Leipzig: City of Heroes


Revo, Neo Rauch, 2010. Photograph by Eva Freude

by John Crutchfield

The first time I visited Leipzig, Germany was late in the winter of 1992, not long after the much-hyped reunification. The East was still very much “The East,” and though money was pouring in from the federal government, no one really seemed to know what the rules were. Prices on most commodities were wildly inconsistent, even from one street to the next. Out of sheer uncertainty, or else habit, people continued to shop at the old communist grocery store chain, Konsum, where there was one kind of bread, one kind of butter, one kind of milk in a bottle you brought back for your 10-pfennig deposit. Often the choices were further simplified by some items not being available at all.

At the time, I was an exchange student in far away Tübingen, a well-to-do university town in southwestern Germany known for its unblemished medieval heritage and for the squat yellow tower overlooking the Neckar River, where the poet Friedrich Hölderlin lived out the last mentally unhinged years of his life. About midway through my year there, I had the unexpected good luck to befriend a first-year law student who lived down the hall from me in the student dormitory. Being from Thüringia, in the now former German Democratic Republic, she felt almost as foreign among these wealthy Swabians as I did. In all likelihood it was this mutual feeling of alienation that first brought us together — certainly more than my charm as a conversationalist in her native tongue. Over the semester break she invited me to her home in Altenburg, a small town near Leipzig famous for the manufacture of playing cards. I wasn’t too interested in cards, but she also assured me her town zoo featured a real live Nasenbär (“nose-bear”), a species of mammal which I felt quite certain did not exist.

*** [insert here 18th Century etching of the mythical Nasenbär] ***

I arrived at the Altenburg train station in the middle of one of those bitter-cold Central European nights one reads about, and literally the first thing I saw when I stepped groggily off the train was a group of young soldiers hanging out by the tracks and passing a bottle back and forth. Slung casually over their shoulders were massive assault rifles, dull black and of an evil-looking design I thought I recognized from movies. A slurred syllable or two reached me through the icy air: yes, they were speaking Russian. Having grown up in the 1980s, I can perhaps be forgiven for the panic that seized me. I’d never seen an actual living minion of the Evil Empire before, much less a group of them, heavily armed and obviously looking for something to do. Besides, weren’t the Russians supposed to be gone by now? What the hell had I got myself into? Hoping to escape notice, I shouldered my pack and hurried inside to the ticketing area.

*** [insert here publicity still from Red Dawn (1984)] ***

The next night, my girlfriend (I think she would have let me call her that) took me to the local opera house to see a production of Aida. Of the performance itself, I remember nothing at all; but during intermission, as we were milling about the foyer (with me more or less tagging along while she made the social rounds), I noticed a young man about my age talking quietly to some others. Something struck me about him, and again it was something I felt I knew, even though I had never actually observed it before in real life before. I can only describe it as a kind of aura: the way the young man held himself and spoke and gestured, everything about him expressed both intelligence and grace. His features too had a natural refinement; his gaze was calm and at the same time alert and perhaps even slightly amused. I had only seen such faces in paintings or old photographs. It was not an American face; and it impressed me as strongly — though in an entirely different way — as the spectacle of the Russian soldiers the night before.

All of this was communicated literally in the blink of an eye, and at the time I didn’t understand what it meant. Only later did I learn that the Germans actually have a word for it, for the source of that complex aura I was responding to. They call it Kultur. Despite appearances, the word bears little relation to our “culture,” which has a more sociological flavor. Kultur, for the Germans, has to do with the mind, and it is something acquired through personal effort, not a passively absorbed set of social practices the way “culture” usually is for us. Our word “breeding” is both too superficial (one thinks of “manners”) and too bound up with anxieties about social class. “Tradition,” as T.S. Eliot seems to have meant it, gets close to denoting at least that aspect of Kultur one can acquire from reading certain books. But a person with Kultur also has had certain aesthetic experiences that enable him or her to carry and express this laboriously acquired tradition as if it were no burden at all. What sorts of aesthetic experiences? Well, theatre and art. But above all, music. Which was why even a small town like Altenburg would have its own spacious and publicly-funded opera house.

