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Sabine’s message in a bottle had proven to be such a mystery for so long, I really didn’t know what I expected to happen if I tried to visit her in Dusseldorf…

Sabine Close Up in Hand_2(edited)

Nevertheless, July 1st, 2015 I found myself on a Germanwings flight from London to Dusseldorf. I had just flown from Chicago to London the night before on a flight I shared with a former student from 4 or 5 years before–Crazy! It felt like leaving the states was like going through a portal—here on the other side, in Europe, anything was possible.

When I landed in the Dusseldorf airport, I was immediately reminded of the scarcity of free water available to the public throughout Europe. I couldn’t find a drinking fountain anywhere! There might have been one, but I couldn’t find it. So, off I went into the city.

It. Was. Hot.

I happened to arrive in Europe during a heat wave which seemed to follow me for most of my trip. July 1st – 3rd in Dusseldorf was seriously hot. Here’s a screenshot I grabbed of someone tweeting about this:

Screen Shot 2015-08-03 at 7.14.12 PM

That really nasty, maroonish/brown/red spot over western Germany is exactly where I was. 40 degrees above their average temperature! It was just nutty how hot it was. This wouldn’t matter so much except you have to remember: folks in northern Germany don’t have air conditioning–historically, they simply haven’t needed it. So whatever temperature it is outside is about what you can expect indoors. I mean not only do private homes not have a/c, but also public buildings don’t have it. I went into museums, restaurants, etc. Not one had air conditioning. It blew me away! This heat also made the lack of publicly available water an even more pressing issue. Luckily I had been in Europe before, remembered the lack of drinking fountains, and planned accordingly. I had a backpack with a 2 liter water reservoir in it as well as a one liter bottle of water. I never left my accommodations for the following 3 weeks without at least 3 liters of water with me, and I never had any left over when I came home. That’s how hot it was. A similar heat wave in 2003 killed an estimated 70,000 Europeans. This was serious, dangerous heat.

Ok! So that’s kind of the backdrop for all of this.

I spent the afternoon and evening of July 1st wandering around Dusseldorf’s Altstadt trying to fend off jetlag, and found some interesting stuff. First of all, Dusseldorf is right on the Rhein, and man, Dusseldorfers know how to feature their river—check out this river walk!

IMG_3112IMG_3115IMG_3135 IMG_3147

Along the river, I encountered some other interesting sights—artwork, architecture, bridges, etc. Look at this thing:

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All I know about this sculpture is that it is called Energie Pyramide and that it was created by German artist Thomas Schönauer, and placed here in 1988. If you know anything about this sculpture, please share in the comments section–it’s so cool, and I’d love to know more. Like…does it do something? Will it cook you if you stand in the middle long enough? There are all these plates adorning the sculpture–here are two ends of one such plate:

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Then there are these crazy buildings:

Gehry Buildings / Neuer Zollhof 1 Gehry Buildings / Neuer Zollhof 2

This place is called Neuer Zollhof and the buildings were designed by American architect Frank O. Gehry. Cool, right?

The whole time, I found myself transfixed by this tower:

Dusseldorf Tower IMG_3131

I thought it must be a significant building, like a German Space Needle or something. I made a note to find out.

After wandering along the Rhein, I sat to write a bit, and soon found myself nodding off from jet lag as I tried to capture the strange scene of an amusement park being built or unbuilt across the river:

Dusseldorf Theme Park / Amusement Park at Sunset

And that was it for July 1st: oppressive heat, crazy sculptures, a beautiful old city, and the skeleton of a themepark. Then bed.

The morning of July 2nd was beautiful. I spent the morning and midday wandering around the Altstadt, walking along the Rhein, and just generally sinking my teeth into Dusseldorf. One famous spot I visited is the Konigsallee, which is a little hard to capture on film since it’s so long–but it looks a little like this:

Konigsallee Dusseldorf 1 Konigsallee Dusseldorf 2 Konigsallee Dusseldorf 3

Lots of shopping around Konigsallee. There’s a Swiss Army store where I picked up a Swiss Army knife—the Spartan model. Very modest, but excellently equipped to open cans, beer bottles, and wine bottles, and to cut cheese and bread. A valuable tool when backpacking!

Of course, all this walking and being a tourist and checking out the city was great—but it was really just a way to pass the time until I could go meet Sabine. I thought about the meeting with every step. We had agreed to meet that evening at a Greek restaurant called Meteora Grill.

