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Germany, Donnerwetter!

When I was entering Grade 5 in school and offered a choice of foreign languages to learn: English, French or German, I chose German. It seemed to me then at the age of 12 that one should know the enemy’s language. However, as I was learning the language and in the process acquainting myself with German literature and later with German classical philosophy, I started liking Germany and Germans more and more. And even though I never became a professional scholar of Germany through force of circumstances, Germany always had my close attention. After three trips to the German Democratic Republic I came to like the Germans even more.

Now finally it came my way - the opportunity to travel to the Federal Republic of Germany, even though just for a week and as a tourist. As usual, before going I visited several acquaintances of mine who had been there, in order to put together some kind of a tourist plan and learn their general impressions of the country, to be compared later with mine own. Several of these friends, including one who is a professional expert on Germany, made disapproving remarks about West Germans in the sense that they are condescending and greedy, and in general unlike my idea of them. Well then, I needed to check if they were right. I devoted a week or two to brushing up on my German, largely forgotten by now. I thought that it would come back to me on the spot.

Hamburg without hamburgers, but with queers and Natashas

My wife Valentina and I traveled the following route: Moscow – Hamburg –Lubeck – Munich – Moscow. Upon arriving in Hamburg by air, we settled in the hotel Europaischer Hof – a four-star “court” opposite the train station. All the landmarks are within walking distance from there. The hotel is not special in any way, but quite functional, it has everything that is needed. Breakfast is included in the price of the stay (that’s important to a tourist, since one may eat one’s fill); there is a swimming pool with a Jacuzzi, a sauna and other water-related playpens. However, when Valya and I rushed to the sauna after the swimming pool, we found totally naked men and women lying beside each other or strolling in the anteroom. We were embarrassed and retreated quickly. Our “culture” was clearly “found wanting” here. We in Russia somehow haven’t yet acquired the habit of soaking up heat butt-naked in the company of strangers. Germans do it casually, whether warming their bodies or bathing. Then the hotel was populated not just by Germans but also by “children of different nations.” We didn’t get around to determining the nationalities of the naked people, but what would be the point? The state of nakedness must be as natural to them as it is to animals.

On the very first evening, strolling in a random street, we encountered an equally startling spectacle: mysterious looks and poses of same-sex couples. Myself, I don’t understand this peculiar kind of relationship (even Socrates can’t convince me), but in West Germany and Western nations in general this thing has become normal. Unattractive Frauen, devoid of feminine charm – I mean there are even morphological changes of their features – march in the streets looking businesslike in face and body. I guess that men have no choice but to develop feelings for one another. In East Germany I did encounter some quite attractive women, but none in West Germany (I know the reason but this is not the place to tell it). Strangely enough, the old ladies here turn out quite charming, gray-haired and dignified-looking.  The young folk bear the seal of degradation. Even the sex of an individual is hard to tell at first look.

We did, however, encounter some quite attractive girls in Hamburg; they turned out to be Russian or Ukrainian “Natashas”, confirming Marx’s thesis that capitalism turns even the human body into a commodity. I don’t agree with the classic 100% (I think that not every body can be sold), but the bodies of our Natashas are one of the few commodities that are competitive in the marketplace of any country, in any continent. They sell their bodies in Steindamm, a street consisting of nothing but sex-shops where the display windows feature certain enticing body parts. My wife felt revulsion for some reason, and we retreated from that street as well, condemning ourselves mentally for our hypocrisy and unculturedness.

The next day we devoted to art, concentrated in two museums – the Gallery of Modernity (Galerie der Gegenwart) and the Arts Hall (Kunst Halle). These two buildings are adjoining and connected. One has to admit, they do house manymasterpieces. Valentina studied wall after wall professionally, I listened to her commentaries without objections, since no thoughts of my own were born for some reason. For decency’s sake, I expressed my admiration with an О-О! at the sight of a Rembrandt (Portrait of Moritz Huigenz, Secretary of the State Council). My admiration was sincere, however, when I ran into some modern “paintings” of German (I think) “abstractionists”. Two works stunned me in particular. One was a 5’ by 5’ canvas of a dirty gray color, with nothing drawn or painted on it. Either the artist forgot to put anything there or he relied on the viewers’ imagination to fill this gray space with any subject they like. The other painting had more content: it was a canvas of about the same size and the same wealth of color, except it had a paving stone painted in the middle. That paving stone unleashed a flood of associations in my mind: it’s the weapon of the proletariat in Russia, where today proletarians are many, paving stones are no longer to be found, therefore the revolution cannot take place… I felt sad, then I was jolted by a thought: how about preparing an exhibition of my own works of this sort in the Manezh Hall in Moscow? Thus was a PROJECT born, as they say in Russia these days.

