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.

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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.

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Two Years After Dortmund

This article was originally published in the Sept. 2012 edition of Forever Young Magazine, two months after I’d returned from my first trip to Buffalo’s sister city, Dortmund, Germany.  I’ll be heading back to Dortmund in Aug. 2014 to revisit the friends I made there.  I thought this would be an appropriate time, then, to look back on that first trip.  All pictures are my own.
 

When I arrived in Dortmund, Germany – around six AM on a Wednesday – I was greeted by my dear friends and generous hosts, the Spruchs.  I was tired.  I had left Buffalo at eleven AM the previous day, and, flying economy with Lufthansa, sleep was always just a few rows away.  However, I was in Deutschland on a mission: to immerse myself in Buffalo’s sister city, to embrace the German culture, and to have a rollicking good time.  These goals (especially the latter) did not allow for many naps.  As I was soon to find out, neither would my hosts.  After a breakfast of coffee and tea, fresh rolls, and Nutella, I was whisked away by train to begin my adventures in downtown Dortmund.

Downtown Dortmund

A Buffalonian such as myself cannot speak about downtown Dortmund without a sigh, for an unflattering comparison with Buffalo’s own downtown area is unavoidable.  The two cities are actually quite similar: both were once industrial centers and both have since seen that industry move away.  And while Dortmund boasts a population more than twice that of Buffalo, this population is more spread out; its buildings are shorter and its skyline is less impressive.  Walking through downtown Dortmund, however, one begins to feel just how far apart these cities are.

The most notable feature of downtown Dortmund is the sheer number of people: on every street, in every square, eating at the best restaurants, shopping at the best stores, flocking to curry stands and congregating on church steps at every hour of the day.  Obviously this is a far cry from Buffalo, where even Chippewa on a Saturday night looks like a lurid neon ghost town; but at first glance Dortmund does not seem so different from any other major American city.  Until, that is, one notices the second major difference: the city center’s complete absence of vehicular traffic.

Bookended by two Protestant churches over seven hundred years old and connected to two major train stations, downtown Dortmund is a colorful Candyland filled with family friendly miniature playgrounds and some excellent shopping of every sort: one can find the best in everything from tobacco to toys.  (Incidentally, if one is searching for toys, then Lütgenauis the place to go; tobacco enthusiasts should visit the Tobacco-Volmer in the Corso Passage, where the staff is knowledgeable, kindhearted, and enthusiastic.)  Beyond the obligatory H&M’s and Zara’s, I would recommend the department store Peek and Cloppenburg and the men’s fashion chain Wormland for some brands that one can’t find back in the U.S.  If you still have euros left in your wallet after a day or two in Dortmund, an hour and a half on the train will take you to the German fashion capitol of Düsseldorf, a city whose shopping district could go toe to toe with Fifth Avenue any day.

Dortmund is also home to many wonderful restaurants, which in the summer open their umbrellas and spill out into the wide pedestrian plazas and squares.  Some of the best restaurants can be found in Dortmund’s old marketplace, which has since been transformed into an open square and nightlife destination.  It was here that I had my first Dortmund dinner.

Americans often speak knowingly of the supposedly modest European portions, as if these explain our national girth and their continental trimness.  In Germany, at least, this is proven to be a complete myth.  Whether at home or in a restaurant, the Germans will stuff you like a Christmas hog, piling plates high with sausage and dumplings and several varieties of bread.  At the Peppercorn, however (in the aforementioned square), I ordered a lighter meal – a salad, followed by pork medallions topped in béarnaise sauce and paired with a crisp Weissbier – at least light enough that I could walk back to the train station rather than be rolled.

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If you get tired of brat and kraut, try the German-Turkish Döner Kebab, perhaps second only to street food favorite currywurst and pommes.

 

Speaking of beer, most people know that Germany is the beer capitol of the world, but fewer know that Dortmund is the beer capitol of Germany (or so the Dortmunders will tell you).  I learned much about beer from my gracious hosts, who were more than happy to quench my thirst for knowledge and for beer.  Dortmund specializes in Pilsner, and a visit to Dortmund would be inexcusably incomplete without sampling the local brews.  I recommend Krönen and Brinkhoff’s.

And while most people hear “German cuisine” and think of schnitzel, kraut, and various sausages, a visit to Germany in 2012 would not reach culinary completion without sampling the German-Turkish dönner, a delicious and spicy meal made of pita and lamb, that looks simple but varies widely from region to region, good for late night cravings and quick bites on the go.  I had several dönners in several different cities, and the best by far was found at Anatalya, in Dortmund’s Scharnhorst neighborhood.

