I got off the train and exited the Hauptbahnhof, emerging into brilliant sunlight. There, at the front of the building stood twenty cream-coloured Mercedes Benz, in neat formation, awaiting their next passenger. Nothing to hail. No scramble for my business. Just a very ordered line, waiting their turn.
I approached the front of the line, and the process ensued, as it does in Germany – without fuss. My driver took my bags, placed them in his boot, and we departed from this historic centre of a town for my hotel, Hotel NH Leipzig Messe.
It was a twenty-minute drive, which – given that we drove the precise speed limit on Autobahns the entire way – is a long way north of the centre. We pulled off the freeway, into a service road dividing two unkempt suburban paddocks. And, having left the vibrancy and vitality of Berlin, and the sweet centre of this historic town – I felt my breath stolen from me in the same way you may if you watched a kitten slaughtered with a hammer.
I shouldn’t be so affected by my surrounds. I thought that I was immune to this kind of thing. But guess I’m not. I’m just not. On entering this building, I felt completely, insufferably depleted. I don’t remember such a visceral reaction to a building in my entire life. Yes, to ones that house art, or history – but not to a hotel. Okay, there was that one time in Syria when I slept opposite an open sewer, but that was different. That was not a hotel, booked weeks ahead of time, and costing several hundred dollars per night.
We were on the rim of the ring road, in a suburb called Seehausen, which is German for hairy armpit. It was everything that Europe isn’t; or more accurately, it was everything that I romanticise Europe not to be. It was not old, not magnificent, not character filled, not charming. It was big, it was vast, and it was made of cinder bricks. The view from my window was of a delivery truck, and a ‘Globus’ and ‘Bauhaus’ outlet, which are like Big W on steroids. All of this, bordered by unkempt paddocks of weeds.
Who knew Germans didn’t mow lawn?
I walked up to the desk manned by three women, which sounds like an odd phrase, except that we were in Seehausen. They were all angry; angry for being here, angry for working, angry that I didn’t speak German, angry that I was yet another customer. The following day, when it was quiet, I tried to ask a fourth woman at the desk if this was a repurposed building from East German days; I couldn’t imagine why anyone would allow something like this to remain standing, but even more, I couldn’t bear to think that anyone would build this thing of free volition after the lifting of the iron curtain.
She just looked at me and frowned, again annoyed at my existence, and I returned to my room, apologising as I went:
“Entshuldigung, entshuldigung, entshuldigung”.
* * * * *
But, a conference is a conference is a conference. Once you’re inside, it really doesn’t matter if you’re in a paddock in Seehausen or in the centre of Paris, you are shut up in a dark room without windows, while various people with grey hair put on hour long slide shows. No wonder they make it a tax deduction.
At the end of each day, and during particularly slow slide shows about holidays with Aunty Edith, I caught the tram into town. And I learnt that if you leave any city’s hairy armpit, there is a face; in this case Leipzig’s historic centre. It was charming, and grand; quaint, and yet immense. It is deeply medieval in character, which I guess stems from the fact that it was it was founded exactly one thousand years ago, in 1015. The market square, two soccer pitches in size, is paved in stone, and does not have a single fountain, plot of grass, nor bench seat. They’ve gone completely over the top for this 1000-year celebration, hanging a single banner above the square, and they even created a website.
I know, Germans are so effusive.
* * * * *
On the outskirts of this medieval city centre sits the Runden Ecke, or the Round Corner, a museum on the site of the former Stasi headquarters. As Leipzig was deep in East Germany, this was a town ruled heavily by the paranoia of the government, increasingly concerned by the risk of its capitalist half, West Germany. In a building which has been preserved in its original decor, I saw examples of phone bugs, jacket and tie cameras, envelope steamers – to steam open mail, steal money, censor letters with texta, and then reseal them like nothing happened – and some of the worst spy costumes I’ve ever seen. If anyone dressed up in their Arab costume today, they’d be accused of cultural insensitivity for portraying blackface. And don’t get me started on the Brillo moustaches and Afros.
