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Germay 2023

REDISCOVERING (EAST) GERMANY - 2023                                                                                July 2023

Most journeys are a journey in space – you go places.  But sometimes it is also a journey in time.  This is one of them.  You cannot travel to East Germany (GDR) because it doesn’t exist anymore.  But it lives in my memory. That’s where my German experience had begun.  I had lived many more years in (the former) West Germany, and then some more in unified Germany, but East Germany remains special.  Now I had to revisit and catch up with something that I had missed during my 6 years there.  And that is to appreciate the richness of its heritage in classical German culture and history. Christine too, wanted to catch up with her (childhood) friends.  So, we went and did both.  Along the way, we discovered something unexpected….

 

The best time to visit Germany is in April-May - when flowers are in bloom, days are long, and temperatures mild.  We went in mid-May, taking a direct flight from Minneapolis to Frankfurt with Condor (Lufthansa charter).  We are no strangers to Germany, but we were apprehensive.  We hadn't been there for many years, especially in the former East German regions.  How have things changed?  Will we be surprised or disappointed?

 

Things worked well - until we landed next morning.  We had to disembark on the tarmac, and were carted off to the terminal.  Things felt crowded and 

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Street signs in Weimar

disorganized as we proceeded through immigration and baggage collection.  The experience was the same on our way back home.  Anyway, we headed for the railway station.  We hadn’t rented a car.  We’ll be traveling widely and hoped to avoid stress by using a train.  The station should have been an easy 10 minutes’ walk, but we failed to locate any sign.  A huge construction site between the terminal and the station didn’t make things easier.

 

We made it to the station all right.  As we waited in the high-ceilinged and spacious station, I took in the rushing crowd.  I started to feel like being back in Germany again.  But people were more casually dressed than I remember from the past.

 

The “Intercity” train to Stuttgart was on time and comfortable.  As we were preparing to get off in Stuttgart, I exchanged pleasantries with an elderly woman traveling with her mother.  I told them about our plans.  They were from Hoyerswerda. Did we know Hoyerswerda?  Yes, we did, it’s a small town in Saxony (former East Germany).  “Not everyone in Hoyerswerda is like that”, she told us.  Her mother nodded.  Yes, we understood.

 

Armed with that cryptic assurance, we started our three weeks-long journey that took us to many towns and villages, big and small – mostly in the regions of the former East Germany.  And we met only people who were “not like that”.  30+ years ago, Hoyerswerda had made the headlines because of a xenophobic incident.  What was the likelihood of that conversation on the very first day?  Not much - but it did happen.  And it was not the only “as luck would have it moment” during the next three weeks.

STUTTGART (Baden-Württemberg, former West Germany)

Our friends “NS and RKS” picked us up from Stuttgart station, and took us to their beautiful home in Esslingen, a suburb of Stuttgart.  That’s where we stayed for the next few days to decompress and to do sightseeing and hiking.  Most of all, we caught up with our retired and empty nester friends.  We had previously vacationed together in France and Canada.  Next up, hopefully in Minnesota!

 

We did sightseeing in Esslingen and Tübingen – two old, picturesque cities with a fairytale-like Rathaus (city hall) in the city center, an old castle, and all that.  I was amused in the city by a restaurant sign enticing passersby with a delicious breakfast of “pancakes and bagels”.  Wonder who travels to Germany to enjoy pancakes and bagles!  Our friends’ alma mater is in Tübingen.  We visited “castle laboratory” where DNA was discovered by Friedrich Miescher in 1869.   The next day we went to Stuttgart to attend a “modern” ballet .

 

Next up was Weimar.  Christine and I left in advance by an Intercity train, which took only a few hours.  Our friends joined us three days later.  

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Beautiful City Center of Esslingen

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WEIMAR (Thuringia, former East  Germany)

Weimar is a crown jewel of classical German culture and history – it is “die Stadt der Dichter und Denker” (the city of poets and thinkers).  It is here that Goethe, Schiller, Herder, and Wieland had spent their productive life. It is here that Bauhaus movement had started.  And it is here that the eponymous Weimar Republic was proclaimed.  

It is a small city.  Signposts on every street corner remind you of its glorious past - not that that were necessary.  Every narrow alley, along which stand old historic buildings and restaurants, exudes the aura of the past.  We visited many of them, including Goethe’s house, Schiller’s house, the old castle, Anna Amalia library, Bauhaus Museum, Weimar Republic Museum, Cranach exhibit and much more.  Also attended a small concert at the Weimar University of Music, in front of which stands the statue of duke of Saxe-Weimar, Karl August, whose patronage was key to Weimar’s cultural heritage.

 

Weimar is a tourist magnet – for “cultured” tourists, as one of our friends put it.  Most of them seemed like elderly Europeans.  There were some student groups as well.  They congregated in front of the most famous and beloved monument in Germany – the Goethe-Schiller Monument.  In the background is Deutsches National Theater und Staatskapelle where Bach, Liszt, Richard Strauss, Goethe, Schiller had worked.  A banner hung saying “Diplomacy!  NOW!  Peace”.   It was the first of only two political banners I had seen in three weeks.  The other one was in Leipzig.

