Some months ago I went to Chile. I was on the retreat that Garance and her amazing team organized for the Art of Self Discovery.
For me, it turned out to be a look into the past. To my childhood, over thirty years ago. I grew up in East Germany during socialism times. Throughout the retreat, pictures from that time came back to my mind and I felt strongly connected to my roots.
At first I was confused. You know, you are in this magical place, on a holiday. Well, it was a little exhausting too – like early morning yoga classes (I missed only one), workshops to dive deep into your soul, a little wine… maybe a little more. What the hell was going on? I was thinking of long forgotten situations, but they seemed so present in that moment…
Suddenly I was thinking of Erich Honecker (the most powerful politician in East Germany) and his wife, Margot with the purple hair. We called her ‘purple dragon’ because she was one of the most disliked politicians of the time. As Minister of National Education, she introduced a strictly socialist education system that even included military lessons at schools. She was responsible for the forced adoption of children of incarcerated individuals / people who attempted to desert from the GDR. They emigrated to Chile (a consideration for the admission of Chilean refugees after the 1973 military coup)… and I kept thinking: I wonder how they lived here?
On the retreat, we had this three course meal with a delicious dessert and I remembered how it was like to eat with my family in earlier times. When my Mum took out the chocolate for dessert – “the West chocolate” – to be precise. We got them once in a while from our relatives in West Germany when they’d send us parcels with all the nice, fascinating things we couldn’t get in the East. And these things smelled so good. It was the smell of the big wide world and it was always a family happening to open one of these “West parcels.” We’d peek inside to find coffee, cocoa, chocolate, cosmetics, toys, and of course clothing. I remember desperately wishing myself a pair of “West jeans,” not the ordinary jeans we could get– poorly cut and made from sub-par material.
I have to tell you that we only ate this chocolate on Saturday evenings and each family member got one piece–it was that special and rare for us. (Maybe my Mum already knew, in the eighties, that sugar is not good for you? :) ) Years later, it was still quite strange for me to see friends eat a whole bar of chocolate on an ordinary day. Once in a while we could buy oranges or bananas in the supermarket, mostly on special occasions like Christmas. But you were not allowed to buy as many as you want: A half banana for adults and one for each child. So we had three bananas to share between my parents, my brother and me. You had to be at the market very early, waiting in a long queue for speciality products. And if you were unlucky, the product was already sold out when it was your turn. We learned to be patient and wait. (To get a car you had to put yourself on a list by the age of 18 and wait up to 12 years!!)
In terms of fashion and electronic devices, we lagged behind Western trends for years. I was over the moon when my Grandma got me a special present from her visit in the West (retired people sometimes got the permission to travel to the West if there was a reason for the visit, like a round-number birthday of a close relative). It was a digital watch (I think Casio) and a very cool sweater. Unfortunately, it was too cool for school. At first my teacher took away my watch and then she forbade me to wear my sweater ever again at school. Luckily, at the end of the day she gave me back my watch. I knew “class enemy” products were taboo, but I wanted to give it a try and see what would happen. The hunger for a bit of individuality in the socialist uniformity…
Back to Chile… On my way to early morning yoga classes I passed by the hotel’s vegetable garden. I always stopped and looked at the beauty of it. It was fascinating how they planted greens in the driest desert on earth. Gardening is another relic of my childhood–it was very popular in the GDR. The garden was a place of happiness. As travelling was not easy it felt like an escape from everyday life, a vacation. A lot of people actually spent the holiday in their small garden cottages – dachas.
And of course it was a place where you could cultivate fruits and vegetables that you couldn’t buy in a shop. It was even supported by the government! You could sell your products on wholesale and you’d get more money for them than what you would pay for the products in the shops. The GDR Economy is another fascinating topic (ex: my parents were only allowed to buy 7.5 square meters of tiles for their bathroom according to the socialist planned economy).
We also had a garden at home with a self-built greenhouse. I am thankful for that and for the possibility to grow up and learn so much about nature. If my Mum could hear this, she would tell the story about what a bad mood I was always in when she asked me to help in the garden. Today, of course, I love the idea of getting my blueberries fresh out of the garden and eating them with my homemade granola in the morning.
Sorry Mum, but in those days I really had better things to do, like watching West TV. With a self-built antenna up on the hill we were able to receive TV programs from the other part of Germany. Often, it was bad quality, especially when the weather conditions were unfavorable, but I didn’t mind. The main thing was that I could watch the latest TV series from America and immerse myself in the colorful world of the country I wasn’t able to visit. We also used it to get information about the political situation. Often, we were better informed about what was happening in the West rather than in our country. It was not totally forbidden to watch West TV, but definitely not welcome. Everybody did it, but nobody talked about it. Sometimes at school, the teacher would ask: What did you watch yesterday? And you better choose your answer carefully.
During the retreat, I met K. from Canada. She was around the same age as my Mum and had German roots. (Her parents actually came from the area in Germany where I live now – small world!) I had an interesting conversation with her about community and how the lack of it affects our society. For me, community characterizes a lot of life in the GDR. The shortages created a society where people helped and supported each other. I liked that. I hate that the political system was the reason for this…but, I still think it is important to integrate that kind of thinking into one’s life now.
Growing up in East Germany, what are the influences I still feel today? Well, I should rather ask what are the influences of having been sandwiched in between two worlds. A surprisingly useful experience for me…
– Travelling, it is the greatest gift.
– Independence, especially as a woman – it was normal that women in the East had their own careers.
– The ability to improvise! But, also patience and creativity. Lack makes you inventive.
– Discipline – you can think whatever you want about the one-sided, performance-oriented education system in the East, but I like it when I’m able to stick to my objectives and to my (workout, haha) routine.
– Curiosity – and longing for something different.
– Change – this has a very special meaning to me. I remember the chants of the people during the breakdown of the GDR. “We want out!” This always reminds me what magic a new beginning has. No matter how scared I feel at moments, I look back and see what change is necessary to evolve.
PS: You know what I got myself during my first visit to the West after the reunification? Pink nail polish and a proper pair of jeans. :)