Across the Border to Germany

Trip Start Sep 12, 2005
Trip End Dec 12, 2005

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Wednesday, September 21, 2005

We caught an early train out of Utrecht, bound for Germany. At the last stop a group of rowdy teenage school kids boarded the train and, although it was entertaining to watch them, we were happy to disembark, too!

After five hours and two transfers we arrived in Rotenburg around lunch time. Our friend, Ulrike or Ulli (pronounced "Ulrika" or "Ooli") was waiting for us with her four-year old daughter, Sarah ("Czar-a"). Ulrike is the girlfriend of Katrin, Martin's cousin; the two of them visited us in 1995. Katrin also lives in Rotenburg, but is away on holidays at the moment.

Germany (population 83 million) has the third largest economy in the world next to the US and Japan.

We are planning to spend about two weeks in Germany, mainly to visit Martin's cousins who mostly live in the former East Germany (DDR). Martin's grandfather on his father's side, Martin Just the first, immigrated to Canada from Prussia (now part of Poland) after the WWI. The Justs were Russians of German descent whom Catherine the Great had moved from Germany to Russia to farm.

Rotenburg (population 20,000, located between Bremen and Hamburg) is considered a small town by German standards. Both Ulli and her husband, Heiko (pronouced "High-ko"), work with mentally challenged adults, (many of whom are physically handicapped as well), Heiko working with higher level care people than Ulrike. Their house, a duplex, is designated housing for workers at the facility for the mentally handicapped. They are happy to be living in a house with their own yard instead of in the apartment where they lived for four years. It was very relaxing visiting in their yard in the sunshine, listening to the doves while Martin (of course!) teased their two cats and Sarah.

Sarah (the only grandchild on both sides of the family) is a delightful little slip of a girl, full of life, with an elfin-like face and blonde hair. She certain keeps her parents on their toes! She is not shy and took to us very quickly, clinging to our legs or sitting on our laps. Sarah and Martin play and play and play. (You don't necessarily need to speak the same language as a child to communicate!) He would pick her up in her little garden chair and swing her around, and she would giggle and squeal. She soon learned the phrase "again, please!"

Ulrike has lived in Rotenburg all her life. Heiko came to Rotenburg from the northeast (located in the former East Germany). His grandfather came from Poland and was in the Polish army. During WWI he was sent to a German POW camp, remaining there after the war. Ulrike's English is good, though she is always apologizing. (We tell her it is better than our German!) Heiko struggles with English words, but was determined to try to communicate with us as he is very curious about our way of life and Canada in general. We played a lot of charades and "guess the word" during our conversations. They travel to Ireland every year. (Ireland is one of Ulrike's favourite places - she has been there 10 times and would like to live there. Heiko prefers Finland where he worked for a couple of years.) About the only English Sarah knows is "kiss you" but she doesn't know what it means. She chattered away to us in German, oblivious that we didn't understand a word she was saying.

We asked Ulrike and Heiko their thoughts on the reunification of Germany, how Germany is faring since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. They believe that life is more difficult now, particularly for people living in the former DDR. The state no longer provides for them and they are forced to find their own jobs and fend for themselves which they have found very hard. The establishment of the EU has also been a struggle in that they find the cost of living more expensive and open borders with other countries have resulted in higher unemployment. The unemployment rate in western Germany is about 10.5% and about twice that in the DDR. This has resulted in a number of social problems and an resurgence of neo-nazi sentiments. (Just before we arrived in Germany there had been a national election. The Christian Democrats and the Socialist party virtually tied for votes, so there was a lot of speculation as to who would actually form the next government. It will be interesting to see what happens.)

Besides two cats, Ulli and Heiko have a rabbit that they keep in a pen in the back yard. Ulli also loves horses and used to have a horse. Sarah is enraptured by them as well. Every week they go to the riding stable where Sarah does exercises/tricks on a horse (sometimes solo, sometimes with other kids) turning around backwards, standing up, riding without any hands, etc. They learn how to interact with the animals and how to care for them as well. I have never heard of anything like that in Canada, but, not being a horse-lover, it could very well exist! Anyway, it was very interesting and Sarah was entralled by the whole thing. The trainer kept commenting that she was doing a "zoopah" (super) job.

The German diet is high in starch and carbohydrates - beer, bread, cheese and meat, particularly sausage. As a result, you see a lot of heavy Germans. (But not near as many as you see in Canada, probably because they are more physically active.) I would get very fat if I stayed here for long! "Low-fat" doesn't seem to be popular either as far as dairy products are concerned. One night Heiko barbecued about six pounds of meat (mostly sausage) for the five of us to eat! Interestingly, our guidebook states that about 20% of Germans are vegetarians. Vegetarianism would have been a challenge here twenty years ago. Of course, the bread is wonderful and Martin enjoys the coffee/cappucino which, like the Netherlands, is accompanied by a cookie, candy or chocolate. With all the wonderful "kucken" (cake), "eis" (ice cream) and "käis" (cheese), I could develop the typical German "frau" (woman) figure very easily! (I remember when Heather, Shelly and I visited with Anni and Josef - Martin's Dad's cousin and her husband - in Munich in 1981 it seemed all we consumed was heavy bread, sausage and beer. The food hasn't changed much.)

It is much easier travelling in Europe since the introduction of the Euro in 2002. There is no need now to worry about changing money when you cross the border (like when I was here twenty-odd years ago - but it's also more expensive to travel throughout Europe today). Euro notes are made centrally in Europe, but each country makes their own paper and coins. The notes are all the same, but a pocketful of change yields coins from various countries.

