(Photo taken by yours truly in 2006 when I first arrived. This Karl Marx Monument measures 13 metres high and weighs 40 tonnes and is the second largest monument of Karl Marx in the world.)
Chemnitz, formerly known as Karl Marx Stadt (Karl Marx city).
I’m standing with two loaded cases, the really big family sized ones not the little travel ones, one of the wheels on one of the cases is totally fucked, it doesn’t roll properly and my arms feel like I’ve been on a stretching wrack for the past 2 days. I have my laptop case around my neck, a heavy rucksack on my back; pretty much the bare essentials plus a few kitchen sinks because if you know me well enough I don’t pack light and like to be prepared for everything including the bubonic plague should it resurface. I’m probably carrying near to 100 kg of shit I admittedly don’t need (later I’d find out that no one in Chemnitz wears stilettos and sexy dresses for going out so I definitely didn’t need those) and I haven’t eaten or slept much in the last 24 hours.
There’s something about being tall and crammed into a tiny seat on several buses and a train that makes travelling as cheap as possible totally uncomfortable for the tall clans. My back, oh my God, my back aches at this point so much. It’s pouring with rain. I mean torrential. And the sight that greets me, the end destination where I am about to spend the next 9 months and where I am to figure myself out and what I want to do with my life, isn’t exactly what I imagined and my heart just sinks. The rain slaps me left, right and centre forcing me to get my ass moving, the sky is black and moody and my spirit for adventure just quietens. I take a deep breath in, heavily sigh and start trudging along the very grey, very bleak, washed-out street to the city centre past all the road works, loud drills and workmen and past the fresh blocks of grey concrete stacked on the sun-bleached pavement, lugging my gear behind me exhausted and aching and thinking, where the hell did I just land? One thing that I keep thinking to myself is where is all the green? Where is the colour? It’s like someone bleached the city. Did Murky Dismal (Rainbow Brite) unleash his wrath on this city? I’m a West Sussex girl. Google it. I’m used to an overload of rich neon bright colours, green lawns, greeny-blue and sometimes murky brown sea, an abundance of fresh blooms and neighbours competing for “best garden” award. West Sussex, for its array of bold vivid colours, is how I’d imagine a drug addict high on LSD sees the world. This was no West Sussex. I didn’t have any LSD either.
My Wessi German friends later described Chemnitz as being “am Arsch der Welt” (literally translated “in the arse of the world” but we use the term, “out in the sticks and “at the back of the beyond”) that is once they looked Chemnitz up on the map to see where the hell it was. No one had heard of it. I continued on the one main long road from the train station (HBF along Straße der Nationen) straight into the city centre passing a gigantic statue of Karl Marx’s head on the right, raising eyebrows and thinking, whoa. Then the penny dropped. I wasn’t in Germany. I’d landed in a former soviet city that just kinda got stuck there even though the Berlin Wall had long gone. Despite that it was 2006, the way people were dressed I thought I was back in the 80’s. From awful colour splattered streaks in bad haircuts, mohawks and piercings to washed-out shell suits, big army style boots with khaki camouflage trousers to old faded ripped jeans and black / beige boob tubes. I just absorbed all that my eyes were seeing and tried to process it and figure out where I was. Where the hell the UK’s British Council Teaching Program had God damn sent me. First impressions.
I didn’t really have a plan. I didn’t know what I was actually doing.
I’d just failed my German grammar and translation exam for the 3rd time and the Uni told me I could either repeat another year or leave with a HND (Higher National Diploma). I’d scored enough credits for an Associate’s Degree. I was spent. I’d repeated first year already and the prospect of repeating the second was nauseating. I’d have to resit every unit and exam I’d passed just to redo the two exams I’d failed. Again. I’d been struggling with emotional issues, health problems, family stress, student finance and on every level I was done, exhausted, finito. I took the HND and seeing as I had a work placement arranged anyway for Germany I figured I’d just run away to Germany, try to hammer the Grammar there (because I really really hate failing) and I’d see where life took me. I was gonna wing it. I was newly single, totally messed up and scared shitless. And at the beginning of my long winded 24 hours-3 buses-and-a-train-ride journey, that very morning I was about to set off, the school where I was supposed to be teaching for the next 9 months phoned me and asked me when I was due to arrive then continued to inform me that the teacher who was supposed to have organized my accommodation, to welcome me and introduce me to the school and show me around was no longer employed at the school. That nothing had been arranged. The teacher phoning me had just seen a memo stuck to a piece of paper saying something along the lines of, “British teaching assistant due to arrive in September, please sort.”
