Travel

Going Home: Tracing My Roots in Germany. Part 2

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In Part 1 of my German Adventure I returned to the land of my ancestors for the first time since I was two years old, discovering medieval cities, an Alp House atop a mountain, and a stunning castle on a hill whilst on a road trip with members of my family. But I was most looking forward to exploring Braunschweig, the city where my family is from, that I’d seen in so many photos whilst growing up. I wanted to know if somewhere, deep in my mind, a memory would suddenly awaken as I wandered down cobbled streets or past the famous Lion statue.

The day started with a very normal German breakfast, reminding me of the meals I’d spend with my grandparents when I was home sick from school. Sliced meats, cheese and brown bread. This is the part of being in Germany that felt the most familiar to me, the food. Whether it was the wursts we had for dinner, the schnitzels, or the crumb cake I bought from the bakery, this was the Germany I grew up with in my every day life in Australia.

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We ventured down into the city, taking a local bus. Our first stop was lunch, at a pizzeria that came highly recommended by my grandparents. The ordering system was the most interesting. You got a little card, went down to the kitchen counter, ordered what you wanted, they swiped your card, and began preparing your meal. You could stay to watch, or wait until your buzzer beeped to come and collect it, then you swiped your card on the way out, and paid for whatever you’d accumulated during your meal.

It was a hot day, and we boiled out on the deck of the pizzeria. It overlooked our next stop, the Schloss Shopping Centre, Schloss meaning castle, because yes, this was originally a castle. The history of the site is incredibly exciting. The original castle was bombed heavily during World War 2, lay decaying for many years, before government finally decided they didn’t want such an image of the Old Germany still existing. It was torn down to make way for a park that never truly became popular. Whilst many thought the castle had disappeared forever, people had collected pieces of the rubble and stored them in their backyards, and the statues that adorned the front of the building were taken apart and buried nearby.

A few years ago it was decided that Braunschweig would rebuild the castle as a shopping centre, making better use of the land and recreating the historical landmark that used to exist on this spot. A call went out for existing pieces of the castle to be returned, and the statues at the front were dug up and put back together. The remains of the castle were built to represent the original design, which would have been a lot of interesting work in itself. Today you can see which pieces were original, and which are new, plus you can read about the fascinating history of the castle whilst walking up to the viewing platform on top of the building. The shops are pretty good too. I picked up a German edition of The Great Gatsby to add to my collection.

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From the castle/shops we made our way across the street to see another famous Braunschweig landmark. The Happy Rizzi House is three buildings covered in cartoony, colourful images, designed by American pop artist James Rizzi. Compared to the rest of the city it’s an absolutely absurd building. Whilst you can’t go inside the building, it’s worth roaming around to see all the different sides, and images.

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IMG_1346Venturing from the Happy Rizzi House is the more traditional Braunschweig, and the parts I’d come to recognise through the photos that adorned the wall of the hallway to my old bedroom back in Australia. Here the streets became more medieval. Some houses were so old they had begun to sink into the ground, and huge wooden beams were now sagging, making buildings looks completely wonky. Then there was the Town Hall where my grandparents had been married.

Across from the town hall was the original ‘castle’ area of Braunschweig (Dankwarderode Castle, the Braunschweig Cathedral, and the Burgplatz) in the centre of which is the famous Lion Statue. A monument to Henry the Lion, the duke of Bavaria and Saxony. The Lion is an iconic symbol of Henry, and if you look by the doors of the cathedral you’ll see a series of heavy scratch marks in the stone work.

The story behind the scratchings is fascinating. Henry had a pet lion who followed him everywhere, upon Henry’s death the lion was distraught. Henry was buried inside the crypt of the Cathedral, and the lion wanted to be with him, so he’d scratch on the doors. He scratched and scratched and scratched until the stonework was scarred forever. A constant reminder of how distraught the lion was at the loss of his master.

Of course the truth is this was the spot where guards used to sharpen their spears. You can pick which story you prefer though.

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One of the things I wanted to do was recreate an image of me as a child here in Braunschweig. So with the help of a snapshot on my iPhone we got to work recreating the memory. Happy snapping in the Burgplatz until we’d got an image that was somewhat similar. I’m a little bigger now, which made copying the image 100% a little hard, but here I am 21 years on in the same spot!

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As we wandered the old streets my family took me to ‘Mutter Habenicht’ (Mother Did Not) an old quaint beer house where my grandparents and their siblings would drink when they were my age. Stories were swapped as we drank Duckstein beer, which I agree is some of the best beer I’ve had.

Despite wanting so bad to remember Braunschweig, to feel a sense of home, and belonging, to have locked away memories come flooding back to me, none of this happened. Nothing in Braunschweig seemed familiar other than the Lion from the photos. I barely even recognised it’s surrounds.

That being said I did feel an affinity to Braunschweig. The day after, before I left again for London, we took a bike ride through the fields (even seeing a farm with buffalo). There was a small forest with huge bomb craters in it from the war. My grandpa used to have snowball fights there. There was something about the lifestyle and the landscape I enjoyed. I did feel a certain sense of home. Even if it wasn’t the feeling I was looking for. Ultimately I think I need to spend more time exploring Germany, and I can’t wait for my next trip. Hopefully it’s not another 21 years away.

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My grandparents in Mutter Habenicht

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About Sean Bryan

Creator of Mortimer Sparks, one part of Duck and Mouse.

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