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?

Dead People, Dead Birds, and the Responsibility Silo

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The New York Times has gotten rather scoldy about Germany lately. Judging by New York Times coverage, Germany is not doing enough to combat racism, anti-semitism, and right-wing violence. Nor has it fully confronted its Nazi past.

I’m not sure what the reason is for this critical undertone. Generally, American liberals find much to praise about Germany: free college tuition, universal healthcare, a deep aversion to war, generous social-welfare benefits. My theory is that the Times’ German aversion may something to do with the Times’ gradual conversion to full-scale wokeness. The Times now identifies with identity politics and American-style ethnic particularism. To a fully-woke American, Germany must seem backward indeed: after all, one of the highest-circulation German dailies just published a frontal attack on identity politics (g), something that no longer appears in major American newspapers.

Anyhow, enough speculation. The main point of this post is this article on Niels Högel, the German nurse who is accused of killing up to 300 hospital patients over a period of five years. The article singles out a certain aspect of German culture for criticism:

The number of killings and the amount of time it took for suspicions surrounding his actions to come to light have raised uncomfortable questions for Germany, including whether the same deference to hierarchy and predilection for procedure that once facilitated Nazi-era crimes allowed Mr. Högel to kill uninterrupted for so long.

According to Frank Lauxtermann, the only former colleague who testified openly about working alongside Mr. Högel, “A culture of looking away and keeping your head down” ultimately shielded the suspect….

She said Mr. Högel’s colleagues in Oldenburg had talked about him, but did not go to their superiors or lodge a complaint out of fear of being reprimanded or because they didn’t see it as their business in a country where citizens closely guard their privacy.

When another nurse in Delmenhorst told her superior she was suspicious of Mr. Högel, no action was taken and she never followed up….

“The course of events that took place on June 24 are symbolic of the failure of those responsible for their completely erroneous assessment of actual facts and the tragic results that ensued for the patients,” Mr. Schmidt said, announcing the results of his investigation in 2017.

That investigation came about only after years of pressure by family members, and led to the current trial.

Two former prosecutors from Oldenburg were investigated for failing to sufficiently investigate Mr. Högel in 2005, but neither faced charges. One is now a judge in Oldenburg.

I think the Times, for all its gimlet-eyed coverage of matters German, has a point here: There is a cluster of German cultural traits — many of them admirable — which often works against institutional accountability.

First is the German respect for privacy. You don’t pry into your co-workers’ personal affairs. You also don’t pry into their job performance, unless it directly affects you, and perhaps not even then. It’s the bosses’ job to evaluate job performance, not the co-worker’s. Complaining to the bosses about a co-worker’s performance comes dangerously close to informing on them, which immediately raises loud historical alarm bells. In both Nazi Germany and in East Germany, anonymous denunciations were often used to derail competitors’ careers. These historical memories metastasized into the corners of the German national character: complaining legitimately about a colleague’s serious mistakes on the job is, of course, not as sinister or serious as denouncing them to the secret police. But it’s the same overall genre of activity, the same kind of behavior. And thus it has Sinister Historical Overtones, and should be avoided.

Another factor is institutional. Germany’s public healthcare system is stretched to the limit; under-funding and under-staffing are the norm. A December 2018 EU report (pdf) concluded:

Understaffing in hospitals and residential homes is widespread, and the number of graduates completing vocational training falls far short of those leaving the job (due to retirement or dissatisfaction) and those which are additionally needed (due to the rising number of people in need of care). At the same time, working conditions for carers are poor, particularly in LTC: wages are low, the work is demanding and working hours are unattractive.

Accountability for medical malpractice is still limited in Germany. In the United States, a hospital can be sued for millions for negligently hiring or negligently retaining a worker who causes a serious accident. If you prove that the hospital knew, or should have known, about an incompetent employee, the hospital must pay. The German system creates less accountability, principally because (1) hospitals aren’t always liable for their employees’ on-duty mistakes; (2) malpractice judgments are notoriously hard to win; and (3) judgments are generally for modest amounts. German healthcare is still very good on average, but there are growing gaps in quality which Högel was obviously able to exploit.

