I am here in Leipzig, East Germany to tag along to my husband’s medical convention of 5000 international radiologists. (They all look perilously alike. They all share one trait. They wanted to be doctors but never see patients.( Picture a town flooded with said individuals.) I am an historical artifact called the The-wife-traveling-with-her-working-husband. I am actually old enough to remember fifty years ago when they used to have a "wives program" at doctors' conventions. While the men went to the conference, a social coordinator arranged activities for the wives, like a day trip down the Rhine. Now the idea of the wives’ program is completely dead in the water. It is a quaint relic. Nearly half of the radiologists under forty are women and the wives of male radiologists have their own jobs and can’t be tagging along on their husbands’ coattails. I am a writer and can do my work anywhere so, to my husband's chagrin, I accompanied him.
I was interested to see what has actually happened in East Germany since the wall fell. Not many people visit it and instead focus on Berlin and the West. I was a psychologist in a previous lifetime, before I ran out of empathy, and what interests me more than the modernization of East Germany is their cultural psyches. My one week as a cultural sleuth revealed the following. The Germans are a mass of contradictions. While on the one hand they are totally rule oriented to the point of anal retention, on the one hand, they do things that even in North America would be considered wild or at least edgy. As Freud says the tighter you are wound the more you have to break out. Let’s start with the tighter and then loosen up.
My husband was administered a giant badge the size of legal paper on a rope to wear around his neck to prove he was registered at the conference. The badge is so large it looks like a tag you would put on a child with his name on it if you sent him alone to an unknown city. The convention literature says you must wear your badge at all time and you may not lose it; they will not be replaced and you will not be admitted without it. If you do lose your badge, the committee advises you not come to the desk for a replacement. Result: 5000 radiologists have not lost their badges and wear them at all times even though they look a bit slow travelling around town with giant name tags that blow in the wind.
Cups at our hotel
In the morning you can buy a breakfast which has horrible sausage and other animal organs drooping off trays. I skipped the whole animal fest and went to the connecting lounge where they have free coffee and tea in the morning and then I waited to eat lunch at a restaurant where I was not chained to some strange derma. They have paper cups for the lobby and real china cups for the breakfast room. In reality, it is all one big room. I took a china cup and filled it with tea from the free drinks in the lobby. It was almost noon and the breakfast had been closed for hours. A waitress came dashing over saying that I could not use a china cup from that end of the lobby since I missed breakfast. I apologized and said I would use paper in the future if I didn’t buy breakfast. As I settled down to have my tea and to puruse the Leipziger Newspaper, she continued to loom over me. Finally, I looked up and said, “yes?” Then she went and got a paper cup and poured my tea from the china cup to the paper cup saying, “I am only doing my job.”
One day in the lobby I sneezed a few times and the clerk at the desk said, “Gesundheit.” I said to her and to anyone in the lobby who could hear me, “Isn’t it weird that Gesundheit is a universal term for sneezing. Why would that one German word be used all over the world for sneezing? She looked at me for a long moment and then said, “That is not my job. I am to help you with directions.” The other people in the lobby just busied themselves with their devices acting as though I was either thought disordered or demanding.
Elevator at the art gallery
I was in an art gallery —no one does modern grotesque like the Germans. They can really capture psychological terror.(See picture below.) This is only part of a much larger sculpture of hanging people.) I was in a huge elevator with an entire class of seven year olds. One chubby boy said to me in a thick accent, “Hello woman!” and the others giggled. The teacher shook her head in horror as though he’d brandished a gun. When they got off the elevator quietly in orderly fashion, a woman next to me, who clearly worked at the Gallery, said by way of apology for such profound rudeness, “Children do not behave as they once did.” I was shocked as I thought they were perfectly behaved and said so. I said, “You should see children in North America. She said, "Really!" she could not imagine worse than what she'd witnessed. I felt like mailing her in a crate to New York school for a day.
There were numerous incidents like this all day long. Just when I was convinced that the East Germans were trapped in elaborate rules, I saw the other end of the spectrum of equally wild, adventurous behaviour--things that would be edgy even in North America.
Dinner in the dark
I went to a restaurant called Mondshein by our hotel to scope it out for dinner while my husband was still at his conference. The woman spoke English. ((Very few people speak English in the East German city of Leipzig— unlike West Germany, especially Berlin where nearly everyone speaks it.) I was desperate for someone to talk to so we started chatting. She said their restaurant was only for people who want to eat in the dark. I had to enter the pitch-black dining room by putting my arm on her shoulder and then we stumbled into darkness. You could not even see a shadow. All the waiters were blind. The first thing I asked was, “Does this have to do with sex?” Then I added in order to normalize myself, “Probably everyone asks that.” She said, “You are the first ever to ask that.” (Oops. I was weird yet again.) When I asked the point of the darkness, she said it was a new movement to enhance taste by cutting out the other senses. You have no idea what you are eating. They present a four-course meal. After the meal you go into a lighted lounge and tell the hostess what you thought you ate. She said usually people are way off. They have no idea how to pair their tastes to the actual dish. Literally they don’t know fish from fowl. Apparently, when you have to block some senses, the others are enhanced and the food taste is augmented. She said that there are several “dark” restaurants in Germany and a few in Berlin (of course). When I asked what kind of person comes to such a restaurant she said they are average people of all classes and all ages (20s to 70s). I told her my husband of 48 years would never buy into dark dining. When he got back from his conference, and I told him about it he said, “Let’s go!” Guess I don’t know him very well!
