Germany, Part One: Düsseldorf

Rebecca and our new friend, Gabi, at the Rheinturm tower, a 240 meter tower constructed in 1979 that oversees Düsseldorf and the Rhine River

First stop: Düsseldorf

Serendipity: the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.

Some places we planned to visit were selected on a hunch. Düsseldorf was one of them.

Back in April, I was pouring wine at the Berryessa Gap winery for a young couple I had just met, Dirk and Lacey Bokeloh. After describing our trip Dirk said, “You gotta visit my mom in Düsseldorf! She’d love to show you around!”

So, on the strength of that, we began an email correspondence with Gabi Bokelah. We planned to stay at an AirBnB near her house in northern Düsseldorf and visit her. She would show us around the city. As our correspondence progressed, the plan became more elaborate. She asked me what we were interested in seeing during our two days there, and I responded that we were more interested in people than places or things. So, she would plan a dinner with some of her friends, but nothing beyond that until we arrived. It all sounded delightful.

We arrived at our AirBnB place at 8:30am. Kevin had gotten up very early and kindly driven us from near Brussels, about 240km away. We left his house in the predawn hours and headed to Düsseldorf amid the hustle of large transports and commuters on the autobahn.

Kevin and Greet’s house as we leave, 6am.

Once we had crossed the border into the Netherlands, I got an auto generated text message on my new European phone that I had, “left the Belgian Mobile Viking network” and that I’d have to log onto another one.

“What?” I said to Kevin as he maneuvered among the big trucks, driving directly into the sunrise. “What happened to the “Roam like you’re at home” advertising slogan I had read on the Mobile Viking website?

Kevin suggested various setting changes, all of which failed.

So here we were again, as we set out into the next phase of our trip, no GPS, no way to look up subway or bus schedules, no way to call and confirm with our host at tonight’s dinner or check email or texts!

We said one last goodbye to Kevin, “We’ll see you in March,” we promised, “unless you come visit us in Croatia first.”

We met Hilda at 8:30am, the mother of our AirBnB host, who spoke less English than we spoke German. (She had expected our early arrival, as per previous emails to her daughter, Sina, who, was away to Oktoberfest and wouldn’t be back.)  This was disappointing because Sina, whose English seemed very fluent through email, also agreed to orient us to the city once we arrived.

So, with lots of hand gestures and guessing with Hilda, a kindly and animated woman, she let us leave our bags so we could sight-see unencumbered during the day. We indicated by scratching notes on the back of an old Paris train schedule that we’d be back at about four (16:00) to freshen up before or dinner at six (18:00).

She gave us the key to the room and off we went.

But without a working phone for navigation, where do we go and how do we get there? “How did we do this before the Web?” I ask Rebecca.

“Maps,” she tells me. But who sells maps anymore, now that everyone, (except us) have every map they could need on a mobile phone?

We decided to look for a restaurant that had WIFI, and have breakfast and then plan our day.

We followed where people were headed on the busy suburban streets until we found a commercial area, a train station, or a bus stop. After a mile or so, we passed a hospital and what looked like a small college. Soon we found a train platform, and near it was a was a nice, well-lit restaurant with pastries in the window.


We ordered breakfast from a waitress that spoke English well and only then asked if they had WIFI. “Nein,” she said bluntly.

Do you know of another place with WIFI or maybe a library, we asked? She looked doubtful but gave us directions to the nearest library, near the Rhine, about 500 meters to the west.

After breakfast, we walked about a kilometer through a very quaint, older commercial village that dead-ends at the river, but no library.

After some asking around, we finally found it. It was not open on Tuesdays. (And I doubted that they would even have free WiFi anyway. They don’t even give you free water at restaurants!) The day was not going well.

We wandered west, back to the river’s edge then south down shaded trails that snaked along the Rhine.

We found a number of riverside restaurants and bars. We noticed some kids going home from school. (How we knew they were going home and not to school was intuitive, I think. They were not gathering but as they walked along, some would say some of farewell and peel off. One would wave and leave the group, fours split into twos.) Still before noon, we wondered why they would be going home so soon.

One young student in a school uniform ahead of us on the trail we were following, cut onto the field to our right and over to the river’s edge. We noticed that she was headed to a ferry launch. Soon, we noticed the ferry slowly moving across the river to our side. We decided to go.

The ferry brought cars, pedestrians, cyclists and one young woman walking her dog. For 1.5 Euros each, we crossed. Yearly and monthly passes excluded, the fees were .75€ for kids, 1.5€ for adults, 2.5€ for motorcycles and 7.5€ for cars. I didn’t see a fee for dogs.

The fresh, moist air of the breeze as we crossed the river, the laughter of the school kids, and the visual transition of the river crossing all seemed to free us from the hustle and bustle of the busy city, the frustration of no Internet or phone connection, and the tension of a travel/relocation day.

