I arrived in my new flat, just above the one I was staying in for the first week here in Germany. I hadn’t yet brought my stuff up yet as I wanted to meet the new roommates I would be living with, and to also get to know them a little bit. As it turned out, they had friends over and everyone had been drinking. People were piled into the kitchen, sitting in seats surrounding the kitchen table with beer, cigarettes, and pop music playing. People talking, laughing, drinking, and smoking. And looking outside from the lively yet dimly lit kitchen, a storm was raging. The wind was howling, the rain was pouring, and intermittent lightning and thunder could be seen outside the windows. I hadn’t seen a storm this bad since I was 9 years old.
I sat down between several people at the table. Immediately my new roommate Ronja asked me if I would like some banana curry to eat. I obliged, and she fixed me a bowl of banana curry with chicken and rice. It was absolutely delicious. I hadn’t eaten much that day as I was strapped for cash, so I annihilated it.
I was excited yet nervous to meet everyone. I didn’t know that much German, I didn’t know how much English these people would know. But I sat there, thinking that I could just do my best to communicate. I wanted to practice my German, but I was pretty sure I could only mutter a few phrases and that would be it. I thought that maybe a few beers would help loosen me up. I knew from this start that I would like living here, there was a good feeling about the people. I could tell they were curious about me, about the US, about what people from the US are like. In Halle, there aren’t so many Americans let alone English-speaking people that come through here. Yet, most could understand me and speak English fairly well which took me by surprise.
After a while, I sat down next to a girl Yetta (note: at the time of writing this, even though I’ve met and spoken with her several times, I still don’t know exactly how to spell her name, though I’ve heard it’s short for ‘Henrietta’. Therefore, my best guess is ‘Yetta’). She had black, curly hair and piercing blue eyes. She spoke nearly perfect English, and I would’ve never guessed that she was originally German if I didn’t hear her speak German perfectly. She later would tell me that she spent time living in England for a while, and that she would speak with her fiance in English as he was Moroccan. She asked many questions about where I was from, where I grew up, what I was doing here, how long I had been studying German, and so on.
I would later joke with Yetta that it was like a horror film setting with the raging storm outside, explaining I was a lone traveler in a strange place surrounded by German people. And then she yelled out “And yeah, you’re the American! You’ve come to kill us all!” I thought that, being the foreigner, I wouldn’t have the advantage in this case. Though Yetta would think quite the opposite. I’m the mysterious stranger. Not much is known about me. I didn’t think about it that way, and she mentioned “All the more reason to believe you are the killer!” I would later find out that, contrary to popular belief, Germans do have a pretty funny sense of humor.
Many people were curious as to why I was there. It also made me wonder just exactly what I was doing here. It was still the beginning, I thought, and I hadn’t even started teaching yet. I convinced myself that it wouldn’t be until a few months in where I would be able to truly wrap my head around living here, why exactly I had come here, as well as how to get the hang of ‘everything’. ‘Everything’ including simple things like washing clothes to buying a beer at the bar, to more complicated things like getting health insurance and applying for my work visa.
People weren’t curious as to why I came to Germany so much as to why I came to Halle. Halle isn’t known as a great place to live in Germany. As evidenced by the Berliner on the plane from Duesseldorf to Berlin, many people in Germany don’t exactly think very highly of the city. In all of Germany, it’s rated as one of the city’s with the most graffiti per capita, and the accent here is described as one of the ‘uglier’ accents in all of Germany. But, at the same time, it gives the place and its people a distinct charm. And the people here are able to have a good sense of humor about it. They’re able to laugh about it. They don’t take it seriously. After all, it’s what makes them ‘them’.
As I sat there at the table meeting all these people who grew up and lived in East Germany, all of a sudden the world felt that much bigger. Here I was, from the west, where life had mostly been the same as long as I’ve known. Yet, some if not most of these people had experienced life for a short while under Socialism as well as Capitalism. As a foreigner, the thought of having lived under one extreme and then having to learn how to live under another seems impossible to comprehend. One day you imagine having to wait months for simple domestically-made pleasantries to being able to buy these same things whenever you want, domestically-made or not. That both these systems had been a part of these people’s lives is intriguing. Knowing this, I knew there would be many interesting stories to hear or listen to, and, to these people, they would not be able to understand my fascination with it. To them, it’s just ‘the way things were’.
