Look before you Leip

“I am Goethe! Look upon me and tremble, future German students!”

On Wednesday morning of my last week in Germany I rose early, packed my bag, bought myself a breakfast pretzel and within an hour was on the train to Leipzig. I had the chance to visit the city because a few weeks earlier I had been at a concert and got to know a girl who just so  happened to be the girlfriend of a guy in the band (yeah, like I just am too cool fo’ skule). She was visiting from Leipzig where she lives in an opulent flat (with low rent and an underground car park for her PERSONAL CAR to boot – man, Berliners have it rough) and generously said I would be welcome to invade her home town if I felt like it. I felt like it.

I had originally applied to spend my year abroad in the Dresden/Leipzig area as my second choice should I fail to get Berlin, so I was curious to see these cities and find out what I’d missed. Dresden had been fantastic but I would rather have eaten an old lady’s wig than have to walk through the Altstadt every single day. Leipzig, on first impressions, was…small. Compared to Berlin that’s like being amazed that a walnut is small relative to a caravan, but the contrast at the time felt rather jarring. However, unlike Dresden, the first impression was of a very sweet place, where the general atmosphere might be summed up by the facial expression one has after a really good bath. It’s contented and relaxed, not filled with tourists, businessmen and lunatics like Dresden or Berlin but rather simply populated with a comfortable number of laid-back inhabitants who all exude an air of “How are you?” “Can’t complain!”. 

After I had set down my bag and wandered with gaping mouth through my friend’s beautiful flat, which costs 70 euros less per month than my hamster’s cage of a room in Berlin, we head out to see the town.


My friend’s idea was to take a bus tour around Leipzig so that I could see all the main bits and get the requisite information one might need. When we reached the bus tour start-off point we were instantly surrounded by dozens of guides who pressed their pitches and flyers upon us, frothing at the mouth with sheer desperation to get us upon their particular bus. All the tours were exactly identical in price, duration and content, lasted two whole hours, and seemed to take one not only through Leipzig but through neighbouring villages, around the local motorways and over to the busdriver’s nan’s house to see how she’s getting on these days. It was ridiculous; who wants to sit on a kitchly painted open-top bus in the wind for two hours having a smarmy man bark tinny facts about Leipzig at you through a loudspeaker? Under the pretence of having to find an ATM we escaped and decided to do our own tour, starting with the Volkerschlachtdenkmal, the monument to the victims of the massacre in one of the Napoleonic wars. No, I don’t remember which one.

It’s a gruesome and terrifying building. Inside, a circular hall is lined with huge stone faces grimacing with agony and misery. Above the faces there is another circular ledge with statues embodying the virtues of man in the most harrowing way you can imagine, with peace depicted as a distressed looking woman holding two huge and brute-like babies to her naked breasts. The whole place was filled with the echoing roar of building machinery due to the renovation works taking place which made the experience even more unnerving, and it was a relief to finally be on top in the open air looking out on the city and away from the big doom-filled cavern. Up there we met a sweet lady who declared herself to be a history teacher and then gave us a fascinating and enthusiastic talk about the monument and Leipzig itself; she was so generous and interested in her subject that I wanted to take her by the arm, buy her a bus and tell her to go out and make her fortune in the city, but instead we went back down and spent the rest of the day wandering around the nooks and crannies of Leipzig, seeing Goethe’s favourite ‘pub’ and stopping for an Apfelstrudel.

The next day we head over to Halle, the town where my companion had grown up. She wanted to show me her childhood stomping ground, and it was as adorable as such a town ought to be. The buildings are low and have lots of dark beams, and all the streets are narrow and charming. Halle is humming with myths and legends, so as we wandered along the labyrinthine alleys we saw, for example, the donkey fountain where a boy and his donkey supposedly got showered with flowers as they were mistaken for a king (happens to me all the time) and a creepy overgrown pathway which was once closed off to quarantine plague victims and was lush with grass when it was later opened as the sick people all died and created a fertile strip of plant life. A brief stop at the Händel museum was fascinating and very impressive – the musical instrument collection was particularly fun, and if anyone needs ideas for my birthday present I definitely want a violin which doubles as a walking stick – but there was also a confusingly large amount of stuff in the museum which had next to nothing to do with Händel at all. Here is a portrait of the man who drew the portrait of Händel’s mum. Here is a photo of the building where Bach, who is a composer like Händel, once had a sandwich. Here is a coin similar to one of the ones Händel probably used to use when he went out to buy a newspaper. It was rather perplexing but ultimately made for a collection that you couldn’t help but scour thoroughly to work out what all these interesting bits and pieces were actually about. Worth the entrance fee, one might say.

