Thursday, November 19, 2009

Auf die Dauer, fällt die Mauer

As Joe Jackson put it, “The walls are coming down between the west and the east, you don’t have to be a hippie to believe in peace. That’s obvious.” And the walls did come down, specifically the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. A monumental date in history for many people all across the world, it paved the way for the unified Germany that we know today and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. With the recent celebration of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the progress that has been made over the past twenty years is still fresh in our mind.

And a lot of progress has been made since 1989. The former GDR is a very different place now than it was 20 years ago and is now very much a part of the unified Germany. With the recent celebration we think of accomplishments and progress that has been made, for instance, me being able to study in Rostock, but it’s easy neglect that this is a process that takes a very long time and as much as we’d like to think otherwise, the east and the west are still very different places.

I have been in Rostock now for a little over a month and a half, and until last weekend I hadn’t left the city the whole time I’ve been here. Being in one place for that long, you’d begin to get used to almost anything. Rostock is many things, but nice is not a word I would use to describe it. Don’t get me wrong, so far it has been a great and very interesting experience, but it is very drab.

After the war when almost everything was destroyed, very few, if any of the old buildings were restored to their prewar conditions. The communist government didn’t allow them to do so because there simply wasn’t money to do so. Instead of being beautiful old small brick buildings, they have been replaced sheer concrete buildings. Following the war there was also a severe housing shortage and the GDR’s solution, like many other communist countries, was to erect these massive prefabricated concrete monoliths called Plattenbauten. (This picture is of a residence hall for the university on my street.) This in combination with the constant overcast skies and relentless rain is enough to make a fairly depressing place.

This all became very apparent after a trip I took to Lübeck, a city two hours west of Rostock that also happens to be in the former west. (The picture at the very beginning is of Lübeck) Lübeck is also a hanseatic city of about the same size as Rostock, but one of the first things we notice when we arrive is how many restored churches there are. Lübeck was hit just as hard during the World War II, but the old city center has been beautifully restored with all of its narrow alleys and small buildings. It was just a beautiful city.

Whereas the anniversary of the fall of the wall is very important for the entire world and a huge reason to celebrate in Berlin, out away from the center of it all, it’s hard NOT to notice how big of a difference there between the west and the east, even 20 years later. "That's obvious."

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


When I left the United States back at the end of September, I also left my little red car behind too. Anyone who had seen it would know it’s not exactly the sharpest tool in the shed, but it still got me from point A to point B (usually). It was a fifteen-year-old four door Honda Civic, which had three workings windows and three working doors and occasionally would die on the freeway or around sharp turns. The maintenance for it, more often than not, involved duct tape, superglue, and zip ties, rather than screwdrivers and wrenches.

I kept this car around because in car-centric American society, it is more or less a necessity. Outside of large urban areas, you simply cannot get around unless you do by car. Whether you own one yourself or not, it is almost always essential. Last year my family was living in Nebraska while I went to school in Morgantown, West Virginia, which is not a very pedestrian friendly town, with it’s twisty country roads (Country Roads… I know) and almost complete lack of planning, not having a car and walking places is almost out of the question.

I have now been in Rostock for a little over a month and have not been in a car since I arrived. For the average American to say something like this is practically impossible. Here in Rostock, and Germany at large, there is a very well established and well-maintained transportation system. They have high-speed trains connection major cities and regional trains connecting different regions. In Rostock there’s a light rail service connecting the outlying areas like the beach or the shipping yards with the center of the city. There is also an extensive bus and streetcar network throughout the city.

The streetcars really are my lifelines here. There are two stations within a ten-minute walk and the vast majority of my daily destinations are all on one line. I take the streetcars to class, to the grocery store, whenever I feel the need to go anywhere; I usually get there by way of streetcar, and I’m certainly not the only one.

It all comes back to culture and the realities of living in a different society. Europe is obviously a lot more compact and densely populated than the United States. Gas prices may also play a role since the price for gas here is currently the equivalent of over $7 a gallon. But whatever the reasons, a lot fewer people here drive, and even if they do, they do it a lot less often than we do in the United States.

So now here I am, over a month later, and not only getting by, but also being better off for not having a car. Even though it’s hardly a drastic or difficult change, it’s an adjustment nonetheless. It’s an example that we can imagine and relate to, which is important because isn’t this all about stepping beyond our cultural comfort zone and experiencing something new, even if it is something as simple as walking or taking a train instead of driving a car?