Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Second Week of B.E.S.T. (20-23 June 2011)

After all the fun and exploration of the first week, the second week of B.E.S.T.  brought the start of regular classes which from now on will comprise the bulk of the schedule.  We are here to learn after all. Classes are in the usual 2.5 hour summer block format with one morning course and another after lunch. The room is un air-conditioned, but that’s common here in Europe.  Fortunately the wet weather, while not great for extracurricular travel and sightseeing, has so far keep temperatures down during the day.

This first week consisted of introductory lessons in a variety of subjects.  In total we will be attending seven courses during the 5 weeks of B.E.S.T.    On Monday, we attended lectures on “International Marketing from a European Perspective” with Dr. Andreas Klein and “European Economic Integration” with Sven Horak.  Tuesday, we attended another German lesson as well as another section of European Economic Integration.  Wednesday, however, we had a change of pace with a field trip to the Duisburg-based IT consulting company “cundus AG” (the lower-case ‘c’ is correct).

cundus AG headquarters near Innerhafen district, Duisburg
Cundus AG was founded by Profesor Dr. Peter Chamoni who is the current chairman of the board.  The main office is located in the Innerhafen district where some of us had visited and eaten lunch the previous week.  The morning drive was quite interesting; Frau Heusner has been replaced at the steering wheel by another Kanu-Club employee who was not quite sure of the route and spent most of the drive swearing and generally abusing the van’s clutch. At one point we even took a wrong turn and crossed over the River Rhine!  Somehow, we arrived intact and were greeted by Malte and Prof. Dr. Chamoni.
Clo enjoys the view of the Innerhafen from the cundus AG offices.

Prof. Dr. Chamoni spent the morning explaining the company to us.  Cundus AG was founded with the goal of designing new software which was capable of running with SAP products.  SAP is a German-based world-leader in enterprise software with its best-known products being SAP Enterprise Resource Planning (SAP ERP) and SAP BusinessObjects software.  Basically, Cundus AG designed a program to help businesses comply with new European financial disclosure laws by compiling financial records electronically.  The program was either licensed or sold to SAP which incorporated it into the firm’s BusinessObjects tools.  Cundus AG now acts as a consultant for its product, helping firms around the world use SAP BusinessObjects software and tailoring to own product to its customers’ needs.  It’s all fairly complicated, but the point is that very few people in the world understand enough about this software to really work with it, and Cundus employees, being among that select group, are quite well-compensated for their skills. 

The afternoon session was led by a Cundus AG programmer named Jens Panzer who offered a breakdown of the theoretical aspects of the company’s software.  Sensing that we weren’t quite following all of the technical jargon, he was nice enough to fire up a demo version of the software and demonstrate some of the possible real-world applications. 

During the evenings, some of the students and I ventured out on bikes to further explore the neighborhood called Wanheimerort where the Wanheimer Kanu-Club is located.  One excursion led to a delicious pizza/Indian restaurant while another led to us eating döner in the Turkish neighborhood north of the WKC.   Between classes and my brief lessons, the other students are learning simple German phrases.  However, I´m generally still called upon to read menus and order food at mealtime.  I´ve made a point of asking for and learning the names of the most common items in cafes.  Döner, for instance, is a Turkish dish of rotisserie-cooked lamb or beef (served in a similar manner to gyros or shawarma).  I can´t recommend it highly enough!

Thursday was a federal holiday in German:  Das Fronleichnamsfest, or Corpus Christi.  Typically a religious feast day, it is celebrated as a public holiday in many states in Germany.  This meant that the university campus would be closed, so the day´s German class would be held at the Kanu-Club instead.  Over seven hours we practiced numbers, how to shop, and how to order in a restaurant.  We also met another exchange student Charles Guo from Princeton who is conducting scientific research at Uni Duisburg-Essen.  His German is quite good, but he may join our classes from time to time throughout the summer.
Kit Ying, Mian Mian, and Meruyert play clerks in our German lesson "At the Store".

Beatrix Fesle (standing) leads the German language class at the Kanu-Club during the federal holiday. Visiting Princeton student Charles Guo is 2rd from left (seated).

Late Thursday evening Malte, Jörn, and their girlfriends took us to visit the popular tourist attraction Landschaftspark Nord, an old industrial park north of the city which has been converted into a sort of open-air museum to industrial culture and heritage. The park is open 24/7 and visitors can explore old factories, climb blast furnaces, and scuba dive in Europe´s largest artificial diving center (a converted gas storage tank).  Outdoor concerts and film festivals also occur throughout the warmer months.   Our guide for the evening was Andreas Meyer, a very typical German name as he was fond of pointing out.  Andreas was very enthusiastic about the park and its mission of preserving the Ruhr area´s industrial heritage for future generations.  Highlights of the tour included climbing 70m to the summit of the No. 5 blast furnace and sliding down a long, winding chute into a 45ft-deep former storage pit for the iron and coal that once fueled these massive machines.  The blast furnace itself ran 24/7 on 12 year cycles, shutting down only to cool off for three months so that workers could climb inside and replace the interior brick shielding!   Art installations and recreational features like climbing walls are scattered among the buildings and factory equipment which has been otherwise undisturbed.

