Thursday, December 6, 2007


“Good luck with the Ossies,” my host dad said in a cautionary voice before I stepped out of the car. My host mom scolded him with a sharp stare and told me not to repeat what I had heard. (Ossie is a somewhat derogatory term used by westerners for Germans from the former GDR from the German word ost, meaning east.) I had visited other friends before, but to them my deciding to stay for a week with a house of “ossies,” “the other Germans,” seemed grounds for much worry. I felt a tension in their watching me walk toward the front door. Perhaps they were expecting two broad-shouldered figures to emerge from the shadows and rummage through my bags in search of counter-revolutionary contraband. I wasn’t too worried though. My American friend had survived for two months already. Surely I could endure a week, oder?

It was late September and we had been in Germany for only two months. I and forty-nine other Americans in an exchange program that spread us out in host families all over the country had nine more months lying heavy ahead of us. The coordinators had said that upon returning to the U.S., we would be “new” people, fluent, and practically “Germanized,” an ideal destination that seemed too far out of reach to envision. They had made a lot of promises for our year and at the time, I didn’t realize how much of a role I would need to play in fulfilling those promises. “A great experience can’t just be given to you” they would later say. “You have to study, make an effort to talk to people and work towards it.”

My placement was with a family in a farming dorf outside the city of Fulda. When the border between the two Germanys was established, my host father’s home barely made the cut as part of West Germany. For that reason, he didn’t have to drive me too far when I expressed an interest in visiting another exchange student, Matt, a fellow Texan, who was living with a family right on the other side of the former border. Their home was in Gleichamberg, a small town outside of Erfurt who’s name translates literally to “right on the mountain.” Its buildings and houses spread from the mountain’s base like an heirloom quilted skirt on a Christmas tree with its rotting, moth-eaten pieces reinforced by newly-added patches. During WWII, the mountain was used as a work site extension of the Buchenwald concentration camp where prisoners were forced to march up and down, arms full with stones for building.

The car ride to “the other side” provided a clear contrast between what I had come to know as the Hessian märchenland in the west, and the post-communist areas of Thüringen. The rust colors of the dilapidated buildings blurred past my window as we turned off of the autobahn onto back roads. Old workers solidarity signs of upright fists and red roses hung by strips of scrap metal. “Mach mit,” one read, “join in!” Trabis were parked along the road, still for sale in case anyone was still interested in the sputtering GDR means of transport that the westerners loved to view as not so much an auto, but “a power lawnmower with headlights and seats.”

I curiously envisioned what Matt’s host family would be like. Exchange organizations have a hard time finding families to host students and it’s even rarer to find families in the former east because of a severe lack of financial stability in the region. The effects of transitioning to capitalism are still being felt most heavily with unemployment figures topping 18% in the states of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Brandenburg, Sachsen, Sachsen-Anhalt, Thüringen, and the eastern sector of Greater Berlin. Matt had mentioned to me on the phone that his host parents had wanted an American exchange student because they had always had students from countries within the former communist bloc and wanted to experience the “other side.” Boy did they get what they were looking for: Matt Suomi, small town proud Texan who, upon arriving in Germany, had serious aspirations of becoming president of “the best goddamn country on this here planet,” and a Bible-totin’ Christian too.

The door to the house was unlocked so I walked right in. I heard a voice shouting from the upstairs that made my already lacking German language skills much more useless with a heavy dialect. Matt rushed downstairs and grabbed my bags, telling me that his host mom had told me to come up and eat some waffles with them. “I’m not too hungry,” I said. “She’s not hungry,” he shouted in German to the voice upstairs. Then an undistinguishable retort. “She says you have no choice,” he translated for me. I followed him to the kitchen. His host mom was a very tall woman with sharp features, a man’s haircut, piercing eyes and solid manner about her. “Hallo, ich bin Antje...” she said as she plopped two heart shaped waffles on a plate. “Eat,” she demanded, though I had to rely on Matt for translations. The delay between her orders and my understanding them made things somewhat awkward until her husband walked in. He was also tall, but lankier compared to Antje, with a wide face and ears that stuck out so imposingly that it was difficult to avoid staring. “So this is our Ami #2,” he said without looking at me. “That is Daniel,” Antje informed me. He seemed soft-spoken, at least when compared to his wife. He worked nights at a butchery in town because they paid more for unpopular hours. Sometimes he would sleep during his 15 minute break in his car parked outside to make it through the night. But it’s a good job, he says, because they let him take home meat that is on the verge of spoiling for a very cheap price. He has a family to feed after all. The screaming voices of young children reverberated in the hall outside.