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Goethe-Schiller Monument  

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Schiller's study and his death bed

Goethe's study.  He died in a chair in a room to the left

Weimar is where Bauhaus movement was born.  Most people I know are enthusiastic about it but I have never felt the passion.  Maybe it was because of my lack of familiarity.  Now was the opportunity to rectify my knowledge gap.  So, we spent half a day at Bauhaus Museum, and I realized why Bauhaus did not appeal to me.  I’ll spare you the long treatise. Instead, here are three reasons. 

 

First, the movement had developed under a cult-like environment, which I don’t like.  Second, in its endeavor to improve efficiency (of individuals and the society), Bauhaus interpreted human activities through a mechanistic lens.  As a result, it feels like human spirituality takes a back seat.   Function rules too much over spirit.  

Thirdly, at least in some instances, Bauhaus fails to balance form with function, a balance that is key to any design.  It’s a mouthful, especially coming from a scientist.  Therefore, I’ll give two examples.  The museum had Bauhaus chairs on display.  They did not appeal to me – but that’s subjective.  I trial sat on three such chairs (thay were meant for that purpose).  None of them was comfortable.  This too, could be subjective.  But look at the attached museum poster of a Bauhaus chair.  If the poor mannequin doesn’t get lumbar support soon, it will need to call a chiropractor.  I had a similar 

opinion on home design.  I looked closely at one model - arguably one among many.  Kitchen/dining/living rooms were located centrally, and bedrooms on the periphery.  The design is probably pretty functional, but I want the space where I spend most of my time at home (kitchen/dining/living) to have a direct view to the outside.  

 

I am not saying that my objections apply to all Bauhaus designs.  I also acknowledge Bauhaus’s contribution to new thinking back then.  But that was then.  Today we do not need more functionality and efficiency.  Rather what we need is more focus on spirituality and esthetics.  Otherwise, transhumanism will be on our doorsteps sooner than we think.  Sorry, let’s move on ….

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Anna Amalia library and Lucas Cranach exhibit

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Town square. Hotel Elephant is on the right (not in the pic)

There were two interesting encounters in Weimar - both rather unlikely.  The first one was with one Herr H., a local primary school teacher.  We bumped into each other in front of Schiller Museum.  He was intrigued by an American tourist speaking German, and my interest was to find out how regular Germans think about Germany.  This suited Herr H. just fine.  He was also proud to show me his city.  For an hour he led me through the old city along many narrow, clobber stoned streets and alleys, while we chatted.  He had a few questions about the States, but I had many – all the way from the political landscape, economic situation, Ossi-Wessi relationship, the Ukraine war, refugees, xenophobia, Covid response, etc.  It was a pleasant conversation thanks to Herr H.’s openness and my approach of not sharing my opinion unless asked to.  We remain in contact by email.  (Ossi and Wessi are colloquial terms used by former East Germans and former West Germans to refer to each other)

 

The other encounter was with “DG and MG”.  Christine and I had known (of) them 40+ years ago while attending university in Merseburg (GDR).  But we had not been in contact.  As luck would have it (notice the phrase), we got connected just three months before the trip by an unlikely sequence of events.  They drove up from Halle to see us and took us to dinner that lasted four hours!  There was a lot to catch up with – both personal and professional.  They belong to a generation (our generation) that was hit especially hard by German reunification.  Many people from this generation were too old to reorient but too young to have already established a career.  DG has done splendidly well though.  He is the founder of a small company commercializing in a unique niche product for chemical research.  He told us how his entrepreneurial journey had started before reunification.  It was a long, arduous, and uncertain journey over many years.   

It was a beautiful spring evening and we sat outside in the town square.  Hotel Elephant’s (in)famous balcony looked over our shoulders.  The balcony is associated with a certain Herr H. – not the amicable schoolteacher Herr H. though.  A few clicks on the Internet will solve the riddle.  

LEIPZIG (Saxony, former East Germany)

Next up was Leipzig - another beautiful city rich in history and culture, and just a few hours away from Weimar.  We and our friends took a regional train to arrive at Leipzig Hauptbahnhof (main station).  It is a splendid work of architecture. This 1919 built, 898,400 sq ft railway station is Europe’s largest and also one of the highest ranked.  I know this station well because I had lived in Leipzig for one year.  That was 48 years ago - my very first year in Germany.  I haven’t been back since.  Returning there brought back many memories.  I left Christine and our friends alone for a while, and wandered around looking for places, nooks, and corners I knew many years ago.  Things have changed, and the ambience is lost to some extent.  It is crowded and cluttered now with food stalls and boutique shops.  I missed the gigantic “Mitropa restaurant” that I used to find so impressive, but also somewhat intimidating.  But the station still looks grandiose and is worth visiting.  I was happy to be back.

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Leipzig Hauptbahnhof entrance

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Old city hall

Leipzig is an old city - you could mistake its new city hall for a medieval castle from a movie!  The city center has been completely renovated and looks beautiful.  Leipzig is culturally vibrant too.  No wonder Leipzig ranks as one of the most livable cities in Europe.  Many young people from the former West Germany have moved to Leipzig, as our hotel bar tender told me.  He is one of them.  I cannot be sure, but many of the new establishments in the city are probably in Wessi hands.  Everything has its dark side.  I am told that the city is becoming unaffordable for many locals.