*** [insert here Dürer’s “Bassoonist on an Elephant”] ***

When, later that evening, my girlfriend introduced me to this same young man as a close friend and schoolmate of hers, I couldn’t help being a little star-struck — and wondering why, when she could have had such a one, she would have chosen a half-educated hillbilly mutt like me — someone entirely without Kultur. And then I realized: it’s precisely because I am a half-educated, etc. that I attracted her notice in the first place – in short, because I’m an American, the “natural man,” as it were, the subject of so much ambiguous myth. And at that time in my life, I even wore cowboy boots and worked out in a gym.[1] In a strange way, I must have seemed both a novelty and an archetype. She viewed me the way I had viewed the Russian soldiers, only with the opposite associations: with fascination instead of fear. I saw this reflected also in the eyes of the friends she introduced me to there in the lobby of the opera house. Finally it dawned on me that I was quite possibly the first American to set foot in that small East-German town in nearly fifty years.

*** [insert here archival photograph of cowboy boot w/ duck tape] ****

The following week, we took the train to visit Albrecht (that was her friend’s name) in Leipzig, where he was studying medicine at the university. Albrecht met us at the station, took us directly to Konsum to buy some groceries for the weekend, and then back to the flat he shared with his friend Konrad in an old, derelict-looking building on Auerbachstrasse, which had only cold water and a communal toilet down the hall.[2] These circumstances contrasted strongly with the refined cheerfulness of Albrecht’s manner. I began to think of him as a kind of prince in disguise, the unknown last scion of a noble race, a genetic anomaly cropping up long after his kind had passed from the earth.[3]

On our last afternoon as his guests, Albrecht took us to his local pub, Frau Krause, located on the ground floor corner of a building on a street whose only feature is an inconspicuousness that makes it very difficult to find again. In any event, here, for under 3 Marks, one could get a half liter of beer and a platter of the house specialty, Käseschnitzel. This item consisted of a thick slab of mild white cheese cut about the size and thickness of a man’s palm, then battered and grilled and served with a special tomato-sauce and a few Kroketten on the side (the closest analogy here would be the “tater tots” we had in our school lunches). In short, it was a poor man’s schnitzel, and the effect was quite yummy and satisfying. The saltiness, however, seemed to require an additional half-liter of beer. Which was fine with me: it meant a half hour to relax, chat, and soak up the atmosphere.

Apparently there really was a Frau Krause who still ran the place, as she had since before the Wall went up, but these days she rarely came downstairs. Albrecht had met her only once. Like the Konsum, Frau Krause’s eponymous pub was a relic of the German Democratic Republic now oddly adrift on the foamy sea of capitalism. This was well before such relics became cool in a retro-kitsch sort of way. The patrons were there, as far as I could tell, not with the ironic air of “slumming it,” nor even out of authentic GDR nostalgia, but simply because it was cheap and familiar.

And yet I did catch a whiff of irony about the place. It was an unusual irony, however, unlike the species I knew from the United States — the fashionable and condescending irony that hangs about fraternity outings to a tractor pull, for instance, or an “80’s Nite” at the club. The irony I sensed here was barely perceptible, and then only in the small, quiet moments of interaction between people. It had the character of a soft kind of knowingness, melancholy and slightly amused, as if to suggest that things might not be as they appear, that everything could change in a moment, that it was all an elaborate but essentially harmless hoax. But I wouldn’t have called it nihilistic or “conspiracy-theory”: there was an undeniable human warmth, perhaps even compassion — if irony can be compassionate. I seemed to perceive this particularly in the waitstaff, who went about their tasks quietly and without hurry, pretense, over-eagerness to please, nor any of the various “tudes” that so often make the service in Western restaurants tedious and annoying. A slight twinkle in the eye seemed to say, “I know, but hey! What does it matter?”

I asked Albrecht about this feeling, this atmosphere I was picking up on. He smiled and raised his glass: Wilkommen in die alte Heimat, Johnny – “Welcome to the old homeland.” The afternoon light slanted in through the window. Somewhere in the apartment up above, Frau Krause was perhaps sitting in her favorite chair, smoking tobacco-free cigarettes and watching television.

