BVB Über Alles: Saluting a Defeated Dortmund

I’m not sure how many Dortmunders can say that they left Westfalenstadion pop-eyed in excitement on 23 Aug. after Borussia Dortmund’s knock-kneed season opener against Leverkusen, a sobering 0-2 loss.  Living in Dortmund for two weeks in 2012 and a month in 2014 doesn’t make me a Dortmunder (for one thing, I still speak infantile German), but in the past three days,I’ve tutored German third-graders in math, helped to scrape and paint a Dortmunder’s new apartment, and spent three hours wheeling Dortmund seniors to and from an eis-café: I think that makes me something more than a vacationer, if not a full citizen.  So, wearing a vintage 90s Borussia Dortmund jersey, a BVB scarf, a BVB track jacket, and still damp from a shower in pilsner – an almost-Dortmunder – I left the stadium reeling from the loss,  but riding a strange new regionalistic sports high, and – I admit – smiling.

I grew up in Chef’s Restaurant on game nights surrounded by Toronto Maple Leafs fans; I’ve ridden the subway home with them singing after a Sabres victory, or in silence and foot-shuffling after a loss; I’ve helped pack a New Orleans bar with Bills fans, jeering down the Saints in their hometown; I’ve helped lead the raucous Canisius College C-Block to a D1 basketball tournament run; and I’ve stood with the rowdies at every St. Joe’s-Canisius high school football game since I started as a freshman in 2007.  I’ve never seen anything like Westfalenstadion during a Dortmund game.

The stadium (now called, by some, and even then reluctantly, Signal Iduna Park) holds about 80,000, but nearly 25,000 of these fans stand for the full 90 or more minutes (plus the hour and a half before the game,  which a fan will have to endure to secure a good spot) in the Sudtribune, or “South Bank,” the largest freestanding grandstand in Europe.  More impressive still, they chant throughout the entire game without pause or abatement or even, it seems, breath.

I’m not even sure that I saw Leverkusen’s first goal against Dortmund, a ten-second play so quick and unopposed that it made both teams look like they were running drills.  But even then, the Sudtribune did not fall quiet.  I watched one of the leaders, standing on a platform to my right, look over his shoulder and watch the goal.  Recognition flashed across his face – but there wasn’t even a hiccup in his voice.  He shouted the chant again; the Sudtribune shouted back, leaving grief, a weak emotion, to the rest of the fans.

The gameplay itself was subpar; I’d seen Dortmund play better only a week and a half before, in BVB’s easy 2-0 win over Bayern Munich to snatch the Supercup (noted almost as much for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s bizarre Spiderman celebration, his first such performance in Germany, as for his beautiful header goal), watching in St. Annaberg, Poland.  The first half of the Leverkusen game was pitiful, and though BVB kept greater possession of the ball during the second half, they lacked aggression on offense and let a late-game goal slip that sent fans from the north, east, and west sides of the arena trickling out before the final minutes were up.



But the Sudtribune was stalwart.  Admittedly, an intoxicated Teuton nearly took off my head for snapping a picture during the gameplay, so I imagine that if anyone tried to leave during those last minutes, he or she would have been chosen as that night’s sacrifice.  Still, we stayed: 25,000 strong, and chanting.

Speaking of the Dortmund chants: I tried my best.  I took “fahrt sie, BVB,” to be “fotze BVB” – something entirely different, I assure you.  But I chanted “fotze” while the rest chanted “fahrt sie,” thinking, “Oh, well.  When in Dortmund…”  My guide (and ticket into the Sudtribune) Leif Ströher, put up with my fumblings without complaint (at least, as far as I could tell).

The more complex chants took me two or three choruses to catch.  I had even more trouble with the rhythm: if you want proof that white people can’t clap, put 25,000 drunken Germans together at a soccer game.  They had enough trouble finding their hands, let alone 2 and 4.

But still, though struggling, I was thrilled – and even more thrilled when an easy chant came up, like “Sha La La” or “Allez.”  Massive flags flapped in front of me, cutting off huge sections of the pitch.  I swayed to the right and left, unbothered, shouting the whole time.

