5 Weeks of German Life
I’ve been in Großkorbetha, a teeny tiny village in Sachsen-Anhalt, approximately 40 minutes on the train from the city of Leipzig, in the former German Democratic Republic, for about five weeks. With only 2000 or so villagers, it can easily be imagined that not much is going on here. You’d be right. There is one restaurant/bar/pub whose opening hours change constantly and the Imbißstube (take-away) is only open for breakfast and lunch but they do a damn good currywurst though. I have only ever seen the cafe closed, even though it clearly states on the door that “For special wishes, we’re always open.” Clearly the wishes of the locals aren’t special enough to warrant an opening. The post office is a godsend, with the owner being a lovely woman who accepts IOUs if your English card doesn’t work in her German card machine. The butcher’s sells some of the finest sausages around and the parking lot opposite the school is where all the action is; there’s a supermarket, a hairdresser’s, a travel agent’s, a dentist’s and a bank. What more do you need? Apparently, there used to be a “Disko” here for the kids. “Bring it back”, I say!
I work at a Privatschule which is technically two schools in one. There’s the Sekundarschule which, although private, is of a lower standard than the Gymnasium. Both the schools are on the same site and there doesn’t seem to be any rivalry of sorts that I’ve been able to see while I’ve been working there. I work 12 “Stunde” per week. Each “Stunde” is 45 minutes long, so I’m doing about 10 hours or so of work. I mostly sit at the back of the class and “provide support” for the English teachers, but I’ve done a few lessons of my own where I’ve led the whole class for the entire lesson. I did one class on The Beatles and played “Back in the USSR”. I was astounded at how little they knew about the Fab Four. One girl made it perfectly clear just how against this sort of music she was and how much she disliked it by telling the class very loudly with such a whingey voice. I could have strangled her. Above all, I was shocked. I should not have expected too much, in their defence; they are young and would have been brought up by former Ossis (East Germans) who would not have had much exposure to the fascist ways of John, Paul, George and Ringo. I’ll give them that much.
Life out here is slow and easy. School starts at some ungodly hour, but I don’t start until half 9 most days. I tend to finish before 1 depending on whether or not I have any meetings with other teachers. I don’t work Fridays, which suits me down to a ‘t’. It means that I have time to travel around Germany and a 3-day weekend is always appreciated. This week, I’ve been on Ferien so I’ve mostly been sleeping.
The countryside is simply stunning. We were very lucky for the first three weeks or so for we definitely had an Indian Summer. It was as warm as October should be. The trees still had their leaves, but they were clinging on for dear life to the branches, their colours fading every day until the surrounding hillsides were on fire and the leaves being blown by the wind looked like sparks and embers flying through the sky. When the moon is out and you’re coming out of the local train station, you feel as if you’re the only person in the world. The telegraph cables just cut across the clouds and there’s a huge wooden windmill in the background that you can just make out in the light of the moon and the stars.
The weary river that runs alongside the village leads to both Weißenfels and Bad Dürrenberg, towns which are so full of character and timelessness that one is easily lost in a dream-like state shortly after wandering along the cobbled streets. Although it’s certainly now colder than before, the chill that nips at the nape of your neck, at that little bare bit of skin that’s not quite covered by your scarf, is welcome and with the snow that fell last weekend but didn’t stay very long, you can feel that the Glühwein season is on its way. Apparently there is a regional speciality of mulled punch, which is ever so slightly different to Glühwein, but I cannot for the life of me remember how. Still, I’m very much looking forward to sampling this ‘rite of passage’ as it were.
