Alternate perspectives

Trip Start Jul 03, 2008
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Trip End Oct 29, 2008


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Flag of Germany  , Saxony,
Friday, October 3, 2008

I spoke to Polly and my parents on Skype this morning so I'm in a really good mood. We caught up on lots of news, heard about the Marshall Islands and Port Douglas. Polly told me crazy stories about cutting her foot with a machete then sewing it up herself, mum and dad were more sedate and told me about scuba diving in the coral. It still amazes me that Skype exists - it seems like magic. It's so special to really be able to see Polly on my screen!

My original plan was to dump my pack at the Hauptbahnhof (main station) then scoot back out on another tram to my first sight seeing destination. A quick perusal of the map at my tram stop showed me though that the other line would take me to within a stop of the monument so I decided to make the most of my 1hr duration ticket and go straight there. You could see the Volkerschlachtdenkmal (I promise, its easier to say than read!) as soon as you got off the tram. The car park was full of tour buses and locals' cars, I suppose traffic is high today because of the national holiday.

The memorial is a perfect example of imperialist architecture - huge, grand and impressive, if only because of its scale. The carvings and statues are monumental and simply plain in their early 20th century style, but I kinda like that. The kind lady at the ticket desk allowed me to stow my pack behind her desk so I proceeded significantly lighter! The monument is covered in scaffolding (I shouldn't be surprised, so often things are in Europe!) A sign inside explained it was due to water damage to the building structure - apparently the white streaks on the outside were lime?

I entered the lift and once we'd stepped out onto the first level and lady instructed us in German where to go. As per usual I had no idea what she meant, and she didn't speak English to be able to explain. I've noticed the lack of signs (in German or otherwise) and rare offerings of English bother me in attractions like this. Obviously it makes it harder for me to work out what's going on but that's not the problem exactly. I've always been a supporter of countries retaining their language and believe its the on the onus of the traveller to follow suit. I cant remember having this problem in France ,but then I understand the language better. I think it boils down to my frustration at not understanding German - when the language has such strong links to English I feel I ought to be able to pick it up faster :(

I found a small exhibit talking about how the Volkerschlachtdenkmal was built and how it has been viewed and used by successive regimes in Germany since. It was originally built to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Nations, where combined European armies succeeded in stoping Napoleon's army outside Leipzig - this was the precursor to Waterloo. During the war, Germany was still a collection of individual states and many saw the victory as a boost to the argument for a single national identity. During the Great War the Kaiser used the monument as a symbol for Germany's imperial potential but the Weimar republic upheld it as a sign of what Germany was capable of as a new democratic state after the fighting ended. The Nazis saw it as a sign of German supremacy, the Communists felt it showed the beginning of a long German-Russio relationship and now it's presented as a way to see where the country has come from, in order to ponder how it will proceed into the future.

I found it interesting to consider how this was the biggest war then known to Europe, yet the monument was completed on the eve of a much larger conflict to come - the 'war to end all wars'. It's easy to forget how influential and traumatic Napoleon's rise to power was - I suppose they told stories about him like we now tell stories about the Third Reich.

Up another level you got good views around Leipzig and the surrounding area. The monument is set in the middle of a park so you see lots of greenery which is nice. I think I could have gone one level up again to the 'roof' but I was running short of time so I hurried back down to pick up my bag.

I dropped said bag at the Hauptbahnhof and walked through the streets to Thomaskirche. The holiday today commemorates the reunification of Germany in 1989. Not much official happens from what I can gather, but heaps of people were out on the street enjoying the day off. There was a fashion parade on the street and all sorts of stalls surrounded the Markt, with a large performance stage in the centre, set up with tables and umbrellas for people to drink and eat while watching the show.

Bach lived and worked as Cantor to the Thomaskirche until he died - his body is now interred within the church. Across the church square is the Bach museum. Unfortunately I discovered on my arrival that it is mostly closed at present due to renovation and extension of their main building space until March 2009. There is still a small portion of the exhibition still available (and for free!) so I got to see letters and manuscripts that Bach wrote, engravings of the church during his time there and listen to CDs of his music.

I had just enough time to walk over to the Museum in der 'Runden Ecke' (round corner). This is the nickname for the building which once held the Leipzig Stasi secret police headquarters. All has been left pretty much as it originally appeared, so the exhibits of 1960s-1980s style office equipment looks on the outset quite banal and even amusingly antiquated. The really creepy part is the stories and explanations behind the objects.