“So what’s it like living with wessies?” he asked me with a chuckle and then added, “By the way, don’t tell your host family I asked that.” “Well, technically I’m a wessie too, aren’t I?” I responded, trying to make light of it all. “Well, no. You’re a wossie.” (A westerner living in the east.) “I see. But if I’m just visiting then-” “Stop asking so many questions,” he cut me off, “or we’ll introduce you to our friends as a besserwessie.” (A cross between wessie and besserwisser, or know it all.)

Antje put more waffles on my plate. I had been there for less than an hour and already knew that it wasn’t in my best interest to turn them down. She works nights as well, in a folder factory outside of town, so that she can be at home while her kids are awake. I tried to keep up with the conversation at the table. The version I got from Matt was watered down as he could hardly keep up with her seemingly endless releasing of opinion. “Now it is so difficult to be a woman,” she said, pouring herself some coffee. The country she grew up in allowed women to “make full use of their equal rights” and not have to choose between a family and a career. “If things were as they once were,” as they like to say, there would be a system that promoted family-life. Daycares would have been provided cost-free, work days would have been shortened for families of more than 2 children under 16 along with monthly paid housework days, and there would have been paid leave to care for sick children. Back then, Antje lived a life respected as an equal with a right to work, wages, and education comparable to her male peers. In the GDR, over 90% of women had jobs compared to barely 50% in West Germany. Males were no longer seen as the producer and provider and the females no longer as the consumer and housewife. Women had the means for economic independence and a greater self-awareness. They could see their work valued and recognized outside of the home.

She rinsed the coffee pot out and started to scrub the counter with a sponge.

“If you’re finished, go put on a coat. You’re going for a walk.” Daniel informed us. All I really wanted to do was lay down, maybe listen to music or watch awful Euro-pop videos on MTV, but it didn’t seem as though we had a choice in the matter. “You don’t want to waste your time doing that,” he said. For him, time was something much more precious than I had considered it to be. After the wall fell, Daniel was forced to work in a society that didn’t see free weekends as necessary, and “evenings of relaxation” were no longer a right. For the westerners, leisure was a therapy from work. To Daniel, as he was taught, it was a time to progress yourself in someway, and there is no progress in “sitting around and becoming big and fat like an American.” To avoid living out the stereotype, we threw on our coats and were out the door.

The town had a very eerie vibe. It was as if the residents had decided to paint their houses with the brightest colors from a crayon box (Crayola from the west of course) to cover up the grey and dusty character of the industrial surroundings. The small homes lining the street were identical save a matchless shade of “purple pizzazz” or “atomic tangerine.” The streets were empty, the lawns manicured. Loud speakers on every light pole that blasted daily announcements and propaganda just 20 years ago remained still, but now play elevator music all day long to create ambience. There we were, two awkwardly misplaced Americans walking through a surreal, almost nightmarish photocopy of suburbia.

As we walked on, we came closer to what felt like the heartbeat of town. The buildings and homes that lay closer to the mountain were less touched by repairs. Dilapidated wood and deteriorating curtains in the windows. Rubble and rusted moldings. There was something comforting about it all, like the wrinkled and scarred face of an old woman valiantly refusing to wear makeup. It was real.

At the mountain’s base, beyond the residential area, lay the lauben, small plots of land that had been partitioned so that families could grow their own food. There he stood, guarding the last rectangular garden before the path that we would later follow: a scarecrow, dressed in an old over-sized button down shirt, potato sacks, and rope. His outstretched arms were wall-like. Was his gesture a warning or an invitation? The only bit of his face we could see was a sly smile. I knew there were eyes somewhere under that floppy hat. However the most curious thing about him was what he held resiliently in his left hand, the old flag of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik. The symbolic black-red-gold with a hammer and compass on a red disk surrounded by a wreath of two ears of wheat in the center still flew here in the center of everything, but tucked out of sight. It was hard to find flags left over from the era. On the eve of reunification, many East Germans simply cut out the circle in the middle and flew their flags with gaping holes as if they were comparable to those waved by their friends in the west.