Stay tuned for more!  Coming soon, Weekend Trip to Amsterdam!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Tagestouristen ins Ruhrgebiet - 19 June 2011

Today we visited a number of interesting sites in the surrounding Ruhr region.  Today being Sonntag (Sunday), the Kanu-Club saw us off with a larger breakfast buffet than usual that even impressed Jörn and Malte.

Around 9:30 we piled into a rented touring van and drove 30-40 minutes to the neighboring city of Essen where we were to visit to Zweche Zollverein, a UNESCO World Heritage site known as "the world´s prettiest coal mine".  The Ruhr region has long been a coal-producing area but the area really hit it´s stride in the years between the Industrial Revolution and World War I. In the area around Essen, surface and later sub-surface mining has lowered the ground level to the point where water has to be pumped out of the area to avoid flooding. If pumping were to halt, some low-lying towns would be inundated with as much as 10m of water in one day!

Zweche Zollverein is still a working coal mine, but much of the outlying facilities have been absorbed into a museum.  The presentation is quite unique; rather than having installed bulky exhibits, most of the old equipment was left in place and important information and pictures are projected onto any available flat surface!  The mine once produced between 8,000-12,000 tonnes of coal per day (half in unhealthy coal dust) and to maintain this rate, the mine facilities were once three times bigger than the city.  Today many of the larger buildings are available as meeting spaces; BMW had a car show here for instance.  The grounds were well maintained, but the day´s grey weather and the utilitarian architecture reminded us of how difficult life must have been for the thousands who once worked here.
Zweche Zollverei. Elevator of the Year - 2006-07

Zweche Zollverei. Decorated staircase inside the old mine bunker.
The tour was very informative, and I would highly recommend a visit to Zweche Zollverein to anyone passing through the area.

Our next stop was the famous railroad bridge at Müngsten. Completed in 1897, Müngsten is the highest steel railroad bridge in Germany (107 meters) and connects the towns of Wuppertal and Solingen. Trains once traveled 50km around the Wuppertal (Wupper River Valley)  but the bridge reduced the distance to a mere 8km.  Currently the bridge is undergoing renovations, but will reopen to rail traffic later in the year.  While examining the bridge, we stopped at a food stall and bought coffee and gingerbread, and on the way back to the van, Jörn and I also tried to solve some German riddles from an art installation on the path.

In the afternoon, we drove to the town of Solingento visit its famous hill-top castle Schloss Berg.  The castle was the medieval stronghold for the rulers of the duchy of Berg and in later centuries became a fashionable vacation spot for German nobility.  Perhaps it´s most famous resident was Engelbert II of Berg (1186?-1225) who as Archbishop of Cologne was widely considered the second most powerful man in Europe and later canonized as a saint. Following his brother´s death in a crusade, Engelbert usurped the duchy from his relatives, causing friction among the other German nobles who were afraid to challenge the powerful archbishop.  As bad as this sounds, Engelbert is today widely regarded as a champion of civil liberties for the common people and his challenge to the established order led to his murder in 1225 at the hands of relatives.  His body was later exhumed and found to have 47 wounds.
  The entrance hall of the castle is decorated with a literal family tree mural tracing the lineage of every ruler of the castle back to Adam and Eve and  Engelbert is the only ruler depicted as a ghost.

The castle fell on hard times but has been renovated in recent years, becoming a leading tourist attraction in the region.  The interior murals offered a fascinating glimpse of medieval life, while a hunting society festival in the courtyard allowed us to see another facet of the local culture.  Men and women in leather hunting garb were strolling the castle grounds with their dogs, enjoying bratwurst, beer, and each other´s company.  After about 2 hours at the castle, we returned to the van via ski-lift to the bottom of the hill.

At 4:30 we arrived in the town of Wuppertal which gained fame during the Industrial Revolution both for its beautiful suspended railway (a kind of inverted monorail) and for being the birthplace of Friedrich Engels, Marx´s coauthor of the Communist Manifesto.  One the way into town, Dr. Cassel gleeful recounted the only two accidents in the railway´s 100 year history:  one involved a circus elephant which was placed in a rail car as a stunt and which broke out, falling into the river below.   We boarded the suspended train  and rode to the Wuppertal Hbf where Malte left us to attend his brother´s birthday party.  The rest of the group continued on to Friedrich Engels´ house and watched the city pass by nine meters below us.  

