Nic Harlos. Photo by Lars Borjak
By Gavin Jocius
My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles - Igor Stravinsky
Freedom of self-expression plays an important role in board sports. Riding where, when and how you want, not only helps define style, it helps keep our sport interesting. Being forced to stick to one style of riding or one place to ride would be unheard of for most of us, but it could have been a reality for some.
One of my close friends, Lars Borjak, grew up in East Germany, “behind the Iron Curtain.” Lars’ childhood differed greatly from most of ours growing up in North America. He lived with restrictions on where he could travel, what he was taught and how he could behave. Wakeskating obviously wasn’t around in East Germany before the Wall came down, so one can only speculate on how the sport would have been restricted and monitored under Communist rule. I asked Lars to share his thoughts and experiences growing up in East Germany by answering a few questions. With 2009 being the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down, perhaps his story may give us a greater appreciation of the freedom we experience wakeskating today, and perhaps it may remind us not to take that freedom for granted next time we go ride.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Jessen/Elster, near Lutherstadt Wittenberg. That’s about 100km south of Berlin, right on the eastern tip of Sachsen-Anhalt.
Did you grow up in an area under Soviet control, i.e., behind the “Iron Curtain”?
Yes. We had Soviet barracks in our city back then. There were over 300.000 Soviet soldiers stationed in the GDR (German Democratic Republic), with over 700 barracks in over 270 locations to protect us from West Germany. The Soviet army was subordinate to our own army.
What was the experience like?
Every once in a while there where street parades, where they would drive trough town with their tanks and army vehicles. When I was in first grade, I had to go to the barracks for some Russian Carnival. Another time I had to attend a Russian New Years eve party, even though I didn’t want to. From Kindergarten on, children were told what to do for our “Russian friends,” like adorning the windows with symbols, peace doves and the East German national flag when one of their street parades took place.
Why is wakeskating important to you?
Wakeskating to me is like an everyday holiday. As soon as I’m finished with my job for the day, I can rest my head on the water and simply enjoy riding. I try not to worry about tomorrow but enjoy every moment, every trick that I stick. And of course there is this sort of freedom when I ride. Nobody can do anything to me when I’m on the water. I’m responsible for everything I do and everything that happens to me while I’m out there.
I love water. I love hanging out with my friends, so hanging out by the cable is a daily must for me. If there’s nothing else important to do, you can find me at the cable — riding 6 days a week.
Jeff Engen. Photo by Lars Borjak
What did you do for fun growing up?
Since there were no fancy toys to be found, most of the time I would hang out with friends at nearby play yards, sandboxes, ride through town on my bicycle… stuff like that.
Growing up in East Germany, were there sports that were not allowed, i.e., certain western sports that you could not partake in?
For some sports, we simply couldn’t buy the gear in the Eastern Germany. I got my first skateboard at the age of 9 or 10. I think when I was on holidays in Poland with my family. We couldn’t get those back home. I remember it being really small with very soft, ball shaped wheels and the deck being made of some hard plastic material, so it wasn’t even a real skateboard. More like an “Eastern Europe Ghetto Skate”. Haha!!
What were your schools like?
Schools taught us the things “Die Partei” (The Party) wanted us to believe in. They always told us, how everything is so good in the GDR and whatnot. They even taught us altered history to make Western Germany look bad and introduced it as “the class enemy” (Klassenfeind , told us how everything from them was bad, wrong and evil. Every room had a photograph of Erich Honecker (German Communist politician who led the German Democratic Republic); we had to sing songs with lyrics that say how much we love our country and stuff like that. They even had a song called “Das Lied der Partei” (The song of The Party) where one line in the chorus was: “The Party, The Party, The Party is always right.” Some Teachers where in contact with the Stasi, short for “Staatssicherheit” (the Secret Service for the GDR), and tried to get information about the parents through their children, i.e. whether they were watching West German TV, talking bad about the GDR or anything related.
What were some of the things you weren’t allowed to do?
No media from West Germany was tolerated, but many people watched it nonetheless. You couldn’t speak your mind freely about The Party or the GDR in general because, first of all, you weren’t allowed to, but on the other hand, you didn’t know who of your “friends” or relatives were in contact with the Stasi. Just to give you a number, after the Wall came down, years later we found out that 3 of 5 families living in our housing area were connected to the Stasi.
Were there a lot of rules growing up?
Life itself in the GDR was one big rule. Really, you where told about almost everything whether it’s allowed or not and what you had to do and how you have to behave. As a kid, I didn’t really understand that stuff and didn’t even recognize the limitations of living and growing up in the GDR.
Jeff Engen. Photo: Lars Borjack
Were you able to travel much as a kid?
We were able to travel, but only to our “socialist friend’s” countries like Poland, Russia, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria.
In what ways were kids allowed to freely express themselves, i.e., through art, music, sports?
You were allowed to play instruments and make music, unless you wrote lyrics about how bad everything was. You really wanted to avoid offending the system. They even had bands banished because they spoke their mind freely. Most of the music was censored anyway.
Sports were very big in the GDR. Almost everybody I knew was involved in some kind of sport. From a young age, people were really being pushed.
Do you think Westerners take their freedom for granted?
Yes, I think most of them do. From what I’ve seen, many of them have never really shown interest in the history of East Germany and all the stuff that has been going on, so they simply don’t know how good they have had it in life. I think that if they would have experienced the limitations of the GDR themselves, they would think otherwise. Most “Westerners” I know that actually KNOW about the system of the GDR think otherwise.
Do you think you value freedom more than others?
Since I was still a kid, 10 years of age, I didn’t realize most of the stuff that was going on. To me it all felt like a pretty normal, joyful childhood. Since we traveled to Poland and the Czech Republic, I didn’t find it too bad. But nowadays, I realize that I wouldn’t have been able to do a lot of things I’ve done since the wall came down, like go to Australia and many other distant countries.
