SOUTHERN Germany is seducing me with a magnificent Monday afternoon. It’s uncharacteristically sunny, 14 degrees Celsius and t.shirt weather. And I am observing this all unfurl from the luxury of my First Class train seat aboard German Rail, part of the vast Rail Europe network.
The train winds its way south from Munich, along languid lakes flanked by gregarious Germans, who have flocked outside to sun themselves in the spring sunshine. It’s been a long, cold winter but Germans know a thing or two about being in the wilderness, not only literally but politically, the legacy of two World Wars still a part of the national psyche. But I’ve been travelling to Germany for almost 30 years, even before the Berlin Wall came down, and have had the pleasure of watching Germany blossom.
For nearly three decades I’ve discussed Germany’s politics and social issues with my close German friends – whom I regard as family – as well as strangers. Back in 1987 we were talking about the Berlin Wall, never imaging a few years later we would be discussing its welcome demise. We’ve spoken about the flood of refugees from the east into the west after this globally significant event, the social and economic implications of this, and the rise of neo-Nazism.
On my return to Germany in 2007 we waxed lyrical about World Cup Soccer, which Germany hosted in 2006 and in which they placed third, and I returned in 2014, the same year Germany won the World Cup. My friends told me for the first time they felt they could legitimately be proud to be German and had finally shaken off the shackles of the past. And this sentiment resonated on every street corner.
On this trip, we spoke about Chancellor Angela Merkel, terrorism and the Syrian refugees. And it’s a topic on the tip of almost every German’s tongue. Scratch the surface and while many admire their left-wing leader, there’s mounting concern about what to do with the flood of refugees in a country which already is bursting with a population of 80 million. Right-wing views also exist, with some strangers blatantly offering their opinions that refugees only wish to migrate to western Germany, ignoring the less wealthy east.
Even Merkel herself is said to be backing away from her open-door policy. Some admire her stance of bailing out the Greeks and their financial woes, when other countries have wanted to flee the problem, others says she is too lenient. German National Tourist Board CEO Petra Hedorfer, at an international press conference I attended on this trip, admits that challenges to the nation’s tourism include refugees (and the negative impact on infrastructure); border controls in the Schengen area (which allow free movement between European countries); and reassignment of hotels, trade fair halls and leisure facilities to immigrants. Hedorfer also says terror attacks, racism and Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (PEGIDA), also pose challenges.
My train journey takes me from Garmisch-Partenkirchen, where I am writing some nature stories for a travel magazine, to Nurnberg, and north of Munich, where I have the delight of sampling Bavarian beer, for a major Australian news organisation, for the best part of a week. I visit Magdeburg, a former East German city, for the international German Travel Mart, before I again catch the train to Bremen, to visit my close friends, and then finally on to Berlin, to fly home.
German Rail boasts a reputation of being on time, but long-term travellers say its standards have slipped and on one of my tight connections, where I had just 10 minutes to spare between trains, my train arrived 5 minutes late, making for an uncomfortable race through the crowded station with 20kg of luggage. Days later, my train is 20 minutes late on my journey to Bremen. And then 30 minutes late on my last leg from Hannover to Berlin. Deutsche Bahn Head of International Sales Dr Tobias Heussler admits standards have slipped and for the first time since 2003, the company has made losses. This now-private company intends to invest 50 billion Euro by 2020 into infrastructure. But for the most part, it deserves its efficient reputation and is still tracks ahead of many rail systems around the world. (Queensland Rail, are you reading this?)
Even small train stations such as Garmsich-Partenkirchen have rail offices where you can request a print out of your daily itinerary, including the platforms from which your next train departs, which is extremely helpful when you have only short connections between some trains. While the smaller trains don’t offer a food or drink carriage, larger inter-city trains such as the ICE do. While the beer is good, the food leaves a little bit to be desired.
My train journey ends in Berlin, which is fitting as this is where my conversations about Germany began some 30 years ago. I’m staying for one night at the Hotel NH Collection Berlin Friedrichstrasse – part of the Preferred Hotels & Resorts group – which is one easy underground stop from Berlin’s main train station. This 240-room hotel overlooks the Altmarkt and captures the essence of Berlin with its funky art depicting city scenes and landmarks. It also offers a free “lazy Sunday” 5pm checkout. I’ve fallen in love with Berlin over the years and this brief afternoon is one of the world’s truly great cities is no different. From my hotel, which is smack bang in the centre, I easily amble in one direction along Under der Linden towards the Brandenburg Gate which epitomises historical Berlin. I then wander in the other direction past the Berlin Museum towards the city’s modernised quarter of Hackeschehofe, home to countless alleyways bursting with eclectic art. Around me, there’s an invisible line where the Berlin Wall once stood.
All too often, when Australians dream of travelling to Europe they speak of the “sexy” destinations like Italy and France. And yes, Germany has weathered its seasons of major challenges and will continue to do so while it remains one of the powerhouses of European politics. But history has continually proven that this is a strong, smart country capable of overcoming great adversity. Check it out. Spring is in full bloom and Germany is in the wilderness no more.
