Tuesday, March 1, 2011

East Meets West: After the Wall

 Pieces of the Wall

In October 1990, just three days after Germany's reunification, we drove through the old borders into the former Communist stronghold of East Germany as if walls, guard towers and barbed wire had never existed.  To the eye, nothing had changed--yet everything was different.  Crumbling, dreary buildings and roads full of potholes stared back at us just as we remembered from 1983.  Its citizens, however, now had the freedom to travel to the West and to speak their minds, and we could now go wherever we wished without worrying about visas, police or road checks.  We felt the sense of freedom all around us.

Hans coming from around the Bratwurst trailer!

 A few kilometers past the old border of Hof (north of Nürnberg, the city renowned for its Weihnachtmarkt--Christmas market) we came upon the first Parkplatz and the first sign of private enterprise.  From an old wooden trailer, a husband and wife were doing a thriving business selling Thüringer Bratwurst.  Though the air was cold, others, like us, stopped to enjoy the tasty and renowned sausages.  Thüringen is one of the 16 states in present-day Germany and is now called Freistaat Thüringen (Free State of Thüringen) of which it is justly proud.

Hans holding a mushroom at the back of our car.

The second sign of free enterprise wasn't long in coming.  We were amazed to see several Trabis--the former East German cars--stopped along the sides of the Autobahn.  More amazing were their owners who were zigzagging back and forth in the nearby woods and then racing across the Autobahn to the other side.  They were picking Maronenpilze--a special mushroom delicacy--and offering them to would-be customers at the parking areas.  Parking on the Autobahn (unless the car has broken down) or running across it was against the law in western Germany with a hefty fine if caught.  Doing so could be suicidal!  The eastern citizens had not yet adapted.

Capitalism reared its head a bit farther on.  A Russian couple in their sixties were eating a picnic lunch as we pulled into a Parkplatz.  A few minutes later the man removed a box from his car.  Opening it, he beckoned us over.  In it were several amber necklaces.  In sign language and with pen and paper, he made us an offer.  We refused.  We bartered back and forth until he finally threw up his hands and offered us a necklace at a good price, with a bottle of vodka thrown in!  

Just before we set out again, a chap tapped on our car window.  A burly, black-haired man stuck his head in the door.  Whispering, he asked us if we'd like to buy a leather jacket--"straight from Italy" he said.  We smiled but said, "No thanks."  As we drove past the next Parkplatz, there was the Russian car again.  It looked as if business wasn't at all bad.

The things that struck us most on that trip included those first indications of entrepreneurship.  Printed signs sprouted everywhere--tacked on doors and fences--offering various services, and new TV satellite dishes were attached to many house roofs.  Something that also stood out for me was all the new white curtains now hanging inside the windows.  Although they had always had white curtains in East Germany, these were western style, with more lace and of better quality.    

Most of all, though, the biggest change was the freedom that everyone could now enjoy.  We witnessed an example at first hand:  One day we drove slowly along a country road.  The only signs of life were birds and butterflies.  In the passing fields golden grain swayed in the breeze; above, a deep blue sky flecked with soft clouds.  The road let us to the Oder River.  We parked and got out of the car.  Total silence greeted us.  We walked along a pathway to the river and there, hidden behind tall reeds--as though posing for a Monet painting--were two women sitting at a small table shelling peas.  They beckoned us over when we stopped in amazement.  Laughing, one said, "We come here on Sundays, two old friends from each side of the former Wall."  The other added, "We want to capture this peacefulness while we can and to enjoy again our friendship and our freedom."  I have no picture of that scene, just the one in my head that will always remain with me.

Three Russian soldiers posed for me in 1990 in Eberswalde, the largest town in the vicinity of Hans' region.

As we drove through the countryside that summer, we noticed many restaurants and small inns.  In 1983, they were few and far between.  The restaurants we could find at that time were basic, with oilcloth-covered tables and walls adorned with pictures of Communist Party leaders.  The entire Gasthaus would become quiet and every eye would be upon us as we entered.  It was a strange sensation and tended to make me, in particular, a little nervous.  In one Gasthaus, we found ourselves at a table next to some Russian officers.  We had seen the truck outside with a young private, in winter dress up to his neck (on a very hot day), waiting inside the truck, while the officers sat inside the Gasthaus eating lunch and having a drink.  They watched us and hearing English being spoken, soon arose from their table and left.  I think we had made them nervous!

In 1990 people were still reserved and watchful.  As we entered any Gasthaus at that time, the experience was similar to 1983:  every eye would be upon us.  We were the "Wessies."  No one said "Guten Tag" on arrival or "Aufwiedersehen" on departure (good day and good bye, the norm in western Germany), but we always did.  We would usually get a nod and sometimes a reply.  

As time went on people became more and more friendly.  On one particular evening, we and the other guests in the Gasthaus Schorfheide (shown on the right) had a spirited discussion on politics, with everyone in the Gasthaus involved.  Eventually, we discovered that the people in the former DDR were often more outgoing than those in our area in southern Germany.  In the beginning, however, they were nervous and untrusting.