At many points in the game, the Sudtribune fans raise both arms in a wide “V” to accent their chants.  Because of the tight space, though, I could reach up only one hand – and it was at this point, in a moment of reflection, seeing myself from above, one arm raised in an accidental “Heil Hitler” salute, shouting for Dortmund’s blitzkrieg victory over all the forces of international fußball, that I think I peered into the dark place where pride and rage meet.  Looking around me, I was suddenly struck by the Germanness of the faces of the Sudtribune.  I’d seen them before, the sharp jaws and cheekbones, the hard-set eyes.  I’d seen them in history books.

If I had had the space for it, I would have shrugged.  Ah well.  “Borussia für immer!” I shouted.  “Borussia über alles!”  The black and yellow flags flapped and the game played on.

After four minutes of added time, the game was called; Jurgen Klopp walked out to shake Leverkusen coach Roger Schmidt’s hand; and all the BVB players walked over the the Sudtribune, to salute us.  This was the absolute peak of the game for me.  I recalled all the times that Coach Jim Baron led the Canisius Golden Griffs to the C-Block fan section, to thank us – but this, at the close of a crushing start to the 2014-2015 season, was something different.  The players raised their arms to hail us, to join in the old song that we sang for them, saluting us, as we saluted them, saluting the city, saluting all the Borussia players and fans down through the team’s 105-year history.  I could see why Dortmunders claim that their fußball culture is unique, why Dortmunders were dispassionate when the National team won the World Cup – and why other clubs and rival fans corroborate the awesome power of the Borussia Dortmund Sudtribune.

Dortmund @ FC Augsburg, tomorrow, 8:30 pm CEST.  I’ll be watching.


Today’s Brewery: Hövels (Original) Altbier

After visiting the Leipzig and the Gose brewery, Matthias was quick to bring Steve and I back to our senses, and back to Dortmund beer.  As any Dortmunder will tell you, this city was once the beer capital of the nation, brewing export and altbier, and producing more barrels than any city in Germany.  But then the Czechs introduced the pilsner style; major breweries like D.U.B. (now D.A.B.) and Brinkhoff’s merged; and economic pressures dampened Dortmund’s beer output at the same time that they crushed the steel and coal industries.  Today one would be forgiven for assuming that “Dortmunder beer” is pilsner, a foreign style.  Kronen, D.A.B., Brinkhoffs, Bergmann, are all famous for their pils (which they make quite well).  For a taste of the Old Dortmund, we went to Hövels.


Half-litres of Hövels Original appeared almost as soon as we sat down.  This brew is an altbier, or a German brown ale conditioned for long periods, giving it mellow malts and some of the fruitiest notes you’ll taste in an any ale.  That isn’t to say the Original is sweet – it opens with abundant fruity aromas, but as soon as the first sip passes your palate these are gone – only to reappear in the aftertaste, a fruity flourish.  Malts predominate, with touches of toffee, light hops, and just enough sweetness.  The beer pours an almost cola color.

Steve likened it to an IPA without the bitterness; Matthias said “It’s just that Hövels taste.”

Our appetizers arrived before we’d finished the beers.  I ordered a Dortmunder Salzkuchen (saltcake) mit Zwiebelmett (raw pig meat).  Growing up eating beef on weck in Buffalo, this was pleasantly familiar – but filling.  When the waitress came to ask about our main course, Steve and I wisely decided to split a Westphalian Rosary.  Matthias was bolder, and ordered an entire pig knuckle for himself.


The knuckle tasted as if the pig had been killed only minutes before, and the Hövels mustard was incredibly piquant.  Steve and I demolished the rosary, starting with the tough and rustic sausage wheels, lingering over the sweet and golden potatoes, wedges of manna, and slowing our pace as we hit the kraut, good and hearty, though it could have been more assertive.



Midway through these meals, we ordered a round of Hövels Zwickelbier, a pale ale with a hue like good local honey.

Steve wasn’t impressed.  “It doesn’t have much profound to say and it doesn’t finish well,” he said.

I thought the Zwickel had a vaguely fecal aroma and a sweet aftertaste – an altogether agreeable beer but not impressive, and perhaps too filling to be paired with raw pig meat and a Westphalian Rosary.

