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The Global Desk

Everything in This City Must

After six months in Leipzig, a German reporter asks the novelist what he’ll miss. But it’s back here in the United States where more dangerous questions take shape, none easily answered with good beer.

Meredith Nickie, This is Going Down (detail), 2010. Courtesy of the artist.

It is January 2013, three months into my time in Leipzig as the Picador Professor at the University of Leipzig’s American Studies Institute, an honored guest: The fellowship consists of a semester’s teaching, followed by two months of writing. Six months total of life in Germany, Leipzig in particular.

A radio reporter from MDR Figaro arranges an interview with me.

What will you miss about Germany and Leipzig, he asks.

It is a sweet sort of question, oddly aspirational—You will miss us, yes? Here I am at the halfway mark. The winter has been dark, the snow, seemingly endless. I have just delivered a novel I’ve been working on for almost a decade, the day before. I almost don’t know how to miss anything. To answer is to answer with a fiction.

The beer and the bread, I say, with a bit of a laugh. Also the quiet.

The months pass and then I am back in the U.S., and I have real answers. But we should still begin with the beer. 

 

I like beer. Wherever I teach, it is one of the first things I need to find. Where is the coffee, where is the beer, where is the burger.

The beer I find early on, at what becomes my local spaetie, the German version of a bodega, and run by Arabs who are studying translation at the University of Leipzig. Most German stores close around six or seven, but this is open until midnight, and has a fridge of single beers by the front door with beers from all over Germany. Most are pilsners and lagers, and I begin a kind of taste test, one by one. By the time I leave, my favorite is the Augustiner Brau, from Munich.

There are no real losers, though, and it seems to me part of the reason is the German beer purity law, which requires that German beers have no more than four ingredients. This law succeeds beautifully. I can’t tell you enough about how good the beer is, or how inexpensive, except to say I will miss being able to go to the spaetie and buy a fantastic beer for 75 cents euro or less. You can keep your fancy spiced whatevers, your ridiculous flavors. Give me a pils or a schwarzbier.

Leipzigers read so much, the city’s nickname was “Leserland,” or, Readerland. And it does feel, immediately, like a city of bookish cyclists.

The bread also—bread is also something different in Germany from America. Closer than the spaetie to me, I find a bio markt, or, organic market, with the extraordinary bread. Once you have German breads you understand that what we have in America is a terrible facsimile. It is bread-like, almost never bread. It’s normal for Americans in Germany to lose some weight in the first months after they arrive, per my expat friends, and I noticed the same. I suspect it is because in a general way, German foods all have more fiber, but German bread has about five times the fiber of America’s facsimile bread, I note, when I do my grocery shopping. In America, a slice usually has one to two grams of fiber, and in Germany, five to eight. More fiber, less additives. It’s not hard to lose a little weight, even if you’re drinking beer and eating bread.

As for the quiet, it is not the first thing I notice, but my attention returns to it, again and again. It is vast, as if it has volume, though it is produced, or not produced, as it were, by the citizens of Leipzig.

By this I mean that part of that quiet is left from when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. At the time Leipzig was a city of approximately 650,000, and over the decade that followed, approximately 100,000 people left for the West, 15,000 that first year. You can see footage of delighted East Germans riding subways into Berlin on that day, and many of them were people who never returned to the East, unsure if the wall was going to stay down. Today in Leipzig, entire buildings are still empty from this. Many houses remain boarded up to protect the contents from thieves, but squats are quite common—there are too many empty and abandoned buildings to protect them all.

At the time, a tax was levied on the former West to rebuild the former East, a tax still being paid by the Wessies, as the former West Germans are called. The result is that while the Wessies first resented the Ossies, the former East, for being poor and post-Communist, now that the former East looks new and renovated, and ready for capitalism, they resent that now as well.

Of the new buildings that have appeared in Leipzig among the old, in their shadow or in their footprints, many of the newest still await tenants. The city feels like it is waiting for something, as my partner Dustin says, shortly after he arrives to spend five of these six months with me. Leipzig feels as if it is waiting, though no longer for the return, not exactly, of the people who left, who all have new lives, who knows where.

It waits for what it will be next.

