I’m at Rerik on the Baltic Sea with my son, a friend, and her six-year-old. Rerik is so lovely and inexpensive and devoid of international tourists – the kind of place where speaking English to each other makes me and my son an exotic spectacle – that I hesitated to write about it, but decided this blog is such a minor publication there’s no danger of spoiling the Geheimtipp. Rerik lies on an isthmus between the Mecklenburg mainland and the Wustrow peninsula. On one side of the isthmus, a beach opens onto the Baltic proper; a brief jaunt away on the other side, children learn to windsurf in the shallows of a Salzhaff, a saltwater lagoon. Fishing boats dock in the morning at the pier on the lagoon side; Rerik is one of the last working fishing villages in the area. Much of the place is car-free. From our whitewashed blue-doored hut, we walk along the lagoon to the place with Sanddorn ice cream and the place with eight kinds of Fischbrötchen. My son tries to use his fishing net as a butterfly net, and asks me questions about how wolves were domesticated into dogs. He’s thrilled to be out of the city.
A few varieties of Sanddorn grow here. One is ripe now, and the others have pale amber berries that will ripen by September. The Wustrow peninsula is a nature preserve closed to visitors. If you rent a paddleboat in the lagoon you have to sign an agreement that you won’t paddle within 200 meters of it. My friend grew up in the GDR. She says the peninsula was a military facility zu Ostzeiten, and she’s skeptical about whether rare birds are the only reason it’s off-limits today – more likely it still has landmines. In the GDR era Rerik was just for Stasileute and party honchos. An Ostseeurlaubsplatz – a slot at a Baltic beach resort – was a thing the state had to grant you, and was not routinely bestowed upon ordinary citizens. Perhaps, she said, you’d get it once in your life if you were the most productive worker in your factory that year. Hearing my friend talk about the travel restrictions in the GDR, how unattainable a trip to the East German Baltic was then, made me realize that I’d been viewing this trip through precisely the opposite lens: oh, we’re just going to the Baltic Sea this summer, nowhere big, just a few hours’ train journey, how modest and frugal and low-impact.
I’m always interested in the books at holiday flats, because they offer the only potential breach in the anonymity of such an apartment – the only trace of specific individuals having stayed there before. The apartment in Rerik has a real gem: a beautifully illustrated 1956 edition of Der Kurier des Zaren, the German translation of Jules Verne’s Michel Strogoff. This book does not want me to read it. It states explicitly that it is only für Jungen ab 12 Jahren, for boys 12 and up. The back cover lists the publisher’s other young adult literature, divided into the categories für Madel, für Jungen and für Jungen und Mädel. “Girls only” is the longest list, with a lot of obscure titles that I suspect were a sort of German 1950s Sweet Valley High and Babysitters’ Club. “Boys only” has a few Jules Verne books, a journey around the world, nature adventures with fierce animals. “Boys and girls” are granted little more than the Andersen and Grimm fairy tales. The admonition that only boys could read Der Kurier des Zaren inspired in me a contrarian desire to read it, which reminded me of a Boy Scout magazine called Boys’ Life that my brother had subscribed to as a child. I always read it furtively, feeling transgressive. When I sent away for fireworks and magic tricks from the ads at the back of the magazine, I signed the letter with the gender-neutral J. Yager, as if the purveyor of shoddy magic tricks would otherwise write back refusing to fill my order.
This self-referential house intrigues me. I wish every house had an oil portrait of itself posted in front of it.