Archive for the ‘Leipzig’ Category
Seen today on a cyclist’s jersey in the Auwald in Leipzig:
Satan’s Energy Drink.
I nearly ran off the trail I laughed so hard.
On Tuesday, Germany will mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. There has been a nearly nonstop succession of television documentaries, events, interviews, and speeches to mark this event, and as one would expect one hears mostly that it was a joyous occasion beyond anyone’s dreams, but there is often a note of bitterness mixed in about the ways that unification, twenty years on, has left behind a lot of carnage and wounds, but psychic and financial, that have yet to heal.
Tonight I was sitting in front of the television watching one of those documentaries. 20 years ago on November 9, I sat, utterly speechless and weeping uncontrollably as I recall, before my television in Dillon, Colorado watching news that I thought would never come in my lifetime. Just two years earlier a West Berlin bureaucrat had told us, a visiting group of college students, that things had normalized and that the Wall was simply a reality one must accept. As he put it, the goal of his government was to find ways to make it more permeable–travel permits, exchanges, etc.–but that its existence was no longer really in question. He said this was no perceptible emotion and, in general, in those days there was certainly little or no unification urge or spirit in the Federal Republic.
While I sat there speechless that day in 1989, I also thought about two other more personal aspects of this stunning turn of events. First, I longed to be in Leipzig on that day. I had applied for but not received one of the rare Fulbright grants for East Germany, and had it been successful, I would have been a student at the then Karl Marx University in Leipzig and likely, due to my burning Americanness, taken part in the marches. The other thought was that my recently submitted application for a Fulbright to West Germany based on a topic concerning authors who had either left or been expelled from East Germany, was pretty much now bound for the circular file. As it turned out, it was successful, but that’s another story.
While watching tonight, perhaps as a result of having been bombarded with reminisces for the last two months, it finally dawned on me that one of the main forces behind 1989 in East Germany was the wish for Reisefreiheit, the freedom to travel, to determine one’s locale. Tonight, however, for the first time, it became clear to me that there was an aspect of the events of 1989 that I had never really considered, that being that the brave people who brought down the East German regime also gained me my Reisefreiheit.
In 1982, as a fairly naive 15 year-old high school student, I spent the better part of a summer living with a family in Berlin within a stone’s throw of the border to East Germany in far southwestern West Berlin. Transiting East Germany by rail and living within an island city made an indelible impression on me, and I sought every opportunity I could to spend time in East Berlin and Potsdam. Those trips are burned into my memory like little else from that age, and the impressions remain fresh and palpable and likely always will. It was a mix of fear, hatred (for smug border types and oppressive regimes), curiosity, and adventure that quickened the pulse and sharpened the senses.
Ironically, that was all I ever saw of the DDR. Although I read much about cities such as Dresden and Leipzig, it was impossible to visit them as an American without being on an organized group visa. I tried in 1987 while living in West Germany and was rejected, and ended up transiting East Germany to visit Poland. In 1990, after the Wall was opened, I even tried to bribe, outright, an agent for the East German state travel agency’s office in Bratislava so that I could visit what was left of the DDR before reunification.
I had spent considerable time in Eastern Europe at that point, and longed to visit the “other” Germany. My passport was littered with stamps that said DDR in that peculiar blue and orange ink, but all I knew of it were the signs I could say as the train rolled toward Berlin: Wittenberge, Staaken, etc. In college I had developed an interest in East German literature and read everything I could. While others read Mann’s Buddenbrooks or Frisch, Dürrenmatt, et al., I devoured Wolf, de Bruyn, Braun, and Becher. I wrote my senior thesis on Jurij Brezan, and had hoped to visit the grand old man of Sorb literature if I had gotten the grant for Leipzig. In fact, visiting the Sorb homeland in the Lausitz was one of my main motivations for seeking a visa to East Germany.
