The Tone in Dresden, Part IV

“How on earth do you know they are going to Pirna?” To say I was skeptical is an understatement.

“The license plate, dummy.” She sweetly explained. It ends in ‘PRN’. I bet that stands for Pirna. Car plates in Germany tell you where the car is registered and that one’s registered in the city we can’t find. We’ll just follow it and see where it takes us.” Zen navigation. I like it.

We bumped along, chasing our unsuspecting pathfinder through rotaries and turn offs. We were actually having fun with this. Tailing our randomly picked car through the dark and drizzle coated streets of former East Germany, it felt like shadows of the secret police were driving with us. After a relatively short time, we started recognizing landmarks again. We were delivered to our destination and we let our scout car break free into the night. A short wobble up the stairs and we collapsed into various bunk beds to sleep off the night’s adventures.

My companions woke first and spent the early morning sitting by the window chatting and watching as gliders took off and landed in the field behind the youth hostel. Gliding has always been popular in Germany and it was nice to see that the sport continues. Once I managed to rouse my self out of bed I headed off to the highly questionable shower. About eight centimeters of water filled the large communal shower basin as four or five showerheads did their best to flood out the floors below. With only a brief pause I stepped in, flip fops still on and did my best to clean up.

We wasted no time getting back to the old city, this time taking careful note of the way back. We found a car park near the city center and moved out on foot. Two things stood out to me. First was the decay. There were still a lot of scars from WWII here. Some buildings that had burned in the bombing of 1945 still showed streaks of black above each and every window. The back alleys and smaller roads looked neglected. What was once a city park now covered in waist high grass with a massive black gas pipe cutting it in half, gates locked to the public.

The second thing that you could not escape seeing were the cranes. Cranes were everywhere and they thrust up from the city skyline like church steeples of construction. Dresden was being rebuilt. That was message that rang out from building site to building site. Things were finally changing and they were changing fast.

After we met up with Carla again we set out to see the town. There was a lot to pick from. Though it was a bit of a whirlwind tour, there are a few things that stand apart. The first was an old man playing an ancient hurdy-gurdy, complete with monkey and tin cup. The instrument looked rather worse for wear, but the sound was unmistakable and briefly enjoyable. A bit like bagpipes are. They make you smile, and then you retreat to a safe distance, well out of earshot.

In the days of the DDR, soft coal was used extensively for heating, and the city showed its effects. Massive stone edifices, having been bathed in the cinders of thousands of coal furnaces, were black and disfigured. One of these black smeared giants was the Katholische Hofkirche, the catholic cathedral that is one of Dresden’s unmistakable landmarks. We walked around to the front door and stepped inside. My breath was taken away. From the filth that clung to the exterior of the church, I was ready to see a somber and dark space within. Not so. Gleaming white walls and golden angelic statuary towered over us as we respectfully kept our silence so as not to disturb the service in progress. The effect of this dazzling open space made it feel as though you were stepping from a gloomy room and into the bright day, when in fact you had stepped from the outside to in. It was amazing to behold and gave you hope for the city’s reconstruction.

The next stop was the Zwinger Palace. This massive complex was ordered constructed by Augustus the Strong in 1689 to house his incredible art collection. The buildings surround a large central plaza and is a perfect example of royal excess. The majority of the structure was destroyed and burned out on the night of February 14, 1945 in the massive Allied bombing raid. After the war, in an uncharacteristically thoughtful move, the communist government decided to rebuild it exactly as it had stood prior to that terrible night. Oddly enough, due to the air pollution that had plagued the region, the new Zwinger looks as though it had stood there, unmolested for the last four hundred years. Inside was the art and we spent much of the day there. It was a day well spent. About half way through the museum palace, I rounded a corner to find an oversized painting of Mary, holding the infant Jesus while being gazed at reverently by some hangers on. What stopped me in my tracks were the cherubs at the bottom. Not just any cherubs, but THE cherubs. Those two little fat kids with wings that have somehow caught on across the U.S. and are immediately recognizable to anyone who’s been inside a Pier 1 Imports or any greetings card shop.

So THAT’S where they were from! As an artist and art teacher, I was embarrassed that it had never occurred to me that there was more to the painting than just the two pudgy angel babies. Who knew?

As the day wound down, we headed to a movie house where I was introduced to the concept of eating good food and drinking beer, all while enjoying a movie. It was the perfect way to end the day. Mountain Man and I were leaving our friends Carla and Laura from here. We would be traveling on to Salzburg on our own while they both needed to head off home. After good byes and addresses were exchanged, we watched them both disappear into the evening. The night was still young and our train wasn’t due for hours so with out hesitation, Mountain Man and I set out to find some fun. We found it in the form of a bit of ruined wall gradually rising from the ground. It was a fragment of the old palace foundation, left over after the post war clean up. In the middle of the wall was an open door way leading to a long and steep set of stairs that disappeared under the city. A neon sign balanced over the entry was twisted into the shape of a yellow trumpet. Below that was just one word, “Tonne”.

In we went.

