In the land of the free, the middle class is free to descend into poverty and homelessness rather quickly. One bad divorce, a factory closing, medical bills, and poof, you are as free as you never wanted to be.
“Nomadland”, a highly-acclaimed film, purports to shed some light on the lives of those folks living in RVs, vans and anything in between, moving from wrapping your Amazon packages to flipping burgers, from selling Christmas trees to harvesting sugar beets, never earning enough to rent a home, let alone buy one.
This is an important subject, worthy of a good film. Sadly, despite all its accolade and praise, “Nomadland” does a lousy job. So bad that if the film was one of these minimum-wage workers, it would have been fired on the second day on the job.
The day-to-day struggle of the nomads – cold, hunger, health, fuel costs, safety, being driven away when they just want to sleep – are only touched upon briefly. The film spends much more time showing sunrises and sunsets and a van driving down a winding road in Nevada, as if it was all one glorious road trip.
Once, there was a sentence about the cost of housing, but nothing about the inherent unfairness of unlimited private property of very limited land. But then, one of the old drifters gets to say something esoteric about freedom and friendship and stuff. As kitschy as “Eat Pray Love”, but filmed among the poor. Like poverty porn, for the well-off to enjoy and to think: “Well, those people chose to live like that.”
And even if you don’t expect what I expect from a movie about a pressing social issue, you are in for a terribly boring two hours.
The film is based on the book “Nomadland” by Jessica Bruder, and from the interviews I have heard with her, it seems the book is heaps better than the movie.
What did you think? And what films/books do you recommend on homelessness and poverty? I still think that “Grapes of Wrath” is one of the best.
The inability to form a new government quickly after an election is usually associated with failed states such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya or the USA. However, the record for the longest time needed to form a government was set by Belgium in 2020, with 652 days, breaking the previous record of 541 days, also set by Belgium.
Are the Belgians doing this on purpose because they don’t hold any other world records?
No, Belgium really is that complicated. After the 2019 elections, twelve parties had made it into parliament. There are so many because each political view is represented twice. There are two Christian Democratic parties, two Social Democratic parties, two Green parties, two Liberal parties and quite a few regional or nationalist parties.
“Why don’t the politically like-minded parties just join together?” you ask. Well, the problem is that they can’t talk to each other. Because there is a French-speaking Christian Democratic/Social Democratic/etc. party and a Dutch-speaking Christian Democratic/Social Democratic/etc. party. The relationship between these parties is similar to that between the “Judean People’s Front” and the “People’s Front of Judea”. The only party competing throughout Belgium is the Marxist Workers’ Party, which has twelve seats in parliament.
“Why can’t they talk to each other? Isn’t Belgium a bilingual country?” you ask now, and that is commonly assumed for the country in the heart of Europe that is home to the capital of the European Union. But Belgium is not really a bilingual country in the sense that everyone speaks two languages. Rather, Belgium is divided into four regions with different language policies.
When I took the train to Antwerp, I got to know all four zones on the very first day. In Eupen, the capital of the often overlooked German-speaking Eastern Belgium, the gentleman at the counter serves customers in either German or French. The ticket is printed in German.
Once on the train, the planned stops are announced in German. But already at the next stop, in Welkenraedt, the announcement is only in Dutch. In Liège, you are informed in French, and in Brussels bilingually. It’s the same conductor making the announcements. He could speak all three languages everywhere. But he keeps strictly to the letter of the law.
Specifically, to a law of 31 July 1921 which has, of course, been repeatedly modified and complicated in the meantime, but which for the first time established a territorial language border in Belgium. (A boundary that corresponds surprisingly to the late-antiquity boundary between Germanic and Romance languages.)
Essentially, it’s like this: In the north, in Flanders, you have to speak Dutch. In the south, in Wallonia, you have to speak French. Brussels, the capital, which lies like a lonely outpost – West-Berlin-like – in Flanders, is bilingual. And in the east of French-speaking Wallonia, there is the German-speaking community, which is not a region in its own right, but a language group in its own right, and is therefore German-speaking despite belonging to French-speaking Wallonia.
According to the language law of 1921, a language census still took place every ten years in the communities along the language border. Based on the census results, the communities could then change sides. And poof, from one year to the next, school was held in French instead of Dutch or vice versa. Many Belgians preferred to move rather than go through that.
Because this was not complicated enough, special regulations were created for the municipalities numbered on the map above, but a different regulation for each municipality, and different regulations depending on whether the matter is a local, municipal, communal, regional, provincial, social security, police, judicial, semi-governmental or federal one. In total, there are several thousand exceptions.
But the more complicated the law, the more scrupulously it is observed. For example, authorities in Flanders must communicate in Dutch. However, if a Belgian resident of Wallonia is visiting Flanders or is stopped there by the police, for example, the Flemish official may (not must) – if he happens to know French, which for him is not obligatory – speak (but not write) to the citizen in French. However, if a French-only speaking Belgian living in Flanders (such a thing can happen) runs into the same police officer, then the French-speaking Flemish police officer is not allowed to communicate in French with the also French-speaking resident of Flanders. Except after duty and privately, but then only in a pub that has a license for multilingualism. And not on Flemish holidays, unless this holiday coincides with a federal, i.e. nationwide holiday.
Belgian police officers like to stop foreigners because they can speak to them in any language and, if necessary, in English. Unless, of course, the foreigner is a resident of Belgium, in which case the Belgian language laws apply. How strict the proportionality rules are also enforced against visitors, I experienced myself when I was house-sitting in Belgium.
No joke, unfortunately, is that each of the two population groups derives a good part of its identity from the antagonism to the other. Because most Belgians do not speak the language of the other group, they perceive its members only through media in their own language.
A particularly sad chapter is the University of Leuven/Louvain, one of the oldest and most prestigious European universities. Founded in 1425, later one of the capitals of humanism, this story came to an end in 1968.
The university, like politics, was in fact already divided into two parts. One could study not only linguistics, but also geography, mathematics and, absurdly, even English literature in French or in Dutch. There were practically two universities under one historic roof.
But after a new language border demarcation in 1962, the university was clearly in Flanders, and Flemish students protested that it was possible to study in French at all in Leuven/Louvain. Since a university should offer education in other languages, I find this complaint of the Flemish students downright absurd, especially since they themselves did not have to speak French. But that’s how nationalism and regionalism work, the brain stops working and suddenly students hate their fellow students.
The government’s attempts at mediation were in vain, the prime minister resigned, and the new prime minister wanted to get rid of the problem: The university was divided, and the French-speaking faculty and students had to leave the city.
In 1971, a new city was built in Wallonia, Louvain-la-Neuve, that is, New Louvain, consisting almost exclusively of this university and the student dormitories. It is, like all cities that sprang up in the 1960s and 1970s, a depressive place – except for the Hergé Museum.
The two universities spent the 1970s dividing up the library. Books with odd signature numbers remained in Leuven/Louvain, those with even signature numbers were moved to Louvain-la-Neuve. Or rather to the border between Flanders and Wallonia, where they were then handed over by Flemish Mail to Walloon Mail. The distance between the two universities is 30 km.
It was not the first time that the university library in Louvain/Leuven became a victim of world history. In August 1914, it was set on fire by German troops. About 300,000 books burned.
And this brings us to the main culprits for the Belgian language quagmire. It is neither the Walloons, the Flemish, the French, the Dutch or the Romans, but, with the reliability attributed to them, the Germans.
For the partition of Belgium was the work of the Germans during World War I. They introduced the administrative division after their rapid occupation of Belgium, into a Flemish part with the capital of Brussels, and a Walloon part with Namur as the capital. It was the Germans who set up separate Dutch- and French-speaking ministries. And it was the Germans who banned the French language from the university in Ghent.
The German policy toward the Flemish was the birth of anti-Belgian Flemish nationalism, although only a small minority of the Flemish could be lured into cooperating with the occupiers. But for the first time, there was a current within the Flemish movement that fundamentally rejected Belgium and wanted its own state.
After World War I, the Flemish were portrayed as traitors to their country, which was also exaggerated because only a few thousand people had colluded with the Germans. The vast majority of the Flemish, who had rejected the German occupation just like the Walloons, felt unjustly branded as traitors to the fatherland.
And if that is not enough proof that Germany is to blame for everything that goes wrong in Belgium: In World War II, Germany invaded Belgium again, the library in Leuven/Louvain burned down again, and Germany sowed even more discord between the Flemish and Walloons by treating the former better than the latter under suspicion of being Aryans. For example, Flemish prisoners of war were released or recruited into the Waffen SS, while Walloons were taken to Germany for forced labor.