Freedom. Photo: Lars Borjak
Did you know of anyone who escaped to West Germany?
Yes, my uncle Hans escaped the GDR in 1955 and fortunately for him, he didn’t get caught. His initial plan was to go to Canada, but he “got stuck” on his way in Nürtingen, that’s a small town near Stuttgart in southern Germany.
Unlike Lars and his family growing up, the freedom to do the things that we enjoy, like wakeskate when/where/how we want, can have greater meaning when we see the restrictions others have gone through. In short, we don’t realize how important freedom of expression is until we either see it taken away or experience it with a certain level of hardship.
Even if one does not wakeskate, the above still holds true for all of us because freedom of expression crosses multiple media. Some of us use words, and some of us use photography and film to communicate our thoughts and feelings. This article began with a quote from Russian-born composer, Igor Stravinsky, who used music as his form of self expression. Stravinsky’s compositions were stylistically very diverse and complex. To end this article, I felt it was fitting to come full-circle and end with a quote – or more accurately, with a series of quotes and thoughts from some of our sport’s prominent talents, filmers, photographers and outspoken individuals. Their diverse range of style and expression, I hope, may help further emphasize the important role freedom of expression plays in our sport and lives.
Check out the full gallery of Sattelyte’s trip to Germany
To me wakeskating is one of the best feelings you can have — just sliding across the water being able to do skateboard moves. It sounds unreal, but there is no end to what can be done on a wakeskate. There are so many different ways you can do it. I love the feeling of winching. Just getting a group of friends together and driving around all day looking for untouched spots, and when you find one that is great you just have the biggest smile the whole time you are hitting it! The freedom I have winching is one of the best things I love about wakeskating. When you roll up to a spot there is more than likely one way to hit the spot, and for me, I try to lean more towards the skateboard side of hitting things. When I am wakeskating, I am really just trying to go for a more fluid skate style and just being able to wakeskate how you want, not how others are doing it … is great!
- Ben Horan
Freedom of expression is wakeskating. Wakeskating is all about you, and you do it cuz you love it, and you put your own flavor and style to it. If someone says you have bad style, fuck them. I try to express my own style by what feels good to me, either a reentry back big, or a wake to wake shuv, or a sick slider. I love to do it all cuz they all feel fun to do and that’s what expression is, riding how you want to ride.
- Chase Gregory
Freedom of expression in my wakeskating is important to me because it’s what makes my style…in fact everyone’s style. Being able to ride the way you want is a huge factor for us. If we all rode the same way, who would want to watch wakeskating? Contests would be the same run over and over, video parts would lose their luster. Imagine seeing the same front board over and over and over. Because of my snowboard background, I ride a little differently than other people — just like someone with a surf or a skate background is going to ride with their own “freedom” so to speak. Where someone grew up, salt water or fresh water, etc will also impact how they ride. I think the way I express my self through my riding is by just trying to have fun with it, and not caring what other people think. If you don’t like the way I ride…like I care!!! I’m not trying to impress anyone. And if I get upset, it’s at myself. I think it shows in my riding and in everyone’s riding and the way we have the freedom to think, ride, and live.
- Nic Harlos
Without freedom of expression, wakeskating isn’t art. If you cannot express yourself through something, that something loses its value — especially for those of us who need something “more” out of life. When I wakeskate, I forget about everything else going on in my life. I forget about all the bull shit. Jerry Garcia once said “when you forget yourself, you begin to see everything else.” Wakeskating helps me forget myself – like freedom of self-expression, but without the self.
- Brandon Livermore
If I wasn’t allowed to travel where I wanted, I’d be bummed. It sounds like growing up in Eastern Germany would have sucked. I tend to spend my summers in Canada. That’s where wakeskating takes me. I like being free to travel where I want. Riding with people from other countries has given me new perspectives and has helped me express my style.
- Jeff Engen
Freedom of self expression is the reason we started doing board sports in the first place, isn’t it? Sure they are fun, but a lot of the reason why is because you can do just about anything you want with them. Football is probably fun too, and if we wanted to follow rules, we could just do that.
- Brooke Geery
Well the only lack of freedom I have is the weather. I’m not always able to ride cause it gets too cold. I don’t take it for granted though … having such a short season. Wakeskating is just like any other board sport, every one has there own way of doing a trick every one can put his/her own spin on things – that’s freedom!
- James Balzer
I spent a lot of time growing up doing action sports, and still do. When I was getting into them more I used to watch the videos to get stoked on riding like everybody else. When I started filming them myself I tried to look at films that I liked and figure out why I liked them. From there I started to develop my style. It’s important for filmers to have freedom of self expression in their work because it’s their baby. Obviously the team needs to agree with the direction, but ultimately it comes down to the filmers/editer’s vision or style.
- Dan Hughes
An artists freedom is the ability to control his/her own expression. Photography, at its most basic, is the ability to capture light in an instance of space and time. I now understand the technical concepts of lighting and shutter speeds. What motivates me now is the goal to go where no man has gone before.
- Jordan Jocius
Freedom of expression is what wakeskating is all about. It’s what separates you from everybody else on the water. It’s what gives you style more or less.
- Grant Roberts
Freedom of self expression is important to all of us as wakeksaters. It’s gives us the highs and the lows, the bitter and the sweet, the aggravation of not being able to progress and the glory of progression. As we all know, if we were the same and everything was so easy we would never appreciate what we have and the same goes for wakeskating. Someone once told me if wakeskating was easy everyone would do it. But it’s not how good you ride or your level of riding but your own self enjoyment and what you make of it.
- Matt Sacchitiello