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Mendelbrunen (Mendel fountain) with Uni on the left, opera house on the right (Gewandhaus behind the camera)

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"Konsument" (die Blechbüchse) was where I had bought my first winter jacket in 1975

Leipzig’s most famous resident was J.S. Bach.  He spent his entire productive life here, living right next to St. Thomas church.  That’s where he worked and that’s where he is laid to rest.  His former home is now Bach Museum.  Don’t miss it if you like Bach, as I do.  Admission is free on Tuesdays!  We had planned our Leipzig visit to coincide with commemoration of 300 years of Bach’s arrival in Leipzig.  Taking advantage of the event, we enjoyed several hours of Bach performance at St. Thomas church.

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St. Thomas church

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Bach's grave

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Bach Museum (formerly Bach residence)

Leipzig university is one of the oldest in Europe, and Gewandhaus Orchestra one of the oldest of its kind in the world.  St. Thomas and St. Nicholas churches are here too.  Both played prominent roles in the East German non-violent movement in the 1980’s that brought down the Berlin wall.  It had all began at St. Nicholas church (Nicholaikirche) with a Friedensgebet (prayer for peace) on a Monday in 1982.  The church continues to hold Friedensgebet every Monday at 5 pm.  As luck would have it (again!), we were walking by the church when the 5 O’clock gong sounded.  It was a Monday too, and it was Friedensgebet time!  We joined 100 or so attendees inside the church.  After a short prayer, an appeal for peace was read out.   A banner hung inside the church that said, “God does not approve of war”.  

In Leipzig too, I had two interesting encounters.  The first one was at an info counter for public transportation.  I wanted to find out if any multi-day packages are available.  It was late in the afternoon and the 50-something year old employee was visibly stressed out.  She greeted and responded rather curtly and started comparing options on her computer.  To break the ice, I mentioned that the last time I was in Leipzig was in 1976, when I was learning German.  She looked 

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Inside Nikolaikirche

up and told me in a friendlier manner that those were the good old days.  Before I could respond, she added defiantly that yes, she is and will always be an Ossi.  I’d have loved to probe further but there were people waiting in line to be served.  

 

I don’t think that all former East Germans feel this way.  But I also don’t think that - notwithstanding the visible improvements all around - she is an outlier.  I was surprised that she expressed her opinion unprompted, and did so to someone who was obviously not a German.  I have a hunch that she would not have done so if I were a Wessi.   I also have a hunch that there is still a gulf between most Ossis and Wessis, which will take one or two more generations to bridge.

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My classroom at Herder Institut looked the same in 1975/1976 (without the big screen)

The second encounter was more emotional.  It happened at Herder Institut, the East German equivalent of Goethe Institute.  That’s where I had learned German in 1975/76.  I was not too hopeful of finding it.  I assumed it had long been reorganized/renamed/relocated.  But after some Internet search, our friend identified a Herder Institut on Lumumba Strasse.  I have lost my orientation in the city but not the memory of the name of the street.  So off we went, and lo and behold, we found it.  The building still stood there … not much changed.

 

It was in the afternoon, and nobody was around.  But the entrance was open - so, we went in.  I wandered around the hallways, upstairs and downstairs, climbed the stairways, as I used to do many years ago, and peeked inside empty classrooms trying to remember my classroom.  I remembered my German teacher Frau Lehmann, and the very first two German sentences I had learned on the very first day.  She stood in front of the chalk blackboard on which she had written: "Ich bin Frau Lehmann.  Ich bin Ihre Lehrerin" (I am Mrs. Lehmann.  I am your teacher).  She repeated them over and over, while gesticulating to herself, to a handful of students who didn't know any German whatsoever.  

 

I was too engrossed in the past to notice a young woman observing me from the far end of the empty hallway.  She came forward and asked if she can help.  I told her that I was a student here 47 years ago.  She is a teacher, she told me.  But 1976 was a very long time ago.  But there was someone who could help.  She excused herself and soon returned with an elderly gentleman.  He was Dr. Michael - the recently retired director of the institute.  As luck would have it (again!), he happened to be at the institute that afternoon.  

Our paths had not crossed in the past because Dr. Michael had joined the institute (as a teacher) one year after I had already left.  But he had been there ever since and there was a lot to share.  What followed was a 30-minutes long time travel!  The institute is still affiliated with the University of Leipzig, but its original mission has been deprioritized.  He remembered one of my teachers, but she had left for West Germany before reunification, and he has lost contact with her.  The cafeteria and an older student housing next to the zoo (where I had lived for a short time) have been demolished.  The institute building remains well preserved because it is under monument protection.  

 

Dr. Michael complimented me on my German proficiency.  It meant a lot to me.  And I thought that I sensed a hint of pride in his voice.  Here I might share something else.  After returning to Minnesota, I had sent Dr. Michael an email thanking him for taking the time for me.  I had also thanked Herder Institute for giving me an opportunity to learn German language and its culture.  In response Dr. Michael wrote (translated): “You don’t have to thank me.  That’s because my delight in such an excellent graduate of Herder-Institut is enormous.  I have shared your email right away with two of my colleagues who used to work here in the 1980’s.  They were equally impressed by your German language skills. Evidently, we hadn’t done much wrong as teachers”.  This time, he didn’t hide his teacher’s pride.  And I couldn’t wish for a better German proficiency certificate!