Engel´s house has been converted into a museum for the Industrial Revolution.  Inside visitors can enter a sensory theater to experience all the overpowering sights, sounds, and even vibrations of a 19th century factory.  The museum also contains a collection of working looms and spinning-jennies which have been programmed with wooden punch cards to weave souvenir labels for the tourists.  Dr. Cassel put on the charm and convinced the museum staff to give us some labels for free!

For dinner we headed to the quiet town of Neviges where Dr. Cassel lives.  It is a fair distance out from Duisburg, but being semi-retired, Dr. Cassel only needs to commute a few days a week.  We first stopped by his home where his wife greeted us with a basket of fresh bread, beers, and sodas.  I tried to read the book titles on his coffee table and we made sure to take a picture with the garden gnomes in the backyard!

After the snack we entered the Old Town area of Neviges where we made a brief stop at the Catholic cathedral Maria Königin des Frieden, a pilgrimage church dedicated to the Virgin Mary.  The Csite has existed since the Counter Reformation in the 1600s as a means of encouraging Protestants to return to the Church. The current cathedral by architect Gottfried Böhm was finished in 1968.  It is an asymmetrical concrete structure lit mostly by skylights carved into the walls and roof. The interior is very dark with the only color coming from its red-tinted stained glass windows and some orange- and yellow-tinted votive candles in the back. We then walked around the Old Town filled with quaint half-timbered cottages and ate at an Italian restaurant near the city´s main Protestant church.  I took a gamble on the turkey salad with mango chutney and was pleasantly surprised by one of the best salads I´ve ever had.  Meanwhile, the waitress was visibly annoyed that Meru hadn´t finished her pasta and practically forced her to take the rest to go. "It would be a shame to waste good food."
Neviges Pilgrimage Church (Source:  http://subtilitas.tumblr.com)

After dinner, we said goodbye to Dr. Cassel and returned to Duisburg with a new appreciation of the culture of the Ruhr region.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Grand Conclave of the Kanu-Clubs - 18 June 2011

This Saturday is a free day for B.E.S.T. students.  We awoke to yet another rain storm and forced ourselves to get ready and walk over to the Kanu-Club main restaurant für das Frühstück  (breakfast). Clo and I met some of the high school swim team members who are staying here while they compete in the nearby German Masters swimming competition.

Making new friends at Legoland! (Duisburg, Ger.)
Seeing a break in the rain Blayze, Ryan, and I decided to head into town to find some lunch. At the tram stop, we encountered a nice German gentleman who spoke to us for a few minutes about our visit to Duisburg. We left the tram at the Rathaus (city hall) and passed the main city church called the Salvatorkirche on our way northeast to the Innerhafen (inner harbor) which features a number of parks and restaurants scattered amidst the old factory buildings along the water front.  One difference that I´ve noticed is that the playgrounds here feature equipment which would be illegal in the U.S. due to the threat of injury lawsuits.  We eventually found ourselves by the Legoland Discovery Center and took some photos with the sculptures on display by the entrance, but remembering our purpose, we continued towards the restaurant area.  Unable as we were to agree on a restaurant for lunch, the rain made our decision for us, forcing us into a pub which offered a surprisingly good salad and goulash soup combo. Unthinkably, we were also able to compare the local König Pilsner and another of Düsseldorf´s Altbiers in the same place! So much for the storied rivalry...
Fun in the Innerhafen. (Duisburg, Ger.)

After lunch we further explored the harbor before returning to the downtown area to the south. Among the most memorable finds was a chain restaurant called Mississippi which sold itself as a traditional American food joint with a menu that read like an Applebees!  Back at the Forum shopping center for the third day in a row, we enjoyed some ice cream and coffee while listening to some street musicians: today a Turkish band with a guitar, bass, violin, accordion, and saxophone.

We had heard rumors of a trip which Frau Heusner was said to be planning for the evening, so around 5:00pm Blayze, Ryan, and I returned to the Kanu-Club.  When we arrived, the rumors had grown to include everything from a trip to Cleveland, OH, to a solar eclipse, to the so-called Grand Conclave of the Kanu-Clubs which we imagined as something halfway between Pocahontas and Deliverance. (Maybe not Deliverance...) We weren't far off the mark (for those who guessed an eclipse in Cleveland).  The summer solstice is coming up on the 21st of June and the Kanu-Club Kleverland in Klever (Cleves) was hosting a weekend celebration.  Piling into the club van with Frau Heusner, her husband, and a neighbor, we set out around 7:00pm on a 45-minute drive to Klever.

