Germany was united only a century and a quarter ago. Before that it was a collection of principalities, and not long before that only a confusing agglomeration of small states ruled by counts, dukes, an occasional king, and bishops; there were also a few surviving free cities and territories belonging to rank foreigners. Today even Germans find this a bit difficult to sort out. (Young people everywhere have little interest in history. After all, the world really didn't exist before they were born. As people attain middle age, this attitude often changes radically--they begin to read history, travel, and take a greater interest in the rich heritage of their nation and their region.)

Time changes all things, but it does not necessarily eradicate the past, not even in Germany today, where many decades of prosperity have made possible social mobility, a tremendous expansion in the economy, rebuilding entire cities, the construction of new highways, rapid transit, shopping centers, you name it. For example, local dialects remain important despite the sweeping changes involved with World War II dislocation, urbanization, travel, and immigration. We could hear this on the streets of Ulm, where Swabian still proudly holds sway. Still, everywhere we heard more and more high German. At a birthday party in North Germany--where every woman in the village baked cakes for the coffee hour, after which we had soup and beer, wine and schnapps, Russian music, a belly dancer, lots of joking, gossip, and laughs--nobody spoke Low German except for an occasional phrase. These were farmers and farmers' children, the people one would expect to hold most strongly to tradition.

Variety is being lost, something we noticed most while shopping for something to take to our next hosts. Every town has its department store with exactly the same goods that one gets everyplace else; and everything which is worth buying is being produced on a grand scale and sold throughout the country.

The loss of variety is not altogether bad. The trains run exactly on time everywhere. That is, they run with German precision. If the timetable says 4.59, it is 4.59, and you have exactly five minutes or whatever to make your connection. The timetable book is about the size of the Chicago white pages and takes a college education to read it. Happily, Germany is a country which believes in education. Consequently, almost everything functions properly. Well, one has to amend that for the former East Germany. The train to Berlin was ten minutes late. Poor quality tracks, they explained. Even that is changing. There is construction everywhere, especially in Berlin.

It was an eerie feeling to ride through the Friedrichstrasse station, the former crossing point between East and West, and see nothing but a regular railway station. To walk through the Brandenburg gate the day after President Clinton was there, to wonder where all the Vietnamese and African students had gone, to no longer smell the odor of poor gas and polluted factories--those were powerful impressions.

Nevertheless, some variety remains, and there are those who seek it out. We were told that for some reason, Winsen on the Luhe (River) was a favorite place for Japanese visitors. Why there, we asked, wondering why anyone would come so far to see a small town which until two years ago was undistinguished even by a pedestrian zone. We guessed that sometime back a Japanese tourist had been to Berlin and now wanted "ein Bisschen Ruhe" (a little rest), but since he couldn't pronounce the letter R, it came out, "ein Bisschen Luhe," so the travel agency sent him to Winsen. That must have been exactly what he wanted, because his countrymen keep coming back.