I like the idea of rail travel. In fact, I had considered booking a rail holiday from Chicago to Sacramento earlier this year. This being 2020, that didn’t happen. In fact, not very much of what I had planned actually took place this year. In fact, I ended up living in a country I had little desire to visit. But this is 2020 and one can’t change that.
I travelled by rail this summer. I travelled by rail a lot. Flights, while growing in frequency and reliability, are still sporadic and prone to cancellations. Carriers have taken full advantage of the chaos to continue offering flights only to cancel them at the last moment. The EU has relaxed regulations on the air industry in light of the chaos. This can mean only one thing: carriers hold onto money for as long as they possibly can before issuing refunds.
As such, travelling by train — while slower — is also more predictable and trains are running normally. I went to France twice in August. I first went to Paris. It was unusual. Paris was empty. There were no real queues. The hordes of tourists who’d normally be there weren’t there. It was almost a magical experience. I saw a few sites I had long wanted to see — la Basilique Royale de St Denis, le Panthéon, la Conciergerie and the banks of the Seine at night. I visited the remains of the Notre Dame. Things are moving and progress is being made, but I suspect it will never be the same because it simply can never be the same. A reconstruction is better than nothing and, mercifully, those who wanted to be “innovative” were shot down, but… Paris was gentle this time, showing me her beauty, but acknowledging her ugly sides.
I later travelled to Tours. I lacked that. Tours is so very different. It’s more human. Yet… It shows something else. Tours is a little run down in places. It isn’t a complete wreck like Portland or Fresno, but… There is a church in Tours that really captures it: St Gatien. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful church. It is blessed with most of its mediaeval stained glass windows. But… Whereas in Germany historical properties are kept in a high state of repair, St Gatien showed its age. It looked tired, it looked fatigued. France in many respects looked tired and fatigued. It’s beautiful, achingly so, in fact, but… I reached an understanding with my hostess in Tours. I would simply email her when I wished to visit and she’s accommodate me at a very reasonable rate. It’s a small flat to myself.
For the first time, I decided to take a holiday in Germany. I visited Erfurt, Berlin, Lubeck and Bremen. Erfurt was interesting. The greatest, lasting gift of the DDR to Germany wasn’t anything it did — but something it didn’t do. After the Second World War ended, West Germany rebuilt. The damage was done, but life had to carry on. This obsession carried on into the late 1970s. Beautiful historical properties were razed. Rows of Wilhelmine buildings were levelled to make way for brutalist “architecture”. Jugendstil made way for the ’70s. In the DDR, this was not really done. If a building was liveable, it was kept standing. When new buildings were needed, they were built. As such, cities like Erfurt are largely intact. But right away, I noticed lingering differences.
There are elements of life you don’t think about. They’re just part of life. They’re common reference points, points that show if you’re local or not, if you’re part of a community or not. There are also common reference points that show if you are part of a generation or not. It is why, for example, I can claim a greater stake to society in Trier than I could elsewhere. My grandfather worked for a major company. He was the overseer who helped train someone’s father when he was hired. When we talked about a former mayor of a suburb, that meant that I knew things that only someone with close knowledge of the community would know. Likewise, there are things like television series, building styles, paintings, fashions, fads that linger. The 1980s motifs in a shopping centre, the old Citroen or Mercedes. There are the murals — murals of Adenauer, mosaics of Kennedy or de Gaulle. There are streets named after Eisenhower, memorials dedicated to British/Commonwealth, American and French forces. But then… There is a Juri Gagarin Ring, mosaics of cosmonauts (CCCP), the odd Trabi parked in the corner, old pictures of a black Volga. The signs commemorate not some effort by Willy Brandt to build more social housing, but sing the praises of Erich Honecker. The language was different. The way people behaved was different. There was more reserve, a stone-facedness that is simply missing in the former West.
I was both impressed and disturbed by Erfurt. It was beautiful, but there are sinister undertones. In the shadow of its breathtaking cathedral, a stone’s throw from its world-class old town there is a former Stasi prison. There were also different patterns. There were more Chinese and Vietnamese, many who’d been there for some time, generations, even — but there were relatively few Italians or Turks. I visited the oldest Synagogue in Europe. It survived because people forgot what it had once been.
It was similar in Berlin. My bed and breakfast was in the heart of the former West Berlin, but the owners were Soviets who had been living there since the days of the Cold War. They simply stayed on after the USSR collapsed. Berlin disgusted me. That it was an open, anything goes city… Well, I knew that. But I’m a great believer in there being a limit to tolerance. People should be free to do as they please, but not if it undermines the quality of life for others. It was worth seeing some things — the Topography of Terror, for example. The ruins of the former Gestapo headquarters articulate with a remnant of the former Berlin Wall. The Bundestag stands majestically, but it betrays the horrors of German history. All around it are remnants, memories, of a brutal past. Potsdam was a nicer place, but it, too had its strange edge. The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church was eery. It was once beautiful, but it’s simply destroyed. Nothing but damage. What made me wonder about Berlin more than anything was the fact that my visit to Normannenstr. 1 — the former Stasi headquarters — was the least creepy part of my visit.
I was happy, overjoyed, even, to reach Lubeck. I liked Lubeck. The fresh air was easier to breathe. The city is well-preserved, clean and orderly. I nicknamed it”Aldi Denmark” because it reminds me so much of a much cheaper, off-brand version of southern Scandinavia. I enjoyed dozing off in the park, walking through the old churches, past the historic streets. I might well, in fact, move there next year should things not considerably improve elsewhere. Northern Germany is, of course, different. But it’s not bad. The people are dry, but perhaps not as inclined to the chav as is the case far too often in Trier. They’re reserved, but not stone-faced like so many in the former DDR are. Even better, it’s easy to travel to Scandinavia and the UK from Hamburg which is only 45 minutes away. Lubeck felt like a garden.
Denmark was Denmark. It was a pleasant, but rather dear, visit. It’s Denmark, after all. Nothing there is cheap. It was nice to see the streets of Copenhagen again, to eat cake at La Glace. It was nice to see the Karen Blixen estate. Walking along the garden paths, sitting, chatting on a bench, seeing where she lived, how she lived, seeing her style, hearing her voice. It was all in excellent taste. It was also interesting to see the free air museum — a collection of houses from around Denmark and the neighbouring regions. It’s all well and good to visit castles, mansions and villas but few lived like that. Seeing how farmers lived, how shoemakers lived, how fishermen lived… That is how life was for most people and it wasn’t that easy. On my last evening I baked an apple cake and had a small gathering (four people in total, the other three totally respectable) in a garden.
I returned to Germany via Bremen. Bremen… Parts of it were beautiful. Parts of it were horrific. Not horrific in the sense of Berlin, not the atmosphere of horrors and degeneracy mixed together to form a heady cocktail of wretchedness. It was simply… Depressing. The post-war construction. Necessary, but ugly. The poor state of so much of the city. The vandalism, the filth, the stupid, mindless politics. In Bremen, you could walk down blocks of exquisite Wilhelmine terraces only to stumble upon a slum within five minutes. In Bremen, you could be captured one minute by remarkably well-preserved, late mediaeval/Renaissance neighbourhoods only… Only to hear a man talking to someone who wasn’t there and relieving himself in his trousers a few minutes later. This far-left “I don’t care, anything goes unless you disagree with me” mindset.
I was only all too happy to be on a train away from it… Back to the tolerability of a mediocre, underwhelming Trier where the occasional moments of eccentricity are so memorable only because they’re so atypical.