Klever is famous in history for Anne of Cleves who when on to become Queen of England, though she had the misfortune of marrying Henry VIII to do so.  Anne's marital strife was only one of the succession problems for the duchy, eventually leading to a succession crisis which played a minor role in the Thirty Years´ War (1618-1648).  World War II was not kind to Clever either as much of the original city was destroyed by Allied bombing.

As we found it, Clever today is a quiet hilltop city surrounded by farmland and the Netherlands on three sides.  Kanu-Club Cleverland  lies on the east bank of a small tributary of the Rhine in the shadow of the city castle the Schwanenturm (Swan Tower) on the opposite bank.

Upon our arrival, Frau Heusner purchased coupons which we could exchange for food and drinks at the club bar.  The visiting canoe enthusiasts were only too happy to ply us with bratwurst, local beer, and an interesting drink Rhabarberschnaps made from rubarb. Our hosts were also eager to practice their English on us and even persuaded us to join them for a 10-minute after-dinner canoe ride on the river. Afterwards they prepared to set ablaze a small barge with a bonfire built on the deck.  Herr Heinz Guido, a retired engineer in the steel industry explained to me in German that the burning barge was an ancient tradition meant to ward off evil spirits in preparation for the Sommersonnenwendfeuer (summer solstice).  Heinz and I carried on for a long time with other Klever residents providing commentary and occasional translations. We spoke about his travels in the U.S. and some of the history of Clever and the surrounding area.

As for canoeing, the Germans we spoke to feel that it is not yet a popular sport in Germany.  In fact, it is considered a very British sport.  However, clubs like Kanu-Club Kleverland and Wanheimer Kanu-Club are helping to spread the sport by arranging river trips and lake excursions for members and their guests.  Some of the clubs in the area have even begun a dragon boat race in the style of the Chinese rowing boats with a 20-30 person crew led by a drummer!

Trying out a kayak! (Clever, Ger.)

B.E.S.T. group with bonfire in background (Clever, Ger.)
Canoe by moonlight. (Clever, Ger.)

Around 10:00pm we set off for Duisburg with standing invitations to return to Kanu-Club Kleverland and the nearby rowing club. I was glad for the chance to practice my German and was surprised by  how much I had understood, at least vaguely, about some relatively obscure topics.  All of the students agreed that this unplanned trip was a great way to see rural Germany and meet several interesting people!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Ich kann Deutsch!! - 17 June 2011

Heute beginnen wir unseren Deutschkurs an der Universität Duisburg-Essen!

This morning the Wanheimmer Kanu-Club is preparing for the arrival of a number of tour- and student groups over the weekend. Because of all the fuss, Mike, who was invited to join our German class as a "thank you" for hosting B.E.S.T. students, muss miss our first lesson. Frau Heusner dropped us off at campus instead.

Dr. Peter Charmoni - B.E.S.T. Director
Malte was looking sharp in a suit today because his boss Dr. Charmoni is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the creation of his university chair.  The Mercator School of Management is to host a big conference where it will announce the creation of some new Master´s track in MIS.  In the evening it will conclude the conference with a garden barbecue to which the B.E.S.T. students are invited.

Before he had to run off to the conference, Malte walked us to the B.E.S.T. classroom and introduced us to our German instructor Beatrix Fehse with whom we were to spend the rest of the day. Professor Fehse led us through some introductory exercises and had us practice some basic phrases and pronunciation.  Over the course of the day, we worked on the alphabet (which contains a few extra letters like Ä, Ö, Ü, und ß), foods, asking questions, and the difference between formal and informal tenses. With four years of college German under my belt I was well past this level, but a refresher is always nice.  I´m the only B.E.S.T. student this year with any formal German language training, so at least the others got something out of today.  I was able to help Prof. Fehse a bit by taking over the lesson on important questions (z.B. Wo ist die Toilette?) when she needed to run up to her office.  We paused for lunch and then continued with our lesson until 4:15.

During our 90 minute break before the barbecue, I joined the three Asian students and headed downtown.  They were headed to the mall while I was intent on exploring the neighborhood south of König-Heinrich-Platz and possibly finding the music store I´d heard about the day before.  Another rainstorm came up and forced me to duck into another shop, but I eventually found the guitar store. I was just having a look around, but I couldn´t help but overhear a conversation between the shop owner and a young woman.   The woman looked like she could have been a folksinger, but from what I could understand, she was looking for a new guitar to play "Deathmetalmusik". That made my day!

Around 6:00 we all made our way through the rain back to the university for the barbecue at the Mercator House.  Mian Mian, Kit Ying, Meruyert and I were a little early, but we had some snacks while waiting for Malte and Jörn.  When they arrived, we had some snacks and toyed with a piano in the corner.  Though we each only half knew the words, Mian Mian and I eked out a ragtime version of "You Are My Sunshine" which she´d learned back in China.

