How many students get to visit a completely different world? I did just that, back in the 1980s when I travelled from Thatcher’s Britain to Communist East Germany as part of my modern languages degree at University of St. Andrews.
St. Andrews itself was a bit of another world to me. Coming from a Lanarkshire new town, I’d rarely met anyone who voted Tory, went to a private school or spoke with a plummy accent until I pitched up in the Kingdom of Fife. St. Andrews pullulated with people who did all three.
A fish out of water, I became a bit bolshie. I joined the socialist group, penned articles about ANC benefit gigs for the student newspaper – garnering accusations of supporting terrorism from some of the many right-wingers at ‘St Andy’s’ – and generally spent a lot of time sounding off.
The moment of truth came in my third year. I was due to spend a term in Germany and had been telling anyone who’d listen how disgraceful I thought it was that we had to go to West Germany. Why couldn’t we go to East Germany? One day a new member of the German department buttonholed me in the corridor. Did I really want to go to East Germany, he asked, or was I just being, you know, difficult? It turned out this new guy had done his DPhil in Leipzig. If I really wanted to go to East Germany he could organise a place at Leipzig University for me.
Did I want to go to Leipzig? Where was Leipzig? East Germany was just a blur on the map to me. Of course I did! And I wasn’t alone. Two other students signed up for a term at the Karl-Marx-University, Leipzig, as well, and so it was that Rachel, Mark and I found ourselves trundling towards the Iron Curtain on March 26 1986. It was only when we got to the border that we realised the enormity – and potential stupidity – of what we’d done. Grim-faced guards. Sniffer dogs on chains. Search lights and rolls of barbed wire. It was not what you might call fun. When we arrived in Leipzig, we received a po-faced introductory lecture from our ‘Betreuer’ (a kind of minder) – a greasy little man with a nasal voice. He reminded us that we came from a NATO country and the German Democratic Republic was a Warsaw Pact country. I remember feeling quite scared.
That was the one and only time I felt fear in the GDR. It was a nasty little dictatorship run, in the main, by a bunch of paranoid old men holed up in a secure compound on the outskirts of Berlin. At Volvograd, as it was known colloquially, they allegedly guzzled imported wines and ogled Russian porn. But like all dictatorships, the GDR was stuffed full of paper tigers.
People certainly were scared of the Stasi – it was a word you didn’t say out loud – but the Stasi was also ridiculous. Its Leipzig headquarters bristled with an absurd embarrassment of aerials. (Though it was perhaps no more absurd that today’s MI6 building on the Thames.) The student spies with whom we westerners shared a building were hilariously clumsy in their efforts to get information from us. One night one of them got drunk and confessed to a friend of mine that she’d been writing reports on her. Today, we have those reports. They contain such earth-shattering gems of intelligence as: “Her relationship with her parents is in her own words ‘quite good’ but she doesn’t want to live with them any more.”
I don’t want to play down the negative aspects of the GDR. People suffered under the East German regime in ways that cannot be excused. But for a 21 year old Scots girl with a lively imagination, East Germany was a paradise of possibilities.
It’s true that life there wasn’t as comfortable materially as in Scotland, though it was far from grim. In Leipzig, I shared a room with three other students. We slept in bunk beds and shared a shower and kitchen with several other quartets. The food was terrible and the coffee tasted like mud. It was difficult to phone home. I had to go to the post office and request a line out to the UK. It often took a while to get through, and when you did you always heard the little click that meant the Stasi had joined the call.
But this was more thrilling than frightening. The other students in my room were hardly ever there. The beer was good, and I developed a liking for red cabbage and Solyanka, a spicy Russian soup available in every restaurant and café.
In any case, any material deficits were more than made up for by the sheer excitement of the place. Departure boards at the train station read Warsaw, Sofia and Prague, not Arbroath and Dundee. I met people from Poland, Afghanistan, Laos and North Korea, not Surrey and Kent. I don’t remember ever going to any classes, though I must have done, but I do remember being taken dancing at the Interhotel by a handsome Algerian and going with my sort-of boyfriend, who was a sort-of dissident, to underground clubs where you tapped on the door and said the password.
The GDR has another charm too. In the UK, there were three million unemployed, and the political elite’s love affair with the free market was in full swing. In East Germany, there was no unemployment and money was not king.
By the time I left Leipzig, my German had improved a hundredfold thanks to nights of drunken debate in smoky squats amidst the city’s crumbling tenements. I’d been places – Dresden, Prague, East Berlin – I’d never been before and I saw the world in a different way. People behind the Iron Curtain were Europeans just like me, I’d come to realise, and if they’d been socialised in a particular way, then so had I. I knew the Stasi must open my letters home, but my post also arrived in Lanarkshire stamped ‘Cheltenham’. I’d been brought up to think the British won the war; East Germans were told the Russians did. The truth lay somewhere in the middle.
I had the time of my life in Leipzig. The year before I’d been in Paris. Paris was boring. On November 9 it will be 25 years since the Berlin Wall came down. I’ve been back to Leipzig and the eastern part of Berlin many times since then, always looking for traces of before.
When I came to write my first novel, it seemed natural to base it a city that had such an impact on me. The characters and events are entirely fictional, of course, but lots of the details are based on memories. The book is, in many ways, an ode to a very different world – now gone – and to what was and remains a magical city in the east.
The Leipzig Affair will be published on October 30.