The best German proficiency certificate I could ever wish for

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Back to our conversation.  The bust of Lumumba in front of the building had been vandalized but is now replaced with a smaller one.  I had noticed that.  Patrice Lumumba, and the street named after him brought back more memories.  I remembered a morning in early November in 1975.  During a class break, all students, including me, had run out to the street to experience a natural spectacle that none had ever seen before – snowfall.

He bemoaned that, unlike in the past, two semesters are no longer adequate for bringing foreign students to a proficiency level that would allow them to attend a German university.  The kind of students they get has changed, and so has the system.  Yes, certain things used to be done better in East Germany

Next day, we went in search of the student housing I used to live in.  It is located near Völkerschlachtdenkmal, a memorial for the battle in which the largest number of soldiers were killed before World War 1.  This was the same 1813 battle, right here in Leipzig, in which Napoleon was defeated by a coalition of forces from Russia, Austria, Sweden, and Prussia. A few German Rheinbundstatelets (including Saxony, to which Leipzig belongs) had fought on Napoleon's side.  European history is rich.

 

The student housing was on Strasse des 10. Oktober ( Street of 10. October- named after the battle) – a broad alley with rows of 5-6 stories high prefab buildings on both sides (referred to as sozialistischer Plattenbau – not entirely sure if lovingly or mockingly).  Everything looked similar, except minor facelifts on the buildings.  I had forgotten the number of my building.  I still took a picture of one of the buildings. 

 

Next day, our friends’ and our paths parted.  They took a train to their second home in Berlin, and we headed for the federal state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in the north.

VOGELSANG  (Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, former East Germany)

Our next destination was Vogelsang, a small village in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.  That’s where we were going to stay for a few days with Christine’s childhood friend JE.  But our luck with the Bundesbahn ran out.  One of the trains was cancelled.  Later, the alternative train remained stuck in the middle of nowhere.  Fellow travelers took it in strides, and so did we.  But we missed the connecting train in Bernau.  

 

Bernau is a small little town with an even smaller station.  There was nothing to do, except have lunch in the only visible restaurant – a Turkish one.   The service was friendly, but the quality was nowhere near the Turkish fare we had in Esslingen.  Eventually our train arrived.  We got on it, and soon we arrived in Prenzlau.  JE was waiting for us.  

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Little town Bernau

She drove us to Vogelsang - a neat little village nestled in the agricultural countryside.  It has a community of resettled artists from the cities.  She is one of them and owns part of an old, defunct farmhouse.  This is also her retreat from her home in Berlin.  During the next few days Christine and JE caught up with each other.  I joined them sometimes.  She has a unique Ossi-Wessi experience.

We toured the beautiful villages, small towns, and scenic lakes around.  Our friend took us to a bookstore that has become the focal point of the community’s social and cultural life.  She introduced us to Nils, the owner.  He is a self-declared lefty-anarchist!  We chatted with Nils and found out that he hails from a place not far from Neuss (former West Germany) where we had lived for seven years.  Small world!

 

The next destination was Boltenhagen, a sea resort on the Baltic Sea.  But first, we were to stay one night in Schwerin to attend an event showcasing works of our friend’s niece, who is a sculptor.  We got to know several of her relatives too.

SCHWERIN via WISMAR (Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, former East Germany)

Schwerin is the capitol city of the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and is just a few hours’ drive away.  It is located near the Baltic Sea.  On the way, we made a pit stop at the Hanseatic port city of Wismar.  We strolled through the historic town square and milled around with a cheerful crowd at old harbor.  Before leaving for Schwerin, we made sure to go to JE’s favorite fish stand to have one of its specialties - pickled herring Brötchen.  

 

We arrived at our hotel in Schwerin in the afternoon.  Schwerin is another historic city with many attractions.  The friendly hotel receptionist was of no help.  He had moved to the city just last week.  He is Syrian and came from Berlin hoping for a speedier immigration process.  Most service workers in the city appeared to be immigrants.  Later in the evening, we took a taxi.  The driver was an immigrant too, but not too talkative.

 

The only tourist attraction we had time to visit was the Schwerin Castle.  Once the home of grand dukes, now it is the seat of the state parliament.  It is one thousand years old and fabulously beautiful.  Parts of the castle is open to visitors. But we had to contend with admiring it from outside only.  Even that was worth it.

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Schwerin Castle

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Wismar town center with Wasserkunst (a 17th century fountain that was the main source of water in the city), and the 13th century St. Mary's church on the left

BOLTENHAGEN (Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, former East Germany)

We drove on to Boltenhagen, a neat little sea resort– not too overrun and well maintained.  We wanted to cap our vacation by spending a few days on the shores of the warm Baltic Sea.  

 

Boltenhagen was a resort for Stasi-Bonzen (Stasi fat cats) in GDR times.  Their families still hold sway in local politics – I am told.  Our friend’s family owns a cabin here too, but for the opposite reason.  Before GDR time, her parents belonged to the privileged class, and it was GDR’s policy to promote working-class families at the expense of formerly privileged ones.  As a kind of compensation, the latter were given small parcels of land in coveted resorts like Boltenhagen.  That’s how a small settlement of self-built, tiny cabins came into being.  We visited two such cabins.  They are small, but wonderfully functional.  I sensed something else.  As year after year, families from different parts of GDR with similar background spent vacations together, they formed connections beyond the original generation.

