Puzzled, we stop on a corner to find our way. A local farmer draws his bike to a stop and asks if we need help.
‘Which way is best to …?’ We ask.
A stream of local dialect, heavily accented, tumbles from an extraordinary face – a half-moon of teeth in his mouth, a stubbled cheek, a round and creased face roughened by the crisp air, a worn and filthy woollen cap. Neither of us can understand much of what he says. In fact, I am sure anyone from anywhere else in Germany would be as bamboozled as we are. But his enthusiastic gesticulations suggest that we should head that way, precisely the direction from which he had come. Emboldened, we stride on …
We have just arrived in the village of Herrnhut, one of many villages sprinkled over the Oberlausitz area of the far east of Germany. Close by the fabled Bohemia (now in the Czech Republic) and with the Polish hills a spit away, we are deep into eastern Europe. But what is it like to live in such a village for weeks on end, where, in the midst of constant change in the world outside, local life seems to carry on as it has always done?
Our arrival is celebrated by the hoisting of a small Australian flag over our hostel door. Little need, really, for an outsider is immediately recognisable. Walk by a local on the street and he unashamedly looks straight at you. No surreptitious glance, no quick look away if you catch someone’s eye – the look remains, curious, assessing, wondering. Walk by a woman on the street talking to a friend through an open window, and they both stop nattering and watch your every movement. Walk by a single man or woman and they assess in some detail the promise of new talent. Walk into a cellar pub and every single person turns around and looks up to see who the newcomer is. If a foreigner, the gaze stays for the next half hour.
The directness of the stares means less an absence of repression – are not stares meant to pass with childhood, when one learns to repress natural reactions? – than a forthrightness in life. In the same way people look straight at you on the street, in the chemist, in the grocery shop, in the pub, so also do they greet you directly and openly. ‘Guten tag’ – for anyone and everyone met during the day. The fact that you may meet only a dozen people in the day probably helps …
In walking the village, I pause on a corner and ponder. People, villagers have been walking these same paths for century upon century. Precisely because the village is small, the streets few, the paths themselves have seen an extraordinary intensity of footsteps passing. And most of those steps have been with the solid thump of a heavy footfall.
For this is the home of Oberlausitzer Küche: try any eatery – of which there are less than a handful – and you find variations on the same basic menu. The farmer’s breakfast is loaded with butter, cheese, potatoes and onions. The half-dozen offerings of pork (schweinefleisch), arse of a cow (rumpsteak) and fish (fisch) come loaded with butter, cheese, potato and onions. The turkey (pute) is chopped in small pieces and cooked in a sauce with butter, cheese, potato and onions. The chicken (huhn) is chopped in small pieces and surrounded by butter, cheese, potato and onions. Even the international dish, Hawaiian Toast, with its innovative introduction of pineapple and ham has, yes, butter, cheese, potato and onions. So what are the variations? It all depends on the skill of the cook. The turkey may be tender or tough and stringy; the pork tender or stringy; the arse of a cow, chicken and even the fish may be tender or as tough as old leather. No wonder the locals are a little on the solid side.
All of which makes the bodily sensation of cobbles so fascinating. Walking on cobbles makes less of an impression, unless they have that icy, slippery sheen of a crisp winter’s day. But to experience cobbles in all their glory, then one must ride. Cobbles along winding village paths make for somewhat stimulating riding. Bells jingle, teeth chatter, parts of the bicycle rattle loose. Women tell me it can have a curious effect down in the seat area. I can vouch that the family jewels need to be kept clear of hammering seats. Given the general physiology of the locals, given that many locals love to ride, and given the fact that most roads and paths are cobbled, one may imagine the scene.
Three Villages: Moravian, Sorbian and Communist
Yet, Herrnhut is by no means the only village we explore – after all, villages are no more than two or three kilometres apart. Herrnhut itself is something of a newcomer in this area, built in the early 1700s by a ragtag bunch of persecuted Moravian Brethren (Unitas Fratrum) who had been invited from the neighbouring Bohemia to safety and succour by Ludwig Count von Zinzendorf – a man with deep familial connections to Europe’s royal families. The good count owned these parts, but he also felt called to be spiritual leader, financier, reorganiser, hymn writer, speech deliverer, missionary facilitator … Needless to say, the Brethren have flourished and grown, from some 300 to about a million around the world today.
Yet the spiritual home of this worldwide religious movement is this small village. The effect of this (very) local-global dynamic is that the smallness of the village’s world sits cheek by jowl with a spirit of mutual tolerance, a feeling still found in the village today. The basis of their ‘church’ – if we may call it that – is not a creed but a code of conduct, a way of living communally. As long as one subscribes to the code, then one is a member. Beyond that, one may adhere to any of the major creeds of the Christian Church.
As for our illustrious count, he had lived in a neighbouring and much older village, Berthelsdorf, which snuggles in a fold in the hills. Here he had built his manor (Schloß), a vast affair of walls, workshops, barns and a sumptuous manor house. As is the nature of these Schlößer scattered over the rolling hills and river valleys, this one has had an illustrious history. Erstwhile Moravian headquarters, military chaplain’s quarters, army barracks, ruin, shelter for the homeless, it now undergoes restoration. The village itself was originally called by its Sorbian name of Batromjecy. It dates back to the twelfth century when the local Sorbians began clearing some of the trees for farming (followed by German peasants).
In Batromjecy-Berthelsdorf, we walk the twisting, narrow streets of the old village core. These few cottages, entwined with one another in a snuggling, intimate fashion, are still are modelled on the old Oberlausitz style: chequered patterns of shingles on the upper floor, alternating between white and dark brown (although the nature of the chequer may vary according to preferences or family tradition), heavy dark beams connecting the upper floor to the ground. In between the beams are small windows set in white plaster, along with the front door. The whole impression is one of a brown and white bonnet pulled down around a face with strong bands.
But our winding path in amongst the cottages actually follows the stream at the core of the village. Source of life-giving water, occasionally dammed, place to wash bodies and clothes, to drop your bodily waste – never mind those downstream. Indeed, the village has that characteristic smell of the European countryside – the concentrated odour of cow’s piss and shit, melting with the thaw and running in rivulets off the fields and into the streams. Less than two per cent of European land now remains untouched by human beings … as well as cows, sheep, pigs, chicken, grains and what have you.
One Moravian village, and one Sorbian. We have one more to explore, this time with a stronger communist memory. Bernstadt is a little downstream, on a crossroads that swells its size close to a town – but not quite. One climbs from the creek bed up to the height with its towering church steeple, the solitary stork’s nest atop a pole, the narrow streets and ancient cobbled market square at the crossroad.
Bernstadt’s great appeal lies in its memories of the communist era: Trabants still putter about, pieces of communist-modernist architecture dot the town, many of those living here have long memories of that era. But I am struck by what is simultaneously every-day and extraordinary: the garage-cum-shed. Not just any garage, but a communist garage. How so? They all follow the same, simple design: a concrete-on-brick structure, rectangular with a sloping roof, solid timber doors painted all colours or none. I am mesmerised. Now that they have registered on my radar, I spot them everywhere. One may have been decorated with a glass brick or two and an amateur artist’s efforts on the door; another may not have been touched since it was first built in the 1950s or 1960s; one has obviously become a second home for a man and his tools. Some are solitary affairs, beside a traditional village house, but others like company, gathering in rows, each with variegated doors in a sheer celebration of what one can do with a timber door.
Above all, they all have the same simple, solid design. If you do not have a system full of advertising and the false of freedom of ‘choice’, then all you need is a design that does the job efficiently and is made to last. Something to be said for communism …