That night after dinner, Antje and Daniel enlightened us of our need for gesellichkeit – socializing- with people our own age. By this they meant a little party-machen. The only requirement was that we had to dress up like ossies. I didn’t question why, and Matt had given up on translating every word for me.

We showed up at the party wearing blue t-shirts and neckerchiefs like those once worn by the young pioneers, East Germany’s version of scouting. It wasn’t just any party though, it was a GDR party. Among youth in Germany, easterners and westerners alike, there is a phenomenon called Ostalgie, or nostalgia for the east. I suddenly found myself in head-on collision with this new trend as I walked in to the old Jugendklubhaus, a building once used for state-sponsored social events for youth when Matt’s host parents were teenagers. Everyone had arrived dressed up as if the wall had never fallen. I saw everything from members of former communist youth organizations to members of the East German military and creative versions of Erich Honecker. Old commie flags garlanded the walls alongside portraits of Marx and Che and music from old GDR rock bands like The Phudys played mixed in with Russian beats and other music that would have been approved by the SED. Matt and I joined a group of his friends from the local gymnasium and helped ourselves to some Russian vodka and the old GDR cola Club. Many of the old products from the GDR have once again become popular and many prefer the nostalgic brands that have made a comeback such as Spreewald pickles and Moccha-fix Gold coffee. When the wall first fell, everyone wanted to get rid of anything that would connect them to the east and ran out to buy bananas and Levis. Now these same bits and pieces are being paraded and hung up on the walls as decorations.

A drunken karaoke session broke out in the back corner to L’Internationale, a familiar tune, but in a language I couldn’t fully understand.

„Volker, hort die Signale!

Auf, zum letzten Gefecht!

Die Internationale

Erkampft das Menschenrecht.“

Overwhelmed, I asked one of Matt’s friends, a true ossie, what he made of the ostalgia frenzy. “Would you prefer to return to as it were in the GDR?” I asked. “It’s not about wanting to return to the past as it was in the GDR really,” he answered, “but to a time when people had dreams and were hopeful…”

The poetic answer he gave to my question felt out of place amongst a backdrop of schlagermusik, the stench of sweat and vodka, and old party officials and young pioneer girls groping each other on the dance floor.

“…a return to a time when we dreamt of crossing new frontiers. You know frontiers, you’re from Texas.” He took my lack of reply as my agreeing with him, though I realized that we, too, no longer have frontiers to dream of crossing.
The next day was reserved for festivities celebrating Antje’s birthday. As is tradition in Germany, it was expected that she throw a large dinner and invite neighbors, friends and family. Matt and I helped set up a long table in the basement that was soon surrounded by more people I didn’t know, all over the age of 40, who had brought food or drink of some sort. There was an overabundance of Rotkäppchen, or Little Red Riding Hood, the old sparkling red wine from the GDR that could now also be found in supermarkets in the west. As the night played on, the visitors seemed to delight in not only making themselves a bit tipsy, but ensuring the two Amis had a cultural experience by providing a bottomless “sampling” of a piece of their past from the wine bottle.

The benefits of drinking wine range beyond preventing heart disease and cancer. For one, it makes it exceptionally easier to speak in a foreign tongue. Second, it made people much more interested in why two American teenagers were sitting at a table of old-folks in a basement in the small town of Gleichamberg. We got into discussing surface differences and the normal shocks of living in a different country from the German obsession with being on time to the shapes of the toilet bowls. A gentleman asked me how I found the German school system. “I like my school,” I said. “I have a really amazing English teacher.” Matt laughed and said “really? That’s odd, because mine really terrible. I can barely understand her.” “That’s because just a while ago she had been teaching Russian,” someone mentioned.

The discussion continued, but began to go beyond the differences in the details. A much older woman asked me how my year was going. It was a very general question that was difficult to answer. I told her I was homesick and began to ramble on about the various struggles I was having so far from my seemingly endless diet of boiled potatoes and sausage to being treated as a child in class because my vocabulary wasn’t yet up to par. She shut me up with a calm gaze and said something to the effect of, “You’re here in Germany, you made that choice, and before you know it you will be leaving. You can’t spend so much time worrying about the bad things, there is so much good to be had. When the wall went up, we realized that if the revolution was here to stay, and there would be no escape from it, then it was in everybody’s interest to make the system work. You just have to learn how to make it work.”