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The Tone in Dresden, Part I

The traffic had pretty much ground to a halt and through our lightly frosted car windows, the view of the empty and snow dusted wheat fields was flat and unremarkable. We had been driving now for several hours and the traffic jam, still several kilometers out side of our destination, was a bit disheartening. The cause of for my chagrin wasn’t based in the company I had in the car. Far from it. It was rooted more to the realization that I was having a blast and that these days spent in adventure after adventure were finite. Eventually, I’d have to go home. I was in Germany with my friend, Mountain Man, his friend and co-worker Carla and we were heading to her hometown, Dresden.

We were heading there very, very slowly.

I love visiting Germany, and doing so with Mountain Man and his preposterously perfect German makes it that much better. His own reason for being here started several years previous when he was signing up for classes at university. Apparently, he had struck up a conversation with (was hitting on) a cute girl as the two of them waited in line to register for classes. When she got her chance to pick her classes, she turned out to be a German Major. Not wanting to miss his chance, Mountain Man decided on the spot that English could take a poetic leap and changed his classes to match hers. That’s his style. Oddly enough, it seems to work for him, too. This man fears nothing and is aggravatingly good at surviving his spur of the moment, whacked-out decisions. Fast forward some years and now you have Mountain Man living and teaching in Germany on a Fulbright Scholarship and inviting his friends to drop by for a visit. The girl who stated him on this road is long gone, but that hardly matters now. What it meant is that I had a friend in Deutschland!

The trip to Dresden was not one that I had expected to make but this opportunity was far too amazing to miss. Carla was a teacher at the school where Mountain Man was placed. The Wall had only been down for a few years and there was still a lot of DDR infrastructure that needed to be set light to. Trabants, the East German version of what a car would look like if it were built by a toy company, were still fairly plentiful, as were a lot of the old institutional buildings, like schools. Not this one though! This school was brand-new and everyone in the village, especially the kids, was very proud of it.

Mountain Man had been placed there to help expand the English program. Carla had been teaching Art as well as English and Russian for years at the old DDR school. With the move to the brand new building and with out much cause for students to take Russian anymore, she was working hard at polishing her English. Specifically, she wanted to learn American English. Much of what was being taught at the time was British English, but that is not what the former East Germans wanted to learn. They wanted to sound like they were from Hollywood. Mountain Man, being from New Hampshire, did his best as a stand in.

When I arrived, as a newly minted art teacher in my own right, I was informed by my friend that he had secured permission for me to teach at his school as well. I’d be in the upper level, conversational language classes teaching the students and faculty alike to say things like, “trunk” rather than “boot” and, “flashlight” rather than “torch”. It sounded like fun! That night, Mountain Man made me some dinner with his patented, “Salty As All Get Out, Baking Soda Flavored Biscuits” and I tried my best to gather my jet lagged brain for the next day.

The next day I was introduced to the director and some of the other teachers and given a cup of coffee that could have fueled a small city for a day. Hardly anyone spoke English and I spoke hardly any German at this point. A project I have been working hard on ever since. Once the handshakes were done and we found our way to the classroom, I was quickly greeted by about twenty-five intensely interested teenagers. It felt a bit like being an exhibit in a zoo.

As you can imagine, not speaking the language of the land and supposedly being there to teach, can make a guy a bit… freaked out. I put on my best, “I’m a teacher” look and let Mountain Man explain to the students that what they had right there in the class room was a bone fide, clueless American and to go to it. The questions began…

“Where are you from?”
“What do you do for work?”
“Are you married?”
“Do you like American TV?”

These were the softball questions and simple to work with. After a few minutes, they started to dry up and they needed to actually come up with some more difficult and hopefully embarrassing questions. They did not disappoint. The first question that made me pause and feel like an idiot was, “What German bands do you like?” Teenagers often define themselves by what groups they are into and they were all obviously interested in what I had to say.

“German groups? Ahhh… Hmmm.” I swear, all I could think of was Falco of, “Rock me, Amadeus” fame or Daft Punk. The problem being that, A: Falco was Austrian and, B: I didn’t like Daft Punk. The only other name that came to mind was Marlene Dietrich, and I don’t think that would have made my position any better. I punted and talked instead about how German music doesn’t get over to the States much and how I’d love to hear what they like. Phew. Break down averted.

The next question was one that really caught me off guard. “Are their any Indians left in America?” The idea of the native tribes of my homeland being wiped out entirely was a thought that, though dreamed about and drooled over by some of my ancestors, had never occurred to me. “Yes! There are quite a lot of Indians still living in America.” Then the follow up: “Have you ever seen one?”

I was still a bit off balance from the previous question, so had I been more cool headed, I might have relished the theater of the moment a bit. As it was, I simply blurted out, “You’re looking at one right now.” That stopped them cold! The room was full of parted lips and eyeballs, all pointed at me. I had to clarify things quickly. There was more to it than that.

“Well, I’m not just Indian. I’m also English, French, Irish, Scottish, and Sicilian as well as two different Indian tribes.” The eyeballs got bigger and the quiet of the room was practically tactile. In the back of a row of seats, a lone hand went up followed by a single voice. “My mother is Danish.”

Stay tuned for the next thrilling installment of “Clueless Man Goes on Holiday!”

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