Slowly, the day wore on, the heat built up. I passed that afternoon in a heat-addled haze. Here are some more strange sights I saw along my way. I think it’s best to just drop them in without explanation, because that’s how I experienced them. No background info, no Wikipedia–just sudden sights and experiences, like wandering through the desert and seeing mirages…

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I discovered life in the Altstadt of Dusseldorf is very social and open–everyone just hangs out in the streets and eats and drinks and talks. I mean everyone–the streets are always full of people like this in the evenings, everywhere! Every street!

Finally, evening came and it was time for me to find Sabine at last.

I hopped on the train, rode up to the stop near Meteora Grill, our meeting place, and found myself walking along the streets Sabine had described to me in email. It really felt like I was floating. Sabine was just a few steps away—Sabine who had evaded me for so many years!

I stopped to take a photo of the last stretch of my walk. Nothing especially exciting. But this was the last 50 yards I would ever walk without Sabine in my life. See that little umbrella behind the bushes on the left? That’s where I was headed.

Meteora Dusseldorf

When I rounded the corner and came into the courtyard of the restaurant, there she was—Sabine, along with her partner Michael, and…who was that other guy? Oh! Thorsten Falke! The guy who helped me connect with Sabine! I completely forgot she had invited him, and he had come to Dusseldorf all the way from Helgoland! If you’ve never heard of Helgoland, you should look it up. It’s interesting, I promise 🙂

And just like that, there we were. The sender and finder of a message in a bottle that pulled us to this spot across time and distance, as well as the man who helped us find each other. Madness.

Me, Sabine, and Thorsten Falke at Meteora Grill in Dusseldorf

In such a crazy situation, what do you talk about? Well, the amazing thing is that there was no shortage of conversation. I find that people who send messages in bottles are adventurous folks who live interesting lives. Sabine is no different. She’s traveled to more places on this earth than just about anyone I know. I honestly couldn’t list half of them! But I know she loves Sri Lanka. I don’t think she’s been to Antarctica yet, but that might be just about the only continent she hasn’t visited. Did I mention she works for a travel agency? Are you kidding! That’s the most fitting thing I can imagine!

One thing I’ll never forget about that night–learning about Michael’s work. I’m not sure of the details, but his work involves caring for computer servers–I imagine a building full of stacks of servers, all blinking and humming, like something you’d see in a movie. It was so incredibly hot during this time that he and his colleagues were really worried about the safety of the servers–they had to work long hours just to keep everything running smoothly in that crazy heat. If the server centers are affected by heat, then everything is affected: infrastructure, trains, etc. Rarely do us non-computer folk stop to think about people like Michael and the work they do. But without the Michaels of the world, our lives would come to a screeching halt!

Meteora Dusseldorf Greek Food

Of course we talked about the genesis of Sabine’s bottle. She took a cruise in 2004 that went from Germany to Bermuda, then up to New York and then down the east coast of the US all the way around Florida and on to Mexico. Somewhere around Bermuda, she felt like sending a message in a bottle, and that’s how it happened. Interestingly, Sabine says that in her memory, she definitely used a glass bottle—like a wine bottle. And yet, her message was definitely in a plastic water bottle when I found it. Isn’t it strange how the memory can play tricks on us? I wonder if Sabine felt this way as a result of learning about plastic pollution in the following years. During the course of the night, Sabine told me more about the plastic pollution she and Michael have seen over the years.

“In Egypt,” she said, “it’s terrible. Plastic bottles and trash as far as you can see.”

After seeing places like Egypt and other places polluted by plastic trash, she grew more and more committed to combating such pollution. So how can we reconcile this with the plastic bottle that carried her message to me?

Here’s how I see it. 2015 Sabine would NEVER throw a plastic bottle overboard a ship for any reason, even to send a message in a bottle. 2004 Sabine, however, must not have been as aware of the plastic problem in our seas (I certainly wasn’t!), and would therefore have had no way to understand what her bottle could contribute to (let’s remember, of course, that Sabine’s bottle was picked up before it broke down. Thus, it is no longer part of the plastic pollution problem…).

