The Student Art Historian’s Guide to an Ugly Home Town

Doing what’s best for you career may eventually lead you to places where you never ever thought you would end up at…

When I was about to be done with my Bachelor’s degree I searched  for a suitable Master’s degree to follow my previous studies all over Germany. I had very specific ideas of how I wanted my course to be like and found three universities to apply at: One in Jena, Thuringia, one at several cities in Bavaria (everything is special in Bavaria), and one in Siegen, North Rhine-Westphalia.

In the end, I decided to study in Siegen starting in October 2010, because the courses sounded most attractive and I would have the chance to spend a semester abroad. But, ehm, Siegen turned out to be, let’s say, a tough choice. Ironically enough, “siegen” in German means “winning”. But this city was not a big win at all.

Siegen has always been an industrial city. Surrounded by mining areas the city contained a large work force, and, nicely put, a very little attempts in the cultural department. During World War II Siegen was bombed with the result of 80% of the original city being destroyed. In the centuries following the war, Siegen was rebuilt as a car-friendly, efficient city with a strong domination of concrete.

The river Sieg, on which shores Siegen is located, was choked by cement bridges and highways. Parks or little city forests? Negative. Cafés and boulevards? Nope. Just concrete, parking lots, and streets…

And as if this wasn’t bad enough, Siegen is also one of the most rainy cities in Germany. This of course leads to the common person from Siegen being grumpy and incredibly unfriendly: Better get lost, than ask for directions! And asking the driver were the bus is headed? You will only commit this crucial mistake once.

Now, to give you an impression of Siegen:

Don’t let this image fool you – Siegen may be surrounded by green, but in the actual city center you won’t see any of that. (Also, it was taken on one of the four sunny days this year). The highway on the left side is the real “heart” of the city… (most likely because it’s the way out, heading to more pretty places like Cologne). The strange blue building with the tower on the top of the hill in the middle of the picture? Well, that would be my university. Sadly nothing like ancient ivy league-ish brick walls…

Nonetheless, in more than a year of living here, I realized that I had to make the best of it. Complaining just doesn’t make it any better. So I tried to look at the good sides of Siegen. Those are rare. Very rare, to be honest. But I managed… more or less.

So, here’s my personal guide to making the best of living in a really, really ugly place.

1. Optimism – Look For The Upside Of Things!
For example, the prominent heavy highway pillars defining the city’s image actually have their advantages: Underneath the so called Hüttenthal-Straße lies quite a nice jogging route. When running there at least you won’t get completely soaked. Also, once a month, there is a wonderful flea market – where, thanks to the covering highway, all the fusty knickknack doesn’t get wet either.

2. Rely On Recommendations From Locals
Every time a met a new person in Siegen, I asked what their favorite spots in Siegen are. The best bar to have drinks at? The best club for dancing? Best place to catch some of the rare sunshine? With insider tips from locals you can feel more at home immediately. To know where to go, and what to order makes you more comfortable and less hateful towards an ugly place like Siegen.

For me the best thing was not only to ask locals, but to move in with them. So far, I have lived in four different shared apartments with a total of twelve different flat mates. All those flat mates contributed on my perception of the cities I lived at, because they took me to their favorite spots and made me discover lovable angles I hadn’t noticed before.

3. Every City Is Better In Summer
I need to stop judging cities during winter. It’s not totally fair to them. Even Siegen becomes somewhat more bearable during summer season.

4. Manipulate Your Memory
Did you look at the pictures in this post and wondered what I was complaining about? Caught yourself thinking “Siegen doesn’t look too bad, what’s her problem”?

That’s because I developed a habit of taking pretty pictures only. I literally challenged myself to take pictures of Siegen, in which the city appears to be way nicer than it actually is. On those four sunny days this year, I went out and photographed all the beautiful things found… like the castle and its garden (namely the very only park within the city),

or cute tiny old houses in the small part of Siegen, which wasn’t destroyed during World War II,…

Looking at these pictures made me realize that Siegen may not be so ugly after all – you just have to search harder for the pretty parts. And since I mostly have adorable shots like the ones in this post in my picture collections, anytime I will skim through them in the future, I will be able to remember the positive parts about Siegen only.

5. What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger
Bring it on, ugly cities of the world! Lure me into your domains! After surviving Siegen for this long nothing can shock me anymore!

And if everything else fails: The way you feel about a city is mainly about the people. If the people you hang out with are great, you gonna have a great time in whatever city. And well, booze helps, too.