Fall is a forgotten season in Cologne. Summer, extraordinarily hot and dry this year, is slowly giving way to a cooler, wetter season. They call it Herbsthere. And a good dictionary might translate Herbst as:
Autumn (mostly Brit.)
But it is not the same as fall, the season I grew up with, that period from September to November when the air shifts from a heavy heat to a light morning chill, when Lake Michigan becomes definitely too cold to swim in, when you walk out the front door to frost and stop for a moment to think about the long winter ahead.
Sure, Germany’s Herbst is decorated with many of the same touchstones: a return to school, the cooling of the temperature—even #pumpkinspice has broken through. But Fall and Herbst are not the same. Despite the handful of cultural or natural monuments the continents may share, a few critical deltas separate the two.
The first is sports. In Europe, autumn is the advent of soccer. The Premier League, the Bundesliga, and La Ligaall kick off in August. The return of the world’s top national leagues occasions a surge in domestic thrill and energy, but that momentum is quickly interrupted by breaks, international fixtures, and other national tournaments. Inertia develops from one week to the next to an eventual climax, when a league champion is crowned in the following year.
In the United States, Fall marks both baseball’s high season and the dawn of that other football. Major League Baseball’s playoff attracts even casual fans in October. And on Labor Day weekend, college football triumphs into the Saturday airspace, making itself unavoidable to anyone inside the sport’s periphery. The sport’s brash pageantry is rollicking and more staccato than soccer. While soccer plays out week-over-week with some cross-league interruptions, football crashes week-to-week in a relentless surge toward year-end.
The second distinguisher is the leaves. Americans from Maine to Minnesota can thank their scientific fortunes for the vibrant red hues of North American autumnal foliage. In Europe, the extinction of more ancient tree varieties, as well as the absence of anthocyanins—a reddish sun-protectant within the leaf—cause the leaves to take on a rather monotonous, faint, and cloudy shade of yellow.
Never are these differences more apparent to me than on Saturdays in Cologne. My American Saturdays began with a coffee and a crescendo of college football media. Blogs, Twitter, and ESPN College Gameday made for a surround-sound cacophony of predictions, punditry, and hot takes. In Cologne, I’ll drink a coffee while walking around a sleepy neighborhood. The occasional sports bar might be opening its doors and turning on some premium-access Bundesligacommentary, but the experience is a quiet one, less laden with media.
A few Saturdays ago, the University of Michigan opened its season on the road in a night game against Notre Dame. The rivalry, resuming after a short pause, is emblematic of college football dynamics. It has a long history and the potential to set the trajectory of a season after a single game. This year’s match-up was a night game, which meant that the game would start at 2:00 a.m. in Cologne.
I went to bed early that night and woke up at 1:50 a.m. Michigan showed up to kick-off equally lethargic. At the close of the first quarter, Michigan trailed 14-0, showing no signs of life on either side of the ball. In the early third quarter, after Michigan’s offense stalled on another scoring opportunity, I thought about going back to bed.
It would have been the right decision. The Wolverines went on to lose 24-17, permitting fans to cling to a modicum of hope in a game in which they really had none. From poor red zone offense to an uninspired passing game to an abysmal offensive line, familiar problems plagued Michigan.
The next day I walked through my neighborhood. I was tired and it was quiet. The trees that lined the streets still had their leaves, but there was a light chill in the air. It was the start of a different season.