I think this is the same for most of us. Even though a few folks were aware of the growing plastic pollution problem throughout the past few decades, it didn’t become a part of mainstream consciousness until the mid-late 2000s. I had seen incredible amounts of plastic trash wash up in the British West Indies since the mid-1990s, but as a kid, I didn’t quite realize the significance of what I saw. I remember distinctly, crisply, the first moment I saw anyone taking this issue seriously. It was the Fall of 2010 when Captain Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation appeared on David Letterman–I was visiting home and caught this with my dad. Here’s a clip:

This is how things change. Slowly. Awareness, then, hopefully, action. For those of you as concerned about plastic pollution as Sabine and myself, if you’re ready to get involved in the plastic discussion, check out the Algalita Marine Research Foundation and the NOAA Marine Debris Program

In addition to discussing the genesis of Sabine’s bottle, we also discussed its likely path in the ocean, and how insanely unlikely it is for a bottle like hers to survive so long. I told her the whole saga of trying to track her down and how difficult it was.

But we also talked about very normal stuff. Drivers in Germany, for example. I learned a term that I think we could use in America: Geisterfahrer. It just means “ghost driver” and refers to drivers who drift across the center lane into oncoming traffic.

As for Thorsten, his discovery of my Facebook post happened through another chance connection—we both follow Lunar Maria Sea Glass, and Lunar Maria happened to repost my post. That’s when Thorsten saw it. Which is heartening, right? I am so easily persuaded by the argument that the internet leaves us alienated from each other rather than fostering real connections between us—and yet here’s an example of the opposite: social media bringing together two (no, three!) strangers to make a real-life friendship that wouldn’t have been possible in any other way!

In the midst of our chatter, Sabine plopped something on the table that took a second for me to register. Once I realized what it was, my mind was blown!

Maxim Gorkiy Soap

That’s a tiny soap from the Maxim Gorkiy! The ship she sent her bottle from! It’s an 11 year old bar of soap! I had barely graduated high school when Sabine acquired this thing!

“That’s probably the last soap anywhere from that ship!” Sabine said.

It may sound silly, but this instantly became a prized possession of mine. I managed to protect it through the following three weeks of backpacking through Europe, and I’m seriously considering framing it. I feel like Dobby the House Elf fawning over a sock. But what can I say? This tiny soap is special magic for me.

At one point Michael disappeared for a bit. I didn’t know where he went until he came back and set a flash drive on the table.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“Pictures from the cruise on Maxim Gorkiy” Sabine said.

Are you kidding me! Photos from the actual cruise when she sent her bottle?! I couldn’t believe it! I couldn’t stop thinking about that flash drive all night—since I was traveling with only an iPad, I couldn’t see its contents until I made it home three weeks later…

The rest of that night passed in friendly conversation, much of which is destined to exist as fragments in the minds of us who were there. It was a great night, and I’ll never forget it. The soap, the flash drive, Thorsten’s presence, Sabine and Michael. Truly a night to remember.

Before we parted ways for the night, I convinced Sabine to let me snap one last photo.

Me and Sabine After Meteora Grill

Then, Thorsten drove me home.

When I got to my accommodations, I saw that I had an email from Sabine already, suggesting that we get together the next morning. Was I game? You bet I was!

So, next morning, I took the train to meet Sabine again. This time, I hopped in her car and she drove us to the oldest part of Dusseldorf, called Kaiserswerth, just the two of us. On the way, we stopped at an Aldi and I saw something truly beautiful there: a machine that collects used bottles and gives you money back. That’s right! Germany has a bottle deposit system! Here’s how it works, for the curious.

There are two things about this that are significant to me.

1. It’s just brilliant. Instead of making a bunch of single-use bottles that are thrown away and contribute to the waste problem, German bottles are reused! Glass bottles, of course, but even plastic bottles! This is one reason you rarely see bottles laying around in Germany. When I was sitting along the Rhein before meeting Sabine, there were guys running around and picking up empty bottles just as soon as they were set down by the people who had emptied them. You may say, “But we have glass recycling in the states!” True! But reusing is the first and best form of recycling 🙂

2. For years, I’ve been puzzled by something I’ve seen on the beach—bottles with scuffy stripes running around the shoulder and base, like on these bottles of alcohol-free beer from Meteora:

Germany Bottle Deposit System and Meteora Grill Dusseldorf

My family and I always thought these stripes came from the bottles rolling around in the sand. But no! These stripes are actually a byproduct of the deposit system. The bottles are collected, shuffled around in these crates where they make contact at the shoulder and base, and the result is these stripes of abrasion. Mystery solved! This may seem like a small thing, but it really blew my mind. I guess when you believe one thing for years, only to find out something else is true–maybe it doesn’t matter how small an issue it is? Anyway, this was a big one for me!

