I spent four months living and working in Leipzig, Sachsen (Saxony) on an internship alliance program between the state of Saxony and my province in Canada, Alberta. Through my time there I have learned so much about what life was like in the former Deutsche Domokratische Republik (DDR) and how there are still differences that exist between states in Germany’s east and those in the west, which have never experienced communist rule. There are of course typical things that all Germans seem to enjoy and have in common no matter where they live such as relaxing with a beer at a beer garden, grilling in the park, eating a variety of sausage, cheese, and brötchen (bread rolls), and never leaving the house without Taschentücher (pocket tissues). Nevertheless, there are still some differences that exist between the two sides of Germany, which tell a story of each sides unique history and what they have experienced and endured in the twentieth century. I have traveled extensively around Germany and have visited 10 of Germany’s 16 Bundesländer (States), 4 of which previously belonged to the Soviet Union. There are six Bundesländer, which fell under communist rule from 1949-1990: Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania), Brandenburg, East Berlin, Sachsen-Anhalt (Saxony-Anhalt), Sachsen, and Thüringen (Thuringia); I have been to all of them except for Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Brandenburg. However, I do hope to visit those Bundesländer in the near future. Here are some of the unique things I’ve discovered so far about the neue Bundesländer:
1) The Food: In east Germany they still market and sell products from the DDR such as Vita Cola and Halloren chocolate. Most West Germans, or Wessies as they’re sometimes called, have never tried these products but they are oh so good! Vita Cola is like any regular cola but it has a refreshing citrus twist. Halloren is a chocolate company based in Halle (Saale) in Sachsen-Anhalt. Their claim to fame is being Germany’s oldest chocolate factory and has produced chocolate since 1804. They have a wonderful chocolate museum you can visit and a large store where you can sample their famous Kugeln, which come in a wide variety of flavours such as coffee, Irish cream, straciatella, blackforest cherry, raspberry yogurt …yum!
Chocolate samples at the store in Halloren’s chocolate factory
Still selling products from the DDR in Halloren
A room made completely out of chocolate at Halloren’s chocolate museum
There are also regional foods that are produced in East Germany and are harder or impossible to find in the west such as Dresdener Fleischsalat (Dresden Meat Salad), Eierschecke (a tasty sugary egg dessert from Dresden), Spreewälder Gurken (Spree Woods pickles), and beer such as Sternburg (produced in Leipzig), Leipziger Gose (produced at Bayrische Bahnhof in Leipzig), Lausitzer Porter (produced in Löbau, Sachsen), Ur-krostitzer (produced in Krostitz, Sachsen), and Hasseröder (produced in Wernigerode Sachsen-Anhalt). However my favourite Sekt (sparkling wine) Rotkäppchen (Literally: Little Red Riding Hood) produced in Freyburg (Unstrut) in Sachsen-Anhalt, is quite popular and thankfully is commonly found across Germany.
Eating Eierschecke in Dresden
Many dishes found in the neue Bundesländer are also heavily influenced by other countries that were in the Soviet Union. There are so many restaurants where you can eat a tasty goulash, lots of cabbage, and potatoes. My favourite restaurants that I visited that had delicious food with eastern flair were Vodkaria in Leipzig and Wenzel Prager Bierstuben, a restaurant chain, which has tasty Czech food and is located in various cities in Sachsen, Sachsen-Anhalt, and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Germany’s famous Döner Kebab (donair), invented in Berlin, usually tastes better in the neue Bundesländer than in the west, I have no idea why they just do. There are many good places to get Döner but my personal favourite Dönerladen (donair shop) is Tamers in Leipzig.
mmm Döner nom nom!
2) The People: The older generations who spent their early lives in the DDR have such interesting stories of what life was like when East Germany was a part of the Soviet Union. Security was intense and very invasive. People weren’t allowed to leave the Soviet Union and were barred from visiting relatives in the west. What one could study in university was limited under the regime. Children were forced to learn Russian at schools. Many of my colleagues had taken Russian for eight years or so at school but most of them don’t speak it anymore. The current chancellor Angela Merkel grew up in East Germany, in Brandenburg, and she still speaks fluent Russian and has had many meetings with Vladimir Putin, where the two have bilingual conversations in Russian and German. Freedom of information was limited. When I did my internship at the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek (German National Library), formerly the Deutsche Bücherei, in Leipzig, several of my colleaugues who worked there before and after the fall of the Soviet Union told me how certain books forbidden by the regime had to be locked up in a forbidden wing of the library. Because East Germans grew up in such oppressive times, many of these people have come to value basic freedoms that we often take for granted such as freedom of speech and the ability to freely travel around the world.
