You may have heard of the German city of Essen. It's the Pittsburgh of Germany, famed for its coal industry and renowned for its pollution. As in Pittsburgh, both the industry and the pollution are pretty much things of the past. The Essen of today is busily reinventing itself, and the old coal mine is now a museum that is the Number One sight listed in the guidebooks.
Unfortunately, the pollution seems to have affected the citizens' brains. If you thought Germans don't know how to have fun, or that the only fun they have is in a Biergarten, think again. In Essen, people are so goofy that Hollywood seems downright sane by comparison.
I went to Essen to see a rarely performed opera, Andrea Chenier ("ahn-DRAY-ah shen-YAY") by Umberto Giordano ("oom-BARE-toe jore-DAH-no"). I found out why it's uncommon: it's pretty lousy ("PRIH-tee LOU-zee"). The music is OK, but not great, and the story is badly told. Maybe those bare toes kept Signor Giordano from concentrating on his work.
Speaking of bare toes, I told you that the Essenites are a bit goofy. The morning after the opera, I explored the city a bit. I'd read on the Web that they had set up an outdoor ice rink ("Largest in Germany!") downtown, and I thought a bit of skating might be fun. While trying to find it, I instead discovered something I've never seen before: an artificial sledding hill. The photos show it better than I can describe it. My timing was perfect: they were having official opening ceremonies, so I saw the Essen powers-that-be make speeches (in German) and slide down the hill (on their butts).
Now I hate to criticize a good effort, but I have to say that that hill was a pretty poor place to go sledding. I mean, it was taller than the hill I used to go on when I was six years old, but hey, I was six. The steepest thing about it was the price they charged for a ride. But that wasn't anywhere near as silly as the people who skied down it. They'd barely gotten going before they were at the bottom.
The citizens of Essen loved it. I can only blame the pollution.
Moving onward, I managed to find the ice rink. That was truly a sight to behold. The rink itself wasn't anything special; it was just an ordinary hockey-sized rink plunked down in a convenient city square. Big deal (other than the fact that I'd recently rediscovered how much fun it is to skate, even on a boring indoor rink). But what was happening on the rink was again something I've never seen before: a soccer game.
Excuse me, you say,
soccer? You must have misspoken.
Soccer is a summer game. They play it on grass.
Nope. Not in Essen. I told you the people there are goofy. The sledding hill was pretty strange, I have to confess. But it can't possibly compare with playing soccer on ice.
These guys dress up in hockey padding and then try to run around the rink, kicking a ball. This is something that has to be seen to be believed. You'd think that the players would figure out that ice is slippery. But noooooooo, they'll go charging up to the ball, take a wild kick at it, and then notice that they're about to hit another player. So they put on the brakes and try to change direction, but of course they just keep sliding. Since they leaned into the turn, they fall down. Then they slide into the guy they were trying to avoid, knocking his feet out from under him. Pretty soon you have a pile of players sliding down the ice, with the ball somewhere in the middle. One time, the whole jumble slid into the goal and scored. I'm not sure which team won, but the guys in the fire truck (did I mention that one of the teams was all firefighters?) sure kept honking their siren a lot. My ears were still ringing a week later.
I decided that it might not be the cleverest thing to skate on that particular rink while they were playing. (By my standards, this was an exceptionally wise decision, comparable to the time I chose not to try to skate to Hawaii.) I moved onward.
A bit further along, I found a mall. One of the duties of a traveling father is to bring back gifts to apologize for being gone in the first place. (As far as I can tell, Xandie doesn't actually miss me. She keeps hoping I'll make another trip so she can get more stuff. But she pretends to miss me so I'll feel guilty and buy things.) So I wandered through the mall.
Essen is in Northern Germany. Oddly enough, Germany is cold in the winter. So you'd expect the mall to be a nice, warm, indoor sort of thing.
The Germans are tough. TOUGH! They're so tough that they don't need those wimpy indoor malls. They're so tough that their street musicians carry pianos around on their backs and play them outdoors in the winter. Heck, they're so tough that they run around barefoot in January.
Yep, that's right. I was there on January 22nd, and I can testify that it was cold. The snow on that sledding hill was NOT in any danger whatsoever of melting. But this guy was wandering around, barefoot, with his kid in tow. Maybe he was asking the cop for directions to a shoe store, but somehow I doubt it. More likely he wanted to know where he could play soccer on ice. Barefoot.
That was enough. I turned around and went back to the train station. On the way, I stopped for a nice, hot cup of Glühwein. Indoors.
Oh, yeah. I never made it to the coal mine. That's just as well, I think. Look at what it did to the people of Essen. Do you really want me to get any goofier?