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An American in Leipzig

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What is it like being an American in East Germany? --

This is a tough question to answer because it keeps changing. I grew up in an upper middle-class family in a rich section of Connecticut called West Hartford in the U.S.A. West Hartford is very New England with big wooden Victorian houses, lots of diverse restaurants and culture. Things are well kept, clean and green.

When I first arrived in Leipzig, Germany in 1996 it was dark and gray. All the buildings looked decrepit and run down. There were very few restaurants and places to hang out. I had no idea how anyone could live under such circumstances. I shared an apartment with my girlfriend, which was an unrenovated, pre-war working-class place with two very small rooms. It had a closet for a kitchen, coal heating, toilet in the stairwell and no bathroom. After having lived in a house all my life, I felt very closed in, but I was grateful that I had a chance to use coal for heating.

It seemed historic to me. Each room had its own heater, which was made out of tile and stretched from floor to ceiling. Soon, I fell into a routine: First, I had to clean the heater and remove the ashes, then I had to fetch the coal from the basement, cut the wood, go outside and empty the ashes, light the kindling and wait till the coal was thoroughly burned that I could close the door the door of the heater so it could finally warm the room. I had to do this every 12 hours, or whenever I wanted to keep the apartment warm.

Life revolved around the heaters. The toilet in winter was another story; I would run down the stairs, turn on an electric heater and close, run back up and wait 15 minutes before the I returned to use it. Once a week I would bathe at a friend's house. This was all foreign to me. And I liked it too. By mid-winter the novelty had worn off and I found that all I wanted was to turn a knob to have heat go on, and a large warm bathroom so I could shower in my own place. How many Americans lived like this, I thought. This created more questions like: What was it like to live in the former "GDR"? Or in Nazi Germany? These were all easier to understand and answer for me after moving here. Living history-and they were still changing times, 6 years after the fall of the wall.

I made friends very easily. I think mainly because I was American and people were curious about America and why I came. They were very eager to show me their lives, how they lived and how they had lived. We had long discussions about how things were, about the change from socialism to capitalism and what was good and bad about it. I learned more about life in the former East Germany by talking and seeing than from any book I had ever read.

There was also a little bit of a culture shock: I couldn't find a decent hamburger and there were no bagels. The bread was dry and hard and everyone smeared butter on their sandwiches. What a horrible combination: cheese with butter on a slice of "Mischbrot" -- which is bread made from a combination of black bread and white bread and is very dense. In contrast, there was also this white toast bread which resembled American bread, but was dry and tasteless. This white toast bread was served with everything: "Bockwurst" with white toast bread, bratwurst with white toast bread, toasted white toast bread with ham and pineapples, the list goes on.

So for an American, the idea of not being able to have a hamburger and a decent sandwich, or bagel was appalling. I looked everywhere! -- To make matters worse, there was no coffee-to-go! I think I got coffee-to-go once then and it was served in a wax cup with the wax floating on top. I really had to change my idea of life.

After almost seven years, I eventually got settled and used to the culture. I found bread I liked and the East German Doppelbrotchen which is a type of bread roll are delicious-especially when smeared with butter. The pastries were also pretty good. I got addicted to liverwurst and Doppelbrotchen, although I still hate Mischbrot. I have my choice of where I get my coffee, and bagels. The sandwiches are wonderful and served on wonderful hard chewy bread.
Now I worry that it is becoming too American ;-)
Author: Raymond Romanos