B.E.S.T. Students with Jörn Benzinger at right.
When all the students and faculty had gathered, Dr. Charmoni was awarded a certificate for the anniversary of his chair while a student was congratulated for receiving his PhD.  The formalities out of the way, we set into a dinner of potato salad and bratwurst and pork cutlets with lots of mustard and a bbq-flavored ketchup, in the German fashion.  We sat around discussing American TV shows of all things.  Malte and Jörn have both studied in the U.S. and are familiar with a variety of shows. Malte likes Big Bang Theory and both enjoy the English-version of Family Guy.  Each had heard the German-dubbed version and disliked it because the jokes didn´t translate well.  However, when they discovered the English-version during their time abroad, they became fans!

Kit Ying and Mian Mian at the tram stop.
Around 9:30 the women wanted to return to the Kanu-Club, so I offered to walk back with them.  I´m glad I did, because the total waiting time for our two trams was nearly an hour and would have been longer if we stayed out later. At least the trains here run 24-7; when I worked in Washington, D.C. last summer the trains would usually stop around midnight. The others returned a few hours later after a similar long wait.

Tagestouristen in Düsseldorf - Thurs. 16 June 2011

6:00AM Good Morning call. 8:00 breakfast. 9:00 away we go!

Today we were driven by Frau Heusner to the Duisburg Hauptbanhof (Hbf) where we met Malte and Jörn for our day-trip to Düsseldorf, capital of the state of Nordrhine-Westfalen. We will be visiting several German companies and government agencies during B.E.S.T. starting today with the Deutsche Bundesbank and Vodafone Deutschland.  I managed to leave my camera´s memory card at the Kanu-Club so we shopped for one in the station while we waited for our train. Finding a Handymarkt (cell phone store), I was able to ask for one in basic German but couldn´t locate a suitable replacement.  So no pictures today, I´m afraid.

We wedged ourselves into a crowded regional train and settled in for the 20 minute ride to Düsseldorf. On board was a group of French schoolchildren including one who was reading George Orwell´s Animal Farm in German; I could make out a bit about das Schwein Napoleon.  At the Düsseldorf Hbf, we changed over to a tram and set out for our first stop of the day: the regional branch of the Deutsche Bundesbank located in the Berliner Allee (Allee = tree-lined avenue).

 The Deutsche Bundesbank is the German central bank which was responsible for German currency until the adoption of the Euro and the creation of the European Central Bank. Today the Bundesbank is responsible for carrying out European Central Bank policy in Germany, for issuing Euro currency within the country, for acting as a bank for bankers and the German government, and for maintaining proper levels of reserve currencies.  The Bundesbank is widely respected for its past policies and is viewed as a financial leader in Europe and in global markets.

We were met at the Bundesbank office by Prof. Dr. Cassell from Uni Duisburg-Essen and were soon joined by our host at the bank Dr. Harald Loy.  Dr. Loy works as an economist and speechwriter in the office of the bank president. He led us to a conference room on the 17th and highest floor of the bank and proceeded to give us a two-hour overview of the bank and its handling of the financial crisis.  During breaks we could look out at the impressive views of the city below including the bridges over the Rhine and several skyscrapers and catherdrals.  Forgive me, but as a business student, I be quite remiss if I didn´t explain the economic importance of the bank.  Two hours allowed Dr. Loy to go into quite a bit of detail, but I'll try to briefly summarize the important bits.

The main issue facing the bank and the Euro-zone today is the debt crisis in Greece.  The Greek government is nearly bankrupt and has been forced to cut many programs including national train service!  European Monetary Union (EMU) nations are required to uphold strict financial guidelines in order to maintain the value of the Euro, however the Greek government's financial records appear to have been heavily doctored in order to allow the country to join the EMU.  If the real data had been known at the time, Greece probably would not have been allowed to join, but it is too late to turn back now.  European Central Bank policy forbids government bailouts, but something must be done to stop the crisis.  If Greece were to leave the EMU, the results would be disastrous for the country. For example if Greece readopts the drachma, rapid deflation could drive down the exchange rate with the Euro and harm Greek investors.  Import prices would increase, wages would suffer, etc.  While a cheaper currency might be advantageous to Greek exporters, few strong firms actually exist which could take immediate advantage of this benefit. It's a pretty grim situation.

For more info see the following site:  http://www.bundesbank.de/index.en.php

Following the lecture, we ate what Jörn called an "opulent" lunch of shrimp kabobs, roasted pork in gravy over potato cakes (fancy hashbrowns) and a panna cotta dessert with wild berry sauce in the Bundesbank´s dining room.  If I haven´t mentioned it before, we have been served Mineralwasser mit Kohlensäure versetzt (club soda) with every meal. It hasn´t gone over well with the group, but it´s better than nothing.  Today we were served "Medium" water with less CO2.  My favorite combo so far is Apfelschorle or apple juice and club soda which is common on most menus.

