Anti-travelogue: Karl-Marx-Stadt

I like to write about travel (even though most people seem to prefer to read about politics), but since at the moment I am not traveling, and talking about politics in this time can be depressing, I will write about the city where I am temporarily residing, which is not a city I like. The city was named Karl-Marx-Stadt (Karl Marx Town) during the Communist period, and I don’t know why they didn’t keep the name, since they still keep an horrendous, gigantic statue of Karl Marx as their main landmark. The name would fit well with its grey atmosphere, as the town feels like an open-air prison sometimes, especially during current “vaccine passport” times, almost as if the Berlin Wall had not fallen long ago.

It is not a beautiful city. It still has a few old buildings that are beautiful or interesting, such as a few churches or the City Hall, but they are surrounded either by ugly functional modern architecture or by remnants of Soviet-Style architecture; I’m still not sure if the modern soulless malls or the Soviet-style offices are worse. It’s not completely the city’s fault, as it was bombed during WWII then became part of Eastern Germany. On the other hand, Dresden was almost completely destroyed and also became part of Eastern Germany, but they did a good job of rebuilding and recreating its old town in the last decades, and it looks pretty good today.

To be fair, the city was more an industrial town than anything else, for decades, so perhaps it was never really beautiful. Then in the 1990s it lost a large part of its population as the old system crumbled. That’s why there are in the city a lot of abandoned buildings in complete disrepair which give it an even more depressing look (however, in recent years, you saw much more construction and renovation work going on, so perhaps it’s improving slightly on that front.)

It is, in any case, mostly a city for old people, as many of the young leave to study or work somewhere else, usually Leipzig, Dresden or Berlin.

There’s a lot of graffiti on the walls and buildings everywhere, which doesn’t improve their look. Young people wear ugly clothes and strange haircuts and listen to German rap in portable speakers. Then again, if I was young in this city I would be depressed too.

It is a weird town, that seems at the same time big and small. Like a shoe too big to wear, it feels larger than the population it contains. Walking distances between places can be long, but there are a lot of empty spaces, and the city appears mostly deserted, especially on Sundays. In most neighbourhoods, there are hardly any bars or cafes, and if there are, they are usually empty, except perhaps for a few ethnic bars frequented by the local immigrant Arab population. Perhaps a few neighbourhoods are slightly livelier, but not much. If New York is the “city that never sleeps”, this is the city that is always sleeping.

People can occasionally be polite or even sympathetic, but of course they are nowhere near as polite as in Sweden. Some people have a funny way of smiling, with the corners of the mouth going down instead of up. This happens in particular with Deutsche Bahn employees, who perhaps should be sent to Swedish Railways for a express course in politeness to customers.

Contrary to Sweden, not too many people here speak English, so they won’t understand you if you speak to them in that language, or, in many cases, pretend that they don’t. They really like their German language here. It comes from birth, I believe. I even heard a child complaining about foreigners speaking a foreign language instead of proper “Deutsch”. I suppose they are right, but it’s not an easy language to learn.

Politically, the city appears to be equally divided between Antifas and Nazis, or so it appears from the stickers you see placed everywhere around, however I am not so familiar on that subject. The current mayor is form a large centre-left party (SPD).

The main entertainment for many in town is to go to the stadium and watch the local football team and chant and get drunk, not necessarily in that order.

There are some good things. There are a few interesting cultural spots, such as an alternative theatre and an art cinema. A couple of art museums. There is a lot of green too. The local forest, Zeisigwald, is a very agreeable place to walk, and can be enchanting during any season, from summer to winter. There’s also a nice large park near the old castle, the Schlossteich, which is also good for walks.

During the winter season there used to be a traditional Christmas Market, which is always a nice thing, but that was cancelled for the last two years. (Perhaps this year people will be finally allowed to go if they can prove they took their X vaccines and their Y booster shots and wear masks and have tests. You gotta be safe, you know, the politicians and the people at Davos are worried about your health.)

A few small villages around, such as Augustusburg, just 15 km away, with a castle and a large garden, are pretty. The zone of the Erzgebirge mountains, towards the South, near the Czech border, is very famous for their handcrafted Christmas decorations such as nutcrackers, and it is a beautiful region. There are a lot of bike paths outside the city, in the countryside, so you can cycle around and go almost anywhere. It is a good program when the weather is sunny and warm, which unfortunately does not happen very frequently.

Rent is relatively cheap, at least compared to other cities in Germany. It has good schools and one good university, although more for technical courses, with almost zero options for the humanities or the arts. I suppose it could be a good, cheap, quiet place for families to raise children, if you don’t care much about living in a beautiful, lively town.

With time, however, it can become a bit depressive. Even good people who lived here for a long time tend to become grumpier or moodier as time passes. “This town has dragged you down”, as a song by The Smiths once said.

My advice would be to avoid it. Leipzig seems a much better alternative; if you prefer smaller places, then there are nice little villages around which seem to have a healthier atmosphere.

The Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, whom I mentioned in my last post, lived here for a year or two. Perhaps it was this city who inspired him to paint “The Scream”.