A visit to our twin town of Gatchina

(picture ma)

Doris and Gerhard Feigenbutz

A newly-retired person gives thought to ways in which he will want to fill his new time of leisure. Our small town of
Ettlingen now has five twin towns in France, Belgium, England, Saxony (Löbau), Russia and Italy. At the market festival of Ettlingen, these twin towns have stalls with products and information. Except for having occasionally bought a jar of lemon jam from Menfi, we had so far had no points of contact to these partner communities. Strange – why hadn’t we? At the end of 2017, another trip to Gatchina, Ettlingen’s twin towns in Russia, was advertised. Gatchina is located 45 kilometres south of St Petersburg and has about 90,000 inhabitants. Interested parties were invited to attend a preliminary meeting in January. So why should we not attend to town twinning for once?
The German-Russian Society Ettlingen was organising the tour. After three preliminary meetings and clarification of all our questions, we registered for it. This trip to Russia took place from 5 to 13 May under experienced guidance. Not that we did not have any concerns: Will we get shortchanged as tourists in Russia? Might there be any inconveniences if we moved about alone in the evening?
In the first four days, a rich cultural programme in Moscow and St Petersburg awaited the 17-person group. Local guides led us to the various sights and gave us an insight into the magnificent history of art, the work of craftsmen and architects of Tsarist Russia. What attracted our attention: The tour guides, who spoke German very well, were able to provide detailed information on all questions.
In the middle of our trip, it was the 9 May, a holiday on which “Victory Day” is celebrated in Russia. Under the motto “The Immortal Regiment”, people – including young people – gather in over 500 cities for a commemorative march and carry pictures of family members who fought in the “Great Patriotic War”. Billboards and large monitors in public places remind people of scenes from the Second World War.
The true destination of our trip, however, was the encounter with good “old” acquaintances in Gatchina. Memories and news were exchanged at a joint dinner. This conversation was possible because some people in our twin town speak German very well, and some people from Ett-lingen speak some Russian. Three participants had even booked a Russian course at the “Volkshochschule” (the adult education) especially for this trip.
This time, the “School of the Third Age” was selected as a local visiting destination, a senior citizens’ facility, which was built on the model of the Ettlinger Senior Citizens’ Meeting Centre. At the gate, our group was welcomed warmly by two highly decorated war veterans. At the entrance to the building, some older women dressed in colourful costumes formed a guard of honour and welcomed their guests with bread, salt and lusty singing. In the hallway, they presented a selection of their lovingly hand-crafted handiworks: paintings, embroidery, jewelery and caskets in fretwork, the lace patterns of which were as precise as if they had been cut with lasers. These older women rewrite Russian fairy tales and perform them with beautiful and original handmade hand puppets in front of children. Singing and dancing enjoy particular popularity, and the seniors have already received prizes for their performances. It promotes, they told us, health and happiness in life. From their, they gave some samples of their high level of singing and dancing to accordion music and asked us, their guests, to dance with them. A lovingly and richly set coffee table rounded off their hospitality. In a short speech, the veterans expressed their desire that the people would never again go to war against each other, and that friendship (“Druzhba”) might arise instead. The Group from Ettlingen left the “School of the Third Age” deeply impressed and with small home-made gifts.
Another intended destination was Gatchina Palace. The head of the castle museum, a teacher of German, led the group through the premises with linguistically precise explanations, at least through those rooms which have been restored. Gatchina had been occupied by German troops since the summer of 1941 and been renamed Lindemannstadt after the German Colonel-General Georg Lindemann. During the withdrawal of the Wehrmacht in 1944, the castle was laid waste and set on fire. A plaque with an inscription of a German soldier still commemorates the looting: “Here we have been, we are going now. When Ivan comes, everything will be empty.” Up to today, restoration has only partly been possible.
The plan for the last day was a stroll around the market in Gatchina. At a stand for nuts and dried fruits we stocked up on a lot of products. The saleswoman of course noticed that we were tourists, and gave us a small packet of mixed nuts for the return trip.
And the key-take-away of this trip? Contrary to our fears, we were neither ripped off nor threatened. During our evening rambles in Moscow and St Petersburg, we never felt insecure. We found the people to be very friendly. Twice young people offered us a seat in the Moscow metro. By the way, the public space in Moscow is kept very clean. Tourist tour guides fulfil their task very competently. We learned that they have to take an exam and only get a certificate after passing this successfully. This means that the Russians want to put the communication of their country’s history, art and culture only in knowledgeable hands. The memories of the Second World War victims are still upheld today. We felt grateful that no resentment was shown towards us.
At the end of August, some Gatschina citizens will visit the market festival in Ett-
lingen. We are looking forward to a reunion. We will be happy to participate in events with them and to provide accommodation for someone amongst them.     •
(Translation Current Concerns)