But still, we thirsted.  The brewery wasn’t serving their seasonal beer that night, so with two beers to choose from, we retired to the gravel garden and returned to the Hövels Original.  I left wishing that I’d been able to try the seasonal brew, because with only two beers to choose from – choice met quality in the food more than the brews – I felt like I had little understanding of what holds Hövels together.  The answer might lie where the gastropub’s rustic fare meets the brilliant, if dusty, altbier: the Hövels folks hold Dortmund’s oldest culinary torch, plying well a trade carved out by bombs and washed away in a tide of Czech pilsner.  For visitors to a city sizzling with döner kebab and currywurst and floating on Brinkhoff’s-D.A.B.-Hansa-Kronen pils, the Hövels brauerei is the best place to start looking for the old Westphalia.

Post-Fascist Aesthetics at Dortmund’s Museum Ostwall

Visiting two wonderful widows in an apartment in Scharnhorst, a northeast district of Dortmund, Steve and I mentioned to the hostess – Oma, eighty-five and able to make a man reach unwilling for a fourth helping with the smallest flick of her index finger – that we’d been to the Museum Ostwall in the U-Building at the west end of downtown Dortmund.  Oma scoffed.

There was once a work in a contemporary gallery, Oma told us (she didn’t say where, or whose work) that consisted of a blank canvas with a subtle grease-spot just slightly off-center.  One night a cleaning lady, unable to identify the stained canvas as art, washed out the stain and replaced it on the wall.  The woman was fired – although I had to wonder how long the museum staff took to notice that anything had changed.

Apocryphal or not, the story hit home.  Steve and I had experienced our own “grease stain moment” the day prior, in the museum Ostwall, on the 6th floor of the Dortmund U-Building.  We stood in front of a room full of forks.  Forks and spoons.  These were strewn liberally between three barbed wire fences about six-and-a-half feet tall.  To our right were two suitcases, which (yes, I picked them up) felt empty.

“So …” said Steve, “Do we … What?”

“I think we’re supposed to walk across,” I said.  “Like it’s one of those interactive things.”

“Oh, fun,” said Steve.

But neither of us moved.


We had doubts.  We’d not seen anyone else walk across.  And we didn’t see any point in walking across, because there wasn’t anything at the other end – just an unsavoury gray couch.   In the adjacent hallway hung a picture of an asexual Soviet-type figure carrying one of the suitcases and walking across the spoons.  It could have been an example to follow – but something in that black-and-white androgynous grimace didn’t feel like an invitation.

Still undecided we circled around to the opposite end of the fork-and-spoon affair, in the room with the couch.  There Steve spotted a tiny message on the wall.  With a grasp of the German language limited to “essen” (food) and “gut” (good), among other unpublishables, we had no idea what the message said – but it was in italics, and ended in an exclamation mark, so our rough translation looked something like “don’t put your imperialist soles on my silverware!”

So we let the utensils lie.  Feeling some faint obligation toward anarchy in my American blood, I nudged one with my toe before we left.

Unfortunately, this experience – disappointment, a bit of resentment, a dash of disgust – could sum up the hour or two we spent at the Museum Ostwall.

The fare was pedestrian at best – canvases with crude scrawls of “Alles ist kunst” (everything is art) or a piece of paper declaring with Nietzschean certainty that “Form is void.  Void is Form.”

All very good and well in some blowhard pamphlet published by an artist-cum-critic – but this sort of thing underwhelms on a canvas. My problem wasn’t that I disagreed, but that I was bored.  And so we walked past potato sacks left on the floor, globes of LED lights that I swore I’d already seen in late-January Christmas Tree Shop end-of-season sale, a square red canvas next to a square blue canvas (that I swore I’d seen … everywhere), a video of a Freya Hattenberger performing lackluster fellatio on a plastic-wrapped microphone, and we understood it all.  Understanding the “statements” wasn’t our difficulty; but we gave appreciation (forget awe) the old college try, and came up short.

By coincidence, a day or two before our museum visit one of the most liberal people I know sent me an article titled “Liberals Are Killing Art.”  The article doesn’t criticize artists so much as their gatekeepers – the gallerists and the critics – and even the defenders of art.  Those who defend art as a means to some social or political end, the author, Jed Perl, writes, cheapen art and rob it of its transcendent power.  He quotes Paul Goodman:

“…’the plastic arts, drawing and painting and sculpture, cannot become minor arts for they demonstrate perception, how people can see and are to see; and so a people’s music is its kind of feelings.'”

