When Czar Peter the Great was passing through the town of Gardelegen during one of his long European trips that opened Russia to the West, the notoriously heavy drinker was so taken with the local beer, the Garley (or Garlei, as it was then spelled), that he declared it the best drink in the world. That, at least, is how the old Prussian legend goes. What better reason for a Russian family to buy a house in the area, a part of the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt known as the Altmark?
And so we did, laying claim to our own piece of the German heartland — in an area with the distinction of being farthest removed from an autobahn. The state-protected half-timbered house from the early 1700s in a charming town founded some six centuries before became the center of our life this year. (I will not name the place, or most of the characters in the story I’m about to tell, for reasons of privacy, which is especially appreciated in this part of the world.) The house will doubtless eat up most of our spare time and cash for years to come. But with it, we acquired new insight into our adoptive country of seven years, a vantage point we would never have found in cosmopolitan Berlin, our primary home.
The hidden Germany we see here looks inward, not outward; people speak stubbornly in dialect and consider Berlin too full of foreigners (yes, foreigners like us). Here, Skodas and Dacias are more common than Porsches and Mercedes. Don’t look for fabled German quality in these parts: There aren’t enough skilled workers left, as we were quick to find out. History — unlike nature — hasn’t been kind to this place; the last 30 years since German reunification may have healed old scars, but they also have left new ones.
Throughout the Western world, the Covid pandemic sent people searching for second homes, and suburban or rural homes in general. Germany was no different. The real estate portal ImmobilienScout24, one of the two websites Germans commonly use to buy, sell or rent a home, reported in February — when we decided to shop for a second home — that demand for properties had increased about twice as fast year-on-year in the countryside surrounding the nation’s metropolises as in the cities themselves. The cities’ cultural and gastronomic charms faded with the lockdowns. As remote work became the norm, families cooped up in apartments for a long year required more space. Money saved on exotic holidays, restaurant meals and opera tickets poured into rural housing markets. Why not, given the low interest rates?
So when we started house-hunting around the midpoint between Berlin and the Baltic Sea coast — the summertime sweet spot for German capital residents — we knew we would be joining a stampede. Every time we showed up to look at a house, it swarmed with other prospective buyers. Estate agents appeared to grow more arrogant from weekend to weekend. After I told one of them that the pitiful wreck of house we’d seen couldn’t cost 80,000 euros ($91,000) because it required an unpredictable amount in renovation expenses, the agent retorted that I shouldn’t even be in the market with less than 150,000 euros.
Even 150,000 may seem low to an American or a Brit. So perhaps a bit of history is in order.
Our areas of interest — the south and center of the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and the northern edges of Saxony-Anhalt and Brandenburg — peaked economically between the late Middle Ages and the late 19th century. The small towns, rebuilt after the devastation of the Thirty Years’ War, grew relatively wealthy — their wealthiest, in any case — by picking up crumbs from the Hanseatic trade. They were already in decline by the outbreak of World War II. Once the Nazis lost, the avenging Red Army rolled over many of them, burning and looting. Four and a half decades in the former East Germany hardly helped. In 1991, Saxony-Anhalt’s per capita gross regional product stood at 31% that of West Germany — 40% if corrected for the lower local prices.
Germany’s reunification in 1990 brought subsidies, including for the renovation of city infrastructure. Many historic town centers were lovingly and expensively restored. But it also brought the closure of traditional businesses. The Garley brewery, operating under one of the oldest beer brands in the world continuously in use — since 1314, a history unbroken even by the massive Garley beer taxation riots of 1488 — first went insolvent in 2005, and ceased making beer in 2013. Even now, the per capita gross regional product in the northern part of the state stands at about half of the average German level; unemployment reaches 7.7% in Saxony-Anhalt, compared with 5.9% nationwide. It’s a difficult place to earn money and one of the most sparsely populated parts of Germany. The population of most towns has been in steady decline since the 1990s.
So for most of the post-unification period, houses were to be had for peanuts, sometimes for a few thousand euros — dilapidated wrecks with aluminum wiring, lead water pipes, East German-made oil heating. Modernization has remained beyond many people’s means. On our quest, we saw a great variety of potential renovation projects for the manually gifted, as they’re described in ads. They ranged from a collective farmer’s barn-like one-story abode with “1984” inlaid in lighter-colored tiles into the roof and “The Skins Are Back” spray-painted in English on the wall to a stately Sezession villa with major water damage and missing heating radiators. “The owner drank them away,” the estate agent whispered in my ear. Briefly imagining the villa restored to its former grandeur, I made an offer — and never heard again from the agent, a situation we encountered frequently in the overheated market.
One home, adjoined to the town’s medieval castle wall, came bundled with the neighboring house — uninhabitable and about to collapse. Tearing it down would have cost more than the asking price for both. Another, in a fairytale location on a lakeshore, was affordable because the stench of the large East German-built cow farm next door would have required a buyer to have permanent Covid symptoms.
Eventually, we found ourselves a stone’s throw from the Elbe in a sleepy former merchant town untouched by World War II because it was initially liberated by the Americans and only later handed over to the Soviets, who by then were more interested in making things work than in exacting revenge. The spire of a late-gothic church, rebuilt from a 13th-century original, rose gracefully over a street beautifully re-cobbled on a post-reunification grant. About a third of the houses on the street stood empty, and half of these carried “for sale” signs from the same agent who was showing us around. It was quiet save for the chirping of birds. My wife Katerina, an artist, gaped at the Fachwerk glory all around.
