Dear fellow travellers
The temperature was still around minus fifteen when we alighted just after midday from the slow train at Grunow. It was a bitterly cold winter morning, sunny and clear, with a numbing east wind. The countryside east of Berlin has a delicate beauty. There are gently undulating forests and plentiful lakes, the latter now frozen for many weeks.
We saw a man sitting alone on a stool in the middle of a lake. Ice fishing is a popular winter sport in these parts. And we saw a woman pushing a pram across a frozen lake, making a straight course between two villages that are by summer separated by two kilometres of open water. Women are the communicators in these parts. And frozen lakes open up new paths for contact and communication.
Ines is waiting to meet us on the station platform at Grunow. She is very cold and very sad. "Look," she says. "Your train from Berlin had just one carriage. Thirty years ago, when I worked here, this was an important junction. The platforms at Grunow were often crowded. You two are probably the first people to have stepped off a train here this week."
We help Ines push start her old car, and she drives us through crystal meadows and woods. There is a mill hung heavy with icicles and more lakes of ice. Two deer watch us pass. Two more run for cover. After twenty minutes in the car we come to Hütte, the last community in Germany before the Polish border. The bridge over the Oder river at this point was blown up in 1945. It has never been replaced. No one worries too much about this, as few folk in Hütte have any interest in going over the river into Poland.
So, approaching from the west, as we did with Ines, Hütte is the end of the road. The last place in the world. Ines calls her home town Hütte. It has other names too, the ones that appear on maps. When Ines lived here as a child it was called Stalinstadt. Later it was renamed Eisenhüttenstadt. "That means steel works town," explains Ines. "But Eisenhüttenstadt is such a mouthful that we all just call the place Hütte."
Eisenhüttenstadt is a classic company town. A monogorod. The only problem is that the company has never really made any money. So the town on the bank of the Oder river is in deep decline. Those who can, move away. Unemployment is very high. The icy roads are empty. We stand on the bank of the Oder river and gaze over towards Poland. The river is not completely frozen. Huge ice floes move sluggishly downstream. The east wind makes for chapped lips and raw skin.
Just along the river bank four teenagers have lit a little fire. We stop and warm our hands. The girl talks to us. The three boys stay silent. Women are the communicators in this world. The girl, surely no more than fifteen years old, takes out a bottle of vodka from inside her jacket and offers us a swig. This is Hütte. This is life at the end of the world.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries