The Kindness of Strangers

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

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Wednesday, October 5, 2005

And so we made our way back to Rotenburg to see Katrin. I was reminded during our day of travel of The Kindness of Strangers, a book of stories written on just what the title implies, many of them are travel stories.

Martin and I had to take three trains to get to Rotenburg from Dresdan as Rotenburg is a small town off the beaten track in Germany. We made our first train transfer in Leipzig and waited for our train to arrive, but there was no train at the platform that had been indicated on our itinerary. The train was late? This just wasn't possible in Germany where everything runs on time! So Martin went to the conductor of the train on the adjoining platform and asked him if that was the correct train. He asked him three times, saying "Sprecken ze Englisch?" and showing him his ticket, but the conductor kept saying "Nein, nein" and walked away. As the train pulled out of the station, a man and woman came running over to us and asked if they could help. When Martin showed them the ticket, they told us that, yes, that was the train we should have taken. They had witnessed the whole thing and were disgusted that the conductor wouldn't help us. The man, a Lutheran pastor from a small town south of Leipzig, took Martin to the train information office, explained what had happened and arranged a new route for us. He also had an official in the office write an explanation on our itinerary, asking that we not pay an additional fare for missing our train. For every jerk you encounter when travelling, you meet many more wonderful people who go out of their way to help you. We were very grateful.

Thus we ended up taking four (instead of three) different trains to get to Rotenburg and I had to call Katrin and tell her we would be over an hour late. (A couple of the trains we took were high-speed ones, reaching speeds of up to 200 km/hr.) They were packed with holiday-goers returning home, students going back to school and partyers making their way back from Oktoberfest in Munich. It was a madhouse on the hour-long Hannover-Bremen train trip and we were relegated to the aisle with many others. I found a piece small space across from the WC and managed to sit on my backpack; Martin stood for the entire time. On average, someone visited the toilet every three minutes - I only had my toes trampled on twice. (Note: "Keen" sandals - they're actually boating shoes - are great for travelling because they have toe protection.)

Katrin was very excited to see us; she is very vivacious, so interested in everything and has a great sense of humour. When we were here last time, she was on holiday in Maderia, Portugal, so we decided we should return to see her. Katrin is Martin's cousin, but they are not really related. Rather, they have a relative in common. This was Anni, Martin's Dad's cousin. Martin was related to Anni on her father's side, Katrin on her mother's. She and Ulrike travelled together to Canada 10 years ago. They met each other in Rotenburg through work. (Katrin also works with the mentally challenged.)

Katrin is an only child and her mother and father were only children, so she had no aunts and uncles. She is not married and, since she is in her mid-40s, it is unlikely that she will have any children. Thus she spent a lot of time with Anni's nieces on the other side of the family and considers them her family. I jokingly offered her one of my three sisters and, without hesitation, she accepted. I guess I take my family for granted.

Katrin lives on the top floor of a house in a small town just outside of Rotenburg. Her apartment is decorated with souvenirs from her travels and Ikea furniture. (It's as popular here as at home, even more so.) In her spare time, she visits with friends, rides her bike, travels and also enjoys "ze natur" (i.e., going for long walks).

We both noticed that Katrin's English has improved tremendously since we last saw her 10 years ago. When she had difficulty finding the right word, she would say, "Moment" and run for her German-English dictionary.

Katrin grew up in Chemnitz, just outside Dresden, in the former East Germany. She did not learn much English as a child; rather they were taught Russian in school. She told us that they were not given much instruction about the western world and were only allowed to travel in the other eastern block countries. She also did not like the strong presence of the military in East Germany and how you couldn't trust anyone because you might be reported for doing something unpatriotic.

Thus she was glad when east and west were reunified and for many reasons does not miss the Communist system. She can now travel wherever she wants and they have access to better food and a wider variety of food. She told us that the only fruit they had was apples, except at Christmas when everyone would be given one banana and one orange. It bothers her, however, how quickly reunification occurred. After 1990, it was just expected that all Germans would lead the West German lifestyle and no thought was given to the fact that many East Germans lost their culture and the life that they had known for 40 years.

The weather during the past three plus weeks in Europe has been fairly pleasant, though fall-like. Our nicest days were about 20C and sunny (what Karina called "old woman summer") and we've had a few days of rain. The leaves are just starting to change colour here; on this visit corn is being harvested.

It has been a challenge getting our clothes dry when we've done laundry in Europe because of the cooler weather and humidity - and few people have dryers. Next trip I'm going to make sure I buy some of that quick-dry underwear!

During our two days with Katrin, we toured nearby Bremen, known for the Grimms Brother's fairytale, The Four Musicians of Bremen, where the singing of four animals - a donkey, a dog, a cat and a rooster - foil a robbery. Bremen, population 500,000, is also famous for its chocolate, coffee and Beck's beer. It was heavily bombed during WWII, but the Allied forces deliberately missed their targets to avoid hitting some of the historical buildings. We also visited with her friend Eva, a single Mom who has been raising her kids alone for the past 10 years (divorce is as common here as in Canada) and with Sönke and Katya, Ulrike and Heiko's neighbours. Katrin has many friends that she has met through the Luthern church, and has been to Namibia travelling with a group from her church.
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