Category Archives: culture & cities

German bathroom appliances actually work

A recent visit to England once again confirmed my opinion of British bathroom technology. Flush the toilet, and quite often, apart from a rumbling and murmuring, nothing much happens. When it is the least suiting and most embarrassing, you have to pump, press and pray for that relieving gush of water to finally come. Reaching the washbasin, you are usually faced with two separate hot and cold water taps, thus being offered the choice between scorching your hands or not getting your fingers clean.

Taking a shower is even more complicated. Due to a Victorian age infrastructure, decades of privatisation with old, leaky water pipes never having been replaced, and a consequently widespread necessity for water-cisterns somewhere under the roof, a normal shower-pressure can only be achieved by sucking and pressurising the water with a pump. At the same instance it is also heated electrically. All this works at times, but can require a complicated setup of pulling switch-cords in the bathroom, fine-tuning several rotating knobs and pushing buttons not clearly labelled. All after which it is possible you achieve a mild flow that is fluctuating between too hot and too cold.

For a German, at least, this is confounding. For decades it has for us been the most normal thing to flush once, with the additional choice of long or short, so as to save water. Washing your hands, hot and cold is pre-mixed and adjustable before it reaches you. The same is true in the shower and bath, where some modern setups are in addition adjustable with a passively working thermostat. And even if styled in fancy pink or lush green, a rubber plug-on shower-head for the bathtub has in Germany simply been unthinkable for many years.

I can only imagine that there must be a mixture of ignorance on sides of the often little-travelled British buyer and a cartel- or oligopoly-like structure on sides of the producers that makes all this possible. Dreams of the old empire, with thinly gold-plated taps or flush knobs just can’t compensate when facing something that simply works.

Roaming the country, we have seen quality appliances in one or two ‘luxury’ bed and breakfasts, but even visiting a hotel is far from being any kind of guarantee. I am sure the more affluent people in England do not have these problems, but that once again goes to show what a class-divided society this is.

So here, at least, and quite clearly, German engineering wins against those echoes of a once innovating nation. While David Cameron’s heroic and Hugh-Grant-like speech may have evoked great emotions, in either direction, mind you, Ed Miliband may have been more right when he said: ‘Britain can do better than this.’ In the bathroom, for one, this should easily be true.

Most Germans at first think this is some kind of practical joke.

Most Germans at first think this is some kind of practical joke.

Hannover, green city of pleasant average

There is probably no city in Germany quite as smiled at by other Germans as Hannover. Unjustly, as I think, and usually by those who have never been there. Which is alright with most Hannoverians, who are content with their city in a quiet way. For many, it is simple: They have lots of green, two small rivers, a city lake and a zoo, they have the university and the trade-fairs, and they have a reasonable infrastructure, so what more could they need?

Hannover unfortunately cannot pride itself in having been rebuilt in any meaningful way after the war. There are too many buildings of the 50s, 60s and 70s, including large concrete blocks such as the Ihme Zentrum, which may have looked fine as a cardboard model, but not in real life. To compensate all this, modern art has for years been placed along the central city roads. The art is mostly annoying, but you cannot say this openly, as it would show you as uneducated and intolerant, and in addition would insult the well-paid civil servants responsible for making the choices.

Otherwise, Hannover is largely defined by easily being the greenest city in Germany. As the large urban forest, called the Eilenriede, forms a green belt of broad-leafed trees through most of the South, it is possible to walk or ride your bike for hours, while just occasionally crossing a road. Mostly adjoining or close to this green belt are two well-kept English parks, the Georgengarten and the Hermann Löns Park, both with flowing paths along green meadows, as well as the Tiergarten, which is home to deer and some porcupine. Internationally known for its firework competitions is the baroque garden of Herrenhausen. Along many of these green refuges, the quality of living is high and sometimes almost rural.

Close to the center of Hannover lies the Maschsee, an artificial lake with a footpath of six kilometers around, abundant with joggers and pedestrians. You can take a pedal boat and even sail here, and when you are thirsty have a cold drink and a bratwurst in the beer-garden overlooking the water. From here, it is just a few steps to the Arena which houses many games of Hannover 96, the local football club which at times surprises with its fluctuating success.

The new Rathaus, also not far away, is by some seen as slightly kitschy, while others love it. In any case, it is one of the few recognisable buildings in Hannover, and again borders on a park. Being the capital of the federal state of Lower Saxony, Hannover is a bustling, lively city with lots of culture, much of it tax-sponsored, including museums, several theatres and an opera house. There are concerts, festivals and sporting events here, plenty of them outside, with the Hannover marathon, the musical Maschseefest, the artistic Kleines-Fest-im-Großen-Garten and the big Christmas market around the Marktkirche church being some of the most notable.

The House of Hannover, or Hanover, as the English say, was actually some centuries ago responsible for refreshing the bloodline of the English monarchy, but today the most well-known descendant is one who drunkenly urinated in public at the Expo 2000. The Expo, by the way, was an outer-worldly expensive event, but it did have the great advantage of giving Hannover one of the nicest train stations in Germany. Which even won a prize, and that makes it official.

