This all-American holiday is not as traditional as you think
24 November 2019
Little kids in pilgrim hats or feather headdresses that would give politically correct people heart palpitations today – when I was in third grade, everything about Thanksgiving was warm and fuzzy. Such a great American tradition, steeped in friendship, harmony and the spirit of giving. Under closer scrutiny, however, this holiday is not everything it is cranked up to be.
What a nice little festival, I thought. Little boats with lit candles inside, sailing peacefully across the lake through the darkness. Children singing against the backdrop of the picturesque Blutenburg Castle. It was St. Martin’s, a popular fall festival.
9th, is the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin
Wall, the most visible in a series of events that triggered German
reunification. My German husband had assured me back in the 1980s that the country
would never reunite. They’ve grown apart, he said. They’re two separate
countries now. It’s over.
prediction was earth-shatteringly wrong, but more important it shows that he
was a child of his generation. The politicians in charge of Germany when the Eastern
Bloc disintegrated of an age that knew one Germany from their youth. For them there
was no question: Of course the two countries belonged together. The Cold
War had split Germany in half and had finally ended. Now that it was over,
reunification was the obvious final chapter in that story.
Germany fell apart, I was amazed at how all the talk was not about whether
the two countries should reunite, but when. That whole discussion was
fast tracked. It turned out that there was an underlying desire to reunite,
particularly among those in power. When the historic opportunity presented
itself, the ruling politicians at the time, notably Helmut Kohl, jumped on it
and bent over backwards to make it happen and happen fast. Hans Dietrich
Genscher, Foreign Minister at the time and instrumental in supporting
reunification, was himself from Halle of former East Germany. Given his
personal history, who could blame him for championing it?
Angela Merkel was famously in the sauna while her comrades were storming the
Wall, my husband and I were sitting dumbfounded on the couch in faraway Munich
watching the events unfold on TV. Our mouths had been pretty much agape for
several weeks as the Eastern Bloc crumbled before our very eyes. Now it was
we’re far away down south in Bavaria,” I said, clicking off the TV before we went
That illusion lasted one day. That was the length of time it took for the Trabbis, the nickname for the tiny (and only) cars driven by East Germans, to come chugging down the Autobahn on their way to Munich. Along the way they choked the highway since their two-stroke motors only allowed them to drive 80 km/h. Just imagine a caravan of rider mowers on the highway.
has ever been anywhere near an Autobahn knows that someone driving at 80
km/h is either entering or exiting the highway – but certainly not driving on
it! Unless, of course, you’re sitting behind the wheel of a Trabbi. In
no time they had arrived and lined the streets and sidewalks of Munich. The
police turned a blind eye, allowing our East German cousins to enjoy their
first taste of freedom without a parking ticket.
of this flood of tiny cars that had been designed in the 1950s gave rise to all
kinds of jokes, like this one:
A cow pie
on the highway gets run over by a Trabbi. The Trabbi stops and
Trabbi: Sorry, I didn’t see you there!
Cow pie, looking up: What in the world are
Trabbi: I’m a Trabbi, silly. A Trabbi!
The cow pie
shows no reaction.
Trabbi: I’m a car!
Cow pie: Well, if you’re a car, then I’m a
Black Forest cherry cake!
For me as a
foreigner, it felt as if a time capsule had been cracked open. Suddenly
reporters were scurrying around interviewing people all over East Germany, an
area that had just until recently been sealed off and completely inaccessible. They
were eager to interview real people on the streets, which is exactly what they
time we tuned into the news I couldn’t believe my ears
of an accent is that?!” I exclaimed to my husband. “I didn’t understand a
he said. “It’s what they speak in Saxony.”
I had never
heard anything like it. I had been so proud of my mastery of differentiating between
a Bavarian accent and an Austrian one (something that is glaringly obvious to
native speakers but tricky for foreigners). Now I had a whole new batch of
accents to recognize and understand.
for Bavarians, Sächsisch has since joined Bavarian at the top of the
list of accents to poke fun at in German comedy shows (all three of them) or
when talking to friends who are from anywhere but Bavaria or Saxony. For people
in Berlin and Northern Germany, nothing beats making fun of a Bavarian. Or a Saxonian.
