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She was actually an interesting person to run into on the train. She sat down all flustered because some douchebag spilled coffee on her white pants as they got on. She asked me to watch her bag then, after a few minutes, walked back from the toilet in her underwear with wet (but clean) pants, which she subsequently lay over a window seat to dry. Only in Europe. The Netherlands is an enigma, full of brusque people who drop their pants without qualms. For years i struggled in Australia and with an American girlfriend where time and again i was told i came across as insensitive or lacking in tact. Now i know why - in Holland that's the norm, and it's weird to be any different. 15 years later, and 15 years softer, it frustrates me too.
It turned out later that the lady was heading to Bauhaus Dessau to present a media installation that this weekend will be happening in a bunch of cities around the world. We had a really good chat and she essentially told me to seize the day - don't put anything off you could do right now.
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God, what an emotional day. I knew that trains to Rostock would go via Osnabrück and Hamburg, so i just went one leg at a time without any plans. Once i got to Osnabrück i was done with trains so paused to revisit my childhood. I'd read online that the British Army finally rolled out of there a couple years ago and wanted to see the changes.
I can say, our house hasn't. Well, no doubt the 70s-era orange and brown interior is gone, but it's still a big yellow box in a row of identical ex-military houses. The back yard still has swings and things, and there is still a cobbled road leading down to the neighborhood garages. Sadly, the swings and see-saw that used to be by the garages are gone, replaced by some "wild" greenspace. I ducked into a "secret passage" out back; the kids of the area still hide out in those trees, it seems.
The school has changed, however. The playground and section where the "big kids" were has been steamrolled for upscale apartments. The classroom building is pretty much unchanged, but it's in the process of being converted to a technical college, so the interior was eerily bare. The hall where we ate lunch and held assembly is now a gym, complete with blaring German workout techno. On the way up i passed what i think was a German garrison, now being replaced with a business park. Dad's garrison has also been demolished to make way for a business park, but there were still a few buildings standing amongst the construction - notably, the guard's hut and the original entrance gate. I can't explain just how much of a trip it was to walk past those walls, still topped with coils of barbed wire, and sneak through the now-unguarded gates to see cranes, scaffolding and posters of shiny happy businessmen on the way to work. On paper the 80s were the dying years of the cold war, but for us it remained tense. The Berlin Wall was still standing, and the Soviets still had thousands of nukes pointed our way. One of the scariest moments was after Chernobyl. And on the other front, British soldiers were still being killed by the IRA. People outside of the military and outside of Europe will probably never understand how those years felt, especially as a child.
It all came flooding back when i found the forest out back of our house. We used to walk there a lot, and both mom and dad learned to keep my interest by telling stories. The whole place is imbued with magic for me now - it's a place where fauns roamed, pixies and fairies and gnomes. Once i saw a deer there. There's a lake where i first tried to iceskate, on old wooden skates that strap to your shoe. Apple trees and brambles and holly. This is the place i will always remember as having my favorite weather moment ever - a crisp winter day just after an ice storm, where each twig had a thin layer of ice and shone like diamonds in the sun. The waiter at the café on the lake thought i was joking when i ordered mulled wine after dinner (it's really a winter thing), but i wanted it to taste my childhood. And i did. Eating Sachertorte after that meal, bratwurst and pork... I cried and cried and cried. A lot of fucked up shit happened when i lived in Germany, but even still it was the magical place i held on to after we moved to New Zealand. Whenever things got bad i would think back to Germany and it would be okay.
Of course it was never okay again. But walking through that forest i could almost pretend.
I got back downtown after sunset and was going to head straight to bed, but got distracted by a bar. Outside of the military bubble, Osnabrück isn't really a destination town, so the bored youth and underemployed make for a bit more of a working class vibe than is obvious in the bigger cities. Lots of graffiti. Lots of kids sitting around drinking on the streets. Lots of mullets. What better place to duck into a bar? I ended up stuck there past midnight with a hair dresser whose husband just left her. The banter that shot round the bar felt like some episode of Cheers. Some guy with a totally bitching moustache came in with his daughter. Some dude with earrings and a peculiarly-spelled name played a bunch of German rock on the jukebox. I played my faggy synthpop, which they had a much better selection of than anywhere in the US. 10 drinks later i stumbled back with the unfortunate knowledge i'd have to be up in 6 hours.
Thank God i could sleep on the train to Hamburg. After a brief lunch (a hamburger, of course), i jumped on this train, which is taking me to Rostock. I feel like i should sense something when we pass from west to east. Every now and then we pass some graffiti-covered burnt out building in the middle of nowhere and i feel like this must be it. But from what i understand the Germans have tried to remove everything from that time, so probably i'll never know. Still, this remains somewhat of a pilgrimage for me; as a kid my parents took me to the border, and i will never forget that sense of fear and awe. I think the experience made me a lot more appreciative of the Europe we have today. Flying into Berlin is nothing - taking this train trip today, knowing how different it would've been 25 years ago... This is special.