I began writing this in transit on the way to the capital having missed the Flixbus and worked up quite a sweat in the process at the tail end of a week of consistently 20-degree weather. The switch to Deutsche Bahn was pricey (adequate punishment for not knowing the location of bus station with enough exactitude) but at least this puts pressure off my rather tight arrival time. I’m actually getting there earlier and alighting right at the rendezvous rather than having to faff around with the U-Bahn. Squinting to read the signage I see the train is bound for Hamburg, Altona – a throwback I wouldn’t have experienced had I taken the road as originally intended.
The day previous I’d visited another capital, this time of the federal state of Thüringen as part of a trip laid on for international students at Leipzig. Passing swathes of verdant East German countryside, the train came fleetingly to berth in Weimar – exciting in itself without even getting off – I must go there properly someday.
We arrived in yet another Willy Brandt Platz. There seems to be a surprising abundance of these in the former GDR for his being a Chancellor of West Germany from Lübeck. More bizarre still is a building housing a Sparkasse and café opposite the shopping centre displaying a sign in large white letters, which reads “Willy Brandt ans Fenster”. We are told that this used to be a hotel where a conference was held in 1970 between East and West. Citizens gathered in the square below to address Brandt directly. Their concerns were heard, so goes the popular version of the events, and this led to greater communication between families divided by the iron curtain.
The tour goes on. A more ideal day is inconceivable. We’re doused in sun, ice cream parlours are trading to capacity and beyond, brass bells of sousaphone and cornet throw glinting flashes into screwed-up eyes. I ask a French medical student (Geigespielerin) how her rehearsal for the uni orchestra went – a sheepish reply to the effect of “unsuccessfully” is followed by an awkward verbal blankness.
We’re wrapped in shade as the seconds tick slowly by, passing through a snaking close. As we turn around the final bend we erupt into light, revealing a gorgeous sandstone church – its roof endearingly askew. Out of the silence, a thought is forming simultaneously in two minds.
Rays beyellow beige stonework. The place is bustling with cafes whose territory is sprawling naturally outwards across the cobbles, separate establishments indistinct and these mutual encroachments unnoticed in this joy of an April day. Chatter swirls up and rebounds off terracotta tiles. Glasses are clinked under the shade of ample greenery beside opportunistically erected market stalls selling ceramics and other useless trinkets.
It’s a scene from le pays de la mére, the south specifically, although accordionless.
We climb to the summit of the highest hill. Atop it sits a fort built after the Thirty Years War (which I somehow appear to be studying at the moment) – completed in the 1660s, I ascertain from our tour guide, and constructed against the fear of Lutherans as a catholic island in a protestant sea belonging to the archbishop of Mainz (one of the seven electors of the Holy Roman Emperor). Below someone is strangling the bagpipes and, of course, as token Scot I’m asked to comment.
At the foot of the castle is Erfurt’s cathedral which houses some interesting sculpture and tapestries as well as the usual stained-glass windows and altarpieces.
After our quick dose of religion, it was time to head to the beer garden. Sitting there, stein in hand, soaking up the sun at a great long table surrounded by students all doing the same was really the picture I had in mind when I imagined my “Year Abroad in Germany”.
The idyllic situation could not last perpetually and the group split off to explore again after an hour or so. We stopped at a church where one of our number went to fill up his water bottle at a fountain just outside. Although there was no “kein Trinkwasser” sign to be found, the general consensus was that it looked a bit dodgy. Anyway, the detour gave me the chance to notice that there was a picture of a moustachioed figure carved into the plinth with the caption “Gustav Adolf” written underneath. Hmm, I thought, then cast my gaze above eye level. Ah, the cherry on top – a lion’s head. What’s a fountain dedicated to a Swedish king doing around here? Thirty Years War again – Der Löwe aus dem Norden – Gustavus Adolphus protected the Holy Roman Empire’s protestants from persecution in the mid-17th century.
I began telling this story on the train to Berlin. It seems I’ve omitted the purpose of that journey and launched into another one.
Well, I was travelling to Berlin to attend the first event of a Scottish-German Connection event, coinciding with the opening of a Scottish Hub at the British embassy. We were gathered to collect ideas for a joint project between “young people” in the two countries/learn from each other in how to engage the youth in intercultural understanding. As you may infer from that rather vague sentence, there was quite a high buzzword density to wade through to arrive at some substance. Anyhow, it was good to be back in Berlin properly – the last time I’d been through was for a Mac Demarco concert. It was cool to be inside the British Embassy, meet some new people and get the chance to reunite with my UK-German Connection partner, Sina as well as Jule, who I also met in November.
I’m loving being a student again. My courses range from Game of Thrones (name of the Thirty Years War seminar) to Goethe and literature of the GDR to linguistics of proto-Indo-Germanic. I’m pretty well settled in, but I’d like to push myself to get involved in more aspects of student life here outside of academic stuff. Next time I write I’ll have consigned our Plattdeutsch/Orcadian project to the past, with the evaluation seminar coming up soon, and I’ll probably be working quite intensely, having taken on quite a lot of credits out of interest. It seems that I have fewer contact hours in this semester abroad, but that I’m doing more courses, each with their own assessments, so it does add up. It’s hard, but not psychologically challenging like my teaching placement in Hamburg! Reading, research and time dedicated to both is really all I need to do well here. However, I want to do more than that, although part of me would be content with this alone. Tune in for the next update to find out if I succeed in this rather nebulous aim.