North Rhine-Westphalia

At the beginning of this month I spent a week travelling around Northwest Germany work. There is a concentration of good maths departments in North Rhine-Westphalia and I did a tour of some of them. I couldn’t get to as many places as i would have liked because Tuesday was a public holiday—May Day is always on the 1st on the continent—but still a lot of places that were new to me.


Bielefeld was the target of largest non-atomic aerial bomb ever deployed in combat, and it shows. It’s one of those towns that is famously unlovely, like Slough or Coventry. In fact there’s a popular German joke that it doesn’t even exist1. The average Bielefelder appeared to have worse spoken English than the other places I have been in Germany, perhaps because they get so few visitors. Anyway, I was pleased to have the opportunity to practice German without the other person immediately switching to English.

Bielefeld university is essentially all one enormous connected 1960s building, with all the departments organised around a central hall. Its students are famed for being left-wing and this was borne out by the banners various activist groups had hung around the hall. Something that puzzles me a little about Germany is that the general populus seems no more left-wing than in Britain but every bar or cafe that caters to a youth audience is absolutely plastered in antifascist and anticapitalist graffiti (and their toilets even more so) in a way that would be unthinkable in all but the most radical of UK establishments. What happens to all these youthful leftists?


Perhaps it’s because I was in Münster over the public holiday but I got the impression that it’s a very laid-back and friendly city. Lost and tired of misinterpreting German directions on the way to my hotel I approached some English speakers for help. They pointed me in the right direction and invited me back to the cafe we were standing outside—a ‘literaturcafe’—which was having a language swap evening. Within five minutes of returning my new friends (both au pairs, one from England the other Australian) had introduced me to a bunch of people and somebody had given me a joint. It turned out to be an interesting night, the kind of thing I would have loved to be doing but was too anxious to do when I was twenty, and which I quite like doing now but pay a substantial emotional (and physical) price for the next day.


A very pleasant university town 20km South of Cologne. It has possibly Germany’s most prestigious maths department as well as the Max Planck and Hausdorff institutes. I spent a couple of days here sweating in the May sun as I dashed back and forth across town from institute to institute, pausing for very good coffee at a wagon at the bottom of the Poppelsdorfer Allee. There’s a nice botanic garden in the grounds of the Schloss at the bottom of the Allee which I spent one lunchtime strolling around. I had a decent dinner at a bar that refused to serve me a Kölsch, insisting I have their totally-not-the-same signature beer, the “Bönnsch”. The very drunk man next to me tried to quiz (slightly drunk) me in German about the book I was reading, an introduction to the philosophy of mathematics, which went about as well as you might expect it to (“Kant hat philosophy…..von(??) Mathematik beginnt ….. aber Frege macht es………besser”).


I had dropped in the Cologne maths department on Thursday morning on my way to Bonn and at the end of the day on Friday I went back for a weekend mini-break. As happens a lot of the time when I go on these week-long work trips, I was actually suddenly really tired and spent a lot of time lounging around in my (very nice) hotel, taking of the advantage of the ‘til-noon breakfast. I did venture out of the hotel to go running in Cologne’s public parks and to dome some tourist stuff. I climbed the Domturm and saw some good bells—couldn’t get a straight answer from the staff on what the German word is for the clapper is though. I went to the, whose collection of 20th century art is meant to be very good for a smaller private museum. There were indeed a lot of big names there, but I couldn’t get into any of it. The museum seemed curated to be the exact opposite of my taste. The Pop Art room in particular was ghastly. Actually, let me be bold: Pop Art—bad imo.

I also went to the museum of applied arts but found the main exhibition closed. They had a fashion show/market on for clothes at what I guess is the edge where high-fashion bleeds into popular fashion, which turned out to be interesting. I found myself regretting, not the first time, that the standard constraints of masculinity don’t allow men much in the way of self-expression (at least without attracting unwanted comment).

On the Friday evening I went one of the big busy Kölsch bars (Früh) and ate a big plate of Himmel un Ääd—tender black pudding (the Ääd) on a bed of mixed mashed potato and apple sauce (the Himmel) while reading my book and sipping Kölsch. Cologne is meant to be a party town so on the Saturday evening I went to a sweaty smoky nightclub and danced to unforgiving techno, but the book and bar was better if I’m honest.

  1. A wonderful nugget on the talk page for the Bielefeld Conspiracy wikipedia article reveals that the author of the page chose the main picture to be a real photo that looked as fake as possible. ↩︎

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