One of our goals at Eight Hours and Change is to give prospective students a sense of life here in Germany. To that end, we'll offer a series of blog posts that offer different perspectives from both Americans and Germans who have lived and studied. The first post in this series is from Brian Bell, an American from Texas who fell in love with Germany many years ago and who currently leads a theater company in the historic city of Weimar.
When I was 14, in my very first semester of High School German, I had to memorize one of Goethe’s poems and recite it in front of the class. The poem was called Freudvoll und Leidvoll, from Goethe’s Edgmont. I barely understood the words but the form, the sounds, the strangeness of the very short poem was mesmerizing to me. I had only a vague notion then of who Goethe was, and never could have guessed that fifteen years later I would be living in Weimar, the city he made famous, and working on his plays at the German National Theater. In fact, having lived my entire adult life in large cities (Dallas, Berlin, Chicago) I certainly never thought that I would move to a provincial town with fifty thousand inhabitants that is small enough to walk across in twenty minutes. At a stroll.
But here I am, and after eighteen months of working here I have to say that Weimar is a truly lovely place. Even if it took a while to adjust to the VERY slow place of things. After having bounced around the world (Chicago-Japan-Berlin-Frankfurt-Chicago-Texas-Berlin-Switzerland-Berlin) for the better part of two years I was very happy to receive the offer and to stay put for a while. I’m a theatre director you see, and for us artist-types it is awfully difficult to find anything like steady work. At the best of times we are traveling all over the place, going from project to project. At the worst of times, languishing away in a tiny apartment somewhere dreaming up the next big idea. Luckily I had worked with a team of artists in Stuttgart back in 2011 that was getting ready to take over the leadership at the German National Theater in Weimar at the beginning of the 2013 season. They offered me a job as the assistant to the artistic director, a two year paid position, and I happily accepted.
I arrived in Weimar for the first time on a Saturday night, close to midnight, and I thought to myself: well we can start right off with the nightlife! I could not have been more mistaken. When I stepped out of the train station it was like stepping into a Zombie film: not a soul on the streets, absolutely clean and absolutely quiet. I would come to find out this is generally what every night is like, after 8pm. Welcome to small-town Germany. I later found out there are indeed a number of cool bars and places to go out . . . but that number is small. And the mental switch from the thriving metropolis of Berlin or Chicago to the eerie quiet of Weimar took a couple of months to set in.
The saving grace for me (and for Weimar really) is that it is the city of German classicism. The great poet-pair of Schiller and Goethe lived and worked here, as well as such luminaries as Bach, Franz Liszt, Richard Wagner, Friedrich Nietzsche, Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus movement, the list goes on. The whole place is drenched in history, specifically literary and musical history. There are an inordinate amount of museums, palaces, pleasure gardens and hundreds of quaint 18th century pastel colored houses. The whole place looks like a really swanky version of Belle’s town from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. I have to restrain myself not to walk through the cobblestone streets singing: “Little Town . . . it’s a quiet village . . .” every morning. Weimar was also the birthplace of modern German democracy, with the constitutional congress of 1919 being held in the theater here. But its not all beauty and art and magic: it also represents the dark side of Germany history. It was one of Hitler’s favorite places, and on a hill overlooking the city is the tower of Buchenwald, one of the Nazi’s worst concentration camps. Light and dark, the good with the bad, in so many ways Weimar is a distillation of Germany’s history: from its historical beginnings and mighty cultural contributions, to the terror and tyranny of the two dictatorships that it survived; to the last twenty years as a model democracy and economic powerhouse.
And in the middle of this quaint little town, supported and burdened by its own history, stands the German National Theater. The theater that Goethe managed and shaped, where he premiered so many of the staples of German literature, most notably Faust Part I. It is basically the Stratford-upon-Avon of Germany and it has been an enormous privilege for me to be able to work here, particularly to work on so many plays that originated at this theater. What strikes me most about living here and working so intensively on this complicated literature with my German colleagues, is how deeply connected they are to their own cultural identity. You can learn so much about any culture by examining their myths, and the Faust story is a fine example. Faust is intelligent, logical and hard-working, always striving for something new, something better, something greater than himself. He is willing to risk everything to experience a truly great moment, one in which he would long merely to abide (verweilen) and be at one with all things. This longing, this desire to strive for a better life, to be always questioning and reexamining everything despite all the consequences; this is a struggle that most Germans can relate to, and feel in their own lives.
After years of living in Germany I am constantly fascinated by this amazing culture, language, and country. And after two years of living in Weimar, although I am going a little stir crazy, I have come to enjoy the quiet and seeing the stars at night, enjoying the abundance of parks and nature. I cannot think of a city with a more compelling history, or a more complicated legacy than Weimar. And while I’m sure I do not want to spend the rest of my life here, I am awfully glad I’ve been able to abide here as long as I have.
O Weimar! Dir fiel ein besonderes Los!
Wie Bethlehem und Juda, klein und groß.
If you are interested in studying in Weimar, the local university, Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, offers programs in media studies, design, architecture and civil engineering.