*** [insert here table of cigarette consumption by year and country]***

* * *

When next I returned to Leipzig, two years had passed, I was on my own this time, and Albrecht had left the place on Auerbachstrasse. As he told it, some punks had taken over the building opposite, and their noise and random belligerence had begun to disrupt his studies and his sleep. They’d even threatened him personally for no apparent reason. His new place on Zwenkauer Strasse was hardly a step up as real estate, though it contained a contraption I’d never seen before: a free-standing shower cabin. This was a plastic and aluminum affair with a hose that hooked up to the faucet in the kitchen sink. The hose brought the water into a tank at the bottom of the cabin, where it was electrically heated (somewhat) and from which it was then pumped up to the shower-head. When you had finished showering, you unhooked the hose from the faucet and threw a switch that reversed the pump and forced the dirty water back out again to the sink. As one can imagine, it was loud, unreliable and odiferous. Albrecht claimed it was Chinese-made, and that they had been fairly common in the old GDR days. He rarely used it. I had noticed that Albrecht rarely bathed at all, and I wondered if such devices might be partially to blame for this fact.

This was the visit when I first began to imagine a life for myself there in Leipzig. Before I arrived, Albrecht had borrowed a bicycle for me, and we spent the days pedalling around town, visiting his friends in their various occupations, including one Stephen Black, an Australian by birth, who had come to Leipzig on a scholarship to study painting. I envied him. We visited him in his studio, a vast, empty factory building in a now post-industrial part of town. Stephen spoke excellent German, though with a lisp. In addition to the canvasses and other tools of his trade, Stephen’s studio contained a small table covered with bread crumbs, a few mismatched teacups, an ashtray full of cigarette butts, a notebook, and a well-worn copy of Gilles Deleuze’s Différence et répétition in German translation. He had a gallerist in Berlin who was selling his paintings like hotcakes, and the feeling was that Stephen Black would soon be famous. Albrecht spoke of a painting he’d bought early on as his “retirement.” We made plans to meet up for breakfast the next morning, but shortly beforehand, Stephen called to cancel. Albrecht, who spoke to him, summarized the conversation with admirable pith: Zu viele Girlies.

*** [insert here pulp erotica cover, The Atelier of Sin] ***

One night Albrecht and I were out late drinking beer at a student pub near the university, where Albrecht worked during the day in the Neurology Clinic. As we got on the bikes and started back, I became aware that I was quite drunk. This would have been somewhat amusing, were it not for the fact that I was speeding down damp, unfamiliar and poorly-lit cobblestone streets in the middle of the night on an antique women’s bicycle with bad brakes. Moreover, at this point in my life, I had never wasted much time with alcohol (that came later), and so had no idea how to compensate for its effects. But all at once I seemed to understand something about its allure: I was suffused with a feeling of euphoria, yes, euphoria and freedom and reckless openness to the sensations of the moment. I felt that I could try anything, and it wouldn’t matter if I failed. I relished the sense of danger, and I was full of love for everyone. During that crazy half-hour ride back to Albrecht’s flat, and for many minutes afterward, I was completely happy.

Subsequent attempts to re-create this happiness have proved one thing: that it wasn’t actually the alcohol. Or not the alcohol alone. Other spirits were involved. The high-octane German beer was the material catalyst, perhaps, but the real ingredients were less material, less easy to define: the sense of Albrecht’s trusted and jovial presence near, the awareness of being away from home and free of its defined identities and responsibilities, the surge of my own youth and physical health, the almost palpable reality, like a smell, of these beautiful, cultured, not-quite-attainable young women around me everywhere. But more too: the ancient streets and buildings, the smooth cobblestones rolling away beneath the bicycle tires, the warm lights of the pubs and restaurants against the cold night air, the dark wind in my face, the rough-woven wool scarf snagging gently in the stubble of my neck and chin, and accompanying it all: the crisp sound of German — a language I was now nearly fluent in.

What did all this mean? I want to say it meant that for a moment I had neither past nor future. Nothing of what had happened in my life, and nothing of what would happen — none of it existed. I was simply there, with my good friend, as if we had always been and always would be just as we were — young and poor on our condemnable bikes, coats unbuttoned, ludicrous and philosophical, plunging into the night.

