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New Europe

Day One Hundred and Seventeen: Dresden to Meissen

Michael Palin - New EuropeGunter's in his fifties, short and with a perfect comic combination of serious face and huge moustache. He was born in Dresden but has lived in Leipzig for forty-two years. For him, Leipzig had the advantage of being the city where the international trade shows were held. Gunter made friends with people in Scotland, and although he was not allowed out of the GDR to visit them, they could come and see him. 'Leipzig is an open city, you see. In East German times it was called the secret capital of East Germany.'

Dresdeners, by contrast, were seen as a bit out of touch, cut off physically by the hills around them and mentally by their conservative, plutocratic attitude. There was a satirical description of Dresden and Gunter struggles for a moment to find its English translation.

'Ah yes. Valley of the Clueless. That's what we called Dresden!'

When I ask him how Dresdeners, and indeed people like himself, felt about the Allied destruction of the city, he says that people have come to terms with it now, and there's little animosity, but the unveiling of a statue to Sir Arthur 'Bomber' Harris in London in 1992 reopened a lot of old wounds and caused considerable resentment.

The Academixer Club, where he's been putting on a show since 1967, is a comfortable and inviting combination of a well appointed 250-seat theatre, with plenty of ancillary space in which to hang out, including a clubby bar, and a restaurant serving excellent food. I don't know anywhere quite like this in London. And it's not the only one in town.

'This is the city in Germany,' Gunter enthuses, 'within one square kilometre you have eight cabaret theatres. It's the capital of satire.'

Tonight's nostalgia show has brought a full house, but Gunter tells me that this is quite rare. In the GDR days they always sold out, as if there was a desperate need for laughter then. Now there's so much to choose from people can take it or leave it.

I can't understand the finer points of the show, but I laugh a lot. The cast look good, and underplay very effectively.

I ask Gunter who they were allowed to make fun of in the communist days.

'We were allowed to make fun of everything,' Gunter begins breezily, 'except the Party line, the Party leaders, the top leaders of the trade unions, the Stasi and the National People's Army.'

I feel I've a lot to learn about eastern Germany, and Gunter agrees to help teach me.
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day One Hundred and Seventeen: Dresden to Meissen
  • Country/sea: Germany
  • Place: Leipzig
  • Book page no: 272

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  • Full Circle
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