The jungle-like rear garden featured a particularly tenacious variety of poison ivy. Later, wielding an axe, then an electric saw and finally a pair of giant garden shears, I would uncover a pair of only slightly rusty mountain bikes, an old washing machine, a romantic veranda with moss-covered garden furniture and a few empty rosé bottles. The owners were Finnish environmentalists who had bought the place as their summer house — further south than the 52nd parallel would have been too hot. But Covid cut them off from their Altmark vacation habit. Not that they’d done much to the house in the 10 years they’d owned it, starting with throwing out the garbage. Walls were flaking; the floor upstairs stood at about a 5 degree angle to the pavement; the rotten rear wall had holes in it big enough for birds to fly through.
Whoever had owned the house before the Finns had left a photo of a boy in a Hitlerjugend uniform for us to find.
“The roof doesn’t leak though,” the estate agent assured us. The May sky was cloudless; we had to take him on faith.
Then he added, “You could take a boat and float all the way up to Hamburg from here.” It had been centuries since the local river was navigable for the Hansa trade, I knew from my research, and motor boats were banned on it.
The place could be had for 34,000 euros — as is; the original price was 36,000, but the Finnish owners were willing to pay for us to remove the accumulated trash. After I made the cross-border transfer, I had to report it, by telephone, to the financial authorities. The only question the bureaucrat at the other end asked was, “Why so cheap?” “It’s about to fall down,” I said. “Fair enough,” he replied phlegmatically.
The rear wall had to be torn down and rebuilt. Olga, our older daughter, who speaks better German than Katerina and I, started working the yellow pages to find a construction outfit. That’s when we encountered what would be our biggest problem with the house. Everyone in the area who knew how to do anything with their hands — plumbers, electricians, plasterers, bricklayers, carpenters — was so overbooked they wouldn’t be able to take on new projects for months.
Most of these professions require formal vocational training in Germany, and fewer and fewer people have been embarking on blue-collar career tracks. Forty years ago, according to the German Economy Institute, some 20% of school students went on to university while 55% chose a vocational track. Now, 56% try to get a college education and about 40% learn a trade. The institute’s Qualified Workforce Competence Center calculated earlier this year that Germany is short about 65,000 skilled blue-collar workers; there were only enough jobless people with the required training to fill 30% of vacancies. Construction is one of the industries most hit by the shortage.
To be sure, Olga’s carpet-bombing of the yellow pages did yield some results. “So, you’re the proud owners of this jewel,” one contractor smiled as he stood in front of the house. “What a wreck,” he muttered under his breath once inside. He disappeared, never to be seen again.
Another, the owner of a small construction firm, was happy to speak Russian with us: The son of a German prisoner of war, he had repatriated in the early 1990s and made good in Saxony-Anhalt. In the same breath, he boasted about his success as an immigrant and railed against newcomers from the Middle East (many in the area vote for the nationalist Alternative for Germany party). We held our tongues, aware by now how hard it was to find a contractor; he drove us around in his pickup truck at breakneck speed, pointing to houses he’d purportedly fixed up. Then he named his price for the wall — more than we’d paid for the entire house. When Katerina noted this, he just shrugged: “Your computers aren’t going to do construction work for you.”
Our neighbor, a carpenter, turned out to own two businesses — one makes windows and doors, the other builds coffins and arranges funerals. I tried to order new windows from him three times. He promised each time to email me a cost estimate, but one never came. “Too many burials,” he told me when I asked why. That’s no empty excuse: He’s been burying someone almost every day. Saxony-Anhalt, with a population of 2.2 million, saw 17,700 more deaths than births last year. That’s more than three times the national rate of natural population decline.
Katerina was losing hope when yet another contractor showed up, speaking in rapid-fire Saxon dialect so she couldn’t understand a word. Amazingly, he was willing to start the next day — he had an idle team for a few days between projects. In a burst of activity, they tore down our rear wall and erected a new one. The high points of the ensuing saga include receiving, via WhatsApp, pictures of the contractor and his wife vacationing on Mallorca when the firm was supposed to be installing windows in the new wall; the windows, thankfully, have glass now — but the wall is still not plastered on the outside. We’re waiting for the contractor to find another gap between bigger jobs and have learned to be patient.
For other portions of the work we were unable to do ourselves, such as pipe-laying for the heating system, we failed to find anyone locally. So we resorted to the post-Soviet emigre’s backstop: the Russian-speaking community’s support network. The Ukrainian workers we found had to be ferried from Berlin every weekend because they were busy on bigger projects the rest of the time, had no car and refused to haul their tools on the roughly two-hour train ride. Their qualifications aren’t recognized in Germany, but they could work around the clock if they didn’t drop from exhaustion: There’s way too much work for way too few hands.
Now it’s time for us, an artist and a data journalist, to do the rest — wiring, plastering, painting, fixing up the floors. The roof leaks, we now know for sure. The work will never be 100% done. Half-timbered houses are living things — all creaky, breathing wood, reeds and clay that need constant care. A modern timber-frame house is built to last about 30 years, and ours has been around for 300 more.
Although we’ve lived in Germany since 2014, it’s only since we’ve embarked on this project that we have begun to feel properly local. We exchange pleasantries with the neighbors, who don’t seem to mind our Russian accents. Katerina goes to the hairdresser on our street rather than the fancier ones in Berlin. We know the garbage truck’s schedule by heart. The stretch of the Elbe along which we ride the salvaged bikes is as breathtakingly beautiful as the rivers of Central Russia, where I used to spend my summer holidays as a kid.
We have skin in the game now. We have a good reason to want the AfD to lose, for Germany to let in more qualified workers, no matter where they might come from — Syria or Ukraine or Ghana, for the local economy to pick up, for the shuttered shops, restaurants and little hotel in our town to come to life. We are grateful to the Greek owner of the only real restaurant that has stayed open in the historic center, and to the Chinese family that runs the cafe with delicious German cakes in the next town. Perhaps, even after the pandemic blows by, people will still want to spend at least part of the year out here. Even at their best, big cities are overrated.