After Aldi it was on to Kaiserswerth. We wandered through the town…

Buildings in Kaiserswerth Dusseldorf

Old Building Kaiserswerth Dusseldorf 1733

You can’t throw a stone in this section of Dusseldorf without hitting a very old building. This brick fella? Older than the US. Built in 1733.

We grabbed some delicious pastries (pflaumkuchen for me!), then headed down to yet another beautifully groomed spot along the Rhein. Germans really do know how to handle their rivers!

Me and Sabine in Kaiserswerth Dusseldorf

We talked again about the amazing amount of pollution in our world—we watched bottles float by in the river, and of course, there were plenty washed up along the banks. Among the things we have in common, Sabine carries her own coffee mug wherever she goes in an attempt to avoid having to get a single-use paper, plastic, or Styrofoam item. (Later, back in the states, Sabine wrote to me: “Last time when I went to the river Rhine with Michael I collected a lot of waste out of the water, but no bottle with letters!”)

After our snack, we headed up to the Kaiserpfalz ruins–really spectacular. “Kaiserpfalz” is a generic term given to lots of old castles that were temporary seats of the Holy Roman Empire (according to Wikipedia), and this one happens to be in Dusseldorf. If you are in Dusseldorf, it’s worth a trip to see this place. Much more impressive and engaging than my photos can show.

Kaiserpfalz Kaiserswerth Dusseldorf

As we walked around, Sabine pointed out the alarming amount of litter–especially cigarette litter.

Here's a game! How many cigarette butts can you count?

Here’s a game! How many cigarette butts can you count?

I’ve always given cigarette butts a free pass in the pollution debate because they’re made of paper and cotton, right? Wrong! I recently learned that cigarette filters are actually made out of a plastic fibers, and that cigarette butts are the single most prominent form of pollution ON EARTH. Yeesh. The plastic problem is even worse than I thought!

It occurred to me, walking around, that basically everything I do with messages in bottles is fraught with beauty and frustration. The beauty part is easy: the magic of finding a message in a bottle, the excitement of tracking down the sender, the joy of meeting in person and becoming friends. But the frustration is that there’s no escape from plastic pollution at any point in the process. Looking for bottles? Gonna see a lot more trash than treasure. Meeting a sender? There’s bound to be cigarette butts and plastic bottles and caps wherever you go. Stopping and looking at this stuff—really seeing it—makes it easy to understand that it’s no joke when people like Charles Moore talk about humans creating a “plastic layer” on earth. That’s not an exaggeration anymore, unfortunately.

Soon it was time for me to catch my train to Hamburg. We hopped in Sabine’s car and made our way to the station. During the drive, Sabine explained how this area on the northern edge of Dusseldorf had changed in the last decade or so. It’s a story many who moved out of cities a while back can relate to. Sabine came here because it was quiet, beautiful, tranquil. There were trees everywhere–forests! There were private houses, gardens. When we stopped in traffic, Sabine gestured to a couple large, bland buildings–a grocery store and a chain restaurant, or maybe a gas station…I can’t remember exactly because it all blended together in that homogenous suburban landscape.

“We used to have old buildings, small restaurants…and now this: a very bad supermarket. And no trees!” Sabine said.

She said they keep destroying the old forest to build lousy supermarkets that are not really needed. I have to say, I sympathized. It is really amazing how many supermarkets exist in this area. If there’s a bright side, it’s that some, like the Aldi Sud we stopped at, have their roofs covered with solar panels. But that’s small comfort for area residents who miss the old forest, which was a solar energy gathering entity, too, of course.

Sabine wishes she had a garden and outdoor space–which I also sympathize with. I’ll never forget the years I lived in apartments, almost totally disconnected from the land.

When we reached the metro station, we chatted for a minute, vowed to stay in touch (and we have!), and then I simply walked away, got on the train, and left. Just like that. Woosh.

I had plenty of adventures ahead, but you know how it is when you leave someone you’d rather not leave, right? Just a total mix of emotions.

Weeks later, when I made it home, I finally got to review the photos Sabine and Michael gave me. I was blown away! There are a million photos from the Maxim Gorkiy! I have to share a few that really stand out to me. My journey may have come to an end, but going through these photos felt like I was back on an adventure myself!