After lunch we said goodbye to Dr. Loy and Dr. Cassel and headed across town on the tram to visit the headquarters of Vodafone Deutschland.  Many major international firms have their German offices in Düsseldorf,  especially those in the telecommunications sector.  after navigating past all the BMWs and Corvettes parked in front of the building, we arrived at Vodafone´s HQ and were given security badges with our photos on them.
Source: Wikipedia

The building, with its ten-story lobby and a McLaren Racing F1 car from a sponsorship deal, was quite imposing and Vodafone has begun construction on a new, larger campus just down the street. We were soon taken to a conference room and offered fruit, coffee, and top-shelf club soda and apfelschorle.

Vodafone´s representative for our group was Ms. Mavie John, a Brazilian/German national who found her way to Vodafone from a competitor about 10 years ago.  She ran through the usual company statistics:  Vodafone is the second-largest telecom provider in the world by customers and even claims a limited presence in the U.S. through Verizon. When pressed on the nature of the agreement, Ms. Johns responded, "We have stocks. Full stop." In Germany, Vodafone Deutschland is neck-and-neck with Deutsche Telekom.  The company provides a number of services from cell phones to internet connectivity and claims 37 million German customers.  Ms. John said she is a very critical person, but has nothing bad to say about the company which has given her every opportunity to succeed and advance.

When our visit was over, we traveled via the tram to the Altstadt (Old City) and walked around the old buildings and shops.  I stumbled into the quaint Basilica St. Lambertus just as an afternoon service was starting.  My religious German is a little weak, but having spent the better part of ten years in Catholic schools, I could make out the basic gist of the proceedings. The German singing was nice, aided by what appeared to be an impromptu choir of nuns at the far end of the nave.  At the end of the afternoon, we avoided an impending rain shower by ducking into the famous Uerige brewery for a beer.   Uerige brews one of Düsseldorf´s top Altbiers, darker old brewing-style beers similar to pale ales. Düsseldorf has a old rivalry with Duisburg with each city proclaiming its beer the best in the region; we´ve decided the only fair thing to do is try a few of each over the course of the summer.

View of Düsseldorf and the River Rhine from the Rheinturm (Source: Wikipedia)
Once the rain passed, we walked half a mile along the waterfront to the Rheinturm a 240.5 meter high concrete telecommunications tower with an observation deck from where we watched the main body of the rainstorm pass over the city.

Around 6:30 we returned to the Düsseldorf Hbf and prepared to return to Duisburg.  I bought a Currywurst mit Brötchen from a stall. Currywurst is a German fast food staple consisting of a pork sausage covered in a curry/ketchup sauce and served with fries or bread.  It is popular in the Ruhr and especially Berlin where there is even a museum to the dish. Other students tried the Pizza Hut which was similar to home with the exception of a few unique regional toppings such as corn.

Back in Duisberg, the guys split off to find a real meal while everyone else returned to the dorm.  We eventually settled on a Spanish-style steakhouse chain called Maredo. I told Ryan how to ask for the restroom: "Wo is die Toilette, bitte?", but he flubbed it pretty badly. The waitress just stared at him and said flatly, "Yeah, the bathroom's down there to the left..." We ate cheaply: some pork kabobs and tomato soup with sour cream and a glass of rioja crianza.

Blayze, Ryan, and I returned to the Kanu-Club around 10:30. I made some tea in our kitchenette and wrote until around 11:30.  Intensive German language classes begin tomorrow so I'll need my rest. Guten Abend!

Friday, June 17, 2011

B.E.S.T. Orientation

We all woke up very early; most of the students are still adjusting to the time change, especially the Asian students for whom the difference is something like 12-13 hours. Eventually, everyone found his or her way down to the Kanu Club meeting room where we each checked our email and Facebook accounts, and at 7:30 Frau Heusner´s son Mike brought in breakfast: frische Brotchen (fresh rolls), Käse (cheeses) und Fleischsorten (various cold deli meats) with coffee and juice.

At 9:00 we boarded a Kanu-Club van and were driven over to the University of Duisburg-Essen near the city center.  Mike is still learning to drive on the right side of the road (With British accent: "It´s all a bit backwards isn´t it then?") and has already picked up a speeding ticket from a traffic camera. Today at least, we managed the trip without incident.

At the campus we were greeted by Malte and together we walked over to the private classroom where B.E.S.T. courses will take place.  There we met Jörn and a new student assistant Lena Grünhagen.  After a few minutes the B.E.S.T. staff arrived and we were introduced to Director Dr. Peter Charmoni and Associate Director Prof. Dr. Dieter Cassel.  Each welcomed us to Duisburg and then they gave a joint presentation on the history of the university and an overview of B.E.S.T. 