Last weekend, with the arrival of the snow, I decided to go into Leipzig city centre and busk. I instantly regretted leaving the house due to the sheer cold that hit me square in the face upon opening the front door. Nevertheless, I soldiered on, taking the bike that my Betreuungslehrerin’s sister had kindly given to me to the station with my mandolin strapped securely to my back. As soon as I got into Leipzig, I bought myself something to eat and went to the tourist information office just to double check that busking without a license was allowed – it was. I now realise that I was putting off my inevitable “show” by doing menial tasks such as double checking with the T.I.O., wandering around trying to ‘suss out’ the best places and buying coffee to warm up my hands. I put my case down outside the Thomaskirche, just down from the statue of Bach, looking over me, and started to play. Few people stopped and fewer even contemplated giving me money. My fingers were seizing up and I had to pause in between each song in order to get the blood flowing back into the tips. One lady walked past, smiled and held out a euro for me. My day had been made. I’d “earned” money while busking. I was so over the moon that I didn’t pay attention to what she was saying and by the time I’d zoned back in, I had missed the conversation and had to, in very broken Denglisch, ask her to repeat it. She put the euro in my case and carried on with her day.
After that Maria had continued on, I was approached by a homeless-looking man, with ear defenders around his neck and a thick, white beard. He introduced himself as Dani and told me that where I was standing was no good for busking, “up on the pedestrianised area, that’s where it’s at” his American accent twanged across the street, reverberated by the cobbles and high façades. I followed him and he told me that he’d been a street performer for over 50 years and had written a book on the art form. I was amazed – he wasn’t in the best of shapes, but clearly he wasn’t doing too badly. He had all his possessions on a bike, or so I thought, but it turned out that they were just his props and he lived in a trailer on an allotment outside the city centre. He’d been in Leipzig for 15 years. We jammed together for a while, split the takings and went for a coffee. He loosely rolled a cigarette and we chatted about the finer aspects of street performance – how to entice a crowd, and more importantly how to keep a crowd – and he told me stories of when he was in Morocco and France. He says that he’s in a bit of legal trouble at the minute. Something regarding a visa, so he might not be staying much longer in Leipzig. Croatia was his next aim, he mentioned. If I don’t see him again, it would be a shame, but I wish him all the best. He even gave me a copy of his book, which is full of anecdotes and essays on street performance.
The Mayor, Johannes, with whom I live, is lovely. He is one of those people who capture a room as soon as they walk into it. He may not be the sort of person who wants to take over the room, but somehow manages to with little effort. When he finds something funny, you know about it; the whole rooms knows about it. His booming laugh fills every available space in the room and for those who are unaccustomed to it, the laugh can often be funnier than the joke at which he was laughing! He’s a train driver for Deutsche Bahn and can tell you more or less anything you want to know about the local train system. His sister lives next door and is also lovely and as kind as anything. Her husband, Fritz (a great name), is a little hard to understand due to his thick Sachsen-Anhalt accent, but very understanding and caring. I feel that I’ve definitely landed on my feet with this living arrangement.
Having just sat down to a meal of rabbit stew with the Mayor and his family, I discovered that I am living in what used to be Granny Drewitz’s “flat”. I have my own bathroom, kitchen and bedroom which is wonderfully decorated with all sorts of trinkets, religious paraphernalia and DDR literature. The sofa bed was once uncomfortable but now is perfectly fine and the oven works – somehow. The washing machine has been the bane of my life. With the finer points of the dial rubbed off after seemingly decades of use, it’s more often than not the case that I have to wash things twice because I can’t figure out how to open the door without putting the machine onto a second cycle. Awesome.
Avoiding chronological order for a while, I went on a bike ride with the Mayor and his chums on “German Unity Day” – the 3rd of October. We set off at about half 10 from the car park opposite the post office, but not without a shot each of Schnapps, kindly provided by Acki. I felt over-dressed in my cycling tracksuit trousers and sports top, whilst the others were in jeans and t-shirts, but I got over myself soon enough. We were cycling all day and we went about 50km. We stopped off at a potato festival and a smoked fish festival, some food and drink at each one, and then we went for ice cream next to a little stream in twee Saxony countryside. After a hard slog uphill, we found ourselves at a vineyard so in order to not insult the proprietors, we went in for a couple of pitchers. Getting back at about half 6, absolutely shattered and a little bit drunk, was nice. We’d seen some breathtaking views and the sun setting over the vast expanses of countryside was fantastic.
Six weeks of German life, condensed into so few words. Bis gleich.