In the ten days of travel, so far, we had not really had a day to just rest and do nothing. This was turning out to be such a day, a day of no schedule or timetable, (other than dinner tonight): a day to relax.

On the west side of the Rhine, we followed some narrow streets and found another hotel/restaurant, but beyond that, the rural development looked as if you had plopped us down in Yolo County, perhaps somewhere between Davis and Winters, near a hay farm or rice field.

We walked for some time and discovered a tiny community with an equestrian center on its edge. The tall bell tower, narrow streets, and horses, all made for lovely scenery. We sensed both a feeling of home and other-worldliness. A steady sigh of relief from the morning rush to get packed and relocate.

We ended up at the restaurant on the west side ferry landing and enjoyed a light lunch, not wanting eat too much before the dinner at Gabi’s.

Back at our apartment, I was able to call the Mobile Viking help line and after about 20 minutes, the attendant helped me reconfigure the network settings on my phone, and within a few minutes I was able to call, search, and navigate. Soon, I figured out how to tether my mini laptop and Rebecca’s phone to the new phone and retrieve email, communicate with Gabi, take care of some bills at home and get some work done on the blog.

As we walked to Gabi’s house, we wondered how we’d recognize her. What would the evening bring? Who were the guests? What would we eat? And a bit of doubt about whether all this planning and expense would be worth it.

Gabi greeted us on the landing after she buzzed us in. Energetic with a bright smile, she had an enthusiasm that belied the fact that she is the mom of two 30-something kids. Her husband had died several years ago, and after living in the US for half her life, she decided to return to her native Germany.

Gabi had assembled an eclectic group of friends, all of which spoke fluent English and represented different walks of life.

Thosten and Heidi talk about the changing German politics.

Thosten is a reserved man about 50 years old whose English is so good that I thought he grew up in England. He teaches English in a local college for specific areas of expertise such as computer programmers, biologists, or engineers. Later here told me that he is native German.

Heidi is a pharmacist who works near here and lives in the older part of Düsseldorf. She encouraged us to try our German. I doubted we’d communicate much at all, relying on our German.

Ray and Meik are partners who have a home near Heidi’s, but also keep an apartment in Brooklyn. Ray is a pilot for Delta Airlines, and Meik is a “head-hunter” who owns a human resources agency based here in Düsseldorf and in Cologne, hiring senior staff for large agencies.

Meik and Ray, young, dynamic jet-setters who live in Dusseldorf part-time and keep a flat in Brooklyn.

Claudia showed up a bit later. She is maybe the youngest at the dinner. She had just taken a job with Thessen/Krupp, a large industrial agency that buys businesses and restructures the management.  She has just moved to the same neighborhood near Ray and Meik, they discover.  “We’re neighbors!” Meik exclaims.

“Serendipity!” Gabi says. Although the level of expertise  is remarkable in this room, it’s rare word to some.  I look at Rebecca and she looks at me in unison.  We both know that “Serendipity” is her favorite word.  It was her “Abracadabra” word she used as an amateur magician when she was young.

For weary travelers like us, wandering around in an unknown city this morning, it was turning out to be a magical day.

The conversation is lively and revolves mostly around the changing politics here in Germany. Merkel is seen as reflecting ineffective, but most people say she is in a difficult balancing act. Politics here is a bit more complicated.  There isn’t just a right and left polarization.  And once you get more than two major parties, side alliances make things much more dynamic.

Only five years old, the AfD (Alternative for Germany) with its “Merkel must go!” mantra, it is a stark reminder of the vehement sentiment of the pro-Trump sentiment against Hillary Clinton.  They have become entrenched in every German state, risen to the second largest of five major parties, and seem to be doing everything they can to unseat Merkel and anyone who sympathizes her. So there is no room for even moderates in the middle.  The far right and far left are tearing up the country, it seems.

Though not in perfect alignment, the same is happening in the US, I point out. Thorsten says that there are checks and balances in the US that will save us. Ironically, that balance is in question as the hearings for Bret Kavenaugh begin this week.

Claudia helps Gabi serve dessert
Everyone smiles as Gabi insists on taking the photo.
Wonderful menu Gabi had prepared on a blackboard near the kitchen

We talk of many things, politics, our plans, politics, their jobs, politics, and food.  Gabi has written the menu on a blackboard, like a restaurant.  She has plated the first course and asks us to sit down.  It is a melon salad on watercress with lemon dressing and a sprinkle of goat cheese.

Next Course is a zucchini dish served cold and thinly sliced–it must have been done on a Mandolin.  Then she had cod with black bean sauce and couscous (she made tofu for me) everything was wonderful! You can see that she loves to cook and it shows. 

