I’ve been meaning to blog about Jena, the little city I’ve been living in for the last one and half years. I feel like I finally have an objective perspective now that the culture shock from the initial months of living in Germany has mostly worn off. Being a big-city girl for practically all of my life, and having never lived outside Kenya before, there were some new experiences coming here.
Jena is a small university city of about 100,000 people, of which 20,000 are students. It’s located in the former East Germany but geographically, it’s more in central part of Germany. Jena is an old picturesque city. Goethe, Schiller, Martin Luther, Karl Marx lived here once upon a time, and the university I go to is almost 500 years old, so the place has some interesting history to speak of. The city centre is small and most important places are within walking distance of it, which is good, as the streets are pleasant to walk in.
The city is generally quiet—something that continues to stand out for me, coming from a bustling large city. This is probably the first time in my life that I am experiencing pin drop silence in the daytime. Even in the country side in western Kenya, which for me embodied outdoor quietness, there is always some sound to be heard, be it a dog barking somewhere, people conversing in their compounds or yelling greetings across fences or streets, children playing noisily, etc. In Jena, I often catch myself listening for something to break the perpetual stillness, quite an unusual experience for me. Maybe the areas I have lived in are just particularly quiet.
The older parts of the city are charming, with their narrow winding streets and quaint shops. I like the architecture in these parts of the city, especially houses built using the timber-framing/woodworking method that was once common in Germany. The centre of the city features a single imposing skyscraper – the JenTower, which offers excellent views of the surroundings. You can see it from almost every part of Jena, so I use it to directionally orient myself whenever I’m outside the city centre, even though Jena is too small to get lost in. In the more upmarket areas of the city, the stand-alone family homes are beautiful, and usually small. This was surprising to me as I am used to seeing large mansions set in expansive compounds in the suburbs of other cities outside Germany. Even the cars are generally small, fuel-efficient cars… it’s always surprising to come across an SUV here. This may say something about the German perspective of conspicuous wealth… Back to homes in Jena: I like that the compounds are open-plan usually with low picket fences. And since one can see into people’s compounds, it’s easy to see that they care for their little gardens, and are obsessive about flowers especially on the spring, which is nice. The city is generally green and is surrounded by mountainous forestry, and this makes for beautiful photography and fun hiking excursions. The public parks offer nice places to lounge on and do barbecues during the spring and summer.
Being a university city and an innovation hub, there are many young and youngish people. From my experience, young people generally speak pretty good English, and as a consequence I have had little trouble navigating the city and finding help on anything due to the relatively large number of English speakers. But because I rarely have to exercise my little German, my motivation and need to learn the language to survive here has diminished. Consequently my German has remained beginner-level—very bad for me! (NB: I take full responsibility for this!)
The social and cultural scene in Jena has a lot to offer for the outgoing kind. The city is dotted with many cafés and meeting places hosting regular concerts and parties. The young student population is the heartbeat of these events, so anyone looking to have a good time will find something. For me, the more exciting stuff occurs in the spring and summer (when being outdoors is bearable due to warm weather). The highlight is the Kulturarena’s event-calendar. This ‘cultural arena’ is a space that hosts performances by artists from a large variety of genres. It’s amazing to listen to an African artist outside of Africa…
The shopping experience also has something to offer. Jena has many little street-shops that sell all manner of things, from bakeries to tchotchke shops, not to mention the delicious bratwurst and doner-kebab street vendors. Strolling through the city on a sunny Saturday morning (or any morning if you’re a grad student like me…) is really pleasant. Occasionally, there’s a flea market in the city centre, and the Christmas markets at the end of the year deserve a separate blog post. The only mildly upsetting thing is that all these places close down promptly at 8pm, and don’t open at all on Sunday. People take their day of rest and recuperation very seriously.
Being a city in East Germany, I had many reservations about coming to live here. East Germany has its own reputation for being a little less than tolerant based on the reports of xenophobia and racist attacks here and there. But I have been pleasantly surprised about the general politeness and pleasantness of people here, on the streets, in trains and trams, in offices and shops in Jena. But I have to admit that I there have been some unpleasant incidences, but these form the minority of my experiences. All things considered, I would not discourage a person of colour from living here (Jena, to be specific… I can’t comment about other small cities). That said, as of 2012, only about 2% of Germany’s population was made up of black people, and the number is even smaller in East Germany. With those numbers, one can’t really shake off that feeling of sticking out like a sore thumb. There are days I have walked around Jena and not met a single black person on the streets. So whenever I visit Berlin or Frankfurt, it’s a weird feeling to bump into black people every turn of the corner…
All in all, I have had a good experience living here. I see it as the perfect place to study as there not as many distractions as there would be in a larger city. But once in a while I crave the big-city commotion, especially the Nairobi bustle and dust.
In the spirit of sharing happiness, here is Jena’s rendition of Pharrell Williams’s Happy song.