Sunday, November 29, 2009

Back to School in Hannover

While Hannover is not recognized as being a tourist's city, it's hard to imagine why. In any other country Hannover would be a city not to be missed. It has a war-torn history, beautiful architecture, a pedestrian only tourist strip, and all number of sites worth visiting.

But all that would come later. First stop? The university.

As I said, I've been staying with a couple of students, and part of the student lifestyle - though one often overshadowed by fraternities fighting each other in some sort of slow, stop motionesque form, with sharp swords – is heading to class.

The university is held within an old palace. Because there are more than enough palaces to go around in Germany. Out front there was, of course, a statue of a horse. But strangely enough there was no rider on it. Now, I'm told this mirrors the symbol of the Saxony – but I just can't trust a riderless horse. Not when it seems to be the only one in all of Europe.

Nevertheless, into the university I headed where I passed by a room that the students had taken over in a form of protest. For the past few weeks they have been sleeping in the lecture hall and – I can only assume – watching large movies on the projector and screen included with all lecture hall takeovers. Apparently they are protesting the newly established fees charging students five hundred euro a semester for their university education.

And then? Into the adjacent lecture hall for a thrilling hour of Chemical Engineering. Now you may think to yourself, as an English teacher that Chemical Engineering must have been completely over your head. That subject matter must have made it impossible to understand. But no – the subject matter was not an impediment to my neo-education at all. Mind you, the fact that I was in Germany, and as such the whole lecture was, obviously, in German? Well that may have prevented some of my potential learning.

Still – I could follow along with all the pretty pictures on the power point slide show. One had a big shiny (well made of squares, circles, and triangles) firetruck. Apparently it was about how the force exerted by the hose needs to be counter balanced or the whole truck will go flying backwards. There was laughter at this slide. Apparently it was hilarious. Oh those engineers!

Strangely enough though, I did take quite a lot away from the experience. For the first time in ages I was given the operation to watch a teacher in action. Without understanding the language at all, I could focus completely on the pacing, the tools used, and the connection with the students. This man was a master of the pause. He knew just when to stop talking, how to look around, and when to start back up again.

The tools of personal projectors, and laptop computers? When I get back to teaching I'll definitely need to add these to my arsenal. I can only think of the hours I'll waste pulling together power points, and collective videos and pictures from the internets. Still – my vast knowledge on pop culture should be used for something slightly productive, yeah?

But Hannover isn't all riderless horses, and lectures – no there's more to it. Much much more. Well a little more. No – much more. And the first place one should head when trying to get an understanding of the city? The rathause building. The city hall, aside from being an impressive spectacle to step into, and wander around through (no guards checking you, most doors unlocked – very trusting, these Germans are.) - yes aside from all this, there is another reason to visit this building. The four models of Hannover.

Each of them look as if they have been constructed by the most compulsively obsessed miniaturist forming all the buildings, streets, and features to exact details. And while this, alone, makes for a unique experience (and a way to find your way around the city, if you're without a map) it is the differences between the four large setups that holds the importance.

Model one: Hannover as it was during the seventeen century. It is a moated city, surrounded by walls and guard towers. Few gates allow access to the inner sanctum. And while none of the moats, and little of the walls exist today, many subway stations still hold their name from the old gates.

The final model is Hannover as it exists today, much larger, sprawling ever outward, detailing the streams, ponds, and building of importance, like the Rathause I was currently standing in, and those of lesser importance to the general populace, like the apartment I was staying in. On the model, I could point out the very window I looked through earlier in the morning to judge, correctly, that it was indeed raining.

Then you can look back in time once more, to the city during a golden age. It's 1939, and the streets are packed with the style of buildings one would expect Germany to have built up from the nineteenth and twentieth century. there is a domed building offset from the centre, the Rathouse had been completed, and the train station is in marvelous working order. German efficiency has seen to it that this city grow by leaps and bounds from its medieval beginnings. And for a while, all was good.

It is, however, the remaining model that holds the most importance, carries the most weight, and bears the most inspection. This model, as fully detailed as the other three, shows Hannover as it existed during 1945. It is the aftermath of World War II, and Hannover, being a town of industry, creating tanks to roll out onto the front lines to meet the allied forces in battle, has not been spared.

Not in the least.

Church roofs have been blown away, leaving only foundations still standing, apartments have been reduced to rubble, the train station is nothing more than steel girders, and fragmented coverings. Streets are full of debris, and the town is – much less than it was only six year earlier. Hannover is a city in its final moments.

One can hardly imagine what a land full of rubble that had once been homes, schools, and workplaces would look like. It's something that exists in small frames, and quick cuts in Hollywood movie – but it is never experience on the sweeping scale of a full city nearly wiped completely away.

