I had never seen real, live mistletoe until I came to Dresden, but in Dresden it’s impossible to miss. In every park or housing complex, the trees have a cluster of perfect little globes hanging from their uppermost branches, just like Christmas ornaments. At first it was really exciting to see it throughout the city, and I would stare outside the windows of my streetcar searching for the tree with the most mistletoe. But of course, mistletoe is a parasite, and any tree it infects, unless treated, will ultimately die. I have no idea if Dresden is suffering from some massive blight or if the park service is trying to do anything about it, but if they don’t, I can imagine that in a few years the city will be totally treeless.
In many ways the ever-present mistletoe is an appropriate symbol for this beautiful yet blighted city. Something is choking the life – and youth – out of Dresden. After several days of riding the streetcars across town, it occurred to me that I almost never saw any young people, much less any children. The average age of Dresdeners must be around 40, and a city without children is a city that is slowly dying.
Dresden has a population of about 500,000, but it looks as if it’s infrastructure could support a population almost twice that size. It just feels deserted. Whole blocks of apartment buildings are uninhabited, awaiting demolition, and the city’s wide boulevards are mostly empty. More than once, I walked down the long stretch of sidewalk parallel to my subway line without passing a single human being. This would just never happen in Würzburg, where I have to jockey with Hummer-sized baby strollers or bands of young boys on skateboards for space on the sidewalk.
Even in Dresden’s new downtown shopping centers, something seems amiss. There are dozens of storefronts but none you’d ever want to step inside. Most of their wares look secondhand or cheaply made or just downright retro. I encountered more than one bookstore with whole rows of globes for sale. Who buys globes anymore? I spent a lot of time in Dresden’s bookstores the week I was there, and only once did I notice anyone seriously contemplating the purchase of a globe: a pair of gray-headed grandparents, no doubt buying one as a well-meaning but inappropriate gift for their 10-year old grandson, who has just been accepted to the local Gymnasium, the high school for college-bound students. I’m sure he had rather received a computer game or some new Manga, but perhaps he will come to appreciate the gift when he’s older and planning his route out of Dresden.