The University of Duisburg-Essen is the result of a 2003 merger between the Mercator University of Duisburg and the nearby University of Essen.  Germany has a much higher percentage of public, state-sponsored schools vs. private universities and mergers due to financial considerations are not uncommon.  The University of Duisburg-Essen now comprises around 35,000 students over two campuses.  Duisburg campus focuses on management and engineering while the Essen campus focuses on economics and humanities.  The "Mercator" in the university´s original name comes from the cartographer Gerhard Mercator, known for the famous Mercator projection world map, who lived and died in Duisburg.  Not wanting to lose the historically-significant connection, the Duisburg campus renamed it business school (which runs B.E.S.T.) the Mercator School of Management.

We followed this presentation with eine Kaffeepause (coffee break) in die Mensa (cafeteria) downstairs. Most of the food is fresh, if not organic, and the cafeteria even has a small beer selection. The self-service coffee machines are all professional-grade espresso makers with all the choices of a Starbucks for a quarter of the price and twice the taste.

B.E.S.T. 2011:  (L to R) Claudine "Clo" Guadagoli, Meruyert Zhamanshina, Blayze Melgoza, myself, HU Mian Mian, Alexis de Young, Ryan Owens, LAI Kit Ying
Back in the classroom, Malte and Jörn gave a brief lesson on German geography and politics. Duisburg is situated in the "state" of Nordrhine-Westfalen. Altogether, Germany is comprised of 16 "states" or Länder of various sizes including some city-state areas like Hamburg, Bremen, and Berlin.  The country boasts a population of 82.5 million, the largest in Europe, and the German language is the native tongue of over 100 million people on the continent. Germany itself is known as a major industrial state with many famous companies such as Thissen-Krupp Steel, Bayer, Hansa, and BMW.  Several of these firms are based or have offices and factories in the Ruhr region which is situated around the Ruhr River in Nordrhine-Westfalen, some of which will visit over the course of the program.

We then toured the B.E.S.T. offices where Malte, Jörn, and Dr. Cassel work as also walked around the library. Sure enough everyone was on Facebook; some things are constant everywhere. Afterwards, we walked by the university tram station and had a peek at the city zoo and its giraffes across the street before stopping at the university´s main cafeteria for lunch where with student cards we can eat for around $2-4 a meal.

Infamous rotating fountain near König-Heinrich-Platz, downtown Duisburg.
Following lunch we walked back to the tram station and rode to the Duisburg Hauptbahnhof (central station). Our student passes allow for unlimited access to all city transportation (bus, train, and tram) and the most trains seem to run on an honor system where failure to produce a valid ticket results in a 40 Euro find. From there we entered the König-Heinrich-Straße (King Henry Street), a popular pedestrian shopping street in the city-center near the opera and courthouse. A couple of students searched for a bank to convert currency, but like at home, most require you to have an account with them to do so. We then visited the big Duisburg mall called The Forum for a couple of hours.  Some of the clothing is heavily-influenced by American pop-culture, but as Blayze pointed out, all the references are about two years out-of-date.

We were to meet at the nearby Starbucks (again with the Starbucks!!) which led to confusion since there were two in the same block.  Jörn is a self-described coffee addict and told us how older Germans are convinced that Starbucks is destroying die Kaffeekultur and prefer their Italian-style cafes. As for Jörn, he says, “Kaffee ist Kaffee.”

For dinner, we headed back towards the university area and stopped at ein Biergarten called Finkenkrug with the motto “222 Biersorten. 1 Kneipe.” (“222 Beers. 1 Pub.”) It´s a big student hangout and the food is pretty good.  However, the real draw is obviously the beers from all around Europe and the world. Having sampled the local brew König Pilsener the night before, I opted to range further afield and tried a very strong Belgian Klösterbier (monastery beer) and a tamer Turkish pilsner. We stayed comfortably in the lower range of the pub´s offerings thought the cellar stocks beers up to 40% alcohol by volume. Malte and Jörn were careful to point out that Germany has a strong beer culture with an ancient brewery or two operating in most every town; however, most people are very responsible and are less-often involved in the types of alcohol-related incidents common in the U.S.
Abendessen im Finkenkrug. “222 Biersorten. 1 Kneipe.”

