Friends — I’ve been writing about the German Democratic Republic (aka East Germany, aka “bad” Germany) in the light of discussions about communism, Russians, the cold war, and most recently fascism and the connections to all of these things in this country.
Here’s the first installment of my 2nd trip.
By 1985, I had received a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and had held a series of part-time, adjunct university jobs. My secondary language area – German — was much less good than my first (French). My lack of German competency was a big source of stress and worry, because the academic job market had already gotten bad, and in 1985 it was already almost impossible to get a tenure track job someplace.
That’s where the chair of the German Department at SUNY Stony Brook came in. John Russell was my boss for only 2 academic years but he was extremely kind and sympathetic to my adjunct situation. John knew I was struggling to get my German language ability to a higher level — so he suggested going to Bad Germany to work on my German.
Why Bad Germany and not Good Germany?
(footnote: Good Germany was an expensive place to visit. And I was going to have to go there by myself. My new boyfriend, Larry Behrendt – who became my husband in 1985 — was no fan of Good Germany because he was and is Jewish. His father, Peter Behrendt (born, Cohen) had been a kid in Berlin when Hitler came to power.
And don’t get Larry started on Austria! [that’s another blog post])
This is where Bad Germany had real advantages for a broke wanna-be academic like yours truly. The bad German government offered a special short program for foreign German language instructors. The Bad Germans seem to have understood early on the power of what we now call the low-residency curriculum. The Ferienkurs (holiday course) the government offered was a 3 week-long intensive in language and culture, with room and board and field trips included for a grand total of $230.
I remember John suggesting I go to Weimar rather than Berlin. Since I was an 18th Century Lit person, he thought Weimar would be a good fit, because this was a small elegant city where my favorite author Friedrich Schiller and his colleague, the famous Wolfgang von Goethe hung out.
Here’s Schiller’s house. <3
I remember getting a brochure and application form in the mail from Bad Germany. The brochure was dull green printed out on cheap paper. I still have it somewhere in my boxes. I filled out the form by hand and put it in the mail. It took a long time to get an answer.
I then received a surprisingly friendly letter from the institute’s local director in Weimar.
It went something like “we can’t wait to welcome you” and I thought “huh? — aren’t we enemies?”
Was it there that I saw this word for the first time?
I don’t remember. But I remember being surprised by the warm tone of the letter. Then I forgot about it. I was excited about getting married and, to be honest, I had no interest in going to Bad Germany for a day, let alone 3 weeks. But I had to do something about my language proficiency, and this was the cheapest most effective way to do it.
So here comes visit #2. A professional visit. A pragmatic visit.
I flew from Copenhagen, where I’d spent my honeymoon, to Frankfurt, stayed in a hotel, went to have lunch with a colleague and then got on a train for the east.
I’ll be honest. I was scared to go back to East Germany after that first hair-raising visit to East Berlin. I had gone to a pharmacy the day before and loaded up on every possible kind of over the counter medication. I had gotten tissues, although I drew the line at buying toilet paper for the trip.
I worried about another experience with customs like I had in bad Berlin.
And of course — I got one.
The customs officer got on the train at Eisenach, looked at my papers and informed me gruffly that I didn’t have enough currency to enter the country. I sat there thinking “oh no, not again.”
“Wait a minute,” said someone else sitting in the train. She’s a guest of the state! She doesn’t NEED all that currency!”
” Staatgast!” cried all of the travellers in the compartment. The customs official took my papers back, muttered a bit and then…. stamped my passport and the form I filled out.
Those magic words did the trick, and over the border I went.
Now, I need you to imagine something.
Imagine coming into an old restored train station. It’s pretty and the sun is shining. And now I need you to see what is not there. Billboards. Ads. There aren’t any.
Imagine strangers smiling and waving at you. It’s the director, who has khaki pants on and a shirt. No tie. No jacket. He greets you and introduces you to your teacher and to other students who are gathering on the platform.
There are two other Americans. Every other German teacher comes from a “socialist country.” Including Cuba.
There is a huge crowd of Polish teachers. I want to say it was 15 people.
At some point we assemble and eat the first of many truly not so wonderful meals. If you’ve seen the movie Everything is Illuminated, you will remember the boiled potato scene. There were a lot of these in evidence at every lunch and dinner. A lot of sausage. Very little in the way of green vegetables.
Was it at this meal, or at another one, that the director said “we are so happy to welcome our “Genossen” [that word again] from the capitalist countries.” It took me about 5 minutes to realize, “oh – that’s me!”
I realized that suddenly the positions were reversed – I was the one from the “bad” country.
No one said this of course. People were very curious about the US, because no one that I met had ever been there. Again, remember there was no internet, so there was little sense even of what the US looked like. Except of course for the tv show DYNASTY. The Poles all watched DYNASTY and were fully aware of how beautiful Colorado was, and what nice jewelry Alexis Carrington wore.
They had also seen our current president’s film work, and knew all about Ronald Reagan’s role as the professor with a monkey.
“It’s not that he’s an actor,” said Dariusz, who became a good friend during my stay. “It’s that he’s such a BAD actor.”
Imagine, trying to explain Ronald Reagan to Eastern Europeans in a foreign language.
I can barely explain him in English.
But no one was mean to me about it. Only the Romanian poet barked at me once about how Americans bought things all the time, and that our stores never closed.
Which is not wrong, exactly, if you think about it.
No one said I was a bad guy for coming from a capitalist country, but when the 4th of July came around, I and my American “Genossen” all got bouquets of carnations.
“Why?” I asked my roommate Sophia, who was part of the Polish contingent.
“The bouquet is in honor of your revolution,” she said.
I had never made the connection between the American Revolution and the Russian Revolution. They seemed like different animals to me. But that’s not how my GDR colleagues saw it. The next time I went to Bad Germany there was a French instructor there and she got carnations on the 14th of July.
The point was that all revolutions are connected.
Are they? I don’t know. But it sure is an interesting thought.
I’m making this visit sound like alot of fun, aren’t I?
Stay tuned for an un-fun part of my visit.