Places like the Museum Ostwall enshrine a mode of perception that I’d liken to a hall of mirrors facing the artist, a tenor of feeling that can only be called shallow and tepid.  This is the gallery of an atrophied culture, and atrophied kunst.

At our most downhearted, Steve and I walked into a room full of Picassos, Beckmanns, Mackes.  And we were awed.



I think the salient difference between people like Picasso and people like, say, Freya Hattenberger, is that the former presents a vision of reality, some mode of perception, feeling sublimated or transformed or expunged.  The latter falls into a broad school that expresses mere ideas.  “Anyone can have an idea,” the Museum Ostwall’s website says, as the tagline of its permanent collection.  This is true enough.  But art has never been made up of mere “ideas.”

As you’ve probably noticed, I took several pictures in the Museum Ostwall (you can see many in my Dortmund Flickr gallery).  Twice, though, the museum guides skittered out of their holes and crevices to chastise me.  In my defense, I had no idea that I was being told not to take pictures the first time.  The second time, in the museum’s sole room devoted to aesthetic expression, the guide caught me again, snapping a picture of a painting by August Macke.  I was offended, too offended to argue that no argument could sway a reasonable being from taking (non-flash) photos in a gallery – but not too offended to chuckle quietly at the fact that, in a museum so democratized into baseness, some fascist impulses persisted.

So we left.  Before we took the elevator down, however, we stopped at a viewing room that we had spotted while inside the gallery.  It faced east, out into downtown Dortmund, under the best and clearest midday sky we’d seen since  arriving here.  There were beanbag chairs near the window; the room was painted entirely red.  We sat there in silence for several minutes, ignoring, as best we could, the high pitched hushing and wailing playing from speakers high on the wall behind.  Here we were, fronting life, high and beautiful and shining and serene – and some schwanz was trying to strongarm this vision, this life, into half-mast “art”: a grease-stain on the world.

So be it.  We ignored the art and we looked out the window.  I still have my snapshot of the Picasso canvasses, and all the fascists and the democrats in the world can’t take that away.

If I could change one thing, I would have walked across those spoons.


JazzFunk in Dortmund

I may be partial, but with a little more recognition, Blue Elephant is poised to become the premier JazzFunk band playing in the Dortmund area today.  The keyboardist, Peter, is a virtuosic player with an excellent ear, and  his original tunes are sophisticated and promising enough to make any listener eager for an EP; and Matthias, the guitarist, blends the slickest jazz licks, smoky gypsy chords, and the mellowest Meters-inflected lines  in a potent aural stew.  On 18 August, Blue Elephant played played an hour long set to a packed audience as part of Bam Boomerang’s 2014 Battle of the Bands.  I recorded part of a vocal number, “Just the Two of Us” …

Unfortunately, Blue Elephant came in second in the final round – they lost to a flaccid rock group buoyed by frothing friends that jumped through their entire set.  A local music critic praised the band but complained that they lack a stamp or signature.  The band could flex a bit when arranging covers of standards like the one above, and should build up a bigger body of original work for the local critics to weigh; but at the intersection of the keys (Pete) guitar (Matthias) flute (Eliane) and trumpet (Ralph) there’s magic at work.  Dortmund, as far as I know, lacks the venue ideal for a band like this: an old-fashioned low-ceilinged beer-slinging dance hall.  When people listen to these cats, they want to move.

Though I had fun watching Blue Elephant, I would avoid Bam Boomerang: the Australian-themed bar, despite being committed to live music, is run by some of notorious cheapskates.  (A bartender, on mistaking my order for a bottle of merlot for a bottle of Miller, cracked the beer before I could stop him; he then had to call over his manager to make sure that he didn’t have to strongarm me into paying.  The same bartender hadn’t a clue how to prepare an Old Fashioned; when I explained the recipe to him, he frowned and said “…whiskey sour?” – then told me to order off the menu.)  The only positive thing that I can think to say about this unfortunate hole is that Patrick Bateman would approve of the bathrooms, which are equipped with ledges handy for all kinds of illegal preparations.


Luckily, there’s much more to the jazz and funk scene in Dortmund.  In fact, the premier venue (aside from the Dortmund Konzerthaus) is domicil on Hansastrasse downtown, a club at once cozy and high-ceilinged, with bands downstairs next to the bar and bigger acts in a concert hall up the venue’s black marble stairs, past a series of photographs of broken umbrellas, on the second floor.