And so, in 1989, I now realize, I, too, was granted my freedom to travel to East Germany, and am now fortunate enough to live in a grand city such as Leipzig. I cannot express how much I admire and appreciate those people, some of whom are my neighbors now, who took to the streets in 1989 to topple a decrepit but still dangerous regime. It is a mistaken assumption on the part of many Americans and Europeans that we are “free” while others live under the yoke of dictatorships. As an American, my government prohibits me from travelling to any number of lands with whom we have chosen to pick quixotic fights that have nothing whatsoever to do with citizens of either nation as individual human beings. Our foreign policy and incessant use of military force makes other regions simply too dangerous to visit, merely by dint of having an American passport and regardless of my personal views on the matters. I have no general Reisefreiheit.
Freedom, so oft on the tongues of American presidents, German chancellors, and others of their ilk, has many aspects and meanings, and while certainly much was gained in 1989, it is equally clear that some things were also lost. Nevertheless, on Tuesday, I hope to take a moment to reflect quietly on the events of 20 years ago, and silently weep in gratitude for those who stood up for my freedom, too. May I be so bold someday.
That title is a weak bridge from my last post, obvious only to the most diehard Dead fans, I suppose. It seemed necessary to post something here before wordpress.com decided this blog had been abandoned and deleted it.
A few weeks ago, I ran my first marathon. Why did I do this? Part of me is still wondering about that, but most of it has to do with setting goals and challenging oneself. Also, J has dreamed for years of running a marathon and not done it yet, so I hope by blazing the trail I can light a small fire under her motivation.
I also happened to have a window where I had no teaching obligations. Sure, I had a ton of other work to do, but everyone has free time and I needed something to fill mine while living far from home and away from my usual time filling activities such as gardening, cycling, house repairs, UU activities, etc. Marathon training fit the bill.
Next I had to find a marathon in late September or early October. The obvious choices were either Bremen or Cologne, but the Cologne marathon is larger, and running with crowds in front of crowds is supposed to help with motivation (it does). Plus, I spent a year in Bremen, and using the words October and Bremen in the same sentence brings to mind visions of being wet to the undies and cold to the bone. Yuck. As it turned out, the weather in Cologne wasn’t exactly fab, but it only rained for about ten minutes, and the sun even made an appearance for the better part of an hour.
Running 26.2 miles takes a long time. When you do it in kilometers, it seems even longer, because 42 is a big number. On the other hand, you knock out the Ks faster, so maybe it is a wash. At any rate, it starts to hurt at some point, and around 36K it was like I lost fifth gear in my transmission. I could maintain my pace fine, but acceleration left the building.
I had trained like a laser–always timing myself and carefully measuring my distances, a rare moment of such athletic exactness for me–and got to the point that I can run a mile or kilometer and more or less tell within ± five seconds how fast I went. Doing the math, I knew that if I ran just a tad under five minutes per kilometer, a 3:30 marathon was possible. Ran that pace in my longer training runs and didn’t die, either, so felt optimistic.
Ended up with a 3:31:22, which over that distance counts for me as pretty much dead on target, so was very satisfied. Good to know that one can dole out one’s energy over such long distance with some degree of control.
Not sure I am eager to run another one anytime soon, although J and I are tossing around running one next June with me as her pacer, but am pretty glad to have figured out how one does such things without injury or drama. Had always wondered what it felt like, too, to run that far.
One of the constants of my many sojourns in Germany, whether one speaks of 1982 or 2009, is the enduring presence and influence of the radical right. Back in the 1980s it was the Republikaner, today it is largely the NPD, but whatever they call themselves, they are neonazi fascists and truly despicable.
The other day I watched a ZDF documentary “Neue braune Welle” and was deeply disturbed by it. In many ways, it just reported what we already know, which is that the NPD and their ilk have a strong hold on disillusioned young men and remain prepared to commit violent acts. The disturbing part was that it reinforced my not-so-vague impression that the German police, in general, turn a blind eye to these pinheads, or go further and actually help support their activities. There is even a saying in Germany that the police are auf dem rechte Auge blind (blind in the right eye).
