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Leipzig Travelogue: Imagined vs. Reality
for love or for work?
I’ve visited Germany several times in my life: First, a tour through Munich, Berlin and Hamburg for work. Later, a conference in Berlin. Once to visit a friend in Mainz and another time to see friends in Münster. All of those experiences were good, but all of them were also brief. None had an intention of longevity. Until now.
Given the opportunity to travel for a month this summer, I had originally planned to go place to place: DC, Wales, Scotland, Italy. But the thought of traveling around on holiday was exhausting and my prior interests in DC and Wales had waned. And Italy appears to be melting in the summer heat. So I decided to just go to one place and try to see what it would be like living there for a month.
I had this idea earlier in the year, but changed my mind at the last minute. I was all set to go live in Nantes, France for three months, with the intention of potentially living there long-term if it went well. But the distance from family and friends, going somewhere I’d never been before and where I didn’t speak the language well convinced me not to go. My alternative city had been Leipzig, but I didn’t pursue that for the same reasons that I turned away from Nantes.
When it comes to adventure, I am of two quite conflicted minds. I didn’t think such a thing was possible until I met Mave, the English Labrador rescue my parents adopted earlier this year. She is a super sweet dog who had a rough first two years of her life at a poorly run breeder. From the start of life in her new home, she has been quite skittish - showing a mix of simulatinously wanting and not wanting to do things. Sometimes when dinnertime comes, she will go up to her food bowl, then go away, then back again a few times before finally eating - a mix of desire and fear. The same happens at the prospect of going on a walk, she needs some time to make up her mind. It goes without saying that she certainly enjoys eating her dinner and going for walks when she builds up the courage to do these things.
I’ve always had a strong desire for adventure, travel, new experiences and new challenges. However, I have always also had a lot of fear and hesitation, doubt and concern about practicalities. Sometimes I play it safe, but then I am unhappy not having any new experiences in my life. When I go out and take a risk, it goes well sometimes and sometimes not. That’s the whole idea of risk, right?
So this time around I took the risk, got on my flight and arrived in Leipzig ready for something new and unexpected. The only way I get myself to take the risk is to convince myself that it will be amazing - which is not a good technique, because it’s a great way to set myself up for failure. I even know going into it that my expectations are probably too high, but also that there is a chance things could go as well as I imagine, or perhaps even better. Rather than a positive attitude, I have positive imaginings.
When I had the chance to go live in Dumfries, Scotland back in 2018, I didn’t think twice - I quit my job and applied for my visa. Meanwhile, I knew absolutely nothing about Dumfries. I ended up being quite lucky and enjoying the place, making several friends that I still keep in touch with today. I even spent the better part of several years following my initial stay living there. I never imagined things going so well. I wondered if new adventures might have similar results.
Since then, I have gone on numerous adventures, many catalogued on this blog. Hawai’i, did not work out, New Zealand was wonderful, Greece was a strange middle ground, Iceland was incredible but also incredibly expensive, London was overwhelming in good and bad ways, but ultimately too much for me. If I could live in Scotland or New Zealand I probably would, but visa issues make that difficult.
I always remind myself of my life pre-2016, when I had a great career but very little travel and mostly spent time at my desk dreaming of a life filled with adventure and new experiences. No matter how disappointing my travels are now, I am grateful for the changes in my life that have given me the chance to live the life I used to only dream about. I’m incredibly fortunate and I never forget that, it’s a very useful source of consolation when travels aren’t going so well too.
Anyway, back to Leipzig…. I arrived a week ago and started out doing all the tourist things, like going on tours. My first stop was to the Spinnerei, a former cotton mill complex turned arts center - full of artist studios and small businesses. It was inspiring to see such a cool historic building put to new use rather than fall into disrepair and become a relic. Imagination: Hundreds of artists at work in open studio spaces, similar to 59 Rivoli in Paris; I would wander around and talk with loads of artists, making new friends and discussing potential creative collaborations. Reality: A quiet place, artists in their private studios or entrepreneurs in their work places, keeping to themselves, sometimes scurrying between buildings. Friendly, but occupied. This set the tone for my time in Leipzig.
Next, I went on a walking tour of Plagwitz, the hip and trendy formerly working class neighborhood west of Leipzig’s city center. It was four Germans and myself who showed up and I was quite lucky that the guide offered the tour in English none the less. I was surprised to be on a tour that wasn’t full of American tourists, which meant none of the stereotypical annoyances that come with stereotypical American tourists. It was a great tour, sharing the history of the place and several interesting spots, including an outdoor cafe and playground where the kids were taught how to build the toys and make the playground themselves - what a concept! It reminded me a bit of Christiania in Copenhagen, without all the weed and tourists. We also passed the Wall of Fame, a series of walls along a path with some incredible street art. No pictures allowed, so you have to go see it for yourself. One of the buildings near the wall was a cooperative owned by its residents who took pride in undertaking all maintenance themselves, developing the skills to be more self-sufficient. Apparently there is a library and theatre open to the public in the building too.
