This is the first story in our new series called "Overland." Seven locally based journalists will be reporting for ZEIT ONLINE in the coming months from their regions. The series is part of our special new section #D17, in which we seek to explain Germany to Germans in the runup to this year's national election.
Daniel has never fallen in love. Now, in his mid-30s, he has decided that needs to change, and he's looking for a woman to be his first girlfriend. He wants to finally know what it feels like to be in love. So far, it's only been something he has heard or read about.
If the area where he lives is anything to go by, one could easily assume that Daniel is lonely. A hilly area in southern Saxony, close to both the picturesque Swiss Saxony region and the Czech border. Daniel doesn't even live in a real village – it's just a tiny, spread out community that can only be reached via narrow, winding roads. His home is separate from the others. The façade is well maintained, he has a small garden and there is plenty of room for two. Daniel shares the house with his mother.
He's spent most of his life here. If you pull the lace curtains aside, all you can see is a vast landscape empty of people. No man's land. Yet it's precisely this eternal quiet that Daniel likes, this radical seclusion. Urbanites might not like it here, but Daniel finds his surroundings to be comforting. "I don't want to leave," he says. "And I don’t need much. Quiet, a roof over my head, a computer and a fast internet connection."
For quite some time, that was enough. But about a year ago, something changed. He realized he wanted more contact with other people, and not just over the internet. He wanted to meet people in real life. It's not that he's particularly bothered by the solitude – being alone is normal for Daniel. It's more a sense of inner turmoil. Daniel is getting older, and with each passing birthday, a question grows louder in his head: "I want to know if there's perhaps more to life." He points to the scattered neighboring houses on the horizon. Hardly anyone of his age still lives in the area, most having moved away to find jobs and experience life in the big city. Only the older ones stayed behind – and lots of single men. "There are many men here who live alone in large homes," Daniel says. "That's not how I want to end up."
But there's a paucity of women in rural areas. Population statistics have documented this phenomenon for years, especially in the former East German states. Women, especially younger ones, tend to be more mobile than men and are more likely to move away to larger cities or to head to western Germany. Saxony is a prime example of this phenomenon. Statistically, more women live in the state than men, but if you look at the numbers for the 18-30 age group – in other words, the residents who will shape the region's future – a very different picture emerges. According to the most recent State Development Report for Saxony, for every 100 men, there is an average of just under 91 women. In rural areas, the male to female population imbalance is even more extreme.
Some researchers say that such demographic dips need to be observed over time, arguing that the trend could reverse. Others, though, view the gender imbalance seen in today's population as a true problem that also breeds others: The difficulties inherent in finding a partner and starting a family, they say, often lead to a lack of prospects, both personally and professionally. Some men, they argue, are more likely to slide into right-wing extremism if they remain single.
"Let's Just Meet, But there Needs to Be Some Chemistry"
Daniel isn't a radical person. His most extreme characteristic is likely the fact that he lives like a hermit. But he also worries he may one day be the sole resident of his home. That is why he decided to take out a personal ad. At first, he tested out online dating sites. "But people there talk and talk, and the second you suggest meeting up for a coffee, it's silence." So, Daniel, the computer nerd, instead went the more old-fashioned route: a lonely hearts ad in a newspaper.
"A man living in the country, fascinated by computers, non-smoker, strong build, with a sense of humor, is looking for you," Daniel wrote in the ad, which appears in the classified ads at the very back of the regional newspaper. Week after week, the same sentences are printed: "Let's just meet, but there needs to be some chemistry. My hobbies tend to be digital – e.g. gaming, programming and watching TV series, but don't worry, I also like traveling and can get interested in other things." It's an authentic ad, without any posing or exaggerations. Do women find a guy like that to be agreeably honest or just really strange?
Daniel has brown eyebrows, dark, closely shorn hair that is showing its first signs of graying, a bulky figure, but a very soft presence. He's not like all the others, he says about himself. He shares his story openly, but doesn't want his real name used for fear of leaving behind a trail on the internet. Daniel knows more about networks and computers than most people. "Until now, I was married to my computer," he says, revealing what may be his greatest strength, but also his greatest weakness.