It's strange to watch the citizens walk past the models, checking them over one by one, passing by with some thought, but little reflection, and then reaching the one of 1945. It is there that most, from small children, to old men and women stop, stare, and for just a moment look as if they will be unable to move on.

I wonder what they think. And I wonder how their thoughts differ. This is not some fantasy reconstruction, no post apocalyptic prediction of things to come. This is a real city; this is their city. The children may wonder, or simply find themselves entertained. The elderly may remember the streets just as they are now shown. And for hundreds more, not unlike myself, they may just think about how anything like this could have ever been allowed to happen – and if something like this may ever strike again.

Just behind the city hall there is a large pond. A small river leads under the street, connecting it with another body of water. This one far grander. And for a moment all I can think about is how I missed seeing it on the models just moments before.

It is a large lake, almost a perfect rectangle. While beautiful, it is orderly, sterile, and without creativity. It was a product of Hitler's grand design. A make-work project for the people. If no work exists, then work will be created, even if it results in people digging on their hands and knees to create an aquatic setting in a city previously without.

A testament to this creation sits at the near corner of the lake. It is a large towering column topped with a man carrying a torch. Engraved into the column's side is an eagle clutching a wreath in its talons. Pointing to the scratched empty interior of the wreath I am met with the statement, “you can guess what used to be in there.”

So much of the city, so much of Germany, seems like beauty and forward thinking wrapped in a cloak made from sins past. There is more guilt here than in the halls of a catholic church. And while it's understandable – the people being taught through school that the war was their fault, and that it is their responsibility to ensure it never happens again, it must make it hard to move on and live in the present. When so many things are dragging you back to a history you had nothing to do with, how will you ever be free to set your own path?

It is important to note, however, that this constant reminding that the current generation must never allow themselves to become as once was, has worked to turn Germans into some of the nicest, friendlies, and most wiling to help and share what they have, people in all of Europe.

Lunch was a chocolate croissant and a Berliner. This is a jelly donut. This is the Jelly donut that JFK proudly claimed he was, when calling out, “Ich bin ein Berliner!” The Germans, being gracious hosts, proudly allowed him this mistake, and worked to create myths, explanations, and reasons why his statement was not only correct – but far more correct than the correct statement would have been. Germans: so willing to help.

There is a subway station here designed to look like “New York City.” The whole interior is covered with commissioned graffiti, and connections between Hannover and NYC. And looking at it, I can only ask why we do not allow for this back in Toronto? Yes we have some historical column reproductions at the Museum station, but really? That's somewhat lacking. Tiles with names? Please. Embrace your future, Toronto – embrace your future.

And then, of course, we walked through a Christmas village. And then we past through a Christmas village, before ending up at, that's right, a Christmas village. You know – Germany may have a higher concentration of Christmas towns than decades later, post-war, guilt. And that's something.

If you want little feet made out of a type of stone that floats on water, or little wooden – things – or even all the hot wine you could ask for then you've come to the right place. Otherwise? You best be moving on. Some of the locals find them a little tacky, and have few good things to say about them – but I'll be honest with you, they're rather quite magical.

In the centre of the largest market there was a pyramid with toy soldiers on it, and a large fan / propeller on top. I'd seen these before, but never knew why the propeller existed. The answer, so obvious to those who live here, is that little versions of these often adorn dinner tables through the Christmas season. They hold a number of candles as well, and the heat from the flames rises, causing the propeller to spin, moving the entire setup.

Back at the apartment, sausages and mashed potatoes were devoured in front of the television, while The Simpson's played with “wrong” voices, speaking in German. Though I'd never seen the episodes before (having avoided the last ten seasons) I discovered that the Simpson's were incredibly simple to follow along with even without knowing what's being said.

After dinner the night ran from Eleven o'clock to four in the morning, meeting up with a group of people in yet another apartment, heading to a club en mass, and then watching as one by one everyone decided to bail on the five euro cover charge, and head out for a kebap instead. Ah – kebaps – the official food of late night Europeans.

At the other apartment I learned a few things –

a.) That people from Poland really do seem to feel disgust at the idea of their independence day. While they love their country they're upset that England allowed Germany to keep some of their land after Germany lost the war – they're upset with Germany for so many reasons, Austria is just as bad, and celebrating a day that happened pre-occupation seems strange to most. Apparently the man I met back on the 11th in Krakow wasn't the exception.

b.) Being from North America makes you an oddity that people want to talk to, much as being from Europe works in reverse back home. And this works well – especially when you can't join the group conversations as you have little to no idea what's being said.

c.) I am god awful as fooseball (or Kicker as it's called here.)

d.) really... really... bad.

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