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Experiencing Ostalgie

October 17, 2009

Looking for a unique way to see the sights in the German capital? DW correspondent Gavin Blackburn decided to indulge in a little "Ostalgie" - nostalgia for the old East Germany - and tried traveling the "Trabi" way.

East German Trabant cars pass spectators during a procession to mark the ninth anniversary of German reunification
The Trabant tour offers a VIP ride through East BerlinImage: AP

My adventure through East Berlin's past starts on a street corner in the city center, where I'm about to jump into my chauffeur-driven transport. Sadly, it's not a limousine - it's a Trabant or "Trabi," as they were fondly nicknamed. It might be a little cramped and not especially aerodynamic, but it's one of the most definitive symbols of the GDR and perfect for zipping around the city.

"It's made up of a two-stroke engine, it takes a mixture of gas and oil, sounds more or less like a lawnmower and it's with a gear shift which is beside the steering wheel," my driver, Simon Matern, explains. He works for Trabi Safari, a company that organizes city tours in East Germany's most famous car.

DW correspondent Neale Lytollis
DW correspondent Neale LytollisImage: DW

"These Trabants are really rare in the city center nowadays," Matern says. "People are really excited when they see a Trabant and they take out their cameras and take pictures of you, so you feel like a VIP after you've had a tour in a Trabant."

Although a Trabant is not the first car which would immediately spring to mind if I wanted to experience a bit of VIP treatment, it's nevertheless an enjoyable ride. Motoring through the busy Berlin traffic, we're on our way to the Velodrom to visit Ostpro, a trade fair selling products by brands from the former East Germany.

Keeping GDR cuisine alive

The place is packed not only with people but also with products I've never heard of, such as Vita Cola, IMNU malt coffee and Fetzer chocolate bars. There's also cakes, cosmetics, books, T-shirts, socks, bras, and even one enterprising salesman praising the advantages of buying East German cookware.

The first such fair took place in 1991, shortly after the fall of the Wall.

Assortment of GDR products
Several GDR brands have experienced resurgence in recent yearsImage: AP

"The thing is, all these products disappeared overnight," says Ramona Oteiza from Scot Messen und Marketing, the company which organized the Ostpro fair. "You can't really imagine what it was like unless you lived through it. Of course, people tried the newly-available products, but found themselves going back to the tried and trusted products they'd always known. Since we are event organizers, we thought we'd have a go at organizing something like this – and bingo! It worked."

Back in our trusty Trabant, we head off to the Osseria, a restaurant in Berlin's Weissensee district which uses East German products and traditional ingredients to create an authentic GDR-era culinary experience.

The Osseria is an Ostalgie paradise. The walls are covered with old advertisements for clothes, electrical goods and cigarettes, and there's some framed East German money. Perhaps the most spectacular feature is a gallery of record sleeves from East German music stars which takes up all of one wall. There are also GDR typewriters, cassette players and radios dotted around the place. Even the menu has come from a former East German government office. A red leather binder embossed in gold with the logo of the socialist SED party, it lists such delights as Hungarian stew, Hawaii toast (slice of toast topped with ham, cheese and pineapple), and my choice for the evening, boulletten, which are chunky burgers served with a fried egg and roast potatoes.

The Ostel in Berlin
The Ostel is completely decorated in GDR styleImage: AP

After dinner, I'm feeling rather tired so I retreat to the Ostel, a city center hostel decorated in authentic GDR style. My room is rather basic. There's a couple of rather uncomfortable armchairs, a coffee table, and a 70's-style lamp. The double bed is covered with a flowery quilt and the wall above it is the only one in the room to feature any wallpaper, in this case, a green, white, and yellow floral print. It provides a rather gaudy backdrop for a framed picture of East Germany's most famous leader, Erich Honecker.

Past was surprisingly colorful

Daniel Helbig, co-founder and manager of Ostel, admits that there is one key difference between what his guests expect, and what they actually experience.

A colorful room in the Ostel
The rooms come complete with a picture of Erich HoneckerImage: AP

"They really don't think that the GDR was so colorful," he says. "If you think of the GDR, you tend to think it was all grey and utilitarian. But what we discovered when we put the place together was that there was a lot of color and diversity in the production of things. For example, we have around 50 different models of GDR radios here, as well as 180 different kinds of lamps."

Refreshed from my night's sleep in the Ostel, I venture out to Berlin's Free University in the western part of the city to delve deeper into the Ostalgie phenomenon. Jochen Staadt, a researcher who specializes in East German culture, says Ostalgie is not about a real longing to reinstate the GDR.

"When you ask people if they want to have the GDR back, you won't find many who say they want it back as it was," Staadt says. "What they miss is the sense of being together, a feeling of being more connected with each other. In the GDR, people had to rely on each other and I think that is what they really miss."

My own nostalgia trip through the GDR has come to an end, and I'm surprised to see that so much of East German culture is still alive and kicking in Berlin. It's time to head home, but my Trabant is steadfastly refusing to start. Clearly, it's had enough of this journey through history, and is ready for a rest.

Author: Gavin Blackburn (dc)
Editor: Rob Turner