While in Vienna, I decided Leipzig, Germany would be the next stop; I’d never been to Saxony (or knew what Saxony was) and my Leipzig research promised some interesting experiences. One of BMW’s plants is in Leipzig as is Europe’s DHL hub, so they’d likely have some swank establishments for me not to visit. Also, there’s a large university and socialist movement, so they’d have some bizarre dive bars I would visit. Leipzig’s about 100-miles south of Berlin, where I wanted to end up anyway, off I went.
Like most gentiles, well, like some gentiles, names like Weinstien confused me for many years. Okay, that’s a bad name to choose as an example but let’s move on. Is it Wine-stine like Einstein? Then I saw a Tarantino/Rodriguez film and the opening production stamp declared this was to be a “Wine-Steen” joint. Even though I learned that years ago, I was still pronouncing it Leep-zig. Then a young man in Vienna corrected me, “…it’s ‘Lipe-zig,’ it’s where I’m from.” So I trusted him and he was right. “Ei” = I, “ie” = ee. Got it.
Saxony, the small state containing Leipzig, was once part of Poland, then the Roman Empire, then Napoleon’s experiment. The city has a grizzly past, from WWII bombings and atrocities to the Stasi, Leipzig’s people and architecture have suffered a great deal. Leipzig was turned over to the Red Army by the Allied Forces, so they felt the oppression of the KGB on the top of the Stasi until the wall came down. Leipzig was a beacon of light during the 1989 fall of East Germany, staging many marches and demonstrations. It sucked to live there for a very long time but now it’s cool. It’s like the 70s in that aspect.
The Czech and East German countrysides are immaculate and, it being mid-September, the foliage was making its vibrant transition. As we pulled into Dresden, it was clear the match was just letting out and that they were playing a team named Hamburger. It was also clear that Hamburger had won, as the surly Dresden fans made obscene gestures and cursed at our bus. Then and there I decided, if I ever moved to Germany, I’d be a Hamburger fan.
A young woman named Daniela welcomed me graciously, though I’d taken the wrong train and ended up on her doorstep near midnight. She had to work early in the morning but took the time to walk me around and show me the perks. Sure it was late but I have a tradition of dropping off my bags and finding a dive bar and I’d be damned if it was going to end today. Google told me there was a bar that closed at 4 A.M. about half a mile (nine-minute walk, everything walking related in Europe is estimated in minutes) from my new home.
After rounding the corner and heading north on Saarländer Straße, I found road construction, what looked like row after row of vacated buildings, and some world-class graffiti. It was dead silent and extremely dark. Undeterred and thirsty, I kept walking. The sound crept up slowly, then there was light. In the middle of the street were more orange road cones but these were surrounded by dozens of bicycles. What looked like Austin Drag Rats (trustafarians) lined the streets, sat on curbs and stoops smoking and talking.
Carefully walking past them, I noticed people were entering and exiting an unmarked door in a graffiti-covered building with boarded up windows. I closed my eyes, crossed myself and, under the skeptical gaze of everyone who thought I was with INTERPOL, entered the doorway.
People of all ages and races and backgrounds lined the hallway floor, a room to the right of the entrance was filled with happy people sharing a hookah which emitted a decidedly not-tobacco scent.
A very loud punk band played in the small ballroom to the immediate left, which – some years earlier – likely served as a family’s breakfast nook. Just past this was a narrow hallway leading to a makeshift bar with handwritten signage. The entire floor looked like something out of Trainspotting. I was actually in the epicenter of Leipzig’s socialist squatters village. In other words, as someone who enjoys a new experience more than anything, I was in Heaven. Beer was 1-Euro, the three mixed drinks they had were 2-Euro and you could grab a seat on the dumpster-worthy couch and smoke.
Turns out, the band was from Cleveland, Ohio, I’d give you their name but my notes from that evening are a bit, well, illegible. Only two photos hung in the room, one of Charles Bukowski, the other… Tom Waits. This made me very happy. After the creepiest man in Germany left the barroom, I was the oldest person there by about a decade. But the kids were very welcoming, everyone spoke remarkable English – as you’ll find in most of Germany – and drinks were being purchased for me.
