Desperately Seeking Autumn

Even in the Ruhr, far from the famous Oktoberfests and forests, fall has its charms

By / September 2015

I adore Germany in the fall. The weather is not too hot, not too cold. In the center of the country, the fairy tale forests that inspired the Brothers Grimm are so vibrant with color that you can understand how people could think them enchanted. Way down south in the grand state called Bavaria, the city of Munich celebrates the famous Oktoberfest. West of there, Ludwigsburg hosts the most spectacular Pumpkin Festival in the world.

Many Germans consider November, the beginning of the cold and wet season, the worst month of the year. Precisely because of what it precedes, October is generally considered the best. Like winterizing your house prepares your pipes for the cold, the autumn month prepares the mind for the long, gray weather that looms on the horizon.

For the Bavarians, this means donning a dirndl or lederhosen and downing giant steins of expensive beer, dancing to an Oompah band, and making themselves sick on sausages and pork knuckles larger than your head. Like Grizzlies heading into their dens, they fatten themselves — one study found that Germans ate, on average, 86 more calories per day in the fall than in the spring — on enough food and merriment to carry them through the winter.

Even in the Ruhr, where I live, in a town cozily snuggled against the Dutch border, you can find the residue of the big party. Restaurants hang blue and white bunting and change their menus for Oktoberfest, offering Bavarian regional selections like cheesy noodles called Spaetzle, giant white sausages and red cabbage. Each town takes turns hosting a Kirmes, a sort of county fair. So if you can’t make the trek down to the southeastern host city, you can still join in on some of the fun. I’ve often thought it should be called Septemberfest, because the 16-day festival starts in September and ends on the first Sunday of October.

But Oktoberfest is not really my thing. While the minds of my neighbors are captivated by thoughts of beer and bratwurst, all I can think of is colorful leaves and pumpkins. Luckily, Oktoberfest is not the only fall party going on in Germany. Near Stuttgart, Ludwigsburg boasts the largest pumpkin display in the world. Hundreds of giant statues, from a life-size propeller plane and a 12-foot eagle, are crafted using more than 450,000 squash in more than 500 varieties.

Nothing captures the essence of autumn like strolling around the expansive Baroque gardens of the Ludwigsburg Palace, sipping on a latte and admiring the maze of artistic creations. The smell of hay invites kids to come romp around in straw castles. Talented carvers show off their intricate designs. When it is time for a snack, pumpkin fries, pumpkin popcorn, pumpkin soup, and even pumpkin burgers tempt the taste buds.

The European Pumpkin Weigh-off, the centerpiece of the festivities, has produced a world record-breaking winner nine years running. Unfortunately, this year, we will not be there to see if that streak runs to 10. From our former home in Frankfurt am Main, the trip to Ludwigsburg was an easy jaunt. Now that we live in the Ruhr, however, a day trip is not possible. I recently dawned on me that I would need to find another way of experiencing the fall.

So, on a recent morning at our home in Moers, one of the major mining cities in the area, I roasted some small pumpkins and made my own orange, earthy-tasting puree. I sprinkled in a dash of cinnamon and the whole kitchen smelled like the best of autumn. But something went wrong with my toasted pumpkin seeds. They tasted like wood-chips.

I stepped outside and shook off my disappointment from the great pumpkin-seed fail. The air was getting breezy. I needed to gaze upon trees with brightly colored leaves. I longed for a stroll through one of those fairy tale forests near Frankfurt. But how? The Ruhr is landscaped with rusty steel plants, a poor substitute for foliage. I needed to experience autumn before autumn was over.

The clay pots of yellow mums beside my door were nodding at me, as if encouraging me to take a walk. I wandered through a nearby neighborhood until my boots crunched on a rocky-leafless path that lead to a lake with a sandy beach and a playground. A pair of swans bobbed about, guarding the water from possible intruders. The ducks ignored them, soaring in and sounding off with wings whirring as they braced for a smooth landing.

I saw a couple of yellow and black Kohlmeise, Germany’s smallest birds, fluttering between a willow and a birch tree, both of which were still green, stubbornly resisting the change in color for which I was longing.

An old man with a crutch carefully navigated his steps through the sand all the way to the edge of the water. One of the swans warned him with a honk and a stern glare not to come any closer. The man turned my way. “Guten Tag!” I said. “Tag!” he replied. Two golden retriever pups played along the edge of the lake as two ladies kept close eyes on them. I nodded a greeting to the Frauen and they responded in unison, “Tag!”

The Uettelsheimer Lake was beautiful, like blue glass reflecting the forest that surrounds it. But, the trees disappointed me with their lack of brilliance. The rocky path lead me through a tunnel made with branches of various hardwoods. A wooden bench beckoned me to sit and enjoy the view. I did for a few minutes, watching as a mallard shattered the glassy water before popping back up and shivering.

I sat for a few more minutes, reflecting upon the changing of seasoning and just how quickly the years pass. Years ago, the idea of autumn conjured up memories of tailgate parties, hunting season, hayrides, bon fires and new school supplies. But thirteen years of living in Germany has created new fall expectations: Oktoberfest, Kirmes, golden forests, giant pumpkins.

My thoughts carried me forward. Around a curve in the path, the trees began to change from mostly greens to sunshiny yellows, oranges and reds. My boots shuffled along a carpet of tender fallen red sweet-gum leaves and crunchy golden ones. Acorns and chestnuts littered the path as well. I detected the smell of old apples, unpicked ones that had fallen on their own and been left to rot on the ground.

The sun was warm on my back, but the wind’s coolness jiggled the leaves and chilled my nose. There it was. Autumn. I picked up a handful of leaves and tossed them into the air. One of the leaves, a golden one, landed in a perfectly woven spider web. All I needed was a mug of something warm and spicy and a pumpkin baked-good to make the moment complete. My kitchen beckoned. Pumpkin puree and a big mess awaited my return.

“Tag!” I said outloud. Then looking around, I said it again, this time to the elusive season. It turns out that even in the Ruhr, amidst the mines and factories, there is much to adore about the fall.


Tara Thomas lives and writes in Germany.