The Golden Autumn in Düsseldorf

 Late September and early October was a time to remember. Clear skies, cool temperatures. I spent most of the time on my bike, exploring some of the nicer bits of Düsseldorf. Unterbach Lake, a large artificial lake and recreation areas located in the southwest suburb of Unterbach. Schloss Benrath, and 18th-century hunting castle with extensive grounds, and the Südpark/Volksgarten complex, one of the greatest parks in the world.

Here are a few of the raw pictures without much post-processing. Enjoy!

Benrath Schlosspark Light on Decaying Log
Benrath Schlosspark Light on Decaying Log
Benrath Schlosspark Light on Decaying Log
Benrath Schlosspark Light on Decaying Log
Benrath Schlosspark Light on Decaying Log
Benrath Schlosspark Light on Decaying Log
Benrath Schlosspark Light on Decaying Log
Benrath Schlosspark Light on Decaying Log
Benrath Schlosspark Light on Decaying Log
Benrath Schlosspark Light on Decaying Log
Benrath Schlosspark Light on Decaying Log
Benrath Schlosspark Light on Decaying Log
Benrath Schlosspark Light on Decaying Log
Benrath Schlosspark Light on Decaying Log
Benrath Schlosspark Light on Decaying Log
Benrath Schlosspark Light on Decaying Log
Benrath Schlosspark Light on Decaying Log
Benrath Schlosspark Light on Decaying Log

The Urdenbach Marshes in Summer

Yesterday I biked down to the Urdenbach Marshes south of Düsseldorf. It's a large nature reserve which used to be on the path of the Rhein until the river made a curve. City planners are now diverting brooks in the nature reserve to allow it to revert to marshland. It's now home to plenty of waterfowl, and the authorities are even planning to introduce water buffalo, although the locals aren't all that thrilled and may stop the plan. Unlike marshes in most parts of the world, this one isn't full of things that want to kill you. The sweet, intoxicating odor of decay and burgeoning life is everywhere. Before I move on to the pictures, one bleg: can anyone identify the light-purple labiate flowers? They're everywhere near the raised path. I looked everywhere, but could only find flowers which look a lot like these, but not quite the same. Frustrating.

UK Algae-Covered Marsh Pond
UK Algae-Covered Marsh Pond
UK Algae-Covered Marsh Pond
UK Algae-Covered Marsh Pond
UK Algae-Covered Marsh Pond
UK Algae-Covered Marsh Pond
UK Algae-Covered Marsh Pond
UK Algae-Covered Marsh Pond
UK Algae-Covered Marsh Pond
UK Algae-Covered Marsh Pond


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

The Story of the Evil Landlord and the Good Landlord

The Krahestraße in Düsseldorf is in a working-class area near the main train station. For years it's been known for something vicious and ugly: An apartment house owner, Heinz Nieder, wanted to flush out some inconvenient tenants who opposed a renovation, so he hired a workman to open a gas pipeline in the basement of his own apartment building at night.

Six people died in the resulting blast (g), two others were severely injured. The series of resulting trials of the home owner, Heinz Nieder, must count as one of the most humiliating debacles in post-war German justice: he was forced to languish in 'investigative custody' for so long (eventually eight years in total) that the Federal Constitutional Court set him free. Then  two trials against him were overturned on appeal (g) by the German High Court. During much of this judicial odyssey, he was often seen (g) in Düsseldorf's trendy Oberkassel neighborhood, taking walks or sipping espresso.

He was finally sentenced and the verdict upheld on appeal only in 2009. The sentence was life imprisonment (actually a 15-year minimum sentence). The prosecutor's office — believe it or not — sent him a letter asking him to show up for his life prison sentence, please. The letter was sent to his last registered address. Shockingly, it turns out that Mr. Nieder hadn't lived there for at least 3 months (g). He had gone underground and remained on the run for much of mid-2009, working as a renovator. He was picked up only with the help of 'Detective Serendipity' (Kommisar Zufall), as the Germans say — he was found outside a hotel in Marburg Germany full of pills and confused, apparently the result of a suicide attempt. He said he was Ralf Möller from Cologne, but police at the hospital recognized his face (g) from the wanted poster. As of 2011, he was serving his sentence as a cook in a prison hospital (g).

