August 27th, 2006 13:03 EST
Learning to Love East Germany
My head was pounding as my host mother drove me through the streets of Rathenow, Germany. Jet lag was beginning to hit hard and I could barely keep my eyes during her mini-tour of the city.
“There’s the train station,” she said, pointing to a brown brick structure, which stood menacingly in front of what looked to be weed-infested train tracks.
Nothing looked at all as I’d expected. The hospital was an imposing building which looked too old to possess the kind of technology needed for modern medical practice. The roofs of many houses appeared dangerously concave – they seemed on the verge of collapse. There were no mountains and no giant biergartens -- this was certainly not the picturesque Germany of my high school dreams. Spending my senior year of high school abroad suddenly seemed entirely less appealing.
The state of Brandenburg, where Rathenow is located, is one of the five Bundesländer which comprised the German Democratic Republic (GDR), more commonly known as East Germany. These states came under Russian control in 1949 and remained in the firm grasp of the Soviets until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Though more than 15 years have passed since the end of Soviet rule, East Germans are still struggling to achieve the same standard of life as their western counterparts. Unemployment rates in the former East Germany averaged at 20.7 in 2004, compared with 10.8 in the West, according to the National Center for Political Education in Bonn.
I’ll admit that when I arrived in Rathenow, I really hadn’t done my research. I’d been to Bonn, a wealthy university town in the West and I was expecting something similar. I knew that Rathenow was close to Berlin and was in the former East Germany, but the fact that it hadn’t recovered from the Soviet era never occurred to me. The visible financial plight which greeted me came as a surprise.
My first months in Rathenow were rocky. While I had anticipated some level of homesickness, it was certainly not welcome. My host siblings were much younger than I, so the task of penetrating the tight-knit circle of 11th-grade Germans was mine alone. I was friendly with a few students, but since my German wasn’t anywhere near fluent, most of them considered me a lost cause. By October, I was deeply depressed and even contemplated going home.
When a boy in my grade invited me to play electric violin in his band, I was at first ambivalent. I was afraid that the language barrier might cause them too much frustration and they would give up on me. But I went ahead and played. While our music certainly wasn’t spectacular, these boys embraced me as a member of their group. Even though they occasionally made fun of my accent and my linguistic stumbles, they were patient and kind enough to repeat things for me when I didn’t understand.
Once I found friends and began to grasp the language, it became easier to embrace the beauties of life in Rathenow. Late-night practice sessions, trips on motorbikes and nights camping out on the lake became the norm. I was even invited to the Herrentag (“men’s day”) celebration, during which men begin riding their bikes through town and stop at every pub along the way. This usually begins at 10 a.m. and ends at dusk, at which point there’s a giant barbeque. My invitation sparked some debate, as I’m a female, but I was glad to attend.
The close proximity to Berlin made my time even more enjoyable. Berlin is a city rich in history and home to multitudes of cultures. The huge Turkish population makes itself known through the Turkish street markets, cafes and the thousands of kebab stands.
Even more fascinating is the visible crossover from west to east as one rides the streetcars through Berlin. West Berlin is quite Americanized, home to several McDonald’s, Burger Kings and Dunkin Donuts. The eastern part of the city is grungier and less superficial – there are very few expensive stores, a multitude of parks and many more museums and historical monuments than in the West. Amid the imposing Soviet apartment complexes of East Berlin beats the cultural heart of the city.
Upon leaving Rathenow, my attitude towards East Germany had changed immensely. This, I realized, was a place of transition, warm-hearted people and a character the like of which I would never find anywhere else.