Impressions of Göttingen
The most important thing for a writer, besides reading widely, is certainly to explore the world by travelling widely.
I had the honour of being admitted by the Goethe-Institut China to the exchange project with the University of Göttingen. That entailed staying for a month at the University of Göttingen and, as I understood it, besides literary and cultural exchange with students and locals, the point was to acquaint Chinese writers with Germany. Timewise, it was the whole month of June 2015.
I actually wanted to entitle this essay On My Own in Central and Northern Germany, but that subject’s too broad to cover here. Maybe I’ll write a book about that, a look back at that very special trip. It would cover much of the beautiful parts of Germany I traversed. Here, however, I’d like to report only a few titbits and particulars, particularly about Göttingen.
Before my departure, I’d been harbouring some doubts. I figured I had so little sense of direction I’d probably spend two-thirds of the time stuck in my room, seeing as I didn’t know any German at all and didn’t speak much English (I’d studied Japanese as my first foreign language). Above all, I didn’t know my way around at all.
But then I actually toured eleven cities in 25 days. More of that later, though, first let’s get back to Göttingen.
I touched down in Frankfurt in the early evening on 3 June. Tang Wei, a German language and literature student at Göttingen University, came to meet me at the airport. We reached Göttingen around 11pm. I hadn’t thought Barbara Dengel, the woman in charge of this project, would be waiting for me at the station on the cold platform. Cold? Yes, in Germany it actually sometimes still gets pretty chilly in June, scarcely over 10 degrees Celsius at night. But when I saw Barbara Dengel, I felt soothing warmth. She was cordial and very accessible, and as she came towards me smiling, I almost wondered if we weren’t old friends. Well, yes, we’d actually got to know each other in advance through all the lines we sent back and forth.
She drove me to my lodging, which was at most a six-minute walk from the station, and insisted on lugging my heavy suitcase up the wooden stairs to the third floor. In the narrow staircase I couldn’t be much help at all. Although we tried to tread as softly as possible, our steps echoed through the silent night. I could tell right away I was going to like this place. I like wooden stairs like that. And from that moment I was in love with that little house. The bedroom was so quiet, and in the living room I could look up and see the blue sky and birds flying past the window. Whenever I stepped out onto the balcony, I’d linger and contemplate the landscape in the distance, all those typically European brick-red rooftops. At dusk, a family of four would always appear for dinner on the balcony opposite – a picture of warmth and cosiness. I even had a kitchen at my disposal. Barbara said if I felt like it I could make myself something tasty to eat.
After she left I opened the refrigerator to find a whole bunch of stuff she’d put there for me: milk, bread, cheese, butter... And on the desk in the living room was a beautiful bunch of daisies and beside it an orange-coloured fruit bowl with apples – it looked just like a still life in an oil painting.
And so, on that 3 June 2015, in a place that was utterly foreign to me, I really felt the warmth of home. I had no jetlag that night. I fell asleep and didn’t wake up till 8 in the morning.
When I’d first learned I’d be going to Göttingen, I delightedly shared the news with my friends, including a professor friend of mine at Beijing University. He told me that in his college days in the 1980s, a lot of students were into mathematics, and they’d always be told: “You like maths? Then go to Göttingen.“ That’s how I knew beforehand that Göttingen is a city of mathematics: on Google or Wikipedia you see right away that the University of Göttingen has produced an astounding number of Nobel Prize winners in the sciences. And before them is a list of names that really beat the band: Ever heard of Carl Friedrich Gauss, the king of mathematics? Or Riemann and the Riemann integral? And what is the unit for calculating magnetic flux? That’s right, a “weber“ as in Wilhelm Eduard Weber. And then there was that not very pretty little fellow Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, who discovered the positive and negative electrodes of electromagnets.
Academics in the sciences say that Einstein called on Riemann’s famous student, David Hilbert, to find out about the Riemann integral, which was an important link in his Theory of Relativity. Some say the Theory of Relativity would not have come about without Riemann. Hilbert reputedly said every schoolkid in Göttingen knew more about the Riemann integral than Einstein. And yet Einstein was the one who eventually came up with the Theory of Relativity.
This anecdote says a lot about mathematical genius, but also about the academic atmosphere in Göttingen back then.
And yet is Göttingen nothing but a city of science? Of course not. The Brothers Grimm lived here, as did Goethe for a while and the Humboldt brothers, even the Chinese statesman Zhu De and the linguist Ji Xianlin... This city, small enough to cross by foot, holds a huge place in the history of science and the humanities. Naturally, walking down the street there today you’re not about to bump into any of those great minds, and even if you visit their former homes, you’ll find nothing but ordinary houses now turned into cafés or hair salons or rental housing. Over the entrance door is a little plaque saying that Mr or Mrs So-and-so lived here from such-and-such to such-and-such a date. And yet one feels to this day that the city is imbued with a sincerity and integrity that sets itself so far apart from the fast-paced superficiality of our day and age.
The University of Göttingen has no entrance gate; the various departments are scattered all over town. So it often seems as though the people in the street are all learned academics and students. In the afternoon, they find a café where they can sit down and talk. Some arts festival or other is held every few days on the square in front of city hall, which dates back to the 14th century, and even on ordinary days you can’t help stopping to listen to buskers playing a guitar or saxophone or a student orchestra with its unbeatable youthful charm.
I’m not someone who likes to stroll idly down the streets. In Göttingen, though, whenever I had time, I’d go down those green wooden stairs and out of the house because I just loved sauntering down the big and little streets of the city. Without looking for anything, I could always discover new things – images I’d never seen before, whether of a cultural, historical or scenic nature.