The Global Goddess travelled on a first-class German Rail Pass (5 days within one month) as a guest Rail Europe – http://www.raileurope.com.au. She stayed in the NH Collection in Berlin – http://www.nh-collection.com/de/hotel/nh-collection-berlin-friedrichstrasse, part of the Preferred Hotels & Resorts group (www.preferredhotels.com), thanks to the assistance of Preferred Hotels & Resorts. For more information on Germany contact The German National Tourist Office – http://www.germany.travel
LAST Friday I was attacked by a man I had never met before in a supermarket car park in Brisbane. I use the word attacked because while it was not physical, it was very verbal and extremely emotional and at one point, I believed he was about to become physical. I could also use the word abuse. So what prompted this attack? While parking my car, I had mistakenly parked over two car spaces, as the white lines indicating where to park had faded. It was a tight two spaces, because a tree in the corner had uprooted the bitumen, so I chose to park as far away from the uprooted bitumen as possible.
What happened next rattled me. As I alighted from my car, an angry white male, in his late 50s to early 60s, was standing there, screaming at me, saying he had wanted to park in the space beside me (for the record, there were plenty of empty car parks around). And in an absolute rage he started roaring: “Just take a look at yourself Sweetie!” At first, I didn’t know what I’d done and then I pointed out that I simply could not see where the white lines were meant to be. He paused and agreed with me, stating he had already complained to the shopping centre about this. Which I would have thought was the end of the argument. But then he came menacingly close, and just kept yelling at me: “Take a good look at yourself Sweetie!” The only thing I could do was mutter: “Don’t call me Sweetie”, which further infuriated him as he spat out the word “Sweetie” over and over again, at one point stepping close as if he was going to hit me. Eventually he drove off, and I sat in my car and wept. I cried because I was shocked, scared and stunned at the blatant sexism of this man.
I texted a male friend who urged me to call the police. But I argued the man had not committed any real crime. At the same time a female friend texted and she insisted I make my complaint to shopping centre management, which I did, feeling embarrassed and foolish the whole time, as I wept and shook. They were kind, giving me water and tissues and recording my complaint, but essentially powerless to do anything. As I drove home, without my groceries, I wondered what would have happened had I been dressed in a burqa. I’ve been thinking for weeks about writing about the simmering anger that seems to be pervading Australian streets right now, but until this incident, I felt unable to articulate this new paradigm.
I am not, for one minute, suggesting last week’s incident compares at all to what is happening to peace-loving Muslims in Australia right now. If there are any parallels to be drawn, it’s how unjustifiably angry and disenfranchised some Australians seem to be. And how prepared they are to act on this anger. And that scares me. In the past week, there’s been numerous reports of attacks on Muslim people simply going about their business. A woman in a burqa being set alight by a man; another woman having hot coffee thrown on her from a car window; Muslim kids in a kindergarden in lockdown to protect their safety. Every single day, there’s something nasty and new against Muslim Australians.
I’m horrified and disgusted by what’s happening to our country right now. And ashamed. I love Australia and I believe we are a big country with a big heart. There’s no room for bigotry. And no room for stupidity. For a Prime Minister who is meant to be showing leadership, I’m appalled that all Tony Abbott has achieved is whip up a culture of pure hatred. I’m stunned that those attacking everyday Muslims going about their business are so ill-informed that they cannot separate the radicalism of those who support the Islamic State from everyday people who look a little different. Given our long record of immigration and multiculturalism, I’m bemused when somebody accuses someone else of being “un-Australian”. I am yet to see a definition of what being an “Australian” is. Is it in how I dress? The colour of my eyes, hair and skin? What I eat or don’t eat? Does it lay in my religion or lack of faith?
The day after I was abused in the car park, I returned to the shopping centre, as I still needed to get my groceries. And for the first time, I felt fear. But as my morning progressed, I realised that Australians are essentially good people. He’ll never know it, but I thank the man who accidentally bumped into my grocery bags, and then stopped to apologise. Another man let me go first in the queue, even though it was his turn. And so, my confidence returned and more interestingly, I found myself remembering to be compassionate towards others. Yes, we’re Australians, but we are also global citizens, who happen to be incredibly lucky to either be born or have immigrated to this amazing land Down Under. This largely peaceful place of droughts and flooding rains. Of sunshine, beaches, barbecues, rainforests, reefs and yawning Outback. An attack, whether it is by a terrorist organisation, or an angry man in a car park, has always been likely. But a life lived in fear is no life at all.
OUT on the patio we sit, and the humidity we breathe. 1980s Aussie rock band GANGgajang is on stage, stating the obvious on a scorching summer day, which feels like Satan himself has tossed a hot blanket over the entire Woodford Festival site. There is no respite from this cauldron so I have two choices, to complain (which strangely doesn’t make it any cooler) or, as GANGgajang states, laugh and think…this is Australia.