Picture of the main reading hall in the German National Library
East Germans, or Ossies as they’re sometimes called, are also the friendliest people I have met in Germany. Because they lived under a communist system, they are more community minded than West Germans, who are more individualistic. My roommate in Leipzig let me use her spare bike for the entire four months I was there. My roommates would also share treats with me that their Moms gave them in care packages. When I lived in Sachsen there were bad floods in the area and many of my colleagues spent their holidays helping out family and surrounding villages with cleaning up the mess left by the floods. A lot of my colleagues spoiled me with baked treats and tea that they made or bought me lunch even though I had the money for it. Some of them bought me chocolates when I switched to a new department, one colleague gave me a coconut chocolate bar from Halloren as a thank-you gift for bringing home made Nanaimo bars to work, it was so delicious! When I had my birthday they showered me with treats and presents. I was so overwhelmed and touched by such generosity and kindness that I bawled my eyes out on my last day of work and I was very sad to leave and go back home.
3) The Lack of Tourists: If a tourist visits any of the neue Bundesländer they will usually either go to Dresden or Berlin, that’s it. Many of the well-known cities in Germany that tourists typically flock to such as Köln (Cologne), München (Munich), Hamburg, Frankfurt am Main, Hannover, Heidelberg, Düsseldorf, Stuttgart, and Nürnberg (Nuremburg) are all in the west. These cities are very lovely but I find that they can be overcrowded and stifling at times. Since the neue Bundesländer have received a lot of taxes from West Germany after reunification to help build up East German cities, which were falling apart, these cities are now more beautiful than ever. Dresden is one fine example of a city that has regrown and flourished from nothing. Although I do have a fondness for Dresden and Berlin, I’ve found that in my travels there is so much more to see in the neue Bundesländer than just those two cities. There many other beautiful cities scattered across east Germany such as Potsdam, Leipzig, Weimar, Halle (Saale), Erfurt, Schwerin, Rostock, and Magdeburg. Most of these cities aren’t clogged with tourists and it is much easier to walk through and enjoy them rather than feeling crammed like canned sardines in a popular west German city.
In addition to its cities, the neue Bundesländer also offer lots in way of stunning nature and quaint villages full of Fachwerkgebäude (timber framed houses) and are nowhere near as full of tourists as in other places in Germany such as the Schwarzwald (Black Forest) or the Alpen (the Alps). My favourite places to hike and see cute villages are in the National Parks: Harz Moutains and the Sächsische Schweiz (Saxony Switzerland). I absolutely adore the countryside of Thüringen with its famous forest, the Thüringer Wald, and it’s rolling hills full of castles and vineyards. There is also the idyllic Spreewald in Lower Sorbia in Brandenburg and the beaches and islands, such as Rügen, on the Ostsee (Baltic Sea) in Mecklenburg Vorpommern. No matter where you go in the neue Bundesländer, there will always be lots to see and do!
Mist over a river in the Harz Mountains
The unique mountains found in Sächsische Schweiz
One of my favourite villages in the Harz Mountains, Stolberg
4) The Traffic: Living in Germany you will come to realize that every weekend there is a consistent flow of traffic moving from west to east on Fridays and east to west on Sundays. Many East Germans spend their weekdays working in the west, where they have the ability to make a higher wage than in the neue Bundesländer and often times they will spend their weekends back home. When I lived in Leipzig I had a boyfriend living in Münster, Nordrhein-Westfalen (North Rhein-Westphalia) so I would often times get a Mitfahrgelenheit (ride share) to see him. It is easy going in the opposite direction of the traffic jam and if you go east to west on a Friday and west to east on a Sunday, you will most likely have no problem going to and from your destination with little reason to stop. However, when my boyfriend came to visit me on a weekend, he often complained of the traffic jams and how much longer it took to go to and from home than it did for me. In addition to the weekend traffic jams, my boyfriend would also complain about the lack of gas stations along the Autobahn as soon as he went into the neue Bundesländer. This is a real and genuine problem in Germany so plan your trips accordingly.
