Ghost Town

Trip Start Feb 04, 2007
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Trip End Mar 09, 2008


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Flag of Germany  ,
Saturday, August 4, 2007

Leipzig is an odd place.  Walking down the street, we see the most incredibly beautiful structures standing right next to the ugliest, most run-down, abandoned buildings covered with graffiti and every second window smashed.  Welcome to Leipzig. 

We began to walk around the town and noticed the side-by-side phenomenon of ugly and abandoned next to restored and beautiful.  We figured it must just be the area we were traversing - but no, the city Zentrum is the nicest part of town.  Once you venture a few kilometres further it gets a lot worse.  However, for some weird reason I still really like the place. Its got character.

You would think I wouldn´t like Leipzig as it has not been the easiest place we´ve stayed.  What with Iain being incredibly sick with a cold (coughing up his lungs incessantly), our sleepless nights sharing a 4 bed dorm with an earth-shattering snorer and... the bed bugs.  Yes, you read correctly.  Bed Bugs. 

We have travelled all across India sleeping in hotels where we could form the plentiful mounds of dirt into countable jumping sheep shapes in order to help us get to sleep - but there was a distinct absence of bed bugs in India.  China, we skipped over gobs of spit daily on our way to our oft below average (in the hygiene stakes) accommodation.  Yet still: clean sheets.  Are you as surprised as we were that perfect little Germany is the place where swarms of rampant bed lice and myself would come face to abdomen?

Yes, myself.  Of course Iain has had absolutely no problem.  After waking up covered in red, glowing, itchy spots I would emerge from my 17th pre-dawn shower pouring an unstable cocktail of tea tree oil, aloe vera and paxyll all over myself and Iain would wake and say "did they get you again?".  We changed mattresses, sheets, rooms and ultimately hotels.

That is how we ended up by the dump.  Perhaps I should explain what I mean by "by" the dump.  I mean right next door to the dump.  I mean every morning we are greeted by the tranquil sound of a million glass bottles being crushed; every afternoon we are tickled by the delicate aroma generated by thousands of bags of rotting garbage and every evening we are lulled to sleep by the whisper of garbage being daintily compressed by monster trucks.

This may have been a result of my hot-tempered impatience as I jumped onto the internet to book the first new place I could find that was available.  All the while Iain sat around without a care in the world talking to other hostel guests, sipping his tea and conscienciously keeping an eye firmly on CNN.  It was this strong sense of abrogated responsibility that led to the terse exchange on approach to the hotel driveway.  Apparently, it was all my fault we were going to be living next door to the dump as this hotel was exclusively my choice.  (Understandably so, as he was too busy watching CNN to help me).  Did I mention how much pain these bug bites were keeping me in?  (Apparently, yes.  He had heard it numerous times). 

So anyway.  Cut a long story short.  This is a great hotel.  Looks like a weathered school portable from the outside - but inside it´s cosy, neat and private with a TV showing English movies.  Oooh and one more thing: no bed bugs. All for the same price as our bed-buggled dorm in Leipzig Zentrum.  (Snaps for Claudine).

Leipzig is the home of our first sighting of the female Ampelmann.  (She is very cute with pig-tails in her hair. I can see why they wanted to keep her).  It is also the home of kirschbier (cherry beer) which tastes much nicer than you would expect.  (No medicinal flavour at all).  Most importantly, it is the home of the Vidya Yoga studio! 

I think I have enjoyed my time here in Leipzig as I have found a local yoga studio (for the first time in a long time) and have managed to take a yoga class.  This is a huge high point for me, as we have been on the move so much that even if I managed to find a local yoga studio, I have not been available to squeeze in a class. 

The stern-looking German yoga teacher responded to my innocent question of whether I would be able to take his class with "No.  Zis is very advanced class. You probably can noht do it".  I figured, I´ve taken yoga classes before and I was here now and it was about to start so I would give it a go.  Well, of course, the class began with everyone´s eyes closed for the gentle breathing and meditation exercises.  All his instructions being in German meant I had no idea what was going on.  I tried to peek at what others were doing - but the instructor kept looking at me so I felt obliged to close them again and wing it.  "Entspannen" I guess that must mean relax?  I snuck a quick look one more time and noticed the whole class was doing free-standing headstands and I realised that perhaps I had bitten off more than I could chew.

It was at this class that I met Kristina, a fellow traveller from Russia (living in NYC) who ended up spending some time with us.  It was incredible visiting the Stasi Museum and learning about the Communist impact on school children in East Germany with Kristina, who had been through similar experiences in Russia as she was growing up.  She regaled us with tales of the Junior Communist squad ("a bit like scouts just that it was compulsory") and the essays they needed to submit which glorified the heroic children who act as informants against their parents who were hiding farming income from the state.  Having Kristina with us really brought the museum discourse to life.