Professor Andrea Bogner said I should find my own Göttingen.
Professor Bogner of the German Philology Department is slim with short blond hair and a remarkable spring to her step. When she unexpectedly invited me for a meal after class, we sat down, along with Barbara, in the courtyard of a stylish café, with a garden there that looked as though situated at the foot of a mountain. The three of us chatted for three whole hours till Barbara, who lived farther away, left to go home, leaving Professor Bogner and me to continue our conversation for another hour at least. My English is very poor, and I worried I might end up stuck in embarrassing or difficult situations as a result. But it didn’t turn out that way at all, we kept chatting merrily away the whole time. And later on, when she showed up at a major event I was taking part in, I had the calming, trusting feeling of seeing an old friend again.
That event was an important exchange between Nanjing writers and the Goethe-Institut. In addition to Göttingen University faculty members, city residents with an interest in literature also attended and asked all sorts of questions about China’s literature and culture. I was a bit nervous but it all went well.
Since none of my stories had as yet been translated into German, the University of Göttingen had invited Professor Monika Gänssbauer from the Sinology Department at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg to hold a one-semester seminar with students, translating a report I’d written on a work in progress. I’d met Professor Gänssbauer my second week in Göttingen. She pretty much fit my idea of a professor: she was tall, cool-headed, only somewhat younger than I’d expected, also kinder, very perceptive of my moods. She said my report, entitled “I don’t know what I should say”, accurately reflects a writer’s conceptions of history and values. But there were still a number of passages the students hadn’t quite understood and wanted to discuss with me. So I went to the university to talk to her students, who had formed two groups to translate my stuff using two different approaches. That day, as a result, I got to know both the Sinology students at Göttingen University and the exchange students from Nanjing and Beijing studying German there.
They took great care of me after that and helped me solve many problems during my stay in Germany. Without them I might have just sat home by myself, I would certainly never have set off to tour eleven cities. Thanks to them I saw two plays in Göttingen, one in English, the other in German. It’s true I didn’t understand anything, at any rate not everything, and yet to this day I’m still deeply impressed by the excellent acting. They knew I did my Master’s at Nanjing University in drama, so I didn’t necessarily have to express in words how much I enjoyed those performances. Sometimes, when I bumped into students in the street, we’d make a date to eat out – actually because I wanted them to show me where to get tasty food in Göttingen, like the famous Nudelhaus, the Steakhaus or the potato place, for example. And food sometimes tastes even better in company. Not to mention the fact that, owing to the language barrier, I might have missed out on the tastiest eateries. That said, the department’s Ms Cui had shown me the noodle restaurant my third day in town, after which I ate there five whole times, sometimes alone, sometimes with students. In my recollections of Göttingen dishes, the creamy green noodles with fresh crab, mushrooms, and tomatoes left the enduring impression of a successful fusion of the Eastern and Western palate.
On days without any scheduled events, I went off on my own, either strolling the city streets and lanes at my leisure or rushing to the station in the morning to catch an early train.
Barbara Dengel lived in a city two hours away by train and still had two children living at home, but she always worried I might get bored in Göttingen. Once, when she insisted on taking me out for dinner after class, we went to the bistro at the theatre, where after a while some actors who’d just finished a performance or rehearsal appeared in small groups. I didn’t know whether they’d just been playing Shakespeare or Brecht, but they could be sure of having an audience in Göttingen that would receive their fine performances with enthusiastic acclaim, an audience, like them, always open to new ideas.
Over the course of that month I developed a great affection for this city, which is no bigger than a Chinese market town. But the time passed swiftly, and before I knew it, it was time for me to return.
On my last day in Göttingen I was sitting on a seat along a boulevard on the edge of town watching joggers run by, most of whom greeted me cordially as they passed. Not far from me, on another chair, a drunken man had fallen asleep with eight empty beer bottles standing on the ground in front of him. Whether it was because German beer tastes so irresistibly good or because he’d had an especially happy or sad day, I’ll never know.
The day of my departure, Professor Andrea Bogner came to collect me in her car. She was wearing a pretty coat and looked particularly vivacious. She insisted on accompanying me to the platform and stayed till the train for Frankfurt pulled in. I was aware that this was more than an act of formal courtesy.
And this whole exchange between two cultures was a rich experience for me. The experience that it is possible, even without good language skills, to travel abroad, far from home, and yet feel a warmth that comes from the heart.
Literature seminar for the students of German studies at the University of Göttingen by Na Yu | ©Na Yu
Na Yu (娜彧)
The Nanjing writer Na Yu was born in the 1970s in Jiangsu and took her Master’s degree in drama at Nanjing University. Her short stories have been published in major literary magazines such as Shouhuo收获 (“Harvest”), Renmin Wenxue人民文学 (“People’s Literature”), Huacheng花城 (“City of Flowers”) and Shi Yue十月 (“October”) and some have been translated into German and Swedish. Na Yu has been awarded the Zijinshan Literary Prize, the Lu Yanshou Novella Prize, the Biennial Prize of the magazine Guangzhou Literature and Art (广州文艺), among others. She has published the short story collections As Thin as a Cicada’s Wings (薄如蝉翼), The Further the Farther Away (渐行渐远) and Hotel in California (加州旅馆) as well as one novel Paper Paradise (纸天堂). Na Yu now lives in Phoenix, Arizona.