 Afterwards, Malte and Jörn headed back to their homes in the suburb of Müllheim, leaving the rest of us to navigate the city transit system back to the Kanu-Club.  Despite our jet-lag, the day´s events had tired us out, and we were all asleep in minutes!! We needed the rest because the next day, we would be going on a field trip to the regional capital of Düsseldorf.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Kanu-Club

After arriving at what was quite possibly the most terrifying railyard ever (apparently the route passes through the remnants of the overgrown old station onto which the newer station was attached), I gathered by things and raced through the underground shopping center to that aforementioned Starbucks where I found Malte Klück and Jörn Benzinger, our B.E.S.T. contacts, holding court with some locals.  The irony of two Germans drinking coffee in a Starbucks was not lost on me, but I suppose the choice of meeting place was more for our benefit than for theirs.  You try finding the Hauptbahnhofbäckreihandwerk!

A little after 9am the three of us set out for the B.E.S.T. dorm across town via street tram. Malte and Jörn are from the greater Duisburg area and attended high school together. They knew the city well and pointed our shops and attractions along the route. Duisburg is located in the Ruhr region, the industrial heartland of Germany. The city is consequently home to many factories and steel mills and a major brewery as well as the largest inland port in the world due to the city´s location at the confluence of the Rhine and Ruhr rivers.

Because the dorms typically used by B.E.S.T. are under renovation, this summer´s group will stay at the nearby Wanheimer Kanu-Club which is situated directly on the Rhine River. The Club is run by Frau Edda Heusner and her British-born son Mike.   Frau Heusner has lived here for years while Mike only just moved to Germany last week and knows little of the language.  He´s here to help sort out a few "bobs and bits" as he is fond of saying.  They run the place as a guesthouse with beer garden; swimming pools; and yes, canoe rentals.

I´m sharing a room with Blaise from Colorado.  He was resting when I arrived so I decided to go into town while Malte and Jörn returned to the train station for more students. And that´s when the trouble started...

The still-learning manager Mike had locked all the guest keys but Blaise´s in the main office that morning and his mother hadn´t come in yet with hers at the time I had arrived.  Leaving for my walk, I heard the unmistakable click of an automatic lock as the guesthouse door closed and knew I would have to wait for Mike or Frau Heusner to let me back into my room. 

I proceeded along a riverside walking path past a few fancy cottages and their retiree owners.  The neighborhood around the Kanu-Club is mostly residential with some light-industrial facilities mixed in. I visited a couple of grocery stories, and since I had nothing better to do for a couple of hours, even tried to get a haircut.  However, my dictionary and the specific words I needed were back at the Kanu-Club.  Some other day then.

Malte and Jörn returned at a quarter to 12:00 with two more students and we soon sorted out the key situation.  Frau Heusner then arrived, registered us, and asked us to sign internet use agreements. However, the Kanu-Club´s router had been stolen so we would have to wait until the repairman brought along a new one later in the day.

Blaise woke up, and he and I then spent the afternoon biking around the neighborhood and attempting to find a bite to eat. Many smaller cafes and shops are only open for a few hours or one specific meal, so that too some doing. We quickly discovered the bike lanes, and rode east towards a small shopping center with a ReWe grocery store and and a Trinkgut, a store which can only be described as a Sam´s Club for German drinks. The warehouse-style facility one can buy individual bottles or even whole pallets of mineral water (natural or with gas), sodas, wine, or a variety of local beers. During all of our shopping we picked up some fresh bread and coffee-flavored lemonade (OK, tastes like Coke) for a late snack.

We rode around some of the larger streets (including one named Rheintörchenstraße) which were still fairly residential with the exception of a few large Turkish shops and pool halls.  Duisburg is home to 60,000 Turkish Muslims and the Turkish flag can be seen everywhere. Many of the older Turks came to Germany as part of the guest worker program(Gastarbeiterprogramm) in the 1960s and 70s when then-West Germany, facing a unskilled-labor shortage due to the travel restrictions imposed by East Germany and the Berlin Wall, brought in thousands of Turkish and Eastern European immigrants to temporarily fill jobs. Many never left, and consequently, modern Germany has a large Muslim community as well as the social challenges that go along with any minority population.

Back at the Kanu-Club, Malte and Jörn arrived with the last of the students: there are nine total including three from Colorado one from New Jersey, two from Hong Kong, two from Kazakhstan, and myself. Malte and Jörn held a brief introduction for everyone and then left us for the evening.

Dinner that evening consisted of fresh schnitzel (a thin, fried pork cutlet), french fries, potato salad and a small green salad: all very good.  After dinner, several students and I went back up to the Trinkgut and purchased a few sodas and beers to try out.  The local brew is König Pilsener (known here as KöPi).  It was pretty decent and we decided a tour of the brewery should be added to our itinerary.  We sat in the Kanu-Club garden overlooking the Rhine and watched the sunset.  Meanwhile, a tripped circuit breaker in the guest building knocked out power to our floor and caused a commotion but was soon reset. By 10:30 everyone was very tired, and we all headed for bed. Tomorrow we´ll visit the university and have an orientation.