I grew up in America thinking that there was always something better somewhere else and that I should never be satisfied with settling for something. Sometimes, though, one has to make sacrifices and compromises in the moment so that we don’t miss the positive aspects of the life we are already living. “We used to dream of the greener grass on the other side, but when the wall fell, the reality that lay there wasn’t what we had expected,” the elderly woman securely continued. Growing up in America and learning about life in the former GDR, the negative stories always came to the forefront. The valuable achievements of the GDR are part of the identity of this people, of the life they had made, and that still had a right to exist in our textbooks as well. Sure, life was lived within a context of social, political and economic constraints, but where is it not? “There were very hard times,” she said, “but we still laughed, we still loved, we still lived.”

The sun lit up the room like a hazy gauze the next morning. It was my last day in Gleichamberg. Matt and I decided to end on a progressive note and climb the mountain, that towering center of everything, before I was to go back home to the wessies. We were armed with ample amounts of bottled water that Matt’s host mother had packed for us. His host family had brought it back from a recent trip staying with friends in the former Czechoslovakia. It tasted of sulfur and sweat and was therefore saved for moments of dire need. His host mom must have figured she could get rid of the stuff by giving it to the Amis, knowing the taste would make no difference when having no realistic alternative that half-way up the trail. We arrived at the mountain’s base and looked into the forest as the path weaved upward only to be ultimately lost in the emerald lush. It was hard to resist moving forward even when the top remained out of sight. We began walking. An earlier shower had left the sky overcast but made the colors in the woods vibrant. The leaves did circus tricks as the wind filtered through the branches. Green enveloped us in a cool caress.

As we continued to march, I grew tired. The air that had at first felt refreshing was now humid and sticky. “Maybe we should only go half-way,” I suggested to Matt, trying to extract sympathy by whipping out my asthma inhaler. “No, come on, the view from the top will be worth it I swear,” he responded like a motivational speaker. We kept going and just as I was about to conjure up another excuse for an early retreat, I thought back to the conversation at the dinner table the night before. I had made the decision to climb, “the revolution was here to stay,” and it was time to stop planning how to get out of it. Yes, I was dripping in sweat, covered in dirt and heaving from lack of oxygen, but Matt and I seemed to ride laughter to the top. The smell of pine would occasionally blow cool on our faces. We didn’t have to concern ourselves with anything else but each other and following the trail forward. It was all part of the experience.

Before I knew it, there were less and less trees and finally a clearing. We sat there at the top on a bench hiding feebly in solitude amongst abandoned buildings that once served as soviet satellite stations but now functioned as canvases for postmodern scribblings and spray-painted masterpieces. Matt and I shared what would be my first East German cigarette, an F9. When the wall fell, Philip Morris bought the brand out and played on that need of the newly united Germans for stability with the ad slogan “the taste stays the same.” Somewhere in the distance, someone else was perhaps finishing some climb and lighting up a cigarette from the brand suitably called West. Maybe they had gotten to the top in a different manner than I had, but I was comfortable in my methods and in the company of a good friend helping me get there.

As the smoke vanished into the air, I thought about the many worlds that existed outside of my own. These worlds were made up of pasts, of selected memories and identities shaped by conditions often beyond individuals’ choosing and control. Perhaps those other lives might have collided with what they thought would be their ideal, like the East Germans crossing over into the West when the wall tumbled, only to realize that that original dream wasn’t something that could simply be handed over to them. Maybe that ideal was more the process than the destination, the climb up the slope looking upward and not the warped wooden bench with peeling paint that marks the top.

Twenty-five years ago, Antje and Daniel sat in a classroom side by side reading literature by East German authors like Erwin Strittmatter, spilling over with ideas and values they grew to identify with- of solidarity, of hope, of progress towards an ideal.

“…a young woman climbs up the hill…She is care-worn. Until now, life has not showered her with roses. She opens a stall and a flock of ducks fly out…she looks after the birds-a little bit of luck, a legacy. A smile hovers about her mouth, a shy little flame…”

“Are we done then?” I asked my Texan comrade.

“Noch nicht,” he said breathing deep, “Not yet.”

[written Fall, 2006]

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