One more painting I did memorize due to the artist’s name – Oscar Kokoshka (I used to be friends with a Tania Kokushkina in my school years). He painted a Girl With a Doll (1922). The girl reminded me of our Soviet Young Communist maidens of the 1920s, except she was very unattractive and clutching a doll instead of a sickle or a handgun. The ugliness is due to the expressionist manner of the painting; I like impressionists better. There was Nana by Edouard Manet (not to be confused with the Russian boy group Na-Na) – a very fetching girl, in my opinion, which appears to be shared by the guy with top hat and mustache who is present in this painting. Also I memorized involuntarily the name of the German artist Philip Otto Runge, probably because he lived in the times of Goethe, Tick and Hegel.

On the following day we visited the zoo which in Hamburg is called not Zoo but Tierpark. Valya spent all of her 16 MB SmartMedia (she uses a digital camera) on beasts and birds. The zoo is well-constructed, the itinerary is carefully laid out. The animals look well-fed and well cared-for, except the Siberian tiger looked rather sad. He was probably missing Siberia or Russia, the dummy. If he hadn’t been sold to Hamburg he would have long ago starved or been shot in his motherland. Clearly, he wasn’t aware that his compatriots the Siberians now have shorter lives than the average Russian does. The only thing I didn’t like in this zoo was the pay toilet. However, the 9-foot grizzlies and the pink flamingoes are awesome.

In the remaining time we visited many kirchen (churches), strolled in the city, visited the famous seaport. The port looks just like any other port I’ ve seen. Overall I wasn’t impressed by the city – either because it had been  demolished by Allied bombers during the War and rebuilt from ruins, or simply because it’s an industrial city. A few attractive old buildings did survive: the City Hall, the Protestant cathedrals, plus the lake in the downtown area.

Their U-bahn (subway) surprised me: there are no turnstiles and no controllers at the entrances or the exits. There must be ticket checks on board the trains, like on buses in Russia. Such enormous savings: just imagine the costs of maintaining an army of ticket sellers, entrance controllers, turnstiles and booths in the Moscow Metro. All this is unnecessary in principle, so why not copy the German experience? But pardon me, I forget that all this is not for Russia. Russians spend all their time in creating problems for themselves and then solving them heroically. By the way, the escalators in the U-bahn and the underpasses only start working after someone steps on the first step. When there’s no one around, the escalators are motionless. There you have another avenue of savings – once again, it’s not suitable for Russia.

One more thing: unlike Russians and some others, Germans still don’t cross the street when the red light is on. Those people who do it here are not Germans.

Impossible Not to Love Lubeck

From Hamburg we traveled by electric train to Lubeck, 40 minutes away to the North. Having moved in at the Radisson SAS hotel, we went out right away and found ourselves in a medieval fairy tale. A river and canals surround the small city of 218,000. It reminds one of Andersen’s fairy tales, or perhaps Pushkin’s tale of the Tsar Saltan (the part about the wonderful city beyond many lands). Every building is attractive and distinctive, and they date from every century between XII and XVIII, so that the Gothic style is interwoven with Baroque. The market square, surrounded by churches, is one of the city’s most beautiful places. Also memorable is the baroque Buddenbrock House in Mengestrasse 4. There are many beautiful merchant houses in that street. Equally expressive are the two main streets - Konigstrasse and Breite Strasse. Valya and I examined the inner streets, visited the main churches and then walked the city’s edges, admiring the embankments of the canals and the River Trawe. Lubeck left an enchanting, lasting memory.

Then we bought tickets to Munich by way of Hamburg. The ticket-seller did us a great service by suggesting we buy return tickets – they only cost DM 370 for two, while one-way tickets cost DM 550. The train departed next day at 10:03 a.m. Being Russians, we naturally came half an hour early and found no train at the platform. At 9:45 Valya started to worry, so I had to ask a guy standing nearby if the train was late. He said no, for the train was supposed to leave at 10:03. To our surprise, the train came 10:01, all departing passengers embarked quickly, and we were off at 10:03. No one but us was surprised that the train arrived just two minutes before departure. There was no hustle or bustle, everything was right on schedule. We arrived in Hamburg at 10:48, where we were supposed to switch to the 11:05 Munich train. We walked to the platform where the train arrived at 11:02 and left precisely at 11:05, speeding to Munich at 133 km per hour. In that six-hour trip we passed every town exactly on schedule: Hannover, Gottingen, Kassel, Fulda, Wurzburg, Augsburg. I dozed off soon after Hannover, and Valya told me later how well-cared the fields are in this land. No surprise for me here – the fields are well-cared in every land except Russia. We Russians don’t expend our efforts on such trifles; we make rockets, or at least we used to.

