From the Ruins


“Anyone who cannot come to terms with his life while he is alive needs one hand to ward off a little his despair over his fate . . . but with his other hand he can note down what he sees among the ruins.”- Franz Kafka

When I first arrived in Leipzig, I was as discouraged as I have ever been. The last several years had been brutal: I had suffered through a series of catastrophes including the death of my father, the loss of our family home, several surgeries, and an accident that left me in pain and lingering debt. In the midst of this I learned that my boyfriend of many years, for whom I had just moved to a new city, had been unfaithful. I was left reeling and unmoored, and came to Germany on the invitation of a friend, on a whim, in the hopes of escaping exhaustion and despair, in search of a respite from the pressures that had come to weigh upon my life.

I came in February to a country encased in fog. It was bitter cold, and the sun was veiled by clouds. The streets were dull and empty. Somehow, I was pleased. The setting matched my melancholy, and was perfect for my task: I had come to finish the novel I had been working on through the last difficult years. I stayed inside and wrote, counting the hours of sunlight we had each week. There was a stark beauty to the fog and the grey, thin light. There was grace to the old buildings and the leafless trees that lined the streets. And there was also this: on my first night in Leipzig, I walked down the alley between the park and my apartment, and through the fog—so thick I could only see a few feet ahead of me—came a light, blurred, enormous: it was the light of a bicycle, disembodied, magnified in the mist.

In the evenings I sat in my apartment and looked at the tree outside my window; its dark branches seemed to swim in the mist. I looked for bicycles, scanned the distance for their wavering lights. They had come to mean something to me, as had the fog, a sort of metaphor for where I was in my writing and my life. The weather kept me inside long enough to finish the first draft of my novel, and then the seasons changed, as sudden and as glorious as I have ever seen. In the meantime I was invited to stay a little longer, to teach two classes in the American Studies Department at the University of Leipzig.

The Chair of the Department offered to take me shopping: I had not brought any clothes for warmer weather, and somehow on the day we chose to go, the weather changed drastically back from the recent warmth to snow and thunder. We hurried to the tram laughing and cursing, and when we boarded she wiped the snow from my coat with a tissue. Everything she said on that trip sounded like a short story to me; the weather itself, the careful way she wiped my coat. On my way back, I ran to catch my tram and forgot to thank her, but when I remember my time in Leipzig, I think of that day, and the horrible weather, and how lucky I felt at her unexpected kindness, and I think that was the day I began to feel as if the story I was living in had reached another turn.

Anything can be a symbol when you are looking for signs, and when I arrived I was desperately searching. One morning, after hearing of the death of a friend’s father, I walked the streets in the rain, thinking about loss and grief. As I walked, a blue heron landed in the stream beside me and began picking its way down to the bridge. I stopped to watch, and a small crowd gathered. When the heron lifted its wings and soared above our heads to circle the Neue Rathaus, we stood in the street, a handful of strangers peering up through the rain, watching him ascend together.

I’ve been told that because the winter is so grey in Leipzig, the residents become sun-worshippers for the rest of the year. I watched people spill overnight into the streets, sitting at tables in outdoor cafes, searching out the light wherever they went. One late evening as I picked my way past bikes stacked on the grass, I looked around the park across from my place, and sprawled on the lawn were little groups of people, packed together into the last patches of light.

If I am telling a story of finding peace, of resting a moment and gathering myself in a beautiful city, of finding light after a period of darkness—I am also telling a story I was in desperate need of, a story I went in search of and found. But it is never that simple, of course: I was only a guest in Leipzig, and never had to negotiate the complexities of making a life there. As a visitor, it was easy to accept or dismiss some of the things that as a resident I would have eventually had to face. I was warned twice during my stay to beware the Neo-Nazis who were undergoing an upswing in activity. The second time it came up, I was at dinner with a new acquaintance, and I felt momentarily disoriented by the comment, jolted back to the knowledge of my status as a minority which for a time I had put away—reveling in the status of foreigner which allows you the freedom in many ways to be different, to openly not belong.

But I did not dwell on that, and will not dwell on that here. I enjoyed the freedom that comes with being a guest. I returned in some ways to childhood, relying on the kindness of strangers, allowing others to order for me at restaurants, to speak for me in stores. One day I snuck into an abandoned printing factory with a student, and we walked up flights and flights of stairs, picking our way through the broken glass, over the shards of wood and pipes and dust, pausing to look at the graffiti that covered every wall.

The building had long been gutted of anything useful: sinks and toilets had been ripped out, and the pipes stripped for copper—leaving open holes and broken walls. Fanned about the floor of one room was a stack of yellowed printing paper edged with perforated holes, the kind of paper used in old fashioned printers I had grown up with, but hadn’t seen in over a decade. Together we stood and looked at the holes in the floors, at the rubble around us. “There is still beauty in the ruins of a place,” the student said. “Yes,” I said. “I like to imagine what it used to be like,” he said. “It’s like the bones of a building.” Above us, a pair of pigeons swooped beneath the ceiling. “It’s like the idea of a building,” I said. “The memory of it.”

We walked around for hours in that deserted factory. We made our way up to the roof and walked gingerly on the spongy ground up there, which the student said could collapse and cave in. We looked at the city, and noted the trees that grew out of the gutters along the roof. “I like how nature reclaims everything in the end,” he said.

One of the last rooms we wandered into had a line of slender trees growing from a crack in the floor that reached from the center of the room to the back wall. As seeds, they had been borne in one at a time and deposited here. They had taken root and grown: all of them straining forward, reaching for the light from the window through which they had come. Inside that room, it smelled of spring.

Catherine Chung is the author of Forgotten Country, forthcoming from Riverhead Books in March 2012. She is a Granta New Voice, and her work has appeared in Guernica, The Journal, and Quarterly West, among others. She is a member of the birdsong collective, and is on the advisory board of Paris Press. A fellow of The MacDowell Colony, Hedgebrook, and Yaddo, she has taught creative writing at The University of Leipzig and Cornell University, where she received her MFA. She lives in Brooklyn, where she is working on a new novel and a collection of essays. You can find her online at: More from this author →