“Das Urlaubs-Experiment: Leipziger und Houstoner tauschen Häuser” (“Vacation Experiment: Leipziger and Houstonian Exchange Houses”) read the headline on page 15 of the August 4 Leipziger Volkszeitung, the daily newspaper in the German city of half a million people 93 miles south of Berlin. Alongside the story was a photo of Leipzig residents Katy Schmidt, her husband Jens Wiemken, and their 1-year-old daughter Clara—the people who were, at that very moment, occupying our house in West Houston and driving my 2005 Jetta.
Under their image on the newspaper page was a family photo of me, my wife Kelly Klaasmeyer, and our two kids Joe and Ava swinging in a hammock in Jens and Katy’s backyard in Leipzig. I was wearing a sport coat—it’s a little chilly in East Germany on an August morning. And that, of course, is why we were there.
We started plotting our escape from the hottest part of Houston’s summer back in the spring. Kelly came up with the idea of registering our house on HomeExchange.com, a website where people all over the world list their houses with the intention of swapping them. The website charges $9.95 a month to list your house for a year, but otherwise it’s a free vacation.
We missed out on a chateau in France when a family in Dallas scooped us. And we turned down a remote cottage in rural Belgium and a large house in the Paris suburbs before coming across the Wiemkens’ five-bedroom townhouse in Leipzig. When our kids saw photos of the treehouse in the backyard, it was all over. As for the Germans, our 1970s-era four-bedroom house in the Memorial Wilcrest area is pleasant enough, but I’m guessing the photos of the swimming pool and palm trees in the backyard did the trick.
But who in their right mind, you might ask, would possibly choose to vacation in Houston for an entire month, from mid-July to mid-August? Lots of people, believe it or not. Some of the people we heard from on the home-exchange site had family in Houston or business contacts they wanted to make. And Europeans tend to get their vacation time during a fixed period in the summer, which was the case with Jens and Katy.
Yes, we warned them that Houston’s temperatures and latitude were about the same as New Delhi’s, but they weren’t scared off. They had always wanted to visit the US, and they had the idea that Houston was American taken to the extreme. As Jens, who works in a Dresden bank, wrote in an e-mail exchange leading up to our agreement, “I think Houston is America squared.”
Before my family and I headed to the airport, I left the Wiemkens tickets for an Astros game and recommended some steakhouses they might visit. (It seemed only fair. I am the food critic for Houstonia, after all.) They never mentioned the baseball game, so I doubt they went. Their favorite Houston restaurant turned out to be the Galleria area’s Kenny & Ziggy’s, where they dined repeatedly. They bought their steaks at H-E-B and cooked them at my house, amazed, they told me, by the quality of American beef.
The Germans were also amazed by NASA, they said, taking the tour twice. They also spent several beach days in Galveston—and sent us photos. Some of their more unusual vacation highlights were an event at Temple Sinai Synagogue in the Energy Corridor and a day at the Athena Gun Club on I-10 at the Beltway.
Jens, who served in the East German army in his youth, applauds American gun laws and was delighted to get in some target practice while here, renting what he called an American Kalashnikov (known in these parts as an AK-47). According to his wife, he was an excellent shot.
While not known to most American tourists, Leipzig is at the center of contemporary German history: St. Nicholas Church in the city center was ground zero for East Germany’s Peaceful Revolution, the mass protests that ultimately brought down the Communist government in 1989, and Pray for Freedom meetings are still held on most Monday nights at Nikolaikirche, as it’s known in German, to honor those who started the movement. But my wife zeroed in on Leipzig as a vacation destination because it’s a hip art center.
An old spinning factory there provides studio space to artists of the New Leipzig School—exemplified by celebrated painter Neo Rauch—who trained in the Socialist Realist style in East Germany and later incorporated it into his own works. The New Leipzig School was especially hot a few years back, when collectors in private jets were known to fly into town to purchase whole art shows. For that reason and perhaps others, Leipzig is sometimes jokingly referred to as Hypezig by locals. Still, my wife insists that the city is cooler than Berlin, which she says has become overpopulated with Brooklynites.
Be that as it may, it was Leipzig’s historic restaurants that got my attention. I couldn’t wait to visit Zum Arabischen Coffe Baum, a Turkish coffee room that was first mentioned in 1556 and has regularly served coffee since 1711. It’s a modern sidewalk café now—all that’s left of the old place is a room behind a velvet rope, where a silver coffee service sits on a hand-carved coffee table, surrounded by hookahs, plush pillows, and antique carpets. But while the museum atmosphere was underwhelming, the matjes herring in sour cream with apples and onions was excellent.
Another historic eatery, Auerbach’s Keller—first mentioned in print in 1438 and a favorite of Goethe’s, who started hanging out there around 1765—was mind-blowing. (There’s even a scene—“Auerbach’s Cellar in Leipzig”—in Goethe’s Faust.) I had a delicious wild boar dinner with mushrooms, red cabbage, Saxon-style dumplings, potato croquettes, and an intense brown gravy, washing it down with a local dark beer.
Ah, the beer. While I enjoyed the beer everywhere I went in this part of Europe, I was blown away by a local specialty called Gose (pronounced GOES-uh). It’s a sour, salty wheat beer that gets its taste from the minerality of the region’s water. The place to drink it is the Bayerischer Bahnhof, a brewpub and beer garden located in an ancient train station.
Leipzig was nicely located for some side trips too. We spent a long weekend in Prague, about a three-hour drive away, and took day trips to Dresden and Berlin. As for the kids, they loved riding the tram, visiting the Old World–style zoological garden, and walking to the bakery every morning for hot, fresh morgen brot. They also liked the pedestrian-only city center, Market Square, which featured tables and chairs in front of a huge stage that boasted free concerts almost every night this summer.
There were banners sporting a “1000” logo hanging from the stage and around the square. Turns out, we had picked the right time to visit Leipzig—the concerts were part of the celebration leading up to the city’s 1,000th anniversary next year. Another coincidence: while there, we were contacted by representatives of the Houston-Leipzig Sister City Association, who informed us that the two cities are kinfolk. We felt like members of an unofficial delegation from Space City, there to party like it’s 999. So, on behalf of all of Houstonia, happy birthday, Leipzig. You don’t look a day over 998.