Summer truly begins for me when I walk down the cobblestone roads of Kettwig. I’ve been spending my summers in the small German town since I was born, and I can’t imagine summer vacation without its charming store windows and café patios, always occupied by a handful of smiling middle-aged Europeans.
Kettwig is a borough of the city Essen, located in western Germany, with a population of about 17,000. It’s the kind of place that’s so old that every corner has some fascinating piece of history attached to it. The first documented mention of Kettwig is in a letter from 1199, and one of the buildings in the middle of town has been there since 1646. Since Kettwig wasn’t home to any major industrial factories, much of the historical town survived World War II and still stands today. Still, Kettwig has endured as a vibrant town, full of life and a unique sense of camaraderie.
I’m not sure what my first memory of Kettwig is—after spending so much of my childhood in the town, the summers all sort of blur together. My earliest memory might be walking along the Ruhr River, avoiding the fat slugs inching across the mud after the eternally-recent rainfall. It might be rolling down the tall grassy hill in my grandma’s backyard with my older cousins. Or maybe it’s walking down the road to the ice cream store to buy a scoop of the best haselnuss ice cream in the world. I know this town like the back of my hand, and it knows me. The weeks I’ve spent in Kettwig would read like a flipbook of my life, each year of my childhood and teenagedom trimmed down to a single month. Maybe that’s why I feel like I grew up here, among the mossy trees and centuries-old streets of Kettwig.
One of my favorite things about the town is that it is surrounded by deep, dense forests. As a child, I walked through these trees almost daily with my parents and younger siblings—the forest offers shortcuts to many other parts of the town, and my dad is never one to pass up a good walk. I have always loved the feeling of being in these thick forests, surrounded by something so large and peaceful. My siblings and I used to sing songs to pass the time on these walks—sometimes American pop songs and sometimes old German children’s music. As I’ve gotten older, I prefer to listen when I am in these forests—to my dad’s stories of life in this town when he was young, and to the cacophony of birds among the leaves above me.
The thick forests open up around the middle of town, which is centered around a winding road that’s always slightly bumpy due to the varying sizes of cobblestones in the mosaic pavement. Little stores and restaurants line both sides of the road, bright windows beckoning passersby to glance in at beautiful handcrafted trinkets. Multiple stores burst with stunning pieces of home décor and multicolored children’s clothing, the endearing allure of which I can never resist. As a child, I was prone to gazing longingly at the beautiful baby dolls in these shop windows until my mom gave in and bought me one. In typical German fashion, every few stores is an ice cream parlor, offering scents of zitrone, stracciatella, and sweet waffle cone that mingle and float aimlessly out of open shop doors.
Love Declaration to Kettwig
During the summer, this small road is often bustling with people visiting the local farmer’s market or the summer carnival, calling “guten tag!” to one another as they pass. The stretch in front of Café Markt, usually the only open space along the tight road, might be packed with booths offering fresh fruit and vegetables or irresistible loaves of bread. Every now and then, visitors can find a small stand selling piping hot bratwurst on the tiny sidewalk. Despite being a vegetarian, I must admit that these sausages have a particularly unique zesty flavor. A little further down the road, little kids can often be found chasing each other through water spouting from shallow fountains—a pastime my cousins and I much enjoyed over the years.
In the middle of these tightly packed stores and cafés, a small courtyard leads to a beautiful old cathedral. The path around the tall church walls comes to a staircase of uneven steps, surrounded by houses packed tightly together. The houses are all white with thick black lining and flowerbeds in the windowsills. A few of them slope in slightly different directions—a quiet reminder of their staggering age. The shutters on these houses are always flung open and the flowers freshly watered, giving them the perfect touch of hominess, although I’ve never seen a single face inside the open windows. A black statue of a night watchman leans over the long staircase, holding a thin axe in one hand and offering light from a yellow lantern with the other. The statue pays homage to living watchmen who roamed this road centuries ago, calling out the time throughout each night and guarding the residents from danger. Although these watchmen no longer patrol the road, I have always found the statue to be a symbol of the safety and loving care Kettwig offers its occupants.
Halfway down this hooked staircase, a landing leads to the door of the Stiege, the well-known steeple turned restaurant that towers over the nearby houses. The front room of the Stiege is cramped, to say the least. An alarmingly narrow staircase, a closet-sized bathroom, and a short hallway lead out of the room. Customers are practically forced into the hallway, which quickly opens up onto an open-air patio under the clock tower. A bar stretches along the side of the building, and the rest of the patio is home to several tables and chairs of different sizes. The right side of the terrace has a stunning view, overlooking miles of trees and the steep shingled roofs of distant houses. In the distance, cars glide leisurely over the Ruhr bridge and disappear into the vast expanse of trees on the other side. Over the years, I’ve found comfort in watching these tiny cars pass through our town and glide toward their personal destination.
Throughout the patio area at the Stiege, wide-brimmed umbrellas advertising assorted beers shield the customers from the sun—or often, from unexpected rainstorms. The tables are close enough to one another that it’s impossible to avoid brushing against your neighbor, but luckily everyone in Kettwig seems to know each other, if only vaguely. Every time we walk into the Stiege, I find my dad immediately nodding hello to someone he knew distantly years ago, like his old family dentist or his teacher’s lawyer.
As soon as we’re situated, a waitress is quick to collect our drink orders. My dad always asks for a beer, assuring the waitress he doesn’t need a glass with it, and my siblings and I order Fanta. Unlike the nauseatingly sweet orange substance sold in the US, German Fanta is perfectly fizzy and refreshing. If I’m in the mood for something a little more fancy, I might order a classic German Spezi, a delicious mix of Fanta and Coke.
The menu at the Stiege isn’t necessarily fancy or unique, but it offers all the staples of a reliable German restaurant. My dad is partial to the Strammer Max, a thick slice of bread served with ham and a fried egg. He’s also fond of recommending the Gebackener Camembert when I’m not sure what to order—this dish is basically a soft cheese baked in herbs and breadcrumbs, and served with a sweet cranberry sauce. Of course, the most classic German dish is probably schnitzel, and the Stiege offers three types: Schnitzel Wiener Art (regular pork schnitzel), Jägerschnitzel (schnitzel served in a mushroom sauce), and Zigeunerschnitzel (pork schnitzel in a spicy vegetable sauce). Each of these is served steaming hot, giving off a strong fried scent, with a large portion of shoestring fries and mayo on the side. For those with a sweet tooth, the bar also offers delicious cakes and pastries—it’s hard to go far in Germany without finding a mouth-watering slice of Kuchen.
When dinner is over, the conversation continues over beers for at least another hour or two. Relaxed chatter fills the patio, punctuated by occasional laughter and the sound of the clock tower ringing above. The conversations I’ve had on this patio range from how I’ve been doing in school to whom my friends are dating to what my plans are for the coming years. Every night, happy voices drift lazily out over the edge of the patio and into the town below. Endless rows of trees dotted with tiny houses fill the horizon, and the Ruhr bridge glitters in the distance as cars travel into the next town. The great expanse of sky turns slowly pink, and the sun sets on another day in Kettwig.
Nicky de Nocker was born in Los Angeles in 1995 and lives in California but she has visited her family in Kettwig every summer since. Nicky received her bachelor in psychology at the University of California in Santa Barbara (UCSB) in 2017 and then, after visiting Kettwig again, spent a month in Berlin to improve on her German language skills. She loves to travel (has already visited four continents), painting and photography. Nicky plays the guitar and is interested in literature. In a class for creative writing at UCSB she wrote the enclosed declaration of love for Kettwig.