 

We stayed at a seaside hotel.  One morning we had an interesting conversation.  It was triggered by an amusing incident. We were having breakfast out in the garden.  The tables were not set, so I requested the young waiter-in-training to bring coffee cream.  He came back with a small piece of packaged butter.  He looked helpless when I pointed out that it was not coffee cream.  He apologized and went back.  After a while, he returned empty handed.  He apologized some more – there is no coffee cream to be found!  People at neighboring tables were amused too.  The couple at the adjacent table offered us their can of coffee cream.  We thanked and exchanged pleasantries.  They were a retired couple from the western part of Germany.  He had visited Florida once and would love to see California as well.  His wife was less adventurous, probably because of her age.  BTW, one oddity of the hotel was the age of its guests.  We were the youngest around – and we are no spring chicken.  After more chit chat, I popped the question:  do they refer to it as “die Wende” or “Wiedervereinigung”?  I was proven right - they call it Wiedervereinigung.   Read on, and you’ll understand …..

 

Several days ago, during one of our many outings, I had shared an observation with our friend.  I had noticed that Ossis and Wessis use different words to refer to what had brought down the Berlin wall.  The former call it “die Wende” but the latter “Wiedervereinigung”.  She had never thought about it in this way.  But she was intrigued and promised to check around.  

 

After we had returned to Minnesota, she wrote me that yes, my observation was indeed right.  But she added a qualifier – Wessis who have had close interactions with Ossis call it die Wende as well.  Voila!  What’s the big deal?  A lot.  Words have meaning – and when people use different words then they describe different things.  Wende means “change in direction” (Wendepunkt is inflection point in math-lingo) while Wiedervereinigung means “reunification”.  On closer scrutiny, the disconnect turns out to be even greater than it appears at first.  Ossis see this as a milestone along a journey (a change in direction = die Wende), whereas Wessis see this as a destination that has been arrived at.   Evidently, even after three decades, most Ossis and most Wessis have a different understanding of the most important event in Germany’s recent history.

 

Equally oddly, the official term “of the thing” is Wiedervereinigung.  This is odd because German “reunification” was carried out under article 23 of Grundgesetz (provisional German constitution) – and not the more appropriate article 146. The former regulates accession to Germany (e.g., of GDR to West Germany), while the latter regulates reunification of Germany.  Therefore, strictly speaking, reunification never happened!  If you think that what I am saying is too wild, then check out Lütten Klein by German sociologist Steffen Mau (here are my own notes in English).  One very visible consequence (of accession rather than reunification) is that Germany continues to operate under its provisional constitution (Grundgesetz) that was handed down by the allied powers!  Reunification (under article 146) would have required Germans to draft their own Verfassung (constitution). 

Back to Boltenhagen.  Our friend took us to a hidden cove on the Baltic Sea.  In her youth, she had spent many summer days here with her friends.  It’s hidden because Boltenhagen lies right next to the border with (former) West Germany.  The cove could be reached only along secret paths and only during certain hours of the day to avoid border patrol.  On a good day, you can see from there the island of Fehman in the west.  It looks closer than it is.  Some have drowned trying to flee to the island.

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The hidden cove near Boltenhagen

I could go on...  but everything must come to an end, including our vacation.  We celebrated the last evening with a dinner at a venue that was not pre-planned, but probably fitting.  It was the restaurant of a GDR-era hotel, appropriately housed in a 5-story sozilistischer Plattenbau.  We went in mostly because we happened to be there in the evening.  But I cannot rule out a bit of curiosity on our part as well.  We were not disappointed.  The well restored interior somehow exuded an ambience of GDR.  The restaurant served traditional food, and the service was good.  It all conspired to bring back Ostalgia in all three of us – two former-Ossis (both had left GDR before the fall of the wall), and an honorary one (me).

 

Next morning, our friend brought us to Schwerin railway station.   After a short emotional farewell, we boarded our last train in Germany, an Intercity to Frankfurt.  Thankfully, the privatized Bundesbahn hadn’t lost all its mojos, and we arrived in Frankfurt without trouble.  What transpired next is mundane and boring.  In due time we landed in Minnesota.  We were back to home sweet home!

 

THE REDISCOVERY

We found a country with neat and clean public space, which is orderly and safe, and where people are friendly.  Its many historic sites and cities are beautiful and a pleasure to visit.  Outside metropolitan areas, you can enjoy plenty of beautiful places.  And the food is rich in regional variety, and excellent in quality.  In other words, Germany remains a wonderful country to visit. 

There were changes too.  The demography is older now.  There is a new group of twentysomethings, apparently of non-German ethnicity.  We saw few children in public.  The fabled (now privatized) train system still works but with many hiccups.  The autobahn is congested and unpredictable.  

 

Investment over many years in the east is paying off.  The infrastructure there is much better now.  Especially pleasing are restored historic towns and cities.  Ironically, thanks to the neglect of urban development during GDR times, many historic structures and neighborhoods were decrepit but still in existence.  Now these restored places bring out a historic charm that is better than in the west.  Improvements in economic activities have benefitted most Ossis.  But there are some (many?) who are disgruntled.  It is likely that business ownership is overpropotionately in western hands.

