Kyra's Excellent Adventure Part 7: Into the East, part 2: Out of Darkness Into the Light
I was going to try to finish up these posts about my trip to Germany faster, but I've been busy editing books. Watch for a news/update post coming soon. In the meantime, on with the travelogue.
Last time, I wrote about my memories of the old DDR, eastern Germany when it was under Communist rule. On our trip this year, I wasn't sure if I was looking forward to this part of the trip; my anticipation was colored by previous experience. On the other hand, I was very interested in seeing how things had changed in the nearly 30 years since the Iron Curtain fell and the Berlin Wall came down.
Wow. The first thing I'll say is that the food we ate on this part of the trip was the best we had in Germany, which is really saying something because we had some seriously amazing meals. Whether it was epic home-cooked meals or an invitation to a favorite restaurant, we had some awesome food.
The other big thing that hit me was I had no idea what beautiful country this is. The weather was warm and sunny and beautiful (this time of year, April, it could have still been cold and rainy), much nicer than I remember it being in July of 1979. Clear blue skies, rolling hills, green meadows and forests; it's idyllic. In fact, my youngest brother went from kissing the ground after we left East Germany in 1979 to, this time, being so taken with the area he even asked about houses for sale in the towns we visited (there weren't any).
We spent a night at the Hotel Falkenstein in a town near where the first group of relatives lives, also the town where my grandfather was born. It has a hip urban vibe, very comfortable rooms (with hot water, even! unlike the hotel where we stayed in 1979), and, as usual, a wonderful breakfast. And an elevator, always a plus (not every hotel we stayed in, mainly small traditional, boutique family-owned hotels) had one.
We joined our relatives, my dad's cousin and his wife, their son A (who's my age), and A's wife and daughter for a truly epic Abendbrot (evening meal of bread, meat, cheese, and side dishes). I mean, it was epic, unlike any other Abendbrot we'd had so far. Ham, Wurst, different kinds of cheeses, a variety of breads, along with smoked salmon, steak tartare (I didn't try any, but those who did said it was delicious) beautifully-arranged salads and vegetable plates, and tons of it. And ice cream for dessert. This was the same apartment this family lived in when we visited them in the 70s, but now it seemed so much lighter and airier, more modern (even the building, a Soviet-era apartment block, looked like it had been cleaned up and modernized), with a beautiful modern bathroom overlooking lovely gardens behind the building. -->Correction: they might not have been living in this building; my dad recalls that it was a different building, but similar to this one.
After the meal, we worked some of it off by going out for a walk to see the nearby church, that my great-grandfather built (or actually re-built) the dome on when it was being restored. Here, we're standing near the grave of my grandfather's cousin and childhood best friend, the ancestor of the relatives we visited here.
And just for fun, here's a picture of the church while it was being restored, in 1910. That's my great-grandfather way up at the top.
After a while we walked on, coming to an empty lot in front of the church. Cousin A asked if we knew what place this was; after a moment, someone figured out, or maybe he told us, it was where that awful state-owned hotel used to stand. It was long gone, torn down. We stood on the spot and celebrated its demise.
Cousin A and his family were not living with his parents (based on my memories from before, I had assumed that they were all living in that one apartment), and he was very anxious for us to come see his house. So on our way back to the hotel, we followed him to another nearby town to his house, an old house that he and his wife restored and remodeled (I noticed that home improvement stores are all over the place in Germany). It was beautiful, everything in it, every inch of it top-notch and lovingly put together. Back in the communist days, he wouldn't have even been able to dream of having a house like this.
After we admired the kitchen and the living room, with its beautiful ceramic stove built in, he led us up to the top floor (3 or 4 stories up) to his study. Under the peaked roof, while his daughter swung from a hammock hanging from the ceiling beams, he gestured out the window at the breathtaking view, the sun setting in the west beyond the rolling hills and forests. "Das Vogtland," he said proudly, referring to this beautiful region covering parts of eastern German and the Czech Republic, which lies not too far away.
Cousin A took part in the protests that brought down the East German Communist government. I find myself extraordinarily proud of this.
The next day, we visited my grandfather's birthplace, which you can see has been cleaned up very nicely since the eastern bloc days. Like all private property, it was confiscated by the Communists when they took over and became property of the state, then after reunification, returned to the original owners. That whole process had to have been a huge mess, and I believe some of the cases are still working their way through the courts.
We also visited the one real tourist attraction in town, a "palace" (actually the residence of the town's ranking official, not royalty). It was very pretty, with the trees leafing out and the moat around it. In the eastern bloc days, the moat was filled with old tires.
We drove on to meet up with another cousin and his wife. They were unable to accomodate our mob in their apartment and the wife is in somewhat fragile health, so they invited us to meet them for a midday meal at a restaurant, the Berggaststätte Steinberg. And boy was it great. What can I say, more amazing food. I had the Vogtland Sauerbraten with apple red cabbage and potato dumplings. Oh, and it was lovely to see these cousins too :) I still remember how adorable their daughter was as a toddler in 1979.
