Long Read: Nestling in the Forest

‘Two World Wars and one World Cup’: it’s a familiar refrain if you grew up in England, perhaps the whole of the UK, and not a very nice one at that. It puts England and Germany in opposition, in competition, as historical rivals, enemies even — well, for the twentieth century, at least. These types of rivalries, as few too people recognise, are not as eternal as they are often portrayed. It confirms one as the victor of three great battles, the supposedly superieur, both physically and morally. It is a combative clash, rather than congenial coming together.

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We spent the whole of October, the whole of our second month of location independence in one place: the forests of Brandenburg state in north-eastern Germany, moored to a lakeside abode. The summer, the feeling of being on holiday that was with us during our fortnight in France, had long gone. The leaves changing colour and falling around us signalled that autumn had set in. We began to bed in to our life on the road.

We arrived in Rheinsberg with no preconceived notions of the city. In fact, we had never heard of the city before we saw the advert for cat sitting in a forest. We typed Rheinsberg into a search engine and saw there was a schloss, Sanssouci on a smaller scale. It looked nice. Old East Germany, in contrast, brought to mind a variety of ideas — mullets, Soviet architecture, and the film Good Bye, Lenin! — none of which seems to fit the forest idyll where we would be spending six weeks. We were in Germany, but it didn’t correspond to anything we understood as German.

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I can’t remember the last time I ate Chinese food. No doubt, I’d had some sort of fashionable pan-Asian grub fairly recently, which might have contained some Chinese elements. But eating Chinese food as it was growing up in the north east of England — skinny brown noodles, unnaturally orange and unnaturally sweet and sour sauce, soggy vegetables, and a lot of grey — it must have been years. I guess, places serving that type of food with their gerish, stereotypical Oriental decor must still exist back home. They certainly do in Brandenburg state.

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Schloss Rheinsberg had its heyday in the eighteenth century when Frederick the Great, then Crown Prince, was given it by his father. Frederick immensely enjoyed his time spent at Rheinsberg before taking the throne and later passed the estate onto his younger brother Heinrich who extended the buildings and the surrounding park. The interior is as thoroughly grand as it is eccentric. We certainly kicked ourselves for not paying the extra €4 for a camera permit to photograph the hall of mirrors, the shell-themed (yes, seashells!) room, the painted Italian grotto, and the details that indicate the intellectual pursuits of the palace’s occupants. Frescos of classical thinkers and leaders are juxtaposed alongside the Enlightenment philosophes, and golden scientific instruments adorn archways. Élisabeth Vigée Lebrun’s portrait of the Comtesse de Sabran, an émigrée who spent the part of the Revolution at the palace, hangs on a wall. In addition to the interior paying homage to French thinking, the forest park contains: a military obelisk engraved entirely in French, the tomb of Prince Heinrich with a dedication in French, and a column and plaque honouring Malesherbes, who (unsuccessfully) defended Louis XVI during the Revolution.

The gardens closer to the Schloss further reveal the French influence. In the eighteenth century, French and English gardens represented two opposing approaches to landscaping, which supposedly epitomised the opposing national characters of the two countries. The straight lines, symmetrical designs, and vantage points that showcase impressive features (think of the gardens at Versailles) were characteristic of the French garden and contrasted with winding paths, ‘ruined’ monuments, and (manufactured) natural feel of English gardens. The French notion of bienséance (proprietary, how things should be) contrasted with an English flexibility, a mixing of different elements, a naturalness. And yet, many English country homes have very precisely laid-out gardens and, even at at Versailles, Marie-Antoinette’s Hameau de la Reine offers a very different aesthetic experience to the rest of the park. At Schloss Rheinsberg, the French gardens are juxtaposed with the natural forest, including a faux natural cave. The closer we look, this opposition of French vs. English is blurred in this German setting.

Writers, bloggers, and Instagram influencers often talk of capturing the essence of a place, essentially depicting a place in its true colours, its reality. Representation of any kind, whether it is of a foreign culture or your own, always risks simplification, limitation. It is filtered through subjective narratives, through purposes or desires, through perspectives that give sense to the world. Travel, if it is done in a profound enough way, pull these touchstones of knowledge out from under our feet. The lens drops, its distorting effect and barriers go. What is French, German, or English becomes less precisely defined through a shared history and a common sense of humanity.

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I was surprised how normal it felt to drive on the other side of the road, how un-strange it was. The only trouble was with describing which direction to turn. I always struggle with left and right anyway; Johnny doesn’t and even he found himself offering the wrong direction. In the context of driving, we discovered, the words left and right are not fixed directions, but shortcut phrases for manoeuvring the car: crossing the traffic, taking the first exit at a roundabout, going all the way round. This realisation struck us: the impermanence of language, its lack of real rooting.

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