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Postcards from the Year Abroad: Great Danes in a Northern German Manor House - The Exeter Languages and Cultures Blog

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Postcards from the Year Abroad: Great Danes in a Northern German Manor House

Welcome to ‘Postcards from the Year Abroad’, a new series of blogs by students of Languages and Cultures at University at Exeter, giving us a glimpse into their year abroad experiences. First up is Nell Hargrove, who studies German together with Art History and Visual Culture.

Student Nell with a large great DaneI spent three months in northern Germany for my first placement on my year board in Autumn 2022. I lived in a Gutshaus with my two employers, Knut Splett-Henning and Christina von Ahlefeldt, their three children, two Great Danes, fifteen peacocks and Svamp, a kitten they found in the forest when mushroom picking (‘svamp’ is Danish for mushroom). Svamp the cat and the dogs, Triglaff und Svandevit were not the only Danish connections we had in the house. Christina is a Danish countess and her way of life and design inspirations are very much linked to her Scandinavian roots.

Some say I was in the middle of nowhere (I quickly picked up the term ‘in der Pampe’) but even so, I managed to meet plenty of fascinating people. I keep a diary and in my first two weeks I met a new person each day. Ranging from artists to trendy Berlin weekend-breakers to locals, I treasure the conversations and insights they all offered me.

It was an extraordinary experience and everyday was different. Guthäuser (plural) are quite unique to the area of Northern Germany and Europe. They were commonly built between the 17th and 19th Centuries for the nobility and families of wealth. This is why they were regarded so negatively in the GDR years in East Germany because they were symbols of social hierarchy. This distaste for the Gutshäuser meant they became neglected and derelict during the 20th century. Knut and Christina are renowned in the region as the ‘Gutshaus-Retter’ because they are constantly taking on huge projects (at the time of my employment, they owned five Guthäuser!) to renovate and bring these falling apart mansions back to life. They even have a successful television show that has documented their work over the last nine years called ‘Mit Mut, Mörtel und ohne Millionen – Die Nordstory’ by NDR and I make an appearance in the most recent episode, knocking down a wall!

I learnt about real estate, ‘Denkmalschutz’ (monument/heritage conservation), hospitality and interior design. Knut had a very good eye for antiques and his wife Christina had formerly been a designer in Copenhagen and London. Gutshaus Rensow, the house we lived in, was built in 1690 and was bought by the couple in 2002. It attracts many guests via their website and Airbnb and has a capacity of 25 people. On three occasions, the whole house was booked for birthday parties and Knut cooked a very delicious roast dinner for everyone. Gutshaus Rensow has also featured in interior design and travel publications. Journalist, Rick Jordan from Condé Nast Traveller stayed for a long weekend and wrote an article about us for the January edition. Another feature of staying at Gutshaus Rensow in the winter was our only source of heating was a wood burner in each room. Guests and I alike would collect our wood in the morning and build a fire every day!

A highlight of mine was during the first week of October when galleries and art institutions across the whole of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (the Bundesland, like a county) took part in Kunst Heute, a week celebrating contemporary art by showing 133 exhibitions across the Bundesland. Not only did I visit as many as I could and take part in artist workshops, I helped an artist couple, Hubert and Miriam, set up their own art installation at Gutshaus Ramelow, the fifth Gutshaus owned by Knut and Christina.

I am glad I documented my time at Gutshaus Rensow so thoroughly because otherwise, I don’t think I would believe it happened – a truly unique experience and a time I won’t ever forget.

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