Greetings from Germany!!!
I have now been in this cold country for eleven days, and I leave tomorrow for Denmark. At present I am on another train, traveling from Berlin back to Münster. It has been an eventful week and a half. I got in to Frankfurt airport at 5am after a tolerable flight – I was one of the only people on the plane to have a spare seat next to me, so I could lie down, after a fashion. From there I took a train straight to Münster, which took me another 5 hours. The sun rose about half way through the journey, so I missed the south but saw plenty of countryside through the middle of the country. Lots of fields, trees with no leaves and cute square houses with two or three storeys of windows and a little roof perched neatly on top. Occasional towns with half-wooded houses, all very quaint.
I was in Münster four nights, which allowed me to see a fair bit of Marie-Claire and Gerwin, and to get in the way terribly, as I was sleeping in the tiny dining room/study, the only room in the unit but the bedroom, toilet, and kitchen complete with shower. It was pleasant, though, and I was very well fed. They refused to speak German to me, though quite happy to do so in front of me. Everyone is so delighted to practice their english on a real, native english speaker but I escaped to the food market and managed to have a couple of very slow, simple, stilted conversations with people who simply didn’t speak english, so couldn’t take the easy option.
The city of Münster is centred around the university, lots of expensive shops and many churches. I did feel uncomfortable being dragged into all these churches, but they were amazing anyway. Between them and various other old buildings you can work at getting a feeling of how it must have been without all the new buildings next to them, however it’s not easy, and for good reason – Münster was completely flattened in the war, and all the stately old buildings are actually very new reconstructions. I went to the archeological museum which would have been much more interesting if I could have read the captions, and the Picasso museum which had a stunning exhibition of French poster art from the 1900s, from Tolouse Lautrec to Mucha and a bit of Picasso thrown in too, but I went back a second time to the Münster art gallery, which had amazing Baroque and Gothic collections, where you could get close to the stonework, apart from the rest of the painting, sculpture, stained glass, metalwork, and other objects including these small cupboards with drawers inside doors inside bigger doors, and maybe a recess for a mirror, and every face covered in ornamentation, between impossibly fine inlaid wood veneer work on the outer faces and 2cm deep wood relief and sculpture work on the inner doors, not to mention painting and gold inlay and I can’t remember what else covering every inch of the piece. This seems to have been quite an artform, as there were half a dozen of them scattered round the gallery. The other half of the gallery was modern art, which I thought also exceptional, but then I’m only used to Australian galleries, so maybe it’s not so unusual. Anyway, the nineteenth century gallery was wonderful, with all sorts of things including some wonderful art deco and noveau paintings, furniture, metalwork and all. The pre-1945 gallery had plenty of good German Expressionist paintings which I appreciated immensely, and there was a fantastic post-1945 collection as well. The temporary exhibition was Munch sketches, which were also interesting, but not nearly as much as the permanent collections.
While in Münster it started to snow, and I went for a walk down the Promenade in the snow, which was great except that it was the one day I rested my feet and wore shoes instead of boots, and my feet and four pairs of socks got all wet. I wandered into the univerity and found the student association, which was interesting. They had one big room taking up at least half a cottage, from what I could see, and I learnt that this was not the whole organisation, but only the bit belonging to the department of pedagogics. There were piles of paper and junk and mess and posters, and a couple of computers and a phone, all in all a friendly activist space to my mind. There was only one person there but I talked to him for a couple of hours, and found out the situation somewhat. At present, german universities are free, but in two years fees are being introduced, and at a rate not too far from what we have in australia at present. He was very depressed at the lack of interest, but I’m not quite sure what that means, since I laughed with delight when he said they tried to involve school students in the last rally, but only fifty braved being forbidden outright by their principals, to turn up. It didn’t give him much comfort that I could so easily play the ‘so you think you’re hard done by?’ game. I hope in my travels I find at least one uni which is not only doing better than us, but is also confident of that fact.
On the saturday night I went to see my hosts sing in their choir. The music was beautiful, a Mozart piano concerto and requiem, but I just couldn’t keep my eyes open for two hours sitting in a church on a hard wooden pew. Gervin’s parents were there and that night I went back with them to Nordhorn, near the Dutch border. I stayed there three nights, which was very pleasant, if slow. They were eager as everyone else to try their english, but with much effort on my part we started speaking a mix of languages. They have a cute little dutch house with a steep roof, which meant that my tiny little room had half as much ceiling as it did floor, but that works out fine, for it sloped away above the bed, with still enough height in the wall to sit back on the bed. The whole area was charming, with streets full of these quaint houses, occasionally interspersed with a cornfield or two. On the sunday we went visiting, which meant much sitting and smiling for me, but we all went for a walk around the area, and I began to see the styles and differences of the architecture, within a coherent theme or set of proportions. The same can be said of Australian architecture; although the variety is much greater than found in this little town, there is a certain idea of proportion that almost everything conforms to. The oddest thing I saw was a certain cornfield, next to an ordinary suburban house, and stuck between the two, on a pole next to the footpath, there was a cigarette dispenser. Germany is covered in cigarette ads, and I was even offered a sample packet of something at a train station. But in a cornfield!?! Moves are being made to ban smoking in certain places, but the ads are still everywhere, it’s quite unpleasant.
The next day we ventured into Holland. Monday is not a good time to see small towns, and everything was closed, still we wandered around Ootmarsum and looked in the windows of commercial art galleries. There was a synagogue, established in 1843 and used until the war, it had an inscription with the names and ages of locals who died. I got dragged into another church, but the most amazing thing about Ootmarsum is the cobbled streets. Everything is cobbled, with many different designs. there were two gutters down most roads, cobbled straight or diagonal, with maybe a fan design cobbled down the centre and complex weaving patterns on the footpaths, and it just seemed to extend up into all the little brick buildings. We also went to Denekamp, which boasted a georgian manor or something with ornate gates, and a long straight treelined driveway, and nothing else. Back in Germany we stopped at Lage where there was a ruined fortress built in 1183 which was quite impressive, although there was a fence and dogs to keep us away. There was not much left since the bishop of Münster went to war with the bishop of Amsterdam in the sixteenth century or something like that, not to mention subsequent warfare.
Apart from that we played chess and checkers and rummikub and who knows what else, and I tried to know what to do when they often said grace before meals. On the tuesday I took the train to Berlin, a journey I am presently retracing. It is an interesting trip, with more and more snow, the further east you get. There are more fields and cute towns, and some rather larger towns built around railway stations, what looked like a shanty town set on a slope overlooked by a castle, random ruined buildings and whole areas with bits of roofs missing and all the windows broken or boarded up. We went past Wolfsburg where the VW factory stretches along the other bank of a river for two or three lengths of the train, building up to a big head on the east, with huge smokestacks. Right now we’re going through Osnabrück, with big square three storey houses with regular windows and no eaves, standing very close together, and painted all different bright pastel colours on different faces. Every so often there is half a house, in a row with the others but cut straight off with a wall extending down from the peak of the roof.
I think I’ll save my adventures in Berlin to the next email, which I’ll hopefully finish tomorrow, on the train up to Copenhagen, not that I’ll necessarily be able to send either yet.