In 2014, I was invited by the Center for North American Studies at Christian Albrechts University in Kiel, Germany to participate in a creative writing project sponsored by the Jubilee fund. Among the special events organized to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the founding of the university was an undergraduate literature and writing course in English, focusing on Writing the City, taught by Prof. Barbara Röckl and teaching assistant Dr. Tristan Kugland. I was brought in during the last phase to help students create a literary guidebook to their town, featuring places, itineraries, and atmospheres of particular interest to the student population.
Kiel, not far from Hamburg, and previously a Danish city, was quite a discovery for me and September proved to be an excellent time to visit. Lonely Planet’s description of the place as grottenhässlich — ugly as sin – just doesn’t do justice to this vibrant and hospitable university town, which hosts both the world’s largest sailing event as well as one of Europe’s most prestigious universities. Kiel is a fascinating patchwork of ambiences. From the dizzying heights of the rathaus clock tower, as straying gulls dip near your nose, you may enjoy a view of the naval yards, the harbor, the new town, and the countryside – while in the lower depths of the building, you may meditate on somber sculptures commemorating the suffering of the people of Kiel under the allied bombs which destroyed much of the town during World War II.
The university’s sprawling, modern campus is well-connected to the city center with buses, which unlike Rome’s transport system, seem to have been made in heaven. Its quiet neighborhoods are interspersed with lush nature parks inhabited by boar and bison. In its traditional coffee shops, ladies meet to sip hot beverages and taste delectable cakes made with chocolate, ginger, berries, whipped cream — Barbara and I sampled a few during my stay.
But the port is the main attraction. Splendidly situated on the Kiel fjord, the sea front area seems to stretch to infinity, mingling sea and sky. In the harbor, antique sailing ships, cruisers, and ferries bound for Sweden, Norway, and Russia, energize you with their constant movement and promise of imminent departure: you just want to grab your bag and hop aboard for adventure.
During my stay, the class met every morning to work on materials, prompts, themes, and exercises drawn from my craft book The Soul of Place, to ferret out the heart of this Baltic sea port, producing pieces of flash fiction and memoirs deeply imbued with the genius loci. I was very impressed by the students’ superior linguistic skills – by the unique range of their talents, backgrounds, and interests and by the quality of their prose, which speaks highly of the standards maintained by the German scholastic system. Beyond that, their knack for writing, powers of observation, curiosity and enthusiasm were truly extraordinary. Some students were already skilled writers — poets and journalists. One or two discovered they had a talent for writing in English which they had not expected.
A brewery haunted by a medieval monk, a bar resembling the entryway to the underworld, a treacherous labyrinth beneath the rathaus where we thought we had lost one of the students during our guided tour, windswept beaches, a stadium where the local team always loses, a laundromat where the rhythm of the washers produces its own poetry, a flea market, a no man’s land of squats and gardens torn down to build a megastore, lonely bus stops, old salts hanging around the port reminiscing on old times, the fishy salt tang of kieler sprotte or mouth- puckering desserts made of sugarless plums only for connoisseurs, a tower where a lover dreams of flying – these were among the subjects of the pieces written during the course.
The students kept working for several more months, followed by a phase of long-distance editing and selection of only 36 pieces from among many more for the book, coordinated by Prof. Röckl. A search for a publisher followed, and thanks to Barbara Röckl’s persistence, arrangements were made with Wachholtz Murmann Publishers to publish FEEL KIEL the Ultimate Kiel Guide for Urban Explorers in 2016. The photos by Finja Dirksdóttir blend sleek, post-modern street photography techniques with stunning landscapes and elegant architectural shots. Each prose piece is accompanied by a photo and a short description of the place and its role in the town.
This highly subjective, elective, personal, and even quirky guide charts out a tour of Kiel, which visitors and long time residents alike, won’t want to miss, in search of that unique quality– the true essence of place. I was delighted to be part of this project and immensely proud of the students and the book they produced. Thanks again to Barbara and Tristan for including me, and to the students for their fabulous work. Order your copy from amazon de https://www.amazon.de/Kiel-ultimate-Guide-Urban-Explorers/dp/3529051314