Again, only a few Flemish people collaborated with the German occupiers, but of course the different treatment did not improve the relationship between the two language groups. Only the German-speaking Belgians, oddly enough, came out of the two world wars fairly unscathed. But perhaps Walloons and Flemish are bickering far too much to even notice the existence of the few Germans in the East.
P.S.: I am not intentionally looking for topics related to Germany. For July 1921, I deliberately did not choose the Leipzig Trials (for German war crimes in Belgium during World War I) or Adolf Hitler taking over the NSDAP as topics. After all, one goal of this series is to cast a glance at different countries.
But whenever I dig deep enough, I find German hands in the global game almost everywhere. Even the alternative topic of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party 100 years ago should have mentioned the German colony of Kiautschou in China, because its non-return to China after the Treaty of Versailles was the trigger for the founding of the Communist Party in July 1921. So, in a way, it is Germany’s fault that China is now a dictatorship.
More articles about Belgium, with quite a bit still to come, especially my report from Neutral Moresnet, a country that – and this shows how long my notes have been lying around already – no longer exists.
Another two countries that no longer exist – and I bet you have never heard of – will be the subject in August 1921. Be excited in anticipation, share the articles of this series on the interweb and with your friends, and thank the supporters of the blog who are making this project possible!
After having hiked up and down all the green hills around Bad Münstereifel, I wanted to hitchhike for a change. No matter where. But in this goal-oriented society, where a plan counts for more than aimless roaming, you’re left standing at the side of the road if you tell people that you don’t mind where they are going. Thus, I consult the map and pick a random medium-range destination: the Urft Dam.
The artificial lake created by the Urft Dam invites me to take a relaxing walk while admiring the dam, which was built between 1900 and 1905. A marvel of technology that is still appreciated by many recipients of electricity every day, while ironing, watching TV or microwaving.
Less appreciated, apparently, is the ride-sharing bench in Bad Münstereifel, which – in keeping with the Belgian model – is painted blue and is meant to entice motorists to stop for waiting hitchhikers.
But I am standing there for a full fifteen minutes before the first driver decides not to ignore this ecologically useful facility, taking me to Pesch, two villages further. Close by, in the forest, there is a beautiful Roman temple complex, but more about that in another article, because, the headline has already revealed as much, this article will already be overloaded with enough history.
Today, however, I stay on the road and get to Zingsheim with the next driver after waiting a mere few minutes. There, I position myself at the traffic circle to the north, in the direction of Kall, Schleiden or Gemünd. I don’t care about the exact route as long as the direction is right.
The third driver, who has come to the Eifel to assess water damages, doesn’t care about the exact route either, because he has his first appointment at 10 a.m. and still has plenty of time until then. And that’s despite the fact that he’s fully booked after last weekend’s storm. (This was before the deadly floods in July 2021.) He has received 181 calls about water damages, with about 20 a day being normal. But even without storms, he says cheerfully, he’s not running out of work because people build so quickly and cheaply nowadays. After 10 or 20 years, they receive the payback.
He actually has to go to Hellenthal, but he is kind enough to drive me all the way to Gemünd. “Then I can visit my sister for a coffee, she is living somewhere around there,” he says relaxed. When I tell him that Gemünd is a great starting point for my hike because I can still get something to eat there, he even takes me straight to a bakery.
“If you need more water damage, I can sabotage the Urft Dam for you,” I offer as a farewell. “That would be something!” he says enthusiastically, and so I feel under obligation to repeat Operation Chastise. (A month or so later, when I see the region hit by terrible flooding, I feel quite bad about this.)
In Gemünd, I discover a small river called Urft flowing through the town. Logically, it must flow to the Urft Reservoir, otherwise it would hardly have any right to that name. So I decide to hike along the little watercourse. Rivers are great for orientation if you want to get to a lake or to the sea. You can’t really get lost. (Except for the beginners who confuse the Red Nile and the White Nile. But then, sooner or later, the New York Herald dispatches a traveling reporter to find you. At least when editors still had courage, patience and money for expenses. Oh, what could have become of me if I had been born in the good old days…)
“10 km to the Urft Dam” a sign confirms my sense of orientation, strengthened by roaming around the world. And a largely shaded path under a green canopy of leaves confirms my decision for walking the rest of the way.
But what is that, peeking out from behind the trees on the left bank of the river?
After just a few more kilometers, there is indeed a bridge, allowing me to cross the river which has grown quite wide. The path to the mysterious tower in the woods is steep, arduous and long. Again and again I have to pause, drink all my cola supplies, eat all the bakery products.
“Oh, f***,” I exclaim, not controlling my language for a moment. Not because I’m exhausted, but because there is a torchbearer in the middle of the forest. In broad daylight. But from the dark ages, as you can tell from the design and from the inscription: “You are the torchbearers of the nation. In the fight for Adolf Hitler, you are carrying the light of the spirit.”
Ehm. I don’t feel drawn to heed that call at all. Instead, I hasten to run away, wanting to get out of the Teutonic forest as quickly as possible. But when it clears, the next surprise awaits: a sports field, obviously not in use for a long time, at the foot of a monstrous complex.
Somehow, but maybe I’m being overly sensitive, all of this makes a slightly fascistic impression. I will need hours to explore everything. But because I know that patience is not your strong point, I’ll already grant you the bird’s eye view.
This, my esteemed readers, is Ordensburg Vogelsang, a monumental structure that embodies both a claim to power and megalomania. With an area of 100 hectares, it is the second largest architectural legacy of National Socialism after Nuremberg. Impressive and oppressive at the same time.
“So-called Ordensburg,” corrects Jürgen Spekl, the guide who is leading a group around the site, for the first time after an eight-month break due to the Corona virus. “It was neither a castle [‘Burg’ in German], nor did the young men belong to a religious order [‘Orden’ in German]. It’s a word from the linguistic kitchen of National Socialism, and we shouldn’t use these words without reflection.” He will put a “so-called” before many more words: Ordensjunker [knights of the order], Burgkommandant [castle commander], Burgschänke [castle tavern], Elite, Herrenmenschen [master race].
You can tell that he has been missing the contact with visitors. Engaged and eloquent, he guides the group around the grounds and skillfully uses each specific site to introduce various aspects of National Socialism – from the reference to the Teutonic Knights, the propaganda of job creation by deliberately foregoing the use of machinery during construction, to the religious references and the whole “theatrics, masquerade and hocus-pocus”.
It begins with the fact that the Führer state was not as monolithic as it liked to present itself. A self-portrayal that was readily adopted after 1945, and not only for reasons of simplicity. But within the National Socialist organizations, a tug-of-war over competencies was fought from day one. Under the supervision of the Reich Ministry of Education, the National Political Institutes of Education (Napola) came into being from 1933 onward, and with the beginning of the war they increasingly came under the influence of the SS. In addition, the Hitler Youth had its own HY regional leader schools. The SS, too, wanted to train the next generation of National Socialists and established SS leadership schools, which were later renamed SS Junker Schools (again the reference to medieval knights). Since 1931, the SA had already operated the Reichsführer School in Munich and later the National Socialist High School at Lake Starnberg.
In addition, however, Robert Ley, Reich Organizational Leader of the NSDAP, i.e. something like a general secretary of the party, since 1932, also wanted to gain control over the training of the next generation. His idea were the so-called Ordensburgen and later the Adolf Hitler Schools. From 1933, Ley also became leader of the German Labor Front, which had taken over the assets of the crushed or banned trade unions. With money come grand plans and, as you know from the nouveaux riches among your relatives, often poor architectural taste. Or should we say poor architeutonic taste.
Incidentally, the high-school dropout Führer didn’t care about the conflicting ideas regarding the education of young men, as long as they were ready to step on mines or otherwise die in his name. Therefore, none of the concepts prevailed over the others, and all continued to compete with each other.
The Ordensburgen were neither state nor military institutions, but party schools (not that type of party), if that makes much difference in a one-party state. There were three of them, and in the three years of training, one year was to be spent in each of the “castles”. The first cohort served to receive the “old guard,” that is, as Mr. Spekl says, “the men who had punched their way through the beer halls and streets during the Weimar Republic.” And among them, only those who had not made it elsewhere, i.e. who had not found a place in the government departments, the military or any other Nazi organization.
