Wandering Dresden’s Altstadt
by Heidi Obermeyer
Whilst in Dresden I spent an afternoon wandering around the Altstadt, one of the best-preserved (or reconstructed, depending on how you look at it) examples of Baroque cityscape still standing in the world today. If you stand at a certain point in the main square in front of the Semper Opera and look around you, the city looks exactly the same as it did in the 1600’s. How cool is that?! The day that I was out the spring markets were going on and the fire department was having an open house in the city center, so there were lots of interesting old German fire trucks to check out too.
As you probably know (or are about to know, since I’m about to tell you) Dresden was firebombed to bits by the Allies in February of 1945 over the course of several days, killing at least 25,000 people. Besides the staggering loss of life, over 90% of the city center- essentially everything pictured in this post- was also destroyed. Dresden has put a lot of effort into restoring its Altstadt, and although some projects are still being worked on, major reconstructions such as the Frauenkirche (the beautiful white church above) and the Semper Opera were completed shortly before Dresden’s 800th anniversary in the early 2000’s. The Frauenkirche (Church of our Lady) in particular has a unique story- after the war, any salvageable pieces of the original church were saved and returned to their original positions as reconstruction began, which is why flecks and chunks of blackened stone dot the exterior of the church. The effect is striking, and the Frauenkirche remains one of my favorite churches in Germany, despite having seen much more of the country since I first visited Dresden in 2007. Other buildings and statues around the city also remain blackened, and one of my first faux pas in front of a group of Germans occurred during that 2007 trip and involved me telling a class of German teenagers that it was “really amazing how the city had been rebuilt” since WWII, even though for the average young German damage from WWII and talking about the Nazis is sort of irrelevant to their daily lives. It was as though someone had come into a high school classroom in the U.S. and, when asked what they liked most about visiting America, had said “I’m just really impressed how you guys bounced back from the Great Depression. Seriously! That is amazing! Great work.” Oops!
Dresden gets mentioned in (what seems to me to be) a lot of contemporary American literature. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Slaughterhouse Five both have substancial ties to Dresden somewhere in their storylines, which I think is pretty neat. The Book Thief, although it is set in Bavaria and not Dresden, has descriptions of bombings that also always remind me of Dresden (not that I was there when they happened, obviously, but Dresden is the city that I associate most with WWII bombing, and is the city where the impact of those bombings remains most visible in the reconstruction that followed).
Moving on to happier (well, maybe not happier, but more personally relevant) topics, I would like to note that although I’ve learned a lot about Germany, I never seem to fail to offend with a slip of the tongue when I’m in an unfamiliar region. Dresden is the capital of Sachsen (Saxony) and I made the very big mistake of asking if it had at any point been a part of Prussia. If there’s one thing that the very proud Bundesländer (federal states- similar to states in the U.S., but more independent) do not appreciate, it is being confused with another Bundesländer OR people assuming that they may have at one point been influenced or controlled by another Bundesländer. Tensions are particularly high between Bavaria and the rest of Germany, but other regional rivalries exist all over the country, and I obviously missed the memo on that one.
On the linguistic front, I have been struggling lately with ironing out the wrinkles in my German, in particular my ability to be tactful and polite auf Deutsch. I find myself interrupting or being too quick to answer a question when speaking with someone who’s not sure if I understand them, and I’m not really sure how to recover from that social fumble not in English. Another thing I’ve always struggled with is expressing my gratitude in German- I spend a lot of time staying at relative’s or friend’s houses, and in case you didn’t know, Germans are the most wonderful hosts. This makes for an amazing experience while staying with them, but I always have a looming sense of stress about how I will be able to thank them for their seemingly limitless hospitality at the end of my trip. It’s as if with every favor, my self-requirement for a better thank-you grows. Every time someone kindly stuffs me full of breakfast or drives me somewhere I feel like I need to add another layer of sophisticated grammatical wordplay to my goodbye at the end of the trip. I wish there was a phrase in German for, “This was absolutely amazing- you guys are so kind! Really, thank you so much!” because it would save me a serious amount of worry about if I’m being a good guest and expressing enough gratitude. So far, my meager “Vielen Dank!” seems to have sufficed, as I haven’t not been told to come back anywhere. But maybe they’re just being nice 😛