And finally, there’s the “that’s not in my job description” effect. This is not solely a German phenomenon, but it’s very strong here. My job is to take care of my patients, not to make sure everyone else is. I have my tasks and my duty area, and I’m going to do my tasks within my duty area, then go home and forget about work. North Americans, in particular, notice this strong silo mentality. In a restaurant or a start-up, you do whatever is required to keep the customer happy and the business afloat. In a bureaucratic institution such as a hospital or university, the average Joe or Jane will normally do their jobs reasonably well, but feel no need to show any extra initiative.

Here’s a story. At the university where I used to work, a dead pigeon lay in front of one of the buildings. A friend of mine, also from the New World speculated on how long it would lay there. Hundreds of people walked past it every day, noticing it with disgust. But nobody did anything. Professors would never stoop to touch a dead thing. Nor would secretaries. Students reasoned that the university paid for cleaning crews, and it was their job to pick up the dead bird. But the cleaning crews were paid only to clean inside the buildings. Day after day, the cleaners wheeled their carts right by the rotting pigeon, ignoring it. The pigeon, you see, lay on an exterior brick walkway, and nobody had been clearly assigned the task of keeping that specific walkway clean.

The pigeon lay there for over ten days.

Not for nothing did Georg Christoph Lichtenberg once ask (g): “Tell me, is there any country but Germany in which people are more likely to learn to wrinkle their noses in disgust than learn to clean?”

East Asian Art in Cologne

After a trip to the Cologne Philharmonic to hear Yefim Bronfman play (g) Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2, it was off to the Museum for East Asian Art, a favorite place for a calm, meditative morning after a night of drinking. The Museum sits right next to the Institute for Japanese Culture, both of them flat, quadrangular, mildly Brutalist/mies van der Rohian buildings whose spare lines and rectilinear spaces harmonize well with Japanese ideas of space. Even this hardcore anti-Brutalist finds them in Ordnung. The buildings are located next to Hiroshima and Nagasaki Park, created in 2004 at the initiative of peace groups.

The first floor of the Japanese Cultural Institute shows a fine photographic exhibition by Mitsumasa Fujitsuka on Japanese wooden buildings, including this shrine, erected in 719:

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And then to the Museum for East Asian Art. It’s located in a one-floor building designed by Kunio Maekawa in 1977, blending contemporary rectilinear minimalism with traditional garden courtyards. The building exudes an elusive, unpretentious sense of calm and order which visitors find immediately attractive. The temporary exhibit space is lined with sisal carpet which absorbs noise and lighting is kept at a minimum to preserve silk scrolls. (This is why it’s the right place to wait out a hangover).

The collection has been pieced together from various donations, and is a bit idiosyncratic, but solid. The highlight is a set of perfectly-tuned Chinese bronze bells. A recording of them plays in the gallery, inspiring meditations on timeless themes. And then you see an 1847 Hokusai print of the heads of two executed criminals, which slingshots you right back into the snares of delusion. But then there’s a sublime painting of fog-enshrouded cliffs.

A few camera photos to give you a taste:

Korn, or Breakfast Whisky

Schwarze Frühstückskorn 0,7L 32% vol.Korn is a German distilled alcohol made from grain, between 32-38% alcohol by volume. It’s got sort of a shady reputation as cheap rotgut — it’s not hard to make, and a bottle of average Korn costs well under €10.

It’s the kind of thing you see sold in tiny €1.99 bottles behind the counter of neighborhood shops — the “secret drinker” stash. You sometimes see people sitting on park benches openly drinking from bottles of Korn. These folks, unlike the beer drinkers, are in the very lists of dissolution. If you hang around all day in public drinking 12-15 bottles of 38-cent Oettinger beer, you’re part of the Trinkerszene: the ‘Drinkers’ Scene’, a rowdy but generally harmless addition to any neighborhood.

If you hang around all day in public drinking Korn, you’re slid down several levels from the Drinkers’ Scene, who themselves may shake their heads in disapproval at you. One fine Sunday morning I was on the way to visit a friend and encountered a drunk guy collapsed face-down on the pavement in front of my apartment building. He had just fallen straight down face-first, nearly breaking his nose, and lay there like a beached seal. As we lifted him and and propped him up, waiting for the ambulance, we saw he had collapsed directly onto the bottle of booze he’d been drinking. Which was, of course, Korn.

