Saturday, October 22, 2011

Formerly East (Germany #7)

DRESDEN--The bus ride here brought us through what was formerly East Germany. Joachim, our tour leader who was a boy here during WWII, said it had always been farm land with poor sandy soil. Today it is used for growing livestock feed--stunted corn and giant turnips. There’s little economic opportunity, so the region’s young people all flee to Munich, the powerhouse of the south.
          For generations, this region, Saxony, was under the control of noble land barons with the common people being little better than slaves. If you wanted to get married, you had to have the lord’s permission. If you wanted to leave, same thing. And the answer was always no. American troops occupied the region during WWII and instituted private ownership of small plots of land. But when the Soviet Union was ceded control, individual ownership was replaced by state-run collectives, which actually operated in a manner similar to the old days. Finally, after reunification, ordinary people were given shares of the large farms.
          Dresden seems more prosperous than the rest of this region, which we’ve toured while blessed with good weather: sunny, 65 degrees, low humidity. Lots of other tourists here, though not as many as in Berlin on the long weekend holiday that completed Oktoberfest. These visitors seem much like Americans, except possibly quieter and better-behaved.
Our first night in town, we dined at a popular restaurant in what was formerly an ammunition battery on sauerbraten, red cabbage, giant noodles, and dunkel beer. Seating was at large tables, and nearby a group was lustily singing German folk songs to accordion accompaniment. When it was our turn, we stumbled through “My Bonny Lies Over The Ocean,” “Auld Lang Syne,” and the Beatles’ “Ob La Di.” I couldn’t help but think of that scene in Casablanca where the French in Rick’s drown out the German soldiers, but this was very jolly and friendly. Joachim said the younger generation in Germany has lost interest in the country’s traditional folk songs.
          Next morning, we visited the old town, going through an art museum featuring paintings by Rembrant, Botticelli, Vermeer, and Rafael. While my wife visited the porcelain museum (medieval artisans accidentally created porcelain while trying to make gold), I did some research at a nearby sidewalk cafĂ©, where the dunkel proved hoppier than in Berlin.
          After that, we toured the beautiful, ornate Semperoper, originally built in 1841. After being destroyed by fire, the opera house was rebuilt in 1878. It burned down again during WWII. But in 1985, it once more rose from the ashes, rebuilt almost the same as before. The first performance in the new facility was a repeat of the same opera last performed there 1945. The Semperoper is made of Dresden sandstone, which due to its high iron content blackens over time and is too soft for sandblasting. But a new cleaning process may solve this problem.

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