Dortmund itself has much more to offer, but it is difficult to profile any one European city without at least mentioning those near it, for one of the most attractive features of nearly all European cities is their ease of access to their neighbors via the train system.  Coming from Buffalo’s single NFTA line, Dortmund’s train system seemed like some high-speed heaven, reachable only by escalator.  It’s not that the rail system is that large or complex; it doesn’t come close to the scope of the rails in New York or D.C.  The real magic lies in the interconnectivity and cooperation between cities.

Imagine that you could hop on the train at Erie Canal Harbor and ride it all the way to Main Street in Williamsville.  Then imagine that, by heading in another direction, you could reach Rochester (a little further than Dortmund is from Düsseldorf) or Niagara Falls.  Then imagine that by switching trains once or twice you could ride as far as Syracuse, New York, Cleveland, or even Toronto.  While staying in Dortmund, I used the relatively cheap trains to travel to Essen for an art exhibit; to Düsseldorf and Münster, a lovely old college town and Germany’s bicycle capital, for some shopping; and all the way to Amsterdam for a day of sightseeing with friends.  Although I took a car to Aachen and Köln, these too can be easily reached by train.

Here I must indulge in a brief exegesis to urge all future visitors to Dortmund to also take the time to visit these two cities.

Situated on the Belgian border, Aachen, a small town of winding cobblestone streets, small shops and even smaller cafes, is today filled with the sound of rain and gypsy accordions.  Once, however, it was a favored residence of the famous Charlemagne and coronation site of the Kings of Germany.  It still holds the twelve hundred-year old Aachen Cathedral, built on the orders of Charlemagne in the year 736.  Other worthwhile sites include its stately city hall, several world-class spas, and of course, the city itself.  Take my word for it, and get lost.  It’s magical.

Nearby Köln (known internationally at Cologne), is less quaint, but holds one of the most impressive Cathedrals in Europe.  The Dom is an absurdly large structure, imposing in its ornate Gothic massiveness – all cornices and towers and statues of saints.  Intrepid travelers can climb some five hundred stairs to the top of one of the Cathedral’s towers, where one can look inward to the twenty four-ton St. Petersglocke, the world’s largest free-swinging bell; or outward, for a breathtaking view of the city.  If this sounds a bit dizzying, then visitors can enjoy the Cathedral from the outside while sipping a Kölsch beer and enjoying dinner on the banks of the Rhine.

There is of course much to do in Germany’s fourth-largest city, but I would recommend walking across the Hohenzollern Bridge, which spans the Rhine.  Here hearts both young and old will be warmed by the sight of thousands upon thousands of padlocks attached to the fence separating auto and pedestrian traffic on the bridge.  Here young lovers will attach a lock (conveniently for sale in kiosks at the closest Stadtbahn station) and toss the keys into the Rhine.  While almost literally in the shadow of the Köln Cathedral, the lovers locks on the Hohenzollern Bridge are also impressive, in their own way.

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The Kölner Dom, or Cologne Cathedral.

Dortmund, however, has more than enough attractions of its own.  Beyond the shops, museums, and restaurants, the city’s most appealing feature may be the lush countryside in which it is ensconced.  Buffalonians sick of ninety-degree days will love Dortmund’s cool weather (fifties and sixties in July): not too cold, not too hot, and never uncomfortable.  Dortmund is situated in the Rhine-Ruhr region (the longitudinal equivalent of Canada’s Newfoundland and Labrador) and has been blessed with a beautiful landscape.  Under the gray skies the trees seem thicker and the air more fresh.  Seen from the plane, the countryside is layered in exquisite greens, a patchwork quilt sewn up with trees.  The forests practically invite one to step in and get lost.  If this sounds a bit impractical, then Dortmund’s spacious and sloping parks, Wetfalenpark and Rombergpark, offer a more accessible taste of the country.

The Florianturm, in Dortmund's spacious Westfalen park.

The Florianturm, in Dortmund’s spacious Westfalen park.

In Westfalenpark, one can ride an elevator to the top of the Florianturm, a pointed needle at the top of which one can see all of Dortmund and its major landmarks: the neon “U” at the top of the old Union Tower brewery, now a museum; the hulking yellow-spindled mass of Westfalenstadion, home to Bundesliga football champions, Borussia Dortmund; and the turtle-shell dome of the Opernhaus, a world-class venue for music and performance of all genres.  If you find yourself in Dortmund and you don’t know where to go or what to see, the top of the Florianturm might just be the place to start.

My intrepid traveling partners on our first day in Dortmund: Steven, left, and Matthias.

My intrepid traveling partners on our first day in Dortmund: Steven, left, and Matthias.

Click below for a photo gallery of some of Dortmund’s best street art.