Munich – No Longer the Capital of the Bavarian Soviet Republic

Once in Munich, we settled in the Eden Hotel Wolff, also situated opposite the train station. Here as in Hamburg, all the landmarks are within walking distance.

Munich’s architecture reminded us of Paris, only smaller. Step by step we examined all the landmarks in the square of Train Station – New Pinacothek – Ludwig Maximilian University – Old City Hall. The most attractive (on the outside) building is the New City Hall, which Bavarians believe to be the most beautiful City Hall in Europe. We visited all the churches and cathedrals, except the most beautiful one - the Asam Church; we missed it accidentally. By the way, the interior decoration of most German churches is very modest. It is in sharp contrast with all the gold ornaments in Russian churches. There is a reason for this contrast: the Orthodox Church is supposed to oppress the commoner with its interior magnificence, remind him that he is a worm, a servant of God. Despite the country’s poverty, in all times the government of Russia begrudged no money to churches (except, of course, the times of Peter the Great and the Soviet Power). Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow is a prime example. The people are starving, the country is convulsed with hardships, yet the state finds gold for decorating the temple. This is a common thing in underdeveloped countries of both the East and the West. Germans don’t have the need to create appearances. A temple’s decoration here serves its function, it is not for show-off or diminishing of man. This is especially true of Protestant churches and modern cathedrals of all types.

The National Theatre at Max-Joseph Square surprised us a lot in that it reminded us strongly of the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. Since the Bolshoi was built in mid-XIX century, the impression one gets is that it was copied from the Munich theatre.

Munich has many museums; there are 24 large ones for a population of 1,300,000. Naturally, we went first to the famous Old Pinacothek, which houses paintings from the XIV-XVIII centuries. There also is a New Pinacothek, but I refused categorically to go there, having no desire to see the abominations drawn by, say, Pablo Picasso and other such “masters”. The Old Pinacothek is home to familiar names: Rafael, Titian, Van Dyck, Hals, etc. I read somewhere that the Rubens collection here is the biggest in the world, but Valya said that the collection in the Louvre is bigger. So be it. At the time of our visit there was a special exhibition of the works by Jacopo Tintoretto from the Gonzago cycle. I had never heard of him before, and of many others too, and I will probably forget that name soon. Likewise I hadn’t been familiar with Jacobi Robusti, who reminded me of the later Titian, especially since I don’t know the early Titian at all. But I did memorize one painting by an artist I had never heard of – Karin Michael Pacher (1435-1498). It depicts a devil with a second head on his rear end. A bizarre spectacle that sticks in the memory, unfortunately. But frankly, the paintings and the galleries for some reason did not leave such a strong impression as those in Florence and Rome. Munich, too, has Rafael, Leonardo da Vinci, Titian, but something is missing, and I can’t put my finger on it.

What did leave a big impression was the famous Munich beer hall – the Hofbrauhaus. That’s the watering place where Hitler plotted his putsch, and where 20 years earlier Lenin planned great upheavals in Russia. Now there are jolly Germans sitting around, some decked out in full Bavarian garb, hollering something, quaffing beer from liter-size mugs and devouring piglet legs. Valya and I partook of the tradition. The building had been constructed way back in 1591, and since then uncounted celebrities had dropped in. Many patrons here have personal seats reserved for them, marked with plaques, valid for a year or more, depending on the time of acquisition. If the owner of a seat arrives during peak hour and a chance visitor  has taken the seat, it is vacated immediately. The regulars usually have beer steins of their own, made of porcelain decorated with insets; these are locked away with a chain after the meal. We did finish the piglet leg, of course, but overall we didn’t like the German cuisine, so we ate Chinese most of the time. It is curious that in Hamburg Chinese restaurants are everywhere, while in Munich we had to search for them. Either the Chinese ignore Munich or the people of Munich dislike Chinese food.