So much for the story of the despicably greedy landlord. Now to the story of the enlightened, art-loving landlord, which also takes place in the Krahestrasse, next to where Heinz Nieder murdered six people. I was biking by there recently and came upon the freshly-completed series of apartment houses forming the 'Mosaic Facade':

Traumfassade Krahestr. (Mosaic Facade) Krahestrasse (Josipa Horvat) General View. ('Traumfassade' Krahestrasse (Josipa Horvat) General View Mosaic Facade Krahestrasse (Josipa Horvat) Peacock Dorrway Mosaic Facade Krahestr. Detail of Entrance with Birds. Detail of Entrance with Birds Mosaic Facade Krahestr. Window . Window

The project was the brainchild of landlord Hans-Rainer Jonas, who has a 'social vein' and prides himself on charging reasonable rents and providing communal space for his tenants. He originally thought of Hundertwasser to decorate the facades of his houses, but then chose the Düsseldorf artist Josipa Horvat. She involved a team of other artists and also residents (g). Sometimes children would come by with fragments of mirror or crockery which would be mosaiced right in next to everything else.

I have my doubts about some urban public art projects, but I love this one. Cheerful without being saccharine, whimsical, and beguilingly curvy. Makes me want to move…

Freiburg and the Black Forest

I spent the weekend in Freiburg courtesy of the German-American Lawyers' Association (thanks!) and got to enjoy that delightful city again. The people are friendly and laid-back (Freiburg gets more sun than any other place in Germany), the food is outstanding (Freiburg is right on the border with France), and the small old city is filled with artificial rectilinear 'brooks' (Baechle), about a half-meter wide and deep, through which cool, clear water courses rapidly. Kids float boats down them, people cool their feet on hot summer days, and the sound fills the narrow streets. These little brooks aren't covered, so one of the most amusing pastimes is listening for the agonized shrieks of tourists who, gawking at old buildings, have wrenched their ankle into one of these Baechle. You can't sue, because it's tradition. Besides, the locals say if you trip into one of the Baechle, you'll marry someone from Freiburg. I so far have managed to step over every one of these Baechle.

A hilly chunk of the Black Forest thrusts directly into Freiburg from the East like a giant arrow. This means that you can walk 10 minutes from the city center and literally be inside the Black Forest –especially if you take the mountainside railcar, which lifts you about 300 meters to the main hillside trail. In most other places in the world, this hillside would be covered with the mansions of the rich, but not in Freiburg. I hiked about 4 km into the Black Forest to the forest shrine of St. Odile of Alsace, a small baroque church housing a spring whose water is supposed to heal eye problems. According to this church website, the water has tons of radon in it, but that didn't stop a few pilgrims from washing their eyes with it (!) while I was there. Odile was born blind in the 7th century but her vision was restored through prayer, so one of her typical iconographies is a book with human eyeballs projecting from it, as in this Baroque sculpture from the church. There was also a group of young Germans who recited the Ave Maria in German in a monotone over and over, interspersed with some prayers sung in Latin. I wonder what this devotional exercise is called.

Here is St. Odila with her chalice-book-eyes! The some pictures of Freiburg, greenery and forest views, a panorama of the valley in which Freiburg is locaged, a foxglove plant (which is called Fingerhut — finger-hat! — in German), the interior of the St. Ottilien church. Oh, and a hideous, gigantic Brutalist building (housing a Breuninger department store) excreted like a steaming pile of shit right into the middle of Freiburg's Old City. 

Sculpture of St. Odila in St. Ottilien Church
View of Karlssteg in Stadtgarten
Brutalist Building in the Freiburger Altstadt

View of Path to St. Ottilien
Foxglove Plant on path to St. Ottilien
Panorama of Freiburg from the Burghaldering
Forest Clearing near Freiburg
Stand of Pine Trees on Path to St. Ottilien
View of Passionsweg near St. Ottilien
Interior of St. Ottilian Church

Kyrghyz Eyes

Susan Messer writes about The Magic Mountain:

One of the unforgettable details of the
novel was the obsession of Hans Castorp (the main character) with the
elusive Clavdia Chauchat, who Mann describes repeatedly as having Kyrgyz
eyes. This is, indeed, one of her defining features. "Kyrgyz eyes" were
also a feature of an earlier breathless obsession in Castorp's life–a
young boy who had many years before loaned young Hans a pencil on the
school playground. So Mann echoes these eyes and these obsessions (even the pencil) throughout the novel.

