Thursday, December 8, 2011

New Thing #9: Masserberg & the Ossis

I had the good fortune to travel back to Germany for an environmental conference. Although I've been to Coburg several times, this would be my first trip to Masserberg, a small town cut out of the forest in the mountains of the former East Germany

The drive to Masserberg was surreal. It was early evening but the sun had set so it was completely dark out, and the fog rolled in as we headed up the mountain. My German host was driving aggressively, taking his half of the road out of the middle as we went around the hairpin curves. His car phone rang and he took the call on speakerphone. It was a woman who was helping arrange the conference, and they had a spirited discussion in German. Our little Chinese colleague was in the backseat and had not fastened his seatbelt, causing him to slide back and forth at every curve. So here I am, riding along in zero visibility, listening to a disembodied voice shouting about flipcharts in another language, and hanging on for dear life as Peter somersaulted across the backseat trying to protect a camera that was as big as he was. 

Fortunately we arrived with no mishaps and settled in to a comfortable hotel next to the well-known Prof. Volhard Clinic, an oncology and orthopedic rehab facility. One of the best things about my job is that I get to travel and experience so many different cultures, and this time I was the only American in a group of about 40 attendees.  The conference lasted 3 days and was pretty good. 

The Ossis
I drove back afterwards with my two favorite Ossi colleagues, the Ger-merican and the Ger-nadian. Both of them grew up in the East, but they have different points of view about life before the Wall came down. The Ger-merican left before the Reunification in search of a better life. The Ger-nadian left afterwards, mainly in search of a job because the company he worked for went out of business. 

Just outside Eisfeld we stopped at the former border between East and West Germany. The fences are gone and only a sign marks the spot, but you can still see the wide swath of cleared forest that was on either side. A little further up the road was an old guard tower which is now a museum. The Ger-nadian arranged for us to have a tour, so on this grey cold day we entered another world. 

The main floor only held a small reception area and an office set with period equipment. Next we climbed narrow stairs up to the observation floor.  Here they had some maps and uniforms on display, and a diorama set up showing how the checkpoint had looked when it was operational.  The model was complete with the big cement barrier that would slam shut across the road if a car tried to clear the checkpoint without authorization. Back down the stairs to the lower level, through such a low doorway that even I had to duck, they displayed some of the equipment such as search lights, border markers, barbed wire and shackles.  This area was gloomy and sad, and I was glad to head back up the stairs.

This glimpse of a totally different lifestyle was a pretty sobering experience, brought to life by the stories shared by friends who were willing to enlighten a sheltered American.

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