Sunday, August 19, 2018

A Day in Frankfurt: More than a Layover

We extended our layover in Frankfurt, Germany to 24 hours, visited some colleagues from my A-100, and enjoyed our first day of vacation. Some might ask, "Why would you choose to stay in Frankfurt?" Poor Frankfurt has a reputation as a boring city, only good as a transportation hub or bank headquarters. After this trip, we can't say we agree.

We started our day with a quick breakfast (see sausage roll, one of the very many tasty things we ate, above) and a 2.5-hour free walking tour of Frankfurt by a local student guide. The main attractions of the city were fairly concentrated, but the tour was full of great stories and humor so the time really flew. It was interesting learning about which buildings had been completely destroyed in World War II, which ones were partially destroyed, and which had remained intact. By the end of the tour, we were much better at telling by sight. The train station below was the largest building in Frankfurt that was spared at that time, a fact which our tour guide attributed to the foresight of Americans who wanted to leverage Frankfurt as a commerce hub in the future without having to rebuild the station.

Our guide then took us on a quick detour through the red light district. I didn't expect to see much considering it was 10am on a Friday, but we actually saw people buying drugs, clusters of drug users gathered together, some ethnic gang-managed clubs and restaurants, and a string of brothels. It was really bizarre for us as Americans to see so much of that in broad daylight, but our guide explained that prostitution is legal there, as is drug use at designated legal injection sites, where people can access clean needles and social services.

This is the result of a bundle of policies affectionately dubbed by locals "The Frankfurt Way" - a combination of policing drug dealers while tolerating and supporting users. Although the concept was a long way away from the policies we're more familiar with in the United States, it seems like public health advocates agree that The Frankfurt Way works. Frankfurt's number of drug users on the street dropped dramatically from about 3,000 to about 300 in a matter of years, and diseases have been more controlled. It's certainly possible that many more cities will be doing the same thing soon.

It wouldn't have been a proper German city tour without at least one reference to Goethe, so here we were admiring a Goethe statue. We also discussed his humanist ideals that informed not only German culture but even the German constitution, where the first article begins with: "Human dignity shall be inviolable."

There were delightful little moments sprinkled throughout our tour, too, like catching a wedding procession of a firefighter through an actual firehose:

And stumbling upon beautifully restored buildings and old churches:

The most unique experience we had in Frankfurt, though, was a "Dialogue in the Dark" tour at the DialogMuseum. For one full hour, a blind guide led us through four rooms of complete darkness - and when I say complete darkness, I mean there was literally no difference between having your eyes open or closed. We had to use all of our other senses (plus a cane they provided) to find our way around and experience the environment. It was insanely difficult for sighted people like us, but our blind guide was amazing. He not only navigated the rooms easily without a cane, but could tell just by the reverberations from our voices where each of the approximately ten of us on the tour were and where we needed to go. At the end, we got to a "Viennese coffee shop" where our guide became the bartender. He counted payment by feel and didn't even seem challenged satisfying a dizzying array of orders and options.

We were surprised to learn that they have locations all around the world, so you don't even necessarily have to go to Frankfurt for this experience. (You can see all their locations here. Sadly, there are none in the United States as of the drafting of this blog post.)

So if you pass through Frankfurt like we did, why not take the day and really enjoy it? At least for us, we found there's plenty to do, eat, see, and more to make your stay worthwhile.

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