The cars of choice in east Germany are different than in the west. Many east Germans still prefer driving Skoda cars from the Czech Republic and they are usually not as fond of expensive west German luxury cars such as Audi, Porsche, Mercedes Benz, and BMW, whereas in west Germany, where people are much wealthier, these cars are more commonly bought.
The pedestrian lights are also completely different in east Germany than in the west. The east German Ampelmännchen (little traffic light men) look so cute and cartoonish and you can only see them in the former East German states. It is also now a notorious figure found on various tourist memorbilia.
The top of the photo says: Be an example for children. Only go when it’s green!
The man with his hat is a very androgynous looking figure but he looks manly enough that some feminists complained and argued for the inclusion of females on pedestrian lights. So every now and then you can find an Ampelfrau (traffic light woman) wearing a skirt and pigtails telling you when to steh (stand) and geh (walk). Yay for gender equality!
5) The Beaches: East Germany is notorious for their FKK (nude beaches) stemming from the Freikörperkultur (free body culture) and swimming nude is very much a part of East German culture. In Leipzig I would often visit the lakes Markkleeberger See and Cospudener See just outside of the city. These lakes are awesome, they used to be open mining pits and they have since then been re-naturalized and turned into lakes. The water is clean and clear and it is illegal to have motorboats on these lakes so they are very fresh and unpolluted and are so refreshing on a warm sunny day.
Swimmers and sailboats at Cospudner See or “Cosi” as the locals call it
However, where I’m from in Canada no one swims nude so I had never seen people swim naked until I visited these lakes. It is not uncommon to see women tanning topless or men and women dashing into the water in their birthday suits, even on regular beaches. Parents will also let their children run around completely nude and nobody bats an eye. Initially I was shocked to see nudity on a beach but over time you do get used to it. Personally I find it very inspiring to see how secure people are with their bodies and loving and embracing wholeheartedly what God gave them.
6) Religion: Speaking of God, the neue Bundesländer have a very unique religious history. Martin Luther started his Reformation movement in Sachsen and Sachsen-Anhalt and from these regions the Reformation spread out across Europe, permanently dividing the religious landscape of Europe. You can still visit the Schlosskirche (All Saints Church) in Wittenberg, Sachsen-Anhalt, where Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses onto its front door. You can also visit the Castle Church at Schloss Hartenfels in Torgau, Sachsen, which became the first protestant church in Europe. Martin Luther’s town of birth and death, Eisleben, Sachsen-Anhalt is also another town worth a visit to learn more about Reformation history. One of the things that make the neue Bundesländer stand out is how overwhelmingly protestant they are compared to Bundesländer in the west, which have much higher percentages of Catholics and have nearly all of Germany’s bishoprics.
However, many east Germans are also more atheist and significantly less religious than west Germans. The Soviet Union sought to eradicate religion altogether and strove to create a completely secular and atheist society and this has certainly had an impact on individuals who grew up in this system. Many people were persecuted for their religious beliefs and many churches and places of worship were destroyed. In Leipzig the Paulinerkirche (Church of St. Paul) on Augustusplatz (main town square) was one of many churches, destroyed by the Soviets. It was demolished in 1968 and a new church was built in 2007 called the Paulinum, which belongs to Universität Leipzig (University of Leipzig) and pays homage to the former church that once stood there. The new church is very unique looking and boasts a modern blue glass façade.
The Paulinum in Leipzig
7) Young Alternative Culture: The neue Bundesländer are seemingly much more alternative compared to those stiff conservatives in the west. You only have to look to Berlin to know that the vibe is much different in the east than in the west. Berliners just do not care what others think of them, they are all about free expression and being as quirky and lively as possible. There are so many hip bars and clubs that are opened all day and all night. I went into a pub at Kottbuser Tor and it had real candles everywhere. I can guarantee that sort of thing would not fly in Canada for so many safety reasons. There were hippy communal gardens at Tempelhofer Park and a random art installation serving as a memorial for refugees who lost their lives on the external borders of Europe.
Hippy gardens at Tempelhofer Park
Art installation called House of the 28 Doors commemorating refugees who have died in Europe’s external borders.
The graffiti and public art all over the city and on remaining pieces of the Berlin Wall is extraordinary.
Berlin street art
One of many amazing artworks on the Berlin Wall at the East Side Gallery
There are loads of DJ parties and concerts held in old factories and drug use is as commonplace as seeing a multitude of Donärläden in your favourite party district. Drug use also seems to not be condemned as much in the east as it is in the west. I met a few west Germans who refused to associate with anyone who does drugs, even marijuana. Whereas many east Germans I met were largely indifferent to the subject and would never think to condemn a person because of drugs. The phrase that the mayor of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit, used to describe his city, “arm aber sexy!” (poor but sexy) could also certainly be used to describe the rest of the neue Bundesländer, they are indeed poorer but they are so gorgeous!
Where I lived in Leipzig, I learned that this bustling student city was becoming a place where hipsters too hip for Berlin prefer to live. Like Berlin it has many alternative and hip places to party. The city also turns black overnight at WGT (Wave-Gotik Treffen), the largest Gothic festival in the world, which has been a yearly event since 1992. There are loads of antique street markets, festivals, and plays happening frequently. If you check Kreuzer magazine’s website on a regular basis, you will see that this city is a very happening place to be with loads of underground culture. I had never been to a film screening in a park or eaten a “pay what you feel like” meal until I came to Leipzig. At the sub-culture punk bar, Atari, people sign up every Monday to cook a large vegan meal and tons of people come and line up for this food and pay whatever they want for it, usually a euro or two euro. Most people there also prefer sitting on the sidewalk rather than eating on the many couches inside the bar. My best friend in Leipzig also is a lovely alternative hippy and she’s introduced me to a few of the underground and alternative places around the city and showed me just how radical it can get. Dresden, another bustling student city, also has an alternative and youthful vibe to it. You only have to spend an evening in Neustadt to see what I mean. The two times that I stumbled on a gay pride parade in Germany was in Leipzig and Dresden. Many other university cities in the neue Bundesländer such as Chemnitz, Jena, Erfurt, Leipzig, Rostock, and Halle (Saale) are full of young students and also encapsulate the fun youthful alternative vibe that can be found wherever students are in east Germany.
8) Costs of Living: Living expenses in the neue Bundesländer are significantly less than in the west. As a result, many students flock to these cities with their lower costs of living. All of the cheapest cities to rent or own property are in the east with Dresden, Chemnitz, and Erfurt being the cheapest with an average rental price of 235 euro a month. The most expensive cities to live in Germany are in the west with Hamburg, Munich, and Cologne rocking the highest rental prices with an average around 356 euro a month. Even Berlin, Germany’s largest city, is cheaper than other big cities in the west.
Dresden is such a cute city and it’s not even that expensive!
One of the best things about apartments in the neue Bundesländer is how old and pretty they are. Many apartments are over a hundred years old and are historically protected. In east Germany they didn’t have as much money as in the west so they didn’t have the resources to tear down and rebuild like they did in the west, where new modern buildings were erected in the 1960s and 70s replacing older buildings that were seen as outdated. However, in Dresden there aren’t too many nice old apartments because of how badly the city was bombed. Leipzig wasn’t as badly bombed so there are many gorgeous cheap old apartment buildings all over the city and they are my favourite part about the Leipzig. There are also loads of plain and ugly communist buildings all over east Germany, which you won’t find in the west.
Above and below: Pretty apartments in Leipzig
In Leipzig I lived in a three bedroom WG (Wohngemeinschaft; shared housing) with two other roommates. Everything had been newly renovated. My bedroom was massive. There was no dirty carpet anywhere and instead we had chic wooden floors. In Canada I have never rented a room that wasn’t carpeted. The bathroom was huge and had a washing machine and both a tub and a walk in shower. There was an attic upstairs with lots of available space to hang clothes and it was always warm so everything dried quickly and I didn’t have to worry about pesky drying racks taking up space in the hallway. The kitchen was a bit small and didn’t have much in way of appliances, but it had a basic oven, stove, fridge, and freezer. We had a big courtyard and our flat was in close distance to many grocery stores and businesses. My work was an 8 minute bike ride away and it only took 15 minutes by bike to get the Innenstadt (city center). Total price for everything including internet and amenities: 240 euro. That’s only 344 Canadian dollars. In my city in Canada it is nearly impossible to find such a nice apartment for that price. A lot of my friends are really surprised when I tell them that the nicest and cheapest apartment I’ve ever had was in Germany. When my boyfriend came over to Leipzig to visit me, he was always amazed at how cheap everything was compared to in Münster and was jealous of how nice my apartment was and how little I had to pay for it.