Leipzig has been an interesting stop for mostly all the wrong reasons.  I´m really looking forward to seeing what Füssen has to offer.

* * *

Travel literature is breathlessly effusive about Leipzig. Sure they missed out on the Olympics in favour of London. But never mind, they don't care: Leipzig's on the up. Its on the move. Its on the go.

True.

Everyone has got up, moved, and gone.

Visitors to Leipzig can enjoy the feeling of being in a deserted city, with the ratio of large abandoned buildings being absolutely mesmerising and unfathomable. I keep waiting for a tumbleweed to blow across my path - and this is just in the metropolitan downtown area. In the suburbs its... well, I'm getting ahead of myself.

Leipzig batters you with odd juxtapositions. There are no good and bad districts, there are just good and bad places to tilt your head. At any point you can be confronted with a classical and well maintained 18th century building. Swivel your gaze 10 degrees, and its all 1970's socialist realist adorned UTS style pebblecrete. 10 more degrees, an effortlessly elegant terrace cafe with style oozing from its warm and inviting interior. Next to it sits a vacant lot, showing signs of being overgrown for years.

We walked a lot of the town, and its everywhere. Double Bay abuts Macquarie Fields at any given turn. Its just odd. Claude has found herself quite charmed by the oddity. After 6 days my only verdict is that I hate it a lot less than I did at first sight.

We have, by this time, met a lot of people along the way in our trip who have been through Germany, including a few Germans and the odd (former) East German. All said to us that the East German hangover would still be clearly visible to us even though nigh on 20 years have now passed. We only got a slight inkling of this in Berlin, but Leipzig provides this experience in full force. Especially in our second hotel.

I have received a few emails in recent months asking for our sage advice on travel matters, and I have duly responded with something appropriately reassuring, paternal, and mostly completely fictional. We are old hands, and felt that little could faze us. And then in one day Claude discovered just how much bed bugs love her, we made some quick/ rushed decisions and find ourselves living at the dump. Any advice previously dispensed should be viewed in light of these developments.

This all started as we painted ourselves into a little bit of a corner in terms of accommodation, and found out we needed to stay in cosmopolitan, happenin' Leipzig for about 8 days. No matter, we could use a few days off to read and see what else is happening in the outside world. After one night, Claude has a few spots. So we change sheets, and change mattresses. Problem solved. After night two, Claude looks like a... spotted freak, although I was careful to do my wincing and avoidance of any contact with her in a very subtle fashion so as not to hurt her feelings. After night three we are having remonstrations with the quite attentive hotel management and change rooms and floors. And after initially acting all surprised about Little Miss Spotty's affliction, staff let on that other guests were having problems too. They thought it was harsh laundry chemicals so we use our own sleep sheets.

As this blog is our diary and our way of remembering important little tidbits, I will digress for one paragraph on our fortuitous meeting of the Stupidest Person on Planet Earth.  She is a backpacker working on reception at the bedbug citadel which is Central Globetrotters Hostel Leipzig. She was Chinese via America, so no language issue, and even a slight West Coast accent (maybe). I cannot, in good conscience (and for reasons of length) relate all the incidents here, but while we were checking out an older couple turned up and asked for a private room. She informed them only a four bed room was available. They said they were happy to pay for all 4 beds so they could have it to themselves. She looked affronted and said this wasn't possible as it was clearly called a "share" room, turning them away after numerous efforts on their part to explain the economics of their proposal. How can she improve her salesmanship? While they are pondering their options she rushes over to us bearing her arms saying "Look, I am getting a rash too - it must be because I touch the sheets here". Employee of the Month prize may not be hers for the taking anytime soon. Maybe after a while you just get into the GDR state of mind.

Back on story. We had considered changing the day prior, but cheap accommodation in Leipzig is ridiculously hard to come by considering all the surrounding abandoned buildings. But now we had to move. All normal prior research is thrown out in favour of a fast decision.

The fact that the S-bahn station from which we alighted was named Industriegelande (tranlates as 'Industrial Hellhole' I think) should have provided a clue. But no, we toddle on, fully laden with backpacks and shopping bags of groceries we had accrued as we thought our prior stay would be longer.

We pass an inordinate number of garbage trucks on our little walk. Clearly the backpack plus daypack plus six shopping bags look is quite flattering to Claude's figure as the garbo's are all keen to honk the horn and wave to her as we waddle along. Turning left at the Shell petrol station, and left again leaves us walking behind the depot from which said drivers were all emerging. Suspicions, very slowly, were being raised.

And then the smell hits you like a sledgehammer. That unmistakable hearty richness that only lengthily marinated bin juice can attain. I drop my shopping bags, daypack, shrug off the 15kg backpack and proceed to spit the dummy about our new situation for a prolonged period. People know Claude and I are competitive. People know that faced with a choice of me beating her at a board game or me having cancer, she would at the very least pause while she made her choice: with this in mind you will understand that a tally is being kept of who selects the truly abominable hotels and indigestible restaurants, all in good fun. But this seems to be a point not worth scoring. I no longer want to win, not at this cost.

