Nearly six months ago I stood on the platform outside Leipzig Hauptbahnhof and burst into tears. It was the middle of a hot afternoon in early August. I had been awake since dawn. I was exhausted from hauling forty kilograms of luggage through the busy train from Dresden Airport, through carriages where the air conditioning wasn’t working and there wasn’t a free seat to be seen. As I glanced around anxiously waiting for my tram, people weaved around me, chattering a foreign chatter. They were with their friends, their parents, their siblings. It suddenly hit me that I didn’t know anyone. It was not, by any means, a new piece of information, but it was one that only began to mean something at that moment, as I stood alone, further away from anyone I knew than I’d ever been, or, I hope, will ever be.
It’s late January and the Leipzig I met on that hot summer’s day feels like a memory from another life – not least because last week I walked to work in minus eleven degrees, a temperature for which even five layers and a duvet-like coat aren’t sufficient. From my office window I’ve watched days get shorter and leaves turn from green to golden, before browning and falling. I’ve made friends and done all the things I hoped I would, from weekends exploring Saxony (see here and here and here) to evenings in German bars. There have also been parts that definitely did not feature in my plans. I certainly hadn’t envisaged blood tests or an MRI scan as part of my year abroad! It has been a rollercoaster – one that I wasn’t always entirely sure I would make it off (read: the time I thought I might be about to die).
It isn’t just the weather that has changed. I’ve seen the reality of the refugee crisis spill into the city. We have a clothes collection point at work, filled and refilled weekly, with warm clothes and toys and toiletries. Yesterday I helped a Syrian family find their tram at the station, a system alien to them. (I sympathised). In the six months I’ve known it, Leipzig has gone from being overwhelmingly white to fairly multi-cultural, with languages other than German humming around my ears.
What would a year-abroad-blog be without a little slightly-nauseating reflection? I said I like lists. Here are two more.
Leipzig: Things I’ve Learnt
1. German student life is nothing like English student life.
My plan to live with German students as a sure-fire way of making German friends has been thwarted somewhat by the total and utter cultural difference in how they spend their time. Our student house in Oxford last year was busy and chatty. We cooked together, or at least at the same time as each other. We went to bars and pubs and parties and clubs together. We always knew what was going on in each others’ lives. Sometimes I think we knew too much. My flat in Leipzig is almost always completely silent. With two of my flatmates I have chatted occasionally; with the third I have barely exchanged two words. I haven’t been introduced to their friends. I can go days and days without seeing any of them. I’ve often wondered, if something bad were to happen to me, how long it would take them to notice my absence.
This isn’t meant as a criticism, but an observation. There are lots of good things about German student life too – like the fact that people rent real, nice flats instead of the grotty student houses owned by greedy English landlords. But I wasn’t expecting to spend six months effectively living alone.
(Also. 200 Euros a term in tuition fees, including free public transport. We are being ROBBED.)
2. I don’t like my own company anywhere near as much as I thought I did.
I made a lot of jokes in the weeks before I left England about spending my six months here hiding in a cupboard to avoid scary interaction in German. This turned out to be a fairly accurate description of my first six weeks here, although not for want of trying. I arrived in early August with the vague but seemingly reasonable intention of making friends with students. I had somehow failed to realise that Leipzig’s student population – two of my flatmates included – wouldn’t arrive until October. It was hard, really hard, to walk through the hustle and bustle of a city in summer – friends lazing in parks, casual drinks spilling from stuffy bars onto chairs in the street; barbecues by the beautiful lake – without knowing a single person to share it with. Life here improved beyond measure when, with thanks to Facebook groups and awkward first meet ups, I befriended the English and American students who make up the Leipzig Language Assistants. But even with friendly faces to meet for meals and drinks and excursions, I have still found myself dreading the weekdays – most weekdays – where I see only my colleagues, and return for a solitary evening in my lonely flat. Social media only widens the gap.
The luxury of “me time”, it turns out, consists in its rarity. In Oxford, I would cherish the snatched hour or so I’d have to myself when my work for the week was done, or when the next essay was far enough away to ignore. To draw a picture, or watch a programme, or even just to paint my nails, without speaking or being spoken to, was a rare luxury. You can have too much of a good thing, and here I’ve had far too much of it. I’ve begun to dread my own company. (I suppose I’m quite glad, really, to have made this realisation. I used to feel guilty for craving time to myself. It’s been rather nice to realise that I do actually quite like people).
