China was the plan. Two week whirlwind tour. Brief tastes about the people and places that made up the rise of the economic giant. This happened in early January. Do you remember? Currently we are still making medium and long term plans.
Yes, I didn’t make it to Beijing this year. But I explored Bad Schandau, Neuruppin, Goslar, Wernigerode and Quedlinburg. Places I knew were like R numbers before the pandemic. Everything is at my door. A mere train journey from Berlin.
“Together against the corona”, a disembodied voice on the platform announced. “Keep your distance. Cover mouth and nose.” In the years to come, these three paroles will remind me of a trip through Germany in 2020.
Found my adopted country during the coronavirus has been enlightening. The stunning sandstone rock formations of the eastern state of Saxony give the impression of a distant land. The lack of mobile internet and the rush for cash got me stuck.
After successfully renting a bike – demand is so high that you have to book one day in advance – I rode cheerfully along the Elbe River and into the Czech Republic, more grateful than ever for the EU’s freedom of movement.
Even in the small village on the Czech border, Hrensko, visitors cannot escape the influence of the global market.
In the border town of Hrensko, Chinese merchants were sold ICT tockbranded hoodies. Global travel may be stuck, but videos can still traverse the world in the blink of an eye.
On another trip – this time to the town of Wernigerode – I traveled to the top of Mount Brocken by steam train. Soot stuck to my hair and I had to protect my eyes from the smoke. A long time ago, the wall that divided Germany in half cut directly across from the top of the mountain, blocking hikers from either side from taking in the view. The area is now under protection and home to – trigger warning – a rare species of bat. Dead trees are left to rot. Nature reclaims space once divided by humans.
Leaving the young city of Berlin also provides a more representative view of German demographics. Everywhere I go, buses and trains are full of casual retirees wearing masks around their chins. Pedestrians and luxury wheelchairs decorate the market square. One in five Germans is over 65 years of age. By 2060, it is expected to be one in three. This country is getting old. The internet is still slow. But the bus was on time and the elderly were spending their money. In Wernigerode, I spent an hour walking around looking for restaurants with free tables. Finally I chose the falafel stall.
When I manage to get a table in a restaurant, it hits me that I tend to be served by middle-aged German women or young men of Middle Eastern descent. The last group can be part of more than a million refugees who came to the country during the 2015 migration crisis. Hundreds of thousands of them have found work. Those who choose to stay will play an important role in supporting Germany’s elderly population.
After Germany’s controversial 2015 decision to allow an estimated one million refugees into the country, the far-right AfD party has gained a foothold even in remote cities.
Politics over the last few years has left its mark in the messages scrawled on the railway tunnels and old city walls. The slogan of the right has been painted by Antifa. In the ancient city of Quedlinburg, a charming wooden fenced building is the office The far-right Alternative for Germany party. The sticker on the door reads “Hol dir dein Land zurück” (Bring your country back). Another sign alerted passers-by that the property was being monitored on video.
As winter approaches and the coronavirus shows no signs of leaving, my trip to China may be delayed indefinitely. But if this pandemic has taught us anything, it is the dangers of a broad narrative. Often, it is microscopic which presents the clearest view.
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