Among the approximately 2200 young men who were trained at Vogelsang from 1936 to 1939, most were simple laborers, craftsmen or unemployed. Some were probably functionally illiterate. “Broken lives” the guide calls them. The requirements were: taller than 1.60 meters, no glasses, no hereditary diseases in the family, Aryan ancestry dating back to 1 January 1800 and party membership prior to 1933. At the end, there was the personal appraisal by Robert Ley, who claimed to be able to determine at a glance whether someone was ‘a real man’. School or professional certificates were explicitly not required.
And then the boys came to such a castle, even if it was a fake castle, and were treated like the elite. As one of the former “knights” once said on a later visit: “Here, for the first time in my life, I had a bed of my own.” Given that, sharing a dormitory with 19 comrades didn’t bother him.
Of the three years of training, each had its own motto. At Ordensburg Krössinsee, the focus was on sports.
The second part of the training in Vogelsang was focused on ideological education, although there are still suspiciously many sports facilities, race tracks and swimming pools. Apparently, the so-called elite could not be expected to put up with too much theory. The third training phase in Sonthofen had the motto “readiness for sacrifice”.
Krössinsee and Sonthofen are still used as barracks by the Polish Armed Forces and the German Armed Forces, respectively, making Vogelsang the only freely accessible former Nazi Ordensburg. But even that only since 2006; when it was vacated by the Belgian Army.
As oversized as the Vogelsang complex may seem and as much as it overwhelms the visitor with its power and monstrosity: What we see here is only 30% of what was actually planned. Missing are the 2000-bed hotel, the largest sports stadium in Europe (that would make UEFA happy), an equestrian stadium, an airfield, and a 100-meter-high library called the House of Knowledge, paved with black marble so that visitors would have the feeling of floating through the corridors.
The architect was Clemens Klotz, whose last name is now used as a verb in German [‘klotzen’ = doing things with maximum investment and aiming to make the greatest possible impact]. (He was also the architect of the Prora seaside resort.) After 1945, he built a few more residential and commercial buildings, but never again got his hands on as much concrete as he did on his major projects.
Willy Meller, on the other hand, the sculptor who designed the torchbearer along with other Nazi art, was able to adapt quickly, like so many Germans. For Palais Schaumburg, the office of the West German Chancellor in Bonn, he reworked his imperial eagle into the federal eagle. He also suddenly built memorials to the victims of World War II as well as to the resistance against the Nazi dictatorship. As Max Czollek writes: If there is one example of successful integration in the Federal Republic of Germany, it is the integration of the former Nazis into postwar society.
Because the grounds are freely accessible, the torchbearer is still a meeting point for neo-Nazis, who regularly leave gifts, grave lamps and other grisly goods.
These late admirers of the Ordensburgen probably don’t even know that this is a story of complete failure of lofty plans. Not only did the curriculum, goal and function of the training always remain vague and undefined. After Vogelsang took in its first men in 1936, the gates were closed again in 1939. Not a single trainee went through the entire program as planned. The men were needed for the war, where so-called Ordensjunker were involved in some 300,000 acts of murder. The building material was needed for the Siegfried Line.
Only a few of them were held accountable. In the exhibition and in the guided tour, some “careers” are presented as examples. The eagerness to suppress the past on the part of society and the judiciary in post-war Germany and Austria is obvious. Robert Ley, who could tell at a glance who was a tough German man, hung himself from the toilet tank in Nuremberg.
Mr. Spekl apologizes for overrunning the tour by 30 minutes, yet none of the participants has complained about it. I could listen for hours more, and after the group disperses, I am roaming the grounds alone. So long that I forget to watch the time, because when I am thinking of hitchhiking back home, I realize that I am the last person on the grounds. Nobody will come past here anymore, at least not tonight. The gas station seems to have closed long ago, too.
That’s a pity. I would have liked to ride in one of the old cars, no matter where to. Fortunately, I still catch the last bus.
Back in Bad Münstereifel, exhausted physically and mentally, my head full of information, thoughts and questions, all I want is a currywurst. While I wait for it to be prepared, my eyes wander to the surrounding stores – and can’t believe what they see: A fashion store named after Robert Ley. Unconcerned, the customers leave with shopping bags bearing the name of the high-ranking Nazi.
The Vogelsang complex is so huge (and megalomaniac), that you should plan at least half a day for it.
The walk from Gemünd takes about two hours. With the exception of the steep ascent at the end, it’s a rather leisurely stroll.
If you don’t want to walk, you can hitchhike, drive or take bus no. 82 from Gemünd or no. 63 from Aachen via Simmerath.
As you have probably noticed, I highly recommend the 90-minute tour around the grounds. Before or after, you can also walk around freely.
And let me know if you are interested in the Prora seaside resort on the island of Rügen. Maybe I can stop there on my way to Sweden in August. And surely it’s better if an anti-fascist blogger writes about it than if a fascist blogger gets there first, right?
I am currently house/cat sitting in Trento, Italy. At the invitation of a fellow history student, I am watching his two cats and – from the balcony – the cathedral where the Council of Trent took place.
Earlier this year, I have been house sitting in Bremen, in Switzerland and in Bad Münstereifel. After Italy, I will have to go to Stockholm for the summer and autumn.
“It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it,” I usually say.
But I don’t mean it. Yes, life without a fixed abode has its drawbacks, but as long as the alternative is sitting in an office for 48 weeks every year, I prefer the instability and insecurity that come with my way of life.
Yesterday, however, I listened to the story of a house-sitting colleague who is less lucky. The New Yorker Podcast portrayed Augustus Evans, who is living in houses that are in the process of being renovated and sold. On the plus side, he gets paid, although a mere 800 $ per month. On the downside, his main job is not petting cats, but fighting with burglars. Basically, he is a security guard who is not supposed to leave the house. Unlike me, he can’t wander off all day to explore the town and the countryside. He can’t even go on dates.
When Augustus Evans spoke of the several times that he got robbed while house sitting, I realized how lucky I have been. Ain’t nothing like that never happened to me, although in Venta Micena, I had to act Clint-Eastwood-tough to scare rifle-brandishing bandits away.
Supporters of my blog who are still waiting for their postcard: It won’t be long. But honestly, I didn’t find Switzerland or Germany exotic enough to write from there. Now, in Italy and Sweden, I’ll send the mail pigeons around the world again.
Where Hannibal once took his elephant for a walk, now the highways are crossing the Alps.
Where the Romans no longer felt like expanding and built a wall to keep the neighbors out, today the Scots and the English or the Flemish and the Walloons are quarrelling precisely along these arbitrary lines.
The Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, established – among other things – the demarcation line between Aldi Nord and Aldi Süd that is still valid today.
For me, history is most interesting where it affects the here and now. And that’s why, in this little series “One Hundred Years Ago …”, I like to take a look at the time after World War I. Because, as important as the events mentioned above all were: The map of Europe and the Middle East as we know it today was drawn for the most part after the First World War. A few states that came into existence during that time: Ireland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Yugoslavia, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and, crucially for this episode, Finland.
That’s way too much for a small blog, so we’ll focus – as we often do – on a side episode: For centuries, Vikings, Swedes, Finns, Danes, Russians, French and Germans had fought over the Åland Islands. They are situated between Sweden and Finland, and if you’ve never heard of them, that’s okay. Shining a light on overlooked chapters of world history is, after all, the goal of this series.
Why it was necessary to wage wars over a few small islands with pine trees and moose, I don’t know. After all, tourism had not yet been invented at the time, so the 6757 rocky islands were useless.
The starting position in World War I was that the Åland Islands – like all of Finland – belonged to Russia. On 6 December 1917, the Finns were so disappointed to find nothing in their Santa Claus stockings that they declared independence. (Which was a misunderstanding because Russia uses the Julian calendar, which has a two-week delay.)
But Finland being Finland, it couldn’t just become independent in a peaceful way. No, it took a complicated civil war in 1918, which you can read about if you want to get a headache similar to the one you get from drinking a gallon of Finnish vodka in a Finnish sauna, with the Finnish attendant beating you with Finnish birch twigs while blaring Finnish heavy metal.
The hullabaloo – a Finnish word, by the way, as you can easily see – spilled over to the Åland Islands, and with it the various civil war parties. But the greatest danger came from Sweden, which, after the positive experience of the Thirty Years’ War, did not want the First World War to be over after only four measly years. On 20 February 1918, Swedish warships occupied the Åland Islands, ostensibly to protect the population there, who allegedly spoke Swedish. Since no one ever visited the islands, this could not be independently verified.
