Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2011/28 posted by hidden europe on

My brief was to take the pulse of eastern Germany on the 21st anniversary of her union (in October 1990) with her bigger neighbour to the west. Thus was a new and larger Germany born. Twenty-first birthdays have symbolic rather than any legal meaning, but in many cultures there is still a sense of 'coming-of-age' at 21. And this week, all sixteen states in the reunified Germany had a day off work to mark this happy occasion. This year, even those who regret the union - and there are plenty of those in both halves of modern Germany - seemingly managed to suspend their antipathy for 'the other Germany' for a day or two.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

"A haircut for five euros?" asked the girl, her every gesture begging me to accept the offer. "Down from seven euros," she added. “We also have a special offer today on permanent make-up.”

That my appearance invited such advances suggests that I might have looked particularly unkempt yesterday. And yet I thought I looked passably smart - well, at least as presentable as one might expect of a woman making a long meandering journey by slow trains.

My brief was to take the pulse of eastern Germany on the 21st anniversary of her union (in October 1990) with her bigger neighbour to the west. Thus was a new and larger Germany born. Twenty-first birthdays have symbolic rather than any legal meaning, but in many cultures there is still a sense of 'coming-of-age' at 21. And this week, all sixteen states in the reunified Germany had a day off work to mark this happy occasion. This year, even those who regret the union - and there are plenty of those in both halves of modern Germany - seemingly managed to suspend their antipathy for 'the other Germany' for a day or two.

Coffee in Halle

I travelled through five of Germany's six eastern states. And yes, of course things have changed since 1990. They surely didn't have permanent make-up back then. The newspaper in Halle used to be called Die Freiheit (Freedom). It marked German unification in 1990 by changing its name to Mitteldeutsche Zeitung (the Central German Paper), so ruffling the feathers of folk in far-distant Frankfurt-am-Main (in the west) who thought they were in the centre of Germany. There is nothing central about Halle, but in small cafés scattered amid the city's multi-coloured apartment blocks, you can still get a decent cup of coffee for just 70 cents. "Or have a large one for just 20 cents more," said a rather jolly woman with an overdose of vermillion eye-shadow (not permanent, I hope).

I took the high-dose option and sat at a trestle table to read the Mitteldeutsche. A man in a suit was seated across the way. He'd opted for the 70-cent coffee and was reading an all-too-graphic magazine tucked inside the pages of the Mitteldeutsche. He smiled. I smiled.

Luther connections

Then it was time to take the onward train, which rattled past fields of ripe corn and wilting sunflowers. During my journey I stopped at two towns renamed in honour of Martin Luther: Lutherstadt Wittenberg and Lutherstadt Eisleben. Wittenberg was renamed in Nazi times and Eisleben restyled itself only after the Second World War. Today, both towns share an inscription on UNESCO's World Heritage List. This means that the train station in each town has been given a fresh coat of paint at some time in recent history.

Such extravagance is rare in eastern Germany. "Nothing but cuts and savings," said a man on the station platform at Stolberg. "They've trimmed the train service back to just eight days each month," he complained. "And in December, it'll stop completely." A battered old bike with only one wheel was chained to a lamp post on the platform.

I trundled on the slow train through villages with abandoned mills, ripples of rich red sandstone giving shape to the land as we approached the Harz Mountains. There were pumpkins, mushrooms, apples, the last of the summer plums, and a south-bound armada of geese.

Lunch in the hills

I stopped for lunch yesterday in a valley in the hills. The place is called Eisfelder Talmühle, a name which is nicely expressive - 'the mill in the valley of the ice fields.' The one-time mill is now a small pub, a damp and sequestered spot by a lonely country railway station. I was the sole customer. While I enjoyed fresh trout, outside the windows light rain had turned to sleet. Lunch was excellent, a fraction of what a similar meal might have cost in western Germany.

There are still two Germanys and I felt that acutely as I travelled on an almost empty train north from Eisfelder Talmühle yesterday afternoon. Five carriages hauled by a steam engine. I had one carriage entirely to myself. I followed the same route as we described in an issue of our e-brief last month (Travelling through the Harz Mountains). This time I was alone, surrounded by all the colours of autumn and an imminent threat of winter.

We chugged through primitive forests full of fierce rocks, past moss-bright streams and abandoned manor houses. There is something downbeat and unpretentious about eastern Germany. It was a feature of the old German Democratic Republic and happily it still survives. It is a land that knows it needs no permanent make-up.

Nicky Gardner
(co-editor, hidden europe magazine)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.