After a few beers and talking with people in the cramped, dimly-lit kitchen, I then met Lukas, my new roommate Ronja’s boyfriend. He spoke with such a deep, booming, commanding voice. The kind of bear-ish, stone-cold voice you’d expect from a big club bouncer. After talking a bit, he suggested that we could walk around Halle and he could show me around. I agreed and thanked him and said I was very interested in learning about the history here. Just from having walked around certain parts of Halle, I could tell the town was old, many parts of it being older than all of the US. I would later come to realize just how much of an ‘infant’ the US would be compared to many places here.
Moments later I walked down to grab my things and bring them up to my new room. I didn’t have a mattress, but Ronja and my other new roommate Yves brought an extra one over that they weren’t using and gave me a blanket and a pillow and a bedsheet. There was no furniture, the paint on the walls were a little scummy, but I didn’t care. I was excited to finally just have a room. Fixing it up would come later. So, after a long day, I got ready for bed and fell asleep.
September would arrive soon. I had only been here for less than two weeks.
For anyone whose couch-surfed for a while, or been in-between living situations, there can’t be enough said about finally having a place of your own. Having a place to call ‘home’, it brings with it identity. I never considered how important it is to ‘own’ the space you live in until now, but it makes sense. You have a messy room, you’ll more than likely have a messy, haphazard lifestyle. You clean up your room, organize it and look after it, life becomes more lucid. You’re able to concentrate.
I woke up the next morning with a slight headache in my barren room. Only a mattress, my suitcase and my bag. My clothes strewn across the floor. The room’s bright floorboards and light paint on the walls seemed to brighten the room. The sun shone through the blind-less, curtain-less window above my bed. It was daytime.
Then I heard footsteps and a knock on my door. I answered, and Lukas opened the door.
“We go walk through Halle?” he asked.
“Yeah” I answered. “Let me put some clothes on, then we’ll go.”
I then put my clothes on and we set out on foot. As Lukas would later tell me, he didn’t receive that great of marks for his English while in school, so he said he would try his best to communicate with me. I told him that it was no worry as my German wasn’t so good anyways. We could make it work, I thought.
We first set out to the nearby supermarket called Edeka to buy some ‘Club Mate’. I don’t know what it is about this stuff, but it can be seen anywhere you go in Germany. It comes from the Yerba Mate tea, but it was made into a sort of Mate flavored soda. It was pretty good, though I could tell it had a lot of sugar in it. And after having been drinking the previous night, drinking a sugary drink wasn’t something that was really at the top of my list of things to do, but it did have caffeine in it. So I drank it anyways, and we walked towards Burg Giebichenstein.
Lukas told me about the history of the Wall falling down, and how it caused many Eastern firms and companies to move to the West. As they moved out of East Germany, many workers were then left without jobs. So, people then moved West, leaving behind the East. As a result, many buildings became vacant. And since the owners of the buildings weren’t receiving any money from people living there, they didn’t want to fix them as there was no demand for people to move in there. So they just sat there, deteriorating day by day. Even walking around Halle today, one can see signs reading “zu verkaufen” (to sell) still hanging over them.
Yet, slowly overtime people and companies would start to come back to the East as the cost of living in the West began to rise, and the East would later become known to have great schools, a large presence of skilled workers and cheaper living standards. Though, today there are still problems with unemployment in the East, especially in the smaller towns with little to no industry.
From the Western standpoint (or, at least from the standpoint of those who’ve lived under a Capitalist society their entire life), it seems that there is only one side of the story to tell about the collapse of the Berlin Wall: the Socialism doesn’t work. But there’s an even bigger reality that is largely ignored in the way people’s lives were affected. While Germany’s re-unification brings with it a sense of ‘togetherness’, it did bring pangs to many people in the East: people lost jobs, friends and families were split apart, and people had to adjust to a whole new lifestyle.
I asked Lukas an earnest question about the mindset and sentiments of people from the East towards the West and vice versa, if these attitudes still persist today. He would tell me that many people from the West would view the East as “lazy” and “blue-collar,” whereas the East viewed the West “lazy” and “a little snobby.” I asked if this still holds true today, and he nodded his head, though clarifying his stance about he and other people from the East, mentioning that they “work really hard” and “take pride in their work.”
Even twenty or so years later after the wall fell, there still remains a division in the minds of people between the East and the West.
