the 'Strandkorb'

The “Strandkorb” – A Cult Object

Copyright: www.pixelio.deCopyright: www.pixelio.deIf ever there was a time to discover the German seaside, it is in this summer of economic recession and global warming. Why travel half way across the world for sun, sea and sand when the same elements are available on your doorstep?

The number of overnight stays in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the Baltic beaches, has more than doubled since over the past decade to 27.5 million. It used to be the classical excursion for East Germans, barred by the communists from more ambitious holiday travel. Now it has become an all-German destination; the place to go to protect your family budget and maintain your ecological principles.

And so this is becoming the summer of the “Strandkorb”, the wicker basket where you shelter from the Baltic (or North Sea) winds while watching the distant horizon, listening to sea-gulls or your arguing neighbours. It has become a cult object and an export hit for German craftsmen; with its colourful flaps, its careful construction, it is seen as typically German; a merging of old traditions with a slightly more modern, cooler image.

Strange-looking basket clutters

Elisabeth and Wilhelm Bartelmann with their children Hans, Albert, Erna and Max,
Copyright: www.bartelmann.comThe Strandkorb – untranslatable in English – was devised by the Rostock basket-maker Wilhelm Bartelmann in 1882. An elderly aristocrat complained that while doctors were telling her to take sea-air, they were also telling her not to sit on the sand because of her rheumatism. How could she solve this dilemma? Could Bartelmann make her a seat for the beach that would protect her from too much sun and wind? That was the birth of the Strandkorb. The seat caught on and by the beginning of the 20th century had become more sophisticated: with enough space for a couple, padded seating, an adjustable back, a small table to place ones vacuum flask. The business model was clear: no-one would buy a Strandkorb for a few weeks annual holiday, but it could be rented and kept in storage over the winter.

And so it was that this strange-looking basket clutters the German seaside vista. The British have a different understanding of the beach. If wind is a problem (and it surely is on both the German and the British coasts) then the English dig a deep hole and surround it with a low canvas wall, a wind-break. You use nature to protect yourself against nature; that is what you learn when you live on an island, even a noisy, crowded one like Britain. We see the wind as being part of the fun of being at the seaside; kites fly and skirts get blown up. If you want to sit comfortably, you take a deckchair which you can use to catch the sun. It is open, easy to carry and you can sleep on it.

A claim to privacy

The Strandkorb is the exact opposite. It is the extension of the beach towel syndrome – the idea that you have to mark out your space on the seaside and fend off strangers. It is a claim to privacy, like a beach towel with lead weights attached. The Strandkorb says: leave me alone! No wonder German writers have loved it. Thomas Mann spent three summers, 1930, 31 and 32, on the Kurische Nehrung (the Curonian Spit), striding down through the dunes from his little summer house to work in his Strandkorb which had been sent specially from Lübeck. There, hidden from view, he wrote Joseph and his Brothers. You can see why a Strandkorb might be conducive to creative writing; it is too uncomfortable to doze in, there is a table, you have a view of the sea, the passing people. Above all, you have privacy and no-privacy. The voices drift over from neighbouring “Strandkörbe” and you can catch the most intimate conversations because the shape of the basket, a little like a confessional booth, allows the two inhabitants to believe they are alone in the world. You are isolated and out of view yet somehow in touch.

The longest Strandkorb of the planet

G8 Summit in Heiligendamm 2007,
Copyright: picture-alliance/ dpa

The point about the Strandkorb is its immobility. It cannot be blown away; you sit, rock-solid, in your own little bunker. The Ostseezeitung, official organ of Strandkorbers, regularly chronicles a “World Championship” in Strandkorb-sprinting. Last summer, this was won by two young men who carried a 70 kilo Strandkorb 20 metres along the Zinnowitz Strand in 5.8 seconds. Well done boys! But, of course, it was a completely pointless exercise. The whole raison d’etre of the Strandkorb is that it should not be moved at all until summer turns into autumn. It is part of a German need for anchoring, for the illusion of permanence. Entering a Strandkorb on a blowy, sunny summer morning is like returning to the womb.

So it is appropriate that the enduring image of the 2007 Heiligendamm G8 summit – perhaps the photograph that will define Angela Merkel’s time as Chancellor – is of the longest Strandkorb on the planet. There they all sit, the leaders of the western world, unable to deal with the climate crisis, still unaware of the gathering financial storm, cowering in the basket to protect themselves against the wind of change. A Strandkorb – the perfect place to hide in a crisis.

Roger Boyes
is Germany correspondent for the London daily newspaper "The Times". He has been living in Germany for twenty years and is author of the column "My Berlin" in the "Tagesspiegel". In his book "My dear Krauts" he describes the peculiarities of everyday life in Germany with typical British humour.

Photo “Strandkorb” © Lusa58 / PIXELIO

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
July 2009

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