So many times as I walk the city, I can feel the quiet, as if it reaches from down into the soil, up into the sky. One night at my desk, I hear, with what seems like great violence, the noise of a car driving at a normal speed down Pragerstrasse, the street outside my apartment, followed by the noise of another. It is night and a weekday, and so unusual, it is almost like thunder.

Leipzig during the DDR was the center of East German publishing, and was important to German publishing in general before that. I quickly discover that many of the empty buildings in my neighborhood once housed the publishing industry. A new Center for the Book sits across from the old DDR version of itself, complete with a beautiful old neon sign of hands holding a book open. A library a few blocks away is designed to look like an enormous book on its side. A tower in the center of the city is meant to look like a book standing open. Christa Wolf, a favorite writer of mine, was East Germany’s most important writer, and studied at the university, and this was one of the reasons the post interested me.

Leipzigers read so much, the city’s nickname was “Leserland,” or, Readerland. And it does feel, immediately, like a city of bookish cyclists.

And this is also part of the quiet, I think. Most Leipzigers ride bicycles everywhere, even in the snow. The most I hear from the street normally is the gentle ring of a bell, the clatter of a basket against a bike’s handles. Or children on their way into or out of the park by my front door—the adults usually silent as their children sing and ask questions.

 

When I arrived in Germany the October previous, I didn’t know who would be president when I returned to America. I joked that if Romney won, I could apply for asylum in Germany as a gay man.

Change is a German preoccupation. Most don’t like to make it. I mean change in the most literal monetary sense, but of course it could be extrapolated outward.

Despite this being a joke, it made me wonder, if this happened, could I live here?

In the first days, I felt like a swimmer in a full suit of clothes. Every task I took for granted in the U.S., like knowing where to buy a bottle of tonic water or toilet paper or nail clippers, was not quite what it is back home, despite the way Leipzig seemed very like the U.S. at street level. The garbage and recycling were bewilderingly if also impressively complex—something like 10 different categories to be kept separate. I remember a night in those first days, when I couldn’t find the aforementioned tonic. I noticed a rhubarb soda at my local pizzeria, and at home made myself a very unsatisfying cocktail of gin and rhubarb soda, without ice, as I also couldn’t figure out where to get ice cube trays yet.  

The commitment to ice in a drink is less intense there. All over the city, if you order a gin and tonic, or, “gin tonic,” as they’re often called in Europe, you get something with no ice, a glass of what looks like fizzy water. Older Germans believe ice in drinks to be unhealthy for digestion, and so it is still avoided.

In most countries, for English speakers, there’s a zone in which things are familiar and possible if you don’t know the language, and a zone where you aren’t meant to be. Japan is a more extreme example I’ve encountered, where, in Tokyo on a walk, I saw the zone where numbers and street names were Romanized end and the next signs were all in Japanese characters. Thus I found myself, nearly lost, by the University of Tokyo.

In most places in Germany, if I were to say “English?” in a faintly questioning tone, I’d be received in some basic way, and between my rudimentary German and their variable English, a transaction could be accomplished. This isn’t due to the ubiquity of the American traveler, though. In fact, as was pointed out to me at a party by a British academic, most Americans lack a passport. While as of 2010, the numbers were at a historic high, 110 million, that is still just one third of the population. The British have invaded Europe, though, via Ryanair and easyJet, and the favorable exchange rate of the pound to the euro. The result is that English functions as a kind of common language in many intra-European exchanges, though not in the former East Germany, where most Germans over the age of 30 learned Russian instead of English as a default second language.

This has also resulted in something of a generation gap in the way foreigners are made welcome, or if they are welcome at all.

On the day I arrived, I exited the train at the vast Leipzig train station and looked for that quaint convenience called a payphone to call my contact from the university who was meeting me there. In other parts of Germany, I’d had the experience of trying to speak German where my conversation companion immediately switched to English, or corrected my German in German, then switched to English. But the man at the information desk, when asked if he spoke Englisch (this is technically the word for it in German), made a face and shook his head no, and then looked away from me.

I held my hand next to my ear in the universal sign for “telephone.” He grudgingly looked back to me and pointed to one.

I was outside the zone then, I noted to myself.

At the phone, a young man asked me in English if I knew where he could get change for his euro bills. He had an accent I couldn’t place, and looked Brazilian, a visitor too. I then discovered my next truth about my new, temporary home.