*** [insert here beer on bicycle with ribbons flying] ***

Ironically, it was during this visit too, that Albrecht told me about a young woman he’d met at the university clinic — another medical student, but a few years behind him in the program. Apparently there was already a boyfriend in the picture, but she had declared her intention to break up with him so that she and Albrecht could be together. This was Katrin, the woman Albrecht would later marry. When next I visited Albrecht in Leipzig, a year or two later, he and Katrin were living in an apartment on Ferdinand-Lasalle-Strasse, a broad, tree-lined boulevard that runs adjacent to Leipzig’s massive city park, full of woods and fields and a stream. The four-story “house” itself had the look of a 19th Century bourgeois palace, with a large, arched gateway in the front originally designed to allow horse-drawn carriages to pass into the secluded inner courtyard. Albrecht and Katrin’s apartment was not one of the luxury apartments in the front of the house, but belonged to the smaller, less-expensive apartments into which the back of the house had been divided.[4] In other words, they were living cheaply in a very elegant part of town, and in fact inhabited two adjacent apartments — one serving as Katrin’s “study,” since she was still in medical school, while Albrecht was now the equivalent of a Resident MD at the university’s Neurology Clinic.

This visit was different for several reasons. I began to see that Albrecht’s tastes were changing. Or perhaps his means for satisfying his tastes. In any event, he no longer wore the ratty sweaters and scarves scrounged from the second-hand bargain bins that were his standard garb when we met. Now he appeared in decent-looking slacks and button-downs and a peacoat. He used a fountain-pen and preferred other pubs to Frau Krause. He and Katrin discussed buying a car. None of this struck me as particularly significant at the time — if I thought about it at all, I probably attributed it to Katrin’s influence. She came from a well-to-do family in Bavaria, and embodied West German values that to me were quite familiar from my time in Tübingen.

No, the thing that most distinguished this visit from previous ones was the fact that I was on my own most of the time. Albrecht and Katrin both worked long hours, and when they came home, their top priority was fixing dinner — often one of the dishes Albrecht had mastered during a semester internship in China. By the time we’d finished eating and cleaning up, it was late, and my recollection of what usually followed is a slide show of their vacations — to Costa Rica, to Iceland, or to the Black Sea. Sometimes Albrecht would sit down at the piano and improvise a bit. I’d stay up writing for an hour or two after they’d gone to bed.

*** [insert here grainy photograph of small writing desk w/ candle, quill, inkwell, parchment,           skull of Yorick] ***

They left me a key and a bicycle, and I went out from time to time to a café called Magapon, which was on one of the spur-streets that projected out from the Ringstrasse encircling the old city. Magapon was scruffy and inviting, a student-café like the one in Ithaca, New York I had frequented since starting graduate school there. What made Magapon unique in my experience, though, was that it was also a Waschsalon or what we’d call a “laundromat.” The idea being, I think, that you’d have a cup of Milchkaffee and a belegtes Brötchen while waiting on your laundry. Since by American standards German wash cycles are interminably long, this business model actually makes a lot of sense in context. Most important for my purposes, however, was the negligence of the waitstaff. It took them half an hour to notice you were there, another half hour to bring you your order, and then they pretty much forgot about you — which meant a fairly relaxed environment for journalling, writing letters and postcards and scribbling notes for poems.[5]

When the weather was bad, as is often the case in Central Europe, I stayed indoors and set up my writing materials at Katrin’s desk, which faced a small window looking down onto the inner courtyard four stories below. It was always quiet there, apart from the faint whirr of occasional traffic out on Ferdinand-Lasalle, or the muffled, unidentifiable sounds from other apartments inside the building. Looking at Katrin’s textbooks lined up on the desk, I marveled that anyone could find such arcane, technical matters interesting — though I suppose it’s a good thing someone does. The apartment was chilly during these rainy afternoons, and I often found myself returning to the main apartment to fix a cup of tea and have a slice of toast with butter. My appetite was ravenous — I’m not sure why. I could have eaten an entire loaf of the dense German bread they kept on hand, but was embarrassed at the thought of doing so. I’d already gone through all the coffee and fruit juice. I guess I was lonely.