Like fools, we have made a four night reservation, and when it comes time to check in and handover the cash Claude's otherwise very useful and effective conversational German does not extend to why we are choosing to pay for only one night, and it is left to my charades of holding my nose and pretending to faint that convey to the receptionist our sentiments.

Of course, its one of the best places we have stayed in ages. Sure we need to get a train into town and we need to close the windows at certain times of day... but its a private room, a private bathroom, private CNN and even 4 whole movies in English. I am even enjoying the classic bit of state planning that sees this GDR era hotel plonked right next to the dump. Fair enough planning decision, its not like anyone was going to complain.

Actually, there is someone who would complain, and we learned of him at the Stasi Museum. The Stasi were the East German State Security apparatus, and Leipzig was one of their major centres. To service a population of 500,000 inhabitants they had a field office of 2,400 agents, and a network of over 10,000 paid informers... leading to a culture where information on every single citizen was collated and an environment of fear easily created.

Our Man Most Likely to Complain About the Hotel Being at the Dump would be Johannes Herklotz. In year 9, while other students were submitting assignments about what they would do to strike down the great capitalist threat and further the great cause of revolutionary Stalinist Leninism - something the NSW Teachers Federation are still pushing for on our curriculum I understand - Johannes decides to let them know what he really thinks. He submits his eight page essay about just how crap the system is, about how he can't even get jeans, about how he'll never be able to afford even the awful locally made car (the Trabant), and about how people can't even listen to Michael Jackson even when he's performing in Berlin. (He augments his essay with cool texta drawings of the Trabant and English captions protesting that anyone be compelled to pay DM35,000 for this car.)

Teacher forwards this to headmistress, who in turn quickly informs the Stasi, whereupon an investigation is commenced... and documents show it is still being pursued as late as mid-October 1989 (the Wall falls 9 November). I was in Year 9 in 1989, so Johannes is my age, and I can't imagine taking this kind of stance at an age when you would have some inkling that consequences would be forthcoming. Incredibly courageous, and incredibly fortunate in his timing. The building was stormed by citizens that December and through this action his file, and the story, were preserved.

The first impression of the Stasi Museum is one of amazement at the scale and detail of the security system. At first it seems quite omniscient and omnipotent... and then you think a little harder and realise that all this raw data, this practice of treating every single person as a suspect, was massively flawed: it was clearly impossible to identify any real subversive elements amidst this avalanche of rubbish information. And when the time came, the rallying cry for change originated in church gatherings in Leipzig, and they stone cold missed it.

Our experience in Leipzig overall, and the Stasi museum specifically, was made better by seeing it with Kristina whom Claude met at yoga. Kristina lives in New York having emigrated from St Petersburg as a 10y.o. in 1991. Its one thing to read about and see all the photos of the Stasi emphasis on targeting 8-12 year olds for indoctrination (for this was the age when you would first ask to join the organisation) its made a lot more personal by having someone next to you say "Yes, I remember that!" and describe in detail how you would earn your way into the communist party and elements of the party uniform that were clearly mirrored here. It was a very living history tour we were able to experience. I will remember Kristina's easy description of it as "its like the Boy Scouts, except nobody has a choice". (Aware that Claude quoted this as well but differently... just interesting how two primary sources remember the same conversation basically the same and yet not identically. I could have cheated and made the two versions line up you know...)

Back at our new hotel, and remembering to take big gulps of air before emerging from it, it came time to hit the shops for a big night of cooking in the room. We have had a few nice lunches and dinners out in town - all excellent, very much to my palate and delightfully lacking in portion control - but careful budgetary attention remains essential in Europe, so its off to Aldi for some supermarket dining.

This venture takes us from industrial park into suburbia. Every third building is abandoned, and these are grand imposing structures with classical features just waiting to emerge from the grime and neglect... but they will need to keep waiting some time yet. The first store we hit seems to have been staffed and stocked by people unaware the Wall has fallen, such is the mishmash of merchandise and its arrangement. It is essentially as if David Jones merged with the Two Dollar Shop, then forgot to pay the electricity bill and let their staff sell secondhand furniture amongst the other goods.

And that's been the story in Leipzig. Occasional flashes of the new, but overall it remains your chance to experience the old East Germany. We can keep it this way, just don't mention the Wall.

* * *

On an unrelated topic, our sample of CNN at Hotel de Dump has seen them covering the 'One Year until the Beijing 2008 Olympics' story ad nauseum. The coverage is brutal: stories of massive air pollution, near slave labour conditions for construction workers, the spitting culture... clearly not the public relations boon the government would have been seeking. If some folks could email us how this is/ was reported in Australia we are both pretty curious at this point which news outlets are taking the critical view and those which are staying closer to the press release.

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