We encountered an interesting and unexpected phenomenon in Munich. Valya was standing beside a basket full of shoes, when suddenly some guy grabbed a pair of shoes, put them in his knapsack and nonchalantly started walking away from the store. Valya was expecting him to go inside the store to pay for the purchase, so she didn’t manage to react in time; the guy with the
“free” shoes disappeared from sight quickly. When we went to the second floor, we found several pairs of old shoes tucked away under the fitting benches. Evidently, some people who try on new shoes walk away in them, leaving their old shoes behind. On the first floor, where the cashiers are, no one noticed. That’s something we didn’t expect from Germans. By the way, the Album of Munich Landmarks accords a place of honor among the thirty or so historical dates mentioned there to Vladimir Lenin who lived there in “exile” in 1900-1902, and to the Bavarian Socialist Republic that existed briefly in 1919. That’s respect shown to Communists.

Religion and Politics

I seem to remember that the Preamble to the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany contains these words: “In full conscience of our responsibility before God and mankind…” These words seem to suggest that Germans are pious. However, the process of de-christianization didn’t spare Germany. It is known that in England only 7-10% of the population is churchgoers today. In France half the population are non-believers. The same trend is observed in the USA and Canada. In Germany the percentage of heathens is also growing, especially since the reunification; in the five new (Eastern) Lander 70% of the people don’t adhere to any religion. Catholics and Protestants still constitute about a third each of the population of West Germany, but the downward trend is clear. Even some Christians have difficulty explaining exactly which God they worship. The ritual baptism of infants is still practiced, but ever more often even in Western Germany it is supplanted by the non-religious ceremony of entering adult life (Jugendweihe) that had been universal in East Germany. As a consequence of all this, even some theologians such as Bundestag Member Wolfgang Ullmann, a Protestant theologian from the Green Party, demanded during the 1993 election campaign to remove the mention of God from the Preamble to the Constitution. Overall, discussions about God are fewer in Germany than in other European countries, which lets Him disappear from the country’s social arena quietly. Or maybe Germans, unlike all others, simply follow strictly one of the Ten Commandments: “Do not take the name of the Lord your God in vain”.

Yet, Germans are more politicized than Americans or Britons. They all adhere to some kind of political party or movement, between which active animosity exists. The country is polarized by several uniquely German problems. One of them is the attitude toward the past, for which the writer Heinrich Boll coined the word Vergangenheitsbewealtigung. More specifically, it is about
the attitude toward Nazism. This topic is flogged to death by politicians, authors and scholars of the Leftist and Christian persuasions, for instance the aforementioned Catholic Heinrich Boll, the Nobel-winning, Socialist Party supporting writer Gunter Grass, former President Richard von Weizsacker.

The other hot topic is the attitude toward Gastarbeiters, or foreign workers. This topic has become all the more burning in connection with the increased activity of Neo-Nazi organizations and the so-called “New Right” who act purposefully against foreigners. They are supported by a large part of the population of former East Germany. No surprise there: those people are concerned about the workplaces snatched from them by the cheaper foreign labor.

The third big problem is the attitude toward the former East Germans and their relationship with the Western brethren.

The level of critical attitude toward capitalism as a system is pretty high in Germany. I was surprised to see a book titled The Black Book of Capitalism (Schwarz Buch Kapitalismus), written by a Robert Kurz. I bought it right away, despite the heft (816 pages) and the price (DM 68). I had never encountered books like this before. Usually what you see everywhere is Black Books of Communism. German newspapers are also interesting; they always have insert sections with rather curious analytical articles on capitalism-connected political topics.

* * *

In general, the Germans make an impression of a well-fed, content nation. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to really rub shoulders with them, that is, talk to them in more detail and depth about their society. A tourist trip, after all, does not involve the serious research of a country. Besides, I discovered that my German is not on the level that would allow me to talk about serious things. In Munich, by the way, I understood almost nothing when I heard Bavarians talk between themselves. I know, naturally, that Germany has a wealth of dialects (myself, I sport a Saxony accent), but Bavarian seems to me like a different language rather than a dialect. I even saw a German-Bavarian Dictionary in a bookstore. I think I read or heard somewhere that Bavarians don’t even consider themselves to be Germans. Despite all this, I got a feeling though the press and television that Germans are either at the peak of their development or past it. Dumb entertainment on the tube, a fixation on sex and nakedness, an unconscious desire to remove oneself to the animal world – that’s all on the surface, and a mass of other similar “details” indicate that the peak is past, and the phase of decomposition has started, unnoticed yet by many. It manifests itself in paintings without soul or meaning, in the appearance of women who strive to cease being women. An excess of plenty really does decompose a society.

So, what’s the conclusion? There’s none as yet. I continue therefore to love Germany and Germans.

From  Oleg Arin and Valentina Arina. Between Titi and Kaka. The Impressions of a Tourist…but not only (Moscow: Alliance, 2001).