Hot Meals Warm Hearts in Germany

Tzu Chi volunteers in Europe launched a meal service in Bad Münstereifel, western Germany, in the aftermath of the massive flooding that hit Europe in July 2021. With water, gas, and electricity not yet restored locally, the service won the hearts of residents and disaster response workers alike.

Tzu Chi’s food truck was parked in the town hall square in Bad Münstereifel. A small blackboard on the outside of the truck announced the daily menu. The meal service was offered for nearly a month, with a hundred to 500 meals served each day.

My wife, You Yue-ying (游月英), and I are both Tzu Chi volunteers in Austria. Early on the morning of August 2, 2021, we crossed the border into Germany and at 8 a.m. met up with volunteer Susan Chen (陳樹微). With me at the steering wheel of a nine-person minibus, we set out for Cologne in western Germany.

We hit the periphery of Munich more than an hour later, and immediately became ensnarled in a traffic jam. We traveled very slowly through that area. We turned into the city of Ulm, situated on the river Danube, after noon for lunch. After that short break, we drove for over 300 kilometers (186 miles) before finally arriving in Cologne. It was evening by that time. All told, I drove for 12 hours that day, covering nearly a thousand kilometers (620 miles). I felt good about myself—I’m no longer young, but age has not weakened me.

At 10:30 the next morning, Chen contacted a staffer from the social welfare department of the municipal government of Weilerswist and made an appointment to meet her in a restaurant. She briefed us, a group of volunteers from Austria and several cities in Germany, on the floods that had hit the area two weeks before.

According to her account, the rain started on July 14, leading to sudden, severe flooding early the next morning. The water rose so fast it was as if a dam was letting out torrents of water. Houses in low-lying areas were immediately swamped, catching local residents completely off guard. Before they could do anything, farmland, roads, embankments, trees, and cars in the area had been wiped out.

Over the next few days, we visited several towns that had been hit hard, including Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler and Bad Münstereifel. The devastation we saw was beyond description and left us stunned. Floodwaters had swept along waterways and across roads, washing out the foundations of houses and leaving behind large holes. We saw exposed electric wire lines, natural gas lines, and water pipes. The sidewalks in business districts were a sorry sight, covered in mud and debris. Stores were wrecked, inside and out. Even bridges had been torn apart. Some houses were in such bad shape I wondered if their inhabitants had been able to escape in time.

Western Germany suffered severe flooding in July 2021. A building in a flood-stricken area might appear intact on the outside, but its foundation, having been soaked in floodwaters, was no longer solid and strong, rendering the building unsuitable for habitation.

Many houses were 200 or 300 years old and had been listed as historic places. The materials of which they were constructed were not as durable and strong as those employed in modern buildings. The concrete—or should I say “earth and wheat straw”—in some of their walls simply dissolved in the flood’s onslaught. Walls made of plaster couldn’t withstand the ravages of the floodwaters either. Many ceilings were badly damaged and had caved in as well.

The most heartrending story occurred in the town of Sinzig. On that fateful night, 16 residents of a care home for people with disabilities were evacuated to safety, but when rescue personnel returned to the facility to rescue the rest, the floodwaters had already risen to the second floor. The 12 remaining residents had drowned, trapped in the submerged first floor.

It was two weeks after the floods when we visited the disaster areas. Even though half a month had passed, I never once saw a bird in the sky or an animal on the ground while we were there. It’s easy to imagine how terrifying the rain had been.

Civil engineering workers appreciated having hot food to eat in the disaster area, and they identified with Tzu Chi’s efforts to promote vegetarianism, which they agreed is good for the Earth. The German government has relaxed their precautionary measures for COVID-19, allowing people to go mask-free while outdoors.

Hard to say goodbye

It was difficult for residents in the badly hit areas to cook their meals because the infrastructure for water, electricity, and natural gas had been damaged in the floods. In response, social service groups had been offering sausages and French fries to those who needed the food. Residents, relief workers, and civil engineers had been eating the same things for two weeks. After talking with Sabine Preiser-Marian, the mayor of Bad Münstereifel, we decided to launch a meal service in her town to offer something different.

We ended our damage-assessment trip on August 5. On August 6, when we were returning home and about to pass through Frankfurt, Sister Chen got hold of a company in Cologne that specializes in specialty vehicles. We immediately turned around and returned to Cologne. We visited the company and decided to rent a food truck from them. The truck was well-equipped, with four gas stoves, a sink, a refrigerator, an oven, an exhaust hood, and a countertop.

On August 12, a group of volunteers arrived at Bad Münstereifel to learn how to use the food truck. We launched our meal service the very next day. Three volunteers from Germany—Yang Wen-cun (楊文村), Lin Sen-xi (林森喜), and Miu Lian-huang (繆連煌)—were responsible for preparing the food. They were great cooks. More than 200 servings of vegetarian chow mein were served that day.

Volunteers from Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands worked in relay teams to provide hot meals over the next four weeks. Residents were happy to try food from a variety of cooking styles. On August 21, a group of volunteers from Vienna, Austria, led by volunteer Liu Jian-guo (劉建國), set out to Bad Münstereifel to take over from the previous team. My wife and I were also on the Austrian team. We brought with us all kinds of cooking utensils, condiments, rice, pasta, and other food. Before we started serving food the next day, we tidied up a bicycle parking lot near our food truck and an area the local government was using to temporarily store some desks and chairs. The environment around us looked so much neater and cleaner after we were done. We received quite a few compliments for our work that day.

Residents also heaped praise on the vegetarian meals we offered. During the week our team was on duty, we gave out about 500 servings of food per day. It was all hustle and bustle during mealtime each day, like a party was going on.

Tzu Chi’s meal service ended on September 11. I know the locals are going to miss our food and the friendly, peaceful ambience on-site. I’m happy I wasn’t one of the volunteers who was there at the end of the service; I would have been very sad to see the sad looks on the locals’ faces. Estimates are that it will take two years for the flood-hit areas to rebuild. Good-bye, my friends. I hope we’ll meet again.

November 2021