Dentists are a barometer of economic crisis. Thanks to the corrosive effect of sugar, dentists are never short of a euro. And they are always on the lookout for safe investments.
So obviously I paused for reflection recently when I saw a dentist acquaintance in Berlin loading up his car. His wife, formerly his assistant, was ticking items from a list, just as she used to register the cavities in patients’ molars and incisors. Crate of mineral water? Check. Crate of beer? Check. Picnic cooler bag? Check. Bicycle rack? Check. Blankets, two portable thermos flasks, a portable television (for the Germany vs Australia match). An inflatable dinghy. Mosquito spray.
“You’ll need a whole caravan of camels – thank God, you don’t have children as well,” I said, displaying my usual diplomatic flair.
“Instead we have a house in the country,” said the dentist’s wife, casting a professional glance at my jaw structure. “In Brandenburg.”
Brandenburg, where else? At a stroke I had identified a new urban trend for Berliners: the weekend cottage in the countryside surrounding the German capital. A Prussian finca, if you will.
We have historically low interest rates (which is only fair since banks are getting their money for almost nothing), house prices are low, especially in economically depressed Brandenburg. What could be a better investment in uncertain times than bricks and mortar? The stressed Berliner is discovering the splendid isolation of the eastern German countryside.
Of course, the problem is that the big-city Berliners are finally putting down roots in the east, but without the slightest intention of making contact with the easterners, or Ossis as they’re still known. The new weekenders let their children play in the lakes and recover a kind of rural innocence but tell them not to play with the local kids. As for the adults, they seem to be treating their weekends out of Berlin as a kind of marital therapy. Away from their work, their over-ambitious friends and their Blackberries, couples have to talk to each other.
In case Dagmar wants to talk through their problems a little too intensely, Carsten takes a fishing rod and makes his way out of the house. He naturally hates the enforced stillness of fishing but it is surely better than going down to the village pub and getting to know the Ossi natives.
You will have likely seen the reports on The Local some weeks ago of Gabriela S., an accountant who had left communist East Germany in 1988 to settle in the Stuttgart area. She was turned down for a job and later saw the reason why: a handwritten note on her application form said “Ossi” with a minus sign next to it.
She took the company to court on ethnic discrimination. Her claim was rejected but it has gone into appeal; reason enough for Germans to debate as to whether Ossis really form their own ethnic group after suffering through 40 years of communist dictatorship.
And that certainly is how many of the new weekend colonisers are behaving towards the people that already live there. Brandenburg has become interesting for Berliners because of its spectacular landscapes and solid real estate, but not for its inhabitants.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter too much. The English have bought cottages in Wales for years, and looked down on the Welsh for centuries, yet the world has not collapsed. Buying up Brandenburg may eventually spark some curiosity about the lifestyle and attitudes of the natives. I hope so: I have always been confused by the lack of western curiosity about the east. Why is it that the average Rhinelander would rather go to Disneyland than Mecklenburg?
That is why I would like to see Joachim Gauck, a former civil rights activist in the east, as the next German president. He has the ability to develop intelligently this rather clumsy and unfruitful two-decade-old conversation between the two halves of Germany.
With the government’s proposed austerity programme likely to hit eastern German communities harder than those in the west, the country needs someone with political authority to explain to easterners that the federal government is not fundamentally against them.
These days not even Chancellor Angela Merkel seems to speak up for Ossis even though she’s from the east herself. Make Gauck president and I guarantee that within four years The Left party, which has its roots in the formerly communist half of the country, will have lost half its support.
I am of course aware that my credibility as a prophet has been under strain since my last prediction that Germany’s teen singing sensation Lena Meyer-Landrut could not possibly win Eurovision. The numbers were against Lena as they are against Gauck, who has little chance of being elected later this month. But happily I was wrong about Lena. Hopefully I’ll be wrong again.