Finland, or rather one of the civil war parties, had wondered “Who is even more keen on war than the Swedes?” and asked the Germans for help. Germany, which in 1918 was not fully occupied with the World War anymore, immediately agreed. Already on 5 March 1918, German troops landed on Åland and drove out the Swedes.
But – that’s what happens when you invite the Germans – the islands were too small and too little for the Teutonic knights. They preferred to occupy the whole of Finland and wanted to install Prince Friedrich Karl of Hesse-Kassel-Rumpenheim as King of Finland. However, until the end of 1918, he did not manage to learn the Finnish oath of office by heart (it is a difficult language, admittedly) and finally abdicated the throne on 14 December 1918, annoyed at this weirdest of languages. Thus the Finns became a republic and have been living happily ever after.
After the revolution in Germany in November 1918, the German troops withdrew from Finland and the Åland Islands.
You can guess what came next. Exactly: the Swedes. They just didn’t give up. Sweden supported separatists in Åland, flooded Finland with plywood furniture that collapsed at the first contact with a drunkard, and tried to get the Åland Islands awarded at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919. To no avail. Sweden rearmed heavily and was ready to go to war.
The nuclear war was prevented at the last minute by a beneficial institution founded only the year before: the League of Nations, something like the forerunner of the UN. On 24 June 1921 – and this finally brings us to the centenary – the League of Nations decided that the Åland Islands should remain part of Finland, but that they should be given autonomous and special status because of their predominantly Swedish-speaking population. Since then, Åland has somehow been part of Finland, but with Swedish as the only official language, with its own parliament and stamps, without a Finnish military presence, with limited rights for non-Ålandic Finnish citizens (e.g. when buying land or starting a business) and tax exemption for alcohol.
The last point was the real reason why Finland accepted the League of Nations’ drastic conditions. It is true that Finland practically gave up control over the islands, but in exchange even Finns can drink tax-free on the ferry ride to Åland. And with 6757 islands, you can spend your whole vacation like that.
Which proves that alcohol is good for diplomacy. – No wonder that teetotalers like Saudi Arabia and Iran are always causing trouble on the world stage.
The Åland episode was supposed to be a travel-based episode of the series “One Hundred Years Ago …”. But based on current planning, I will not be in Stockholm until the fall. From October, I would then have time to explore these autonomous islands. So, if anyone from there is reading this, let me know! I would like to put my report about the Åland Islands on a more solid footing. And for that purpose, your traveling historian takes on even the most arduous journeys.
The average white family in the U.S. has a net worth of $ 171,000, while the average family of color has one of $ 17,150. That this tenfold wealth gap cannot be due to individual effort or laziness should be obvious to everyone.
It will come as no surprise to you that, as part of this little history series, I am arguing the daring claim that historical oppression and inequality are at the root of the still significant wealth disparity. After all, things like displacement and enslavement of Africans to North, Central, and South America do not cease to have an effect simply because slavery was abolished in the United States in 1865 after the end of the Civil War. To put it in a nutshell: It doesn’t help you too much if you are legally free from one day to the next, but wealth, especially land ownership, political power and access to education remain largely out of reach.
Legal freedom did not mean legal, let alone economic or social equality. Instead of peace and joy and happiness, there were segregation, lynchings and the Ku Klux Klan.
But it all began with a visionary idea: In January 1865, the victorious army of the Union ordered the confiscation of land owned by slaveholders in the southern states and its distribution to former slaves. Each family was to receive up to 40 acres of land and a mule, so they could farm independently. (Yes, socialist land reform is actually a US-American invention. Take that, Mr Guevara!)
Unfortunately, nothing came of this idea because, as you all know, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865. His successor Andrew Johnson was, according to unanimous opinion, one of the worst presidents in U.S. history and thus the professed role model of Donald Trump.
Andrew Johnson was also a racist and deemed blacks intellectually and morally incapable of owning land or running a farm. In the fall of 1865, he rescinded General William Sherman’s order. Many blacks, for lack of any other choice, had to return to the cotton plantations and toil as sharecroppers. What else could they do, when access to many professions was barred? Well, a rebellion would have been a possibility, but with “Spartacus” this idea only came to the movie theaters a hundred years later.
Speaking of a hundred years: Because this episode is supposed to revolve around events exactly a hundred years ago, in May 1921, we have to step it up a notch and cover the rest of the background so frenziedly that it brims with omissions and inaccuracies like a history textbook issued by the State of Oklahoma.
So, things continued to be uncomfortable for blacks in the Southern states. Fortunately, the U.S. was always finding new land in the West to take from the Native Americans. Not only whites were moving west, but also blacks and (involuntarily) Native Americans displaced from the east. Life in the West was not free of legal and social discrimination either, but there, blacks could farm land or work as cowboys.
And in some places, that is where whites considered the soil too bad and a strong enough black community came together, small centers of black business activity emerged. One such community was the Greenwood district in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Located north of the railroad, the neighborhood was disparagingly called “Little Africa” by the white majority in Tulsa. There and over time, blacks opened their own stores, two movie theaters, two newspapers, restaurants, nightclubs, banks, several churches, a library. Black lawyers, doctors, accountants, photographers and other service providers settled there. When oil was discovered, blacks became owners of drilling rigs.
“Little Africa” had become “Black Wall Street”.
And that was a problem for many whites. Because segregation, still the law in many states in the U.S. until the 1960s, was based on the idea that blacks were intellectually and morally inferior to whites. When whites see that blacks, too, are becoming lawyers and teachers, drilling for oil and pulling off all this capitalism wizardry, the white worldview wobbles.
And, as the old Southern saying goes, “when the worldview is wobbling, the black man gets a flogging.” The Ku Klux Klan was very active in Tulsa. Colored people were repeatedly mistreated and killed. Whites were also keen on the properties in the black neighborhood. They wanted them for their own businesses and to run the blacks out of town.
By the way, I’ve long wanted to mention that when I write “whites,” of course I don’t mean all whites. Because mist certainly, there were non-racists among them. But then I see photos like the following printed and mailed around the country as postcards, like a postcard from Niagara Falls. And then, I find passive non-racism pretty weak. Sometimes, you have to be actively anti-racist.
In May 1921, Tulsa was a tinderbox.
The fuse was laid by two unwary teenagers.
On 30 May 1921, Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old colored shoeshine boy, rode the elevator to the top floor of a building, which was the only one in the area with a restroom for colored people. The elevator was operated by Sarah Page, a 17-year-old white girl. Something happened. Or maybe it didn’t. In any case, Rowland ran out of the building, Miss Page reportedly looked startled, and a clerk notified the police. Although the elevator attendant testified that Rowland had only touched her arm and that she did not want to press charges, Rowland was arrested the next day and taken to a cell in the courthouse. (Ever since then, American men refuse to get on the same elevator with a woman.)
That same day, 31 May 1921, a distorted account appeared in the afternoon edition of the Tulsa Tribune under the headline “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in an Elevator”, with a reference to Rowland’s whereabouts in the courthouse.
That was the spark that broke the tinderbox’s back.
A white mob with arms advanced to the courthouse to demand the young man, obviously for lynching him. Blacks also armed themselves and went to the courthouse to protect the building from being stormed. The situation was extremely tense. When a white man tried to take a gun from a black man, a shot went off, and with that, all hell broke loose.
What followed were 16 hours of shooting, violence, looting, arson.
The fire department did, as pogrom protocol requires, nothing. The police distributed badges and guns to the white looters. As many as 300 people were killed, and thousands of colored people were interned.
Only the National Guard, arriving on 1 June 1921, was able to bring the white mob under control. But Black Wall Street, the successful black community, was completely destroyed.
Now the real estate could be gobbled up cheaply, the white citizens of Tulsa were hoping. But the blacks wanted to rebuild their neighborhood, even though all kinds of obstacles were put in their way. Insurance companies did not pay, citing the exemption for riots. The city council changed zoning and building codes to discourage reconstruction. Few victims received government assistance. But in the end, Black Wall Street was rebuilt.
And no one spoke any more about the events of 1921. No one was convicted. Hardly anyone learned about the massacre, but just as little, and perhaps this is the more important aspect, about Black Wall Street. Because successful blacks did not fit into the white concept. Not only in Tulsa.
Continued discrimination was sometimes quite overt, with racial segregation in schools, in public transportation, in restaurants, in parks. There were bans on marriage between whites and blacks, and many blacks were denied the right to vote. The former has been abolished; the latter is still a struggle.