We also stopped to look at the Göltzschtalbrücke, which has to win some kind of prize for how many vowels in a row. It's a big, very impressive red brick arch bridge crossing one of the river valleys of the Vogtland.
And then onward, to the next town, where my great-grandmother came from [Correction: my great-grandmother's father], and the next hotel. Finally, after more than a week, we got to stay in the same hotel for more than one night! By this time we were all ready for a break from hauling luggage in and out of the cars and up and down stairs. This was another nice place with a great restaurant, that prides itself on its daily fresh-caught trout.
This is a little farther north, not far from Dresden. It's also beautiful country, rolling hills, forests, and farms with small, charming rural villages. It's near what's called the Saxon Switzerland, a more rugged, hilly region with beautiful scenery and great opportunities for outdoor activities. ("[Something] Switzerland" being a traditional way of designating a hilly or mountainous region; during the Nazi era, referring to a region this way was banned, but the names have since been adopted again.)
We went to the home of Cousin H, another cousin of my dad's and his family (this is the cousin who keeps us supplied with a big carton of German chocolate every Christmas!) Once again, they laid out an epic Abendbrot for us. After the meal, we took a walk around the countryside. This picture is from right outside their house. The house is literally built right on a brook, with rolling green fields just on the other side. The buildings up on top of the hill used to be the communal farm. Since the fall of the DDR, they've been renovated and are now used as a community center. I enjoy the irony that among the events held there was the recent celebration of a teenage boy's church confirmation (Cousin H's grandson).
There's also a beautiful memorial to people from the village who were killed fighting in WWI and WWII, and also who were taken from the village by the Nazis and by the Soviets and never returned.
I'm skipping over a day, when we went to Dresden; that will get its own post.
A couple of mornings later, we went up the hill to another town where there's a church where my ancestors on this side of the family have worshipped for over 250 years. It was built by the same architect who built the famous Frauenkirche in Dresden. While the outside is fairly humble, the inside is gorgeous, a miniature of the Dresden church. It had fallen into serious disrepair during the Communist occupation, but has since been beautifully restored. Another relative had arranged for the organist/assistant pastor to meet us at the church. She gave us a presentation about the history of the church (translated from German by the aforementioned teenage grandson of our cousin), then played a private recital for us on the original, world-class organ. We even got to go up to the organ loft and see the workings of the organ.
That same day, we visited Cousin H's daughter and her family (the boy who translated for us at the church is her oldest son). They own a deer ranch, raising venison for restaurants, and live in a house that's been in her husband's family for like 500 years. They invited us over for afternoon cake, a German tradition of which I highly approve :D Three different kinds of homemade cakes, very fancy and delicious. Their 6-year-old daughter glommed onto me, probably because I radiate a Grandma aura, and asked me to come see her room. Up in the beautifully-finished attic loft, it's a little girl's dream room. She told me all about her toys, and I did my best to act like I understood what she was saying (Note to self: Start Duolingo more than two weeks before the next trip), and showed me how she can tell Alexa to play a song (yes, she has an Amazon Dot), and I learned that little girls in Germany are just as crazy for "Frozen" as little girls in the U.S.
After cake, we went out to look at the deer, and when we got back, they rolled out a full dinner for us. Venison from their ranch, sauerbraten, rouladen, wild forest mushrooms (I don't eat mushrooms, but those who tried them said they were delicious), and three kinds of dumplings. It was all so good. Again, one of the best meals we had in Germany. And they brought out a small plastic tub with ice cubes in it for our drinks! I don't know what the thing is about not putting ice in drinks, but after more than a week of lukewarm water and sodas, we were ready for some ice.
Visiting with our relatives was one of the most memorable parts of the trip, and one of the main reasons for making the trip to Germany in the first place. They greeted us like old friends, and showed a warmth and generosity that were truly moving. Their generosity and kindness to us were no more or less than when we visited them in the 70s, but now instead of worrying about the sacrifices they were (willingly) making for us, we enjoyed their eager sharing of their abundance. Things haven't been easy since the fall of the DDR and reunification; the Communists left the economy and the country in a shambles, on top of the devastation of the Nazi regime and WWII. But it's a rich area, in both natural resources and hard-working people, and we were glad to see that, after suffering through more than seven decades of tyranny, war, and hardship, from the aftermath of WWI to the fall of the Berlin Wall, things are so much better there. The lightness I noticed wasn't just a matter of weather and time of year and less pollution. It's the light that comes to a country when its people are free to live, to choose their own course in life, to enjoy the fruits of their own labors, and to exercise freedom of expression, worship, conscience, and association.
Next time: Into the East, part 3: The Jewel Box
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