Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Guest Post: Germany 4 Ways

A while back, when I was fretting that I had no idea when it came to Germany, I got the idea to ask my friend Helen to write a guest post. Helen was lovely enough to indulge me and share her experiences of Germany, the country she now calls home. Reading her post, I think I understand why for me, no one monument comes to mind as symbolizing all of Germany: because it is such a diverse country. This past weekend I also had the honour of witnessing her wedding to her husband, whom she met in Germany.

Germany has a population in the neighbourhood of 85 million people packed into a country which, land-wise, could fit into British Columbia three times. Anyone who has ever travelled in British Columbia, or just to different areas within Canada knows that where you are is different than where you come from or where you have been before. What I am saying with that is that Germany, as is Canada, can be a very different place depending on where you are. 

I grew up knowing that my German heritage was a big part of my life but I never imagined that I would be sitting here age twenty-two living in Germany, and at that, not really the Germany I grew up with – which was my grandparents’ very small hometown in Western Germany – but in Berlin, the symbol of both German unity and German disunity. In order to explain how I got here, I need to recount a bit of experience, which started sort of when I was eleven and visited Germany for the first time, but really when I came to Germany for my first time alone when I was sixteen. 

Sixteen in Koblenz. When I was sixteen I took part in an organized exchange programme which first had my German host sister, Eva, come and live with my family and me for three months, followed by me flying to Germany – alone – to live with her family in Koblenz for two months. This was my first “real” German experience. Koblenz, located at the junction of the Rhein and Mosel Rivers in Western Germany, is a gorgeous small city characterized by the intersecting rivers, a 2000 year history, and beautiful castles lining the rivers in every direction. I spent two months going to school, drinking beer on the river banks with new friends, visiting the neighbouring castles, and learning next to no German. I was sixteen, it wasn’t as important to me as Currywurst and beer. I am sure it is a bit of nostalgia speaking, but to me, Koblenz has always felt like a bit of a fairy tale town. 

Flash forward two years. I found myself taking part in a language immersion course in Kassel, a grey, cement – read: industrial until it was bombed to pieces and rebuilt in the 50s entirely of concrete - city smack in the middle of Germany, famous for a giant statue of Hercules on the hills around the town, a modern art festival, and a large Turkish population. I was living with a new host family, a lovely couple in their 70s who spoke next to no word of English and yelled at me once for using the wrong bathroom towel. Other than that, lovely people, had my Musli and coffee on the table for me every morning before I went to class, hosted my friends over for “Grilling” aka BBQing where the beer (Radeberger of course) was plentiful, along with the shots of mystery Schnapps. This Germany could not have been more different than Koblenz, which I also visited during my two month stay in Kassel. There was German speaking, Doener Kebab eating, and concrete, lots of ugly concrete buildings, which really reflected in the attitude of the people. 

In the late summer of 2009 I found myself on a plane again, this time to Freiburg and this time for a year. Armed with my university exchange acceptance and a scholarship to go with it, I landed in the small medieval city on the border of both France and Switzerland. Despite being bombed to the ground, the city rebuilt itself in its former glory (unlike some aforementioned cities) - albeit with wider streets to allow the Strassenbahn to run through it, but keeping its quaint charm of Fachwerkhaeuser and the little streams (read: mini ditches) which ran along the streets threatening (promising?) that if you fell into one of them, you would be doomed (blessed?) to marry someone from the region. I found that more than any other city I had been to, Freiburg had a deep sense of regional pride. The city belongs to Baden, they speak their form of Baeddisch (dialect) which is all very different from the neighbouring region of Wuerttemburg where they speak (gasp) Schwaebbisch, which, legitimately, no soul not born there could ever understand. Freiburg is known for its leftist political stance with hippies roaming the streets with dreadlocks and bare feet. In a protest against the new 500euro/semester tuition fee though, the hippies took to the university with all their power and occupied the largest lecture hall. For a month. Until Christmas came when they all went home.       

I suppose at this point a bit of a disclaimer is necessary. While in Kassel I met a wonderful man (a Canadian on my programme). By the time I made it to Freiburg he had made it to Berlin to study for a master’s and we started dating in early 2010. This made it quite difficult to leave Freiburg and I did so with the intention of finishing my own studies and coming back to be with him. 

So, nine months after going back to Canada I was packing up (almost) all of my early belongings to move to Berlin. Berlin is a city so far in kind and culture from any other city in which I have spent significant amounts of time. As I said earlier, it is a city where Germany’s unity and disunity meet; it is a city full of misfits, outcasts, and expats joining the flourishing tech start up scene and running from wherever they came from. It is a massive city with an even more massive past. It is a city which encompasses the term: Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung, literally: coming to terms with the past, a term coined in the post-war years originally for Germans coming to terms with the Nazi past. Now, it can be seen on every corner, east and west in this city. Look left and you see new growth, a recent building, and a young couple with a child. Look right and you see buildings falling down with remnants of bullets and shelling, a dark corner, and an old man – homeless.  

Berlin is nothing like Koblenz where I first experienced the magical Rheinland. Berlin is nothing like Kassel, despite the common history and large Turkish populations. Berlin is nothing like Freiburg, which was the essence of quaint. Berlin is nothing like the little village where my grandparents grew up, where I still find myself every few months for weddings and funerals, where the people are still puttering along in a fashion I imagine to be similar to the stories I heard in my childhood. But this is Germany. Every corner of Germany has its history, its stories, its charm, and is little like the next town down the street (especially if you ask the citizens of any of those towns).

(Photos from Helen)


Helen Burbank said...

Thanks for giving me a place to really explore my own feeling on Germany Vanessa!

Anna Felicity said...

Such a great post Helen.