So it was with some trepidation that I bought a bottle of Korn the other day out of curiosity. I chose a brand manufactured by the Schwarze distillery called Frühstücks-Korn, or “Breakfast Korn“. You can choose to see this either as amusing or horrifyingly cynical. “You’re just trying something new”, I repeated to myself as I poured the first shot. “It’s a traditional German drink going back to the 15th century,” I said to myself as I poured the second shot. “You’re more or less solvent and employed. You are not an alcoholic, or at least you’re not hanging around in parks all day yet,” I said as I poured the third shot.

My verdict? Korn is tasty! It’s incredibly smooth, almost flavorless, with only a touch of appealingly earthy graininess to it, like chewing on a grass stalk. Frankly, it’s so smoothly drinkable it’s a bit dangerous: there are no acids, zippy congeners or high-proof throat-fire to remind you you’re drinking hard stuff.

I’m still a whisky man, first and foremost, but I will certainly try out of a bottle of Korn once in a while, to pay homage to a noble and ancient German distilling tradition. And get pie-eyed for cheap.

Should The USA Eliminate Tuition?

I just published a piece at Quillette on my experience within Germany’s tuition-free university system. A sample:

Yet the tuition-free system also has disadvantages. The first difference an American will notice is that most German universities look dingy and threadbare. Many were erected hastily in the 1960s and 1970s to house new students brought in by liberalizing reforms, and these cheap, poorly maintained structures are notoriously ugly (a German magazine recently ran a feature on “German Universities Ranked by Ugliness”). Most classrooms still feature rigid wooden or metal desks bolted into rows. Wireless coverage, library stocks, laboratory gear and classroom A/V equipment lag far behind the average American state university. It’s still possible to arrive to give a lecture and find an overhead projector awaiting your transparencies. Professors’ salaries are much lower than in the United States, and Germany’s problem with “adjunctification” and precarious conditions for aspiring scholars (known by the German neologism Prekarisierung) is becoming as urgent as it is in the United States.

This bare-bones regime also dominates student life and counseling. German universities are sink-or-swim: if you have scholarly or personal problems while studying, help will come only from overburdened counselors with hundreds of cases, or from student volunteers. Along with lax admissions standards, this fact helps explain the high dropout rates; one-third of all students who enroll in German universities never finish. A recent OECD study found that only 28.6 percent of Germans aged between 25 and 64 had a tertiary education degree, as compared to 46.4 percent of Americans (although classification issues mean these numbers must be handled with care). This chronic lack of resources—in addition to the understandable fact that many outstanding German scholars publish in German—also helps explain why German universities punch below their weight in international rankings, a topic of obsessive concern to German politicians.

American college tuition is often obscenely high, but I don’t think the answer is abolishing tuition entirely, just as the answer to housing shortages isn’t to abolish rent entirely. Moderation in all things!

The Nieheim Sack Museum (Home of the SackSmacker) and its Bitter Rival, ‘FlourWorlds’

Let me start this post with cliché: Germans like to collect, organize, and classify things. If you have a problem with this “stale cliché”, then you’re at the wrong blog. Here, we fully embrace the science, which shows that most clichés have a sound basis in reality. Besides, calling an observation about some social group a stale cliché is itself a stale cliché. Touché, bitches.

If you’re still with me, I’d like to highlight one of the most delightful fruits of the German passion for organization and preservation: ludicrously specific museums. Today, it’s the Nieheim Sack Museum (g), located in the no-doubt-charming 6,250-person town of Nieheim in Westfalen, Germany. Located in a handsome red-brick former agricultural products warehouse, the museum promises entry into “the world of old and new sacks”. Here are just some of the back-to-back stacks of slack sacks you can admire:

But sacks are only the tip of the seed-storage iceberg, so to speak. There are also exhibits devoted to sack-making, sack repair, and even a Sackausklopfmaschine: A “sack-smacking” machine.