We spent much time walking up towards Burg Giebichenstein and stopped out front of an old museum. Lukas told me that they had found a ‘plate’ here in the nearby area that depicted one of the oldest archaeological artifacts depicting an educated understanding of astronomy. After hearing more from another friend, I would find out that the ‘plate’ that was discovered was called the Himmelsscheibe von Nebra, dating back to the Bronze Age. And this ‘plate’ would actually be known as one of the oldest portable astronomical artifacts found in the entire world. I knew once I could read more German, I would have to return to the museum.
We then walked further up towards a park that ran right by the Saale river. Tree branches, limbs and other debris from last night’s storm were laying around the park. It looked like the post-apocalypse had come, I joked. Lukas smirked and then he stopped by a tree with red berries. Small, circular, red, they looked like berries that had grown on the corner of the street that I grew up on that my mom had once told me were poisonous. He told me I could eat them and I thought he was joking. Then he proceeded to put it in his mouth and spit the seed out. I then did the same. I didn’t know what to expect, but the berries were really sweet.
Atop the park which sat on a hill overlooking parts of Halle, the Saale, and the Peissnitz (the park that sits in the middle of the river), we could see people setting up tents and stands for the festival that would happen that weekend. Das Laternenfest it was called. I asked Lukas if he was looking forward to it, and he said that “no, now many people drink and get in fights. I don’t like it so much anymore.”
We then walked north along the Saale. People were riding in boats down the river, beer tents were being set up, and people with their dogs were walking along the path. It felt very much like Summer. Eventually as we arrived near Burg Giebichenstein, we stopped at the foot of the bridge. Across the river, Lukas told me, was where the rich people lived. High rents, nice neighborhoods. As well as certain parts of the University. To me, it looked almost a little like a European version of Portland with quaint shops, neighborhoods built into heavily-wooded hills. South of the bridge sat Burg Giebichenstein, an old castle near the northern end of town that had been converted into part of the University. It wasn’t open at the time, but it was cool to see such old architecture. I mentioned to Lukas that there aren’t any places like this in the US that are this old.
Then we headed down to the Marktplatz and stopped by Haendel Haus, where the famous German composer was born. We also stopped out front of another building that was a mixture of a wooden/timber frame and stone mold. Lukas would tell me that this old style of construction was called “Fachwerkhaus”. Then we went to the Marktkirche, one of the oldest (if not ‘the’ oldest) churches in all of Halle. It was still kept in immaculate condition. The walls, stone, statues, smaller details and everything in between had been well maintained and kept intact. It even held the Death Mask of Martin Luther, who started Protestantism and had nailed his 95 Theses to the walls of the church in Wittenberg. A giant organ sat in the church with organ pipes that ran up to the roof of the church. It was hard to imagine that this stood in the middle of the city, the area of town that receives most traffic, and yet at the same time, it contains so much history.
Later we stopped by another church just south of where we were and went inside. There was a man praying in one of the aisles, so we were sure to be quiet. It was full of marble, gold, and stained glass windows. It had been more ‘modernized’ than the Marktkirche, but it still felt like an old cathedral, in that even our slow footsteps seemed to echo off the walls inside the church. We stayed for a little while and then walked back up towards the Marktplatz.
We stopped to get ice cream and visit Ronja at her work. Lukas told her the places we had been, and she asked me whether I had been having fun or not. She made it seem like she didn’t think there was so much cool stuff to see in Halle. Based on the way people talked about their hometown here, there weren’t too many that would seem to be so proud of it. With Berlin only a mere hour away, people would seem to ‘downplay’ Halle as a city of any sort of significance. But they don’t realize that to a foreigner, everything is new. Everything is fresh. There’s much to learn at every corner. I told her that, to me, seeing so much old history that’s mostly older than all of the US, it’s different for me. And for me, that’s what makes it more interesting. To be able to see all these places in person, to imagine all the years that they stood here, and the generations and generations of people that had come and gone while these buildings still stood…it’s history like this that you don’t get back in the states.
It was another long day, but a good one. Das Laternenfest would be coming up this weekend, and there would be plenty of opportunity to drink some good German beer, eat some good German food, and hear some German bands. It being on the Peissnitz too, surrounded by the Saale river, would provide the perfect backdrop for such an event.
At the end of the day, I felt like I had learned so much about the city. What better way to be introduced to a place than to walk around with a local. And to think, I hadn’t even known Lukas for an entire day yet.