In a tiny kindergarten in the northwestern-most corner of Germany, it was time for show and tell. And the object of study was me.
To the twenty little bodies that wriggled with excitement, I spoke the comprehensive speech I had rehearsed: “Hallo, kinder! Ich bin Jenna, und ich comme aus Amerika.” (Hi, children! I’m Jenna, and I come from America).
Ostfriesland, Germany’s hidden secret
It was the second time I had visited my friend in Ostfriesland (ōst FREEZ-land), or East Frisia (FREE-zhuh). Unless you’re from a bordering country you have likely never heard of the area, and even then you might not have visited.
After years in Germany, I’ve never met anybody else who has been there. Most break into a spontaneous grin, rather like we might after a European says, “Yes, I have visited the United States. I once went to the Ozarks.” (On top of its remote location, there is this subtext: Ostfrieslanders are often the butt of German ethnic jokes, much like the Polish were in the U.S.)
Why it remains off the must-visit lists is a mystery, because its charms are many, the pace is slow, and the people are friendly.
Where is Ostfriesland?
Ostfriesland makes up the northwest corner of Germany, in the state of Lower Saxony. To the north lies the North Sea, and to the west a harbor separates it from The Netherlands. The land across the harbor is called – you guessed it – West Friesland. There also exists a North Friesland bordering Denmark.
For a scenic tour, we started at our base in Aurich, traveled to the port town of Emden to see the spectacle of thousands of fresh VW autos being loaded onto huge container ships, then circled north along the “siel” villages – villages which developed because of their “siels,” or doors in the North Sea dyke – until Norden, before returning home:
Getting to know Ostfriesland
Imagine an area that looks like a mixture of Holland and Cape Cod, and you’ll start to get a picture of the region. It’s very flat, with a maze of canals and a multitude of windmills. The beaches, found on the barrier islands, are long and white and backed by dunes.
Ostfriesland remained an independent area of farmers and fishermen until it was absorbed (peacefully) by Prussia in 1744; the culture is a mix of German, Dutch and English (I’ll tell you about their tea culture later in this post). Fish – especially marinated varieties – forms a large part of the diet, and most other dishes are similarly simple and clean. A typical breakfast might be a cup of tea and a slice of dense shwartzbrot (black bread) with butter, cheese, or cold cuts.
Red brick sets the buildings apart from the traditional half-timbered style in other parts of Germany. Brick has better longevity in floods, and the strong tidal shifts of the North Sea, which ebb and flow every six hours, and the flat land (often below sea level), make the region prone to flooding (and the residents prone to amazing feats of survival).
Series of tall dykes have been constructed to beat back the North Sea from the claimed land. As you drive through the villages, you’ll notice that all churches are built on high mounds; they served as a refuge for villagers during the worst floods.
Modern industry has now replaced farming and fishing. There’s the large Volkswagen plant, shipping and ship-building … and wind technology. Yes, windmills are still in the blood, but now they take the form of ultra-modern, high efficiency wind turbines, with the principal manufacturer exporting to over 30 countries. (Alas, due to an unfortunate corporate espionage incident, the U.S. is not one of them.)
Island vibe: The Ostfriesische Inselns
Without a doubt, the Ostfriesische Inseln, or Frisian Islands, are the region’s principal tourist attraction, and in the summer months tourists greatly outnumber the locals … but then there are few locals to begin with.
They are a slow travel haven, accessible only by ferry (or wattwandern – more about that below, too). Most are motor-free, some uninhabited, and one is a bird sanctuary. The inhabited Borkum, Juist, Norderney, Baltrum, Langeoog, Spiekeroog, and Wangerooge are known for a slow pace, recreational sports like cycling or windsurfing, spa hotels and wellness centers, and, of course, the beaches.
The iconic symbol of the islands is the striped Strankörbe, or beach chairs, though the direct translation is closer to “beach baskets.” Each is numbered, and upon selecting one you must locate the person sitting in a little hut like this …
… before taking your place among the others in strankörbe like these:
They are so well known that at a recent travel trade show, the region provided strankörbe for weary show-goers:
A UNESCO-listed ecosystem
“The site is one of the last remaining natural, large-scale, intertidal ecosystems where natural processes continue to function largely undisturbed.”
So reads the UNESCO World Heritage webpage which describes the tidal mudflats called the Wattenmeer (VATTEN-mayhr), which lie in between the coast and barrier islands. The area is abundantly rich in biodiversity and is one of the most important places for migratory birds in the world. At low tide, you can literally walk to the islands.
Looking for a new sport? Why not try Wattwandern, or mudflat hiking? (Look it up if you don’t believe me!)
A spot of tea?
An article on Ostfriesland would be incomplete without referencing the strong tea culture, unusual in a land of coffee drinkers. This is perhaps the most English of the cultural overlaps. Tea is taken several times daily, following a specific ritual:
- Using specific china (there are just a few traditional patterns), steep the local black tea leaves.
- When the tea is ready, place a lump of rock sugar candy into your cup, and pour the tea on top, listening to the crackling sound. (In winter, you might want to use brown rock sugar, which has been dried with rum.)
- Fill the cup half or two-thirds full, in order to keep the cup sweet (the same rock sugar lump might last for two or even three cups).
- Using the small spoon provided, add a dollop of heavy cream and watch it hit the bottom of the teacup and then rise to the surface. Ideally, the resulting design will look like a rose.
- Repeat. There’s a saying in Ostfriesland that three cups of tea is the right of every Frieslander.
Back in the kindergarten, the children – each seemingly fairer and bluer-eyed than the next – were excited by the change in routine. German kindergartens are normally quite structured: In the entryway are twenty cubby areas with name, artwork, coat and gloves, plus special rain boots and workman-style impermeable overalls for playing outside; in the restroom, twenty named cups align on a ledge, each featuring a diminutive toothbrush.
My friend had brought a globe in order to show everyone where Amerika lies in relation to Deutschland. After marveling at the pretty shapes and colors and getting sidetracked with penguins in the South Pole and “ice bears” in the North Pole, we got down to business. They were free to ask any questions they wanted about life in the United States.
“Do you have a TV?” asked one.
“Do you like dinosaurs?” asked another.
And then it was playtime, and the children spilled outside in their dirt-proof clothing to enjoy the sunny, early-spring Ostfriesland day.
*Looking for more undiscovered European gems? Take a look at Italy’s Golfo di Orosei*