Easter in Germany
Elke invited me to celebrate Easter with her family, who live about two hours from Berlin. They were so kind and welcoming that I felt completely at home, despite the language barrier. They live in eastern Germany, meaning they were under communist rule for decades (Elke’s sister speaks Russian as a second language). The trees in the photo above are pine, or, in German, Kiefer. I’ve been addicted to the show 24 lately and every time I see Kiefer Sutherland now I think, ‘There’s ol’ Pine Tree Sutherland.’
I tried several new foods – all delicious. Elke’s mom made us potatoes and quark, which is similar to sour cream. For this dish, small potatoes are boiled with their skins on and then peeled.
Beata, Elke’s sister, made cake for Easter breakfast and their uncle bought us fresh bread from his favorite bakery on Saturday. I commented on how thoughtful he was and Elke said he buys bread for them and all the neighbors every Saturday! I’m moving in.
I also tried Kloesse (potato dumplings) and white asparagus (spargel) soup. I was the only vegetarian of the group, and while everyone ate meat (rabbit, actually) on Easter Sunday, Elke’s father kindly cooked me some cauliflower cakes. Oh yes, and the chocolate! How can I forget the chocolate?! I received a chocolate bunny from Omi (Elke’s grandma) and another chocolate bunny and box of chocolate eggs from Elke’s mom. Did I mention how much I love this family?
I also tried honey from the family’s bees. Elke’s dad is a chef by profession, but an apiarist by hobby. Bee farming is done on a much smaller scale in Germany than in America, though Elke’s Dad, with 100 crates, has more bees than most.
Their town is small and the younger people are moving away. In fact, Elke’s school closed because there aren’t enough children to attend. People don’t go to restaurants or bars to hang out, but rather share a beer in the garden – a beer garden, if you will. I asked how people met new people and Elke said there are special events, such as the Easter Fire (see photo above), a tradition the GDR once squashed, but that the people have since been brought back.
Another tradition that’s making a comeback: the Sorbs mischievously moving people’s lawn ornaments, outdoor furniture, etc. on Easter night. The Sorbs are the original Germans, Western Slavic people who moved to the area centuries ago and who still wear traditional dress (but who are part of modern society). They have their own language and are a protected minority.
They take their Easter eggs seriously in Brandenburg, as evidenced by the expo we visited at a local museum. They pin a hole in a real egg to remove the yolk and decorate it using dye, paint, etching, etc. Their skill impressed me and I wondered if they work in any other medium besides eggs. A few vendors sold other products, including woven mittens and body butter. I sampled the latter, thinking I was applying shea butter to my hands but it turns out I was rubbing ostrich fat into my skin.
I didn’t see a lot of graveyards in Germany. Due to lack of space, people rent plots for 25 years or so and then give them up. Elke said by that point most people are sick of visiting you anyway, because tradition requires that you do all sorts of special things, including keeping fresh flowers on the grave all the time (always in a bouquet of 5, 7 or 9). I asked what happens to the old bodies and apparently after 20 years, there is not much left. The bleak photo above shows the burial ground for Soviet soldiers, who plan on staying forever.
Elke’s family lives not too far from a Unesco World Heritage Site – Muskauer Park, created by Prince Hermann von Puckler-Muskau in the 1800s. He dedicated his life to traveling the world (unusual for Germans at the time) and having fun while seeking out ideas to develop his massive garden back home.
This makes him seem pretty cool, but, oddly, his former castle has been transformed into a museum that makes him sound like an arrogant jerk. For example, while his wife was stuck at home, he wrote to her about all the beautiful women he was meeting and carrying on with.
A sample diary entry: “Muskau is, and will remain, my profession and my pleasure. I get up at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, wash and groom myself, have breakfast by myself and read, attend to my correspondence, compose occasionally, and smoke many Turkish pipes until about 8 o’clock when I go down to the table without ever having left my beloved dressing gown of Oriental cut. Company consists of Lucie and two guests from the town. Good nourishment is sufficiently provided and there will be no lack of Champagne, Bordeaux and Cyprus wine, of truffles from Perigord and meat pies from Strasbourg, or other delicacies…” Who am I kidding – I want this guy’s life!
But he was a hypersensitive jerk who played pranks on people and asked his wife for a divorce – after blowing all her money on his gardens – so he could find a new wealthy heiress. In the end, he could no longer afford Muskau (what his family called their property) and sold his home to Dutch royalty. The castle was bombed in WWII and only recently reopened as a museum.
The gardens are lovely and, due to post-war border shifts, span Germany and Poland. Thus, I can now say I walked to Poland!
The area used to be well known for coal mining, but that industry has faded. Miraculously, the government found a way to transform the pits into man-made lakes and the areas are becoming popular summer spots with tourists and locals.
On Saturday, we drove to Dresden, where Elke studied. The city is famous for its art and several buildings only recently reopened after undergoing post-war renovations. That’s the opera house behind us.
And on my last day, we stopped in Germany’s “Little Venice,” Spreewald, as well known for it’s pickles as its waterways.
Thank you, Elke and Family, for an unforgettable holiday!