 

Even after 30+ years I could sense a gulf that separates Ossis and Wessis – especially among those who haven’t had much personal contact with each other.  Hopefully it will disappear in another one or two generations.

 

There were some positive surprises.  We saw no political or economic discontent, no protests, and no sign of a raging war in Ukraine.  We hadn’t seen a single flag of the Ukraine.  The hotel we stayed at in Weimar remains unmolested even though it carries “Russia” in its name (Grand-Hotel Russischer Hof or Grand Hotel Russian Court).  The only two political banners we saw appealed for peace (in Weimar and in Leipzig).  The town centers were full of people spending money at street cafes, restaurants, and shops.  

 

Some will find this description all too rosy, and I’d agree.  But what I am writing is also true  The two are not mutually exclusive.  I believe that profound unrest and changes are just underneath the surface - both in Germany and in Europe - and both in economic and political sense.  But to write about them would be a completely different matter and for a different time.  Instead, as a well-wisher, I hope that Germans and their leaders will make the right decisions in the coming months and years.

There was another discovery – a surprising and personal one.  We have been living in the States for more than 30 years now.  This is our home, and we don’t want to live anywhere else.  But I realized that the moment I had set my feet on Germany, I had felt at home!  I shared my surprising discovery with Christine.  She told me that she had felt exactly the same way.

PS:  I had to leave out many things for the sake of brevity.  Among them are Lucas Cranach exhibit, Herderkirche, and Weimar Republic Museum in Weimar; return from the west of immensely land-rich families back to Mecklenburg, effects of the break-up of East German agricultural cooperatives around Vogelsang; Bothmar castle near Boltenhagen and the fascinating story of Graf von Bothmar whose family lineage brought forth royal families in six European countries in the 20th century (Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, and Spain).

 

All photos were taken with an iPhone 12 Pro Max.

Iceland

ICELAND . . . . sjáumst fljótlega við (April 2019)                                                                                         May 2019

If Minnesota is the land of 10,000 lakes, then Iceland must be the land of 10,000 waterfalls.  Everywhere you look there is a waterfall, and then more waterfalls and more… some are mighty and gorgeous, and some are tiny.  Many of them arise from glaciers.  The entire landscape is still very young and being formed and shaped by glaciers and volcanoes.  This is the picture I returned with from my vacation.

 

Until then, my sole connection with Iceland was through Eyjafjallajökull.  That’s the Icelandic volcano, that had brought European air travel to a near standstill in the fall of 2010.  And with that, it had come close to stranding us in Istanbul, Turkey, as we were wrapping up a three week long European vacation.  (As intimidating as Icelandic words and names are, a simple explanation can make them seem less daunting - see NOTE 1)  In the end, we did manage to get two tickets, literally on the last plane, out of Istanbul to the States.  So, plan B was not necessary - which would have been to go to Cairo by ship, and then catch a plane to the States. 

 

As we left for the airport, our friends Karl and Becky from Germany, with whom we had vacationed, were standing in a very long queue in front of the main train station.  German skies were already closed, and the train was the only option.  Many other German vacationers were in the same situation.  So, it took them a week to get back home.

 

Beyond that distant encounter with Iceland, the other thing I knew about Iceland was that after the 2008 financial crisis, it was the only country in the world that had jailed its bankers instead of bailing them out.  And finally, I remember having read, also about 10 years ago, a book by Halldór Laxness.  He is the only Icelandic author to have won the Nobel prize in literature. 

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(Photo credit Christine)

Now back to our recent Iceland vacation.  It was a driving and sightseeing trip around the island.  We started from the capital city Reykjavik and drove in counter clockwise direction - first going east along the southern shore, then turning north.  Then we continued east along the northern shore, and finally went south, again along the coast, to return to Reykjavik in 10 days.  

 

Iceland is a small country with an area of 103,000 sq. km.  That means it is roughly half the size of Minnesota but has just 340,000 inhabitants vs. 5.7 million in Minnesota.  Most of Iceland consists of mountains, glaciers and a craggy landscape. Although Iceland is located pretty north (with its northern tip jutting into the arctic circle), its climate is relatively temperate. That's because of Gulf Stream.  Our travel route came close to the arctic circle, but did not cross it.  

GETTING ACCLIMATED

The first day in Reykjavik was cloudy, cold, blustery and rainy.  We were further weighed down by our jet lag.  But none of these were unexpected.  We took it easy and went for a leisurely stroll through the deserted downtown.  Deserted, because Icelanders take Easter holidays seriously and close down most activities, apparently from Thursday to Monday. 

 

The sun peeked through every now and then to give me an opportunity to take a snapshot with my iPhone.  But usually it didn’t last long.  This became the rule of engagement for most of the vacation.  As a result, the photo yield with my SRL Nikon camera was meager.  No big deal though.  I enjoy photography as a hobby, but don’t let it ruin my vacation. 

 

The weather and the first spell of jet lag made the Church of Hallgrímur a welcome refuge.  It is the city’s best-known landmark.  Although it is just 244 feet tall, it is one of the highest structures in the entire country!  The architecture of this in 1986 completed church is plain and simple - not to be compared with mainland Europe’s churches.  But it is known for its excellent, German made, pipe organs.  As luck would have it, an informal live performance was underway just as we entered the church,  What a great welcome on our first day!