So I was homeless too. And I had an entire 24 hours to dwell on this and come up with a plan.
Once I hit the city centre I found a travel agents and asked for hotels in Chemnitz that were as cheap as possible. I ended up getting a taxi to some industrial estate far out of town and stayed in an Ibis. No kettle, no fridge, nothing. With my gluten intolerance and this only being 2006 where the term “gluten free” was not yet an overused marketing pitch, this was going to be challenging to feed myself. I dumped my stuff there, headed to a petrol station shop to buy chocolate and crisps for dinner and crashed. It took two weeks of walking on foot into town every day (40 mins each way) to sit in an internet café at 1 EURO per 30 minutes hunting for somewhere to live (no smart phones or wireless internet back then kids). I even dragged my shit to Frankenberg and stayed in a local B & B run by an eccentric cat lady to contemplate finding a flat there. After a few very shady, expensive (pay as you go British network!) phone calls, weird flat viewings and desperation leaking out of every orifice I eventually found somewhere. And even then it was only a temporary 3 month contract while a student was abroad. In 3 months I’d have to move again. I took it as it was the only option I had. The university dorms were full as the new semester had started and the woman working in the housing office on campus was the rudest most horrible person I’d encountered in a long time. I only had 600 GBP (the last of what I had in savings) but it was tied up in Thomas Cook Traveler’s cheques. I went to Reisebank AG and tried to change them but they couldn’t take them. I had no idea back then that 10 years later I’d be working for that bank! Apparently I needed to open a bank account in order to cash the cheques, but I couldn’t get an account unless I had a rent agreement with a permanent address but I couldn’t get the rent agreement until I’d paid the deposit which was tied up in Traveler’s cheques. Frigging nightmare! Catch 22. I eventually pleaded with Sparkasse (worst bank with ridiculous rates) to change them and they backed me into a corner and said only if I open an account with them. You also have to pay for current accounts here in Germany which was new to me and they charge you for paying cash into your own bank account! Rip off!
Starting off in Chemnitz was like a novice taking on extreme rock climbing alone and not having a clue what to do. Moving abroad to a new city where you know no one and no one speaks English was not like going to uni and not like traveling.
Everything was tough. Nothing went right. Everything was always complicated or needed five attempts. I was alone, I didn’t know a soul. I was working in a town called Frankenberg but this was a tiny village with nothing there so I lived in Chemnitz and commuted 30 mins by train every day for work. I joined a few clubs and societies, enrolled at the uni for some grammar classes and took up some Russian again. I moved flats again and again. I met and made some new friends and tried to focus on teaching and figuring out what I wanted to do. I didn’t like Chemnitz but I was stuck there for 9 months so decided to try to make the best out of a shit situation but I vowed to myself I wouldn’t be staying there for long. As soon as the 9 months were up I was moving on and getting out of dodge.
