Monday, February 27, 2012

Lost In Leipzig

By Heidi Noroozy

City Tower, Leipzig
Photo by Dundak
Everyone should get lost in a foreign country at least once in life. It’s the best way to discover the heart of a place, the cultural gems that don’t make it into the guide books: a tiny restaurant without a menu in English translation, a roadside shrine to a local saint, a pretty park where you can watch the life of the city ebb and flow around you. I’ve gotten lost like this more times than I can count, but one experience stands out from all the rest – the cold day in February when I discovered a rare private bakery in the heart of Communist Leipzig.

I wasn’t a tourist but a student living in a city steeped in history. Leipzig once was home to the likes of Bach and Mendelsohn, and it inspired Goethe to write his masterpiece, Faust. By the time I lived there, though, Leipzig had lost its mojo. The Auerbachskeller, which Goethe used as a setting in Faust, still existed and so did the St. Thomas Church where Bach worked as musical director. But for the most part, Leipzig had become a city of soot-stained buildings and filthy air, polluted by the coal refineries just outside town.

Every chance I got, I’d go exploring and try to find a hint of the grand old days. Usually, I managed to find my way around with a good map and directions from the locals. But one day, I got completely lost. It was the dead of winter, the sideways slick with gray slush, the chill air freezing my breath into clouds of steam. I wandered through streets that all seemed to have the same small grocery stores with half empty shelves, the same stout matrons sweeping debris off their stoops, the same ethnic restaurants where all you could get was German food, due to the scarcity of imported ingredients.

Factory Bakery in Leipzig, GDR
Photo by Deutsche Fotothek
Then I rounded a corner and smelled a rare scent: freshly baked bread. In a country whose bakers are famous for their bread, the smell of baking shouldn’t be unusual in the least. But in East Germany, bread, like most products, was usually manufactured in state-run factories. The shop on the street where I lived carried two kinds – oval rye loaves the locals called Graubrot (gray bread, on account of the color) and occasional rectangular bricks of a heavy, multigrain variety. In both cases, the loaves arrived from the state-run bakery wrapped in brown paper and were usually well past their peak freshness. A private bakeshop, with its wares baked right on the premises, was a discovery worth getting excited about.

On that wintry day, I followed my nose until I saw a line of people snaking down the sidewalk. It was eleven in the morning, only an hour until every shop closed their doors for the obligatory midday break. But nothing ventured, nothing gained, so I took my place at the end of the line.

Forty minutes later, I made it through the door into the warm, delicious-smelling bakery. The shelves were alarmingly bare. But my hopes sprung eternal as I inched ever closer to the counter. Only to be dashed when the baker sold her last loaf to a customer just ahead of me in line. The rest of us were told to come back the next day.

The bakery opened at six in the morning. I arrived shortly after five (yes, I was desperate). A line had already started to form, but this time I was in luck and left the shop with a rye loaf under my arm, still warm from the oven.

Photo by Rainer Zenz
Later, I learned an interesting fact about the GDR’s private economy. Although the state owned most businesses, anyone could open a private company as long as it employed fewer than fifteen people. With fresh bread such an important element of German culture, it still amazes me that there weren’t private bakeries on every street corner. Leipzig, a city of around 50,000 inhabitants, had only three.

It’s been thirty years since I found my private bakery, but I still remember the taste of that fresh, loaf with its firm texture and chewy crust, just like a good German rye bread should be. So I’m not at all sorry I got lost on that cold day in Leipzig.


  1. Heidi’s story reminded me of one of my lost adventures;
    It was back in 1984 when I had a fellowship to study Polish folk arts in the mountaintop village of Istebna Poland. I had just arrived in the country with very limited language skills and was struggling to fit into this strange new land, when my teacher, Jozef Broda, asked me to join him on a walk through the woods to shop in the town store.

    We walked just a short distance on the main road and then headed into the woods. Jozef was telling me about all the native trees and mushrooms and he kept asking me, “Are you paying attention?” I told him, "yes" and he kept walking, twisting and turning our way through the thick forest. We finally came out of the woods and walked down to the center of the town. We walked into the store, where the shelves were almost bare, but there were a few items left including two long sausages hanging from a meat hook. Jozef remembered that we had to mail a letter, so we went next door to the post office. When we returned Jozef's face dropped. We looked up and saw that the sausages were gone, with only two tiny ends of meat left suspended from the hook. Jozef sadly filled the knapsack we were carrying with a few loaves of bread and some vegetables. As we walked out the door he said, “I have some business to take care of, so I want you to walk back home with this knapsack, by yourself. You were paying attention, weren’t you?”

    He then jumped onto a bus and disappeared into the hills. I didn't know my way back on the main road so I had only one choice and that was to go back the way I came, through the woods. At first I was angry. I had only been here a few days, a stranger in a strange land, and now I had to find my way home on my own. Then, I stood on a high hill, and I could see the school in the distance. It looked far but if I could navigate my way down the hill, then through the woods, I thought I could make it. It took me about a half hour or so to get down the hill. By then it was getting dark and I still had to get through the woods. As I slowly retraced our trail my mind flashed back to our journey in. Was it at this tree we turned, or was it that one? I concentrated slowly working my way through the tall spruce trees. At last I saw the opening to the main road, with the school just ahead. I had made it.

    Josef’s wife scolded him for leaving me behind. Josef said, "Life is Hard. It was good for him to learn that, even in an unfamiliar place, you can find your way, if you pay attention to your surroundings”
    At the time it seemed like a very harsh lesson, but as the years passed I have come to realize that by paying attention to my surroundings I can always find my way back from where I came!

  2. Now that was tough love! And confidence in your abilities. He'd have gone back looking for you if you hadn't made it back, wouldn't he? But it was a lesson worth learning. Thanks for sharing the story, Rik.

    1. It certainly was a lesson worth learning! Great story, Rik! I'll bet you became the designated navigator on all your later adventures, huh? :)

  3. There are few things better than fresh baked bread!!! Interesting restriction of fifteen people, maximum, for private companies back then, just curious why fifteen? As for getting lost in foreign countries, it can be very interesting but also very scary!. Got lost in Turin, Italy and I could have done without the menacing people who shooed us away and the others who did not restrain their dogs when they growled at us, it was a culture shock for me, we don't treat people like that at home. In the end though, most of the people were very friendly, we saw places we would not have otherwise and using sign language and possibly the most horribly put together phrases we eventually found our way. It made for great memories though and I got lost in the next country I visited!

  4. Sangeeta, you're right, it can be scary too. In an unfamiliar city, you don't always know where the unsafe neighborhoods lie. I don't know why the GDR authorities picked 15 as the maximum number of employees for private enterprises, only that they discouraged private business altogether. An all to capitalist notion for the Communists, I suppose. They were trying to build a socialist consciousness, and private enterprise didn't fit with that ideal.

  5. I love your image of following your nose to find the fresh bread. In Italian towns (and even cities), I always find the market by watching for middle-aged women pulling full shopping carts. By walking in the direction they are coming from, I ALWAYS find the market.

  6. I love bakeries period. Anywhere. Have you ever noticed they're always different, wherever you are, but they are always comforting? Though Heidi, I'm trying to picture you, a young American woman, having to stand in a long Communist-era breadline.... don't you have pictures of this, looking hungry and sad? ;)

  7. Better than a map, right, Patricia? :) I did a lot of following people with groceries in the GDR too. Especially if they had something rare, like bananas.

    Supriya, I'm afraid I have no pictures of me standing in long lines. Just the memories in my head. We should do a whole topic on bakeries.