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China had been the plan. A two-week whirlwind tour. A quick taste of the people and places shaping the rise of an economic behemoth. This was back in early January. Do you remember? A time when we were still making medium to long-term plans.
Well, I didn’t make it to Beijing this year. But I did explore Bad Schandau, Neuruppin, Goslar, Wernigerode and Quedlinburg. Places that were about as familiar to me as R numbers were before the pandemic. All of them on my doorstep. A mere train journey from Berlin.
“Together against corona” a disembodied voice on the platform proclaimed. “Keep distance. Cover mouth and nose.” In the years to come, these three paroles will remind me of traveling through Germany in 2020.
Discovering my adopted country during the coronavirus has been enlightening. The stunning sandstone rock formations in the eastern state of Saxony gave the impression of a faraway land. The lack of mobile internet and insistence on cash grounded me.
Having managed to rent a bike — demand was so high you had to reserve a day in advance — I rode cheerfully along the River Elbe and into the Czech Republic, more grateful than ever for the European Union’s freedom of movement.
Even in the small Czech border village of Hrensko, visitors cannot escape the effects of globalized markets.
In the border town of Hrensko, Chinese vendors sold TikTok-branded hoodies. Global travel may have ground to a standstill, but videos can still cross the world in the blink of an eye.
On another trip — this time to the town of Wernigerode — I traveled to the top of the Brocken mountain by steam train. The soot got stuck in my hair and I had to shield my eyes from the smoke. Once upon a time, the wall that divided Germany in two cut right across the peak of the mountain, depriving hikers from both sides from enjoying the view. The area is now under protection and home to — trigger alert — a rare species of bat. Dead trees are being allowed to rot. Nature is reclaiming the space that humans once divided.
Leaving the youthful city of Berlin also provided a more representative view of German demographics. Everywhere I went, the buses and trains were full of leisurely pensioners wearing their masks on their chins. Walkers and fancy wheelchairs peppered market squares. One in five Germans is over 65. By 2060, it’s expected to be one in three. The country is getting old. The internet is still slow. But the buses are on time and the elderly are spending their money. In Wernigerode, I spent an hour wandering around looking for a restaurant with a free table. In the end I settled for a falafel kiosk.
When I did manage to get a table in restaurants, it struck me that I tended to be served by either a middle-aged German woman or a young man of Middle Eastern descent. The latter group could well be part of the more than a million refugees that came to the country during the migration crisis of 2015. Hundreds of thousands of them have found jobs. Those who choose to stay will play a crucial role in propping up Germany’s ageing population.
After Germany’s controversial decision in 2015 to let about a million refugees into the country, the far-right AfD party has gained a foothold even in remote towns
The politics of the past few years has left its marks in messages scrawled in train tunnels and old town walls. Far-right slogans have been painted over by Antifa. In the quaint town of Quedlinburg, a charming timber-fronted building houses the office of the far-right Alternative for Germany party. A sticker on the door reads “Hol dir dein Land zurück” (Take your country back). Another sign reminds passersby that the property is video monitored.
As winter edges closer and the coronavirus shows no sign of going away, my trip to China may be indefinitely delayed. But if this pandemic has taught us anything, it is of the dangers of a sweeping narrative. Often, it’s the microscopic that presents the clearest view.