Little did I know that I’d actually end up living there for 8 years (2006-2008 / 2011-2017), would be married there, would go through the toughest most-saddest part of my life there, would lose close friends and family and be more isolated than ever. That I would fail more times than ever before, that I’d be so broke I’d struggle to put food on the table, and eventually my marriage would fall apart there too. Had I known that beforehand would I have moved there? It’s hard to say and I can’t change the past. I’m a believer of things happen for a reason. But what I do know is that just like in the military when you go through basic training, Chemnitz broke me to my very core. It tested me, it tormented me and it smashed every entitled, selfish and judgmental bone in my body. It bent me and broke me until I learned how to build myself up all over again and survive the grueling years that I endured. It taught me how to cope on my own, how to budget financially, it taught me that life wasn’t like in the movies or a fairy tale. It taught me to be humble, to respect people and to be thankful for the smallest acts of kindness and generosity. In the last 10+ years I’ve survived many things that most are fortunate never to experience in their entire lifetimes. It’s been a real rollercoaster and with much sadness. Chemnitz, depending on how you look at it perhaps was part of the big plan. Maybe I had to go to hell and back to learn and be prepared for what is to come next and to be grateful for the little things in life. And when the time was right, Chemnitz would finally let me go. It would open the door and say, you’re ready and I’d be allowed to leave and finally move on.
Fast forward 11 years.
As I pack up my belongings, all that I own and the little that I own, I realise I am packing up an entire decade of my life and closing the door on a huge chapter. I am starting all over and emotionally this is tough. I’ve cried several rivers. The plans I had and the future I once imagined won’t be coming true. I’m leaving all those memories behind and saying goodbye. I’m leaving my husband here in the East. I’m saying goodbye to the Eastern crowd, to the crazy awful haircuts, to the bad fashion, to the lack of good waxing salons, to the lack of decent restaurants and bars. I’m saying adios to the frequent brawls between immigrants and right wing protests against refugees. I’m saying goodbye to every company that rejected my application and told me I don’t fit in. I’m saying ciao to the lack of polite customer service (which I won’t miss) and lastly, do svidaniya (“be seeing you” in Russian) to all my lovely customers and colleagues I have had the pleasure of working with and the couple of friends who are still hanging around Chemnitz, who I shall miss dearly!
But the chance for a new start, a new beginning is in front of me and if I don’t take it, I’m afraid I’ll be stuck in Chemnitz for another decade and be no further forward. I feel trapped in Chemnitz and need freedom. I need to feel free. It’s something important to me. To feel free, not chained down and not judged. To be allowed to be me, to be in a safe space to be myself and be accepted as I am. I need to spread my wings and explore . I feel I am in stagnant waters. I need to accomplish my goals. I need to be inspired and inspire others. I need to feel worthy and successful in my professional and personal life by reaching my goals and fulfilling my dreams. I need contact to fellow native speakers, more open minded, liberal people. I need to live near water and have colour in my life. (I grew up on the beach!) I need to head West and have been working and striving for this since the moment I arrived in Chemnitz so I’d be a fool not to jump at the chance to leave. The train is finally leaving and by God I’m going to be on it. In 2016 I was fortunate to land a part time job at Reisebank AG and a year later this led to me securing a full time position in the company but in another branch. I now have the opportunity to move out of Chemnitz, to finally move West and to earn proper money and get on my feet. I’m moving to Wiesbaden and will be working in Mainz and I can’t wait. Everything is going right. It’s going to plan, so far no hiccups or problems albeit a few hundred tonnes worth of stress but it’s as if it was meant to be. Destiny is calling and I’m listening and finally able to go.
So as I pack up my apartment for the 13th time, (the 3rd time within 11 months) and prepare to move, I recollect on all the memories I am leaving behind. All the friends who have long since left Chemnitz and all the trials I have overcome. I feel blessed to have this opportunity to move. I feel sad at what would not be between my husband and I and I feel uncertain of the unknown and what will happen but I know that having endured Chemnitz for 8 years, I am ready to face anything and have the tools, komwledge and strength to survive. I know how I tick. I can also speak better German and know how to pack light-er. 😉 I know how to start all over alone in a new place. But this time I’m not scared. I stand strong and confident and thank Chemnitz for all that it taught me. I can’t say for certain that I will go back to visit because emotionally and mentally the memories are sad and painful. They are still raw and I need time to heal but my motto is, “never say never” so maybe it will be as the Germans say, “Auf Wiedersehen” (until we see each other again).