May No More Wälkens be Stripped of their Umlauts

In the bad old days of anti-German prejudice, many Americans of German ancestry were compelled, like Rapunzel, to truncate their long, beautiful names and circumcise Bildergebnis für christopher walkenthem of their umlauts to make them more plain-vanilla WASP-sounding.

Fortunately, those days are now long past, and we can all celebrate the triumphs of Americans with names like Zellweger, Rohrabacher, Suhrheinrich, and my favorite, Nancy Pfotenhauer (paw-chopper).

And just today, I learned that Christopher Walken could have — nay, should have, been born “Christoper Wälken”: “He is the son of Rosalie (née Russell; May 16, 1907 – March 26, 2010), a Scottish emigrant from Glasgow, and Paul Wälken (October 5, 1903 – February 23, 2001), who came to the U.S. from Horst, Germany in 1928. His father owned and operated Walken’s Bakery in Astoria.”

I’ve never been one for online petitions, but Im tempted to start one to convince this giant of screen and stage to re-insert the two dots into his last name. Times have changed, the Vergangenheit has been bewältigt, and it’s time for members of the Volk to show some ethnic pride. Without going overboard, of course. Pfotenhauers unite!

“I am not German — always 9 a.m. paddle”

There are many things to like in this New York Times profile of a 70-year-old Polish man who kayaked across the Atlantic alone, but this is my favorite:

He kept no schedule. “I am not German — always 9 a.m. paddle,” he explained. “I am Polish. I paddle when I would like.”

Church Politics and Buildings

My business affairs took me to the prosperous Düsseldorf suburb of Pempelfort the other day, so I decided to drop by the Kreuzkirche (g) one of the landmarks of this area.

At first glance, the Dorf appears to be full of ancient churches, but it ain’t so. Most of the churches which appear antique were actually built at the end of the 19th or early 20th centuries in various historical revival styles, mainly neo-Gothic and neo-Romanesque. Back then, confessional differences between Catholics and Protestants were still important, and affected architectural styles. The Catholics tended to go for the neo-Gothic style when they built new churches, the Protestants chose neo-Romanesque, since Romanesque was the earlier style (ca. 700-1200), and thus reflected the Protestants’ claims to be returning to an earlier, “truer” form of Christianity stripped of Papist fripperies.

Let’s be frank about this: this is all a horrible missed opportunity. The late 19th century was a time of innovation all over Germany, but Düsseldorf’s bourgeois classes were too conservative to finance Sezession or Art Nouveau  or Jugendstil-style churches, which would have been more interesting than a bunch of copies of 500 or 1,000-year-old models. Kaiser Wilhelm the II hated Jugendstil, and loved neo-Romanesque buildings, so prosperous Düsseldorf Protestants built largely in the neo-Romanesque style. The fact that KW II was a thoroughly mediocre reactionary who certainly didn’t give two shits what kind of churches Düsseldorf burghers built doesn’t seem to have dimmed their enthusiasm. What an odd institution monarchies were.

Anyhow, the Kreuzkirche is a fine example of a neo-Romanesque church. It was designed by Carl Wilhelm Schleicher, a local architect, and built between 1907 and 1910. Here’s the view from outside:

Bildergebnis für kreuzkirche düsseldorf

The church was built as a Protestant parish church, with financial support from the prosperous merchants living in what was then a leafy northern suburb of Düsseldorf. They spared no expense, outfitting the towers with expensive green copper cladding, and filling the interior with marble accessories and lavish church implements. They hired local artists to decorate the interior domes with Byzantine-inspired reliefs. The church itself is in the shape of a Greek cross, with equal-length arms. Because of the unusual dimensions of the piece of donated real estate (the church is at a crossroads where 5 roads meet), it is not pointed toward the east — which, in German, is called being “easted” (geostet).

Much of the interior decoration fell victim to World War II bomb damage and various restorations. In 1974, the massive marble altar was removed from the chancel, and replaced by a simple lectern. standing in front of the chancel. The pews were removed from the ground floor and replaced with ordinary chairs. The naves both feature raised galleries to accommodate more visitors. The windows were designed in the late 1950s by Ernst Otto Köpke.

I took the old wide-angle lens for a spin, here are a few of my photos:

Kreuzkirche view of SW window
Kreuzkirche view of organ loft and SW facing window from NE gallery

I wouldn’t exactly call it beautiful, but it’s handsome. The unadorned sandstone is historically accurate, and in keeping with Protestant aversion to decoration (although the crucifix is a copy of Donatello). The regularity and repetition of the forms makes a harmonious overall impression. The church has been a designated historical landmark for decades now, which seems like a proper decision.

You can visit the church every weekday from 5:00 to 7:00 pm, just to pray, meditate, or look around. A friendly church lady will greet you, and you can basically have the run of the place. Nobody else visited while I was there, which seemed a bit unfortunate. But then again, Germany’s official Protestant church has been hemorrhaging members at an alarming rate, so there’s no surprise there.

