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Looking back East

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Just after the wall came down, West German photographer Karlheinz Jardner set off on a road trip to capture images of a society that would soon rapidly transform.

In one village, I asked a woman on the street if she could recommend a place to stay, and she sent me to the district nurse. I rang the doorbell, and when the woman opened the door, I said: “Hello. I was told that I might be able to stay here?” She promptly responded: “Yes. My daughter is at the university in Leipzig. You can sleep in her room.”

That was exactly how it happened. Here I was, a total stranger, and this woman was inviting me to stay in her daughter’s room. I was very surprised, and I imagined what it would be like if someone were to ring a stranger’s doorbell back home… This friendly reception was a very special experience for me, and it was with the same sincerity that I would be greeted again and again during my trip. Something else I noticed was the fundamental attitude of my hosts.

People apologized for what they had. At breakfast, for example, they would apologize for the butter being hard — and yet it tasted so good to me! Even when I would tell them that, it seemed that these people felt guilty because they were able to offer me so little. Of course, some were skeptical, especially men, and their skepticism became clear in many conversations. They wanted to know how they would benefit from reunification, and what would happen to their jobs “when all those people start coming over from the West now.” What would happen to their business, their agricultural cooperatives? They were worried about their livelihoods, and not without reason.

Everything Was So Attractively Kitsch. Their hospitality gave me the opportunity to see how people really lived. It is hard to discover anything about the way people live just by seeing their homes from the outside. But what I saw in the interiors came as a surprise to me: bookshelves with nutcrackers, bier steins and decorative plates, and entire sets of furniture that made me realize: You’ve seen this before! In the Ruhr region, they call it “Gelsenkirchen Baroque.” (Veneered “paunchy, shiny furniture sets) It all looked so tacky to me, and yet there was something private and cozy about the way they lived.

From Spiegel Online

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