So, that was the extent of the cultural diversity in this little corner of the former East German Republic. One half Danish. It was an eye opening experience for both parties and the first time I ever really considered the “Great American Melting Pot” that was so enthusiastically explained to us when were kids. I finally got it. The day went by pleasantly if not cluelessly for me. The summit of my embarrassment came when I had the pleasure of visiting a first grade class. The students were happy, orderly and charming. The thing that stood out to me was the inescapable fact that this bunch of six year olds spoke far more English than I did German. I had willingly tossed my self into a place where I was woefully inept at communicating with the locals in their own tongue and I was really starting to feel like a bozo for my lack of prowess.
Over the next few days, Mountain Man introduced me to his friend Carla, the art teaching English teacher. We three hit it off wonderfully and we decided that a road tip was in order. There was a school vacation coming up at the end of the week and the decision was made that we should go and visit Carla’s hometown, Dresden. I have to admit, I didn’t know what to expect. As a student of history, my mental images of Dresden were of after the bombing in 1945. Slaughter House Five, essentially. I knew historical Dresden, but not what was there now. I was in for a real treat.
The night before we departed, we headed out to Carla’s house for dinner and a tour of her village. The house was an amazing site all on its own. Standing at something like five stories high, it was 90% roof and all thatch. The whole structure reminded me more of an enormous hay bale rather than a home. This was a typical farm house for the region and traditional in every way. It was also beautiful and like something out of a storybook. Carla welcomed us in and gave the grand tour. The family lived on the first floor only. Traditionally, there would have been a place for the larger live stock right in the middle of the house. The winds that blow down out of Siberia are cold and the flat terrain does little to impede them. A nice warm cow in the house throws a lot of heat… and other stuff, but most importantly, heat.
(not Carla’s house, but a dead ringer for it. Picture from here)
Carla had built a barn out back and the cow had been replaced with a wood stove. Smart girl. The house was very nice and she showed us with pride all the things that she and her family had made from scratch, including the couch, necessitated by life lived under the DDR. You never tried to buy something that you could make or trade for. Chances are, even if you had the cash, what ever you wanted wasn’t available anyway. The whole house was a lesson in ingenuity. The massive multiple attics were filled with non-perishable foods, old luggage and, to quote Carla, “giant spiders”. I refrained from a detailed inspection.
On one shelf back in the main house, something caught my eye. It was a little ceramic statue of the, “Hear, see and speak no evil” monkeys. I had noticed the figurines in the place Mountain Man was staying at as well and remarked on them. “Oh,” replied Carla. “You’ll see those a lot. It goes back to the DDR times. They were to remind you to be careful about what you said or did. You never knew who was listening. The Stasi had informants everywhere. We used them as little reminders to watch what we said out loud and to whom.” That was a sobering thought. Freedom of expression was still something very new here in the eastern part of reunified Germany. It would be a while before people stopped looking over their shoulders before they spoke.
The next morning, we were off to Dresden. We packed into Carla’s little BMW and zipped off across the frosty fields. The coffee steamed up the windows as the radio burbled away in Polish. “That’s the thing about America,” said Carla. “All you hear on the radio is English. Here in Germany, I grew up listening to so many other languages that they all stuck to one degree or another.” She was correct, regarding the place where I grew up, anyway. The closest I ever got to a foreign language was listening to the little, old French Canadian ladies chat at the super market or the Latin in church. Either way, hardly something to learn a language from. She had grown up listening to Polish, Czech, Russian and in secret, English via Radio Free Europe. Language was part of her life and I told her how right she was in the only language I had. She followed this up with a joke.
“What do you call someone who can speak three languages?”
“Trilingual”, I replied.
“What do you call someone who can speak two languages?”
“That’s right! How about one language?”
“Ummm. Monolingual?” I groped.
Rueful laughter and knowing looks ricocheted around the car as we sped along. Again, she was right, of course.
Only kilometers out side the city limits, traffic slowed down to a crawl. There was some unseen issue ahead and the cars on the motorway started to bunch up and we realized that we would be here for a while. The chatted and solved the worlds problems and at a walking pace edged forward. After a while a large truck came into view at the side of the road. At first we thought that they were perhaps the reason for the bad traffic. As we got closer we realized that, no, it wasn’t their fault. They had merely pulled out of the line of inching cars and parked for a moment. The reason was immediately obvious. There, next to the truck stood the drive and his co-pilot, their backs to the road and hands down in front of them. A geyser of steam billowed up from the cold ground where they were relieving themselves of that morning’s coffee. Carla blushed and made a comment about how crass the situation was. Mountain Man and I mostly felt badly for them. We were in the middle of farm country and you would have had to hike away from the road and over the horizon to pee in private. Feeling a bit roguish, Mountain Man leaned over and tapped the center of the steering wheel, sending a friendly, “Beep Beep!” out to the two truckers. Carla just about melted under the dash. In unison, the two men looked over their right shoulders, smiled and waved with their free hand. We waved back enthusiastically. If Carla had had a periscope, she would have been driving with its aide. Run silent, run deep.
A half an hour or so later, we finally picked up speed and made it to the edge of the city of Dresden. It had been a longer trip than we expected but we had enjoyed the trip. Now it was time to find a place to stay and get something to eat. That, and it was also almost time for me to understand just how badly I wanted to speak another language. We were meeting a friend of Carla’s in Dresden and as a group of four, I would be the only one who didn’t know what everyone was talking about all the time or accidentally ordering the side of squid eyeballs when all I wanted was a salad. Aah, to be American.
Next installment of the Tone, later. Stay tuned!