You were not supposed to capture my heart, but I think I will have to return.
Leipzig is the most populous city of the Bundesland Saxony. It spent 30 years under the DDR regime and has an interesting story to tell in life behind the Iron Curtain, however fundamentally, it claims a huge stake in the Mauerfall for instigating huge peaceful protests culminating on 9th November with a press conference in which Günter Schabowski somewhat accidentally declared the fall of the wall, effective immediately.
However Leipzig is loveable both for its inner city grandeur and its undertone of rebellion. It was originally the centre of Europe. Staged on the crossing point of the two major European trade routes, it saw a huge amount of trade and wealth. The Via Imperii ran north to south from Rome, Italy to Szczecin, Poland, and the Via Regia ran east to west from Santiago de Compostela, Spain to Moscow, Russia, crossing in Leipzig. Its huge influence meant it was predicted to be much bigger than it is today and has an impressive Hauptbahnhof, Germany’s biggest. What else about this beautiful city? It has two grand town halls, the new fairytaleesque one used since 1905, the old one standing grand in the cities main square. It spent 30 years behind the Iron Curtain and then experienced a mass exodus when the wall fell, leaving behind abandoned factories and empty housing units. Only in the last few years has the city began to grow, a cosmopoilitan vibe of students, artists and expats breathing new life into old spaces. It has a young demographic because of new families and a low cost of living.
I was so lucky to be working with the most vibrant family of all, and sharing meals around a table where laughter could always be heard. I was volunteering with a project in a previously abandoned apartment block, just north of the centre. One by one, Philip, with help of volunteers, was renovating each apartment to rent out. The building was gorgeously light with high ceilings, big doors and ornate decorations which had to be preserved. Each day held painting, plastering or working to maintain the large garden and allotment, but was always filled with an international blend of music, searching conversations and laughter. With Philip and his family, we ended the work day always by cooking together and enjoying the most random and far flung topics of conversation in a mix of German and English. I felt immediately at home as I was welcomed into a vibrant family life where friday nights were hours on end of Mario Kart, board games until the early hours, debates, impromptu Karaoke and cult films.
The marks of life under DDR still are represented throughout this beautiful city. In a society where religion was surpressed, most of the churches were destroyed, including Paulinekircher which survived the WW2 bombings but was dynamited under communist rule. The university rebuilt a beautiful building on the site of the destroyed church to memorialise it. Behind the Iron Curtain was a life of suspicion and reporting. Life was difficult for many people and development in the city was stilted. Maybe for that reason, a large vein of forest spans the centre of the city, following the River Elster. On a sunny day, many people sit outside with picnics, socialising with beers or riding bikes to one of the many ‘Sees’ in the city. It is a glimpse of the Leipzig lifestyle. With a mass exodus of people after the fall of the DDR, many buildings fell into disrepair. As they begin to be reimagined, Leipzig is a lively, artistic and musical place. The Spinnerei, a former cotton factory, is now a space filled with exhibitions and a small underground cinema. We made the most of visiting climbing and bouldering halls, as well as trampoline parks which all inhabit huge, previously abandoned spaces.
Leipzig is also a renowned city for Music as the Thomaskirche employed Johan Sebastian Bach and many other successful composers such as Richard Wagner. The choir that performs there to this day, Thomanechor, was founded originally in 1212. The city was also home to Angela Merkel’s university years.
A great Leipzig pastime is to enjoy Kaffee trinken in the cafes that inhabit many of the passages which wind through the buildings of the city, forming a maze of shops and walkways. The Leipzig dish is the Leipzig Lerche. This pie was originally made with the songbird, the Lark until they were banned from being hunted the 1870’s. From then it took a sweet twist and was made from marzipan.
One of Leipzig’s impressive monuments is the Volkerschlachtdenkmal which is a monument celebrating the victory against Napoleon in 1813. It was completed for the 100 year anniversary of the battle which ended the war of the sixth coalition and is a huge structure with 500 steps up to an amazing panorama of the left city. Inside a musician filled the grand halls with saxophone music.
After two weeks in the city, school started. Monday to Friday mornings I was taking German classes at a language school to prepare me for a winter in Austria. I had been studying alone for four months, using podcasts, books and songs, but being in a classroom, immersed in German with other learners was a great encouragement. No longer was this language one that just existed in my head, it was one that I was preparing to have come out of my mouth. Everyday I cycled excitedly to school, to play games and watch as Christian, our teacher, attempted to draw act and describe concepts, idioms and German Culture to us. I made my first friend, Kathryn as we both determined to speak only in German, and soon our conversations expanded to evenings attempting to discuss life, politics and travel in German over a few glasses of wine. By chatting away with other learners, we created a safe space to make mistakes and realised just how many words we knew. Any words we struggled to find became the homework for our teacher the next day! I made other friends in the class as we combined homework with baking, or took conversations to Beer Halls, and very quickly Leipzig was becoming a bubble I didn’t want to burst.
At home, we commenced a game of Live Cluedo in which Hank, Philip, Sebastian, Tommy and I were attempting to kill each other with various household objects around the building. It caused great suspicion as conspiracies with neighbours sprung up in order to align murder objectives. In my last week, we celebrated the Freiertag with a Party with many others from the building and ended in big sing a longs, the anthem of the month, coinciding with 30 years since the wall fell, was undoubtedly “Winds of Change.”
What was only a short six week episode, captured a bigger piece of my heart as every moment in Leipzig was filled with special people and an amazing energy. For now, it’s ‘Bis Später, Leipzig!’