Last week, my sister and I took a bunch of kids on a last big carefree holiday before the oldest ones start school in September. Out of both necessity (we needed a place that we could all reach comfortably by train) and a bout of nostalgia, we decided on a sleepy little town in Brandenburg. Situated only half an hour east of Berlin, it’s a convenient weekend getaway for the city folk, but during the week you are able to relive the long, sunny countryside holidays of your childhood, which is exactly what we wanted to share with the kids.
For the grown-ups, the week brought a mix of general reminiscence and a very specific breed of nostalgia that has arisen in the aftermath of the German reunification. “Ostalgie” (East-algia) is a broad term that covers the positive side of the muddled relationship people from Eastern Germany have with their past. After the events around the fall of the Berlin Wall and the first years of newfound freedom and the influx of all things Western and Good, people started to realize that within a few months in 1989, nearly everything they had known had simply ceased to exist. Everyone suddenly had a West German passport, new money, new shops, new foods, new leaders and new holiday destinations. Whereas people in the West had a past, East Germans now had a Past, this big historical chunk that filled books and television documentaries, something that people had “survived” rather than lived and breathed. Ostalgie filled that void. Traditional Eastern foodstuff was resurrected and put back on East German shelves, and later on Western shelves too, for the more than two million of economic migrants now living in the West. People in Berlin suddenly went crazy for the furniture they had always laughed at in their grandparents’ flats. Movies like Goodbye Lenin became enormous success stories. Not everything about such nostalgia is bright and cheery, though. There is a worryingly large part of the East German population that openly calls for the return of the old system, which, let’s not forget, kept an entire population in all its aspects under strict control and surveillance.
But last week, we focused on the fun bits.
It was surprisingly easy to keep the theme. We ate Soljanka and SÃ¼lze, both favourites of GDR cuisine, followed by vanilla ice cream sandwiches. We marveled at the interior of our holiday cottage.
We walked around lakes and up hills, enjoying the scenery. It really is a beautiful place, perfectly balanced and understated. The kids loved splashing in the water, climbing up rocks, playing with sticks and watching dragonflies hatch on the sandy lake shore. There isn’t much to do for adults in terms of “fun.” but when the sun is shining, you really don’t need anything but a bench from which you can watch the world go by.
Speaking of which… As you can tell from the interior picture above, we clearly went for the cheapest accommodation around, not the most modern or comfortable. But this place in the aptly named LindenstraÃŸe (it shares its name with Germany’s longest-running soap opera) provided the authenticity that Ostalgie doesn’t care for. Our host has a sizeable property and a big heart. Not only does he let cheap holiday accommodation, he is also putting up people down on their luck, often for free or without hope of payment. He houses Polish seasonal workers in a separate building and helps the neighbours get to town in his car. Because of this, the grounds were full of people all week. At first we were reluctant to make contact with the often strange-looking characters, but in the end, everyone turned out to be friendly, if slightly odd. Our direct neighbour lost his flat when the building he lived in was deemed unfit for habitation. He has now lived in one of the cottages for six years, inheriting a cat whose food has attracted most of the town’s strays by now. The kids, needless to say, loved their furry neighbours. The Poles were always ready to help and share a drink. The landlord drove us to the shops and ferried our heavy bags around more than once. And the most memorable guest was a guy who spends the summer months in the countryside doing odd jobs, retiring to Berlin in the winter to do IT work. He came over to cut the grass around the cottages with big, noisy, manly machinery, managing to interrupt every single meal we had outside, and was more than willing to chat (he sat down on the dinner table the first night within seconds of arriving). It turned out he had quite the motorbike collection, and he impressed the kids with a miniature bike he had restored himself.
We had envisaged none of this when we booked our holidays, but in the end we had an enjoyable, if slightly bizarre, stay full of memories, encounters and”¦ cats. And while I’m usually the first to find fault with Germany, I cannot stress enough how beautiful Brandenburg is. The whole of East Germany, actually. Don’t bother with the West, it always rains there. Go East.