The Americanization of the German Palate

The Washington Post writes of peanut butter, which the EU might impose tariffs on if there’s a trade war:

The spread, nearly ubiquitous in the United States, barely registers beyond North America. As Northwestern marketing professor Brian Sternthal put it to the HuffPost, “in many parts of the world, peanut butter is regarded as an unpalatable American curiosity.” One New Yorker writer described his acquaintances from Northern Ireland responding to his jars of Skippy with disgust, “as if peanuts were synonymous with maggots.” In a 1981 essay, William F. Buckley Jr., described the students at his British boarding school tasting the nutty treat, then spitting it out. (No wonder, he wrote, “they needed help to win the war.”)

As a result, it can be tough to get a Jif fix outside the USA. “Finding peanut butter abroad is nearly impossible,” one Vice article declared. “Just about every country has peanuts, and just about every country has blenders. Why is it so desperately difficult to find real-deal peanut butter outside of the US? Blame local tastes that just don’t understand the American yen.”

This just ain’t true, as you can see by the photo used to illustrate the article:

This is the store-brand variety of peanut butter sold by the large German discounter Real (“original from the USA”).

When I first landed lived here for stint in 2001, peanut butter was impossible to find. If you wanted some, you had to go to a specialty American/British food shop and pay outlandish prices.

Today, you can get peanut butter in at least 75% of all grocery stores — even the discounters — here in Düsseldorf. The same goes for other delectable treats such as genuine maple syrup, real Cheddar cheese, and “breakfast bacon” which you fry up with eggs.

HERTA Breakfast Bacon feiner Frühstücksspeck

When I first came here, nobody had heard of “bacon”, and they reacted with puzzlement when I told them I planned to fry it up — why would you do that to a nice cut of smoked pork? I told them: “because frying it makes it 100 times as delicious.” And then proved it by giving them some.

Now you can get “Breakfast Bacon” in any store. When I go to the farmer’s market, the nice lady offers to cut my pork “bacon style”, and I’m not the only one ordering it that way.

Maybe this is just Düsseldorf, it’s a pretty cosmopolitan place. But I bet the trend is bigger: with modern transportation and logistics, it’s pretty easy to make and sell a niche product, even in a fairly small store in a small town.

I find this is all good. Bacon, cheddar cheese, maple syrup, and peanut butter are objectively delicious, which is why some Germans end up liking them when they try them. Just as most Americans and Britons fall in love with German bread and sausage.

If there is a trade war, I am sure some enterprising German firm will learn how to make peanut butter well, and immediately fill the gap. One of the things Germans are very good at is imitating the culinary delights of other cultures. And peanut butter is the simplest thing in the world to make. Maybe I’ll just make my own, and begin selling it on the streetcorner.


Will the Bilk Horse’s Head Survive?

It’s local history time! Which is easy, when you live in Bilk, a neighborhood in Düsseldorf which is actually older than Düsseldorf itself: Bilk was first mentioned as ‘Villa Bilici in a document from February 14, 799.

But now to more recent history. If you walk down the street where I live, you will notice something fairly odd: a horse’s head:

Horsehead General view

As you can see, the building has a sign for “paper processing” and a few names and very old telephone numbers. But the most striking feature is the horse’s head. I attached my camera to a long pole to get some close-ups of it:

Horsehead Brunnenstr. 27 rightHorsehead Brunnenstr. 27 left

Did people look at me strangely while I was holding a 3-meter pole with a camera attached to it? Nope. This is Düsseldorf, a town which is lousy with artists and photographers, both amateur and professional. You can’t swing a dead cat here without someone taking a picture of it.

The story behind the horse’s head is told in the latest issue of the local magazine devoted to the history of the neighborhood, the Bilker Sternwarte (g, pdf).

The building, which is now Brunnenstr. 27, was constructed in 1888/1889 by Jakob Torney, a construction foreman and developer. The building was later acquired by one Anton Schmalscheidt in the late 1890s, who installed stalls for ten horses on the ground floor, and ran a carriage business from the house. (The house is known as the Schmalscheidt house). This is probably when the horse’s head you see above you was made. We don’t know who made it.

The main client of the carriage business was the Julius Schulte and Sons paper factory founded in 1886, which still exists (g) and lends its fragrant aroma to the neighborhood every summer. They used horses to transport their paper to a nearby train station, until the paper factory finally bought a tractor for this purpose.

Unfortunately, plans are now afoot by Holatec, a business which currently owns the building and operates from it. They want to tear it down and make it into student apartments. Local politicians filed a petition to have the building designated a historical landmark, but the petition was denied on December 5, 2017. The local landmark commission found the building did not have enough historical value. There have been demonstrations (g) by local residents who want to preserve the building. They stood outside it, making “clop-clop” noises with coconut halves.

The local Green party representative for District 3 of the city said (g): “We are very much interested in allowing people to continue to live in Brunnenstraße 27. We also expressly support the idea of student apartments here. But why does the entire building need to be torn down, instead of integrating the new construction into the existing building? For many residents of Bilk, this will mean the disappearance of a piece of their neighborhood which makes it a great place to live.”

Will the horse’s head building be saved? Stay tuned — I will keep you informed of every twist and turn in this utterly fascinating (by German local-history standards) story.