Not so very long ago my aunt and uncle celebrated their golden wedding anniversary (if I tell you I was a bridesmaid, that is really giving more information that I like to give, but I was very young at the time). They had a big party and I made one of my increasingly rare trips back to England taking with me the teenage son of some friends, who loves practising his English on me and is very good at it. We flew to Birmingham, where I rented a car and drove to East Anglia. As we were getting nearer to our destination my friends’ son said to me ‘England is very beautiful.’ My reply to him was that he lives in a very beautiful place. He disagreed. But I suppose familiarity breeds contempt, particularly in the young.
Thüringen is beautiful. It is a country of mountains and forests, and the landscape is stunning. One of the big contrasts between this part of the world and England is the space. Here, once you leave a town or village there are no, or virtually no, buildings. The sign that marks the end of the place you are leaving marks the beginning of the countryside; there is no sprawl. The fields are big, often vast, with no fences or hedgerows unless there is livestock, in which case electric fences are most often the only boundaries. The fields are usually separated only by ditches. Sometimes, especially from high ground, you can see for miles and miles and the views can be breath-taking. The first time I rode a horse out, I marvelled not only at the view but at the fact that I could ride for hours hardly going near a road except occasionally to cross one. And sitting on top of a horse is a great way to see the countryside.
Oh, and there are no grey squirrels. I’ve seen red ones in my garden almost close enough to touch.
Villages and towns are filled with gorgeous old houses, many half-timbered. The fact that this area is in the old DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik)- East Germany- means that there was less money to spend on post-war regeneration than there was in the west. So in West Germany many old towns suffered from rejuvenation – beautiful old buildings being torn down to be replaced my hideous modern monstrosities – while in the east it was only after the wall came down that many towns were restored. And because attitudes to historical architecture over the post-war years had changed, this meant that instead of tearing down the old buildings, the state has restored them to their former glory. So if you go into for example Erfurt, the capital city of Thüringen, you will see the Krämerbrücke, a bridge with medieval houses built on it, the Augustinerkloster (a monastery where Martin Luther once lived) and a host of impressive buildings all lovingly restored. And right in the centre a dearth of new buildings.
But living anywhere is not just about nice views and attractive buildings. The people are of course important. There are a lot of very nice people here. In the days before reunification this part of the country was not overly rich, but there was full employment and nobody was really in need. Not being rich, however, led to much more of a community spirit than one sees in much of the west and that spirit is still often here today. People, especially those brought up in DDR times, are friendly and happy to help if you need help. When my gate was frozen up one winter (I keep it locked so my dog cannot inadvertently be let loose; there used to be a right of way across my land and some people think there still is) a neighbour, someone I don’t even know by name, saw my dilemma, presented me with a little bottle of lock de-icer and told me to keep it. Nobody minds if you ask for help.
One thing the collapse of the wall did allow people to do, which most hadn’t been allowed to do for a long time, was to travel in the west. Even those who miss the DDR times – and there are some – will admit to this benefit.
When I first started making friends, I started being invited to parties. The Germans like to party and any excuse is harnessed. Birthdays are big – but it is bad luck to with anyone a happy birthday before the day. If a birthday party is held, for instance, on a Saturday evening when the birthday is on Sunday, the guests form a queue at midnight to give their birthday wishes and presents. Before a wedding instead of stag and hen nights there is a Polterabend. The verb poltern means to crash about (think Poltergeist) and everyone is expected to bring a piece of china to throw down and break for good luck. (A friend’s nearly-two-year-old at a party a couple of months ago thought this was great fun, of course – I think he had to be kept out of the kitchen afterwards in case he got over-enthusiastic with the crockery.) Polterabends involve large numbers of friends and family of all ages. Children going to school for the first time have a party involving the presentation of cardboard cones (varying in size from quite small to enormous) called Zuckertüten (sugar bags). These are filled with a few practical items for use at school and enormous quantities of sweets. Hence all children look forward to going to school, of course. There is a big celebration for those going to university. No occasion remains uncelebrated, in fact. Despite this, and drink being a major part of celebrations, there is not the problem with drunkenness that is apparent nowadays in England. Of course some people drink too much sometimes, but they don’t generally behave badly when they are drunk. And alcohol is much cheaper here – which rather contradicts those who think that raising the price will solve the problems.
If it weren’t for the distance from my (English) friends and family, having to do everything in a foreign language and the lack of certain important English commodities like marmalade, mature Cheddar cheese, bacon, Marmite and decent bookshops among others, there might be little reason to miss England!