There’s also a local history museum run by the local-history group (the Heimatverein), and a historical kitchen, in which you can take “cheese seminars” and learn how to make local Nierheimer cheese. The Nieheim Sack Museum also landed a curatorial coup when convinced the nearby Westfälisches Kulinarium to host a permanent exhibit devoted to the local cheese.

Nieheim may seem like a rural idyll, but there’s trouble in paradise. You would think Germany is far too small to host two sack-related museums, but you’d be wrong. So very wrong. Hundreds of kilometers to the east, just a decade after the Nieheim Sack Museum was summoned into being, another sack museum (g) was created, in Wittenburg. This new museum is devoted to flour sacks.

But does this museum call itself what it is — a sack museum? Oh no. Not by a long shot. You see, this museum has a “curatorial concept based on the experience of flour”, whatever the f**k that means. You can tell by its name: MehlWelten — “FlourWorlds”. The museum opens with a work of art made from a flour sack. Then you move into the “SymbolRoom”:

This isn’t just a bunch of flour sacks. This is an interpellation — an interrogation, if you will — of the Deleuzian/Guattarian “assemblage” which problematizes the synthetic and contested crux of commerce, banality, food, and anguish. “FlourWorlds” even has a “sackotheque”:

A “sackotheque”, for Chrissake. The Wittenburg Flour Sack Museum — oh sorry, I meant “FlourWorlds”, also has its own English-language website, a sure sign that city folk with too much book-larnin’ are involved.

Now, I don’t want to sound too jaundiced here. Let a thousand sack museums bloom, I say! But if I had to choose between one of the two sack museums, I think I’m going to go with the one which has the simple honesty to call itself what it is: a sack museum. Nieheim, here I come!

German Word of the Week: The ‘Knapsack’ Mystery

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As I found out returning from a weekend in Luxembourg, Knapsack is a town in Germany. It’s also a common word for a backpack in English, as in the notorious “knapsack of white privilege“, or the “knapsack problem”. Yet Knapsack is not the word for backpack in German — the modern German word is Rucksack.

So many mysteries: Why is the English word for a kind of backpack, ‘Knapsack’, in reality a German word? When did it first enter English? Did Germans ever use it? If so, why did they abandon it? What is the significance of the fact that there is a town in Germany named Knapsack? Was the Knapsack invented there? Which came first, Knapsack the bag or Knapsack the town?

Anyone have any ideas?

German Words of the Week: Renaturierung and Eisvogel (Spring Birdsong Bonus)

Four years ago, the city of Düsseldorf undertook a project of Renaturierung — literally, “re-naturing”. This refers to taking land which was being used for agriculture, quarries, buildings, or perhaps nothing at all, and allowing it to revert to a more natural state. In this case, the land was the Urdenbach Marshes, a wetland area on the southern edge of Düsseldorf. The Rhine river changed direction long ago, and the area between the old course of the Rhine and the new course became a wetland frequented by many bird species. Then, in the 1950s, housing was built in the area, a dike was built to prevent the summer flooding of the wetland and create a pedestrian path

In 2014, a project began to restore the wetland (g) by opening up the dike in two places and building bridges and other amenities to preserve the pedestrian path:

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Was the project successful? Judge for yourself. Yesterday I rode my bike to the marshes, picked a spot, and made a short film. It lasts about 5 minutes. I count at least 10 different kinds of birdsong, some of it downright deafening. If you just want the highlights, a kingfisher (Eisvogel, or “Ice-Bird”, in German) hovers and strikes at 4:12. Enjoy:

 

An American Who Defected to East Germany and Lived Happily Ever After

The interesting podcast Cold War Conversations interviews Victor Grossman. To call his life history exciting is a bit of an understatement. Born in 1928, he grew up in a hothouse of New York Jewish leftism in the 1930s and 1940s. Then attended Harvard, and after graduation went to work in a factory at the suggestion of the Communist Party. He was then drafted into the Army, and, faced with scrutiny over his leftist past, defected to East Germany in 1952.

And then he decided life was fine there, although he admits that he always wanted to return to the USA at some point, but didn’t want to face desertion charges, which were dropped only in 1994. Grossman got married and raised two children and became a journalist, writer and editor in East Germany. He is still very much alive, and blogs about German politics at Victor Grossman’s Berlin Bulletin.

