Visiting Leipzig

October, 2000

Just six weeks after our arrival in Prague, I took the train to visit a friend in Leipzig, Germany. I was pretty nervous about riding the trains, since my Czech is minimal and my German nonexistent, but now that I’ve done it, I’m ready to hit the rails again at a moment’s notice!

Leipzig is a town with bad teeth.It smiles, but there are many gaps where decay has not been repaired. In other places, rot has been removed altogether and replaced with shining new crowns. Patricia, an email acquaintance who I had only met once before, was eager to give me a tour of the interesting and unusual attractions that she has come to know, and take obvious pride in. She and her family, one of only three “official” American families at post, live very much like Germans, speaking fluent German, sending their son to a German preschool and doing all their shopping etc. locally. While they are very settled and happy, it was clear that any visiting American was a novelty! I was thoroughly “interviewed” by her two sons, one of whom speaks English with a slight German accent, and warmly welcomed by the entire family.

Our first stop was the weird and wonderful monument to a victory over Napoleon in 1806. (I forget which victory, and in fact, I am beginning to regret not having paid closer attention in history classes!) The German of the monument is “”Volkerschlachtdenkmal” (now say that three times, fast!) This means National Battle Monument, according to my friend. It is an enormous–perhaps four or five hundred feet tall–stone ziggurat. If it were only overgrown by ceiba trees, it would look quite at home in the Central American jungle. The sides are decorated with impressively ponderous Art Nouveau relief sculptures. At present they are covered, like the rest of the city, with the toxic residue of decades of soft-coal smoke, but a community effort is underway to clean and restore the monument.

Inside, we entered a circular space similar to a Roman rotunda. Massive sculptures of Greek gods (I think) gazed down from a ledge a few feet over our heads. We entered a tiny spiral staircase to begin our climb to the top of the monument. The staircase resembles one of those cramped spaces found inside medieval castles, but the walls are covered with very modern graffiti in German, and very bad English. We reached a narrow ledge halfway up the side of the monument. The wall in front of us was high and we were quite safe, but it was crowded, and Patricia clung to the wall in a fit of vertigo. It was rather like being a fly on a windowpane!

At the top of the monument, reached by an even narrower set of stairs, the city spread out below us on all sides. Leipzig is built on a plain–those German immigrants must have felt right at home in the American Midwest. A square viewing platform with thick, high walls on every side made for a more secure feeling. So secure, in fact, that a young father put his squirming toddler (a boy, no less) up on the wall so that he could see better. I couldn’t watch.

Anyway, the view revealed the vast areas of Leipzig that had been obliterated by the bombing of World War Two. Those areas are now occupied by acres of classic Communist architecture. Tall, faceless, twenty-story apartment blocks, rather like those little white houses in which beekeepers keep their hives, in come in groups of four, six, or even ten buildings at a patch. In between, red tile roofs mark the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth century buildings, in various states of disrepair, that were built in pre-Communist days.

Later that day we visited the Stasi (secret police) headquarters that the people took over after Honecker’s downfall. There is an interesting display of bugging equipment and other spy material, along with kits to disguise any agent as a “wild and crazy guy,” complete with sideburns and bell-bottom pants. Big black rotary-dial telephones, 50-kilo metal contraptions meant to punch holes in paper, and recording equipment reminiscent of my (early) elementary school days remind you of just how pathetically outdated the East German system was. Remember, this equipment was last used in 1989! But it could easily have supplied the prop department of an Austin Powers movie. And yes, I saw the piles of shredded paper left from the frantic shredding of documents that took place as the people approached the building to take it over in 1989. Cool! Strangely, there is no English translation available anywhere. I was very lucky to have Patricia, who is fluent in German, to satisfy my curiosity about the exhibits.

From there we proceeded to the Leipzig Museum, recently opened to the public. The chief impression one comes away with is that German history, particularly in East Germany, is a real downer. That is one area of the world that has careened from one disaster to another. You can’t help thinking, as you look at the displays of Nazi and Communist destruction of lives and property: “Boy, these folk really know how to pick ’em!” Both of these museums seemed to treat subjects such as the Holocaust with a great deal of frankness, however, and both were crowded with Germans on a sunny fall afternoon. So there appears to be a great deal of self-examination going on.

Finally, we visited the more conventional tourist sites, such as Bach’s grave, the church in which he was music director, and the partially restored town center. Some of the best ice cream I have ever had–and I’ve had quite a bit–restored us somewhere along the way. We enjoyed the sunshine with dozens of well-upholstered German families. Patricia informed me that Germany is the second fattest country in the world after the United States. I believe it!

Leipzig is a great place for people-watching, especially hair-watching. It is currently the fashion, even among the older generation, to dye one’s hair various shocking shades of red, from the color of dried blood, to more rosy shades. It is rarely flattering, IMHO, but endlessly interesting.

We spent the last morning enjoying the fruits of German industry. The department stores are well-stocked compared to those of Prague. I bought a toaster over, and a cheesy beer stein for Chris (he loved it.) About 2:00 PM I began what was supposed to be a quick journey home. But the train from Leipzig went about 100 yards out of the station then broke down and sat on the track for two hours! So I missed my train to Prague, and took a later one (which was also 25 minutes late), finally arriving about 9:30 PM.

Along the way I thoroughly embarassed myself because I couldn’t figure out how to use the handicapped bathroom, being unable to read the instructions. Someone told me how to do it, but I couldn’t understand, and so the entire train-car had a good laugh while I stood there red-faced with the bathroom door frantically sliding back and forth. Oh well.

I was startled to find that as soon as we got across the border I felt that I was coming home. Mostly because I could actually understand about half of the train announcements. And I found that under stress in the Hlavni Nadrazi my Czech improved tremendously. So now that I’ve been somewhere where I really don’t understand a word, I think I actually do speak some Czech by comparison. In fact, ever since I got back to Prague, I have felt much more comfortable using Czech. Must have been some sort of watershed for me!

I called AAA taxi, the company with English-speaking dispatchers, twice from the rather dodgy train station, and both times someone grabbed it before I could get to it. (I say “dodgy” but in fact this train station was nothing compared to most of the places we have lived. It just wasn’t a great place to be alone, female, and overloaded with baggage at 10:00 PM.)

Finally I just asked a nice looking older man if he had a taxi, and it turned out he lives in Nebusice (right next to my community) and only charged me about twice what AAA charges. (Taxi drivers here are really cottoning on to capitalism.) But he was dying to try out his English on someone, and started waving his Czech/English dictionary around and asking me phrasebook questions in garbled English “because must practice, Miss! You liking Praha? Is not nice?” We had a good time, and then when we got there, he charged me 50 crowns less for helping him practice. I was reminded of how nice it is that Czechs are so proud of their city, and how they care very much that we Americans like it.

A final thought from the dining car menu on the train:

“Pizza and little french bread are served just in the trains, where is going our modernest dining car, because it may be prepared perfectly at this event only.”

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