I guess this is what it looks like to be on a cruise:

Maxim Gorkiy View Over Ocean

Unless it’s sunset, in which case there’s a bit more of this kind of beauty:

Maxim Gorkiy Sunset 1

I’m not sure where this next amazing view comes from… Maybe Sabine can tell us?

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And of course, when you are cruising, I guess you inevitably see other big ships, like these cargo hauling fellas.

Cargo Ship Hauling Busses

According to oceanographer Curt Ebbesmeyer, a cargo ship doesn’t have to report losing any of those massive, train-car-sized containers at sea, unless they lose 8 or more–and yes, they fall off all the time (and remember, they are full of stuff like computers, shoes, etc.). If a ship loses 8 containers, they are considered a hazard to other ships. But 7? No problem!

And here’s a life ring with an emergency beacon in the middle. I find a ton of both washed up on beaches. But never one from the Maxim Gorkiy–that would have had me really worried about Sabine!

Maxim Gorkiy Life Ring and Emergency Beacon

Sabine, cruising into New York City.

Sabine Cruising into New York City on Maxim GorkiyStatue of Liberty Seen From Maxim Gorkiy Cruise Ship

New York City Seen From Maxim Gorkiy Cruise Ship

Here’s the ship! Look at this big ol’ thang!

Maxim Gorkiy Cruise Ship as it Looked in September and October 2004

Dolphins! Must be amazing to see this kind of thing in real life! (It’s worth clicking on this photo to zoom in and see them flying…)

Dolphins Seen From Maxim Gorkiy

Sailing into the sunset…

Sunset From Maxim Gorkiey 2

Here’s Sabine…but where’s the bottle?

Sabine on Maxim Gorkiy

And here’s the ship’s route:

Maxim Gorkiy's Route September / October 2004

And, remember when I was having a hard time pinning down the date on the message in the first post on Sabine’s message? This photo helps determine the range of possible dates:

Maxim Gorkiy Cake with Dates

With this in mind, I’d say the “send date” of the bottle is October 6th, 2004, or 06.10.2004:

Sabine Message in a Bottle Date Close Up

And I love this next series of photos 🙂

Everyone is happy! Easy lunch on the deck, the pool is calm…

Pool and Deck on Maxim Gorkiy

Uh-oh. What’s going on with that pool water? Looks a little turbulent…

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Kersploosh!

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Great place to eat lunch if you like your food flavored with cruise ship pool water 🙂

But WAIT! Wait wait wait.

Do you see what I see? Let’s zoom in on those tables on the left…

Maxim Gorkiy Water Bottle

Do those water bottles look familiar to you? They do to me! Here’s the bottle Sabine sent her message in:

Sabine's Bottle

It’s identical to the bottles in the pool deck photo!!!

Sabine's Bottle and Maxim Gorkiy Bottle Side By Side

Woo! Mystery solved! Any questions? I LOVE finding stuff like this!

And hey, while I’m at it, check out this other photo Sabine and Michael gave me on that flash drive:

Maxim Gorkiy Cabin Photo
Notice anything interesting there? How about on the desk?

Maxim Gorkiy Stationery

Looks like Maxim Gorkiy stationery to me! The very stationery Sabine used to send her message. Pretty hard to see the stationery on the desk clearly from here, but compare ’em for yourself:

Sabine's Message and Maxim Gorkiy Stationery Side By Side

Who knows how many notes Sabine wrote on stationery during that cruise? It is entirely possible that the very piece of paper on the left, under the pen, is the same piece of paper on the right that I found in the bottle. We’ll never know, of course, but it’s fun to consider. I showed this to Sabine and she confirmed that that is indeed the stationery, so we know that much at least!

Sitting back here in the states, it’s hard to believe it was just over a month ago I met Sabine and adventured through Dusseldorf past and present. Seems like yesterday; seems like a different lifetime.

As I rode the train away from Sabine and toward Hamburg, I felt like… Something was finally right that wasn’t right before. I thought back to that day in the sun with my mom on the beach when I found Sabine’s bottle; the day on the deck when I got Sabine’s message out of the bottle with my family. Thanks to Sabine and her message, I have these crystallized memories–cherished moments with people I love that are crisp and clear in my memory.

In the end, I defy anyone to call Sabine’s message in a bottle “trash”.

I say: what a gift.

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