*** [insert here publicity still from The Lone Ranger (1950)] ***

As far as my desire to move to Leipzig, this was the most intense period. What was it, though, that lay at the root of this longing? Certainly it was in part the romance of a permanent exile from the United States. I loved my home and family in Southern Appalachia, I loved the landscape and culture I grew up in; but I knew, somehow, that this sense of “home” was inimical to my calling as a writer. As a stranger in a strange land, I could think, I could write, I could listen my way in to my solitude and hear the faint voices in the other room. Was this solitude sometimes difficult and painful? Yes. Did I still dream of finding a companion, a woman whose love would redeem the stupidities and selfishness of my youth? Sure I did. But somehow the tension between this hope and the reality of my solitude was productive: I felt alive and full of possibilities. Leaving the apartment, I knew my way around, could communicate with relative ease, could “pass” for a reasonably-educated German; and yet spiritually I was betwixt and between the two cultures, neither fish nor fowl, and this fluidity of being kept my mind free of the accretions of habit and my senses fresh and responsive. I could think, I could write. The hours passed but left a mark. Time was meaningful.

Could this state-of-being have been possible for me anywhere else? In New York or Paris or Tokyo? To be sure the Southerner in New York feels like an exile too. But when I imagine living in one of these other places (all of which I’ve visited for various lengths of time), I don’t feel the same inner responsiveness. What then was it about Leipzig, and was it really Leipzig and not simply the personal circumstances — being young, single, on vacation, staying with a friend?

The thought of my friendship with Albrecht leads me to what I’m searching for here: the idea of a kind of dynamic distance. Perhaps what made Leipzig so important was the sense of a distance dialectically contained within an intimacy — a dialectic that has also characterized my friendship with Albrecht since the beginning. We speak of each other as best friends — I was even Best Man at his wedding some years ago, as he was at mine a few years thereafter — and yet there is a profound sense in which we will never fully know each other. The image that comes to mind is of a half-built bridge: from either shore, the arc sweeps up, the parabola is easy to plot in the mind’s eye, but the two halves do not quite meet in the middle: a gap intervenes, and down below is the dark and turbulent water. What is the water in this metaphor? Language maybe. Or history. Something impersonal; something beyond him or me.

*** [insert here architectural drawing, The Bridge to Nowhere] ***

Being in Leipzig was like that: here/not here. Which is not to say that the bridge can ever – even at home, even with one’s most intimate friends or one’s spouse – be completed; but at home one has the comforting illusion that it can be. In Leipzig, staying with my best friend, speaking and understanding more or less fluently, I was alive in that zone of maximum familiarity that was also unfamiliarity: I was always intensely aware of the gap in the bridge; and so, I think, was Albrecht. It was a friendship unlike any other I’d had in my life.

One of the things that fascinates me about German culture, though, is that this is their idea of friendship. We Americans tend to harbor the ideal of a perfect union; in both love and friendship, we believe it’s possible and desirable to know someone and to be known “completely.” Not so in Germany. There, it’s not uncommon to have only one or two people in one’s entire life whom one calls “friend,” and to see them rarely after childhood — once a year maybe, once a decade. It’s an entirely different way of inhabiting time. In America, probably for reasons relating to the general “restlessness” of the population, which in turn has economics at its basis, we want to know lots of people, and we want to know them quickly. When we change jobs or lifestyles or move to a new place, as we frequently do, we want to find a whole new group of friends, and are willing to let the old friends go in order to “make room.” Everyone seems to understand this. Time is primarily the present and the future; whatever’s past can have little interest for the practical purposes of today.