I  recommend the interview, in which Grossman, a natural talker if there ever was one, talks about the Stasi, the Berlin Wall, East German movies, his 1,100-page FBI file, and many other things. And dances around some subjects quite elegantly.

German Word of the Week: Retortensiedlung

A while ago, I needed to get a document from one of the “citizens’ offices” (Bürgerbüros) in Düsseldorf. There are about ten of them. You request an appointment online, and get pointed to whichever office can give you an appointment the soonest. This time, it was in the neighborhood of Garath.

Yes, Garath. At the mention of these two syllables, Düsseldorfers will hear ominous string music — or perhaps a song from a band with a name like Nahkampf or Erschießungskommando.

Garath is a neighborhood at the very southern tip of Düsseldorf, a 13-minute S-Bahn ride from the center. It’s the dark-gray bit in this map of Düsseldorf. Its basic design was laid out inLage im Stadtgebiet 1959 by the notorious (and notoriously auto-friendly) Düsseldorf architect and city planner Friedrich Tamms (think of him as the Robert Moses of Düsseldorf) as a planned community of medium-rise apartment buildings, 8000 apartments capable of housing 30,000 people. Because it was largely a designed community, critics call it a Retortensiedlung — a test-tube town, as opposed to a neighborhood which grew up organically. Tamms’ plan, with many modifications and additions, was realized in stages during the 1960s and 1970s. The overall style was mild Brutalism, described (g) as an “explicitly solid and respectable style which affords no room for architectural experiments or reforms.” In other words, cheap buildings for workers.

Today, Garath is a solidly working-class section of Düsseldorf. It’s mostly white, with a percentage of foreigners of only 12.5% (g), well under the city’s average of 19.2%. There seemed to be a strong Eastern European and Russian presence — they wouldn’t affect the foreigner percentage, since many of them would be Russians or East Europeans of German descent (g), who are entitled to German citizenship.

Garath has a reputation as one of the social burning points of Düsseldorf, a cluster of sterile pre-planned buildings stuffed with the resentfully unemployed. There are stories of rabid football fans, right-wing violence, mass fistfights, urine-soaked undergrounnd passages, the whole nine yards. But people from Garath tend to be loyal to it. It ain’t fancy, but it’s nowhere near as dangerous or desolate as its reputation. People know each other and help each other, and there’s plenty of green space and even a small castle (g).

Garath city center is like a small throwback to the idea of a socialism-infused, egalitarian model of German society. There are large paved squares with benches where local day-drinkers can soak up the sun:

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There are also funky small modular orange shops under the train overpass, looking as if they were plucked straight from 1974. One of them houses the “Altschlesische Speisekammer” (The Old Silesian Pantry), a which sells Polish food, including delectable sausage:

There’s a bunch of government offices right next to the main train station, and right next door, a “Leisure Center”, made of modest red brick, where people can go spend time for free, or at least a modest fee. This building was designed by Olaf Jacobson in 1974. It’s made of interlocking cubes of different sizes stacked on top of and next to one another, faced in handsome red-brick. Inside, pathways lead from one modular cube to the next, creating interesting, inviting spaces.

When I stopped by the auditorium, there was a group of at least 80 old ladies settling into their seats for some sort of concert. The local library branch is located inside the building, and offers this inviting reading nook:

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On the side of the leisure center is a quote from Heine about Old Düsseldorf’s funky nooks and crannies:

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Of course, there’s an ice-cream parlor:

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And a little bit of urban decay:

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But also delectable fruits right across from it:

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And a bar next to the train station with this oddly charming…whatever it is:

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And is there public art? Yes, the “Sunwheel” by Friedrich Becker, erected in 1976 (obviously):

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Behind it you can see the housing blocks typical of Garath. They’re nothing special, but at least they’re not Corbusian nightmares. Facing the train tracks, there’s “Countdown”, by Hans-Albert Walther:

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There’s too much concrete in the heart of Garath, a common problem with 1960s and 1970s town planning. But still, there are some interesting buildings, and a bit of funky pre-planned quasi-socialist charm. Infinitely worse things have come out of test tubes.