We lunched at a strange “Asian” place where I paid an extravagant 3,50 euros for a bowl of instant noodles with a single prawn proudly perched on top and then simply schlenderten through the town, idly drifting through the shops to kill the time before the real event of the day: Harry Potter. Heart-breaking as it was to see the end of my childhood epic mangled into German (eurhgh, vile language) I was so excited I hyperventilated my way through the ads and – nearly – wept at a few tender parts of the action. It’s a brilliant film, if you haven’t already seen it. The kids are admittedly all grown up now; the Weasley twins in particular look like they’ve been briefly let out of the old folk’s home to do their part before afternoon tea, but no matter how big and burly Harry and Ron look these days to me they will always be the goofy acne-dappled youths who seemed to have come straight from the Beano fan club into showbusiness. I was disappointed that Helen Mirren didn’t have a cameo in this film because if she had that would have made the series a complete catalogue of every single British actor living (and recently deceased) within our generation (as part of our 2010 collection, this rather tasteful Bill Nighy, set within a hopeful but pointless and ultimately wasted role!). But oh, it was the end of Harry Potter. It was the closure to a decade of obsession and anticipation. They did a spectacular job, and didn’t even make the epilogue too cringeworthy as the older and now married characters wave their children off on the way to Hogwarts. Although I did feel sorry for Ron, who was the only character to have been made a fat, balding and embarrassing parent as opposed to the chic and well-kempt others. Go and see it for yourself, you’ll see what I mean.

Oh, and don’t waste your cash on 3D; I didn’t feel like I could reach out and grab anything.

Gute Nacht Berlin…

Today I woke up to a view of grey skies, crow-filled fields and a curled-up cat at the foot of my bed. A journey into town involved driving on the left side of the road, and I paid for my new socks in pounds rather than euros. I’m not in Berlin any more; I won’t be coming back for a long time. 

This year abroad has been such an exhausting, exciting, intense series of events that there’s no point even trying to summarise or qualify it. It was what it was, I had a huge amount of fun but it wasn’t always easy and got pretty black in parts. It was ten months in the most electric city in Europe and I think it’s probably the best thing I’ve ever done. Drooling infants and all. 

But since I don’t want this post to be a squelchy emotional snooze-fest I’m not going to write about good times and reminiscences but rather simply write about my last week in Deutschland, a week that in itself was pretty hard to sum up in anything less than a multimedia powerpoint presentation; nonetheless, since we all hate WordArt and text effects I’ll just have to give it a try.

For my last week before coming home I wanted to do something new and see a part of Germany I’ve never seen before, and so I arranged a whistle-stop tour of the Sachsen area, calling at Dresden and Leipzig with a brief stop in Halle. I arrived in Dresden Hauptbahnhof on Monday morning after a long and drab train journey and grinned gormlessly with excitement during the tram ride to my bed for the following two nights, a futon belonging to a friend who kindly let me kip in his pad while I was there. He gave me a map, a tourist guide, a list of things to visit and (with optimistic trust I might not expect from friends who know my clumsy, forgetful and ultimately useless self a little better) a key, then he set off to his job in Berlin leaving me to begin my adventure. I divided my time in Dresden into two parts of the city for two days of exploration; the southern part below the river (Altstadt) for the first day and the part north of the river (Neustadt) for the second. 

