Escape from the village

For those with a mind to travel around Germany, there are plenty of options. Recently, with the growth in popularity of the Bundesliga, Germany has seen an increase in the number of ‘football tourists’ coming to enjoy the fan focused world of Dortmund or Munich. Others among you might have already treated yourselves to the risqué delights of Hamburg’s Reeperbahn or the Speicherstadt (warehouse district). Alternatively, you might have taken some time to see the many wonders of Berlin, with its vibrant counter culture of squats or its numerous museums, clubs and other attractions. However, I would be surprised to hear that any of you had found yourselves trudging through the streets of Sulzbach-Rosenberg, Senden or Lonnerstadt. These are the forgotten places when it comes to tourism, but it is in these places that Germany truly exists. Just as British people scoff at the idea of seeing Britain by only going to London, seeing Germany proper may actually involve visiting a village or small town.

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Just to clarify, I’m not preaching that you all pack your bags and hop on the next flight to Memmingen, although you could. What I am trying to point out is that Germany, in many areas, is less an urban country as it is a rural one. Germany from above is dotted with villages, which in turn are connected to the surrounding villages by only a few kilometres of road. These villages form chains that can be found all over the country. My example of Senden is one such chain. A village in its own right, it is also the collective name for a series of villages that surround the local area. In many ways this is unlike Britain.

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Within the British isles, people tend to come from cities or small towns, many of the Germans I meet come from a village close to Nürnberg. They happen to work and live in the city or its suburbs, but they really identify with the small village that they grew up in. Furthermore, the social separation that can be found in Britain when it comes to living in the countryside is rarely found, or is at least less pronounced. From my experience, the further outside a British city someone lives, the more likely they are to be middle to upper middle class. That’s not to say there are no poor people living in villages, but on the whole you find that it takes a certain income to be able to commute to work from a village every morning.

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Perhaps then, this is the real difference between rural life in Germany and Britain. Fundamentally, the economy and the ability to live and work in a village is a major divergence. Certainly in the South of Germany, where I live, the rural economy is, if not booming then at least fully functional. For instance, walking through my village you will find restaurants, bars, bakeries, clothes shops and pharmacies. There is at least two of each of these types of business, run through a small local based chain or as an independent. Added to this are the other services such as photography, I.T and small furnishings, again all run locally. As for the latter, there are at least four that I know of. I have yet to see any customers in there, but they still manage to remain open. Then there are the shops that I cannot fathom. Take my local rock shop. Yes, rock shop. I don’t mean AC/DC, Guns and Roses, I mean the type you dig out the ground. In my village you can find a shop solely dedicated to selling rocks and stones, very pretty rocks I assure you, but rocks nonetheless. I doubt that such a shop would remain viable in certain areas of Britain, longer than perhaps a week. Then there is the two floored, modern looking building that sells only Lederhose and Drindels. A shop, based entirely on a commodity you might only buy twice in you’re life, has found a solid market for the 15,000 or so people who reside in my local area. Acting as an early warning sign, should these shops go out of business, I’ll know the German economy is on the ropes.

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Yet all is not so rosy in other regions of Germany. As The Guardian pointed out last week, Germany is suffering a crisis of depopulation in villages and small cities. The city of Salzgitter in Lower Saxony, with a population of around 100,000, is undergoing a serious attack of village escape. With the local steel works unable to employ more people, school leavers are finding it increasingly difficult to find employment within their home city. With so few options, young people are being forced to seek work further afield in the more populous cities. This in turn has begun to cause a domino effect, seeing the infrastructure of small cities such as Salzgitter, as well as other towns and villages becoming further dilapidated. Although recently only considered a problem in the East of Germany, Western cities are beginning to feel the ravages of under employment and increasingly, under population. With some calling the problem a crisis and others making bold comparisons to Detroit’s dramatic fall from grace, the fear of not just ghost towns, but ghost cities looms on the horizon. This may be what pulls German politicians out of their stupor and begin to tackle Germany’s demographic problem that sees birth rates decrease year on year, while the population of elderly people increases. Although the comparisons with the America’s dying industrial megalith could be seen as political hyperbole, it might not be long before the only difference between the two is a giant statue to a fictional cyborg policeman.

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