A letter from Wiesbaden – 29 April 2020

The Borough of Tunbridge Wells is formally twinned with Wiesbaden in Germany. This means that a special partnership exists between us, leading to numerous exchange visits between schools, music groups and cultural organisations over the years.

What does ‘lockdown’ look like in our twin town? (Actually, Wiesbaden is a city – a thriving, vibrant one, where street festivals of all sorts are celebrated each year. The references to street festivals and the city’s vibrancy are important, as you will read in a minute.)

The Tunbridge Wells Twinning & Friendship Association, which helps to facilitate exchange visits to and from Wiesbaden, has been in contact with a number of friends in our twin town … sorry, city! … to find out what lockdown has been like there. You’ll probably have read or heard that Germany, like other western European nations, is a few weeks ahead of the UK in terms of how it is tackling the Coronavirus epidemic.

First, we hear from Birgit, who we’d describe as a very active retiree, in her 60s, with lots of outside interests and hobbies. Birgit has described what life is currently like in her community, which is a few miles outside the city itself:

“Life here is relatively normal, except that you have to wear a mask while shopping (including bank and post office), and since Monday also on public transport. We haven’t been to the city centre since 18 March. What a shame! When entering a supermarket you are obliged to use a trolley to keep distance from other customers, even if you only want to buy one thing. We can walk around and bike outside. So far, I haven’t see any police here to control what you are doing on the street, but that might be different in other parts of the city and surrounding area.

Smaller shops up to 800 square metres have been able to re-open since last Monday, and lots of people have crowded the city since then. Now, they all have to wear a mask – not necessarily in the pedestrian zone, but a lot do.

Funerals are allowed up to be attended by up to six people, but no service in a church so far.  Whether and when church services will be possible is under discussion.

Hairdressers are supposed to re-open next week (4 May). Yesterday, graduating classes could return to school, but not the 4th class of primary schools as parents of one girl sued that decision. The German education ministers (the federal states do not depend on the Government) will discuss when all pupils should return to school.

Ice cream parlours are open since last week, but only to take away; it is not allowed to enjoy your ice cream within 50 metres of the parlour! No theatres, concerts, cinema …. the annual May festival of the theatre was cancelled, and yesterday also the Rheingau Music Festival (20 June – 5 September). They also cancelled the hugely popular Wine Festival in August! What a shame! And it’s not certain whether the City Festival will take place at the end of September.”

Here at the Tunbridge Wells Twinning & Friendship Association, we’d say that the cancellation of the Wine Festival and the Rheingau Music Festival – the latter where internationally-famous musicians perform – is a really big deal. This tells us that the authorities are very nervous about the harmful impact that large gatherings might bring, in terms of another wave of Covid-19 infections.

29 April 2020

A letter from Tunbridge Wells – 5 May 2020

So, our German twin town is a city. Perhaps then, Wiesbaden is more akin to a big brother (or sister) than a twin. Nevertheless, I’m sure we have plenty in common as siblings, not least of all the vibrancy that comes from hosting all manner of festivals and street markets from the arrival of spring to the onset of the golden months of autumn.

This year, of course, everything is different. I’ll talk more about events shortly. But first a reply from Terry, a 56-year-old Tunbridge Wells resident, to Birgit, who was kind enough to send us a written snapshot of life in Wiesbaden. While lockdown conditions are loosening in Germany the UK continues to live under strict measures of social distancing and self-isolation.

“The weather is getting better and the evenings are getting longer. Great for those of us with gardens or patios but not so great for people who live in flats or houses with no outdoor space, or with only shared space.

Things have settled down a lot over the past few weeks and the town has adapted well so that unfamiliar is now a little more predictable, particularly in the supermarkets. Queuing systems are now well-defined, with sections of car parks forming Disneyland-style back-and-forth lanes keeping everyone a mandatory 2m apart (or ‘six feet’ as we often say in the UK, hanging on to our old measuring system!). There’s clear and helpful signage throughout the store guiding shoppers along one-way aisles. There are large ‘stand here’ stickers near the checkouts and protective barriers for the valiant checkout workers that, in the main, remain cheerful. The shelves are full (at last) and the three-items-per-customer limitation has pretty much been lifted.