Our hotel lacks common amenities such as a concierge, a phone, and a restaurant that does not include body organs, but is replete with a sink that lights up in green and a bathtub that also lights up in green and is a spike heel in the middle of our room. I kid you not.
A hotel near us that I checked out on line is, in my humble opinion, the Wurst hotel ever. It is all based on a sausage theme and the restaurant has every imaginable, and unimaginable sausage. The pillows alone are a derma nightmare.
Wonderland 13 Wicked Wear
‘Naughty' clothing stores are everywhere. In Wonderland 13 Wicked Wear the clothing didn’t look that edgy to me. It resembled peasant blouses with laced bustiers and dirndls in red and black. They have high heeled red shoes that lace up with open toes. In reality it you bought into this ’naughty’ clothing you’d look like a waitress at any one of the Hungarian restaurants in Toronto. The website says “expressions of your lifestyle with a wink" I told the proprietor I didn’t get it and she said only, “You’re not German.” She had that right.
So there you have it. The yin and yang of the German psyche. However if you simply focus on the German psyche alone, you will miss what is amazing about Leipzig. The German people are talented and just looking at the history of Leipzig you get a taste of it. Unlike Toronto where I am from, in Leipzig you have written history dating back to the 10th century. Musical genius alone claims Bach, Wagner and Mendelssohn-- all living in Leipzig! Leipzig University started in 1409. In 1519 Luther started the reformation and in 1539 the people of Leipzig became Lutheran.
We went to a service where Johann Sebastian Bach was music director from 1723 until his death in 1750. He was ‘directed' to come up with new music every week for the service and he composed it weekly for years on end! It was like my husband's conference badges, there was no way to object!
We had a great time going to an underground restaurant called the Auerbach Kellor. Goethe, the great writer, was a regular at the cellar while studying at the university from 1765 to 1768. He saw a wood block hanging in the restaurant on the wall of Faust causing an uproar rolling on a barrel. This woodcut inspired Goethe to write Faust. The basement tavern has all kinds of frescoes from scenes of Goethe’s Faust.
When I was taking the picture below of Faust, it was behind a table of Japanese male students who were at a computer conference. They wanted to know why they all had to get up so I could take the picture. I explained why Goethe was famous and the figure in red in the picture was the devil. I asked them if it's a good idea to sell your soul for eternal youth and worldly goods as Faust had done. One earnest, black suited, be-speckled twenty-year-old looked at me and said he’d sell his youth today for middle age and prestige and all the others agreed. I was surpised by his response but admired his honestly.
During the war the restaurant was used as a bomb shelter and after the war it was used by the authorities to hand out food stamps.
The fall of the wall began in a church in Leipzig, with peaceful protest. Everyone was shocked that the wall came down without violence as the cold war began to thaw. I remember Walter Cronkite showing the crumbling wall on CBS News in 1991. We all wondered what these East Germans, who have been walled off from the west, would be like when they emerged from their dreary soviet block buildings. I noticed that whenever I talked to a German on this trip, they dated things by 'before' and 'after' the wall. None of the irony was lost on me that now, nearly thirty years later, we in the west, discuss "walls" daily in the news.
Like every other city I have been to in Germany, there is a Holocaust museum or memorial. Germans have done an amazing job covering what happened to the Jews during the war. You could never say they have buried that history. In fact it is in your face in every city and it is always done well. The memorial in Leipzig is simple but effective. It is called 140 Empty Chairs. Each chair stands for 100 Jews who used to pray in this spot where their synagogue used to stand. 14,000 Jews from Leipzig were sent to Buchanwald concentration camp and killed. The memorial is not in a tourist area but in a plain neighbourhood of apartment buildings so that whenever anyone of a thousand people open their shades they see it. Here is a picture taken from someone renting a 6th floor apartment.
As I look around me, I realized that almost no one now has lived through the war. You’d have to be in your middle 80’s’. It’s gone from current event to history in my life time. I remember when I came here in my 20’s, fifty years ago, you saw wounded retired soldiers limping around every town square in leather shoes and vests. Now fifty years later you see everyone in Nikes with a cell phone.