While the books sit quietly on the shelves, the jeans lumped on the floor, rain patters outside. It’s my first full day in Germany and I’m in a stranger’s bed, typing away trying to figure out how exactly I got here. The books are of Thailand, Costa Rica, Hawaii and a slew of other countries – travel guides that help the reader find ‘hidden gems’ across the countries of seemingly exotic places. But here, in Kiel, I doubt if anyone could find this festival I’ve come to help plan.
The punk that is crackling through the radio – or what I think is a radio - is replaced by a German speaker. The male speaker sounds like he’s in his late20s or early30s, though I don’t know how I could decipher that, I’m no expert on determining what German sounds like from anyone. He’s shouting, and that’s never good. It’s still faint, and coming from across the street, I realize – this is no radio. I watch through the window a crowd forming around 4 police cars who are strategically placed to completely block the road. The middle of the road is empty, save a group of 20 or so demonstrators with red and white texted posters.
Felix’s flatmate Ulash, a large, balding Turk wobbles in to pick up his laundry. He is relieved I speak English, as he’s only been here for 8 months. He explains that mastering the German language is his immediate goal, trying to score work so he can live here more permanently and avoid the strict Turking military service requirement. (After hitting 30, with 3 or more plus years living and working in Germany, he can push the year and a half requirement down to only 8 months).
“It’s a Nazi demonstration,” Ulash explains, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
A little about Kiel: The city used to be a hub for Nazis during the 1930s and 40s, but the traditional attire of huge boots and swastikas have been replaced with New Era sneakers and dark sweaters. The new nationalist movement is trying to be subtler in its new approach… but with outbursts like this morning’s demonstration, it’s hard to ignore. The targets of this new resurgence are immigrants, but it seems the more immediate goal is simply reestablishing their existence.
Gretta and Wieland – the aforementioned strangers – are on vacation in Serbia (I suppose they took that book with them) and I’m reaping the benefits of their empty bedroom. Their flat mate Felix is who I’m here to see, one of a dozen ringleaders of this Open Air Festival – and since I’ve set foot in this country, he’s made damn sure I’m going to see Germany like no one else.
I found his car at the Hamburg airport and we rocketed across the Autobahn. This highway, as I was destined to find out, has no speed limit. So of course we start slow and talk about our lives since two years ago, when we were studying in Spain. The upcoming music festival, girlfriends, flat mates, my time working in the operating rooms, his time painting and snapping photos of newlyweds (“It’s the most miserable job in the world,” he explained.) Before long, we start talking about the road.
Felix had just received his license two weeks before and is just getting a feel for the car when he jumps into the far left lane and guns it.
“No speed limit? You sure?”
Before long we arrive in Kiel, the gateway to the Baltic Sea, which once harbored the bulk of the Nazi navy. Now, it’s harboring about 200,000 Germans, and it’s a shell of it’s former self. Right in the middle of the city, we find the apartment and our destination.
Or so I thought.
After ditching my bags, Felix informs me that we’re heading to a town close by, and that I could rest there.
Sure, I thought, why not? I’m running on no sleep at this point, after traveling almost 12 hours from Boston. I must look half insane.
The tiny Renault bumps along again, this time rolling through the weeds and dirt of rural farms in what was called Mucheln. We passed cows and bulls, deer and ravens to the edges of one lawn, our parking spot.
‘Just through here,’ Felix told me, walking through the corn field. He made jokes about losing all his Spanish when we got to the end and pointed at our destination: about 2 acres of woods, roughly split in two large spaces, with a half build stage and remnants of a bonfire.
Open Air Green Leaf, like many other festivals, is a conglomeration of many people with a similar mind set of good times and freedom of expression. I’ve always enjoyed festivals strictly from the audience perspective. But as I got to the edge of that field and looked over the side to the empty overgrown lot, I realized I had a very different role to play. Felix handed me a hand saw.
“Its called handkreissage.”
There’s five main players in the creation of this festival, and they’re all sitting in a backroad apartment. Armed with handrolled cigarettes and hefeweissen beer, the group meets periodically at a giant oak table to hash out the finals details on the upcoming Open Air Festival. There was:
Eggi: His family owns the land where the festival is going to take place. It’s farmland divided into plots which they lease out – and in a far corner, there is a depressesion before rising into a lake. This depression will house the festival. Most concerned with the land and layout, Eggi has to think about camping space and stage constructions. And bathrooms. With 300 people expected, one might have thought about bathrooms beforehand, but I actually raised this question mid-meeting, abruptly in English.
Marje: This petite blonde who is the spitting image of Jean Seberg would be in charge of the essen. She decided on making a vegetarian version of a Turkish Doner kebap… lettuce, tomato, onion, lavash, cucumber and hummus wrapped in a loose tortilla. Later on, she’d pour out a hot curry lentil soup.
Mathias: With the help of Felix, Mathias (AKA DJ Hitman) was in charge of contacting different DJs and making a malleable timetable. As some DJs were coming from Hamburg and Bremen (and one as far as Berlin,) Mathias had to piece together a block schedule of who would go when and on what stage.
Finn: Always donning a baseball cap, Finn seemed to be everywhere at once. If he wasn’t hammering nails into the stage, he was on the phone making sure people would arrive on time.
Tim: Sitting quietly in the corner, etching some strange doodle in my journal was Tim, the painter. He would be in charge of the signs and banners, including a massive green Open Air flag, the symbol of our collective, that eventually found its way back in my Cambridge apartment, where it proudly hangs above my bed. Somewhat fittingly, the festival lined up with Tim’s 28th birthday.
During the meeting, I could barely understand a word being said, but I could see there was a bigger message being translated. I was watching an idea come to life, a collection of artists and students determined to make something happen. Not only did these kids want to put on a concert, they wanted to build it from the ground up. There would be no price for entry, no cost to set up camp – the musicians weren’t even paid – the group decided early on that they would just asked people to pay for beer to make their own money back. Launching a free festival is pretty remarkable to imagine, especially when I consider the massive adverts and ridiculous costs at music festivals around here. (I remember paying six dollars for an iced coffee at Bonnaroo.)
And so, it was.
Bearded, long haired campers with knapsacks and rolled up sleeping bags. Small clumps of pale, blonde girls assembling tents. Weary hikers with unbridled enthusiasm. Little by little, tent by tent, festival-goers trickled into the woods of northern Germany for Open Air. The crowd certainly looked the part, and there were no New Era sneakers or dark sweaters to be found.
It led me to the idea of two Germanys. I found one marching on the main streets in Kiel, shouting for no other reason than to be heard, demanding to be taken seriously while hiding behind police barricades. The other was modestly chopping wood, camping out and piecing together a music festival. One was pulling at dead rhetoric, the other creating beautiful music. The two Germanys could not be farther apart yet in the same city. I knew I landed in the right one.