It’s still a surreal experience with many people wearing masks (myself included) and handwash gel and paper towels next to the shopping trollies. Official looking shop workers patrol the queues ensuring all is in order. But if you know Britain you know we like a queue!

The once-busy town centre is also surreal, with few cars and even fewer pedestrians. We feel for the businesses on the ‘high street’ and, in these days of online shopping and fast well-organised deliveries, we fear some may not reopen. Time will tell, but I miss the busy town centre where I used to work before being pretty much confined to my home since 23 March.

The parks also are deserted. We can still go to the park for exercise – once a day – but only alone or with other members of our household. Some places within parks such as sports courts, playgrounds and outdoor gyms have been closed. We must not gather in groups of more than two people anywhere in public and the police have been given powers to issue fines if necessary.

If you’d have asked me in February how often I go out I’d have said not very often, but I can tell you this it’s certainly more often than I’m allowed out now!”

In respect of events, Tunbridge Wells has a real buzz about it during the summer months. The famous Pantiles area hosts Jazz on the Pantiles nights from May to September, and international food markets take place there too. There’s also a twice-monthly Farmers Market in the town, which has not taken place since March.

We have some fantastic parks in Tunbridge Wells too. Calverley Grounds hosts a Mela every summer, which brings in musical acts from all over the world. It really is a sight to behold. And local bands get their opportunity with “Local and Live”, a very popular weekend event.

Just on the outskirts of the town centre Dunorlan Park is popular with event organisers. From soap box races and pop-up cinemas for the family to “Pub in the Park” and “Gin and Jazz” for the adults.

In normal times there’s so much on offer, with many places to go and many things to experience. For now, it’ll have to be gardens, patios and a daily walk in the park but in the words of Lennon and McCartney we’re all looking forward to a time when we can again “come together” to socialise and enjoy each other’s company.

5 May 2020

A letter from Wiesbaden – 10 May 2020

In the first of these reports from our twin town – Wiesbaden, in Germany – we heard from Birgit as to how she was coping with the Coronavirus lockdown in her community. With this latest report, we bring you Birgit’s update and also hear from two teachers in Wiesbaden, as they deliver ‘remote teaching’ for their students.

First then, this is how Birgit has described the easing of many of the restrictions in her part of Germany. (Germany consists of 16 different states and each one has the power to introduce slightly different easing measures, according to their local situation.)

“Hairdressers re-opened Monday, but only with distance between the customers the wearing of masks. And you can’t go there with your hair already washed and have a dry cut (which is what we usually do); it must be washed in their shop.

Also allowed to re-open are cosmeticians (a person who makes, sells, or applies cosmetics), physiotherapists, masseurs, foot care etc.

Cafés, pubs and restaurants are allowed to re-open next Friday (15 May) in Wiesbaden, also hotels, but not their indoor pools.

The German football league will start to play on 16 May – ‘ghost’ games without spectators.

Events up to 100 persons are allowed with distance and mask!

Museums, zoos and shops of all sizes are allowed to open but only for a certain number of customers/visitors.

Children are allowed to go to playgrounds, keeping distance from others.

The international summer festival in the city centre (12 September) has been cancelled.

Unemployed in Wiesbaden April 2020: 10,592 = 6.9 %, April 2019 9,765 = 6.4 %

Instead of normal choir practice we meet virtually on a Zoom platform, however, we started with two new songs!

Music schools and private musical teaching is permitted, so my husband went to see his guitar teacher at his studio on Wednesday; in April, this was only possible via Skype.

All this is valid as long as the number of newly-infected people does not increase to more than 50 per 100,000 inhabitants. In Wiesbaden today, it was at 11.”

That’s a lot of information to take in. To provide some context, Germany currently has a mortality rate of 89 people per 1 million population; in the UK, that figure is 460 people. It’s important to note, therefore, that the two are at a different rate of recovery from the Coronavirus.

The Tunbridge Wells Twinning & Friendship Association has been in contact with two teachers from Wiesbaden. Both of these teachers have brought groups of students to Tunbridge Wells on a number of occasions.

