Susanne comes from a knitting dynasty: her mother, her mother’s mother, her mother’s mother’s mother (and, no doubt further back in time still) – all great and prolific knitters. The flat upstairs is filled with evidence of this prowess. There are baskets of knitted socks and shawls. There is a chair full of stuffed toys in the lounge and a basket of knitted cakes and fruit and veggies in the kitchen. There is another basket of pumpkins and mushrooms on the stairs leading up to the flat. (I’m sure there is far more lurking in cupboards along with a huge amount of stash elsewhere).
Now, without realising, but noticing subtle differences in the environs almost subconsciously, I crossed over the old border from West to East Germany (the GDR) at Hirschberg. One of the differences I noted was the lack of knowledge of English language in older folk – I asked several people in Hirschberg if they knew where I could find food or a place to camp – even using my ‘point it’ book – but several waved me away, not wanting to know or help. A young guy later stopped his car and went out of his way to help – so this unwillingness really wasn’t universal. Susanne explained that there were also many more restrictions laid on people this close to the border before they were opened 27yrs ago.
I also noticed high rise blocks of flats on the outskirts of Plauen and coming into Aurebach (reminded me of the Phipps Bridge Estate in Mitcham) and asked Susanne about them: she said these had been ‘des-res’ apartments when they were built – they were centrally heated and the low rent included everything, even water and electricity – whereas the alternative was expensive, large, older properties which were hard to keep warm and falling down through lack of maintenance. Now many of them lie empty and abandoned.
Susanne had been 18yrs old when the Berlin Wall came down. She told me Plauen had also been part of the GDR – hence the dilapidated grand old buildings on the outskirts of the city. She can remember a time when shelves in the supermarkets were pitifully empty and gets mildly irritated with young people who get fussy about a couple of brown spots on a banana as she can remember when there were queues for hours for an exotic rarity like an orange or a banana.
Susanne’s family have lived in Schönheide for generations and she is proud of this fact, but not so proud of being ‘German’ – because of the two World Wars. She used to work for an organisation that facilitated language and cultural exchange visits between American and German students. American youngsters would often arrive just looking to have a good time and neglect the more serious aspects of their stay, so Susanne would have to take them to task – the most hurtful and painful insult that could be hurled at her was “Oh, you’re such a Nazi”. I tried to interject that I had often felt ashamed to be British on account of our exploits in the British ‘Empire’ – eg. Smashing looms in India to promote the British textile trade, or the massacre of Natives – oh, many such examples. She felt that it was different to be British because, at the end of the day, we won the war.
Travelling by East Germans was severely restricted by the authorities. Susanne has more than made up for any limitations she may have suffered as a youngster – and has travelled to the United States and Canada, Iceland, Eire, UK, most of Europe, New Zealand and now, due to her really cool job, most of Africa.
Susanne is I.T. person (and indispensable jack of all trades) for a Tour Operator called 'Outback Africa' specialising in politically correct Safaris in the South and South East of Africa. The entire small company get to travel to Africa fairly regularly for ‘work’ purposes.
The company work out of a brand new (2yrs old) modern building in a rural village (near where the bosses lives) with a robot lawn mower called Rudy beavering away outside. The robot is hired – and returns to his company for maintenance in the winter months – they get a Christmas card from him! This robot is the second one of its kind I’ve seen – I saw the first outside Auerbach – and hadn’t got a clue what it was – but watched its activity in awe for several minutes before moving on.
It looks to be a friendly company to work for – although Susanne works from home most days and goes in to the office for meetings etc one day a week so she can take an outsider’s view on inevitable office politics. She writes code, photoshops, builds the website to maximise customer appeal and I am in total admiration of her knowledge and many talents. “What about unemployment in the area?”, I ask. Susanne sort of fell into the job she has now – initially working part time, then graduating to a full time job because she was known and valued, when she was made redundant from her other job. Susanne said that many young people left the area when Germany was reunited. People are gradually returning but it has meant that there has been a shortage of labour. “If people don’t have a job, it’s because they don’t want one”, she asserted.
There was much more discussion, debate, information and I could fill several more pages, I think!