Two days later I went on a walking tour of the city center, which is pretty much what you would expect of a city center in Europe. Leipzig is a city of about 600,000 people. There are some large squares, opera house, concert hall, lots of shopping galleries, restaurants, business and government offices. The tour was interesting and helped orient me, but I am glad I went on the Plagwitz tour first.
After my first three days as a tourist, I was faced with the reality of living in Leipzig. While the flat I am renting is beautiful and convenient to transportation, it is not in a great neighborhood; it’s on the city’s east side which is working class and doesn’t have a whole lot going on. When I first arrived, I was shocked to see so many of the buildings in my neighborhood covered top to bottom in graffiti, I wondered who lived here and how safe it was. Well, it seems plenty safe and the people are nice enough, I don’t think they’re the ones who do the graffiti. It didn’t take long for me to get used to seeing graffiti everywhere, I imagine most residents don’t even notice it they’ve grown so accustomed to it.
Unfortunately, there is a big construction project underway just outside my building, with a variety of obscenely loud and surprisingly diverse sounds from 7am to 4pm every weekday. It also gets a bit uncomfortably hot during the day. When I complain about these things to writer friends, claiming that it’s not a place I can do my work in, they tell me about the much more challenging environments in which they work, because they have no choice. That said, it is only now that I have found a coffee house where I can work that I am actually doing any writing. I really do better in certain environments.
Speaking of work, one interesting thing I learned about on the city center tour was Leipzig’s first ‘skyscraper,’ the Kroch-Hochhaus, standing at a mere 11 stories, built in 1928 and inspired by the clocktower on Venice’s Piazza San Marco. More interesting to me than the building is its latin inscription: ‘omnia vincit labor’ translated to English as ‘work conquers all.’ Our guide informed us that the clocktower in Venice held the slightly different inscription ‘omnia vincit amor’ or ‘love conquers all.’ I haven’t been able to confirm whether the Venetian clocktower actually has this inscription, but it is a useful comparison in any case that speaks strongly to the cultural difference between Germany and Italy.
I would argue, based on my limited experience, that German culture is indeed rooted in the belief that work conquers all. There is a strong work ethic that is reinforced institutionally. When considering moving here, I quickly learned that I needed to make clear my occupation as a writer and the government expected me to treat writing as a full-time job. On one hand, this is good because there is a government-funded organization for writers and artists that provides health insurance and a pension on par with working a full-time job in Germany. The income requirements to join the organization are modest, only requiring that I make over 3,000 euros annually from writing within three years of enrolling. But in my view, this takes away a lot of the freedoms I enjoy as a writer. I like not having the pressure to deliver a ‘product’ that generates revenue - I don’t write to make a living and I don’t want to either.
Like most writers, I depend on other income to survive and use the time I have to write for cultural and spiritual interests, not economic ones. I write fiction, poetry, essays and blog posts based on what inspires me at the time. I find the institutional confines of what it means to be a writer in Germany too restrictive. I may write 10 hours a day one week and zero the next with most of what I write never seeing the light of day let alone broad publication. None of my writing is inspired by the idea of selling it.
But looking at German culture in general, I can see the reflection of socialist propaganda. Rather than critical of routine and mundane labor, it seems to be celebrated. People don’t have the (also flawed) “follow your passion, live your dream” mindset often found in middle and upper class America. Yet Germany certainly has a leftist culture, full of anarchist beliefs, but it sits on the margins and results in creative work more inspired by hate and destruction than anything else. Germany’s economy has thrived based on its work ethic, which has also brought about security and influence within Europe and globally. But what is the culture? Industrial techno music and night clubs that go until 6 in the morning? A stark contrast to the cultural history of classical music and philosophy. Neither cultural era having much to do with the notion of love conquering all.
It’s always been the work of French writers, musicians and artists that inspire me the most, as well as an appreciation for some American, Irish and British ones. Cultural work in Germany is very different and whether it is in support or opposition of the German industrial ethic, it seems to be occupied with industry and not engaged with alternative ideas like surrealism or romance. I didn’t put much thought into this difference before traveling here, I’m not even sure what I expected. But this conflict in creative cultural foundations and ethics has been heavy on my mind since I encountered it upon my arrival and haven’t been able to avoid it since.
In my view, the feeling of a place and its culture, a combination of the people, environment and works produced, shapes that place and the direction of its culture. I’ve long felt out of place in the Seattle area for this very reason, a society starkly different from Leipzig, but not in a good way. I would argue that Seattle is a place and culture obsessed with wealth rather than work or love. It’s hard to find a place inspired by love, let alone live there, because while love may conquer all, it doesn’t usually produce a strong and sustainable economy.
I have had the benefit of visiting and even living in places that had a feeling and culture that resonated with me, from lesser known places like Dumfries, Scotland and Pullman, Washington to the big names like Rome and Paris. What I want most of all is to find one of these places where it is also practical for me to live. Visas, taxes, weather, transportation, cost of living - all of these things result in a lot of limitations. And so I am on this journey trying to find the right place (to write) and while Germany checks many of the practicality boxes, it does not resonate with me culturally, so I continue searching…
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