Dresden’s Altstadt is rather hard to explain. The tourist guide I had claimed that the nucleus of the Altstadt was the old market, which I set as my starting point, but I was amazed to find that when I reched the old market what I actually found was a colossal concreted empty void, surrounded by buildings but featuring nothing within the square except for a ramp to some underground toilets. It’s honestly incredible how large and pointless the Old Market square actually is; nonetheless, all the old and famous buildings one has to see in Dresden do orbit around it so it functions as a sort of black hole, keeping all the parts of Dresden in its pull whilst itself being nothing but a dead emptiness. In the Altstadt surrounding the square the tourists swarm around the major sights, these being mainly pompous old buildings like the Frauenkirche, the Kreuzkirche, the Semperoper and the world’s longest porcelain mural (which makes me wonder how I’ve managed to miss this ‘who’s-got-the-longest-porcelain-mural’ competition all this time). Everything got viciously bombed in the war and has since been renovated and rebuilt, which is why it all looks simultaneously old and beautiful but also brand new. The Frauenkirche, for example, is a startlingly golden monolith of a building, having been lovingly reconstructed in Dresden’s traditional sandstone and only just reopened in the last three or so years. The inside is spectacular and marvellously kitsch; it’s all powder-puff colours, pinks and greens and painted-on faux marble and featuring as the focal point an incredible altar piece. This huge sculpture behind the altar is of a bunch of flowery pastel biblical guys holding shining golden bunches of grapes or crucifixes, all wading among huge bulks of pure white fluffy clouds. It’s like DisneyBaby® Does The New Testament, and it’s weird but pretty, I suppose. 

Beyond the Frauenkirche, however, Dresden’s Altstadt is a rather oppressive place. All the other famous buildings are made of the same sandstone but due to their age and the remarkable porousness of the sandstone they have sucked up every molecule of smog in the air, causing them to turn an ominous and deep black colour. They are so vast and gothic that they honestly do loom over you in an impressive-yet-threatening kind of way, and I found myself getting ever more frustrated by the combination of the unfriendly buildings and the outrageously expensive cafés and restaurants us tourists had to content ourselves with. I was worried that Dresden would be a disaster.

But then the second day changed everything. Evidently the river Elbe is not just a body of water but also a force field separating the forces of dark and light within the city like a Japanese myth. The minute one crosses the river (and after a good hearty walk) one reaches the Neustadt and is met with any number of colourful and vibrant streets full of interesting things to do and see. I spent almost the whole day there, heading eastwards in the afternoon to see the sunset over the heart-wrenchingly beautiful vineyards in the river valley before dinner. After a bowl of the kind of soup that makes me want to passionately ravish whoever the heck cooked it, I head over to an odd little open-air theatre that I had stumbled upon on my wanderings, coaxed in by the fact that they had lampshades hanging everywhere like fruits.

 One buys a ‘Dreierticket’ and can then see three of a selection of half-hour mini plays and performances which take place in all kinds of weird little stage-come-sheds littered around the location. I was aggressively bellowed into watching a bizarre cabaret/circus-style amateur play with my first ticket, which I regretted the minute one of the cast members went ‘offstage’ (read: retreated behind a pinned-up bedsheet) and was wheeled in seconds later, lying on a tableclothed gurney, surrounded by salad leaves, completely naked. With the other cast members playing his buttocks like drums. 

I stuck to comedy for the rest of the night. A huge mass of us queued for something called ‘Die Echse’, which I knew nothing about except for the fact that it was the most popular performance on offer and the man in charge of tickets was wearing a fez. It turned out to be the most hilarious half-hour of an incredibly sharp and witty comedian whose trick is to metamorphose into a lizard puppet with a cigar and a strong Sachsisch dialect, talking about how he and Aristotle founded the first ever theatre back in prehistory. Also, he did a brief warm-up act involving two sheep arguing about their right to ‘baa’. It was brilliant. The last act was a creepy John Waters lookalike with a drawn-on pencil moustache who had been brought in as a last-minute replacement for someone else who was ill and did a stand-up routine of unrelated small and bizarre acts. He took a lightsaber out of a suitcase and did a few swooshes with it, then used it to pick his teeth. He stood at the back of the stage with his hands out, completely motionless, then very slowly curled over the fingers of his left hand and then finally announced that that was his impression of ‘a wallpaper’. He had a children’s book about wildlife propped on a music stand and picked it up to show us a photo of a tiger licking some soil. It took a while for the penny to drop but as he carried on it just got more and more hilarious until we ended up baying for two whole encores which he sheepishly consented to perform for us. The crazy genius. 

I’ll tell you all about Leipzig tomorrow children, as the delicious smells of Dinner At Home are calling me from downstairs. And after tomorrow…well, it’s time to start thinking about finally putting this old dog to sleep.