The Bavarian town of Gräfenberg has the misfortune to have become something of a magnet for this trash, likely due to the presence of a large war memorial. The NPD routinely organizes loud, ugly marches to the memorial, poking their finger squarely in the residents’ eyes. The townspeople got sick of it, organized themselves into a civic forum, and organized a counter protest in the form of a sit in blocking the approved path of the NPD march. Not only did the police assist the NPD with finding an alternate route, some of the organizers of the local counter protest received fines for blocking the march and others are being brought up on charges of obstructing a legal demonstration.
Given that the NPD is always on the cusp of being declared illegal (verfassungswidrig–unconstitutional–Germany’s constitution forbids neonazi activities), and since Bavaria’s interior minister has spoken loudly and forcefully of his support for such a ban, one would think that the events in Gräfenberg would motivate the politicians to take this final step and outlaw the NPD. Instead they choose to fine and prosecute people who want to defend their town against bigoted and hateful young men.
That this is shameful and disgusting would seem to be obvious. Alas, one sees so much latent anti-foreigner sentiment here that one suspects the NPD remains legal out of fear of a backlash.
[Note: I refrain from linking to the NPD. Remember that Google ranks pages based in part on how many times they are linked, so be cautious with links to noxious content.]
Apologies to Mr. Bowie for cribbing his lyrics for a title, but when I saw the sight captured in the photograph below, this song shot into my head like a lightning bolt. Let me set the scene.
This picture was taken at the new school year celebration for the new first graders (German school starts with first grade, not K), and this man was standing in front of me. I was there because G-girl was in the theater piece performed for the kiddos. Yes, my daughter spoke German in front of a large audience, four times, no less. Anyway, it was a warm and somewhat muggy day, and the cafeteria building where this was happening is a GDR relic with impaired air circulation. It was hot in that room, and any sane person was wearing light clothing.
Not this fashion icon whose foot is here immortalized. Although it was August 8th, he was dressed from head to toe in black. Jet black, and not one little thing was any other color. Even the buttons on his shirt were onyx black.
Black long-sleeve shirt (with little epaulatte thingies a la a Members Only jacket circa 1988), black balloon cargo pants tied at the ankles, black socks, black sandals, as you can see. Nice guy, friendly smile, but, wow, dressed like the Grim Reaper on summer vacation, not to mention the dark sock in sandal thing for which Germans are known worldwide.
While walking to school with G-girl today, I saw him again walking his kid to school. Today’s ensemble was much lighter in tone (khaki – so why wear funereal black to a kid program?), but his shoes, socks, pants, and jacket all matched in tone. I so wanted to take him by the shoulders and suggest, kindly, that it is OK to mix colors.
I will now return to my glass house and pretend that I have never worn stripes with plaid. Ever. Nor did I have bright green leather shoes in the late 1980s. That is a nasty rumor.
I can’t remember how it came out, but a couple of months ago I learned that I had a few Pittsburgh Penguins fans in oneof my classes here. This kind of surprised me, since hockey is known here and Leipzig has a team playing in one of the more minor leagues, but isn’t a major sport. I chatted with one of my students about it, and while he didn’t play hockey (his hometown has no ice sheet–how I feel his pain), he started watching a long time ago and somehow found his way to the Pens.
[Note: If you are reading this and know me, I need not explain that for me, there are the Pens, and a bunch of other teams which are there to lose to the Pens. For the rest, you just learned.]
Fast forward to last week, where my beloved Pens survived a wretched game five to tie things up at three games all. I had thus far resisted the urge to watch any of the games. They start at 2:00 am here and I am no longer the footloose student I was in 1991 when they won the Cup while I was in Bremen and watched every single minute of all six games against the North Stars in the middle of the night. I’m a responsible adult with a heavy teaching load and two young children. But game seven? Against the Red Wings? Responsibilities be damned.