I also wondered exactly what Mann meant by Kyrgyz eyes (Kirgisenaugen). Messer provides us with this photo of actual Kyrgyznauts, or whatever one calls people from Kyrghyzstan:

Kyrghiz eyes
Cute and wholesome. But I prefer this version, courtesy of St. Petersburg-based photographer Daniil Kontorovich aka Tertius Alio:


If you ask me, she's got Kyrghyz-everything.

1884: A Chilling Vision of Surveillance

In Frankfurt yesterday I dropped by the Schirn Kunsthalle to see the exhibition on Gustave Caillebotte, perhaps the most interesting of the impressionists (if you ask me). The exhibit's called Gustave Caillebotte, Impressionist and Photography, and shows the give-and-take relationship between Caillebotte's work and the emerging art form of photography. The traditional notion is that artists in the 19th century realized that photography had rendered the pursuit of realistic painted reproduction superfluous, freeing artists to concentrate on a sort of refracted and distilled 'painterly' technique that focused on the act of seeing itself. Caillebotte had a different reaction: he used the emerging technology of photography to enrich his technique. The revolutionary motion studies of Muybridge, for instance, or the odd perspectives and hallucinatory detail of 'stereographic' 3-D panoramas of Parisian streets, or the ability to capture snapshots of laundry billowing in wind.

The actual documentation of the link between photography and Caillebotte's technique was thin, so the exchibit was just pioneering French photography side-by-side with a decent cross-section of Caillebottes (including the famous Floor-Scrapers, which sounds much better in French: Raboteurs de Parquet). But that's something else! Only one of his mesmerizing studies of white laundry, though. The Schirn Kunsthalle is, as always, a weird and uninviting space, and the structure of the exhibition is hard to follow. Plus, they're charging 10 Euros for just one exhibit, which is just too damn high.

One part of the exhibit struck my eye: this ad for the 'Photographic Secret Camera' made by the Stirn Company from Bremen, billed as the 'newest and most amazing invention in the area of photography for professional and amateur photographers.'


The camera is a metal disc about 14 cm across with an lens emerging near the top. The ad targets four groups. The last two are photographers and tourists,
but the first two are more interesting. The first group is 'Officers of
the Army and Marines' to take 'snapshots of positions and terrain of
military importance'. The second group is 'Secret Police Officials', who
can use the camera to copy (copieren) 'suspicious persons, street
gatherings, etc.'

I suppose it shouldn't come as a surprise, but it's pretty sobering to know that there were so many 'secret police officials' skulking around Europe in the late 19th century that they constituted a major target group for camera marketers. It conjures up a Conradian world of malodorous anarchists gathering in seedy underground taverns while desperate informants secretly photograph their gaunt, feverish faces.

Memorial to Dutch War Dead

The weather on Sunday was so obscenely pleasant that the local park was crowded. So I veered off into the adjoining Stoffels cemetery (g) a large cemetery created in 1876 in the south of Duesseldorf. It's a minor masterpiece of cemetery design, with rolling hills and dales that create many small enclaves, and a huge variety of trees that keep it in autumn glory for months.

In addition to conventional graves, there's a field for urn burials and for ash-scattering. There's also a large memorial for 1,230 Dutch people who were killed in concentration and forced-labor camps during World War II, one of many such cemeteries in western Germany. The graves are located in a semi-circle around a central sandstone pillar listing the names of concentration camp in which many of the victims died.

A few photos:

Friedhof Stoffels Dutch War Dead Memorial General View

Friedhof Stoffels Dutch War Dead Memorial 1
Friedhof Stoffels Dutch War Dead Memorial 4

German Rule of the Week: Postmortem Social Control

Serbian cemeteries feature family gravesites with the likenesses of all family members laser-etched into marble, even the ones who are still living:

Family Plot in Gracanica, Kosovo 2010
Jewish cemeteries feature the columns, books, pillars and obelisks you would expect from children of the Enlightenment:

Grave in Jewish Section of Vienna Zentralfriedhof, 2010
French and Belgian cemeteries are studded with Art Nouveau tombs that look like alien eggs. And Latin cemeteries in the swampy sections of the New World feature above-ground crypts that crumble picturesquely in the humidity:

Tombs in Lafayette Cemetery, Louisiana, 2001
And German cemeteries? Suidically dull, thanks to plodding, literal-minded regulations meant to ensure no gravestone will offend even the most tight-assed musty old Spießburger. And since Spießer-Ressentiment can be triggered by even the slightest trace of humor or originality, the list of rules must be long indeed.