Criminal law was also a popular method of perpetuating slavery under a different name. Blacks were sentenced to imprisonment on trivial or trumped-up charges and then “leased” to cotton plantations, sawmills and mines as laborers.
But, even if it doesn’t sound as dramatic as slavery or forced labor, another form of discrimination is probably more relevant for the wealth inequality between whites and blacks mentioned at the top of this article: the different access to mortgages, to bank accounts, to credit cards and other financial and insurance services.
This is because a major bedrock of wealth accumulation (not only) in the United States is ownership of real estate as well as inheritance of the same. Those from the working class or middle class who want to acquire a property usually need a loan to do so, usually secured by a mortgage on the property. In theory, the loan is based on the income of the home-building/purchasing family and the value of the land or its expected appreciation.
In practice, during the post-World War II boom years and until more recently, city maps were divided into different risk zones that ran along old racial segregation lines. For example, neighborhoods predominantly inhabited by blacks and Latinos were rated as such a high risk that the government would not guarantee mortgages there, making it almost impossible to secure a bank loan. (These were the so-called red zones, hence the term “redlining”.)
And this happened even when those neighborhoods were, on average, wealthier than some white neighborhoods! So, poorer whites got a mortgage more easily than affluent people of color. And because affluence almost automatically leads to more affluence, whites get richer and richer over the generations, while blacks’ income only makes landlords rich. (Yes, of course there are exceptions, but they are already included in the averages cited above.)
And now comes the most insidious issue: the interplay of racism and capitalism.
As people of color moving into a neighborhood reduces the chance of mortgages, property values in the neighborhood decline as a result. Hence, the white homeowners and real estate agents don’t have to be racist at all, but “only” act out of pure financial interest to reject black neighbors. The result of past racism is perpetuated by the market economy even if no one acted out of racist motivation anymore. (Which is not the case, as settlements from 2015 show.)
And thus, even though this is a story from a hundred years ago, it is far from over.
Oh yes, last year – 99 years after the events – Black Wall Street and the pogrom were finally included in the curriculum of Oklahoma schools. Even today, mass graves from 1921 are being discovered in Tulsa. – But then, my home country of Germany needs more than a hundred years to recognize a genocide, too. And recognition alone is not enough, because in Namibia, too, the current land ownership situation is a continuation of colonialism.
If you want to do things in any logical order, you better read part 1 and part 2 of the hitchhiking odyssey before reading this article.
You remember, I hadn’t made it onto the motorway, the sun had set, and I was standing at a barely frequented gas station outside of Ulm with no plan B.
And then, this happened:
“It’s your own fault,” “I’m sorry,” or “not my problem” is what everyone else would think. But the woman, who looks more like a young girl, is seriously concerned and correctly assesses the situation: “You can’t stay here all night, no one will come by here anymore.” She used to hitchhike herself, she knows what she is talking about.
“If I was going home,” she continues, “you could come with me. But I’m on the way to my parents, and if I bring along a stranger, saying he needs a bed for the night, …”
Yes, I had set out to hitchhike all the way. But not just to save money. Not just for the adventure. Rather to see – and to report – that there are good, helpful people everywhere. And I found them. It was stupid coincidences that only ever got me a few kilometers ahead, that made me wait in inappropriate places, but there was no lack of good will on the part of people who had never met me before.
“I really wanted to make it by hitchhiking,” I concede to the young woman, “but honestly, if you could drive me to the train station in Ulm, that would be sweet, too.” I’ll just give up and take the train home.
She agrees to drive the 20 km detour. Only in the warm car do I realize how cold it had already become. That would have been an uncomfortable night, perhaps a lethal one. And I was saved by a young woman who had to move boxes of jam jars in her car to make room for me and my backpack.
Finding the way to the train station in Ulm is not that easy. Ulm is a confusing mess. The city is so miserably planned and executed that the project was once abandoned and relaunched as New Ulm. Now, both are a conglomeration of confusing on-ramps and off-ramps, construction sites and dead ends. Terrible for hitchhiking.
Finally arriving at train the station, it is 9:15 pm. I quickly proceed to the ticket hall.
“Good evening. Is there still a train to Amberg today?”
“To Schwandorf, perhaps?”
“But at least to Nuremberg?”
“Is there a hotel?”
“You can try next door at the Intercity Hotel.”
There, the receptionist says that she does indeed have plenty of free rooms, but only for railway passengers who present a voucher. I ain’t got no voucher for nothing.
Apparently, if your train is delayed, you get a voucher and a room. If there is no train at all, you don’t get one, although a non-existent train is the ultimate form of a delayed train, isn’t it? But the receptionist is not open to such arguments. She has rules, and she follows them.
In a civilized country, she would say: “Just give me 20 euros. You have to be gone by 8 o’clock in the morning, though, when the next shift will show up for work.”
But Ulm is not a civilized city, which is why it was rightfully bombed to rubble in 1944. A treatment which has unfortunately failed to be repeated every five years or so, as it should be.
I wander through the city in search of a homely park, but there is nothing like that here. Only concrete and ugliness, crack dealers and drunks.
There is still light at the Ibis Hotel. Again, I try my luck, and this time I find it: The night porter here does not perform the job because he wasn’t accepted by the revenue service, but because he likes to have guests.
“Do you have a confirmation that you are on a business trip?”
This is necessary, because anti-Covid-19 legislation currently prohibits overnight stays for mere touristic reasons.
“I’m returning from work in Switzerland and got stuck in Ulm because there was no train that would still take me to Amberg tonight.”
“Do you have an employment contract letter or anything like that?”
Not really. Nothing at all of the sort, to be honest. But now is the time for creativity, not honesty, or else face homelessness for a night.
“I write travel stories. For this purpose, I was in Switzerland and at Lake Constance, where I then got stuck in Friedrichshafen longer than planned because of the beautiful weather and therefore …”
The receptionist seems sympathetic, but has no interest in my whole life story. He slips me a piece of paper and a pen and says: “Just write it down briefly, so I can file it.” And, having already seen me begin to write with verve, adds: “One sentence will do.”
Dear Ladies and Gentlemen of the Ibis Hotel in Ulm,
my spontaneous and unplanned arrival at your highly esteemed hotel at short notice is due to business reasons in that I am on my way back from Switzerland and Lake Constance, where as a self-employed travel writer I have been researching, observing, photographing and writing for travelogues, which by their very nature can not be presented before the result will have been completed, let alone in the form of a simple, unambiguous and preferably officially stamped document, as other guests probably can,
and the unplanned end of today’s journey, coinciding with the end of the day itself and thus the need for a bed and the admittedly decadent desire for a shower, is the result – without any predictability – of the lack of meaningful onward train travel options from this city, which seems to be only rudimentarily connected to the rest of the republic,
which is particularly negatively striking if one comes, as I just do, from Switzerland, where even small towns with funny names like Pfäffikon, Witzwil or Tinizong have perfect public transport connections that work until midnight, which should once again call into question the German focus on building more and more motorways, which, as I had to experience today, do not fully serve their purpose, at least not to the benefit of all citizens contributing to their upkeep,
which is why, in gracious expectation of your decision, in the hope of being accepted into your accommodation institute and with gratitude for being permitted to present my wish in person, I respectfully remain:
“You really are a writer,” he says as he accepts the paper, and we both smile under the FFP2 masks.
And so, with that brazen assertion, I put myself under obligation to actually write down and publish this story, thus turning a white lie into retrospective truth. I happily announce that I fell asleep without remorse and even with a joyful outlook on this new career.
The next morning, I finally find a beautiful park in Ulm. It’s the Old Cemetery. Between gravestones and monuments, I treat myself to a vagabond’s breakfast baguette.
It promises to become another beautiful day, because everyone is out for a walk already: Dogs with their owners, children with their parents, and nurses with their patients from the nearby Elisa retirement home.
I am torn between the original plan, the adherence to it and the unshakeable faith in human kindness on the one hand, and on the other hand the non-enthusiasm about the prospect of spending this beautiful day once again getting sunburn and nothing else while standing on the entrance to the motorway, just to have to give up at night and to explain my undertaking and my right to accommodation to another representative of the hotel industry in a short sentence like this and to place my fate in his literary-critical hands. Torn between Thomas-Mannian syntax meanderings, which in their seemingly erratic aimlessness resemble my random movements along the highways, which, however, and this is also a fitting metaphor, ultimately always get to the point and the destination, on the one hand, and the concise journalistic style on the other hand.
