Live from the Happiest/ Most Depressing City in Germany

October 17, 2007

They say that the inhabitants of Osnabrueck are the happiest people in Germany. At least this is what people told me when I mentioned that I was moving to this small city in the northwest corner of the country. Of course, no one knows who “they” are, or when this supposed study took place. So I’ve had to do my own research.

My first impression of Osnabrueck was not great. “It’s in the middle of nowhere,” I thought to myself as I floated along on the Intercity train, with each hour further and further away from Berlin, where I had spent orientation. I had to keep looking at the map to figure out where I was going. Even my German friends weren’t quite sure where it was. “It’s on the ocean…or wait, that’s Oldenburg. Well, it’s up there somewhere.”

On the map, Osnabrueck stands out because of its isolation. There seems to be a radius of nothingness around the city. A two hour drive south to will take you to a string of cities, including Koeln, Duesseldorf, Essen, and Dortmund that make that state, Nordrhine Westfallen, the most densely populated in Germany. The same distance to the north is the Hanseatic port city of Bremen, and to the East, Hannover. Only 45 km to the west lies the border to Holland, where– so I’ve overheard– German students go to take advantage of the marajuana-stocked coffee shops. Can I blame them? What else is there to do here?

Osnabrueck is also cursed by a terrible climate. The sun almost never shines. It rains (or threatens to) almost every day. When it does occasionally peek out, everyone says, “Soak it up while you can, it won’t be here long.” I carry my camera around at all times in case this phenomenon occurs.
Osnabruecker Schloss

When the sun shines, Osnabrueck is quite beautiful. The downtown Schloss (palace) glows bright yellow; the pastel buildings in the Old City look as cozy as ever; people come out of hiding and sit in the cafes along the pedestrian shopping zone. But when the sun goes away, so do the people, and everything looks drab, boring, and depressing again. How can people be so happy in a place that is so grey? I am still trying to figure this out.

People are friendly here, perhaps because of the small town feel. On my first day here, I ran into the guy who, the day before, had helped me lift my suitcase down from the train. At the time, I thought this was a huge coincidence, running into the only person I knew in a town of 150,000. But that’s just how things work here. I’ve only lived here for two weeks, and I’m constantly running into people I know. Makes it seem like home, which I guess contributes to the happiness factor.

Osnabrueck is also known as the Friedenstadt, or city of peace. The Treaty of Westphalia was proclaimed here in 1648, ending the Thirty Years War between Catholics and Protestants in Europe. The treaty is still the foundation for the separation of church and state and a building block for international relations.
Doorknob at City Hall
400 years later, the effects of the treaty are visible in Osnabrueck. According to my flatmate Simone, a 40-year old religion and German teacher, Osnabrueck is unique because of it’s 50-50 balance between Catholic and Protestant churches. Wherever there is a catholic church, a protestant one stands nearby. Walking and biking around the city, I see she’s right. I wonder if, someday, mosques will be included in this balance. Islam is the fastest growing religion in Europe, while the churches are generally losing membership. There is currently a big debate going on in Germany about whether or not to relax the laws that regulate when and where new mosques can be built. As the city of Peace, perhaps Osnabrueck could be a model of religious tolerance.
Churches in Osnabrueck
Osnabrueck hosts a number of conflict resolution institutes. It was also the home of anti-war author Erich Maria Remark, best known for “All Quiet on the Western Front.” I had to read that book in high school. I didn’t realize he had written at least 20 more books. Or that he lived in the U.S. following WWII and dated famous movie stars. There is a museum about his life and his work, which I found quite interesting. I also bought one of his books, “Time for Life, Time for Death” about soldiers returning home after WWII. It is gruesome, but well-written and easy to read. I like the idea of reading the book in the same city, along the same streets, where the author once roamed.

The longer I stay here, the more I come to appreciate this little city. It has it’s charms, and it is easy to meet people. I’ve joined the frisbee club, and meet regularly with my international and German friends at the Mensa (University Cafeteria). I am going to make the best of it while I am here, but am already setting my sights on Frankfurt, Hamburg, or Berlin.


One Response to “Live from the Happiest/ Most Depressing City in Germany”

  1. robinhoecker Says:

    I have to add that this debate about Osnabrueck being happy or depressing is a popular topic among bathroom grafiti artists. “Zum glueck, komme ich aus Osnabrueck,” wrote one person. (With luck, I come from Osnabrueck). And the next person scribbles, “so was von Scheiss (what a bunch of bullshit),” right below it. And there are similar comments all over the stalls. Very strange. What is also strange is that all the bathrooms here are lit with blacklight.

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