April 28th, 2007

Totoro

Deutschland-by-the-Sea

Okay, so I know roughly where I'll be spending next year. I won't know where exactly until June, but until this week, I could have been placed anywhere in Germany (or Austria for that matter). My first choice was the state of Saxony on the Czech border, whilst my second was the state of Hesse in the middle of Germany. I'd have quite liked to have gone to Berlin, or possibly even Saxony-Anhalt, near my Great Aunt in Stendal.

Nope, none of those. I have been allocated my third choice, the state of Schleswig-Holstein. I was quite surprised: after all, my third choice was more a fill-in-the-gaps than my optimal destination. I thought it'd be a welcome change to live somewhere close to the sea, so I chose Germany's most Northerly state as my third choice, and a variation on the hills and forests of my other choices. I didn't expect to be actually assigned it.

S-H is the part of Germany wedged between the North Sea and the Baltic Sea (known in German as the East Sea, or Ostsee). No part of it is very far from the sea, and even the inland areas are bespeckled with various lakes. There are a few hills in Holstein and Lauenburg, but they're quite low, and the rest is flat enough to lead to a local saying that when a neighbour comes for tea from the next village, you can see him leave his house so you know when to put the kettle on.

There's a saving grace. I've specifically requested a small town with a railway station, which saves me from being put in a remote farming/fishing village (or Heligoland, which some have noted shares much in common with Azkaban). I doubt I'll be placed into one of the cities (not that they're very big), so I'd be surprised to find myself in Kiel or Luebeck. The bulk of S-H's population lies in a number of small towns which form the outer edge of Hamburg, similar to how Staines is linked with London without being part of it. This would mean that I'd essentially be a Hamburger like those who have been assigned Hamburg proper. Having said that, I could be placed in Flensburg, on the Danish border where 40% of the population speak Danish as well as German. I could even find myself (as my old German teacher apparently predicted) in Westerland on Sylt, which is the German equivalent of Blackpool.

Parts of S-H I already know. The Grand Duchy of Lauenburg is made up of the lakeland and forested bluffs located to the East of Hamburg and North of the River Elbe, and is thus not too far from the familiar Altmark region of Northern Saxony-Anhalt, where my Great Aunt lives. It's also close to Luebeck, which I visited once, and the airport there is one I've used twice now due to its cheap flights to London Stansted.

I'm disappointed in that I was hoping I could spend my year abroad in a pictureque town nestling in some forested valley within an hour of one of the big cities. Either that or actually being in a city. However, that is South Germany. The Germany that people who have never been there imagine, the Germany of Biersteins, Lederhosen, cowbells, and half-timbered houses. The North is quite different (okay, there are still half-timbered houses, although less of them. There are also cows, but without bells). The North is the Germany I know, where houses are generally shaped like longhouses made of brick, where the oldest buildings are brick rather than stone, and where a hill of 150m altitude gives a panoramic view for miles (something like this).

I also have to adjust my compass. S-H is on the outskirts of Germany. Munich is about as close to Kiel as Cambridge is. Berlin is 3 hours away. I can't go off on grand weekend trips to Prague or France without spending most of that weekend on trains crossing Saxony or Belgium. Hamburg is close, however, and oddly enough, so is Scandinavia. Copenhagen is close enough for a day trip to be possible (albeit it a long one), and ferries leave from Kiel and Luebeck for Baltic locations such as Stockholm, Tallinn and even St. Petersburg. If it's practical, I may well find myself going on trips to Sweden or Norway next year. If it's practical: it costs enough to get to Berlin, or to Thuringia where Holly will be.

It's not a disaster. I considered being by the sea, and whilst I'm unlikely to be actually coastal (and if I am, it could well be a beach resort, which would not be fun), I'll not be far from some lake, firth, or blight. That could well prove interesting, and it'd give me something to show off to anyone who comes to visit me (which is unlikely to be anyone but Holly and possibly the Hamburg people looking for a day trip). I'll end up with sand in my shoes (which I actually hate...).

The North Sea coast is Frisia. That means it's relatively sparsely-populated, absolutely flat, and forms a unique (in the world) mix of mudflats, sandbanks, low islands and salt marsh stretching well out to sea. The Baltic coast is hillier, with more firths, and less sand, with the islands of Denmark lurking on its horizon. If possible, I'd prefer the latter, but we'll see. I could still end up anywhere in the state, be it Westerland or Neumuenster, Ratzeburg or Flensburg: because of this, I cannot make any detailed plans yet.

I still plan to spend the year learning, writing, travelling, and experimenting, however...and maybe learning some Danish...we'll see.