My first visit to Rostock was just five days after the opening of the Berlin Wall, as I have described in my post Rostock 1989. My second visit was a very brief business trip in 1998.
My third visit was in January 2009. This was also a business trip, but not quite as rushed as the one before, so I had time to take a few rainy-day photos and even attend the premiere of an excellent new production of the operetta Orpheus in the Underworld by Jacques Offenbach at the People’s Theater.
This is the platform in Hamburg main station where I changed trains both in 1989 and in 2009 on my way to Rostock. In 1989 it all went fine, despite the overcrowding that resulted from thousands of East Germans returning home from their first day-trip to the West. In 2009 the situation was much more chaotic because someone had committed suicide by throwing him- or herself in front of a train, causing the line to be closed for several hours while the police collected evidence.
The official euphemism for this in German is Personenschaden, which literally means “damage to a person”.
Throwing oneself in front of a train had unfortunately become somewhat fashionable in 2009 after a German millionaire, Adolf Merckle, killed himself this way a few weeks earlier in Bavaria after bankrupting himself and his pharmaceutical and cement companies by gambling on the stock market.
I don’t know who it was who committed suicide when I was trying to change trains that day in Hamburg, but the result was that the train to Rostock had to be delayed indefinitely . . . or re-routed via Lübeck . . . or cancelled altogether . . . or?? . . .
Every few minutes a different version came out over the loudspeakers.
This is a typical problem of the currently mismanaged German Railroad System DB, namely that they are incapable of making clear decisions and giving clear information when something goes wrong.
Even so, I always recommend traveling by train in Germany, because the alternatives are even worse — and irresponsible!
Eventually the InterCity train 2376 left Hamburg 80 minutes behind schedule and arrived in Rostock 60 minutes behind schedule, having made up twenty minutes along the way.
The main railroad station in Rostock has been totally modernized and nicely renovated in recent years — too bad I didn’t have a camera with me in 1989 so I could show you what it looked like back then!
In addition to the many bicycle stands in front of the station — note that these are good stands that you can easily lock your frame and front wheel to, not the useless rim-killers that you can still find in lots of other places — there is also an indoor bicycle station with guarded parking and a repair shop.
Since the front of the station now looks so nice with its tasteful blue and white facade, it’s ironic that many people never even see it because the tram lines have been banished underground.
I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it’s convenient to get off your train, take the escalator down two flights and get on your tram (assuming you know which tram to take and in which direction). But putting tram lines underground has the pernicious side-effect of making more room for automobiles on the surface.
Like most other cities, Rostock has squandered huge amounts of money to build an overblown road system that generates unnecessary motor traffic and defaces formerly attractive neighborhoods.
At the same time, though, they have made some sensible investments in upgrading the public transport system, particularly in acquiring a modern new generation of trams aka streetcars.
And they have even begun to construct a modern network of bicycle routes both within the city and out into the surrounding countryside.
This is where I did my workshops for the English teachers, both in 1998 and 2009. As in all German cities, the Rostock Adult Education Center (VHS) is supported by the city council and offers a full program of courses for adults in the areas of politics, society, the environment, arts, design, health, languages, integration and occupational training, as well as remedial education, lectures, educational leave, and in the case of Rostock even art exhibits in their Gallery on the ground floor.
For the entire forty years of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) there was a housing shortage in Rostock, as everywhere else in East Germany, despite the feverish construction of low-quality pre-fab buildings known as Plattenbauten.
After reunification a building boom set in, pushed by speculators hoping to cash in on government subsidies and tax credits. At the same time the population started declining — Rostock now has a population of around 206,000 people, down from nearly 260,000 at the end of the GDR — so the housing shortage suddenly came to an end and some of those flimsy pre-fab buildings could be torn down.
The reasons for the decline in population were that people moved to the suburbs or to the West, and the birth rate also decreased quite drastically.
In any case, there are now lots of new or newly renovated buildings in the city center — though some of the outlying neighborhoods still look much the same as they did in GDR times, except that there are no longer any heaps of brown coal on the sidewalks.
On my short visit in 2009 I was asked a couple of times by people in Rostock how I liked their new pedestrian zone in the city center.
Well, I think it did look attractive and even prosperous, especially compared with the way it was twenty years earlier.
You even saw young women with baby carriages, as in my photo of the University Square, even though statistically the birth rate in this part of Germany is at an all-time low, and young women are especially prone to pack up and move away.
Why young women, particularly? The reason, I’m told, is that girls and young women tend to pay attention in school, get good grades, get some job training and then move to the West to work or study — leaving behind a growing number of poorly educated young men who are frustrated because they can’t even find girlfriends, much less jobs.
As a general rule in Germany, the further north or east you go, the poorer it gets. Since this region is both north and east, it is not nearly as affluent as some other parts of the country.
On the other hand, the people here are quite well off compared to their neighbors in some of the Eastern European countries — but that’s not who they compare themselves with.
Rostock is located on the Warnow River near the Baltic Sea, and has always been a seaport. In the nearly four decades of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), Rostock was in a privileged position because it was the only seaport for the whole country. Now in reunited Germany it is only one of several seaports on the Baltic and North Seas, and is in a relatively depressed region, so business is not as good as it used to be.
This city-owned theater, which is also subsidized by the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, has its own drama, opera and ballet ensembles and its own orchestra, the North German Philharmonic.
In the 1980s, towards the end of the German Democratic Republic, around 700 people were employed by the theater. In 2009 they had less than half that number: 341 employees, including 21 actors, 17 opera singers, 36 choral singers, 15 ballet dancers, 83 orchestra musicians and 70 technicians.
Still, it’s a large and impressive organization for a city of 206,000 people, and they put on an extensive program of drama, musical theater, ballet and concerts — despite ongoing controversies and impending budget cuts.
Aside from his major opera Tales of Hoffmann, the composer Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880) is best known for his light satirical operettas known as Offenbachiades. In his long career Offenbach wrote exactly 100 of these operettas, which were hugely successful in Paris in the 1850s, 60s and 70s.
I have seen several of these Offenbachiades, but the one I know best is La Péricole, because I saw it several times when the Frankfurt Opera staged it in 1998, and I saw it again at a small theater in Paris in the summer of 2008.
On my third trip to Rostock in January 2009 it happened that the Volkstheater was doing its premiere of Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, one of his best-known Offenbachiades. The premiere was very nearly sold out, and the performance was excellent.
The story of Orpheus is actually a tragedy which has been dealt with in numerous serious operas, beginning with Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo from the year 1607 — one of the very first operas ever written. But Offenbach and his librettists changed the plot around to make it very funny, and the staging in Rostock was superb. At the end of the premiere everyone involved was warmly applauded, including the stage director Babette Bartz.
My photos in this post are from 2009. I revised the text in 2017.