In 1990 and 1991 most restaurants and Gasthäuser were more like Grandma's kitchen:  simple arborite tables and chairs from the '50s era, but topped with fresh tablecloths and new curtains on the windows.  One fledgling Gasthaus owner served us steak from a barbecue at his and his wife's front door, while we sat at their kitchen table on the sidewalk.  The steak, vegetables and the Bratkartoffeln (pan-fried potatoes) were excellent.  Many of those inns a year or more later were renovated and the old-fashioned furniture replaced.  They were pleasant and inexpensive, but we missed Grandma's influence.

Below, zur Linde, a Gasthaus since 1855

Hans above at zur Linde in Schluft

On two different occasions:  At that same Gasthaus (on the left), Hans and I with son Heiko and daughter-in-law, Heather.  On the right, good friends, Brenda and Mike, along with me.  Note the glasses!

We visited zur Linde many times.  To reach it we had to drive several kilometers through the forest over a narrow dirt and cobblestone road.  At the end of the road was a one-street village, surrounded by tall pines and deciduous trees, where we would sit outside and enjoy the serenity over a glass of Berlinerweisse or a beer.  Berlinerweisse, a famous Berlin drink, is made from a top-fermenting wheat beer that is mixed with either raspberry syrup (turning it red) and tasting a little like Champagne, or Waldmeister/waldruf (turning it green) and tasting somewhat like cream soda.  Our favourite was the raspberry (Mike, in the picture above, had the green!).  This drink is always served in a large-bowled stemmed glass.  (The first time I had that drink was in 1976 on a bus trip to West Berlin, one organized by the Community Services at Canadian Forces Base Lahr.  While in Berlin, the tour went on a boat ride on the lake and that is where it was served:   surrounded by water, shore-lined trees and by East Berlin at one end/side.)

The Gasthaus Eisenbahn and the Wirt, Herr Holfeld, in Ringenwalde.


We frequented other Gasthäuser in the vicinity of Hans' house, where we would have an evening meal and a good discussion with the Wirt and Wirtin (owners).  As we made at least 13 trips to the area over the years, we had gotten to know them quite well.  One of them had attended the same school as Hans had.  Herr Holfeld had remained in East Germany, became an engineer in East Berlin and then returned to his Heimat (home) 30 years later to open up a Gasthaus in Ringenwalde.  We had many discussions with him over the years.

Another Gasthaus, Alt Grimnitz, was just on the edge of Hans' hometown of Joachimstal, about three kilometers from his house.  The owner, Herr Bockisch, loved folk music and told us that during the Communist era the beloved West German folk singer, Heino, was banned.  Shortly after the Wall fell but reunification had not as yet happened, the owner played the music in his Gasthaus.  A Communist guest happened to be in the Gasthaus and ordered him to turn it off.  When Hans heard that, he made him a cassette of Heino's music after we had returned home and brought it to him on our next visit.  The Wirt played it in the Gasthaus many times after that.  By then, the Communists had no further power.

(Heino has a deep melodic voice and he is also my favourite German singer; in fact, he is one of my all-time favourite singers from anywhere.  Unfortunately, he is now retired and seldom appears on TV or the stage as he once did.  I still listen to him, though, as we have many of his recordings.)

The Wirt and his wife, Herr und Frau Bockisch, in Alt Grimnitz.

The meal we had most often at several different places in the first year or two after the Wall fell was called "Hamburger Schnitzel," although it wasn't made from hamburg.  It was a pork Schnitzel with an egg on top. (I would graciously offer Hans my egg!)  That dish is usually called Schnitzel Bismarck elsewhere.

The choice from the menu was always small as only a few dishes were offered in those early days; always an egg dish and perhaps steak as well.  Wonderful Bratkartoffeln were offered everywhere as eastern Germany has always been renowned for their potatoes.  Sadly, in 1990, we found fields and fields of potatoes going to waste as there was no one to harvest them.  Few, if any, private farmers worked the land; instead, it was all government-owned and run (land taken from the rightful owners) with the people not working for themselves but for the state.  With no longer a Communist state, no longer were the potato fields worked or harvested.  We stopped beside one such area and Hans dug up about ten kilo to take home, some of the best potatoes we have ever eaten.

On each successive visit over the years, other dishes were offered, including specialties from the region, one of which was Soljanka, a tomato-based soup introduced during the Russian era.  I shall give that recipe and another--one of my favourite meals--in my next blog.

One of the things that really struck us was a billboard we saw on the side of the road in 1990, not long after reunification.  It is shown below.  It tells it all!

Nie wieder Sozialismus (Never again Socialism)
Freiheit und Wohlstand (Freedom and Prosperity)

Note:  Keep in mind that every Gasthaus has a day of rest (a Ruhetag), both here and in other parts of Germany, unless it is a large hotel/restaurant.  I apologize for any pictures that aren't that clear.  They are now over 20 years old and some of them weren't that clear to begin with.  All were retaken with my digital camera.  I used them to help tell the story.  Any picture can also be enlarged by clicking on it.  Just click on the arrow at the top left of the screen to return to the blog.  I would be interested to know if you have enjoyed these posts.  Although it is now over twenty years since the wall fell and reunification took place, it is a part of history. 

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