Inspired by various articles in Current Concerns over the past years, reporting on Eastern Germany, we recently travelled to East Germany ourselves, focussing on the federal state of Saxony. Except for the information from said articles, we had little to no idea what to expect. Even historically, we lacked much knowledge about a region that is located not all too far away from Switzerland.
It was important to us to get an impression of the country and its people as broad as possible. For this reason, we took enough time to be able to travel flexibly by car and the bicycles we brought with us. We also wanted to get to know places rich in history offering much culture and regions untouched by mass tourism. After four weeks, we returned home very enthusiastic and still full of impressions. A few highlights shall reflect our impressions here.
Everywhere we met remarkably friendly people. We came into contact with many of them very easily, be it in a restaurant, in a small guesthouse, during a guided tour or at the box office of a museum. In cases of small uncertainties in the bus we were offered help or in the case of a coughing attack, a glass of water. Let it be clear, they were just passers-by or near-by shopkeepers.
In many places we observed that the people loved their city, their museums, their cultural sites and acted with a great self-confidence as city or museum guides. Even young people were evidently dedicated to their tasks and they did not need any notes to give detailed and accurate reports and were able to answer any questions. Always apparent was a particular sense of humour, which we met over and again.
Old traditions are cultivated with love. A teacher, who showed us lace making (a very intricate handicraft that requires great skills), also reported that in the Vogtland this craft is still practised today by some 22,000 women. Children and teens regularly register for optional courses, and once they get into it, they almost become addicted.
In the Erzgebirge woodturning and carving of toys, a craft born of necessity, still exists today. In the times of men working in the mines, they used the winter days and evenings to manufacture toys. Today, it is hardly possible to imagine one without the well-known band animals, the nutcrackers and Christmas pyramids from Seiffen. The former leisure activity has turned into an industry with impressive handicraft. However, we rather prefer not be part of the onrush of tourists during the Advent season.
Outside Dresden we stayed in Pesterwitz, part of the district town of Freital. This year, Pesterwitz is celebrating its 950th anniversary and a parade took place at the time of our stay. With little over a population of 3000, the town displayed a great communal achievement. On our arrival in the commune, we noticed life-size rag dolls in the gardens, which were in context with the inhabitants. The village restaurant for example placed two “guests” on a hedge, rising their glasses to each other. The parade with its 90 themes from local history provided a wonderful insight into the past and present of the place: Among other’s they depicted a Slav settlement, the margrave of Meissen, Jacobean pilgrims, the Thirty Years’ War, the plague, the World Wars, the time of the GDR. Also presented were the trade of the town and its associations, the school, church and authorities. The colourful groups were passing by on horse-drawn carts, with cars or on foot in. Just about every person of the place contributed to the great success. Many spectators lined the streets of the parade on this sunny Sunday. Even from the city of Dresden hordes of families came by bus.
The most unforgettable and exhilarating impressions we gained by watching children and teenagers on our journey. We hardly ever met any whining children. Instead, we often experienced situations, which have become rare in our country, but which give cause for joy. School classes walked orderly with their teachers through the streets, chatting lively with one another while still keeping an eye on the path. A young man made room for a 60 year-old in the tram. At the bus stop, a teenager picked up a piece of paper and threw it into the rubbish bin. A 10-year-old boy interrupted his mobile game to return a newspaper to an elderly woman on a park bench near-by. It blew away by the wind.
In our view, such and similar situations have a connection with strong family ties, something we had read about and confirmed by our own observations. We met parents not shying away from guiding their children. A child, running around the restaurant, was called back to the table and told to be considerate of the other people in the room. “You are going to stay here with us now!”, it was told. The little boy listened to his parents and subsequently happily joined in the conversation at the table.
A couple who had lived and worked in Switzerland for 20 years had moved back to Brandenburg near the border to Saxony because of their elderly parents. The two meant, “We couldn’t let the parents build up everything and now they have to watch it all deteriorating,” they reasoned. Today, they are early retirees and live more modest than in the years before. They are happy to be able to give something back to their parents in their old days. These are just some of the qualities of Eastern Germany we experienced first hand.
Naturally, we also came across some of the worries of the people, although due to the rather short conversations and a mere holiday trip it can only reflect a fraction of it. The lack of jobs preoccupies people. Young people migrate to areas where they get higher wages. Money is not always applied to benefit the majority. If tourism is promoted unilaterally, this only benefits one industry, others are left out. There is a great demand for tradesmen. Therefore, they often have to travel long distances and they have to spend the night away from home. The good school education is declining. Many of the book publishing companies that did exist have disappeared. In Leipzig we overheard two older ladies in the tram, who discussed feeling uncomfortable and threatened due to the increasing proportion of foreigners in the city.
Summing-up, we would encourage everyone to form their own impressions of Eastern Germany and its friendly inhabitants. •
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