Black Diamonds

Unfortunately this isn’t about skiing down the snow-covered sides of the Alps (I’ve never been skiing and I’m fairly sure it would be a pretty humbling experience if I started). My friend from Purdue came to visit me and another friend in the Ruhrgebiet, the heart of the German Industrial Revolution.

There’s too much to write about, so here is a summary.

A new friend

Joe and Thomas at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum
Joe and Thomas at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum

Thomas and his family were incredible hospitable hosts. Not only did he plan great activities for us around Bochum, but he and his family taught me so much about German life and culture, answering so many of the basic questions I have been wondering about, such as who has the right of way when approaching an intersection without a stop-light. We explored the university campus, toured the small Moritz Fiege private brewery, climbed through the tunnels of the coal museum, and watched in awe the incredible German rendition of Starlight Express.

Coal mining in the Ruhrgebiet

His greatest hope each day was not to die on the job.
His greatest hope each day was not to die on the job.

Like in America, coal industry is tough industry. As we got lost in the network of underground exhibitions in the Bergbau museum, I couldn’t help but to feel sadness and desperation for those who worked here. It was incredible to see the infrastructure and to learn what it was like in a coal mine, but we were mere guests in a very clean version of the reality, akin to watching war movies on TV. The men and women who worked here spent their entire lives in the dirty and dusty darkness, hundreds of meters below ground. I kept wondering what it would have been like to never see the sun and to work daily in those conditions. Even more so, the machines and mine shafts were so large, the digs so expensive, and the actual coal deposits so small and scarce that one must wonder how such a business could ever be profitable.

Driving das Auto

Everyone always asks about driving on the Autobahn. I can finally say that I have done so and have now driven faster than most people I know – up to around 210 km/h (130 mph). It’s true that the Autobahn has no official speed limit, that is, you cannot break the law by driving too fast. However, there are many places where special speed zones exist that limit traffic to 130 km/h or 80 km/h.  Therefore if you want to experience the speed you have to take advantage of the straightaways when they come. Overall, people are reasonable with speeds and traffic was often moving at what I am used to in the States. Driving really fast is somewhat self-limiting because of how it feels at those speeds: the wind pushes harder on the car, steering is more sensitive, and the driver has to intensely focus on the road to stay safe. Though worth the experience, I will be taking the cheaper, faster, and safer train next time where I can sleep or work during transit.

Driving gave Joe and I the opportunity to make a few stops along the way, such as to Heidelberg where first university was formed.
Driving gave Joe and I the opportunity to make a few stops along the way, such as to Heidelberg where first university was formed.

Why Drive?

In the United States, outside of big cities, it’s very difficult to live and work without a car. Germany is one of the many places around the world, however, where that is not true.

There are bicycle lanes almost everywhere and they are clearly distinguished from the road lanes and even from the pedestrian lanes on the sidewalk where they are usually found. Drivers don’t seem to get mad at cyclists for using the roads and the bike lanes offer security for everyone.

“You stay in your lane, I’ll stay in mine” is a fairly good way of thinking of things here. People scold you if you’re in the wrong one.

In fact, it’s really common to see the bike paths in and around the city just about as busy as the roads, which are typically only a single lane in each direction – even busy roads.

We have both been initiated into this system now by experiencing a tire having a full-out blow-out. Last Sunday, as we were heading out to look for Mandi’s iPod, she ran over a screw which completely punctured her tire and all the air shot out. Yesterday on my way back from a hardware store, I was riding on a path in the woods and unexpectedly there was a loud pop and some of the steel wire from my tire sprang out: it was totally dead.

These weren’t fun experiences and they came at bad times, but at least it’s far cheaper and easier to deal with than a car. Right now I’m on my way to a second third repair shop because the guys at the first two one didn’t have the right size tire to replace mine – “It’s a very rare size. You have to special-order these.” Joy.

Four lovely grade-separated lanes: light-rail, automobiles, bicycles, and pedestrians.