While Susanne has worked, I have spent some time with Roswitha – who speaks no English but doesn’t let this get in the way. She chatters away and makes herself understood – eg. When we looked at some of my photographs with the numerous doggy pictures, she made it known that she had been bitten, rather horrifically, by a hound when she was a small child. I spent a lovely half an hour looking at pictures of her birthday tour of Ireland when the women – Susanne, her mother, Susanne’s best buddy Tanya and her grandmother – got together and Roswitha had been treated like the Queen Mum. Susanne gets picture books made up for everyone after their adventures abroad. They are exceptionally well made – and I love her book of her travels through the South West of England – she passed really close to my home in 2011!
However it made me chuckle to hear that her family and friends forbade Susanne to “kiss the Blarney Stone” on their trip to Eire – and I can completely understand why.
My visit has been somewhat complicated by the admission of Susanne’s Dad, Rainer to hospital for investigations into possible kidney pain (transpired it was related to the intestines and not serious). The time elapsed from initial visit to GP and admission to larger hospital was less than 24hours. I was gobsmacked as this process would have taken weeks, if not months in the UK. Susanne explained that there are many hospitals competing for few patients in this area (unlike, eg. Berlin) – and it’s unheard of for there to be more than say, 4 people in one room also, for the same reason. Everyone has health insurance – though there might be a nominal charge of €10 a day for a hospital stay – and, of course, there are private medical insurance schemes available to buy. Roswitha was understandably worried and agitated by this turn of events – I didn’t need language skills to know this – and they were celebrating 47yrs of marriage on the day of his admission. I visited him with Roswitha and Suzanne a couple of times during my stay – the hospital was a clean, modern and inviting place – with racetrack wards built around a central nurses’ station and no more than two patients to each room. He was much better and hopefully preparing to go home after the ward round Monday morning.
Susanne has a married brother with two young boys – and she sounds like a fabulous Aunty with an imaginative and wicked sense of humour. She likes to buy them ‘unsuitable presents’ she says –things she knows they will enjoy but perhaps aren’t allowed in the normal scheme of things – like loud drum kits.
We went for a beautifully peaceful stroll around a lake – an old reservoir now used as a bathing place in summer: there is a small beach where a stream enters the lake where the boys like to play and build dams, she says.
I saw two families of ducklings there – and a duck being chased by two drakes too, so there may well be more in the near future.
Susanne has helped organise an interesting short holiday for me – in between knitting and chatting (and eating Roswitha’s tasty lunches) – I have lounged the day away at Bad Elster spas and baths – with a ‘sports’ massage of my back and arms. I have also got a hair cut (I can see again!) – and visited one of Susanne’s local knitting groups.
Saturday I went to a large Craft gathering in Klaffenbach Castle. It was organised by Karin who runs a yarn/haberdashery/wooden toy shop in the quadrangle of the castle – and there were demonstrations of bobbin lacemaking (over a round cushion, which is a local speciality), knitting, spinning on wheels and spindles, simple frame weaving and tatting. I spent a pleasant day meeting other textile enthusiasts whilst getting on with my own knitting and spindling, and watching the weddings taking place at the Castle (five of them!). I was given a present by the Organiser of some viscose fluff to spin and keep me busy on my adventure, and a small, machine made lace, floral decoration – of the kind that Plauen is famous for, which was really lovely and unexpected.
It was fabulous weather and I caught the sun on my shoulders where the sun lotion was missed. (I hear it’s raining in England – not that I’m gloating as I suspect it will get here sooner or later).
When we got back to Susanne’s house, we had an assignation in Roswitha’s front room. Treats (chocolates, nibbles) laid out on the table with sparkling Prosecco and elderflower cordial – all to be taken whilst watching the German version of “Strictly Come Dancing” – I was quite happy knitting whilst not understanding a word, or knowing any of the German celebs either. Watching “Let’s Dance” together is a regular feature of Susanne and Roswitha’s Friday nights. (I asked what Rainer does, when he’s home – and, apparently he disappears off to his office, or just goes to bed early! He has football nights with his mates, though – when Roswitha will escape up to Susanne’s flat).
Once again, I have had a thoroughly wonderful time with a local knitter and her family– and even finished the French (flag with a cock) and German (a pretzel) knitted squares, got up to date with daily draws and blogs and finished the border on the baby shawl. Special thanks due to Susanne as she has been instrumental in translating for me, and finding hosts in Germany and just plain throwing herself into my adventure – wouldn’t have been half as good without her help.