Either way, writing requires material, and the material lies on the road. Well, the railway can also provide material, but I don’t trust the regional trains from Ulm to Amberg with the same fruitfulness as crossing Canada by train or the Orient Express.
So, with a heavy heart and with the readers’ interest in mind, I decide to try it with my thumb again. About 10 km north of Ulm, there is a different motorway onramp than the one that was my downfall yesterday. I set off on foot on the long way there, but always stick my thumb out when a car comes along. A young man first drives past me, but then turns around to pick me up. He is going all the way to the motorway, great!
During the drive, we talk mainly about traveling to Israel and Jordan, about the pros and cons of salaried versus self-employment, but fortunately also about the destination of my trip.
“Well, then I can take you all the way to Heidenheim.” The town’s name translates as “home of the heathens”, and that’s a nice change after the 50 Holy Marys from yesterday.
Here, too, I get off at the onramp to the motorway. The young man is so worried by the fact that Heidenheim and thus the nearest train station are 6 km away that he gives me his phone number: “Call me if you can’t get away from here. Then I’ll pick you up.”
He needn’t have worried, because one car after another stops here. Beautiful weather and a relaxing Sunday put people in a good mood. The first offers don’t drive far enough. This time, I prefer to be picky over ending up in the Pampas.
Soon, a couple on their way to Erfurt gives me a lift. They rave so much about this year’s Federal Horticultural Show there that I’d love to go all the way to Erfurt and its flowers and palm trees with them.
But according to the plan, I get dropped off at the next motorway service station. It’s one of the big ones, with hundreds of cars from all directions. From now on, traffic and me will move with stereotypical German efficiency and speed.
So I thought.
But the service area looks as it if was the oil crisis of 1973. The only thing that is active here is the sun, as if to prove that petroleum is indeed becoming obsolete.
A few trucks are hanging around, but they are not allowed to drive on Sunday. A few pensioners are picnicking, but they share neither their sandwiches, nor their attention. A few boys are cleaning their cars, but car fetishists never pick up hitchhikers.
Only a young couple asks: “Where do you have to go?”
“To the A6 in the direction of Ansbach, Nuremberg, Amberg.”
“We’re just going to Rothenburg, sorry.”
The two go to the rest stop for coffee, which gives me a few minutes to think. That’s good, because spontaneity needs proper mental prepration. When they come back out, I intercept them:
“You know what? If you give me a lift, I’ll throw my plan out the window. After all, the whole world wants to go to Rothenburg, and here I finally have the chance.” In case one or the other hasn’t heard, Rothenburg ob der Tauber is the most beautiful city in Germany.
Heiko and Saskia make room in the car and we talk about archaeology, about the Neumayer Station in Antarctica (one of their colleagues, a doctor, is working there for a year and would prefer not to come back home) and about bombs from World War II, which you can still find in this area when you build a house and dig out the basement.
Rothenburg was also bombed a bit in World War II, if only by chance, because the oil depot in Ebrach was covered in clouds on 31 March 1945, thus declining receipt of the bomb package destined for it. But the bombs had to be dropped somewhere. And in a town where 83% voted for the NSDAP, the Nazi Party, it certainly didn’t affect any innocent folks. Seriously, dear people of Rothenburg: Don’t confuse cause and effect. If Germany did not want to be bombed anymore in March 1945, it should have surrendered earlier.
But now everything looks pretty again, like a city from Grimm’s fairy tales. Just the way the world imagines Germany to be. It won’t surprise you that Germany doesn’t look like this everywhere, but there are a few small towns that do: Dinkelsbühl, Landsberg am Lech, Beilstein an der Mosel, Hornburg, Tecklenburg and Rothenburg ob der Tauber, for example.
I am sitting in the relatively quiet castle garden, looking out over the city walls and the Tauber valley, and writing about the descendants of the pilots of the past. They now come with buses instead of bombers, selfie sticks instead of Spitfires and expectations instead of explosives. While I am feasting on my alliterative associations, I am approached by a young man sitting on the castle wall, looking not at all like a tourist, but like a deeply relaxed daydreamer.
“Excuse me, may I ask what you are writing about?”
Of course, and that’s how we start talking. Timo is a Taiwanese Taoist, and I swear I didn’t make that up for the alliteration. Worried about my unhealthy diet (he’s been watching me smoke), he offers me a big apple. Because he eats one himself, I don’t believe in a Snow White poisoning plot, despite the fairy tale backdrop.
We talk about spontaneity, about hitchhiking of course, about the unpleasantness of gainful employment, the dream job of vagabonding, about India, about Paraguay, Far Eastern spiritualities, neuro-linguistic programming, sword fighting, the advantages of merino wool as well as about worldbuilding (which I can’t do at all) and writing in general (I’m trying).
What was bound to happen does happen, and we chat away until we are the last people in the castle park and in the setting sun. A typical city that lives from day-trippers, you can have Rothenburg almost to yourself if you stay for the evening. Only a few locals in undershirts and with beer bottles in their hands dare to come out now. When the photographers are gone, there’s no need to play Disneyland anymore.
To celebrate the spontaneity we have been praising, Timo would actually invite me home. But as long as he doesn’t have his own monastery, he lives with his parents in Schwäbisch Hall, which should actually be added to the above list of picturesque towns.
I won’t be able to get home by hitchhiking today, that’s for sure, so I hurry through the empty old town to the ugliest train station in Germany’s prettiest town. On the two-and-a-half-hour train ride, nobody talks to me, no interesting encounters, nothing. Travel can be so boring if you don’t do it right.
If you want to move faster, a little planning helps. For example, I could have asked to be dropped off at a better spot in St Gallen. And on the German shore of Lake Constance, I would have been better off hitchhiking to Lindau, where the motorway A96 begins instead of moving along the B30 like a snail. But then, speed is not everything.
What I spent on bus, ferry, hotel and train together was still less than what a train ride would have cost for the whole route. But of course it would have been smarter to organize accommodation in advance, for example through Couchsurfing.
The earlier you get going in the morning, the better.
Towns that are worth a visit: Friedrichshafen, Bad Waldsee and Rothenburg ob der Tauber.
If you want to do things in any logical order, you better read part 1 of the hitchhiking odyssey before reading this article.
You remember that we had reached Friedrichshafen without any major hiccup. But then I liked the city so much, that I overstayed, jeopardizing the nonexistent plan.
So, let’s get moving again:
Only with the firm resolution to come back for a trip around Lake Constance, I finally manage to tear myself away. Now, I somehow have to hitchhike northeast, in the direction of Bavaria. I walk to the beginning of highway B30, which leads to Ravensburg and Ulm – not yet able to imagine what headaches this highway will give me today. It will turn into a veritable way of the cross.
But it all starts off great. I’ve only been standing at the traffic light for a minute when a young man comes out of the kebab store behind me: “Where are you going?”
“I’m only going to Meckenbeuren, but that’s on the way. I’d be happy to give you a ride.”
“That’s extremely nice of you! But take your time with the meal, I am not in a hurry.” Well, when the sun is high in the sky, you still think like that.
After a few minutes and a digestive cigarette, we climb into a mega-turbo horsepower BMW, and the young financial advisor is taking the hitchhiking hobo north, through wonderfully green avenues with blossoming trees under the smiling sun. That’s how life is supposed to be.
As could be expected from a financial advisor, he drops me off in front of the bank in Meckenbeuren, directly by the highway. A good spot, I think, with a parking bay, as if made for bank robbers, hitchhikers and other people who need to get away quickly. Not a good spot, think dozens of drivers who ignore me, until a young African in an old Volkswagen stops. He’s only going a short distance, but he is determined to give me a ride because his wife once hitchhiked from Germany to Portugal. For him, it’s a matter of honor to return some of the kindness experienced by her.
So you see: If you hitchhike, you are making the world a better place!
Fortunately, I mention that I don’t actually have to go to Ravensburg with its puzzle-like maze of streets, but on to Ulm, and the driver, who knows the area well, has a flash of inspiration. He takes me to an intersection of the highways, where the cars to Ulm have to stop at a traffic light. This gives the drivers time to look me over, to decide and to invite me to come on board.
Truly a perfect place to hitchhike.
