I’m here in Halle on Saale, enjoying the interesting and varied presentations on a broad spectrum of linguistic topics. My own presentation was on Friday afternoon and everything went well. Apparently, the papers will even be collected in a print anthology, though there’ll probably be an online version as well.
The trip here was a real blast from the past, though. When we left Bremen, the sun was shining brightly on last night’s snow. By the time we reached Walsrode, it became overcast. In Hannover, the first snow flakes started to fall, by the time we reached Braunschweig, we had heavy snowfall. And driving on the highway during heavy snowfalls is not fun.
From Braunschweig on, I also felt rising apprehension and it was not just because of the heavy snowfall. Instead, this rising apprehension is a relic from the many times I made this trip with my parents as a child and teenager. Because from Braunschweig on, you could steadily feel the inner German border approaching, the Iron Curtain coming down like a grey smothering blanket. Beyond Braumschweig there’s only Wolfsburg, then Königslutter and then pretty much nothing all the way to Helmstedt, where the border between East and West Germany used to be and the world used to end. Now 23 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the old borderlines are largely invisible. And indeed other routes into what used to be East Germany don’t bother me. But the highway A2 from Hannover to Berlin still does.
Besides, when I said that the old border is largely invisible these days, I meant everywhere but at Helmstedt. Because the old border checkpoint Helmstedt-Marienborn is still very visible and still exists largely unchanged, though it’s a museum these days. In fact, it’s creepy how everything still looks the same, the buildings, the check point, the watchtower, the floodlights used to detect every escape attempt. The concrete pylon in the middle of the highway that used to hold the GDR coat of arms is still there, only the coat of arms itself is gone. Even the barracks that used to house the offices of the East German border guards are still painted the same shade of piss yellow. I wonder where they find the paint, since that particular shade never existed in the West.
Now as a teacher, I’m glad that the old border checkpoint still exists and that it gives students born long after the unification a chance to see what things used to be like. But driving past the place still gives me the creeps, though I know there are no machine gun armed border guards stationed on those watchtowers anymore.
After the old border there’s hilly land with trees and fields and then finally, already a couple of kilometers into Saxony-Anhalt (which is what the state is named today), there is the first sign of human habitation after the border, an old farmhouse. It still looks exactly the same as it always did, grey and miserable and just weathering the changing tides of time.
The first time I visited East Germany with my parents, my initial impression was the overwhelming greyness and drabness of – well, everything. Indeed, I whispered at about the time we passed the farmhouse, “Look, someone stole all the colours.”
This time, a few kilometers into Saxony-Anhalt, I said, “Crap, it’s still grey and drab everywhere. Does the sun never shine here?” Of course, the fact that we were driving through heavy flurries of snow may be partly responsible for that. But still, it is as if the stretch of highway between Helmstedt and Magdeburg is some kind of universal nexus of greyness. That 1980s classic “We’re on a road to nowhere” playing on the radio made everything even creepier.
The first big city on the Eastern side of the former border is Magdeburg, nowadays capital of Saxony-Anhalt. I remember Magdeburg literally rising from the mist, the Plattenbauten, those infamous East German council estates, of Magdeburg Olvenstedt, and the spires of the Magdeburg cathedral in the distance.
In Magdeburg, we left the highway A2 and drove onto the highway that goes to Halle and then on to Leipzig and Dresden. That highway is new – back then it was all pitted country roads. The area still isn’t any more interesting, though. It’s still mainly agricultural land and field with the very occasional town. But now, there are wind turbines as well. Lots of wind turbines.
Every ten or twenty kilometers or so, there were those brown and white signs advertising touristy sights that are a common sight at the roadsides of German highways. Spiegel Online has two not very flattering articles about the project. Those signs are often wildly off with regards to the location of the actual sight, e.g. there used to be one advertising the North Sea coast that was set up some fifty kilometers inland. But the stretch of highway between Magdeburg and Halle was particularly odd in that regard, because there was a flood of brown signs by the roadside advertising all sorts of historic churches and abbeys and castles… in a region that’s largely empty and barely has villages and cities, let alone historic churches, abbeys and castles. It was particularly strange if you actually knew the town in question, e.g. because we had regularly passed through way back when. At one point, I went, “Wait a minute, Bernburg has a castle? Since when?b For in the old days, all they had was a chemical factory.”
As usual, we reached Halle when darkness had already fallen. In fact, I tried to remember whether I have ever actually seen Halle by daylight and failed.
My hotel is a Best Western Hotel at the edge of the city in a neighbourhood called Halle-Neustadt (Halle New Town), a nightmare of Socialist city planning initially built to house the workers in the chemical factories in the nearby towns of Leuna and Schkopau. Here’s a promotional film from the 1970s. The area still looks quite similar. The massive apartment blocks are still there, though some are crumbling, while others have been renovated. The fountain prominently seen in the clip is pretty close to my hotel.
The hotel itself is a post-unification building. The service is pretty good. You get free unlimited WiFi, there’s a parking garage (built in pre-unification times, going by the narrow parking spaces) and since it’s too far to walk into the city centre, you get a free pass for the Halle public transport network (trams and busses) for the duration of your stay, which is a really nice touch.
Once we had gotten to the hotel and dropped off our baggage, we decided to avail ourselves of said public transport network and got on a tram into the city centre. We got off, had a dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant with pretty authentic cuisine and then walked back to the tram stop. The only problem was that the tram line by which we’d come into the city suspended operations at seven PM. Which I didn’t find out until I had waited for 15 minutes and finally decided to ask another passenger waiting for the tram (who turned out to be a Polish nurse who’d moved to Halle eleven months ago). And the line that was still operating didn’t go all the way to our stop, so we’d have to change at a stop with the pretty name Rennbahnkreuz (race track crossing), which is basically a big windswept square surrounded by a couple of highrise buildings. And all that at eight degrees below freezing. Brrr.
By next morning, the weather had gotten even nastier, because over night it had started to snow again. Since the conference only started in the afternoon, I walked through the city centre (which I haven’t seen in twenty years) in the morning. I took photos, too, though most of them look rather gloomy, considering they were taken during heavy snow.