Communicating with the locals here is more difficult than in the Netherlands. Although English is taught as their second language, few people seem to speak it fluently (though better than most people would speak French at home!). The traditional greeting is a handshake and "hallo". When people depart, they usually say "cheers" (but sounds like "choose").

In contrast to the Dutch, German people are known for always following the rules - they never jaywalk, seldom break the speed limit, can be quite inflexible and are quite particular about etiquette (so I hope we don't inadvertently offend anyone too much!). Germans are also very punctual as a rule. I remember arriving at a youth hostel in Celle one October night 24 years ago five minutes after closing and the manager would not let us in. There was no other place to stay, so we decided to fast track it to Paris and spent the night in Hannover (open air) train station. I was glad I had a sleeping bag with me. (While we were staying with Ulli and Heiko, Heiko got a speeding ticket in the mail, which not only included a photo of his license plate, but a photo of him driving! He was being fined 50 Euro for driving 58 km/hr in a 50 km/hr zone!)

Unlike Canada, you never seem to get out into the country - it's just one continuous town. Vehicles here are all plated according to origin. Simply by looking at a car's license plates you can tell where it's from: DD stands for Dresdan, B for Berlin and ROW stands for Rotenburg-Wümme. (Ulrike told us that there are five Rotenburgs in Germnay and one in Switzerland, so they always indicate the river in the address.)

Although the countryside is beautiful here, it seems like you barely get through one town and you're into another! We have also noticed quite a number of wind turbines. (Sometimes even forests of them - there is some controversy as to their asthetics and how they affect the landscape.) Wind energy has become a common form of renewable energy in Europe. There are a number of farms growing corn (for livestock feed) and potatoes. The potatoes are currently being harvested; most towns along the way have people made out of round bales that welcome you to their village and signify that Thanksgiving will be coming soon (first Sunday in October).

The houses here are mostly made of brick and some have stucco or brick siding. Roofs are steeply pitched gable or hip roofs and have red or black clay shingles (or the older houses have thatched roofs); there are often dormers with windows along each side of the roof line. Sometimes there are 'eyebrow' windows where the shingles form an arch over a small window.

Ulli drove us one day to Celle (pronounced "Sella"), famous for its 16th and 17th century architecture. (As I mentioned earlier, I tried to see Celle on my journey in 1981, but we arrived after hours and the hostel wouldn't let us in, so we left. Now here I was 24 years later!) The buildings are incredibly old - we have nothing as old in Canada. It is amazing that some of these buildings are still standing as the roofs are swayed and the walls leaning at all angles. It makes your imagination run wild, sitting in a restaurant, sipping a drink and thinking about how people lived here so many centuries ago.

En route to Celle, we noticed small mobile homes or camper trailers here and there along the roadside, particularly in the more heavily forested areas. On the side of the vehicle, under a large red heart, was written "Girls, Girls". Mobile sex. Hmmm . . . .

Although guidebooks indicate otherwise, I haven't noticed many Internet cafes. Most people seem to have their own computers and I've relied on friends to check our email/update our travelogue (as you probably would in Canada). The keyboard I'm currently using is challenging, particularly since the location of the "y" and "Z" are reversed (so if zou read anzthing that looks crayz, that's whz!)

Like the Dutch, Germans rely on bicycles for short distance transport. There are bicycle paths everywhere and they're often allotted more room than pedestrians! It's only in Canada and the US where pedestrians seem to have right-of-way at unmarked intersections. I keep forgetting and find it nerve-wracking to have to look out for cars as well as bikes - one of these days I'm going to be run over by a bicycle! Ulli and Heiko also enjoy walks. With Sarah along, this took a very long time because she kept wanting to stop and play.

Since we've arrived in Germany, the weather has been mild and warm. Although they have snow two-three months of the year (-10C is a very cold day), their climate is much milder. When we left home, it was looking like fall, but autumn has yet to make much of an appearance here. I do find the humidity chilly - and our friends here and in Utrecht have found it very amusing that I've been cold!

One evening Ulli and Heiko's neighbours, Katya and Sönke (pronounced "Zunka") came for supper. Sonke (or "Sonny") works with Heiko; he and Katya have two children, Marie, 4, and Elija, 10 months. Both Sönke and Heiko are on weight watchers to try and lose some weight which would be mighty difficult considering the typical German diet! Most Germans seem to have an aversion to fruit and vegetables other than potatoes. (We offered to make supper the night that Sönke and Katya came over as I was dying for a salad - I noticed that Sönke didn't touch it.)

Katya has this dream about emigrating to Canada or Australia and she seems awed by us. Sonke brought over his atlas to pinpoint where we live and asked us many questions about life in Canada. His English is amazingly good. Before the evening ends, Sönke retrieved some rumtoft for us to drink (fruit soaked in rum) and we toasted each other's health. Prost! (rhymes with "toast") The rumtoft was very potent and I purposely sipped mine very slowly so that the pitcher would be empty before I was ready for a refill! Katya and Sönke seemed fascinated with us and asked us to visit them when we returned to Rotenburg. They even suggested we stay, but Ulrike insisted that Katrin would want to host us - people are vying for us to stay with them which was very flattering!

We heard from Martin's cousin, Katrin, while at Ulli and Heiko's. She is cutting her holiday short so that we can see her before we leave Germany. Thus we plan to return to Rotenburg after visiting Berlin and Dresdan and will likely fly out of Hamburg (just north of Rotenburg) to Istanbul.
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