Ray and Meik helped us with our connections to the plane day-after-tomorrow.  As Ray is a pilot, he knows the ins and outs of getting to the airports and various rules and requirements.  It ends up that getting new tickets to Berlin would be cheaper and less hassle than getting to the Cologne Airport at 5am. 

There was lots of conversation.  We got along really well.  Meik was funny and talked about an island called Sylt off the coast of Denmark that we should plan to visit on our next trip.

Come to find out, Gabi  didn’t know many of the guests at her own party–she knew Heidi, Claudia, and Thorsten.  Meik and Ray were invited by Heidi, and we were, of course, new to all of them.  Meik said, “It’s like being on a blind date.”  Serendipity!

More talk about Sylt, Heidi owns an apartment there. She suggests that we all meet there in the future.  It sounds like a grand idea, to meet on Sylt next year.  We have the main dish, cod with black beans sauce, and then Heidi and Claudia teamed up to serve the dessert, an almond chocolate cake.

It was a lovely time, but time to end. We all pitched in to gather up dishes, as much as Gabi would let us. 

After the other guests had left, Gabbi invited us back over tomorrow for breakfast and then she’ll show us the sites.  She even walks us back to our apartment–she takes a walk every night. 

Our room is quiet and comfortable in the eaves of the house.  The bathroom is modern and too bright.  It has electric shutters outside the windows that come down slowly and lock in place.  It seems like protection as well as privacy.

We stay up a bit talking about the marvelous evening.  It really was serendipity.  After a few minutes checking on email, we call it a night.  We have to be at Gabi’s at 10 tomorrow.

Next day with Gabi

We left the B and B about 9:45 and headed over to Gabi’s.  We know the way now, so we take a shorter route.  

She had quite a spread–cheeses and meats and boiled eggs and rolls and jams (including a home made blackberry jam!)

She lived in the US for many years with her husband and two children, Dirk and Bianca.  Both kids now live in the US, but she came back to Germany with her husband and then he died a number of years ago.

After we help with clean-up, we piled in her car parked in the basement garage and set out for an adventure. We drove southeast to the region she grew up in, to an old castle (not really old by German standards-1700’s?) and the buildings around it in Solingen. 

One of the common ways to put siding on houses in this region is to use slate, much like slate on roofs. Many of the older homes have grey slate tiles, some are circular and some are square. The dark grey makes for a pretty siding–heavy, too–they even make patterns on the walls.  The trim is usually white with bright green shutters.  It is quite a charming effect. 


We walked in one touristy store where an older woman makes brushes.  We watched her make one using goat hair and a tool to pull the hair in bundles through the holes in the brush. 


Gabi said that the business is closing in October because she and her husband are in their 80’s and no one wants to learn the trade.  So sad.  Woody bought a brush for me and one for Gabi (she had mentioned that she used to have a brush from here but lost it).  Woody and I went down the hill in a chair lift and Gabi drove round to meet us.


We drove through pretty, hilly countryside with little villages surrounded by forests along the way. Gabi wanted to take us to a mill where they use water flowing from the river to turn the wheels to turn grinding stones.  She saw a sign and pulled over but she wasn’t sure it was right.  We walked down a lovely forest track until we met a man walking his friendly dogs–huge Berenese Mountain dogs, I think. 


He said, no, the mill was no longer there, just a pile of foundation rocks.  So we turned back.  He had told her of another mill called Kotten and she drove there.  That was fun to see.  The water turned the wheel that turned an axle that turned a series of grinding stones all connected to leather belts.  The stones were used to shape and sharpen knives.  Now, it has been a museum since 1962, one of the free ones we’ve seen.  It pays to have a local guide! 


They had a museum to show how it was done and samples of swords and knives that had been made there.  I couldn’t tell if some things were still being made there or not.  I almost bought a knife but I can’t get it through security, so I didn’t. 

On we went to see a high train bridge–the highest in Germany.  We saw it above us, crossing the gorge carved out by the Wupper river, the same one that turned the water wheel to make the knives.  We had lunch at a restaurant below near the shadow of the bridge.  I had a thin almost pie crust thin pizza with spinach and cheese caked Flammkuchen.  It was better than I expected. 


We headed out back to Dusseldorf to the tower called the Rheinturm, built in 1979 and rising high above the river.  We took an elevator to the top and out to a circular restaurant–you don’t have to buy anything, you can just look around.  The windows lean out so you can stand and look straight down–causes a bit of vertigo. 

Once down, we headed home but got stuck in rush hour traffic.  Not fun!  She drops us off at our street, we hugged goodbye.  Here is someone that we could really be good friends with, but we may never see again.  Back at the B and B, we packed up, called for a taxi to pick us up at 5:15am and set the alarm.  Will we wake up in time, I’m concerned.

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