In practice, I stand here for half an hour in the blazing sun, and most drivers stare ahead, roll up the window and pretend to ignore me, displaying their lack of both acting and social skills. In the more expensive cars occupied by married couples, I can observe the same discussion again and again: The female passenger suggests giving me a ride, but the driver brusquely declines. “If he wants to go somewhere, he should buy a car,” he grumbles with derision for the poor, not wanting to take on the risk of a car-less, career-less and burnout-free person talking about a more interesting life than going to the office every day. The wife raises her eyebrows and gives me an apologetic look. “On Monday, I’ll call the divorce lawyer,” she thinks to herself, while the husband speeds off as soon as the traffic light gives him permission to do so.
Only a pretty woman with a hippie camper van and a baby in the passenger seat stops. But she is not going far and thinks that the current spot is definitely better than where she would drop me. Because she looks like she has already hitchhiked to Kerala and Kathmandu, I heed her advice. And continue to wither in the sun.
Finally, after more than half an hour, a red van stops. The driver can only take me 10 km further, but I gratefully accept. The radio is playing “Mr Vain” by Culture Beat, just like on the mixtape which I made for road trips in the 1990s. Thirty years later, I have no car, no tapes, but a better taste in music.
“In the tunnel ahead, there’s a speed limit of 100 km/h, but recently someone was caught going 300 km/h there,” he says. That’s 186 mph. I could use a driver like that right now.
The window is open, the wind is blowing around our faces. It’s a feeling like driving down the Pacific coast in California. Instead of Berkeley, he drops me off near Baindt, which is just as hard to get away from as Alcatraz.
At the onramp to the highway B30, I am standing pretty lost until another red van stops. Maybe the son of the previous driver. He takes me to Bad Waldsee and drops me off where absolutely no one passes. It’s 4:20 pm, I am beginning to run out of time. Thus, I walk into town and stock up on water and gummy bears. Because the prospect of spending the night in a park is becoming more and more realistic.
Bad Waldsee seems to be a pretty little town, so would be no less suitable for a vagabond’s night out than any other place in this world. Although time is precious, I need to sit down in the park to write, which is met with enthusiastic approval from a passerby: “It’s nice to see someone scribbling in a notebook for a change, and not just typing into their phone.” I rather not mention that it will end up as a blog on this modern interweb thingy.
In the friendly town of Bad Waldsee, I wait by the road for just a minute. A young family gives me a lift on their way to a barbecue. Apparently though, I don’t look hungry enough to warrant an invitation.
At the supermarket and gas station it is already more difficult. I have to refuse an offer of a ride to Biberach, because two bear-sized German shepherds are barking angrily in the back seat.
But then a woman stops. She used to hitchhike herself, all over Germany, to festivals and concerts. She takes me in the direction of Biberach, where highway construction is throwing all the non-existent plans out the window. “I have to take you to the Jordan roundabout, otherwise you’ll never get away from here.”
But I can’t get away from the roundabout either. As always, I deliberately place myself where the speed is reduced, but the drivers don’t care. They would slow down for a speeding camera, but not for a human being.
Until another van stops. Somehow, people who drive vans are more helpful. This time it’s a former investment banker turned yoga instructor. Among career dropouts, we get along splendidly.
Apparently, though, we’re still not in Ulm, but in Biberach or near Biberach or somewhere around Biberach, because he drops me off at a convenient spot and says: “You’ll easily get to Ulm from here.” That’s where the motorway finally begins, which should put an end to the 5- and 10-km rides, and I’ll really be covering proper distances. Also, once I’m on the motorway, it doesn’t matter if it gets dark, because I can hitchhike from rest area to rest area.
A car stops, the door opens, a man and two women, all of them over 50: “We are praying the rosary. If you don’t mind, get in!” I don’t mind at all, as long as I will get to Ulm.
“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus,” they recite mantra-like. A rosary dangles from the rearview mirror, and the two women each hold one of these prayer chains in their hands.
“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” Apparently, you have to recite this repeatedly.
“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” This will probably go on for the whole trip.
“We’re going to the industrial park in Schwaighofen, does that suit you?”
“I don’t know my way around Ulm at all. But if I can get on the motorway from there, then it’s fine.”
“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” It’s difficult to maintain a proper conversation in this car.
“Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory for ever and ever. Amen.” Finally something different.
“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” But Mary does seem to be the most important figure.
“Couldn’t we take him to the Temple of God? Maybe someone will drive in his direction from there,” one of the women suggests.
“That’s too risky,” the man replies. It remains unclear whether he means that I might not find a lift, or whether I am a threat to the Christian community.
“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”
In the end, they dismiss me with God’s blessings in Breitenhof, a few kilometers before the motorway. Still two hours until sunset. The clock is ticking. Car after car rushes past me, unchristian, selfish, heartless.
The only one who stops is a young father with three children in the back seat. He is driving them to their mother. The three children don’t say a peep, either because they are afraid of the stranger or because they don’t want to spend the weekend with mom.
He drops me off right at the entrance to the A7. Another hour and a half of daylight, that will be manageable. But this onramp is not blessed and sacred, but bewitched and cursed.
Car after car darts past me, while I cast longer, lonelier and more desperate shadows in the golden light of the relentlessly lowering sun. The only one who stops is a Croatian truck driver, but he is going to Stuttgart, not Nuremberg. I should have gotten in anyway, because – to cut the ordeal short – I won’t make it onto the highway that night.
As the sun drops behind the horizon, exhausted from a long day’s work and because it’s wanted elsewhere on this globe, I have to leave. The area is not lighted, and no one will stop anymore.
There is a gas station nearby, maybe I can talk to drivers there. The closer I get to the gas station, however, the more depressing the sight. Hope is fading, actually it’s already dead. As dead as the Total station with all its tristesse.
Sporadically, a car passes by. Two Polish truck drivers stop, but they are going in the wrong direction. I am already preparing for a night in the nearby forest when a young woman approaches me: “Where do you have to go?”
I explain the plan and the problems with its implementation.
“I’m going on the A7, but south, to Illertissen,” she says. I need to go north.
We check the map to see if there’s at least a rest stop on her way, where I could spend the night in the light and not quite so cold. Negative.
“It’s your own fault,” “I’m sorry,” or “not my problem” is what everyone else would think. But the woman, who looks more like a young girl, is seriously concerned, also because she has often hitchhiked herself, as it turns out, and therefore correctly assesses the situation: “You can’t stay here all night, no one will come by here anymore.”
“If I was going home,” she continues, “you could come with me. But I’m on the way to my parents, and if I bring alone a stranger, saying he needs a bed for the night, …”
That’s a good point for a break, isn’t it? After all, it’s already dark and you need to go to bed.
If you want to move faster, a little planning helps. For example, I could have asked to be dropped off in a better spot in St Gallen. And on the German shore of Lake Constance, I would have been better off hitchhiking to Lindau, where the motorway A96 begins instead of moving along the B30 like a snail. But then, speed is not everything.
It would have been smarter to make the trip more manageable by organizing accommodation in Ulm, for example through Couchsurfing.
Friedrichshafen and Bad Waldsee are definitively worth a visit.
Last weekend, I finally hit the road again: hitchhiking through the Swiss cantons of Zurich, St Gallen and Thurgau, across Lake Constance and through the German states of Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria. A brisk 500 km is what I had planned.
However, I strayed from the path so often that it turned into a veritable odyssey. Consequently, the account became so long that I turned it into a trilogy, so as not to overburden those of you who get upset about the length of my articles.
So here is the first part:
Switzerland is beautiful. Rolling hills, lush green and some lakes in between. Perfectly marked hiking paths, leading through deep gorges with small creeks. Villages with meticulously kept houses, flowers in the gardens and fluffy clouds above.
Like a postcard.
And perfectly organized. Although the village of Waltenstein (near Winterthur) has barely 15 houses, and that’s already counting the tree-houses for the children, there is a bus every hour. From 5am until 11pm! Even on Sundays! I am so fascinated by this, because in Germany I live in a village which has a hundred times more people, but no bus bothers to venture there after 6pm, let alone on the weekend. Well, now we know why Switzerland has such high taxes, but I think it’s worth it.
Problem is, it’s all too picture-postcard perfect.
I really like countries that are more exciting than beautiful, where stuff happens, a little bit of chaos, maybe even a revolution from time to time. Because in my experience, there are more authentic and interesting human interactions in such places than in the ones where everybody has everything they need or can call a number to get it. Too much organization destroys communication between people.
For example, because of the exemplary public transport, I wonder if motorists see any need to stop for hitchhikers at all, knowing that in this mountainous country you can be reliably chauffeured from any point A to any point B by public bus.
So, after finishing a two-week cat-sitting job in Waltenstein, I decide to try it and place myself at the side of the road, as curious as a cat.