Up until reunification, Bavaria had to take all the punches. It was very kind
indeed of Sachsen to line up and join ranks with their southern neighbors and
share the glory.
wall, but now what?
my sister Katie and I had taken a trip to East Germany after the Wall came down
but before reunification when East Germany’s fate was still in limbo. There was
a strange sensation afoot. What would happen now? Reunification? And if so, how
and when? What form of government would they have? It was a very anxious time
for East Germans.
This was no
ordinary vacation. During this period there were no hotels, hardly any
restaurants – and no tourists. Planning our trip was very much off the cuff. Some
enterprising individual had compiled a list of private homes in East Germany that
would host people, so that’s where we stayed.
we stayed with a woman in her early 60s. She kept referring to me as English.
After correcting her gently several times, I finally figured out what was going
on: She had had so little exposure to the outside world that the line between
English and American was blurry. I was some English speaker and whether I came
from the one side of the Atlantic Ocean or the other was irrelevant. I spoke
English; she didn’t. That’s all that mattered. For her, I may as well have been
from the moon.
In East Berlin, the heart of divided Germany, we stayed in the apartment of a nice young couple in the neighborhood of Marzahn, one of those areas that screams Eastern Bloc. It was a Plattenbau, the name for the socialist housing consisting of row after row of sterile, high-rise apartment buildings commonly found in Eastern bloc countries. Our host told us he was just about leave on an extended trip through the socialist brother countries, as fellow members of the Warsaw Pact were known. Prior to the fall of the Wall, those were the only countries where East Germans were allowed to travel since there was little danger of defection.
detail in this case, however, was that he could spend his Ostmark in
these countries. Nowhere else. He correctly guessed that reunification was
imminent and that his money would then become worthless. He was right. Up to a
certain amount East Germans could convert their Ostmark 1:1, after that
in reduced proportions, and above a certain amount it was not accepted. That
meant for many East Germans the loss of life savings.
of East Germany felt like being let out of a cage. Suddenly the impenetrable
boundaries that had been life-defining fell away. Many East Germans had
previously not bothered to dream about what lay beyond the border. Why should
they? It was an exercise in frustration. This made the shock all the greater
once they were able to travel and leave the country.
Anja from Dresden describes seeing the planes lined up at Frankfurt
International Airport for the first time.
she exclaimed, “that all you had to do was get into any one of those planes and
it would take you anywhere in the world!”
about this for a moment. Here I was, an American living on the other side of
the ocean, simply because I had decided one day that I would like to give it a
try. The only difficulties I wrestled with were in my own mind: Should I stay
for good or go back? In the end I decided to stay. It was wholly my
I could not
fathom what it would be like to have no control over where I live.
has more than made up for lost time. The only corner of the world she hasn’t
visited is really the corner – Antarctica – and possibly the Galágapos
Islands, although those two places are most certainly on her list. When I
started rhapsodizing about my amazing trip to the American West, I was quickly
put in my place.
Canyon, fantastic! I absolutely loved it. And did you go to Arches? Antelope
Canyon? The Grand Canyon?”
Not only had
she visited them all, she had hiked and camped there extensively. She also used
the opportunity to get selfies with the park rangers and got close-up shots of
all the wildlife with her giant telephoto lens, photos which are now carefully
sorted and labeled in thick albums.
not to show her my vacation photos. It’s not that I hadn’t taken any, I had
plenty on my phone. At that point I made a firm decision to sort them, too. No
problem. They’re somewhere between detailed shots of spring flowers in the yard
and my annual batch of Oktoberfest photos.
also been to Vietnam, Malaysia and Cambodia. Together with her husband they
rented a motorcycle and traversed the back roads, hitting all the temples,
which she dutifully photographed – with her telephoto lens, of course. She took
pains to arrive at either sunrise or sunset, depending on the optimal slant of
the sun, to get just the right shot. She also knew exactly what season was the
prettiest and the best way to avoid the throngs of Chinese tourists.
Michael lived in Paris for years and came to Munich to visit. He was baffled by
Michael: Why does everything look so new?
Me: Well, they clean the buildings you
know. Come on, it’s Germany.
Michael: No, it’s more than that. Paris
looks really old. Why does everything look so new here?
Michael: It’s the bombs! Munich was bombed
in WWII! But Paris wasn’t. That’s why everything looks so extremely old there.
Because it is old. Here it’s new old.
reminded of this on our trip to East Germany just after the Wall came down.
Everything was so run down. The buildings were covered with soot and many still
showed damage from WWII, which at that point was 45 years in the past.