Change is a German preoccupation. Most don’t like to make it. I mean change in the most literal monetary sense, but of course it could be extrapolated outward. In the literal sense at least, exact change or as close to it as possible is expected in just about every transaction. Failure to produce exact change results in eye rolls, huffed breath, tension. Sometimes the transaction is refused.

 

Given the possible metaphorical meanings, we may as well extrapolate outward, and segue to the far-right extremists, the neo-Nazis I was warned about. They are not on the list, I will not miss them. At the flea market here, the largest in Europe, Nazi items are available for sale, but are exhibited with the swastika covered in tape, as it is illegal in modern Germany to exhibit this symbol. I only ever see actual neo-Nazis once, on a train, after five months of not seeing them, and even then, they pass over me, more interested in playing their music loud like any young person.

I think I’m a less obvious target than in the past, and this is a good thing. In 1990, when I first came to Germany, my being an Amerasian was frequently a subject of speculation. “What are you?” was the question I fielded, again and again. On this visit, I blend in, unremarkable among the many more kinds of foreigners here now—on the street in those first days I noted Ghanaians, Arabs, Koreans, Thai, as well as the Turks, who previously were the only non-whites I’d seen in Germany. The presence of this diversity suggests a new tolerance, which is matched by, of course, a free-floating hostility, mostly toward Westerners—and this includes West Germans, Americans, anyone who isn’t an East German. It includes a certain kind of white person, a capitalist, really.

More than Reagan, Leipzig helped bring down the wall, but Reagan gets all of the credit.

Exact change or no change at all.

I saw it the day after I arrived, at the celebration of the city’s peace movement, an annual event every Oct. 9. This is the non-violent protest movement that brought down the Berlin wall. Most Americans have no idea this is true, and this is just one of the smaller complaints a Leipziger might reasonably have against a Wessie or foreigner. That more than Reagan, Leipzig helped bring down the wall, but Reagan gets all of the credit.

“Don’t just act like everything is OK now” read one sign at the celebration. “The tanks rolled out and the banks moved in,” one of the speakers said, a visiting Hungarian politician, of the way the East has been treated by the West here. A business tower nearby had become a lightbox displaying the number “89,” for 1989, in lit windows. After the speeches, dancers danced with, well, iPads, of all things, acting ridiculously like tourists taking iPad photos. The result was a dance as dull as watching other people take photos on expensive equipment, and seems to prove the point of the protesters.

Augustusplatz, the plaza downtown where the celebration was being held, has buildings from nearly every era of this ancient city’s age looking down on it, including a former post office where someone has scrawled “Kom” in front of the word “POST.” “Kompost”—green energy graffiti puns. As I listened to the speeches and heard the speakers address the current economic concerns of Germany, I knew I would like this place, even if the guy at the info desk was rude. I liked that the celebration and the larger conversation could both happen.

And so I spent that first month learning how to be, well, German, a little, in case I wasn’t going to return. I liked that every time I turned on an appliance or light, 44% of the electricity came from renewable energy. I liked the trams that ran quickly and smoothly back and forth across the city, the departure times clearly marked. The inexpensive excellent food at the grocery stores and markets. In something I read in Der Spiegel, someone calls Germany Jimmy Carter’s America, and I laughed, but only because it is true.

By the time my partner Dustin joined me a month later, we knew Romney would not be president. The idea that I would not be able to go home was less urgent. But it was now a habit, and so I still passed through the days, wondering, could I live here? Would I?

 

I will miss the view.

Every morning for the six months I live there, I look out on the orange-gold bricks of the gatehouse in Friedenspark, seen from the fourth floor window of the apartment designated for the Picador professors by the university. The park was once a cemetery until it was bombed beyond recognition in World War II, and as it could never have been repaired, it was made into a park in the ’80s, and dedicated to one of the women’s gymnastic teams here. On my first walk inside, I find a fox lives near the entrance, and shares the park with statues of the Socialist ideals they held in esteem, like education, athleticism, love. A woman kneeling with a book, reading deeply. That team of women gymnasts, muscular and heroic, posed nude and in bronze. Two lovers, a man and woman, intertwined equals of equal size and apparent strength, embracing. In the days of the DDR, when the East German teams won Olympic medals with aplomb, Leipzig was a kind of New Sparta, full of athlete-scholars training their hearts out for the glory of the state, and this park is a quiet legacy of that time.