The exhibition was entirely in German but I was able to hire an audioguide and participate that way. The museum was packed with a huge tour group which took over the narrow corridors so I often had to squeeze through and practice my 'entschuldigung's (excuse me) in the best German I could muster. Its so easy to forget just how invasive and omnipresent a government can make itself, and it terryfies me that this all happened so recently. And that to some extent my own government probably does some of these things too, especially with the whole war on terror. We could view the mail opening machines which allowed the Stasi to check internal and external mail. Especially at Christmas time they'd often 'confiscate' the West German currancy that was placed in the packages, as well as music tapes and any other contraband objects. Everyone knew mail was read, but there was also information in the museum of the secret raids that went on in people's houses. The Stasi would get a copy made of the key then when the occupant was out they'd break in and take polaroids of the place before pulling it apart for information. Once they'd checked everything out they'd use the polaroids to put everything back as it was and the person living there would have no idea anyone had been there, or guess that there might now be bugs in the rooms spying on everything they did.

There was an essay posted on the wall, written by a little boy and complaining how the GDR affected car prices. His teachers sent the essay to the Stasi, who insisted that the employers of the boy's mother discipline her. Worse still, this one essay would have destroyed this kid's chances at gaining an apprenticship or a government job before he even hit his teens! Huge, earthy looking chunks on the floor turned out to be dried pulped paper - destroyed Stasi records. You could see one of the pulping machines where they tipped the documents to be churned and mixed with water. There is now a special computer program which helps to reconstruct the bags of shredded documents the Stasi also left behind. Residents are now allowed to see their Stasi files - the level of detail kept is astounding. Steph told me her uncle checked his and was incredibly hurt when he discovered his best friend had been reporting on him after he made a small negative comment about the regime while they watched TV in his living room one night.

I think one of the more disturbing stories was how the government got more sneaky after signing treaties which promised basic human rights to the East German people. Which just meant that any discrimination and punishment of people they saw as 'enemies of the state' had to be more secretive - they began to set events up to discredit and demoralise their target, with the purpose of not only convincing no one around believed in them, but eventually to ensuring that the target themselves ended up doubting themselves. Of course everything had to be carefully manufactured so nothing could be traced back to the Stasi. It wasn't until after the Iron Curtain fell and these people could access their Stasi files that they could discover how much of their life's events had been orchestrated by the government. 1984 eat your heart out.

I walked back to the Thomaskirche to meet Stephanie - the famous boy's choir associated with the church had a performance that night and as it only cost 2 euro this was much more in my budget than the Leipzig orchestra! The program was set up as a service with sermon and prayer so I got to hear the Lord's prayer in German which was interesting. The choir created an amazing sound when the youngest boys' voices soured high while the older ones stayed low. The obligatory Bach fugue was intricate and a little too convoluted for me, but I loved the hymn by a guy called Johann Schelley who was Cantor 20 years before Bach.

We walked to the train station via a doner place to pick up dinner. I had my yummiest felafel pita yet, with halloumi cheese and red cabbage mmmm. At the station I met up with Danilo, who held my ticket to Dresden. There's a car share website here in Germany called Mitfahrgelegenheit; Danilo posted that he was travelling on a Lander pass, which allows up to 5 people to travel on the same ticket at no extra cost. So I found myself on the train with him, and a Slovak Erasmus student called Katerina shuttling towards Dresden for the cost of 6 euro instead of 20 :D

Wilhelm met me at the train station and invited me to come along to a friend's birthday party he was planning on attending that night. I agreed to join him and despite my reservations about my lack of German I'm so glad I went. Wil has lovely friends who all went out of their way to talk to me, but by the end of the night we were all dancing and language was no longer required. I got to hear a little German music but most amusingly they introduced me to Weird Al' Yankovic's version(s) of the polka, which can be sampled here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JCAt9WcCFbM

We walked back late that night (early that morning?) through the old town of Dresden, which was all light up in an unearthly beauty. More to come tomorrow I suppose ;)

Interesting German language titbit I learnt today - to say you have a hangover, translates as 'I have a tomcat' in English. Strange, but I suppose it makes sense!
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Where I stayed
Steph's place

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