First, Nadja, who teachers English at a grammar school in Wiesbaden. She tells us that remote teaching can be much more stressful than face-to-face tuition. A typical school day now involves video conferences and phone calls with all her class students, replying to more than 20 emails a day, correcting students’ assignments and A-Level tests, doing weekly preparation to be passed on to the students via the internet and, yes, learning how to cope with technical issues remotely.

Christina, who teaches English at a comprehensive school in Wiesbaden, describes a similar scene. She and her colleagues have provided their students with workplans, that are mostly sent out online. They have kept in contact via mail and she and her colleagues have organised their working groups through video-conferences, which have worked well. She adds that this is quite challenging for her students, especially the younger ones and the ones who aren’t technically that well equipped.

Christina makes an important point: “One has to keep in mind that the ones who are already struggling at school will experience even more drawbacks as a result of these measures.” That chimes very well with reports you might have read in the UK press about the impact of ‘digital poverty’ on some students – sadly, the ones who we might say benefit the most from a structured school environment will be the ones suffering the most from this interruption to their education.

Christina says that some students have returned to school, namely those who have their exams (which haven’t been cancelled in Germany) this summer. Her Year 10 class, for instance, have returned to school and are provided with a much-reduced timetable, covering only English, Maths and German “so that the minors are neglected at the moment in order to limit teacher resources (not everyone is available at the moment) and the amount of time at school”.

Communications within the school environment have had to change as well. Issues that teachers and managers within the school would normally discuss quickly face-to-face during lesson breaks etc. now have to take place via email and phone calls; this can present its own challenges (as many of you working from home can relate to!).

That was a rather detailed update on remote teaching, but an insightful one, we hope you agree.

10 May 2020

A letter from Tunbridge Wells – 12 May 2020

Things in the UK are developing slowly. Normality seems like a long way off but there will be some relaxing of the lockdown rules this week. From Wednesday 13 May we can exercise outdoors as often as we like or spend time in parks to sit and enjoy the fresh air, have a picnic or maybe sunbathe (British weather permitting). We can also meet one other person from a different household as long as it is outdoors and social distancing guidelines are followed.

We can use some outdoor sports facilities such as a tennis or basketball court, or at a golf course. We can do this with members of our own household or with one other person (while always staying 2 metres apart). Public gatherings of more than 2 people from different households are still prohibited in law and enforced by a fine, which the Prime Minister says will increase to ensure we get the message!

We can also go to garden centres to buy plants, flowers and other springtime things in preparation for the summer.

Last Friday (8 May) was a public holiday in the UK and the weather was great for the entire weekend. This really tested our fine police officers as they patrolled the parks of London and other major cities. Many people were breaking the guidelines as they looked for some relief from bring stuck indoors for over seven weeks. Overwhelmingly though, people in the UK understand the dangers and risks of spreading the virus and perhaps taking it home to vulnerable loved ones.

On Thursday evenings at 8pm tens of thousands of us open our front doors and clap like crazy or bang pots and pans in support of the amazing National Health Service workers and other frontline professionals that go to work day-after-day to battle with the consequences of the virus or to keep our shelves stocked full of food and other essentials.

It’s really difficult to understand the full impact the lockdown has had on the personal lives, fortunes and wellbeing of many people, not just in the UK but worldwide. My work brings me into contact with many agencies who provide support for victims of domestic abuse, drug addiction and unmanageable behavioural issues. One can only imagine the difficulties many people are facing behind closed doors as the lockdown continues. The way agencies have adapted to provide non-contact support has been breathtaking and I’m hugely impressed by those professionals who have found a way to ensure that many vulnerable people know that they’re not alone even during this very challenging time. And they’ll be there for them when the lockdown is lifted.

To end on a lighter note, we still have no scheduled professional football matches on the horizon but as an Everton fan I’m kinda happy to wait (and wait and wait…) for Liverpool to be presented with their league championship medals.

Finally, I’d like to extend my thanks to Birgit, Nadja and Christina for sharing their views and to Mike McGeary for facilitating the exchange.

12 May 2020