Thursday, April 14, 2011

Leipzig: An Update from the former East Germany

With Portugal following Ireland and Greece as the latest eurozone member to request a bailout from the European Union (with Spain faltering economically and Italy collapsing politically in its own increasingly strange ways) and with France and the United Kingdom leading a yet to be clearly defined NATO mission in Libya, Germany has maintained economic, financial, and political composure during the tumult of the first few months of 2011 and is transforming into a reluctant superpower of Europe.  Recently diverging with its NATO allies by abstaining from the Libya vote while also being accused of economic bullying through its design and compulsory implementation of economic bailout terms and conditions to the most fragile eurozone members, cautious, pragmatic, and fiscally responsible Germany seems to be among one of the only nations in Europe right now that is not embroiled in the hyperbolic semantics of military interventionism or domestic economic catastrophe.  Furthermore, following the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan, Germany is leading the way in Europe for alternative renewable energy sources, making an example of itself by shutting down 7 nuclear plants, much to the chagrin of France who relies on nuclear energy for nearly 75 percent of that country’s energy. 
Through all of this Germany is taking a considerable amount of criticism from its friends and neighbors for both its perceived actions and inactions.  In fact, when it comes to the eurozone, Germany seems to be edging closer towards isolation from former partners, assuming sole economic supremacy and overstepping France as the traditional and historic pillar of stability in Europe’s currency union.  As events continue to unfold in Europe and indeed throughout the rest of the world, it will be intriguing to watch how Germany approaches her potential new role, likely with a continued balance of hesitance and decisiveness.
Having traveled to Germany numerous times, mostly for work, I have appreciated the efficiency and productivity that seems to lack in many other markets in which I have conducted business which is why I never mind coming back here.  I think I have probably been to every corner of Germany at this point with Leipzig finally rounding it out last week.  Last year I had a work engagement in Dresden during the dead of winter and last week returned to the Saxony region of Germany for another assignment.  Since I had spent a considerable enough amount of time in Dresden last year I only stayed there one night on this trip and was able to base myself about an hour west in Leipzig.  Ranked as one of the New York Times top places to visit in 2010, I was curious to see what all of the hype was about surrounding this city.  It was also an opportunity to experience another city in the former East Germany and to compare against what I already knew of Dresden and for the cities of the former West Germany.     
Leipzig combines the edginess of Berlin with the Saxon history of Dresden, offering little that one would come to know of other German cities such as Hamburg, Cologne, Frankfurt or Munich.  Because of this Leipzig is truly unique and often feels more Eastern European than it does Western, certainly a nod to its more recent history as a post-war industrial outpost of the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War.  Gritty and developing, the cities of the former East Germany are almost nothing like their western counterparts and there is a tremendous amount of treasure and effort being spent on bringing this region in line with the rest of Germany.  Characteristics that I have come to know and associate with Germany as a whole are less apparent in places like Leipzig and Dresden.
Overall, I am still surprised by how cheap east Germany is in contrast to west Germany.  After over two decades since reunification, remnants of communist architecture and planning are abundant, but investment and modernization programs do seem to be working for the most part.  Unemployment in Leipzig however still hovers above 20 percent, which is over twice the national average and the standard of living still remains considerably lower than in the rest of the country.  In many ways, the wealthier and developed cities of in former West Germany still feel like a different world from places like Leipzig and Dresden in the former East Germany.  There is still plenty of work to do, but I am impressed with how far they have come with the development programs up to this point.  
Where Goethe wrote Faust in Leipzig
While Germany continues to invest aggressively in the former East in order to raise it to the standards of the West, it now seems to be expanding its burden of teacher, disciplinarian, and guardian to the rest of Europe as well, albeit reluctantly.  Memories of the first half of the twentieth century are still fresh and the Germany of the twenty-first century seems eager to avoid any comparison or likeness to the darker version of past.  Although this is natural and probably a well-balanced and much needed humility required for strong leadership, it would be a shame if Germany allows the fears and anxieties of its own history to prevent it from commanding the much needed voice of pragmatism, stability, and discipline in a European currency union that is edging ever closer towards irrelevance and illegitimacy (outside of the core countries of course).  With their inconsistent handling of the financial crises of the last several years and their confused diplomatic responses to the revolutions of the Arab Spring, Europe should be doing a better job both economically and politically.  The European Union should be a powerful performer on the world stage and it looks like Germany might need to take control of the show, even if she doesn’t want to.    
PS – It has been an incredibly busy start to the year and even busier since arriving back from Brazil.  Below are some snapshots and captions from some work trips over the First Quarter 2011.      
Certainly more industrial than Nice, Marseilles has a unique vibe all its own which is very separate from anything else I have seen in France.  As a major port city and with a very large Arab and African population, these influences are seen throughout town and in its architecture and food.  If you can afford it, try the local Bouillabaisse which Marseilles is famous for.  I tried to go to Chez Fon Fon which comes highly recommended, but they were closed for lunch unfortunately so I would suggest calling ahead before making the trek out there.     
Lastly, earlier this year in Brussels, I was able to pay an old favorite spot of mine a visit.  A couple of years ago my Dad and I went on a beer trip to Belgium and stumbled upon a quaint, local little beer house called “Au Bon Vieux Temps”.  We spent the afternoon drinking fantastic Belgian beers and mingling with the locals along with the charming owner, Madame Trieste.  When I found this place from memory and presented my face after two years I was happy to see Madame Trieste in good form and was surprised that she remembered my Dad and I very well.  After a couple of rounds of Westleveren on the house, her welcome back gift to me, I headed back to my hotel, quite pleased that I now had myself a “local” pub in Brussels. 

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