Enter the Friedhofsordnung (Cemetery regulations) for the Protestant Cemetery of Falkenstein/Vogtl. It has 45 separate sections, including at least 5 dedicated to telling people exactly what their graves must look like — including a table (!) specifying the precise volume, in cubic meters, of acceptable gravestones. Cross-shaped headstones are permitted to be up to 20% wider than square ones, you'll be happy to know, as long as the cubic-meter measurement is not affected.

But that's just the beginning. Here's Section 36:

Section 36 Material, Form, and Composition

1.     For gravestones, only natural rock, wood, and cast or sculptured metal is allowed.

2.    The form of the gravestone must conform to the material and must be simple and well-proportioned.

3.     The gravestones must be formed from one piece of material.

4.    All sides of the gravestone must be equally well-worked in a manner consistent with the material.

5.     Finishes and fine engraving are permitted only as a design element in connections with letters, symbols and ornaments which, for their part, may only occupy an area in proportion to the size of the headstone.

6.    Surfaces may not be rounded.

7.     All materials, ingredients, and finishing and design elements that are not listed above are forbidden, in particular concrete, glass, plastic, pictures, engravings, plaster, porcelain, aluminum, etc.

8.    The Church Guidlines on Headstone Design from 15 September 1992 (Exhibit 1) are hereby incorporated by reference into these Cemetery Regulations.

The rules go on, and on, and on. I can't translate the rest — even the small excerpt above left me profoundly depressed. The English, it seems, are not the only ones suffering from ghastly good taste.

Paris: Leprechauns, Mannequins, Giant Machines, Disappearing Museums

I was in Paris last week, part bidness, part personal. I stayed at the B & B le 7 near the Place de Clichy, which I recommend. The room is reasonably-sized (by Paris standards), spotless and furnished with whimsy and good taste. The bookshelves have plenty of art books in many languages, plus Lonely Planets and Guide du Routard guides, which are like French-language Lonely Planets, but cooler. Private shower and bathroom, and very friendly and patient owners. It's in the 9th arrondissement, which is one of my favorites. It's a real neighborhood, with sandwich shops, hardware stores, and ordinary-people clothes outlets. This means no tourist-trap prices: you can buy a coffee, or a liter bottle of water to carry along with you, or normal stuff like toothpaste, without feeling raped. Yet you're still in the city, and only a short metro or bus ride from anywhere. Plus, the ninth is still French enough to feature excellent cheese and wine places and boulangeries, including the outstanding Maison Landemaine (f), which is worth a detour.

I didn't do much sightseeing, except for the giant Monet exhibition in the Grand Palais. Stunning, if only because it featured an enormous collection of Monets in one place. The winter paintings were the big revelation to me; I didn't know he'd done so many and such fine ones. The exhibition space itself is miserable: blocked off from natural light, cramped, and crowded. The great water lily cycles weren't shipped in, and there's no space that would have done them justice anyway. Still, there are many other large late canvases, and it's more Monets than you'll ever see in one place again. Buy your ticket in advance and go during the afternoon. I also attempted to visit the  Musee des Lunettes and Lorgnettes Pierre Marly (f), only to find that it's gone, having been replaced by an Audemars Piguet shop.

But mostly I strolled around. Here are a few pictures; the hover text has more info for the curious:

Square Moncey Army of One
Store Mannequin Rue de Clichy
Emerging from Metro Place de Clichy
Psycho Knife Rack

Scaffolding Rue de Clichy
Storefront Fumisterie Cavallari, Faubourg St. Denis
Man Smoking Cigar and Typing on Laptop Rue St. Honore
"Oh No -- You Again!"
Leprechaun Man Entering Olympia Theatre
Two Men on Subway
Boo Night Evening Dress Store

Escalator Repair Gare du Nord

View down Street Grate Place de Clichy