December 5, 2011

The Final Week in Weitsche

We returned from our trip to Amsterdam on Thanksgiving Thursday. The American take on Halloween and Christmas looks somewhat similar in Germany, which makes sense given that these are holidays that involve massive consumer-friendly traditions that both marketing forces and eager kids are happy to see exported all over the world (i.e gifts and candy). Thanksgiving, on the other hand, means little to other countries (for obvious reasons) nor does it provide many chances to sell things, so the holiday threatened to pass us by without anyone around us giving the slightest notice. This was compounded by us spending the day taking the train out of the Netherlands. All was not lost for us though. When we arrived at the train station to be picked up by Ute and the Luft's youngest son Ben, they proposed that we go to dinner together at a local Italian restaurant where Marcel would join us for an outing. We were thrilled to have some type of fancy meal to honor the occasion, and we were thrilled to be able to share it with the newest and closest family we had, the Lufts. And that's how we found ourselves at an Italian restaurant in rural Germany toasting to an American holiday. We couldn't have asked for anything better, given the circumstances, and we felt such love for the Lufts by then that we could avoid feeling the lack of our families back home. We were then lucky to be able to chat over Skype with the various gatherings of our family groups (Christina's in Jersey, my brother's in Oakland, and my parent's in South Acworth). 

On Friday things truly began to gear up for the weekend's protest. The basic idea behind this demonstration, which we've referenced several times now, is that a yearly transport of nuclear waste from a plant in France is delivered to a rural town in Lower Saxony that is very close to the Luft's home in Weitsche. Aside from the dangers revealed by nuclear power plant accidents, exposed in the still-emerging details of the Fukishima power plant disaster in Japan, storage of nuclear waste remains one of the long-term problems with nuclear power. Germany, for all its brilliance in engineering, is no better at dealing with this than anyone else, and year after year this transport comes from France and is delivered to a storage facility that is still deemed only temporary until a new, more permanent solution is built. As it is now though, massive stocks of waste are accruing at this rural site and appropriately infuriating many of the local (and even non-local) Germans into action. 

Therefore every year for several years now the 'Stop Castor' movement revs up in the form of a massive demonstration and protest that is both meant to bring awareness to this issue and, more tangibly, to block the railway so that the transport itself is stopped and indefinitely delayed in a form of non-violent protest. Every year the protest grows and every year the locals speak with pride about how many days the transport is upheld; this year set the record at six (five days delayed in Germany, and even one day delayed in France). 

Many things are striking about this, but two stood out in particular. First, people rallied with a feistiness that we've come to appreciate as one of the most endearing German traits. The count put the total number of protesters at about 20,000 or so, and they streamed in from the surrounding countryside for days leading up to the event, filling up random fields with tents and the ubiquitous yellow X's that symbolize the movement. Farmers in particular turned out en masse, and many others practiced glorious forms of protest on the actual rail tracks in attempts to stop the passing train. Every year it is something different. In a previous year Greenpeace brought in a huge cargo vehicle that was labeled as a beer truck and which "stalled" right on top of one of the rail crossings, the hapless driver unable to restart his engine in the face of angry polizei. After a time (according to legend), the sides of the truck rolled up to reveal a Greenpeace banner and people poured out of the truck from a cage tucked behind a false back of stacked beer bottles. This year a small group of farmers chained themselves together in a human pyramid over one section of track, their thick chains specially engineered to thwart polizei and any attempts at unlocking or severing. The police could do nothing, and eventually the farmers unlocked themselves after 15 hours (!) when they could no longer avoid eating and going to the bathroom. Great stuff.

The second standout was the ridiculous police presence. The police also poured in from the surrounding environs, reportedly numbering 19,000 by the height of the protest, nearly a one-to-one ratio if we can trust everyones' estimates. For the few days leading up to the weekend the blue and white Polizei vans were EVERYWHERE on these winding country roads, throwing up random roadblocks and strutting around in full riot gear, ready for something serious to break out. To Christina and I, their presence was unnerving and it shocked us how the Germans tolerated their constant hassling with little ire. The cops seemed more likely to create an incident than to diffuse one in our mind, and we felt sure that it was the kind of situation that would very quickly escalate in America for nothing more than their overwhelming, in-your-face visibility. 

In any case, we attended the march that led us to the major rally and demonstration, where MC's stoked the crowd and speakers boomed on about the importance of the movement. We were somewhat separated from the tracks themselves, but the atmosphere was charged and thrilling. Granted we understood nothing that was said, as we were immediately separated from our host Lufts by the throngs of people, but that further attests to how powerful a scene it was. 

In the end, to our knowledge, there were no major incidents. The transport, as it always does, eventually arrived, the bastard powers-that-be just waiting until everyone got the civil disobedience out of their system before quietly delivering the rotten goods in the dark of night after the protests wound down and everyone inevitably had to return to their weekday work and lives. And the massive pile of nuclear waste only grows bigger in its entirely inadequate storage facilities. This was equally as troubling as the demonstration had been exciting, but as Marcel told us, this is how the game works. The people hope to draw bigger and bigger notice to the event every year until eventually something gives way and the government responds. It pains us to think, but perhaps that will only be when there is incident, when an escalation occurs between cops and protesters that shocks the political system in a way that is typical only to tragedy or violence. We shall see.

