- 11th Annual Young Alumni Essay Contest
- Schaal Prize: “’Slife," Matthew Kane ’14
- 2nd Place: “These Are the Ways We Live," Kathleen Kollman Birch ’17, ’19MGA
- Honorable Mention: “Sehnsucht," Charles Kenney ’20
- Honorable Mention: “Life is One Big Toothbrush Party," Libby Garcia ’16
After deboarding at the Dresden Hauptbahnhof, I rented a room on the northern side of the Neumarkt with a sun-drenched view of the Frauenkirche. It was no larger than the hotel suites I had been staying in for the past week throughout Bavaria, but the ways in which its rooms were divided gave the illusion of greater space. Instead of the open concept I had begrudgingly grown used to, a thin kitchenette was separated from the bedroom by a pair of sliding glass doors and a showerless bathroom stood further down the hallway. The bedroom’s exterior wall was lined with rectangular, crank-handled windows. There were neither curtains nor blinds attached to them, and, though I tried my best to tape bath towels across their frames to block the sun and lamplight, I quickly gave up, choosing to fall asleep late and wake early to the view I had so purposefully paid for.
The side of the cathedral my room faced must have been that which was bombed most heavily by the Allied air raids. While the building’s stone was startingly white near its reconstructed entrance, the rounded buttresses visible through my windows were black in the way a sheet of paper with charcoal dragged across it would be. The white was undeniably there, poking through the obsidian, pearled at its marble core, but bullet holes pockmarked the gargoyles, and, as I looked out at it from the supine position, smartphone in hand, I could almost imagine the intensity of fire required to dye something so strong, so permanently.
I remember being woken each morning that weekend by the sound of church bells pealing in the belfry. I remember turning my head to the windows with the hope that in my fitful, American sleep the stone had somehow been washed clean, that this city hadn’t once burned for days on end, and that I wouldn’t have to spend my afternoon walking streets that, 80 years later, were still black with the soot of my grandfathers.
I had come to Germany alone one week earlier with an itinerary bookended by two flights, but otherwise unplanned. I flew direct to Munich via Chicago and was returning on the reverse of that path out of Berlin 14 days later. I had arranged to spend one week in each city, and, by limiting myself to two metropolises, hoped to depart for America feeling I knew them more intimately than I might after a weekend getaway. Yet, when Wednesday arrived and my first to-do list had been exhausted, I adjusted my plan and boarded a train bound for someplace between the two, for Saxony. I could have gone directly to Berlin. My friend had the week off and was waiting for me, regardless of when I arrived. But eight hours seemed an awful long time to spend in a train car surrounded by seemingly Anglophobic strangers.
A woman I met at a club in Munich asked me why I was going to Dresden. She hadn’t spent much time in the East. She had been born in Munich, and, after graduating law school in Aachen, was now clerking at a firm on the other side of town. She asked, why had I, an American with two weeks of free time, chosen to spend some of it in a city known for harboring the country’s far-right political party. I told her I had read a book about it in school.
On Thursday evening, I left my room as night was beginning to fall and started down a brick-paved street into the Schloßplatz before crossing over the Elbe on the Augustusbrücke. The southern side of the river is lined with a large grass floodplain, and, on that unseasonably warm night, young people were laid across it with bottles of wine and liquor at their feet. I stopped at a store on the other side of the bridge, bought two liters of Paulaner, and sat in a stretch of grass near enough to groups to be approached but isolated enough to not disturb them. Sunset was dancing off the river’s glass surface. Laughter and German conversation, which, to me, sounded much like speaking underwater, mingled with the smooth roar of automobile engines.
By the time I had finished both bottles, the sun had dropped behind the Zwinger Castle and so the whole city was silhouetted, looking blacker than it already had.
Though Dresden’s historical center is situated south of the Elbe, the bars and young people concentrate to its north, in the Neustadt neighborhood. I had walked throughout it earlier that day, scouting the evening to come, and it appeared to have been far enough away from the factories to have avoided most of the bombing. The streets looked similar to Paris. Narrow, brick-paved boulevards were lined by apartment buildings done in the Beaux Arts style, with mansard roofs and dormer windows — of the sort that East German communism had neither the money nor taste for. I started toward the neighborhood, down the half-pedestrianized Antonstraße, with images of how it looked during the day still fresh in my mind.
The woman from Munich recommended a bar in the district named Hebeda’s. Her friend had been there before. I had nowhere else to go and so, with the aid of my cellphone’s GPS, walked in its direction.
On the street which the bar sat at the end of, a group of young men, who looked roughly my age if not slightly older, were sitting at a streetside table, drinking the same brand of beer I had just tossed away two bottles of. There were four of them and they were laughing with an irreverent carelessness.
“Sprechen sie English?” I asked in broken German, approaching the table.
They set down their bottles and turned to me.
“Yah,” they replied in unison.
“Do you know where a bar named Hebeda’s is?” I asked, knowing the answer myself.
“Hebeda’s?” a blonde with wire-rimmed glasses questioned.
“Yes. A friend in Munich recommended I go to a bar named Hebeda’s.”
“I’ve never heard of such a bar in Dresden,” a man closer to me, with long brown hair, said in poorer English.
I looked at the bottles clasped in their hands and then back down the street from which I came.
“Sorry,” I said. “I’m just here on my own for the night and don’t know where to go. I’ll try to find it.”
I gave a mock salute and continued on the path their laughter had interrupted me from.
“Hallo!” I heard a voice behind me shout. It was the man with long hair.
I turned to face him.
“Do you want to drink with us?” he asked.
I went into the liquor store across the street and bought two more bottles of Paulaner along with several American beers I figured they hadn’t tried. We all opened new drinks and raced to see who could finish theirs the quickest. I taught them how to shotgun canned beer from its side. They made me drink from a seltzer bottle that was half vodka. We grew quickly drunk and shared in liquid and laughter when words could not be supplied.
All of them spoke an elementary, consonant-heavy English, of the sort where each sentence requires forethought, but were courteous enough to not speak German in my presence, even to one another. They wanted to practice their English and, they said, the city so rarely got American tourists, particularly in Neustadt, that they didn’t often have a chance to do so with someone so fluent.
“I’m surprised Dresden doesn’t get more American tourists,” I told them.
“Why is it you think that?”
“Most American students have to read a book set in Dresden.”
“What is the book?”
“Slaughterhouse-Five,” I replied.
“We have never heard of that book,” they all replied, in some jumble of the same words.
We stared at each other, drunk on the warm night and cold liquor.
“Is it about the war?” one of them asked.
“Yes,” I said. “It’s about the war.”
“Whenever Americans come to Germany, all they want to talk about is the war.”
We drank the rest of the beer on the table, went back into the store, bought another bottle each, and set off north, past crowded bars and legs hanging off balconies, in search of Hebeda’s. By the time we found its neon-green sign and the monstrous H dangled above its door, it was nearly an hour after midnight.
I had assumed it would be a nightclub since that’s where I’d met the woman who recommended it. Sweaty and bowlegged, we walked into a candlelit room filled with couples talking in whispers, stylishly garnished cocktails on their laps. We sat in a corner booth, ordered five steins of the cheapest beer on the menu, and laughed like we were old friends who were not in a city that had once stunk so horribly of burnt flesh you could smell it down the Elbe in Magdeburg.
Charles Kenney’s essay received honorable mention in this magazine’s 11th annual Young Alumni Essay Contest. Kenney resides in Chicago and currently works in a strategy role for a technology company.