The people living in Hannover are in many ways similar to the city. Not over the top, but rather straight-forward and peaceful, at times edging towards the mediocre, with a quiet and dry humour. Being accustomed to it, many enjoy the green, and those who want more of nature can easily do this by driving 40 minutes westwards to the large Steinhuder Meer lake, or southwards for 20 minutes and more towards the woody hills of the Gehrdener Berg, the Deister and the Süntel, or for just over an hour to the Harz mountains, which are mostly covered in coniferous trees. Northwards you can reach the pleasant Heide landscapes in one hour, then Hamburg, and then the Baltic and the North Sea in just over two hours. Not exactly near, but easily done on a sunny weekend day.

Summing up, Hannover is not a city of life-style and flair, but for many, it is a pleasant place to live. And that can be more than it at first may seem.

The lift to the top runs at a tilt, but once you are up, you can look straight down

The lift to the top runs at a tilt, but once you are up, you can look straight down

Würzburg on the Main, and its people

The city of Würzburg is one of those places in Germany that is so perfect, it is hard to match. In many ways, it is like a piece of art or a meal with just the right composition of ingredients.

Würzburg lies in the Northern part of Bavaria, and thus is as much middle-German as it is South-German. In fact, quite a few Franconians there do not see themselves as Bavarians and could well imagine independence, or so they say. The city is sweet and beautiful, but at the same time brimming with real life, there is a large river running through it, and it is surrounded by softly rolling hills that are covered with fields, woods and vineyards. Sun and warm weather are plentiful.

The wine produced here is mostly white, as it is in many parts of the country, the typical types of grapes are Silvaner, Müller-Thurgau, Bacchus, Riesling and Scheurebe, with the latter offering a fruity and almost flowery aroma. In one of the many ‘Weinstuben’ you can enjoy a good glass, with two of the nicest places being the Eulenspiegel and the Alte Mainmühle, both offering small recluses on different levels, with a candle on a wooden table in front of you.

Although a university city rich in tradition, Würzburg, with its around 130,000 inhabitants is nonetheless large enough to offer a rich life  beyond the world of studying. There is culture everywhere, and so are churches, most of them catholic. It is hard to imagine that much of this city was rebuilt after the war, for though there are many newer houses, almost none seem displaced or modern in an overbearing way. Looking down on Würzburg is the Festung, a large fortress that can be climbed on foot or reached by car, and which then offers a magnificent view onto the town.

The Festung itself is best seen from the Alte Main Brücke, an old stone bridge over the Main river, with baroque figures on either sides. A drink or meal can be enjoyed in the adjoining Brückenbäck, a light-drenched café overlooking the river. Slightly outside and with a view on Würzburg lies the Schützenhof, a pleasant beer garden that offers beer, wine and regional cuisine.

There is a tangy taste at times, and that stems from its people. The Franconians are on occasion not completely cordial and may emit a slightly grumpy and resentful note, but it is one that you could also find in other parts of Germany, albeit in different variations. It is strange that such a nice place would not leave its people more content.

But the Franconian way of softly moaning is quickly diluted by the large amount of young students from all around the country. Being a university town definitely has its advantages. And as with any work of art and any good meal, it is the combination that does it.

Water, sky, some green and a few historic buildings. That's the taste.

Water, sky, some green and a few historic buildings. That’s the taste.

Building the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg

There is a certain unplanned affinity in Germany for public projects not getting finished on time. And when they are finally finished, they usually cost several times the estimated price.

Stuttgart 21 is one such case. It actually only entails putting the complete train rails and central station of a city into the ground. What on earth could go wrong. Then there is the new airport in Berlin. Everything has already gone wrong there. A satirical German blog even suggested introducing a new grammatical form of future to cater for the day the airport will actually be opened.

And then there is the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg. Initial costs were estimated at around 100 million Euro, quite a nice sum for a new concert hall with an adjoining hotel and a few flats. Thing is, the price has now gone up to 800 million Euro.

I am sure the taxpayer will be getting some really fine concerts for this. That is, if he is still able to pay the admission fee.

Quite an expensive building. The acoustics are much applauded, though.

Quite an expensive building. The acoustics are much applauded, though.

On the beauty of German cities

When foreigners talk of German cities, they often think of Heidelberg, Berlin and Munich. While I generally agree on the beauty of Heidelberg and the vibrance of Berlin, I often think the hype around Munich is overdone and down to apt self-marketing. But it is possible I feel that way because I once lived in Munich and am happy not to live there anymore.

Anyway, of those foreigners visiting Germany, few usually plan on going to the smaller, but nonetheless lively cities like Würzburg, Bamberg, Tübingen, Koblenz, Regensburg, Freiburg and Passau, or the bigger ones like Hamburg and Dresden.

Which is a shame, as all these cities have a great deal to offer to anyone. All are bustling with student life and culture, all have one or several rivers flowing through them, all have, even through the bombings of WWII, retained or rebuilt many of their charming residential houses and impressive churches. Trees, green and parks are everywhere.

Dozens of cafés along the winding roads and pedestrian-zones in Germany invite you to take a rest, slurp a hot or cold drink and watch the people go by.

Really, Germany is quite beautiful in many places.

An evening view onto beautiful Würzburg. The dots on the U are intentional.

An evening view onto beautiful Würzburg. The dots on the U are intentional.