DAY 20 in Essen, Germany:
“To reminisce with my old friends, a chance to share some memories, and play our songs again.” — Ricky Nelson
I was frantically looking for the restroom at the backpacker lodge where our Hobbiton tour bus was to pick Niki and I up when I met sweet Joana. She pointed me in the right direction and later when I caught up to her to thank her, both of us found out we were booked on the same tour that day! This was last year in February when we were all 19 and free from the clutches of Uni. We kept in touch ever since, and finally a year and a half later, Miriam and I were on our way to Essen to meet Joana.
The only thing in our way? The original 60-minute train delay which extended to 80 then to 90 minutes. Each time we used the restroom, we acquired coupons we could use for bread, and that’s how we ended up meeting Joana with tomato-olive bread, ciabatta and another chia seed wholemeal snug in our bags. (The olive one was a gamble on my part because I knew Miriam isn’t fond of olives, but thankfully she loved it in bread form!)
‘Did you both see Duisburg Hbf along the way? It’s the ugliest train station there is!’
We laughed, nodded and hugged our funny friend hello. 😀
Joana brought us through the city area of Essen, which I realised looked starkly different from slightly greyer and seemingly uncared for Duisburg, and to a small fruit stall where we got raspberries, peaches and bananas. A U-Bahn ride and quick walk later, we were in Joana’s cosy home having such a homemade spread for lunch — a-mix-of-all-things-veggie-that-Joana-had cous cous bowl, alpro lemon pudding flavoured yoghurt (the only non-homemade food!), and banana bread which in my opinion stole the show! We also talked about our shower songs, aka. songs we play when we shower… Breathe for Joana and Please Tell Rosie for me.
Blissfully satiated, we went to Zeche Zollverein (English: Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex), which is a large former industrial site that was inscribed into the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites since December 14, 2001, and is one of the anchor points of the European Route of Industrial Heritage. Prior to 1986, a total of 240 million tonnes of coal was produced in the mine which could accommodate up to 8000 miners at a time. The mine is no longer a ‘working mine’. Now, besides the Ruhr Museum which has been built to preserve its story, the venue is also sometimes used for art festivals.
The first coal mine on the premises was founded in 1847, mining activities took place from 1851 until December 23, 1986. For decades, starting in the late 1950s, the two parts of the site, Zollverein Coal Mine and Zollverein Coking Plant, ranked among the largest of their kinds in Europe. Shaft 12 was opened in 1932 and is considered an architectural and technical masterpiece, earning it a reputation as the “most beautiful coal mine in the world”.
At the Ruhr Museum, we walked through different periods of the Ruhr region’s developments. We smelled the smells of the past — the stench of River Emscher with its pungent phenols and polychlorinated hydrocarbons that brought on instant headaches, the characteristic sulfur pouring out of the coking plants, the crispness of the nearby forests,… — listened to the sounds of the past and discovered common past times of people from the past — bungee jumping and fishing among others (although Joana claimed that the bungee jumping one was a joke, that isn’t true!).
Miriam picked up on a few things I had missed out on, like the Ritter family from Kirchhellen’s soup bowl which could only be filled halfway because their house was tilted (a result of the subsidence caused by mining), Mrs Keuter’s two water jars which were used to draw water from a spring at night to avoid low-flying aircraft when she fled the advancing Americans in 1945, and an 1959 advent calendar made of matchboxes belonging to Norbert Reichling and his two brothers.
The three of us had separated on one floor of the exhibition and it was almost pin-drop silence when Miriam beckoned me to come over to where she was and showed me something that she found absolutely fascinating (I did too). It was a bolt of lightning that had struck a sandy bedrock of the approximately 80 million-year-old Cretaceous seabed, and because of its extreme (up to 30,000°C) temperature, had melted the sand, forming a fulgurite!
To end our trip with a bang, we climbed flights and flights of stairs to the rooftop where we saw the beautiful Shaft 12 (mentioned above). Robert had mentioned so much about this part of Germany in our past conversations and all along, I had this image of ‘metal, grey, concrete, dust’ but what I saw up there was nothing like that at all. It was a green city. And out of the greens loomed the shafts from the past.
Back in Joana’s home, we met her smiley, bubbly Mum who speaks little English but tried to converse with us with the help of occasional sign language and Joana’s translation (she was so sweet). We had dinner — stuffed bell peppers and an apple-chocolate cake that was supposed to be a banana-chocolate cake, but Joana bought plantains instead of bananas and she had to use what she had in her kitchen: apples… IT WAS PHENOMENAL). We subsequently lost track of time as we lost ourselves in the whirlwind of topics, but Joana’s Mum saved the day with a quick drive to the train station, and we made it just minutes before our train left.
Four things were cemented on the train ride to Amsterdam:
- Long train rides seem to bring out vulnerability.
- Miriam gives incredible advice.
- It is very difficult to love a ‘perfect person’.
It was late as we arrived at Amsterdam Centraal Station and one think that Amsterdam would be gearing for bed, but the people were anything but. We were entertained by a group of teenagers surrounding a piano and belting out lyrics to the tune of Sara Bareilles’ Love Song, and metres away another man who seemed to me to have been professing his love to the woman beside him.
Our first introduction to Amsterdam beyond the train station was slightly terrifying. As we waited for our tram, a clearly drunk man drank out of a glass beer bottle and subsequently clanked it right onto the tram stop’s seat which jolted us, causing us to move out of the stop’s shelter and into the coolness of Amsterdam. He boarded the same tram as us, but we wanted to be anything but near him so we moved to the back of the carriage.
10-something pm at Jaques Oppenheimstraat, we meet our airbnb host, Vera who was incredibly warm and welcoming. She gave us a tour of her cosy apartment, that which included showing us the dates, apple spread, müsli, rice cakes, berries and coconut oil which she had in stock. She was especially excited about the coconut oil… ‘I’ve been putting coconut oil on my wrinkles for about a year and now they’re gone!’ she says as she points to her face.
The bed was so comfy. Ahh, rest.