Point Alpha

6/24, Point Alpha Foundation, East/West border outside of Geisa

(((This post was one of the most difficult I’ve written thus far. Not because of the content, though those are certainly coming; it was because this experience was incredibly surreal and difficult to put into words. Sure, we were all a little loopy from the heat, but it was mostly because the reality of a divided Germany is so near in our history. I was born in a world with an Iron Curtain. Trying to wrap my brain around that has taken more time than I imagined it would, but in trying to be both chronological and diligent, this needs to get out in writing (hopefully to be amended in the future). So, I apologize for my narrative writing and lack of articulation regarding this incredible experience. Just take my word for it: it was profound. And if you’re ever near the border of Hesse and Thuringia, PLEASE go visit Point Alpha Stiftung.)))

 

On a 100 degree day in former East Germany…

Only the best stories start that way, right? We had a full day scheduled at the Point Alpha Foundation, starting with the interpretive center/museum, where we were able to meet a former West German guard who shared many of his personal experiences with us. We also had an ambitious hike along the former East-West border planned for our afternoon at Point Alpha. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t cooperating, and we also didn’t want people to get sick less than halfway into our trip. So, an abridged version of the walk was planned.

We started the morning at Point Alpha with our guide Wolf, who works for the Foundation. Though a quick tour through the building, both the depth and the importance of the information conveyed there was apparent. Though I was alive for the last few years of the Cold War, I didn’t experience a truly divided world. In suburban Minneapolis, I and others around me were mostly insulated from the true conflict and upheaval of the world we lived in. To be in a place, and to meet with people who had experienced that division personally changed my understanding of the conflict. Now, getting to teach about it, continually learning about it, talking to people who experienced it both directly and indirectly, I am continuing to understand the severity of the threat that many people all over the world felt in their daily lives.

The lives of those who lived in Vacha, Geisa, and many other border cities were immeasurably impacted. Families split by the border were unalterably damaged. We heard from someone who served as a West German guard during the Cold War, and as he spoke, I shuddered to think of the psychological warfare that was carried out against those loyal (or merely perceived to be loyal) to the democratic, capitalist West.

We had the chance to walk to border, and saw replicas of the fence, barbed wire, and Shepard dog houses for those animals charged with patrolling the border (they don’t call them German Shepards in Germany. Huh.) We climbed the NATO observation post (OP Alpha), and cast our gaze on Geisa, which was the Westernmost city of the former East Germany at one point.

Along the border now also exists the Path of Hope, which serves not only as the former road that ran along the border, but now has 14 sculptures depicting the Stations of the Cross, giving new meaning to the border and the journey that people take as they walk along it.

Point Alpha was  particularly notable for so many reasons, not the least of which was because it was a location on the Fulda Gap, which is the likely place the Warsaw Pact forces would have used to gain entry into Western Germany, had the Cold War broken out into actual hot warfare.

All told, I wish I could tell you more about military strategy and the Fulda Gap, and the logistical reality of the danger that was possible at this place. I wish I knew more about the experiences of those in border towns and those who crossed the border to visit family and friends. I wish we could have walked the several miles into Geisa along the border. Instead, what I can tell you is that the number of meaningful experiences I had at Point Alpha on a sweltering June day was too many to effectively convey. What an unforgettable day.

MC Lean

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A brief intro to German schools…and German bier.

6/22 Neumarkt, written in Geisa

This afternoon we had another school visit. This time, it was an all-girls’ realschule in a town called Neumarkt. It was an incredible visit; the young women we met were bright, well-spoken (in what was a third or fourth language for them, as they were all studying French in school), and so pleasant.

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They put together a presentation for us, including things like the structure of their schooling, their future careers, extracurricular opportunities, and what they do in their free time. One of the most surprising things though, was that the vast majority of them had very specific career plans. While one girl didn’t know what life was going to hold for her, most of the girls had particular ideas of what they wanted to do, and knew specifically what it would take to get them there. This is certainly the result of the German Dual System, and the fact that we were visiting a realschule. I’ll say lots more on the Dual System in a future, dedicated post, but this graphic provides a brief introduction to the various types of secondary schools that exist in Germany today.

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In the midst of this wonderful visit, there was a strange moment for the American teachers. The lovely woman who gave up her day off to show us around and have her students present was interpreting questions from us for the girls. We were curious how they felt about the single-gender schooling, and the differences they saw in classes and social experiences. The teacher then asked how they liked math and science classes, and the girls kind of muttered responses. The teacher then responded by making a comment about how girls aren’t as good at math as boys are, and that they were glad not to share that class with them.

“Hold on,” I actually said to myself. What did she just say?! I looked around to see if anyone else thought this was strange, and it appeared that a number of us were taken aback by this. It may have just been a perfect example of cultural misinterpretation, it might have been German sarcasm that was lost on me, or it may have just be a distinct difference between this particular school and my experiences in education. I certainly can’t speak for the experiences of 14 other teachers, but I would imagine a good number of us have the experience not only of gender equality in terms of academic abilities and performance in math and science classes, but I would venture to guess that most of us had the opposite experiences, with high school girls asserting themselves academically and socially in ways that American boys don’t (which happens for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is heavily influenced by biology). This is certainly not to discount the abilities and intentions of high school males generally, but I think modern American teachers would be hard-pressed to find distinct gender-based achievement differences in our students.. In any case, the visit was wonderful, and we were grateful for our hosts and our experiences at Staatliche Realschule für Mädchen.

After our school visit, we stopped at Winkler Bräu for lunch and a tour of the German brewing process. Beer is an important part of German heritage, stemming from the days when it was safer to drink beer than water in most of Europe. This year is also the 500th anniversary of the Reinheitsgebot, which is a German purity law that regulated the ingredients that could be put in beer in 1516. Beer in Germany represents a really interesting intersection of church and state–for a long time, beer was primarily home-brewed or brewed in monasteries and abbeys (for more info about this, check out the German Beer Institute–yes, that exists. It gives a really, really interesting history of brewing in Germany, and other things). It did, and still does, have a strong connection to various Christian denominations, but none moreso that a few Catholic traditions. Monastery brewing is still frequent in Germany, and the Benedictines, both then and now, lead the way. It’s not a true German experience without at least a brewery or two on the itinerary, and TOP 2 is doing its best to fulfill that obligation.

Right now, we’re staying in the very small, very quaint town of Geisa, courtesy of the Point Alpha Foundation, which we’ll be visiting in a few days. Our lodging is in a former castle, and has incredible views of the town and the countryside. It reminds me a lot of the Tuscan countryside, but with Germany efficiency, so it’s a great combo that has led to a wonderful experience.

This is wont be the last mention of the German school system, or German beer–stay tuned for a more complete explanation of each! Thanks for sticking with me–

MC Lean