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Reykjavik streetview

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Church of Hallgrímur

THINGVELLIR – HISTORY, GEOLOGY AND WATERFALL

Next day, our first destination was Thingvellir, a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its prominent role in Iceland's history. This is where Icelanders had founded their first parliament in 930 AD and had continued to meet every year!  Their adoption of Christianity around 1000 AD, as well as the foundation of the current Icelandic state in 1944, were also decided here.

 

Thingvellir is a National Park with beautiful natural and geological attractions.  Here is a junction of the North American and the Eurasian tectonic plates that is nowhere as visible as here.  These two plates are drifting apart at the rate of 2 cm per year.  As I took a video from the high platform, it was cold and very windy.  I had trouble keeping the iPhone steady in one hand and had to hold on to the platform railing for my dear life.  Here we also saw the first imposing waterfall of our journey.  

 

Then we drove east, along the southern coast.  First came the geysers.  They are small, compared to Old Faithful in Yellowstone.  But they erupt every 5-10 minutes, giving ample opportunity to see them in action. What remains memorable is the cold and rainy weather.  It is however, my principle not to complain about the weather. 

The first of many waterfalls at Thingvellir National Park

Next on our journey east came Gullfoss, a gigantic, twin waterfall.  By that time, I already knew that Foss means waterfall.    And thanks to a beer I had the previous night, named Gull, I also knew that Gull means gold.  It turns out that the name Golden Circle, the most popular tourist destination in Iceland, is derived from the name Gullfoss

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Gullfoss

THE DAY OF (MORE) MIGHTY WATERFALLS

Skogáfoss is hands down the most beautiful waterfall in Iceland.  Period.  What made it even more memorable was a direct intervention from Thor.  That’s the only way I can explain how, just as we had approached the waterfall in a cloudy and drizzling weather, the clouds had parted just for a brief minute and let the sun shine through.  All of a sudden, there it was - the gigantic waterfall, framed by a dark black volcanic river bank, and a gorgeous rainbow across the entire breadth of the Valley!

Skogáfoss (with compliments from Thor)

Skogáfoss is also the trailhead of Fimmvorouhais (five-milestone-ridge).  It is a 26 km long, and supposedly the most beautiful, hiking trail in Iceland.  It runs along the Skogá river that originates from the previously mentioned Eyjafjallajökull glacier.  Along the trail there are another 20, breathtakingly beautiful, waterfalls.  Unfortunately, this was not planned as a hiking vacation and we had to move on. Besides, the recommended hiking period for this mountainous trail is between May 15 and September 15.

Prior to Skogáfos, we had stopped by at Seljalandsfoss, where you can walk behind the water cascade.  By now I knew the weather routine – cold, windy and rainy … and suddenly a brief period of sun.  I took advantage of one of the respites to shoot photo and a short video with my iPhone.  Just look at the gorgeous landscape!

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Seljalandsfoss

The day ended with a trip to the stunningly beautiful black beach of Reynisfjara (fjara= beach), covered by jet-black sand - made up of volcanic rocks, grounded to fine particles by the unrelenting Atlantic waves.  The waves are treacherous and have washed away several tourists, most recently in 2016.  It was an overcast and drizzly late afternoon.  So, I picked the fleeting black and white patterns created by the white froth on the black sand as a motif for my video.  All the while, I was scared to death of being caught unawares by a deadly, treacherous wave.  Thanks god, and as you can see, I made it alive!

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The treacherous, black beach of Reynisfjara on a cloudy day

THE DAY OF GLACIERS

The next day was a glacier day.  It started with a glacier walk in Vatnajökull National Park.  Vatna means water, and  jökull, as we already know, means glacier.  Glaciers are dangerous.  You also need proper gears.  But we had an experienced guide with us, who showed us how to use the gears, how to walk and climb on a glacier, what to do and what not do.  Most importantly, he steered us away from hidden dangers like holes and crevices.

Our guide was Kyle.  We learned a lot from him about glaciers, Iceland's geology, and even some bits and pieces about Icelandic.  What is interesting is that he is from Singapore!  He has been living in Iceland for two years now but was planning to go back home because of his parents.  Kyle was an excellent guide, having learned glacier climbing in the Himalayas.

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On an outlet glacier of Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Europe

Next stops were Diamond Beach and Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon.  That's where you can admire the fascinating beauty of icebergs.  As they float away along Diamond Beach, the contrast between the jet-black volcanic sand and the blue-whitish and sparkling blocks of ice of the most bizarre size and shape is simply stunning.  And then, there is the interesting play of subtle color contrast among the different icebergs too.  One can just stand there for hours and be lost admiring the beauty.

Diamond Beach

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Glacier Lake

Glacier Lake

NORTH, NORTH WEST

Next came a lot of driving, and some wonderful landscape.  Along the way came a neat little fishing port Djupivogur, established by the Danes in the 16thcentury (Djupi= deep, Vogur= cove).

Going North, North West

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The Danish fishing village Djupivogur

Driving was sometimes treacherous, but fortunately never crowded. Two highlights were Dettifoss and Godafoss.  Dettifoss is Europe’s most powerful waterfall with a width of 100 meters (330 ft.) and a drop of 44 meters (144 ft.).  It originates from the Vatnajökull glacier (the  same glacier on an outlet of which we had our glacier walk).  Godafoss (Goda= god) is another magnificent waterfall.  Just wish we had a better weather for photography.