I wanted to live there.
A young couple sat down next to me at the countertop perpendicular to the bar, literally, you could just look to your right and ask for a beer and they’d hand it down, stadium style. They were gorgeous, a blonde from Innsbruck in her late 20s and a stallion of a man from Rabat in his early 30s. They had names but those names are written down on the same page as the band’s. We talked and laughed as we watched the band pack up. The bartenders put on some outstanding modern German rock while we, the young couple and I, talked about American politics. Everyone in Europe’s go-to topic since our citizenry decided to put a monkey circus in place of an administration to run our country.
After a few drinks, the Moroccan man asked me to start a poem with an opening line, we would then pass my notebook back and forth and see where it went. After three stanzas, the young woman joined us. The poem ends, “The ecstasy is the pain, the hunt is the prize.” The rest is a mixture of poetry and prose rooted in three different cultures and, I must say, is pretty fantastic. You know, the kind of “fantastic” that can only happen at 3am after five or six cocktails. It’s four pages of sanctimonious and ideological hogwash but hey, it was performance art and I’m told all art is good.
The ashtray was filling up. A man began sweeping.
Looking around just before closing time, I couldn’t help but think of a couple friends back in the States who would have loved it. The place was kind of built for them. Oh well, life can’t be perfect and it was time to pretend I knew how to get back to the flat.
The next morning, I took the train downtown and found a large coffee shop in the central station where I’d siphon WiFi and get some work done. I had a client entrusting me to revamp their marketing and sales materials and I figured I’d go ahead and do that. Leipzig Central station, it’s reasonably important to mention, contains a KFC, the 50-foot banner will remind you.
Germans evidently carry no fewer than three computers to coffee shops and plug them all in at the same time so outlet space was at a premium. I asked a young man if I could share a space with him, in my version of German. He scoffed and packed his things and left. Another victory in international relations!
Having already made a wonderful impression on everyone, I then ventured to the counter for refreshment. With five people in the coffee shop (near all five outlets), though it was a vast one, there were no fewer than 50 people working that day. That’s hyperbole, for those of you who have that wonderful gift of finding “bugs” in verbal/written code. Four girls asked me what I wanted at the same time. By the time the last syllable was out of my mouth, my drink was ready. German efficiency in action.
They all giggled at me while I wondered why.
Back at my seat, someone had already sat where angry-scoffing-kid was and had taken all the outlet space. We negotiated my need for one and only one and all was once again peaceful, though the smattering of people in the establishment were snickering in my direction. At this point, I wondered if someone had drawn a penis on my forehead while I slept. Needing the restroom anyway, I figured I’d go ahead and check out my face while I was at it. Come to find out, most of my breakfast was on my shirt. I looked like a well-groomed homeless person. Fourteen napkins later, I was fit for public interaction.
I was no longer perplexed about why Americans had an oafish, boorish stereotype abroad. What was disconcerting was the inability of anyone to point this mess out to me. I’m a slob so I count on the kindness of strangers to make me presentable, often finding myself disappointed. Then again, the snickering was what led me to a solution so they kind of helped.
With the day’s work complete, I took the train back down to the Plagwitz district where the AirBnB was. Once you exit the train, you’re spat out directly in front of the old depot, which is now a beautiful pool hall called Bi BA BO. They had a smoking room, which was also the dart room, and a wonderful selection of beer. All of this just 70 yards from my home for the week.
Bi BA BO is run by an absolutely wonderful and friendly human being named Tom, who looks exactly like Patrick Stewart and loves Bayern Munich (soccer team) more than life itself. On match days, Tom wears his authentic lederhosen and smiles from ear-to-ear – all day. Bi BA BO has a tiny nook bar toward the back, past the pool room where the regulars accumulate from 4 P.M. to close. On my first night there, I had the great pleasure of finding Noel, a not-gigantic Irishman with a gigantic persona.
Noel owns a bar close to downtown Leipzig, Noel’s Ballroom. He and I talked for 20 minutes or so and he demanded that I visit while I was in town. I told him it’s not very hard to talk me into visiting a bar, let alone an Irish pub in a foreign country. It was time for his billiards tournament to begin, we shook hands and agreed that I’d visit soon.