*** [insert here photograph of couch left at curb] ***

Except, perhaps, for Southerners. As has been proclaimed ad nauseam since the days of Faulkner and the Agrarians, the past for Southerners is not so easily got rid of. Whether apotheosized in the hazy nostalgia of Gone With the Wind or borne like a burden of guilt, the past for Southerners is a problem that has to be dealt with. Such is the fate of the defeated — especially the ignoble defeated — as indeed the Germans themselves became almost hundred years after the American Civil War. Such defeat infuses lived time with ambivalent emotional values: at once an imperative to remember and a necessity to forget and “move on”; for, as Nietzsche says, “Life in any true sense is impossible without forgetfulness.” And yet, to the degree that history is written by the victors, who not surprisingly do so in such a way as to grant themselves an easy conscience, the defeated perhaps see more clearly the true state of affairs: we are all of us always already defeated, we are caught and unravelled by time, and only memory can hold these loose strands together to create some sense of meaningful if different continuity, the texture or text of a life.

If you’re lucky, one of those strands is the strand of friendship. It may, like the weft in a tapestry, appear to vanish into the weave; but the weaver knows where it is and where to find it, knows it will appear again in the surface image slowly taking shape.

* * *

I wanted to say more about Leipzig, about my subsequent visits there, and about my final visit, in the summer of 2004, before Albrecht and Katrin moved away to Jena. There was a performance of Brahms’s Deutsches Requiem by the Gewandhaus Orchestra, for example, and an ill-fated dinner at a Korean restaurant. There was a winter bike ride and a strange vision. There was a visit to the magnificent old public bathhouse and there was Gustav, the impecunious photographer, who served us coffee from a tin pot of boiled grounds and whose wife had the most beautiful neck I’d ever seen. But perhaps Nietzsche is right, and too much memory can be a bad thing. I have little reason to go back to Leipzig, much less to want to live there, now that Albrecht is gone. So why do I find myself remembering all of this? Perhaps because Albrecht is gone: knowing that those memories don’t lead anywhere, that they are a closed set, that I will never again visit my friend in Leipzig as a young American writer full of dreams, that Leipzig has no place in my future on which to fasten these images — I have to do this work of remembering, or they’ll be lost — quite literally fading away.

Which is of course the natural way of things. Nor do I imagine that, by remembering what would otherwise be lost, I’ll discover the answer to some secret, a key that will unlock some mystery of my life. In fact, when I wrote Albrecht recently to ask about a couple of things for this essay, his answer came as a characteristically mild, healthy-minded reproof: Ach, Johnny, he wrote, Wie soll ich das noch wissen? Das war doch tiefster Leipziger Zeit.  “Ah, Johnny, how should I know? That was way back in the Leipzig days.”

*** [insert: etching of a key of mysterious design] ***


[1] Though rarely at the same time.

[2] Albrecht reminds me that his building was located right behind Connewitzer Kreuz and directly across from Café Backwahn, which the neo-nazis had torched the summer before he moved in.

[3] Most of which turned out of course to be purely imaginary. Albrecht was and has remained a man of the world, in many ways a typical modern European. Now a successful neurologist, he lives with his wife (a pediatrician) and their two daughters in a single-family home with a large garden in one of Jena’s more desirable upper middle-class neighborhoods.

[4] Most older apartments I’ve seen in Germany have this same configuration: the front of the house comprises large luxury apartments, often an entire floor, while the back is divided up into much smaller units with windows looking down into the central courtyard.

[5] This was still before the age of cellphones and WiFi, of course, when cafés were still havens from business, rather than places to transact it.

About the Author:

Photograph by ShaLeigh Comerford

Originally from western North Carolina, John Crutchfield is a writer and performer currently based in Berlin, Germany. His plays Ivory, The Songs Of Robert, Ruth, Twelve Treatises On Memory, The Labyrinth, Solstice, Landscape With Missing Person, Come Thick Night, and The Strange And Tragical Adventures Of Pinocchio have been produced regionally in the U.S., as have numerous shorter works. He has collaborated and performed with X Factor Dance, Sans Pointe Dance, J. Alex and The Movement, Legacy Butoh, Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre, and Anemone Dance Theatre, and has been an artist-in residence at the Djerassi Artists Foundation, Headlands Center for the Arts, the Association d’Art de La Napoule (France), and the Pädagogische Hochschule Karlsruhe (Germany). At present, he teaches creative writing part-time through Lenoir-Rhyne University’s Center for Graduate Studies, freelances as a literary translator, and serves as Associate Artistic Director at The Magnetic Theatre. More info at: