Blog Post 23. (19/09/2022) - An account of my first few weeks in the Fürstenstadt Dresden, which proved to be as chaotic as it was wonderful.
So much has happened in the weeks since I wrote my last blog post that a day-by-day retelling is impossible and a broad account of the places I have been and things I have done will be necessary. Perhaps I should begin by mentioning that I have been in amazing company, fellow travelers and young scholars of many nations, creeds and cultures, as many dozens of Dresdners- young folk and university students met over the bartop and dinner tables and musical festivals.
Or perhaps I can start by stating that Dresden is thick with history and that it is a shockingly diverse place (in all senses of the word)! Divided in two great halves by a rolling green belt of riverside gardens, halves which are themselves subdivided into a dozen colorful neighborhoods, the city pulses with life like a many-chambered heart.
More than being an entertainment mecca, Dresden is also a distinguished cultural center with a rich history. The city bears the venerable stamp of the house of Wettin, whose great kings and prince-electors are remembered in its many palaces, monuments, churches and museums. Notable monuments from their centuries long rule include but are certainly not limited to: the renowned Semperoper, the famous protestant Frauenkirche, the palatial grounds of the Zwinger, and my very own parish church, the Trinitatis Sanctissimae Cathedral. These great works testify to Dresden’s complicated religious history as bulwark of Lutheran’s reformation that turned into a center of Catholic power during the reign of August the 2nd.
Better known as August the Strong, the Prince-elector left the Protestantism of his forebears behind to be elected king of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Much to the chagrin of his Protestant advisors and nobles, August eventually grew into the faith he had taken on as a formality- despite it still being essentially illegal in his princedom. Since I owe my parish church to that decision, I’m doubly inclined to see the king in a fine light. After all, his ambitions transformed the skyline of the medieval city into a Baroque cultural center that came to be called the “Florence on the Elbe” or the “Elbflorenz”.
The city also bears the more recent marks of the cold war and the old scars in its people as much as its architecture. I only need to consider my coworkers for proof of this, nearly all of whom had protestant grandparents, but most of whom never heard a peep about their families’ religion at any point during their childhood. Many grew up to be agnostics, atheists or irreligious but spiritual, having had no firsthand connection to the Protestant religion of their ancestors or the Catholic faith of their former princes thanks to the state-supported atheism of East Germany.
Their seventy, sixty-something parents may have secondhand memories of the pre-communist days, but some in that generation feel what the Germans call “Ostalgie”, a nostalgia for the even-handedness of the communist rule. Other members of that generation were the very same youths who thronged together for the Monday demonstrations of 1989. Those that did risked arrest and worse,
famously gathering in my own parish church in order to hold thousands-strong religious vigils in defiance of the authorities. After all, the city was host to a network of government spies, including a young KGB agent (by the name of Vladimir Putin) who rushed to burn classified documents when protestors closed in on his post at the Kulturpalast. I often think of that intrigue-ridden time when I take my coffee in the squares where those events transpired thirty-some years ago.
My coworkers’ grandparents, who are now living out their twilight years, are the only ones who can personally recall the start of communist rule and the horrors of the war that directly preceded it. They remember how the Allied invasion of Nazi Germany devastated the stragetically-important Dresden and left most of it in ruins. Thousands -factory workers and family members, old friends and officers alike- burned to death when American bombers unloaded over 78 million pounds of incendiary explosives on the city centre where I used to live. Many thousands more suffocated in the low-pressure air pockets spawned by the mile-wide vortexes of flame. The attack, approved near the war's end during a time of foggy intelligence and mounting casualties, destroyed some of the targeted depots and industrial centers at the cost of 25,000+ lives, many of them innocent.
Ryan, the previous English Teaching Assistant at FSG, warned me against mentioning the subject when he graciously gave me my first tour of the city. He said that there are still many Dresdners who refuse to talk about the incident, people hold us Americans and our British allies in contempt for our involvement in the horrifying attack. I haven’t asked any questions about the bombing since. Dresden wears this complex, interconnected history just under its sleeves for any interested observer to unravel.
On the one hand, the old sandstone buildings of Altstadt- those that survived the firebombing- are black with the soot of time, and even the reconstructed buildings are so new that it is impossible to overlook the fact that the Soviets left them in ruins for decades. On the other hand, the neighborhood of Neustadt across the Elbe brims with cosmopolitan chaos. Bars with names Laika and Pavlov jostle up against techno clubs and Cuban restaurants founded by immigrants back in the 1960s and 70s, when the East German government invited fellow communists from the world over to Dresden.
I spent plenty of time between these two neighborhoods. Vibrant Neutstadt is as liberal as it is anarchic, noisy as it is diverse, and it was my home for three weeks. I spent the first two weeks living with a couple architecture students studying at the technical university in an apartment whose graffiti-scored facade belies its clean, crisp interior.
Recently renovated by the architecture students, the apartment’s most notable feature was its frontal balcony and rear windows. The front-facing balcony openedout on the noisy Alaunplatz, a broad green park that I spent many an evening in meeting German youths and students, and many a morning enjoying some pastries before work. The rear windows opened up on a quiet, interior garden where I would go to reflect when I didn’t feel like walking 30 minutes into the forests of the Dresdner Heide.
Time and time again, I gathered in Neustadt’s bars with the other Fulbrighters and my short—term roommate Elias, enjoying the endless diversity of German beers and dancing the evening away in its clubs and halls. It was in those hot, colorful barrooms that I first met my fellow Fulbrighters and the other Foreign Language Teaching Assistants (FSA). My fellow Fulbrighters are interesting enough people to merit their own blog posts, but it must suffice to say here that they come from all over the United States and that despite our varied pursuits, backgrounds and plans, we all share a keen interest in transcultural affairs and having a good time. The non-Fulbright FSAs are an even more colorful cast; there are Brits of all types, a kind Paraguayan, a hilarious, sassy Italian and even a jokester of a Spaniard from Salamanca, near where I taught English last year!
The group has done everything together and my only regret is that I haven’t been able to be present for more of the group’s outings. Besides meeting in bars and dancehalls, we climbed mountains in the Sachsische Schweiz together (which deserves its own blog), grilled in the Alaunplatz together and went shopping at the Fleamarket a couple times. We also enjoyed the insane culinary scene together, everything from Cuban Empanadas to the Syrian Cuisine and Turkish Doner brought over by more recent immigrants after the 2015-16 immigration crisis. We gathered on its corners like the infamous “Azzieck” (The Antisocial’s Corner), where drunken youths would smash their bottles on the ground and university students played beer-ball in Neustadt’s many obscured passages and courtyards.
Here's a video from an evening at "El Cubanito", one of my favorite bars in Neutstadt. We were celebrating a certain FSA's birthday. Good times!
Neustadt’s streets usually buzz with life and random action- one moment a troupe of clowns may bumble by, the next you’ll almost trip over a procession of goats going to market and then a hard-faced procession of 30 or so skateboarders rolls through and disrupts traffic. It’s the kind of place where there are sometimes more bicycles on the road than cars and you never know what to expect. Figuring I could happily live here for a year before getting burned out, I decided to hole up in a hostel in Neustadt while I searched for more permanent lodgings. That was an uncomfortable period that had me out and about even more frequently as I tried to avoid the cramped company of my many roommates, some of whom were quite eccentric.
I have already explained Altstadt’s appeal in as much detail as can be reasonably expected; it has history and it has fine culture. I attend weekly mass at August the Strong’s parish cathedral and enjoy Wurst in the main square, I shift through the local flea markets down by the river’s edge and I plan on enjoying as many operas as I can at the Semperoper now that I have my university student discount.
I would be remiss if I didn’t finish my account of my time in Dresden with the Elbewiesen. Named for the grey river that divides the city, this great green plain stretches three (almost) unbroken miles from the stone bows of Albert’s Bridge to the steel trusses of the “Blaues Wunder”. I run most of my daily 5ks here, or did before the year began to wane and the colors of the day invariably turned to minute shades of grey- I even worked out near the banks when I was living in the hostal, it being one of the few places I could so without getting some serious scrutiny.
Dresden owes its former UNESCO world heritage site status not to the Frauenkirche or the Semperoper or any of the other cultural touchstones I have previously mentioned, but to the Elbewiesen. Perhaps that is because like the knee-high lawns of Elbewiesen recall the moss-grown, pre-Roman aspect of the German spirit that has been tamed (not destroyed) by modern discipline and orderliness.
After all, Germany is one of the few countries that would insist on carving out a neighborhood’s worth of space in the middle of one of their growing cities and leaving it a fallow field for pensioners to walk their dogs in and foreigners to run their 5ks. Even though UNESCO rescinded Dresden’s heritage site status when a practical but unattractive bridge was thrown up in the middle of the Elbewiesen, the lawns remain a beautiful place. There’s nothing like the feeling of racing a steamer as it trundles upstream with the wind at your back and the smell of fall in the air.
I can hardly think of a better place to conclude my panorama of Dresden than where I often finished my evening 5ks- on the rails of the Blaues Wunder, looking back at the evening silhouette of a city of contrasts. I am proud to say that this city will be my home for the year to come and I am certain there are many more stories here for me to act out before my time is down. That said, there will be other blogs soon, depending on how and when I can get reliable internet access.