Once back at the house, I noticed Daniela’s door wasn’t quite operable, she told me someone had tried to break in the week before, the frame was in shambles, something I hadn’t noticed the night before. I told her I could fix it and she patronized me. I asked her where the kitchen was, not remembering much of the previous evening’s tour. She didn’t have one, she’d sold that half of her house and someone had boarded it up. This was new to me. Didn’t know that was a thing, as the kids say.
The cathedral bells began to ring right at 6 A.M. on Thursday morning, I wondered why. They didn’t ring Wednesday, when I’m used to American Catholics going to church, why today? They forced me out of bed and into another tiny European shower. My shoulders, from tip-to-tip, are right at 32-inches, my waistline isn’t far behind. The average European shower is around 28-inches wide, meaning I typically crammed myself in like the last person in a 1950’s phone booth contest.
If you drop your travel soap or shampoo, you literally have to (I literally have to) shut the shower off, unfold the door, step out, bend over and get it, then start the arduous campaign from the beginning. Sure, there are worse things happening in Darfur but, it’s a shitty way to start a day. Boo hoo. Poor me, battling a shower in Leipzig, Germany while most of my friends were dealing with some asshole named “Justin” at work while sat in a gray-beige cubicle showering in fluorescent light.
Exploring Leipzig was a damn delight. It’s like a little NYC, small, completely different neighborhoods filled with interesting folks from all over the place. The street art game is strong, the people are quiet and keep to themselves, you can get a delicious beer or glass of German wine anywhere, even the dogs are polite. Also, it’s clean, even by German standards, which is to say, it’s more than spotless, like a movie set.
Two blocks from the apartment was an airplane sitting on top of a cargo container. I never found out why. Another ponderous phenomena, lighthearted cartoon billboards all over town depicting a jittery man with his hands down his pants – all warning against the perils of crabs. They were wildly entertaining.
But I did find a great little coffee shop on Schönauer Straße with no art or advertising, just one sign in German that translated to “No Kindness, No Entry. Know Kindness, Know Entry.” I enjoyed that. Plus they had a sensational selection of pastries and a damn fine cup of coffee. That day’s work was done when I got an alert that a virus was detected. It went on to say that someone in the café was online and scouting IP addresses (a four-year-old knows more about computers than I do). But it did appear someone wasn’t knowing kindness, I was angry. Again, I have (had) no idea what I was talking about or looking at but it didn’t sit right.
I wrote a little note in butchered German letting the dude behind the counter know there was a hacker in our midst. Then I left with that feeling that I’d done the right thing and would probably be reported to the local authorities and mental health institutions – all of whom would keep an eye on me for the remainder of my stay.
[“ß” is just a double ‘s.’ And “Straße” just means ‘street.’ It’s a bit pretentious to use special characters, sure, but it makes me feel more worldly and less like I grew up in Council Bluffs, Iowa and wore Garanimals.]
It was a gorgeous day and I took full advantage of it by exploring the streets for hours. There was a farmers co-op with rich, vibrant fruit – (I still can’t believe how much quality produce they have in Germany). An interesting little Chinatown with extremely clean stalls and counters, something completely new to me. I’m used to my Chinatowns with some grime to ‘em. After further (not much) investigation, it turns out what I was calling “Chinatown” was, in fact, one restaurant connected to one store where two women of Chinese descent happened to work.
I tried to dial down the redneck within and simultaneously remember that I went to college (for a really long time) and escorted myself out of the building.
Why share this anecdote? Because, you need to understand that, while I can get around in just about any environment, figure most things out on the fly and have been described as “intelligent,” I still do at least one profoundly stupid thing every single day. Calling a store in Leipzig, “Chinatown,” would just be the tip of this stupid iceberg. Plus, I already had the “Coffeeshop Hacker” situation under my belt.
It was now time to trek through the Lindenau neighborhood, where I found a vegan restaurant run by an angry woman in comfortable shoes, turns out I look EXACTLY like her ex-husband, probably. Then the trip led to a pool hall in a former jailhouse, which was pretty magnificent and extremely haunting after I found out it was an old Stasi torcher type deal.
