Thursday, 30 July 2015

Ein Tag in Leipzig

Oh Leipzig, I'd heard so many things about you. You're supposed to be the new Berlin, because, y'know, Berlin is so over. (This is said with heavy sarcasm. If you think questions like these concern me, you are reading the wrong blog.)

Believe it or not, this was my first excursion into wider Germany since moving to Berlin. This marks a sense of stability for the first time since living here: before, I guess I just didn't travel due to being in a precarious money situation, or simply working too much and not having the time. But my friend Simon was visiting from Amsterdam and we wanted to do something spontaneous.

Bus tickets cost a whopping 8€ each way (and on a Saturday!) with MeinFernbus. It took about two hours to get there. I slept for most of the way, but in my waking moments, it was indeed nice to see a bit of countryside. We hadn't actually made any plans about what we were going to see or do in Leipzig - this was also kind of nice, not to be rushed.

First stop was the Nikolaikirche, which is basically just a walk up the hill from the bus stop. It's famous for being where the Monday Demonstrations took place in 1989, starting the Peaceful Revolution in the GDR.

The interior of the Nikolaikirche is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen in any church - I was particularly into the pastel nave detail.


After having coffee and cake at the nearby Veganz and being disappointed at how little visitor information was available at the main train station, we decided not to buy any tram tickets and to instead just wander around. We couldn't have done this without investing in a small map, though. Walking around the city centre, it was pretty easy to find classic monuments such as the Thomaskirche, where Bach is buried.

The museum in the former Stasi HQ was a great accidental find. It was one of the strongest museums I've been to: very DIY, very critical of the regime, amazing contemporary artefacts, just brilliant. I still wonder almost every day that it is such recent history, yet feels so dated when you look at photographs.

Afterwards, we continued our walk into Lindenau, which my friend Fiona had described as a more chilled Prenzlauer Berg. It was astonishing how quiet the streets were. In fact, they were almost deserted. For a while, it looked very leafy - almost suburban - before eventually descending into an area where people were sitting outside having drinks. Still, a lot of the stores seemed to be very closed, but I don't know whether I'm just too spoilt by Berlin opening hours.

For lunch we went to the Vleischerei, where I had a seitan burger, fries and Rhabarberschorle (which has become my very favourite German drink).

We did find a nice second-hand store where I bought some shoes and sunglasses, which was right opposite vegan café süß + salzig, as per Fiona's recommendation, but didn't go in as we had just eaten. I'm keeping it in mind for next time though!
This part of the city reminded me a little bit of Graz, Austria - I guess it was the "German-looking" buildings and the burgeoning alternative/DIY scene.

Finally, something I enjoyed about Leipzig and the surrounding region was the jagged place names. See above: Zschochersch?! To my relief, when I asked a local for directions, even she couldn't get her tongue around this name. On road signs, I spotted Delitzsch, Zwochau... a penchant for the letter "Z". Is this a relic from some extinct Saxon tongue?

It was a good day. I hope this will be the first of many trips I make to Leipzig!

Friday, 24 July 2015

The Opposite of Loneliness: youth, anxiety & perfectionism

I recently finished Marina Keegan's The Opposite of Loneliness. I first added it to my Goodreads shelf a year ago and since then, this collection of essays and short stories has blown up. In March, the German translation was released, which is when it reappeared on my radar and I thought I should finally get round to reading it.

Before doing so, I felt compelled to read a bit more about the author's background: I found out that she went to Yale; she was mentored and recognised by massive voices in the American literary world; she'd had a job lined up at the New York Times.
None of this made her a bad person, of course, but I still went into the book with a degree of scepticism. The exact same fatal car accident could happen to anyone, anywhere, and they wouldn't get a whole book published - even if they did indeed leave behind a load of written work.

I think I have only ever read one other book by a dead girl (and by that I mean a book where that's kind of the whole reason it was put out). The first time I read the Diary of Anne Frank, aged 15 or so, I was hooked. The thinner the stack of pages grew in my right hand, the more aware I became that her time was running out.
When I got to the epilogue giving away her fate, I burst into tears. Of course I already knew what happened to her, from history lessons and so on, but to see it actually written there, after all this time getting to know her through the pages of her diary... it was too much.

Although Anne and Marina's respective circumstances are obviously wildly different, there's still something deeply stirring about a young and promising life cruelly cut short. In an article for Die Welt, Ronja Larissa von Rönne asks why it's this young woman's death that is being marketed, not her talent. I think she's totally right; it is the kind of creepy, Laura-Palmer-fascination that's omnipresent not only in pop culture like films, but also in real life, in the way facts are presented and the type of language we use - that is, emotive and gendered language.

'She had a stroke at the age of 24 / it could have been a brilliant career,' sang Stuart Murdoch of Belle and Sebastian in 1998.
I turned 24 this year and it's this word "brilliant" that constantly agitates me. "Brilliant" means "extraordinary". "Extraordinary" is something we all want to be deep down, I think, even if we're reluctant to admit it.

For a while I have been plagued by a fear of dying and leaving nothing behind, which relates strongly to my perfectionism. To be more specific, I'm anxious I won't have published a novel by the time I die - a good novel, at that. In fact, I want to publish many novels by the time I die, I want to publish books of personal writing, I want a career and a legacy. How was Marina's writing obtained after she died? Had she published all of it (or at least put it out there in some other deliberate way)? Or did someone have to trespass into her hard drive or personal notebooks? There is so much half-finished work I have that I would definitely be embarrassed to have published as it is. Why does it matter that people I've never met have some kind of impression or opinion of me?

More than anything else, though, The Opposite of Loneliness reminded me that we seem to live in a culture where you're only worth something if you go after your dreams - and in many cases, this is only possible if you are in the right place at the right time. Is going after your dreams even always a good idea? (Fellow Berlin-based blogger Adam actually delved into that yesterday.)

As with all human beings on this planet, it is important to keep in mind that Marina Keegan was a good writer, but she wasn't the Messiah. Since finishing the book, I have been wondering a lot about what Marina was actually like as a person, beyond the marketing, beyond the flattering obituaries. All I have is this book, plus some YouTube videos of her spoken poetry, which demonstrate her charismatic and appealing demeanour. I did come across this piece by her friend, Cameron Keady, who provides some personal insight into the Marina beyond The Opposite of Loneliness. Loving someone doesn't mean focusing solely on their good qualities.

Regarding the book's actual content: I liked it, overall. Some pieces grabbed me more than others; I loved the essays about her first car and her gluten allergy. I dog-eared a few pages because I found some turns of phrase in her short stories quite beautiful. I get a feeling this book is going to gain pop culture traction over the years; Alok Vaid-Menon has already written a poem namedropping it.

Ronja von Rönne concludes that we should definitely read the book, but not buy it, which is an interesting hint towards how we consume contemporary media (do people borrow it from friends, the library, download illegal PDFs?). As far as I'm concerned, you can buy it, borrow it, but most of all, you can use the opportunity to consider what we, as 20-somethings, are we truly motivated by and what we hope will be different in our world after we've achieved our goals.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Albums of 2015: part 1

I'm doing things a little differently this year. There are so many wonderful albums that have come out in the first half of 2015 alone that I feel the need to record them here - not least because it's also nice to give an overview of what I've been listening to.

Villagers - Darling Arithmetic

Laura Marling - Short Movie

Modest Mouse - Strangers to Ourselves

Young Fathers - White Men Are Black Men Too

Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell

Princess Chelsea - The Great Cybernetic Depression

Shlohmo - Dark Red

Chastity Belt - Time To Go Home

Torres - Sprinter