never seen one with this light coloration before, perhaps it’s an albino, but I’m no malacologist. I posted it on Facebook, and one of my friends there said it looked at first like it might be a Schneckenkönig — a “snail-king”, but wasn’t.

So of course the question became: what in tarnation is a Schneckenkönig? And lo and behold, I found another German word that, if you trust Wikipedia (g), has no equivalent in any other language. A Schneckenkönig is a snail whose shell (Haus in German, ain’t that cute?) twists counter-clockwise, instead of clockwise. In English, this is known as inverse chirality, which is not very fun to say.

Left-coiling snails only occur about 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 1,000,000, so their title of ‘snail-king’ is well-deserved. Apparently there are people who devote a lot of time (g) to searching for one of these elusive beasts.

But even ordinary snails are electrifyingly bizarre creatures. Let Isabella Rossellini explain how:

The Sons of Hermann in San Antonio

I had somehow never heard of the Sons of Hermann (as in Herman the German, i.e., Arminius), a fraternal organization of Americans of German heritage:

The Order of the Sons of Hermann, also known as Hermann Sons and by its German name as Der Orden der Hermanns-Soehne or Hermannssöhne, is a mutual aid society for German immigrants that was formed in New York City on July 20, 1840,[1][2] and remains active in the states of California, Ohio, and Texas today. Open to members of any heritage today, the order provides low-cost insurance and mutual aid and has historically promoted the preservation of German language and traditions….

The Sons of Hermann was formed by Dr. Philip Merkel, George Heiner, John Blatz, A. Auer, R. Schwendel, W. Kohler, and Philipp Germann on the Lower East Side,[2][4]in response to anti-German sentiment during a period of heavy German immigration to the United States.

The order has some rites, but they don’t seem very complex. It was mainly a mutual-support cooperative, the sort of thing which many Northern European immigrant groups brought from the old country to the USA.

Hundreds of lodges were organized during the nineteenth century; by 1895 there were about 30,000 members,[2] and in 1896 there were Grand Lodges in CaliforniaConnecticutColoradoIllinoisKansasMassachusettsMichiganMinnesotaMissouriNew JerseyOhioPennsylvaniaTexas and Washington in addition to New York, as well as scattered members in 15 other states with a total membership of 90,000…. However, like all things German, the order declined sharply in popularity with the outbreak of World War I.[8]

The order’s symbolic colors are black, red and gold, representing German unity: black for ignorance, prejudice and indifference; red for the light and enlightenment spread by German culture and the German spirit; and gold for true freedom, which man arrives at through knowledge and labor….

German Jews participated fully in the Sons of Hermann; the order’s insurance fund was led by Jacob Brandeis and Rabbi Emanuel Gerechter, the former also directing the order’s choral group in Milwaukee.

A friend of mine, Robert Blackburn, recently took some photos of the handsome Art Deco “Hermann Sons Lodge” in San Antonio, Texas:

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And it still seems to be going strong:

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Cajun dancing, brought to you by liberal (in the 19th-century sense) Germans. I know the first place I’m going to visit if I ever return to San Antonio.

German Word of the Week: Schnibbelschinken

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I’m a farmer’s market kind of guy, and Germany’s a farmer’s market kind of place. So yesterday I visited the farmer’s market (g) at the Friedensplätzchen (“Little Peace Square”) in Unterbilk. I came home laden with farmer’s cheese, a swiss roast, vegetables, eggs in crinkly shells, and ham, Schinken in German.

Special ham this time. I was in the mood for what Americans call a loose-meat sandwich. So I needed me some loose meat, if you know what I mean. And I found some, at one of trucks run by super-friendly Meat Women™. It was a silver bowl full of tasty-looking ham scraps. I asked her what it was called, and she said: “Schnibbelschinken!” She was obviously delighted by the word. So was I. Schnibbelschinken, we repeated over and over, savoring every clown-like syllable.

Schnibbeln is one word for “whittle” in German, so Schnibbelschinken is meat “whittled away” during processing. It’s not bad meat, it’s just odd meat. Apparently it’s also called Schnippelschinken. There is probably some regional reason for this variation which I’m not aware of, but someone will surely jump into comments with it. Little help?