Essen is the ninth largest city in Germany and is near three other of the top ten largest cities in this country. Lot of regional pride, state pride, and city pride here, from the soccer team, to the regional beer and foods. And although cities like Dusseldorf and Frankfurt are consistently ranked as some of the nicest places in the world to live, there are hip bars and interesting culture to back the little pollution and nice parks.
At d.bar, they serve your drinks and mark how many you’ve had on your coaster, slash for a small, x for a big. I wasn’t really excited when Nora said that Alex wanted to meet at a bar owned by some Schlager singer; I wanted to go to the banditen bar, which sounded much cooler.
Schlager is akin to American country music. It has a disco beat and lyrics about working in coal mines, and love, and living in the Ruhrgebiet. Down the block we entered a small smoke-filled bar where German music played and there he is, the owner and star, Rene Pascal (fake name), bright blonde hair coiffured and drawn into a short ponytail that hangs above his shaved upper neck where his naturally black hair is shaved into a star, which somehow matches his pencil thin mustache and soul patch and highlights the blue of his small bright eyes. He’s wearing a black vest over a red flannel. There’s a two drink minimum.
On the walls are black and white photos of old movie stars, along with a weird poster by Paul Blanc of a handsome naked man holding presumably his baby in outstretched arms. Oddly you can just see the beginning of his penis, which leaves you to speculate on its total length, which obviously isn’t small if he’s so good looking and posing in this kind of artsy black and white poster, which hangs on a blue velvet wall.
Clusters of faux street lamps give off a warm yellow-orange light. A waitress serves beer and marks the piece of paper handed you by the mulleted man at the door who apparently looks just like another Schlager singer. And here and there on the walls are bits of Rene Pascal’s stardom, headlines of SCHLAGERSTAR, all about ten years old because Schlager enjoyed a resurgence in the early aughties, which was when Rene was “found” by a talk show host. He subsequently enjoyed a brief period of fame and success and is a local celebrity in Essen. Every now and then he gets on the mic and tells the mulleted guy to close the door, we want it heiss in here, so we can all listen to the schlager and inhale the cigarette smoke and each other’s perfume.
Sabine kindly went with me and told him I’m from New York and asked if I could take a picture. “No problemme,” he said, which was probably the most English he knew. And despite the smoky old-timers and middle-aged women singing and dancing, there were young people, and the place was hip because of its kitschiness. It’s all so real, with Rene pouring and DJing, and meanwhile Charlotte is on my left and we start talking about how weird this all is.
She’s drinking wine, because of the French in her and I tell her that Germany is the first country I’ve been to where I feel like I’m back in the United States. The people here are weird and alternative, but there’s a nice mix of conservatism to balance out the freaks.
“It’s interesting because these people have a lot of German pride,” she says in her British-accented English. “In school we are taught to be very ashamed of the World War. But it’s also important to be proud of your country. Of course Germany did very terrible things but other countries have done terrible things too. I had a teacher who wanted us to feel very bad about it, but it wasn’t us who did it; it was so long ago.”
“Of course,” and it began to dawn on me, “It’s getting to the point where most people don’t remember the war, and it’s becoming legendary, so it’s natural that German pride would begin to re-emerge and become acceptable.”
“Ja, and Germany also has very good things to be proud of, you know, we rebuilt the country after the war and became one of the most powerful nations in Europe, and we have nice food and people…”
So maybe the reason Germany feels so much like the United States is because we are at opposite ends of the spectrum, which means we begin to resemble each other at the extremes. The U.S. was the biggest winner in the war, Germany was the biggest loser. That tension that comes from understanding your identity, whether as an Irish-Jewish New York born American, or as a proud yet bashful Berliner three generations after the biggest war of all time, after which both countries changed forever, yields a struggle and discontent and searching and questioning and a lot of room for change and creativity, which is why Berlin (my thoughts soon to come) and New York are arguably the leading centers of progressive thought, because it’s harder for us to understand who we are and where we’re going.
I might add that when the German girls introduce me as an American, or a New Yorker, I’m welcomed and treated hospitably. Everyone is impressed and excited to know me, unlike the Dutch who played indifference when I told them where I’m from, making me feel almost ashamed. “New York? I’ve heard of it.” Yeah, fuck you too. If I met an Amsterdammer in my country I’d be excited and welcoming, not insular and reserved.
And intermittently throughout our conversation Rene Pascal got on the mic to yammer on about how it’s Friday night and the bar serves cold beer and he likes to open the door and cool the place down and then make it heiss again. It was getting more crowded and people were singing and my crew decided it was time to leave.
So we left and I got to ride Alex’s beautiful white bicycle because I remembered my ol’ bike and how good she was to me all those Brooklyn days and Alex cautioned me because she has panniers and lots of stuff in them and I rode dipping back and forth, to the left a block away to Goethe Bunker. Everybody knows who Goethe is here. In the U.S. we don’t have any statues of poets or writers. Just presidents. Nora said it’s because our country’s so young.
The club actually was a bunker back in the war, which is why the acoustics are so bad and it gets so loud. It was six euro to enter, unless you crouched low and ran so that the girls behind the bunker-like counter couldn’t see you, which is exactly what I did. I bought Nora a beer because she’s such a good host and since she was scared to run the gauntlet and had to pay. It was ’50s swing night. I was expecting a Home Sweet Home style of twist and rock but it more orchestral ensembles and that jazz. The other room was DJed with a live drummer keeping the beat and a guy on sax, and also a guy blowing a big Nepalese mountain horn you’d blow to get your goats to return to you. I went back in to the ’50s room and tried to two-step by myself and not dance with a short-haired girl dancing near me. I succeeded because I was legitimately distracted by a film being projected in which Babe Ruth is trying to get uptown to Yankee Stadium in a taxi and he nearly crashes at every intersection because his driver’s a bum.
Then back to the other room where Nora and I watched the dancing. I asked a guy for a cigarette by making the lighter-flicking and two fingers to my mouth sign, and he thought I meant a light, and when I made the two fingers to my mouth again he gave me a cigarette and then held up one finger and gave me the last two of his Lucky Strikes, since he was going to get another pack.
I couldn’t help laughing from time to time because there we were, not in Berlin or Hamburg, but near a hospital in Essen, in a really cool WWII bunker-converted club, and it seemed like such a thing wouldn’t and couldn’t exist in this suburban type of town, but sure enough, it does. Yeah there’s the Grugapark with the weisskopf adlers and the free-on-weekends public transportation, the characteristics that define a high quality of life. But that there exists an underground, that this small coal-mining town is totally different from fashionable Dusseldorf half an hour away, which is totally different from historic Cologne another half hour away, well hell if I were from the Staat of North Rhine-Westphalia, I’d throw up a gang sign and proudly represent for my town, state, and country.