The Stasi captured the scent of suspects and keep it in jars. They copied house keys and raided your houses while you were at work. I don’t know about you, but if dogs were learning my scent, I came home to find things moved around my room, my phone was tapped and an Arab in blackface started following me around the city, I’d be trying pretty hard to escape to the West too.
Thousands of children were fed turinabol, an anabolic steroid, to win gold at the Olympics; subsequent side effects include infertility, breast and testicular cancer, and heart disease. They had a single car to choose from – a Trabant – that was sold as a direct competitor to the VW Beetle. Initial orders had up to a year of wait time; by the collapse of the Berlin wall it was up to a 16 year wait. Given that it had a two stroke engine, blew smoke like a chainsmoker, was essentially unchanged from its original 1957 design up until 1989, and had a body made of recycled plastic, it was a perfectly precise metaphor for East Germany as a whole.
But as I learnt at the European society of paediatric infectious diseases conference – the whole reason I was here in the first place – there was one upside to the brutal regime. Fewer East German kids contracted whooping cough, because you simply weren’t allowed to be a conscientious objector to immunisations. Herd immunity across the country meant that everyone – children, adults, and the elderly were all better protected, and fewer infants died.
I guess there has to be one upside.
The situation became increasingly insufferable for the population. Despite warnings that the Stasi would imprison and torture if you demonstrated against the authorities – and there was no shortage of missing people, conveniently ‘disappeared’ for their opposition to the authorities – through the summer of 1989 the wave of demonstrators grew. For almost a decade, dissidents had been meeting weekly on a Monday, at Nikolaikirche, to meet and talk politics. What began as 1000 one week, was 2000 the following, and 7000 the one after. A week later it was 20,000, and then, on 9th October 1989, 70,000 people spilled into the nearby Karl Marx Square, with the banners ‘We are the People.” Each week, the Stasi threatened to attack and imprison the demonstrators; this was no veiled threat, for 27 years they had systematically ‘removed’ troublemakers. But through this extraordinary month, at the end of a year of increasing bravery against the German Deomcratic republic, the numbers swelled, until it was impossible to stop the wave.
A month later, on 9th November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. The GDR was dissolved following the unification of Germany within months.
* * * * *
Things improved from here – for the East Germans at the end of the Cold War, but more specifically, for me by the end of the conference. They couldn’t get any worse than the low point, when the hotel-supplied East German moisturiser burnt my face like it was an anabolic steroid. I acclimatised to the fact that the whole of Germany disbelieves in sheets, and heats the room to nightmare inducing temperatures. I got used to putting my ‘do not disturb’ sign on the door, only for them to ignore it, Stasi style, and clean my room top to toe. It was like a ransacking in reverse.
I got to know ‘Globus’, the local megamarket, and on one occasion, was ushered through, past a line of five customers, because I only had three items to buy. This was the ‘eight items or less’ aisle, German style, with a parade of people congratulating me as I went. I did the Lambada in celebration.
But I did find a single redeeming feature to this cinderbrick wonderland, which I found on my final day. As I emerged to wait for my cab, I saw a row of eight tulips planted in the front yard. I shit you not – eight fragile flowers were the single redeeming feature of Seehausan.
Standing there, was a cab waiting.
“You need to go, sir?”
“Ah, yes, I’ve just ordered a cab,” I replied. “They said it will take ten minutes.”
He looked impatiently at his watch. “Ah, it is too long,” he pronounced. “I will take you.”
“You don’t have someone to pick up?”
“Yes,” he said, “but she is already…” he glanced at his watch, “three minutes late.”
I looked at him and nodded the ‘if you’re looking for an argument’ look.
We loaded my things into his cab. As I hopped in, at 7.04am, a woman came out of the hotel.
“Are you my cab?” she asked.
“Yes, I am. But now I am taking this gentleman. After all, you were four minutes late. And this is Germany.”
Former East Germany. One thousand years of celebration on a banner, anabolic steroids for breakfast, and four minutes late for your cab. Take your ticket, and a wait a few years for your Trabant, lady.
He sped off in his Mercedes. “It is okay, your taxi will be here in ten minutes for her. After all, this is Germany,” he repeated, adjusting his neck tie as he went.
* * * * *