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Three’s Company

Written 19.6.2010

I had been expecting a breakfast table set for one, but was surprised to find myself sharing a space and food with four other travelers. At first, I was a bit nervous, suddenly aware that I was not fully wake yet. But, they smiled and spoke to me in German, I told them I did not speak German, but they all spoke a little English and we were able to have a good discussion over the meal. I told them about my project, which they found quite interesting, and the younger couple sitting across from me offered some of their own perspective on the former border. They were 36 years old, and an east-west marriage. They told me that they might not have met had it not been for reunification, and joked that she had spoken with Bush, and he with Gorbechev, and all was well. When I asked whether they thought the border persisted in any way, the woman passionately rejected this idea, citing their marriage as an example. At this point, there were tears in here eyes as she explained that only people who do not know someone from the other side of the former border still bear prejudices against their fellow countrymen. I think this was the first time I’d heard this from a westerner, and definitely an interesting perspective to consider. Well, I certainly didn’t mean to provoke tears at the breakfast table, so I changed the topic to biking. We soon parted ways and wished each other well.

During breakfast, it rained hard, but I thought the clouds were cooperating by the time I left, heading for the razed village of Stresow. I arrived shortly, and had a look around. There were a few memorial stones, a metal hut, and fence decorated with ceramic masks, all of which bore expressions of horror. The village was established as early as 1310, but was forcibly emptied by East Germany during the Cold War because it was too close to the border. I felt directionless anger as I took in the site and began to put its history together with what I saw. I didn’t linger for long, because the sky had grown dark and it began to rain steadily. I waterproofed myself and my gear as much as possible and continued on my way.

By the time I got to Zießau, the rain had stopped and I was even mostly dry. I found the recommended lake road and cycled along Arendsee. Eventually, I realized that I must have gone too far around the lake, and, unable to decipher the map, I asked a woman on a bicycle who was stopped a short ways away how to get to Schrampe, a village just west of the lake. She said it was about 2k back the way I had came from, and then asked if I wanted to practice my German. I confessed that I didn’t think I knew enough to really practice and she shrewdly observed that my answer had been very diplomatic and revealed I was of a different cultural background. DIsarmed, I began to feel a bit uneasy in her presence, but despite this, this marked the beginning of a nearly 2 1/2 hour conversation. I told her about my project, and she declared herself to have personal expertise on the subject of the border, which I was eager to hear, and invited her to talk for a while.

The conversation, which was mostly her talking, twisted and turned unpredictably, but most of her stories and points ended with an anti-capitalist, rather cynical message. Eventually, through some pointed questions, I got her to talk about her experience with the border. She told me that it had been an area of interest since she was young, growing up in the west. She was 16 years old, and on a bicycle trip with an older cousin, biking near the border. What she then told me was incredible; her account follows. She and her cousin stepped over the border line, unaware of the consequences. Immediately, DDR border police sprang out of the bushes and they were arrested. She was transported to an unknown location and interrogated. She was held in prison for a week, and said it was the most frightening experience of her life. A fascinating story, and maybe my disbelief was more my astonishment at my own fortune to meet someone with such an experience. Is this just good luck, or evidence of how easy it is to find someone who has been deeply affected by Germany’s brutal division? One lunch and a few hours later, we parted ways in Schrampe. Christiane was a bit eccentric, but very interesting to talk with, and I was ultimately very glad we’d met.

I followed a series of confusing bike trails for 8k, and just as I found the road to Salzwedel, where I intended to overnight, it began to rain again. It didn’t last long though, and had stopped completely by the time I got to town. I was now faced with a good navigational challenge. I knew which hotel I wanted to stay at, but couldn’t find An der Warthe on a map, find anyone on the street who knew it, and when I called the hotel, no one seemed to be able to give me directions. It was about 4:30 on a Saturday and I was slightly unsettled by the quiet streets and eager to find a place to stay. Finally, my persistent questioning of strangers, “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” paid off, and I happened to meet a professional German-English translator who worked for Volkswagon and graciously pointed me in the direction of a nice pension. Martin was from Baden-Baden, in the southwest, and visiting Salzwedel for the evening out of historical interest. We talked about my project, which he was very interested by, and offered me some perspective on the city of Salzwedel as we walked to the pension Zur Post. He had quickly diagnosed the town: it had fallen on hard economic times as evidenced by empty shop windows down every street, and For Rent signs everywhere. There were few young women in the town; they had left to find work. Young men were frustrated and there were tensions abound, demonstrated by graffiti and tagging far more numerous than I’d seen anywhere else in the east. And did the border still exist? Absolutely, he said. Real estate prices reflected the former border, incomes were disparate east to west, and this town alone was a striking example. Speaking with him was really interesting; he was obviously well-educated on the topic. But unfortunately, I had to bid him farewell early in the interest of getting a room and dinner.

That night, I dined on pizza at a lovely cafe, while watching World Cup action. My peaceful dinner was interrupted/made more interesting by a group of young men in red shirts, evidently on a bar crawl. They were exceptionally rowdy, blowing their vevezula inside and frightening the small children who ate with their families. It was only 7pm. If this was blowing off steam, there were indeed frustrations in the region.

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