Hey Gorgeous!

Being in arty Leipzig, an East German city, is like being in the company of a beautiful woman,
writes Nishiraj A. Baruah.

 

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“You ok? You so quiet!” Radhika Krishnan, the Indian representative of German National Tourist Board,
asks me. “Oh, I am fine. Just that didn’t sleep too well last night,” I lie. How can I announce my awkward situation to this pretty woman? How can I tell her that at this moment I am the most desperate man
on the planet? Leave alone taking part in a conversation, I can’t even stand still. So, I pace up and down the railway platform, trying hard to distract my mind. The pressure is just too much. Any moment no,
my loaded bladder is going to burst.

Rage against the machine
Not that this massive station in Hamburg do not have any loos. I go to one only to find that you need to drop a 50 cent coin in a machine before the loo door opens. I fumble in my wallet. No, I have none. All I find are a couple of Indian circulars: So I drop a five rupee coin. The machine swallows it, only to gurgle it out soon after. Maybe it’s too small in size. How a bout the bigger two-rupee coin? But this no nonsense German machine won’t be fooled. Oh, how I miss India – you can do it anywhere, anytime. No crime, no fine.

There will be a loo in there for sure. At least I can trust my train to come on time. In Germany, arrivals and departures are so precisely timed that these are counted exact to the minute: 10.11 am, 14.32 pm and so on. As expected, my train arrives dot at 10.37 am. Like a tornado I dive in to the loo on board. Oooffff, it is divine.

I can now enjoy the scenery outside: the windmills and the cute villages, as I make my way to Leipzig (Leipsic in English ), an East German city that played a significant role in the fall of communism. The
train finally zips into a grand railways station complete with three floors of mall underground. Soon we
check into the warmth of a lovely 5 star boutique hotel called Furstenhof. Post lunch, we set out to
explore this city which, following the Battle of the Nations, ended Napoleon‘s run of conquest in Europe.

IMG_1472Mad man’s message
Everyone in the market turns back, shocked into silence. What’s that voice? Where is it coming from? And then we see: a large man — muscular, tattooed and shaven headed — forces his way through the crowd like a Tsunami, his hands up in the air, shouting in
German, loud and clear, to no one in particular. Is he an actor enacting a street play? “Who is he? What’s he saying?” I ask my guide. “Oh nothing,” she tries to dismiss, “he is mad man. Always here in this market.” But what is he saying? I insist. She hesitates, then translates: “There’s no escape. You are going to rot in hell.”

Bombed, but beautiful
Our German guide may like to sweep such flaws under the carpet, but these are the sidelights that reveal a city’s true character. And in no way rob a city off its charm. Complete with opera houses, gold-domed historical churches, pebbled streets lined by cafes, stylish shoppers, Leipzig disarms you with an unpretentious smile. In fact, you will have absolutely no idea that during World War II, this city was
heavily bombed.

Of course, Leipzig rebuilt itself soon after the Reunification of Germany, it’s historical buildings restored to full glory. The St. Thomas Church, famous as the place where classical maestro Bach worked as a
choirmaster until his death in 1750, is a good example. Indeed, being in this city is like being in the
company of a beautiful woman.

IMG_1553Walking with a blonde
I should know because I am, in fact, in the company of one now. Blonde and beautiful, I walk alongside Steffi Gretschel from Leipzig Tourism Office, as she introduces her city to us. “Know what, Leipzig was the headquarters of the German book publishing industry from the 18th century through World War II …” Fine, but I would rather know more about her. Her life in Leipzig.

“Are you married?” I ask, hoping she isn’t.
“No,” she says.
“You?”
“I’m” I say, almost tempted to avoid an answer.
“But I have a boyfriend. I live with him,” she adds.
“So, when will you get married?”
“Is it important to get married?”
“Well, we Indians tend to think so.”
“In Germany,” she says, “so many people are getting married and then divorced. So what’s the point?”
“What about babies? You don’t want them?”
“Do you need to get married to have babies??”

Thus talking, we soon find ourselves in front of a towering skyscraper, the shape of which is supposed
to look like an open book. However, the common Leipziger has found a more convincing analogy and
nicknamed the building Weisheitszahn (Wisdom Tooth). Stepping into an elevator, we rocket our way
up to a roof top restaurant with a sweeping view of the beautiful town below. The restaurant manager ushers us in: “Welcome to the highest point of Leipzig. You are on the 36th floor.”

Message in a bottle? No, the bottle is the message
“Wine? Water?” the waiter asks.
“Water, please.”
“Sparkling or still?”
“Still, still,” I say.
“Room temperature or chilled?”
Now this is really bugging. “Get whatever, buddy,” I say.
A while later, he comes, two blue glass bottles in hand, and shows us the label. “Is this ok?” Now, why
is he showing me the label? I haven’t ordered for wine!
“But we asked for water,” I say.
“It is water, sir,” he offers.

Used to plastic Bisleri bottles, we don’t expect water to come packaged in such splendid wine-like bottles. And now he pours it into our glasses with such elaborate ritual that you would be forgiven for believing that it’s some kind of expensive champagne. One of these bottles now stand on my work
desk. Elegantly like a woman in stilettos. An office romance my wife doesn’t mind.

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She bares it all
Aliene Howell, 27, stands in front of a mirror and sheds her clothes off one by one. She then studies her stark-naked self carefully – the curves, the freckles, the skin texture. Then she dips a brush into a colour pot and paints on the lifesize canvas mounted on the easel. That’s how Howell does it, this small-town American artist holed up in this art camp, tells me. We are at an old cotton mill that now houses art and artists from around the world. A specialist in nudes, the walls of her room are full of naked glory. “This is me,” she points out to one of the paintings with no hint of embarrassment. I do not know how to react, but pretend to look suitably impressed. Meanwhile, the paintings of her room partner, another
American, are red with violence. “It’s probably ’coz I read newspapers too much,” she explains, as I
survey her paintings full of blood, bombs and still- borns.

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Art is everywhere
That Leipzig residents have a fine sense of art and aesthetics is visible everywhere. And you don’t really need to visit Leipzig Museum of Fine Arts to know this. In a street corner, we see a cycle shaped like an octopus. The side of a high-rise building, a potential eye sore, has been painted in vibrant patterns by a renowned artist; a wall that used to be a part of a historic building has been left like a piece of installation art. But it’s at the weekly vegetable market under a
flyover that I see their natural flair for style and order. No haggling, no shouting, no arguments here, as
farmers open the side of their Mercedes vans to display fruits, flowers, cheese, meat, fish and vegetabl. Well dressed shoppers with pretty ecofriendly bags go about picking their goods without much of a word exchanged with the stall keeper-the smile is enough. Of course, there is someone to silence them all: An accordion player delighting everyone with a composition by Bach.

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At your feet, sirs
Not surprising then, this city, ranked 68th in the world in the livable city index, has cast its spell on me. So when I hear about a belief around the statues of Mephisto and Faust (characters from Germany’s most famous play Faust by the master of German literature Goethe), located in the middle of the central market, off I go. As per the belief, if you rub the shoes of the statues, you are assured of a return visit.

For a chance to be back in Leipzig, leave alone a stone-dead statue, I am ready to be a
shoe-shine boy all my life.

Nishiraj A. Baruah

Former Executive Editor of Air India's in-flight magazine and Harper's Bazaar Bride. Lifestyle journalist, travel writer and blogger who collects knives and plays the drums.

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