Another indicator that Germans may be a tad smarter than Americans – in general – is, you can walk off the street and right into this old prison, not even see the pool hall entrance, head upstairs, mess with an old vault-like prison door and lock yourself in until the next person, who may never come, comes. .And yes, I checked to make sure no one had locked themselves in any of them. In the U.S. there would be an idiot kid in every cell. Sure, their older brothers would eventually fold under questioning but just the same. Then the lawyers would come calling.
Now that the Canadian couple – who arrived around the same time – and I were all equally bummed out by the Stassi stories, the day would once again lead to Bi BA BO and the warm, liquid embrace of Tom. Yeah, that didn’t sound quite right.
Captain Picard’s doppelganger was there with his beaming smile, slinging wienerschnitzel and pouring shots of Jagermeister. He did this quite a bit. A little too often in fact. God help you if Bayern Munich was playing and winning, you suddenly had three shots in front of you. And he’d keep them coming, giving you shit for not keeping up.
For your information, Bi BA BO, the oddly named billiards hall, dart room, smoker’s lounge, video poker house and tiny bar – has the best wienerschnitzel on the planet. Tom takes great pride in his chef but insists on checking the quality of every single order that goes out, come hell or high water. He’s meticulous, he’s German. It was all too pleasant a task to test schnitzels from Berlin to Vienna, Munich to Hannover. Tom’s is legitimately the best.
After attempting to finish a massive plate of schnitzel and taters, I told Tom my hostess’s door situation. He led me to the back of the house and showed me his maintenance room, telling me I could take his tape measure then come back and cut a piece of wood then borrow whatever tools I’d need for the job. He’s a solid guy. I did just that and, within two hours, Daniela had a pretty nice, working deadbolt and repaired frame. We celebrated for hours at the Bi BA BO after this victory.
Friday came and I’d explored the old town area, checking out the art, architecture and people of Leipzig before returning to Bi BA BO. If anything, I’m a creature of habit when I find something I like. Tom told me I could probably get a cheap ticket to the Leipzig Red Bull-Salzberg Red Bull match, two teams from bordering countries both named for and sponsored by a horrible beverage.
[I once had a blind date who was about four drinks ahead of me when I met her in an Austin restaurant. Within 10 minutes, she had laughed so loudly that the manager had to come over and ask her to calm down. Two minutes after that, she cried and told me how badly she wanted children. She had to be poured into a taxi. That date went better than Red Bull tastes.]
Couldn’t pass up a live Bundesliga match, so off to the stadium I went.
The train drops you off right out front, the (Red Bull) energy was palpable. People were VERY excited for this match (for some reason). Folks sported their scarves and chanted their chants as groups meandered toward the stadium, beers in hand – most of them already well on their way to jail. Outside, I did indeed find a reasonably priced ticket and went in. The stadium was lively and the songs got louder the closer we got to kickoff.
After realizing I don’t really give a shit about German soccer, I grabbed a beer and a pretzel and walked the perimeter. I met a lovely group of women who were on the bullet train toward inebriation. They attempted to teach me the chant about a player and I patronized them but didn’t give it much effort. Then I tried to cross into the other side of the stadium through a huge iron gate with armed guards. Nope, they don’t allow that, seems fans from opposing teams like to stab one another. They take their soccer seriously.
I noticed people firing up those road flair things you see on the TV at raucous soccer matches. How is that allowed? Surely that’s a hazard of some sort. But here they were. With 30 minutes left in the second half, I made my way back toward the streetcar toward Bi BA BO. Men were pissing everywhere. The steps, the exterior of the now-closed ticket booth, some chose to wobble a bit while facing away from the tree they likely meant to aim at. Something about soccer in Europe.
Noel. And his ballroom.
On my last day in Leipzig, I had seen about all I wanted to see and had an early afternoon beverage with Tom, telling him I would head over to Noel’s place. He loved the idea and told me I’d have a great time with “Noel’s girls,” several Irish women who’d moved to Leipzig to tend bar for Noel. When he said the words, “Noel’s girls,” his eyes would light up and he’d wiggle his brow.
