How We Holiday

I’ve been thinking a lot about vacation lately (and not just because I’m about to go on one HA!). Earlier this year, we had resolved to drive to southern France. My spontaneous birthday trip to Paris from Trier had once again enlightened me to the closeness of just about everything (Germans and Europeans reading, fear not: this disease only seems to afflict the American expat), and I wondered, as I do every so often, why I hadn’t used my car-owning years here more wisely. The plan, in any case, was to drive to Trier at the end of the summer to see the in-laws, and then drive on through Alsace (that weird little area you only had to learn about for your ninth grade European history quiz? No? Okay maybe that was just me), through the Alps, and finally end in the south of France; that magical, lavender-drenched place I had only seen at the age of two, and yet was still expected by my parents to vaguely remember.

That trip didn’t happen. We did manage to make it to Trier, but we drove back to Berlin at the end of the week so J could take a last-minute gig on Saturday night. So instead, we decided to head even farther north. Now, that might not seem like a winning bet during the cold weather months (all nine of them in Berlin), but we had a plan. Ever since we’d met, J had been talking up the Ostsee (for non-German speakers, that’s the Baltic Sea), and we’d been trying to go there. We once made it as far as Stralsund, that impressive and quite lovely Hanseatic League city often overlooked in favor of Hamburg, and we even crossed a bridge to the island of Rügen, which held a certain romantic fascination for me if only because it at first reminded me of the six-fingered man from The Princess Bride. All I know is, we parked the car somewhere near water, skirted a few fences designed to keep us out, and were soon at a private beach with only a few other people (nakedly frolicking as those in the former east do) and the skyline of Stralsund (cathedrals instead of skyscrapers, in case you’re wondering) as our backdrop. Afterwards, I excitedly told people I had finally swum in the famed Ostsee, only to be corrected by real Germans: no, in fact I had only swum in something called the Bodden.

So this time, we pressed onwards, to what might truly be the last port of call on the German coast before…Denmark. An island so remote, it actually has the word “hidden” in its name, the quietly beautiful, windswept Hiddensee. In order to get there, you need to cross the bridge that links Stralsund with Rügen (the same one we crossed before), wind your way through two-lane roads as the scenery becomes more blustery and the towns more scarce, to finally park your car at a small port where you board a ferry boat to cross a strait. After the hour long journey (and stops at three small towns), you alight in the village of Kloster, and for lack of a better mode of transportation, huff it all the way to your hotel or guesthouse with only a backpack or two, as you’d be daft to take any more than that along.

To Germans, this is vacation. And this highlights a very important and occasionally perplexing difference in modes and means of travel between Germans and…everyone else. When I first moved to Berlin, I had never been to Germany before, and really, I still had no intention of going. To me, Berlin was like New York in that it was in a certain country but not necessarily of it. In the same way I was raised to believe that a vacation within the borders of one’s own country was no vacation at all, I also arrived in Germany with high hopes of exploring Europe and very little intention of staying within the borders of the Bundesrepublik. Since then I’ve visited more German towns and cities than even most Germans can name, and most of that, of course, is thanks to my husband and his car (which is really half my car too, but let’s not get into that as I can’t legally drive in this country). In no particular order, I’ve been to Dresden, Leipzig, Hamburg, Marburg, Weimar, Munich, Bonn, Cologne, Trier, Mannheim, Ludwigshafen, Frankfurt/Main, Frankfurt/Oder, Stralsund, Eisenach, Erfurt, Bad Saarow, Neu Hardenburg, Angermünde, Bad Durkheim, Prenzlau, Schwedt, Chorin, Oderberg, Eberswalde, and Greifswald. And that’s not even counting the small villages that barely even have a Kneipe (pub) to their names, and the places that are merely castles (“merely,” she says).

A couple of autumns ago, I went to visit J at a resort hotel in the Austrian alps where he was playing for two weeks. Everyone was over sixty, they all walked around in workout clothes with those cross-country ski poles although the terrain was hardly challenging, and they all had that spark in their eyes and that flush in their faces that said there was nothing they would rather be doing. The same goes for those who braved a decidedly damp couple of days up on Hiddensee to make the most of their time in the great outdoors. I’ve met nary a German who wouldn’t rather be camping out in the woods by night, hiking with fifty kilos of gear on his back by day, than lying somewhere on a beach, going to museums in some cosmopolitan locale, or (horror of horrors!) going somewhere outside the borders of Germany to experience the great beyond that is the rest of the world. When the average German does any of these things, they’re most likely to do them in groups, or in places that feature other Germans (such as Mallorca, the fabled 17th Bundesland). This means that, whereas you might hear Brits or Americans wax poetic about their world travels, or display enthusiasm for an upcoming trip to South America or Southeast Asia, many Germans you meet will just be super-excited for their holiday next week at the Nordsee (actually a sea) or the Boddensee (actually a lake).

The flipside of that, however (lest you think I view all Germans as rednecks or some kind of reality show contestants) is the self-consciously international German. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that, when you’re German, you either spend your vacations going on short holidays within your own country, or! Or, or, or…you really go all out and move to another country to live and work for a year or two or forever. Many if not all of the Germans I know here in Berlin have spent significant amounts of time abroad doing something significant. Not content to backpack through Thailand or safari in Africa, they learn new languages that no one knows so that they can go to Jakarta to live and work, or they trek through east Africa alone to do fieldwork for a Ph.D in anthropology. They go to Cuba for six months to volunteer or live in Rome for several years at a time.

If you were to call this a scientific experiment or even just a theory, it would be flawed. Maybe the Germans I’m friends with tend to be more international because anyone who has lived abroad has a tendency to gravitate towards other expats even in their home cities. Maybe I just became friends with them because Germans who live abroad probably speak better English, and I therefore found it easier to initiate those first conversations with them, as they did with me. Or maybe (as I’d like to think) I simply attract people like that and they attract me. But for me, even though I now live in a country that is not the one I grew up in, the lure of abroad still holds me rapt. As beautiful and relaxing as Hiddensee was, it couldn’t officially count as a vacation for me since I stayed in Germany. Rather, I’d count it as exploration and research in how to become more German, so that one day I’ll be talking excitedly to other skeptical expats about our fantastic holiday on Hiddensee…and how it was exactly the vacation we needed.