I ran into one of my Pens fans two days before the game in the hall in my building. Shamelessly, I said, hey, you mentioned there are ways to see the games here. He said sure, in my kitchen. I then proceeded to more or less invite myself over in the middle of the night (didn’t take much; we Pens fans take care of each other). Brought chicken wings (the appropriateness of eating wings occurred to me only later, so focused was I on the game) and chocolate chip cookies in response to a request for American snacks. The wings in the bowl, along with the celery sticks and blue cheese dressing (made my own!), had as little chance of survival as did the other Wings in the red jerseys.
Turns out that my student has a large screen (literally, a screen, as in the kind that pulls down) in his kitchen, and a computer projector so he can watch things in super large format. Excellent setup.
It was glorious. The Wings fans present were sad, but decent about it. Those of the Pens persuasion were exhausted as the sun came up outside, but utterly exhilarated at the hoisting of Lord Stanley’s cup. I agree with those who say it’s the best trophy in sports, won through the hardest playoff run, and somehow watching your team hoist it just blows the mind.
This trip to Germany is different than the two others we have taken with the girls in the past. G-girl, in particular, is reacting differently to the changes around her. She is three years older than her last visit and knows that she is coming to stay for a year, so is seriously studying her surroundings, gathering clues on native behavior so as to better understand her place in this place. She has made some excellent observations, the key one being: “this is the first time I’m in Germany and really know where I am,” as an explanation for why she has to constantly interrupt us and ask questions.
Leipzig is not a particularly large city—180,000 residents, approximately—but it sure is ginormous by the girls’ standards. The density of people out and about on the sidewalk, in the parks, on the bike paths on any given day is quite a change from our small-town Kansas locale back home. Given Germany’s population density and, some would say, their natural reticence as a ‘people’ (ugh), this is not a place where you generally say hello or nod and smile to people on the sidewalk or on the streetcar. This dearth of open, friendly, smiling faces strikes many Americans as proof of Germans’ essential unfriendliness but I really think it is best explained by the fact that daily life in Germany is spent more out in the open than daily life in America. If Georg-German had to smile and nod at everyone he saw on the street while doing errands, he’d never get anywhere! Joe-America has that luxury because, chances are, if he is out walking around, he is simply out for a walk! Whatever the reason, however, G-girl noticed this difference within her first 36 hours here. She remarked as we were walking back from a local ice cream shop: “nobody says hi to us!” She didn’t sound particularly hurt by this realization, just aware of the differences.
And speaking of differences—boy howdy—are they visible in spades this weekend. The weekend of Pentecost (a German national holiday) is also the weekend, in Leipzig, of the Gothic-Wave-Festival: an international gathering of Goths, with merchant booths, music stages, and a daily sidewalk freak show with all the trimmings all over town. We’ve heard, in addition to German being spoken, English, Danish, Swedish, and Dutch and we’ve not seen much at all. Suffice to say that Goths come from all over Europe and the world to Leipzig this weekend to see and be seen, buy things, listen to edifying (cough, cough) music, and drink a whole bunch. Sunday we went with our friends to Dölitz, where a medieval village of sorts had been erected for the cavorting of the Goths. There were weavers and blacksmiths and mead vendors and jugglers and the like, but the real show was just people watching. I was too shy to get many good pics, but the variety of Goths is simply remarkable: Goths in vampire mode, Goths in Baroque mode, Goths with a death fetish, punk Goths, leather and PVC Goths, mostly naked Goths, Goths that looked more like Ren-Faire attendees than Goths. . . lots (and I mean LOTS) of black. The winner in my own private score book was a vampire Goth who had done up his ears Nosferatu-style. I couldn’t get to the camera in time: tall, thin, pale, big, pointy ears. . . some spooky make-up, a cape, and a young harlot in tow with the bustier and ripped tights and lace and . . . like Halloween in May.
I wonder if either girl will forever associate the Goth look with Germany, or if we are permanently imprinting the Foo’s fashion sense (she is most impressed by tall boots with lots of buckles). It’s been a fun introduction to the local culture, though, that is for sure!