Walking to the bus stop just 100-feet or so from Bi BA Bo, it started to drizzle and the temperature had dropped to about 50F. I paced back and forth in the bus shelter, not dressed for the current weather conditions. After 15 minutes, I began to wonder what was keeping the bus. It’s unheard of for a bus to be five minutes late in Germany, let alone 15. Here came Tom in his Volkswagen. What a guy, drove me to Noel’s Ballroom, even came in and had a Jagermeister, or two. Maybe three.
Noel introduced me to the staff and gave me the tour. The whole tour – went out of his way to make sure I was comfortable then got back to work. The narrow entrance spills out into a mixture of German speakeasy and authentic-as-hell Irish pub, including the obligatory photo of Shane McGowen behind the bar. The ballroom itself was pretty large, with a separate bar, stage, lounging area and blaring speaker system. A separate seating area between the front lounge and ballroom promised homemade Irish treats, Guinness pie, boxtys, coddle, etc.
I chose the elevated corner table at the service entrance to the bar where I could see everything, smoke cigarettes and accept beverages from the staff with little effort from either of us.
The girls were wonderful, the clientele was wonderful, the experience was grand. Once Noel found out I was leaving he made me promise to stay one more night, telling me I could sleep upstairs where he houses bands while they’re in town. We immediately went up to look at the apartment and I agreed to see him the following night.
The next day, I left a note for Daniella then walked around the area until I knew Tom would be around to open Bi BA BO so I could thank him again for the ride and tell him goodbye. He was as kind as ever, made me take a shot of Jagermeister, of course. It’s not as collegey as it sounds, not in Germany.
I figured I’d explore the area near Noel’s, see what it had to offer. It had quite a bit to offer. Since Noel had already given me the key, I put my things in the room then walked down to the bar Noel and I had shut down about seven hours before. Barfly, named to honor the book, featured photos of Bukowski and a few subtle tips of the hat to the S&M crowd. Being a little bit foggy on the very end of the evening, it took me a second to realize I’d never met the current bartender, Amber.
Amber’s what you’d get if The Road Warrior’s Wez (the guy with the red mohawk in Mad Max II – or just picture any professional wrestler from the 80s, maybe even one of “The Road Warriors”) procreated with Angelina Jolie. She’s sexy, very direct, curious, well read and one hell of a conversationalist. Of course she’s curious, she’s Dutch. I try to answer people’s questions as honestly as possible without oversharing and I’ve just about heard it all. Amber’s line of questioning made me blush.
Across the street was a Spanish restaurant with a Soviet Propaganda theme. Another one of many restaurants I’d happen upon in Europe that makes little-to-no sense but has incredible food. If you haven’t been to Germany and make plans to go, keep in mind – all mid-tier (non-Michelin-star, non-jackets-required) restaurants all serve burgers, some sort of sausage and some form of schnitzel. Years earlier, I’d been to a Spanish restaurant in Berlin that served Indian food and “Obama-burgers.”
This Spanish restaurant, Cafe Pushkin, is run by a woman and presumably two daughters, all stunning Spanish women and – evidently – poetry fans.
It was one of the finest meals I’d had on a very long trip, the chef’s Leipzig-born version of Chili con Carne was a welcome change to the previous 30 or so days of bread and sausage in some iteration. God help you if you don’t like bread or sausage, I have no idea how Germans aren’t all as big as elephants.
Back at Barfly, Amber and I tried to out-embarrass one another for a couple of hours then I headed down to Noel’s for the beginning of my farewell tour. Amber said she might stop by when she got off and she did. The Irish folks, the Dutch girl and I had a fine time, “good craic (crack)” as the Irish say. A lot.
I woke Sunday morning (barely) with one of the worst headaches and biggest smiles.
I have nothing but fond memories of Leipzig, what a pleasant-ass surprise of a city. Wonderful people, excellent assortments of just about everything; food, folks, things to do, sights to see, new experiences. I very nearly hate to tell people about Leipzig because I found it to be almost without government, just a bunch of mature and respectful people living their lives as best they can.
From Daniela to Tom, Noel to Amber and every brief encounter in between, thank you Leipzig. You’ve got a good thing going on there. Don’t tell anyone, the Californians will come and ruin it all.