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On the road again

Godafoss 

Dettifoss

Especially scenic were the drives along the fjords.  There were long stretches of picturesque view of the coastline from the high up, interspersed with tunnels through the mountains; the longest being 7 km long.  Some of them were with a single lane!  There were indeed periodic turnouts so the you could yield to the opposing vehicle.  But the tunnels are never straight.  As a result, you had to be on your toes and anticipate who might be coming.  Fortunately, there was little traffic     You also knew that when come out of the tunnel, you will be greeted with a spectacular view.

Tunnel vision

One highlight on the north was Akureyri, the unofficial capital of north Iceland.  We arrived there at midday – in perfect time for a break and for a stroll through the neat, small downtown.  A quick visit to the local concert hall revealed what Brittney Spears has been up to.  But we didn’t think it worthwhile to wait until May.  Then a quick fish soup lunch at a local shop and off we went….  

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Akureyri impressions

Barely out of Akureyri, we entered the magical “Rainbow Land”.  Nowhere have we seen as many and as bright rainbows as here.  The weather was drizzly and wet, leaving me no other option than to limit my picture taking with my iPhone. 

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Passing through the "Rainbow Land"

We continued going north hugging the coast, and along more fjord landscapes.  The northernmost town we passed through was Siglufjordur, with a latitude of 66.2, just shy of 66.33, the arctic circle.

 

In the interest of your and my time, I’ll stop ruminating about rest of the driving all the way back to Reykjavik. One exciting part of our daily experience was the anticipation of the next hotel.  Yes, the hotels were all prearranged by our travel agent.  But what was interesting was their selection.  Many of the hotels were at unexpected places, sometime in the middle of nowhere.  Often times, the first look was deceiving.  All of them came with excellent amenities.  Especially interesting were the meals - both dinner and breakfast.  Breakfasts were somewhere in-between continental and American, with the added flair of fish.  We always looked forward to fish - including freshly pickled herring and different varieties of salmon.  Dinner was usually at the hotel, especially when it was in the middle of nowhere.  The cuisine was always exceptionally good, usually cooked by the chef based on prior reservation.  At the Magma hotel, the chef cooked a lamb recipe just for the two of us.  My favorite fish is now Atlantic char, which I believe is a variety of salmon.

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Getting updated at breakfast in Foss Hotel in Myvatn. The outside is a moon landscape of frozen lava.

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Don't be misled by the exterior look of Magma Hotel in Kirkjubaejarklaustup. 

Note

Finally, some tidbits about Iceland.  When I am in a new country, I try to remember the first impressions.   Here are a few from Iceland, both the profound and the mundane:

  • I did not see a single cop - neither in any city/town nor on the highway.

  • The same is true for Idiot Boxes. I didn't see a single one in any public place, including in hotel lobbies.       

  • Service is good and efficient but sometimes lacks the personal touch we are used to in the US.

  • Most Icelanders speak Icelandic, English and Danish.  Iceland was a Danish colony until 1944.

  • I heard a surprising number of languages being spoken among the tourists - most of them seemed to come from Eastern Europe and the Baltic.  

  • Chinese tourists were well represented.  The unexpected thing was that most of them were young and vacationing on their own (as opposed to being bussed around in groups).

  • There is a surprising dearth of hooks in bathrooms for hanging your stuff from.  But on the flip side, every hotel had down comforters.  This is based on a sample size of 8 hotels.

  • Restaurant food is expensive. 

  • Iceland being Europe comes with certain things: tiny dessert forks and spoons, and the fact that power switches are off in the up position and on in the down position. 

 

It was a 10-day long journey full of splendid memories.  But there were many things we did not do or see.  That include whale watching, horse riding, hiking, “chasing after” northern lights, Blue Lagoon, see puffins, etc.  Part of it because we never stayed at one place for more than a day, part of it because of the time of the year, and part of it due to simple preference.  Some of these are very good reasons to go back to Iceland again.  On that note - sjáumst fljótlega við

 

NOTE 1

Icelandic is a North Germanic language belonging to the Indo-European language family.  Both German and Icelandic allow multiple words to be chained together to create a new, complex word.  Not surprisingly, both languages have long words that confound non-speakers, but are actually pretty simple. For example, Eyjafjallajökull is composed of three words: “Eyja + fjalla + jökull”, meaning “island + mountain + glacier”.  For an Icelandic speaker, who knows the rule as well as the three constituent words, it is child’s play to remember the name Eyjafjallajökull.  If this rule were to exist in the English language, then remembering “Islandmountainglacier” as a name would be no big deal for English speakers, but not for non-English speakers.  Hypothetically, that name would be “Inselberggletcher” in German. 

 

"Idiot box": Ubiquitous, wall-mounted, flickering devices that incessantly blare out the latest “breaking” “news” in the form of fillers between two segments of commercials, with the primary goal of turning your remaining brain cells to mush.

PARIS, FRANCE (2016)                                                                                                                       XXXX, 2019

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Istanbul

ISTANBUL, TURKEY (2010)                                                                                                                       XXXX, 2019

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