Deutschland verlassen (Leaving Germany)

What dumb, blind, stupid luck I had to even be here at all. What luxury, what privilege! To be an American woman wandering around in such a place, so rich in history and so adjacent but foreign in culture and language.

I had only ever noted Dresden before in the name of the cabaret-rock band The Dresden Dolls. The name refers to the porcelain dolls that were a hallmark of pre-war Dresden, while also evoking the destruction of the bombing of Dresden. I knew that Vonnegut had written about it in Slaughterhouse Five in a traumatic account, and I knew that the city had been bombed during the war. In the documentary Unstuck in Time about Kurt Vonnegut’s life, Vonnegut recalls first riding into Dresden by train and seeing it as a vision of paradise. The shots displayed of Dresden from that time (early 1940s) are stunning and evocative of joy, paradise, and possibility.

Dresden was unkind to me when I first arrived. During my first weeks here, I was belligerently harassed by a train patrol officer for accidentally purchasing the wrong ticket, my delivery man barged into my house and backed me into a wall while flirting with me in my broken German, a valuable decade-long friendship came to a halting stop over a petty miscommunication, I was followed home by a complete stranger. Worst of all, my only friend in Dresden refused to acknowledge my rejection of his romantic/physical advances and then started stalking me at home and at work. I have learned that when being a foreigner, especially in a country like Germany, in a place like Dresden (where no one in bureaucracy speaks English), and especially as a single woman, relying on male friends or acquaintances for help can be a very dangerous situation. And all of this is really only the beginning — in the year (and some change) that I have lived in Dresden, I have faced horrifying sexual harassment, baffling narrow-mindedness, grave emotional abuse, profound alienation, and scary boundary violations in Dresden. Consequently I carry an emergency alarm in my purse, hold my keys between my fingers for a couple of blocks before I reach my house while walking home alone at night, and I push the door to my apartment complex closed behind me. Any woman reading this will likely know how this feels.

Despite its ugly side, Dresden was also a city where I met extraordinary women who inspire me immensely. I met young feminists who are so fierce and strong who helped me to laugh about how absurd the world can be to live in as a woman. These women remind me to stay strong, and to keep valuing myself. In their company, I do not feel ashamed for having had tough experiences. I feel embraced and held up to keep growing and to fill the shoes of my deepest wisdom and compassion. I’ve felt a comradery here with these women that has been absolutely life-changing.

Dresden is also a profoundly beautiful city. It’s wondrous and majestic, like I remember Disney World feeling when I was four years old. The path along the Elbe river makes you want to frolic about and pretend it is summer even in the heights of winter. The skies of Dresden are magnificent, often with one side appearing as pastel blue as a fairytale illustration while the other direction is dark and doomsday like an apocalyptic film. The old town is towering and intimidating. There is one building with black, robed figures (gargoyles, I suppose) with hoods peering down at you from above in a fantastically daunting and gothically mysterious way. (I have likely remember-imagined them to be scarier than they actually are, but anyone looking at an image of this building could easily believe that they are as scary as I describe.) Medieval knights with shields and swords guard the archway entrance leading into…the old palace grounds? (Honestly, I am not so sure.) The Heide forrest, which is enormous and mostly surrounds the entire city, is always near enough to feel transported into the wilderness and out of the city.

My favorite place in Dresden is this point next to the stream in the Heide underneath the giant traffic overpass. It feels like the meeting between two worlds, and going there I sometimes think of Orpheus going into the underworld to rescue Eurydice. In this case, I feel like I am rescuing the parts of myself that are still wild. This point is the meeting between the city above (distantly heard through the sounds of wind blowing against fast-moving cars 100 meters above) and the wilderness below. The sounds of the rushing stream and the sounds of the traffic so far above blend together into one and at times battle for dominance. The happiest dogs I’ve ever seen prance around as though everyone should learn from them how to be joyous in life. Some carry giant wooden branches and somehow always maintain a safe distance from their humans, stopping to glance back and pause as the humans approach before moving on. Kids squeal in delight and play in the dirt. Often, there will be a woman or a group of women quietly singing meditation chants or Irish folk style music, and it is utterly delightful.

I must go to bed for now. I will continue writing this post throughout next week.

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