A dark and cloudy afternoon in March… it is still winter, barren trees line the railway line. The advent of spring feels like a promise denied its fulfilment. A dirty old train jogs through the uninviting flat countryside of Germany’s north. It jogs through tiny, bleak villages that seem to be stuck in a bygone century. It feels as if my childhood is still happening and not decades away.
Two old men loudly bemoan the misery of the world. They look the same and act the same as those grumpy old people I had listened to in the long bus rides to school in my youth. West Germany’s countryside still seems locked in its past.
I have heard so much about the advent of the ‘new’ Nazis and while I sit in this time capsule of a train, I reckon that the nationalists never left this destitute place – they just kept quiet for a few decades and now some sort of stone has been lifted and they have crawled out into the light again to spill their racist and fascist poison.
Grey is the predominant colour – the landscape, the clothes of the people and also their attitude of frustration. My beloved birch forests, shiny silver in the winterly Latvian tundra of my grandmother’s home, are dark, obtuse and grey here. Passers-by are stubbornly indifferent and ignorant, they look depressed. The landscape, the hustling people, everything is part of the infamous constant nörgeln (grumbling, moaning) that seems to be the German disease.
I have never felt at home in the German countryside, but today I feel like an alien who has been beamed into a strange galaxy. The conventionality is as palpable as the indifference towards others.
Bad Oeynhausen, the town my mother lives in, is a small provincial town in the centre of Germany. It is a popular destination for the retired and sick.
In its golden era at the beginning of the 20th century, this town was a famous spa for the rich and beautiful, boasted a casino and splendid palaces for hydrotherapy. These golden days are so beautifully portrayed in Buddenbrooks, the novel by Nobel Prize in Literature recipient, Thomas Mann. One of the protagonists, Joachim, went for a spa retreat in Bad Oeynhausen, which was the epitome of luxury during the fin de siècle (end of the century). Splendid palaces and Badehäuser (hydrotherapy spas) were in the famous spa gardens where the wealthy flâneurs (men who saunter around observing society) walked around or listened to the live music played every lunchtime in the historic concert place. These buildings are still there, some even renovated, but the spirit has changed.
There are still many clinics and rehabilitation centres and a whole medical industry has been built as the backbone of the town. As these facilities have an excellent reputation, many pensioners move to the town to profit from it. The wealthy ones buy property or live in exclusive old age homes. The majority is less fortunate as they cannot afford a decent place with their pension. The homes for those who depend on social benefit are shockingly grim and inhumane. For years strangers have to share triple rooms and the only occupation they have is to sit and wait for their death.
This is literally a dying town and almost every service is built around the sick and the old. Care services seem to be the most profitable businesses right now and reflect the senescence of the place.
The inner city, once filled with fancy shops and restaurants, is a wasteland today. Many shops are empty, others sell cheap goods imported from China.
I remember the fashion emporium of Ilse Lang. A haven of designer clothing that was hip in the 1980s, when festive dances and galas still took place in town. Women from even Hannover flocked into the two-story paradise of Ilse – how customers affectionately referred to the flamboyant owner. My sister and I loved to accompany our mum when she went there twice a year to buy a new wardrobe for the winter or summer and slurped champagne while trying on the Lanvin dress she would refuse to buy anyway, opting to rather buy trousers again. Back then the countryside was still connected to the world. Today, the former paradise is empty and only the emblem of Ilse Lang still embellishes the dirty and deserted shop windows.
It is a sentimental journey that teaches me a lot about the decay of old Europe. It is a journey into ageing societies that seem to oversleep innovation and the future. A future which the current inhabitants may not experience anyway.
The former luxury hotel ‘Der Königshof’ had a long and ambivalent history that came to an end this year when its owner died. The hotel was the central headquarters of the English army after World War II, following which it was turned back into a hotel but never regained the success of its pre-war years. Now it will dilapidate and become another legendary landmark of Bad Oeynhausen to slowly disappear.
Instead, there is a mall on the outskirts of the town that attracts their visitors with cheap chain stores and fast food restaurants. With pensions being low, these self-serve cafeterias have become the new meeting place of the spa travellers and locals. The sight of these disillusioned sick or old sitting around with their plastic trays next to their Zimmer frames or crutches haunts me long afterwards. Their trays are full of the plastic waste that so define our times.
It is a bitter world and very different from what you expect of a country that boasts a booming economy and plays a leading role in Europe. The sadness is even worse as many of these people are the ones who are against immigration and each foreigner seems a suspicious subject. The truth is that the new immigrants and refugees who settle in these forgotten areas are the only young people whose aspirations might end the sleepy stagnation of these towns and give them back their future.