9) DDR History: In the neue Bundesländer no matter where you go, there will be plenty of historical sites and museums to visit that showcase pieces of DDR history. Berlin of course has its wall and the Brandenburg Gate.
Berliner Mauer (The Berlin Wall)
Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate)
In Chemnitz, formally named Karlmarxstadt (Karl Marx City) during the DDR, you can still find a large statue head of Karl Marx in the middle of the city. In Leipzig there is the Zeitgeschichtliches Forum (Contemporary Forum), which is a free museum and has tons of interesting information about the DDR. I was so happy I took the time to visit this museum because it really does a good job of giving visitors a glimpse of what life was like in the DDR. There is anything and everything displayed in this museum such as statue heads of Karl Marx, children books about Sputnik, household products, banners from anti-regime protestors, and old street and border signs. In Leipzig you can also visit Nikolaikirche (St. Nicholas Church), which was where the Monday Demonstrations started. These were the first protests against communist rule and eventually spread across the rest of east Germany leading to the fall of the wall and the opening of east Germany’s borders.
Nikolaikirche in Leipzig
Leipzig is often called the Heldenstadt der DDR (hero city of the GDR) because its citizens started a movement that led to a united Germany. When you visit the square you can see a plaque between the cobblestones with the date 09 October 1989, which was when the demonstrations started.
There is also a circular fountain that has water constantly brimming over the edge. The fountain is a symbol representing people’s feelings at the time of the demonstrations as they brimmed over the edge and could no longer be supressed by the regime. Leipzig also has a restaurant called IL-62, which is in an old DDR airplane. There is also a piece of the Berlin wall that is now in Leipzig’s southern suburb Stötteritz.
A piece of the Berlin Wall in Leipzig
In the Harz mountains I hiked up its tallest mountain, the Brocken, which is divided between Niedersachsen and Sachsen-Anhalt. The tallest point of the mountain is in Sachsen-Anhalt where soviet border control used to have a lookout tower to make sure no one crossed the border into West Germany and shot anybody if they did. When you hike up to the top there are plaques commemorating the opening of the Brocken after reunification. There are also signs, which display pictures of what the Brocken used to look like with its large barbed wire fence and guard towers. It was one of my favourite hikes in Germany and you truly learn to appreciate how wonderful it is to freely walk up to the mountaintop when so many others before were disallowed.
The sign says: Here during the freedom revolution in the DDR on December 3rd 1989 around 12:45pm, the wall was forced opened around the restricted military area “the Brocken Summit”
The Brocken is free again! Wall opening after 26 years here on December 3rd 1989. (Excuse the rain it wasn’t the sunniest day)
10) Language Barrier: Before I went to Germany many people told me that Germans speak really good English. I would have to agree when that statement is applied to west Germany, but not to the east. The younger generations do obviously speak better English, but I found that in east Germany many people, especially the older generations, did not speak English. When I called the Stadtbürgeramt (city offices) about visa issues, the person on the other line didn’t speak English. When I asked several people “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” (Do you speak English?) I often got a “Nein” in return. Although I had taken two years of German at my university before I went to Germany, I still had a hard time communicating when I first came to Leipzig. Many of my middle aged coworkers spoke no English since they took Russian in school, whereas west Germans have learned English in school for much longer. A lot of them could read English but when I asked what an English word was in German I would often get blank stares back. I brought a pocket sized English-Germany dictionary with me for my first month of work and it was such a lifesaver. I found it hard to have conversations without it and when I thumbed through the dictionary it often helped keep my conversations going rather than having them awkwardly end. One of my roommates was very shy with English and for the first few weeks I lived there we would have conversations where she would talk in German and I would respond in English. When my other roommate realized that I was able to speak and understand German well she then stopped talking to me in English and only talked to me in German from that point forward. Many of my younger coworkers preferred talking in German and pretty soon I got to a point where I was talking more German than English. However, when I went to the west I noticed that more people would try and talk to me in English when they realized that I wasn’t German. I am personally very happy with my choice to live in a neues Bundesland, rather than in a city in the west. Because of the my coworkers, my roommates, and where I lived and worked, I was able to speak fluent German at the end of my four month stay. For anyone who wants to speak German well and be truly immersed in the language, I would recommend living in any of the neue Bundesländer. However, if you don’t speak any German and you only want to get by with English be aware that it might be a bit harder to find people to talk to in the east than in the west.