3. Working life is exhausting.
I threw myself into the challenge of working 9-5, Monday-Friday, without even realising that it would be a challenge. To be awake, alert and responsible, in time for my pre 9am commute, every day, and to stay that way for at least eight hours, was a shock to the system for which I was not fully prepared. While my life in Oxford may always have been busy – a blur of essays and rehearsals and nights in The Kings’ Arms, all three, in my mind, just as important as each other – it was busy-ness within my own time frame. I could sleep until ten. I could spend hours lazing on the benches in the quad chatting, if I liked. Noonie and I could decide spontaneously that a coffee at The Missing Bean was far more pressing a matter than a lecture. (It often was). We were only accountable to ourselves. And that made all the difference.
I also hadn’t quite prepared myself for how it would feel to work for six months with, technically, no holiday leave. I’d done exactly eight weeks at work when my friends in Oxford began their Michelmas term. When their term finished eight weeks later, I still had two working weeks left before my Christmas break – a break not technically allowed in my contract, but granted to me by my kind supervisor who realised just how much I wanted to spend some time at home. She also gave me one day to spend with my family when they visited. A treat. I wanted to experience “the real world”, and I suppose this was it.
4. Fluency is not attainable in six months.
I wrote about this last week – see here. I won’t repeat myself. But my German has come on more than I ever thought possible, and yet I feel so much further from fluency than I did when I arrived. I’ve learnt what fluency means. I appreciate just how complex a notion it is; just how difficult perfection is to attain.
5. Oxford life is wonderful.
How could I ever have taken it so for granted, to be at Oxford? I know that for many it is difficult, too stressful, toxic, even. But – with the benefit of hindsight and distance, and having sorrowfully opened many a snapchat – I realise I have rarely been anything but completely happy there.
I miss being surrounded by friends: passing smiles at friendly faces; games of library tag; chatting over a coffee; frequent hugs. I miss choir: singing three times a week, sometimes more, in that beautiful chapel, feeling good and at peace. I miss dinner after choir and the nights in the college bar those dinners so often became. I miss academia, and the cosiness of the library, and the satisfaction after a good tute. I could go on and on and on, but to do so seems silly when my friend Carolina wrote such a wonderful, eloquent post about it here, which says more than I ever could.
This interim year of not-Oxford will make next year even more lovely than it would have been. I won’t let Finals darken it. I will appreciate every moment.
And so – rather in the spirit of Carolina’s Oxford post above – let’s finish on a high.
Leipzig – Things I’ve Loved
1. Working at the Gewandhaus –
– which is one of the best orchestras in the WORLD. My actual job may not have always been at the height of interesting, but to be actively, and importantly involved – I mean, I had to send spreadsheets in from home at Christmas – in such an organisation has been brilliant. My colleagues have been constantly lovely, helpful, patient with my bumbling German. I have heard my favourite pieces played, coming to life in a way I could never have imagined – reflections here.
2. Feeling my German improve
I chatted to my supervisor for half an hour before I left today. Just chatted. Easily. We made jokes and we laughed and there were no misunderstandings, no awkward moments. I barely had to stop to think. She told me I’d come out of my shell. I told her I hadn’t been shy to start with. I just needed to break down the language barrier, and I have.
Leipzig has been branded “Hypezig”. It’s the new place to be, in Germany – an hour south of Berlin, maybe cooler, certainly cheaper. Considering how little I knew about it when I agreed to move here, I did incredibly well. I will miss wandering along the Karl Liebknecht Straße, popping into artsy shops along the way. It’s a million miles – not quite literally, definitely figuratively – from the orderly West that we meet on school trips and in textbooks. (A meeting at work started twenty minutes late today, and I crossed the road without waiting for the red man on the way home.) East Germany is utterly underrated.
4. Being able to travel
“Unsere Ella ist immer unterwegs”, said my colleague to a friend the other day. It’s true. I have taken full advantage of Leipzig’s perfect positioning and have been to so many wonderful cities, towns and countryside spots, all within a few hours of Leipzig, mostly by very cheap transport. Sächsische Schweiz, Dresden, Meißen, Wittenberg, Vienna, Prague, Hamburg… to be within reach of so many new and exciting places has been a treat.
5. Getting to know these lovely people
I was lost and lonely until I stumbled upon Tash on a Facebook group, who then introduced me to all her friends. I am so glad. We have had movie nights and nights out, weekends away and lazy Sunday brunches. On Tuesday a group of us ate fondue in celebration of my upcoming move to France. Tonight Tash and Lara are taking me to the opera – the final thing to be ticked off my Leipzig bucket list. There’s talk of a group visit to me in Paris. I can’t wait.