I know there’s good reason all of those East Germans left immediately after the fall of the wall. In downtown Leipzig you can visit the “Round Corner” Stasi museum, a former Stasi office with exhibits ranging from the methods for opening mail to the disguise room for Stasi agents to the kinds of spy cameras they used. The most chilling room to me contains canisters with swabs of cotton that were used to hold the trace scents of designated targets, and photos of the dogs they used to hunt them.

There’s an office kept much as it would have been, complete with a small handwritten sign by the coffeemaker for coworkers, a cell with two beds, and at the end, in the last room, a machine used to pulp records and turn them into a kind of terrifying papier-mâché cement. The picture that emerges is of a massive operation that tried everything it could to spy on its citizens. In Berlin I saw a film of how they even sent agents to seduce homosexual men, Stasi Romeos, men who were most likely not homosexual themselves. One man interviewed smiled at the memory of the awkward sex he had with one of these agents.

The recent revelation that the TSA may record every phone call, and hopes to record social media interactions as well, suggests we’re now a nation of suspects—America has become one big terrorist watch list.

But the pulp cement made of destroyed files seems to me a perfect picture of their regret, and even shame, at what they did.

As I examine the exhibits of intercepted letters in files that never reached people,  I try to decide if it is better or worse, the way Americans are spied on now. I remember the film The Lives of Others, about the Stasi agent who falls in love with the woman he’s eavesdropping on, and recast it into the present, inside the American TSA complex. My fictional TSA agent reading his beloved’s emails, listening to phone calls.

Why do I live there, I then ask myself. The recent revelation that the TSA may record every phone call, and hopes to record social media interactions as well, suggests we’re now a nation of suspects—America has become one big terrorist watch list. Everyone is on it. As I think about expatriating, if only to object to a life inside that complex, I know, if they’re monitoring me, it won’t matter if I expatriate. It would only continue, perhaps even increase, the move confirming whatever theory had put them onto me, should that even be the case. It would be enough that I would find it objectionable, and it shouldn’t be.

I think of the Chinese dissident who, when he learned he was being spied on by the state, said, “I’ve been trying to get them to listen to me for years.” If they were spying on me, I would want to take the TSA on a tour through the Stasi museum.

See all they did to try to control their citizens, I would say.

See how it failed them.

 

For our last weekend in Germany, Dustin and I head to Dresden, a final trip. There is what I will miss, what I won’t miss, and then, what I can’t miss, and we’ve decided we refuse to miss the chance to go to Dresden. At the train station we buy what is called a Sachsen ticket—for 25 euros, we can travel together from Leipzig to Dresden on a train, and for the entire day, ride the trams in both cities at the one-ticket cost. The Sachsen ticket refers to the state of Saxony, and Dresden, an hour-and-a-half train ride away, is both Saxon and, for that matter, another formerly East German capital, like Leipzig. This ticket arrangement is the sort of thing I admire about Germany—a formal encouragement to travel.

All I know of it is that Dresden is supposed to be beautiful, and of course, that it was burned terribly during World War II. All of our expat friends living in Germany have said we cannot leave without seeing it. Especially the Green Vault, as it is called, the treasure vault of the Saxon kings. In centuries past, tradition was that the vault had to be open to the public, so citizens could go in and see the treasury at any time. This tradition continues though the vault is now a museum.

I don’t need any further incitement than the phrase “treasure vault of the Saxon kings.”

We arrive quickly, a fairly staid passage through the countryside, still white with snow though it is almost Easter, and after checking in to our hotel in the Neuestadt neighborhood—a bargain splurge at just 89 euros—we take the tram to the center of the city, to begin.

For blocks, the view is of an algorithm of newly renovated or abandoned buildings, still a commonplace in the East, though less so as time goes on.  As I look for what is next, the buildings give way to what I soon know is the Elbe, one of Germany’s most famous rivers, and I’m stunned at the sight, the sweep of the river and the elegant stone bank, a shining gold angel visible along the rooftops of the museums, cathedrals and opera house there. This is the famous boardwalk, the Brühlsche Terrasse, or Brühl’s Terrace, the “Balcony of Europe.” It was in fact designed to be stunning to the eye, and it still is. The effect is like that of a planned palace garden, where each landscape view is designed for the viewer, the buildings both distinct as architectural wonders and then also arranged to be an aesthetic triumph itself. Along the top of the view, blackened statues on the buildings are occasionally interrupted by some in new gold leaf, such as this one angel, like a metaphor for the entire city as it repairs itself. I wonder if the black is from the fires still, or if it’s from the pollution—the former East Germany was heavily polluted, from a heavy reliance on coal.

We look at each other, excited, and exit the train, fully in tourist mode, to stand on the bridge and take it in. I find myself taking pictures with my iPad, like those dancers I abhorred—and it looks fundamentally dumb to me—and though you do have to be careful for the way the wind might take it out of your hands, say, on a windswept bridge in Dresden as you try to photograph the historic architectural beauty, the lens lets you take a big photo, and that is what I want, and so that is my bargain. I will look like an idiot to catch this.

As we head on foot toward the Vault, at each turn we take, the view alternately stuns and moves me, statue by statue, column by column, arch by arch. We first pass the Albertinum, Dresden’s modern art museum, one of our targets, but not our first, and hit the famous cathedral, newly rebuilt, with a statue of Martin Luther out front, and a performance artist dressed as a begging angel with a cup by the entrance. All of the churches I go to in Europe, wherever I go, have in common a flood of tourists passing through, snapping photos despite signs forbidding it. But I’ve been trained to expect something fantastic and old from my cathedral visits in France, Italy, and Spain, and so I find the interior a little anticlimactic—the paintings are florid, the décor somehow modern and dated, or, past its date, one of the first really tacky interiors I’ve seen on the trip so far—but it doesn’t matter either. The scale of it alone is beautiful, as is the notion that it was brought back from ruin. And it isn’t for me to use, and so my opinion of it, in a sense, doesn’t matter.

As we leave, I see the most beautiful part, black bricks mixed in with the new—where possible, when it was rebuilt, the old stones were used. Each of the blackened bricks a reminder of the ones that are missing.

We catch a lunch of glühwein and bratwurst nearby, and then head to see the treasure of the kings. I keep taking photos, with Dustin and I looking out for each other in case an iPad swiper is nearby. As we walk, we smile at each other like giddy kids. “If I’d known this was here,” he said, “I would have come probably at least five more weekends.”

We could have, and that is among what I’ll miss.

The tickets for the Grünes Gewölbe exhibit are so popular they have to be purchased in advance online a day or two before. You choose a time slot and then you must arrive at the appointed hour. But the Grünes Gewölbe is housed in a museum that was once a palace, with many other items on display, so we arrive several hours early to take it all in, and begin with the top floor, home to what is called the Turkish Cammer—Ottoman Empire treasures that belonged to August the Strong, perhaps the most famous of the Saxon kings. When he was crowned, he ordered a tent city from Turkey, and various implements and costumes—costumes even for the horses. The number of items and their quality after all this time means the collection is regularly visited by Turkish scholars.

I wonder if the idea of a Saxon ruler celebrating his coronation by dressing as a Turk impresses anything on the crowd, or do they only move through with a kind of “isn’t that curious” approach? In the exhibits I pass through, a more complex picture of this country’s relationship to Turkey emerges, as we see the Saxons variously either at war or in love with Turks and Turkish culture.

We go to the armor exhibit next, in the Riesensaal, or Hall of Giants, where we stare in bafflement and occasional horror at swords that are taller than we are, and the suits of armor that are shorter than we are—did it take two knights to wield the sword?—and the suits of dress armor, each elaborately decorated with engravings of myths and stories, until each was like the most amazing comic book that you’d never read. I imagine knights, facing each other, their eyes pouring over the heroics on each other’s face and chestplates, before taking a swing.

Below this is a collection called the Neues Grünes Gewölbe—I don’t particularly understand it as new, by comparison, but that is the name. The treasures are, it is no exaggeration, nearly beyond imagining. Contemporary luxury is so often about the size of something—how many carats?—that it seems quite dull beside what’s here: ivory carved on a lathe, a cherry pit brooch carved with 188 miniature portraits, a rock crystal “cup” shaped like the mouth of an enormous whale, and set with gold and rubies. The golden figure of a nymph turning into a tree, and red coral branches rising from her head and hands.

