Most often on a longer hike, you stride through villages, perhaps stopping for a little to eat and a piss. Apart from a couple of houses strung out along the ever-present stream, there’s nothing much to them. Or is there? For some reason or other I end up in the back streets of the village of Strahwalde, perhaps due to a ‘wrong’ turn. It is hard to know what a ‘wrong’ turn is, since the streets twist and bend in that medieval way.
Before I know it, I have crossed the stream, which is variously dammed for washing clothes in times past, runs through a small mill, or has a diversion for a reason long forgotten. I sidle past a house with an ageing mural on its side, the work of an artist perhaps, who decided long ago to relocate here. Up a twisting path and I am in the midst of run-down stables before striding past the front door of the old schloß, or manor house of the lord. Built in the seventeenth century, it was part of the ‘refeudalisation’ of eastern Europe that was underway. Less a return to feudalism per se, it was a manifestation of early capitalism, but in an area where land was plentiful and labour scarce. So peasants were legally tied to the land of their lord, or perhaps one of his early factories, in a way that seemed as though the old order was returning. But it actually enabled the transition to more fully fledged capitalism. These days the schloß is cracked and worn, windows broken and doors boarded up. I wish that for all the ruling class.
I drop down from the hill – for rulers ‘need’ to have the best views – and come across a man rummaging in his garage. Snow may still be on the ground, ice may still be forming in the creek, but it is March and it is supposed to be spring. So he is sorting out his gardening tools, ready to dig and plant, hoe and rake the moment the thaw arrives. But the garage takes my fancy, for it is a simple rectangular construction, with a light sloping roof to the wooden double door at the front. It is exactly the same design as countless others I have encountered, with cement-rendered finish over large bricks. Simple, functional, cheap – a product of the DDR when one still made such things. This one has a few extra touches: some paint on the timber door, a large thermometer out the front, a weather-cock on its corner. For his sake and for mine, I hope spring comes soon.
A bicycle passes by, upon which is the same man I have seen on a number of occasions. A slightly vacant stare, with one eye to the side; perhaps his family has been in the village a little too long. At the next turn, a woman leans out of her kitchen window and talks to a neighbour on the street. The neighbour’s only errand may well be to meet and chat a little like this. A dog scampers on its way somewhere, and a child follows on a bicycle, trying to keep up with the dog.
Now I twist around the corners of the small farmer’s houses, some with the local braces-and-shingle style. On the lower floor, heavy timber forms arches that look much like braces to hold up one’s pants, should one be of that vintage. Two such braces are at one short end of the house, while three run to the front door. From the door to the other end the braces stop and angled timber and brick takes their place – the kitchen and perhaps (if retrofitted) a small toilet and bathroom inside. Upstairs is for sleeping, and here are shingles aplenty. They cascade down from the roof, past windows and to the intersection between the two floors. And each village has its own distinct pattern. Here the shingles are predominantly black, with white spot patterns in between. Tight and warm in winter; unbearably close in summer.
The spatial relationship between this house and its neighbours seems to have no clear plan, except perhaps to be close to the creek. Or rather, they reveal a very different production of space that dictates such arrangements. With corners jutting out, with designs at all angles apart from 90 degrees, each place is set obliquely to the other. It looks as though a giant child has been playing with them, only to toss them aside and then walk away to seek some other amusement. Here, at the core of a twelfth century village is a living reminder of almost impossible to imagine senses of lived space. Yet, at least one item of spatial production is clear to me: no matter which path you take, with its many twists and unaccountable bends, it always seems to wind its way to the church. Once, long ago, it may have been Roman Catholic and then Lutheran, but now it bears the lamb and banner of the Moravian Brethren over its doors.
I look at my watch: three hours have passed! Is not a village supposed to be tiny, a few houses strung out on a stream?