Aside from the protest, we did our best to soak up the last days of Weitsche, this little German town that has come to be very dear to us. We spent time with many of the gracious and welcoming neighbors that we had come to know over the previous four weeks, often times sharing stories and drinks late into the evenings right up until our departure. Christiana and Horst, who avid-readers will recall cooked a hell of a pumpkin stew, took us on a great driving trip/pub-crawl and had us to dinner again. We grew to love them as dear friends. Likewise Voelke, a neighboring farmer, took us in on the evening of the town Christmas tree lighting, and before we could say no the schnappes and wine and Jaegermeister were flowing like...well, like wine, schappes and Jagermeister flow in Germany (we can't say water, because no one ever drinks water here, it's true). Christina may or may not have nursed Dave over a hangover after that one, though the record is a bit fuzzy. Voelke's proudly showcased American classic rock collection is perhaps to blame, who knows.

We took a few last bike rides, soaked up a few last bits of knowledge from Ute and Marcel (bread-baking and brewing in particular), and enjoyed one last rural German staple by attending the local Christmas Markt. We loved our time in Weitsche and we loved the Lufts. They are warm and thoughtful and what they are doing there in Weistche is truly a local act informed by global realities. We are determined to maintain our relationship with them and after many talks into the night we know now how much our visions align in terms of what we want our lives to look like and how to spread the message about living with meaning in a world of dwindling ecological health. Marcel and Ute, we'll miss you but we'll sure as hell be seeing you again.

Before baking bread, Ute grinds unprocessed wheat to create flour.  Ute searched far and wide for this mill, which has a strong motor and contains a drawer for collecting the flour. The mill is from a local German company which has been making such mills for over three generations. 

After mixing the flour with water until the correct consistency is achieved, the flour is kneaded and placed into baking tins. I am told, the older the tins, the better the bread. 

Throughout Weitsche and the surrounding villages, families showed their support for the demonstration with signs, yellow X's and the occasional warmly dressed scarecrow.  

We watched from the side of the road as farmers in over 200 tractors processed to the protest site. 

Concerned citizens lined the streets in support of farmers and bikers. 

The beats from Greenpeace drummers helped ignite calls of STOP CASTOR. 

Protestors met at two major meeting points and then processed to the cornfield for speeches and rally cries.  This is the front line of one such procession. 

The majority of protestors gathered on a large field near the tracks for speeches and musical entertainment. 

David's ongoing photo series : The Polizei Presence. 

The Polizei Presence: Note the helicopter above the protestors. 

After a night of Jagermeister, the Weihnacht Markt's array of hearty soups and sausages was a godsend, and worth the long bike ride. 

David nearly shouted for joy when we emerged from the woods  to find the Weihnact Markt and it's array of hangover cures.

During our last bike ride we were finally able to capture a photo of the windmills lining the countryside.  

Part of the ongoing series: Bikes in the Countryside

The covered heap on the right is a store of giant sugar beets.  This is a unique storage method used by several farmers in the area. 

It would be impossible to address our final week in Weitsche without speaking of the terrible accident that took place on the Sunday of the protest weekend. Both of the Lufts' college-age sons, Jan (20) and Jonas (18) returned enthusiastically for the protest and we were thrilled to meet them. Jonas himself was actually the one who drove us to the Castor demonstration and walked us into the mass of people on that preceding Saturday. He had returned from school with a close friend of his and was reuniting with other friends of his from back home. On Sunday night he was driving with two such companions when a gust of wind nudged his vehicle into the gravel at the road's edge and the car struck a tree and rolled several times into an adjacent field. Jonas emerged physically unscathed but his two friends were killed instantly. It was utterly tragic, mind-numbingly so. The boys were merely 18 and 21 years old.

Utes' parents and countless neighbors from the village arrived quickly to provide support, and Christina and I did our best to be of help. We felt grateful that we at least knew the farm well enough to take all related tasks off the Luft's plate for the few remaining days we were in Weitsche, while they focused on supporting Jonas and each other. Details came in throughout Sunday night, and we learned the worst when Marcel returned from the hospital, leaving Ute to stay with their son. We sat with Marcel then, and when he asked to share a beer we drank with him and hugged him tight until he retired for the first of many sleepless nights. We said little because there was little to say.

Our hearts go out the families of the boys and to Jonas and the Lufts as they do their best to process events that defy any attempts to do so. There was no excessive speed nor any substances involved, which makes it all the harder to deal with and wrap up in a box and say "here is what we learned from all this." It was a blessing that of all the possible and understandable responses, the families of the boys were not interested in blame and only wanted to join Jonas in navigating their grief. If anything, as Marcel said, it is a harsh reminder that life is not a game and needs to be lived full in whatever fleeting time we've got.

Until the next.

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