The legal protection the German government gave our American relationship is gone, now that we are back in America.

Around the time I am to enter the chamber itself, I notice that much of the treasure was purchased by August in Leipzig. I feel a tinge of pride for the city I’ve called home these last six months, as I stand in the safety doors, which seal out the modern air, and enter the chamber itself.

By now the chamber is anticlimactic. Or, it nearly is. My eyes have filled with enormous gems, silver, gold, rubies, and in particular, the 41-carat Green Diamond, purchased, yes, in Leipzig, and set in ribbons of diamonds to make what must be the world’s most expensive hat pin. Here is more ivory, gold, silver, objects made from coconuts and nautilus shells—but what I keep thinking about is how I like the idea that it was the right of the citizens to come see it, and that this is why it was on display.

By the end of the day, we’re exhausted. We go to dinner, and almost fail to find a place that can fit us in. “I’m so tired of this cuisine,” Dustin says, when I ask if he wants one more Saxon meal, and so instead we finish the day in an Indian restaurant, where we order two types of korma by accident, for being tired—lamb and chicken—and I have a “gin tonic,” served, yes, without ice or lime, a tall glass of booze and fizz. We walk back to our hotel, fall asleep quickly and wake the next day to an Easter brunch, and a day spent at the Albertinum.

We then take another Sachsen ticket home, in time to see all of our Leipzig friends one last time, and to give away what we couldn’t pack.

 

The clearest best answer to what I’ll miss is also ordinary, or it should be.

A few days before we go to Dresden we have an appointment in the city hall, to abmeld, or, de-register. The process is quite simple, and mandatory—if you are taking up residence in a German town or city, you must register within two weeks of moving there, and then de-register on departure. Fines apply if you do not. Dustin and I go together, just as we had to the foreigner’s office some months earlier, where we applied for and received visas for a six-month stay in the country.

In both situations, Dustin’s status as my domestic partner, certified by the city of New York, counted toward his immigration status with the German government, and despite gay marriage per se not being legal here in Germany, I could include him; he could be with me. You could almost call it a small thing except that he is half of my life. 

I think of it again as I sit on the Lufthansa flight lowering itself into Newark airport, and fill out the U.S. State Department visitor card. I sit beside him on the plane and next to the question  “How many members of your family are you traveling with?” I write “0,” because our relationship isn’t recognized that way by federal law, and can’t be.

The legal protection the German government gave our American relationship is gone, now that we are back in America.

We get into a taxi, and pay the new $15 toll into Manhattan. We enter our apartment, where the sound of the bar downstairs still comes through the floor—and where, despite being in the right, after years of working through the city’s legal system, we are still powerless to get our landlord to enforce the bar’s lease, and bring them into soundproof compliance. On the street, I pass a man sitting on a cardboard box with a sign that says “Please help, Thyroid Condition,” and he looks up to me, his eyes bulged and red, and I am reminded how we don’t treat people without insurance here, and what that looks like, and that I’m not used to it, as I never saw this in Germany. I go to the store and as they rang me up for milk, eggs, and cheese, I pay $16—in Leipzig, the same trio would have been maybe six or seven euros. I realize I forgot my shopping bag, and accept a plastic bag reluctantly that I put in a container after I return from the market, where it will stay until I can get myself to one of the stores that recycles them—Best Buy, my neighborhood pharmacist—because in New York, we can’t recycle plastic bags from home, as we did in Germany.

I miss the German recycling, I say to Dustin a few days after arrival.

I do too, he says. I keep putting things in there I know they won’t recycle, hoping maybe they will.

Can I live here, I ask myself now, to my surprise, as I walk around New York.

Can I live here?

biopic

Alexander Chee is the author of Edinburgh (Picador, 2002) and The Queen of the Night, forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He’s the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, an NEA in Fiction, and a Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship and has written for Out, Granta.com, n+1, Paris Review Daily, and NPR. He lives in New York City and blogs at Koreanish. More by Alexander Chee