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Altbier in Dusseldorf: A Cultural Experience

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Over the last few months, the world “alt” hasn’t sat well with me. Alt-ernative Facts among other phrases and titles, quickly come to mind. But when I landed in Dusseldorf, Germany in March of this year on a business trip with my friend (and colleague) I heard the word “alt” again, but this time, it was something I could stand by, Altbier.


Altbier (Alt beer) is a German style brown ale, the “alt” literally translates to “old” in German, and traditionally Altbiers are conditioned for longer than normal periods of time. I had heard about this Dusseldorf delicacy from other co-workers, and having only a half-day of work,  my friend and I decided to find a local pub and try one for ourselves. Little did we know, doing so, would lead into a very spontaneous evening.


We chose a pub in Altstadt (Old Town) which offered outdoor seating so we could enjoy the day. The server came outside and quickly realized we didn’t speak German. Luckily for us, she understood “beer” and “Altbier.” With smiles on all three of our faces after the exchange, a few minutes later, two ice cold Altbier’s arrived. They were delicious. That was the first of many for us both that night. But, that’s not the story here.

After our third beer, a gentleman sat down at the table next to us. We kept to ourselves, as did he. Many passersby stopped by his table to say “Hello” (all in German, of course) he hugged others and was generally a very friendly and happy guy. He also ordered Altbier. After about a half-hour of sitting next to us, and glancing our way a few times beforehand, he turned to us and said: “Are you enjoying the beer?” in almost perfect English. It took my friend and I by surprise. Plus, we had noticed his glances and didn’t know what to expect. “Yes,” we quickly responded. “It’s very good!”


Klaus then officially introduced himself to us and we returned the gesture. He had explained that he overheard us talking about Altbier and he proceeded to quickly tell us how it was made. My friend, being a big beer enthusiast, carried out quite the conversation with Klaus about the beer, its history and its unique taste. The next thing we know Klaus ordered a beer for both of us. We tried to stop him, although it was an amazingly kind and nice gesture. He insisted and stated: “You’re a guest in my City, why not?” The beers were ordered and the next logical question after that conversation ended was “So where are you guys from?”

 

Truthfully, I was almost scared to say we were from America. We had noticed many anti-Trump stickers throughout our travels in Germany and it was also no secret most Europeans were not fans.


“We’re from America, we live in Washington D.C. but neither of us voted for him.”
Klaus’ reaction was the world’s largest eye-roll. “Really?” he said. “We don’t see many Americans here, and, you can understand with the recent news we’re all wondering if everyone there thinks like him and supports him.” We carried on a conversation about politics for two to three more beers, which we alternated buying each other. We chatted for about an hour about traveling, food and our lives.


Klaus then inquired about my relationship with my friend and asked if it was platonic or something more. After explaining that it was strictly platonic and we’ve been friends for 11 years the conversation then shifted to friendships.


We learned about Klaus’ friend Joseph, who also happened to be from America, but who had passed away from cancer three years prior. He started to tear up. So much so, he didn’t complete relaying the whole story. We were the first American’s he had encountered since Joseph’s passing, and he told us sitting with us and chatting over Altbeir reminded him a night out with Joseph.

 

Another hour-or-so passes, we’ve been at the bar for the better part of five hours now, talking to Klaus for at least three of them. After another round of beer Klaus tells us that he has to go, he had plans with friends to play darts at this small, hole in the wall bar called Julio’s. Then, his face lit up. “You guys should join me.” “It’s something Joseph did as well, it’s a small bar, nice people, good beer — and darts. Will you join me for a drink to honor Joseph?” We said we were hungry and needed to eat, which was true, but he took that as a sign we wouldn’t show up. Truthfully, we were undecided. Though we’ve had a great conversation, do we continue the evening by joining him at another location?

We paid our tabs, Klaus took his last sip of beer and told us he understood if we didn’t show up. But the last words out of his mouth took us by surprise.

“If I don’t see you later tonight, you both should know: You are both great ambassadors for your Country and a sign that not all Americans are afraid of other cultures.”

After Klaus left we ate and walked over to Julio’s to assess the place. We decided to go in, to honor Joseph. The bar was smaller than Klaus described, we opened the door to Klaus holding a dart which he was about to throw across the room. “You came! Attention, Attention.. everyone listen up! These are my friends from America that I told you about!”


We stayed at Julio’s for three hours learning about the bar, which also came with a very interesting Dusseldorf history lesson from Julio’s owner, Peter. We laughed with Klaus’ friends and shared stories of our travels, careers and lives with people we hadn’t met before and will probably not see again. And of course, we toasted to Joseph. At the end of the evening we hugged everyone goodbye and thanked them for inviting and allowing us to join them. They, nor Peter, would accept money for our drinks.


This evening is one I’ll remember for a lifetime. The experience was fun, interesting and inspiring; a true testament to being open to learning about a new culture. But most of all it was a reminder that being kind to one another is the greatest gift we can give each other.

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