Shortly before 8am, I stand at the crossroads in the village. A sunny Saturday morning. I have to go to Ammerthal in Bavaria, so I have about 500 km ahead of me. And 13 hours of daylight. That should be enough.
After 20 minutes, a gentleman who is going to the next village, Elgg, stops.
He is on his way to a job interview as a sales manager for kitchens. After 22 years with the same company, it’s time to try a new employer, he thinks. About time, I think.
“That’s really nice of you to stop for me on such an important day. I would probably be much too nervous and excited,” I express my gratitude.
“Oh, no problem. I still have 12 minutes until the appointment.” Swiss people are very precise and never arrive a minute late, nor a minute early.
It’s market day in Elgg, so people should be flocking from all over to buy agricultural products, and afterwards they can give me a ride on their way home. So I stand just a little bit away from the market place on the road leading north-east.
“Difficult, isn’t it?” asks a passerby with an air of connoisseurship, as if he too is disappointed by a society of people who are shy, even scared of meeting new people.
But soon, a young man stops and introduces himself with a firm handshake: Thomas. He is only going to Aadorf, about two and a half kilometers away, but he sometimes hitchhikes himself and encourages me: “Hitchhiking is not about your thumb, it’s about your head. It’s all a matter of attitude. With the right mindset, you can do it!” His optimism is contagious.
In Aadorf, a young family first drives past me, but then turns around and comes back to pick me up like a dog forgotten at the highway rest station. The landscape gardener, his wife and the baby are going to St Gallen. About 50 km, now things are really picking up.
When I am in the car with couples, I always feel guilty about telling them about my life and my adventures. I am worried that the young man will pack his backpack afterwards, leave his wife and child and go on pilgrimage to Nepal. On the other hand, as a landscape gardener, he has peace and quiet all day anyway.
Completely committed to the idea of spontaneity, I did not pick a good spot in St Gallen beforehand. The two drop me off at a shopping center near the motorway. There, it takes me less than 10 minutes to realize that it’s a hopeless spot. The cars are too fast, there is no place to stop, and without a sign, no one knows where I am going.
Near the motorway entrance, there is a small chapel for lost souls and lost hitchhikers. On the steps of the hitchhiking hermitage, I spread out the map and get an overview of my position and my situation. Both are very bad, not even the mindset helps. When Saint Gall founded the city, he must have taken Los Angeles as his model, as the city is covered with highways going in all directions and crossing and intersecting each other. It’s a mess of urban planning and hitchhiking hell.
An older, very friendly gentleman approaches me and asks if he can help. I explain the situation and the plan.
“Forget about it,” he says crisply, but not without reason, “you’re on the wrong side of the city.” I’m all the way on the westside, he says, and need to get on the eastside, once through the elongated city. “Anyone who gets on the motorway here certainly doesn’t want to go in your direction,” he says.
“Walk 300 meters down the street and take the bus through town for only 2 francs. Or, even better, go straight to Wittenbach, from there the country road goes to Romanshorn.” The latter is the last destination in Switzerland, because from there a ship sails to Germany. From readers’ feedback, I know that you appreciate it when I vary the means of transportation on my journeys.
I am reluctant to travel in any other way than by hitchhiking. But if I walk two hours through the whole city, I will miss the two hours at Lake Constance later. Besides, I am hitchhiking for pleasure, not out of puritanical purism, even though St Gallen is a Reformation city.
And there comes bus no. 4 already. The gentleman explained everything to me so kindly and helpfully, it would be rude not to follow his advice.
“And from Wittenbach, you can take the train to Romanshorn,” he shouts after me, letting his low confidence in my beginner’s hitchhiking skills shine through.
No, I certainly won’t do that. Back on the road, I will trust only my thumb and my smile. And indeed, in Wittenbach, after only a few minutes, a man stops and drives me almost the whole way to the port. He goes to Egnach, already on Lake Constance and only a short walk from Romanshorn.
It is already the second driver today who introduces himself as someone downplaying the corona virus. “Masks don’t help against viruses at all.” “I refuse to follow all this crap.” And best of all, “You shouldn’t believe everything” from people who, after 10 minutes of YouTube University, think they know everything better than the broad consensus of virologists, epidemiologists, immunologists and medical doctors. And these are the people who are voting in referendums on corporate liability in supply chains, unconditional basic income, and the framework agreement with the EU.
There are people trivializing the corona virus everywhere. But in Switzerland, there’s another aspect: the desire to distance themselves from Germany. “Oh, you’re going to Germany? That’s bad, you have absolutely no freedoms there anymore.” I keep hearing that, as if Germany were North Korea, just because gyms and cinemas have been closed. It is always uttered with ostensible pity (“you poor Germans”), doing an inadequate job of concealing the Swiss sense of superiority and condescendence.
But I don’t want to argue with people. First, I’m a guest in their car. Second, it’s useless. Third, I am glad for anyone who is not afraid of infection and therefore willing to give me a ride.
The driver drops me off at the hiking and biking trail along the lake, because I want to walk the last few kilometers. It’s a beautiful day, with views of Lake Constance on one side and the Alps on the other.
On the lakeside footpath, a stressed-looking man with a builder’s uniform and blueprints under his arm approaches me: “Tell me, is it half past eleven already?”
“Yes,” I confirm, “it’s 11:35.”
“I don’t believe it! Where on Earth is he?” the waiting person is furious with the 300-second delay of his colleague, boss or customer. Normally, the Swiss are so punctual; here, even women show up reliably and to the minute for a date.
To continue hitchhiking in Germany, I thought that I will talk to motorists on the ferry to Friedrichshafen to find out if anyone is going to Bavaria.
That’s a great plan, I am thinking to myself.
Unfortunately, the port in Romanshorn and the ferry look as empty as if a naval blockade had been imposed. Hopefully the sea mines have not been laid yet.
Distance-wise, Lake Constance is not the halfway point. I have 70 km behind me and at least 360 km ahead of me. But mentally, the water and the international border, the leisurely cruise and the return to the EU make me think that I am halfway there, so I am relaxing. Relaxing too much, as it will turn out later. But I don’t suspect anything of that yet, while enjoying these views:
Very briskly and very narrowly passing the quay wall, the ferry heads into the harbor of Friedrichshafen. Perfectly parked. A modernist-style building, now the Zeppelin Museum, and a hangar at the harbor reveal what the city was really built for.
For the people of Friedrichshafen, Lake Constance soon became too small, and they wanted not only to reach the other shore, but other continents. So they built airships and flew to New York, Tokyo, Los Angeles and Rio de Janeiro.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a ticket for the airship, and we know from the movies how harsh their ticket inspectors are.
Far less harsh are the German police, supposedly controlling the supposedly strict coronavirus protection measures when entering oh-so-strict Germany. An empty police car is guarding the border, the officers are out to lunch.
A good idea! I’ll get myself the first kebab after two weeks of abstinence, because in Switzerland, this staple food costs a whopping 10 euros, for which in Germany you get two kebabs, or even three on student discount.
For the Swiss friends who believe that in Germany everything is frozen in quarantine, here are a few photos of Friedrichshafen:
People are strolling, eating, holding hands, kissing, dancing, singing and jumping here, too. And unlike in Switzerland, you can even lie down on the grass, smoke, barbecue in the park and pee in the bushes. There are no signs prohibiting this and that and telling you where to do what, but finally there is graffiti again, and people don’t put their empty beer bottles in the trash can, but deliberately next to it, so that the bottle collectors can make a living as well. Even the monument to Kaiser Wilhelm II is not taken seriously by anyone.
The Corniche of Friedrichshafen has a flair of cities by the sea, like Nice or Sukhumi. It is so beautiful, also thanks to the Swiss mountain panorama from the other side of the sea, that I would love to stay a few days.
Only with the firm resolution to come back for a trip around Lake Constance, I finally tear myself away. Now, somehow, I have to hitchhike northeast, in the direction of Bavaria. I walk to the beginning of highway B30, which leads to Ravensburg and Ulm – not yet able to imagine what headaches this highway will give me today. It will turn into a veritable way of the cross.
How or if I manage to continue the journey at all will be seen in part 2. There, you will also hear what the 50 Hail Marys are all about.
If you want to move faster, a little planning helps. For example, I could have asked to be dropped off in a better spot in St Gallen. And on the German shore of Lake Constance, I would have been better off hitchhiking to Lindau, where the motorway A96 begins. But more about that in part 2.