Steve and I hit domicil on the 19th, when the waitress (our good friend Christin) told us to come back the following day for their Tuesday night Summer Session.  We did, and caught the second half of Santoor Grooves’ act, light Turkish-fusion fare.  The music was good but not engaging enough to draw our full attention – it provided a comfortable, pleasantly international background in which to couch our conversation.  Naturally, we downed several of domicil’s quality cocktails.  After my traumatic experience at Bam Boomerang, I tried domicil’s Old Fashioned; though it wasn’t evenly mixed, I found the sweet kick of the last sip wasn’t such a bad touch.  My favorite drink off the cocktail menu, though, was the Jack Mack – Jack Daniels, So. Co., Aperol, and Ginger Beer – a sweet and spicy drink to wake your senses and keep you going through any jam or session or night-long show.  (Beware the käse und wurstplatte, though – it’s quite good, but you have to split it.)


I haven’t yet caught a live show at subrosa (what’s with the German jazz cats and Carolingian miniscule?) but I did stop at the eclectic jazz club just northwest of the city center on one of my first nights in Dortmund.  Matthias and I met up with Leif and Lea Ströher and listened to some gypsy jazz in a park before grabbing a table in subrosa’s semi-enclosed patio.  The bar offers classics like Brinkhoff’s and Kronen as well as a few craft beers for the … well, the Americans.  Even on a night without a live act, the funky, quirky DJs at subrosa spin some ridiculous platters – many of them excellent covers that you probably haven’t heard before, strange, cosmic transmogrifications of tunes you know by heart – kind of like the subrosa, which bills itself as a “livin’room.”  It’s appropriate.  The place is just as comfortable as your living room, but a good sight groovier.

Unlike Sligo, a visitor to Dortmund might not be able to catch a killer live act every night of the week.  That said, there are some summer nights – like my first night here – when a wanderer can stumble upon a major concert by the train tracks, get lost in a crowd of a few thousand; leave only to find a gypsy trio playing to entwined adolescents couchant in a park; walk into the open red mouth of a wacked-out funk club, drink beer and listen to hip vinyl you’ve never heard; then walk all the way back to the Reinoldkirche, through Dortmund’s auto-free glass-and-rock-and-neon downtown, dancing in the wide boulevards under the high-strung halogen lamps, to catch the first morning bus back home in time for the sunset.


The Konzerthaus brings major international jazz artists (like Pat Metheny last year); domicil attracts acts almost as large, and pumps out groovy music almost every night of the week; and odd little magnets like subrosa attract all the vinyl priests and priestesses of the city.  There’s much to love.  And if acts like Blue Elephant keep growing in notoriety, I expect that Dortmund will be even friendlier to funk when I visit again, a few years down the road.

I’ve lost track of the nights that have bled into beautiful mornings here, ending with me stepping off the train at Gleiwitzstrasse and watching the sun rise over Scharnhorst before I crash in the Spruchs’ basement. (Photo credit: Steven Coffed)

Going Home to County Clare

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightening of flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully-grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park or capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open

-Seamus Heaney, Postscript

I wrote two weeks ago that I’d have to delay blogging about my trip to Carrowduff, Co. Clare; that was because I was at work on a longer travel memoir, published today on CNN.  In it, I talk about my own journey, about County Clare in 2014, and about the challenges to the American sons and daughters of immigrant parents who left them with a few stories, a few pictures, and little else with which to shore up their vague cultural inheritances.

Like so many American descendants of 19th and early 20th century immigrants, I have no family albums tracing my lineage back to New England ships, to British houses or German hamlets echoing back my own surname; the portraits in my parents’ dining room — a long nose here, familiar deep-set eyes there — are to an unsettling degree nameless. …

Read more on  You can also see my photos from Ireland here.


The Ryan house sits on about forty acres of sloping farmland in Carrowduff, overlooking the rest of Kilshanny parish, below.


John Maddigan, once a neighbor of the Ryans, placed this post in recent years in the old Kilshanny church graveyard to mark the probable burial site of my great-great-uncle, Willie Ryan, and others from the Ryan clan.

John Maddigan, once a neighbor of the Ryans, placed this post in recent years in the old Kilshanny church graveyard to mark the probable burial site of my great-great-uncle, Willie Ryan, and others from the Ryan clan.