Under the big canvas of the Blue Lotus tent, Mary-Lou Stephens – author of Sex, Drugs and Meditation – has lured me in with her talk entitled “Change Your Life Without Doing Anything”. It’s an enticing concept, borne from Stephens’ tortured childhood and time spent in silent meditation retreats.
“I changed my life, saved my job and found a husband through meditation,” she tells the sweltering crowd. But, we quickly learn, it’s not as simple as all that.
“I grew up in a charismatic, Christian family. I was told at the age of eight by my mother that I was a prophet, a healer. My mother was desperate for me to be special in some way,” Stephen says.
“I developed a lot of addictions and had a childhood described as being akin to growing up in an alcoholic household. I never knew what to expect when I came home. I knew my family was different to everyone else’s family and I was embarrassed to bring my friends home to this.
“There is an urban myth that the youngest child is spoilt. But by the time your parents get around to you they are tired. They don’t care what you do. I grew up a victim of gross neglect. I grew up wild and feral, stealing money and food.”
So damaging was her childhood, that one of Stephens’ brothers died from alcoholism and two of her sisters nearly died from anorexia. And while she went on to have a successful career with the ABC, even that was not without its anxieties – at one point she was using heroin and speed just to get up in the morning. But through meditation she not only conquered this, but went on to meet the man she would marry.
“I had been very bad at relationships. I had been like a frightened animal. I just felt so trapped and vulnerable,” she says.
“But I discovered there is a thin membrane between the conscious and subconscious. When we meditate we drop into a different place, into that place which really drives us.
“Even the most hideous thing, the most painful thing, will eventually change.”
Change, it emerges, becomes my personal theme for this year’s Woodford Festival. Even Australian musician Gotye has gone back to his roots and is performing as somebody that we used to know, with his original band – The Basics. Later that day I stumble across The Lettering House, Woodford’s first post office. Here you can send real letters, strung on a washing line with pegs, but also leave a random note to a stranger. I find this concept too seductive to resist and hence pen a note which simply says: “To the man of my dreams. Please find me…”
The next day I happen across the postie on her push bike. She looks so cool amid the heat I ask to take her photo. There’s no letter for me, but an unexpected compliment after the final click of my shutter. “You have the cutest smile,” she says, before riding off. That one kind comment from a complete stranger makes me sparkle all day. In return, I attract the most interesting strangers and companions along my Woodford wonderings.
I’m waiting for my breakfast, a tantalising Turkish Gozleme – pastry filled with spinach, cheese and mushrooms – when I encounter a Turkish/Australian woman. Bilge, 34, was born in Istanbul but moved to Australia in 2007 to learn English and is performing in the Fokloricka tent at the festival.
“Have you been to Turkey?” she asks as we wait for the soupy Turkish coffee to boil.
“Yes,” I offer. And in the manner in which many foreigners try to connect to Australians by mentioning a well-known Aussie, I add that I have been to Gallipoli and was deeply touched by former Turkish leader Ataturk.
Quite unexpectedly, fat, salty, serious tears fill Bilge’s eyes.
“I get very emotional about Ataturk,” she smiles through her tears, “he was such a great leader.”
“They say once every 100 years in the world comes along a leader who is a true leader. Ataturk is that man.
“He believed in women and allowed us to work and lose the veil.”
I stay struck by this simple, yet powerful connection I have with Bilge, and memories of this great leader who believed in positive change, for the rest of the day. Down in the Greenhouse, on a subject called Essays From Contemporary Australia, author Ben Law talks about racism, his writer sister Michelle Law about sexism, indigenous curator Bruce McLean about Aboriginality, and feminist Clementine Ford about mental illness. Again big change, it emerges, needs to happen in this country. The issues are sticky, just like the Woodford weather.
Before I depart Woodford, I have one more task I wish to achieve. I visit Woodford’s acclaimed clairvoyant. She’s so popular that I sit outside her tent in the shade for an hour, watching the colourful parade of festival goers saunter past me. Interestingly, at the very moment I’m about to enter her tent, my ex-husband walks past me, looks at me, looks at the tent, pauses as if he’s about to say something, before moving on. I enter the tent feeling sick and rattled. But we read my cards and they are good news and more importantly, accurate. At the end of the reading, the clairvoyant asks me whether I have any questions.
“I have two,” I say, before relaying the ex-husband incident as I entered the tent.
“That’s just your past, walking past you,” she says.
“Is it finally over?” I ask.
“Yes. And now you need to really learn to be comfortable in your own skin, and then you will meet someone. He is out there but you need to change a few things,” she says, answering my predictable second question.
And so, this year, that’s what I aim to do. Simply sit with myself. Out on the patio. Breathe in the humidity. And laugh and think.
The Global Goddess was a guest of the Woodford Festival. For more information on this year’s event, please visit http://www.woodfordfolkfestival.com