Buildings badly needed renovating and the facades had crumbling stucco and
warped wooden doors and shutters.
A few years
after reunification, walking through an East German city feels like walking
through the town in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Everything is freshly
renovated, painted and scrubbed, a Brothers Grimm fairy tale come to life. This
is the Solidaritätszuschlag or solidarity premium, a tax to finance
reunification, at work. There are also huge shopping malls, hotels,
restaurants. It’s hard to imagine how different it looked not so long ago.
Germany looks even newer than the West, or as my friend Michael would say, now
it’s new old.
resurgence of the far right in the new states, as the states of former East
Germany are referred to, is troublesome. To understand how this could happen, imagine
a high school where all the top students change to the private school across
town, leaving only the average ones and especially the bullies and
troublemakers. That’s what happened to East Germany after reunification. The
young, moderate, and hard-working people who had been keeping the economy
afloat left for the West.
that’s why the built the Wall in the first place – to keep everyone in. Once it
was gone, the floodgates were open.
There was not just a population shift, but East Germany is also treated somewhat like a colony. They criticize this situation, referring to themselves as an extended workbench. All large companies have their headquarters in the old states or former West Germany. There are subsidiaries in the East, but few headquarters. The federal government has made promises to relocate a certain quota of ministries in the East, but this program has not been rigorously enforced.
them eat – Stollen
People who are young enough not to remember the fall of the Wall or who were born afterwards, feel more like citizens of one single country. Older people had a much harder time adjusting and many lost their jobs. There are still inequalities to be sure – and the right-wing movement is not to be ignored – but most young people by and large feel like neither East or West German – just German. It will take a generation or two, but eventually the scars from the former division of the country will heal and fade. It will become part of the collective memory and a chapter in the history books.
But curious things happen when you transplant a holiday
When I moved to Germany over 30 years ago, nobody had heard of Halloween. I had a hard time explaining why people get dressed up as ghosts, goblins, Shrek or a Superman and go from house to house asking for candy. Not only was there no Halloween, the jack-o-lantern pumpkins were not sold anywhere, either. When nostalgia inspired me to throw a Halloween party, my American girlfriend Ruth laughed her head off when she caught sight of my muscat pumpkin jack-o-lantern. Never heard of a muscat pumpkin? Me neither.
Summer is over. Germany is like Camelot – at least regarding
the punctuality of the weather, not so much the bursting into song – so on
September 1st it cooled off right on schedule. But here in Munich,
there’s another sure way to recognize that fall has arrived. From one day
to the next, men exchange their Bermuda shorts for Lederhosen, women
doff their jeans for Dirndls –
it’s Oktoberfest time!
I’m strolling through the festival grounds
with my high school friend Susan and her husband Bill, who were looking forward
to seeing the beer tents. That is, until I tell them about something far more
intriguing than a bunch of drunks and a brass band covered by cloth on stilts.
Marion’s desk is behind me, so I notice immediately whenever she moves. Just a moment ago, she got up and is now walking over to the window. My hearing sharpens and the hairs on the back of my neck start to prickle. I steel myself as my pulse quickens slightly and sweat breaks out on my palms.
I am no stranger to the German sense of order and cleanliness – how could I be after living here for 30 years? After such a long time, I now take it almost for granted: the clean streets, the men who regularly sweep the sidewalk and others who walk around train stations poking a pointy stick into the garbage people have left behind (not sure what the poking will achieve, but it must have something to do with putting the trash into a superior state of orderliness). Still others can be seen washing street signs with long brushes on poles.
Here is a new benchmark for defining what it means to be old: when your daughter visits a country with an airport named after the leader who was in power when you lived there.
happened to me. My daughter Lisa recently left for a three-month stint in Spain
to learn Spanish. This thrilled me, not simply because going abroad to learn a
language is such an enriching experience, but because she went to Spain, where I also lived for a year.
When ironing out the itinerary with her, I was jolted to discover that the name
of the Madrid airport is called Adolfo Suárez, who was prime minister while I
was there in 1979-80. It drove home the fact that this had been nearly 40 years
Summer is over. In Germany the weather changes punctually, just like in Camelot, so on September 1st it cooled off right on schedule. But in Munich there’s another sure way to recognize that fall has arrived. Overnight men exchange their Bermuda shorts for Lederhosen and women doff their tankinis for Dirndls. It’s Oktoberfest time again!