Travelogue XXVI: And they say the Germans have no sense of humor…

UAB3xLn January 30, 2015 …On a much lighter note, the door I [used to] walk through every day to go to class at the Johannes Gutenberg Universität is going viral. It broke a couple weeks ago, and in good German style a helpful sign was immediately posted: “Door broken. Technician is informed.” And then when nothing happened, some wisecracker put up another sign: “Technician also broken.” It’s all gone downhill from there. 2NJSjn3 4C2ZD8a The door now has its own Facebook page, newspaper article, and viral postings on reddit and imgur (where you can read about the whole thing in English). The absurdity of human existence is absolutely thrilling, sometimes. If the status of the door is keeping you awake at night, you too can stay informed of minute-by-minute developments by clicking this link: http://www.istdiephilotuernochdefekt.de.vu Ckr1Hb6 Update: Day 2. Well, that escalated quickly. The door’s Facebook page has some 4,500 likes, it has been featured in a 20 minute segment on local radio, #technikeristinformiert is trending on twitter and instagram, and the Allgemeine Zeitung has taken up the story. I just walked by on my way to the library, and even on a Saturday morning there was a small group of sightseers standing in front of the door…

Meanwhile, on campus things have taken a turn for the philosophical. And political.

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This is not a door.

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Putin is informed. The door will be annexed.

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Nobody has any intention of informing the technician! Spoofing, of course, on Walther Ulbricht’s infamous words from Berlin, 1961: Nobody has any intention of building a wall!

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And the saga continues….

 

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Travelogue XXV: Politics in Mainz

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15. January, 2014 Here in Mainz, some 2,500 people took to the streets in a political demonstration this past Monday, starting at the train station and marching through the old city and back again.

Called into existence by the attacks in Paris, the demonstration officially centered around opposing PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West), a political movement started in Dresden last October. Despite accusations of racism and Fremdenfeindlichkeit (xenophobia), the group has gathered a massive following in the last few months–some 25,000 people attended the most recent rally in Dresden. An opposing movement has grown just as quickly, with passionate counter demonstrations across Germany. Ten days ago, for instance, the city of Cologne turned out the lights in their famous cathedral in protest, and the sheer number of anti-PEGIDA protesters in the streets forced the group to cancel the parade they had planned for the evening.

Monday’s demonstration was the first of its kind in Mainz, organized over the weekend by a few young people per Facebook (as is just about everything these days). There were news reporters and a film crew in attendance, along with some of Mainz’s most important political figures–the Oberbürgermeister Michael Ebling and CDU-Kreischef Wolfgang Reichel among others. People walked with candles and pencils in memory of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, held signs and banners with messages against extremism of every sort.

There were speeches, too, at two different points along the way. The speakers called for a new definition of WIR, we, as a culture, country, and world. We aren’t responsible for the terrorist attacks in Paris, but we are responsible for the society in which such tragedies take place. It was as much a memorial for the dead as a call to action.

For me, having grown up in a town of 800 in a place where individual freedom is prized much more than political solidarity, it was quite a sight to see.

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The crowd at the train station before the demonstration began. 

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Flag of Europe.

As I have said before, living in Germany right now means having these issues in the forefront of your mind: interculturality, political asylum, immigration, Islam, Christianity, freedom of expression, multiculturality, the failure of multiculturality. It’s not an easy, quiet, or particularly peaceful story, as any amount of time spent listening to the news here will make clear. But I think the difficult nature of the dialogue is one of its strengths. I once heard a sociologist give a lecture on cultural integration, and he argued that Germany’s sometimes-troubled engagement with the cultural/religious Other is what sets them above other, more outwardly peaceful European countries. “Just because there’s quiet on the surface doesn’t mean there’s peace. It just means the lid is clamped down on a pot of boiling water that could explode any minute,” he said. In Germany, there’s no lid on the pot at all.

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Diversity instead of Simplicity.

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Open eyes, open hearts, open doors.

Travelogue XXIV: Nous Sommes Charlie Hebdo

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11. January, 2015 Wednesday’s attack is in the air here in Mainz in a way that terrorist activity in a European city would never be in America. Here, it strikes closer to home. Paris is some four hours away from the German border–an entirely different country, yes, but in American terms it might as well be the neighboring state.

Every major German city has come together over the past several days to show their solidarity with the French people. In Mainz, there have been multiple demonstrations and memorials since Wednesday, some spontaneous, some planned by student and political groups. On Monday evening, there will be a demonstration against intolerance, racism, and hatred of all types at the train station, organized by a group of young people calling themselves Break the Circle. The Facebook page shows some 1,200 participants, myself among them.

Today, I walked into town and passed by the memorial in front of the French Institute–flowers, candles, comics, and signs with I am Charlie written in a dozen languages. There were pencils and pens covering the ground–so others could easily leave a message as well? As a symbol of the freedom of the written and spoken word? Powerful either way, I think.

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I spent the whole afternoon in the city, and made my way back to the train station as the sun was going down. When I passed the French Institute again, I noticed a young Turkish couple, obviously Islamic, standing in front of the memorial. Very carefully, without disturbing the rest of the display, they were taking down the few comics showing muslim figures, crumpling them up, and carrying them to the trash can on the other side of the street.

This is a dialogue that is very much alive in Germany–you can feel it in the air, you can see it in the streets. And it’s good that way, I think.

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Travelogue XXIII: Marc Chagall, Stephanskirche

IMG_11216. January, 2015. Just another lovely spot in Mainz–the Stephanskirche. I’ve been wanting to write about it for weeks, but held off to wait for clear skies. The sunlight makes the windows come alive.

The Church of St. Stephan was originally built in 990, on the highest point of land in the city. It was almost entirely destroyed on February 27, 1954 during an American air raid, and has slowly been rebuilt over the course of several decades. Today, the church is renowned for its nine stained glass windows created by Marc Chagall, one of the greatest Jewish artists of the 20th century.

Chagall’s story is one that can be told by dozens of European artists of his time–early renown in Europe, displacement by war, flight to America, observation of Europe’s self-destruction from afar, rebirth and recreation. He was a leading figure of early modernism and heavily involved in the Surrealist and Symbolist movements in Paris. Today, his large-scale paintings and stained glass can be seen in a Jerusalem synagogue, on the ceiling of the Paris Opera, in cathedrals in England, in the United Nations building, and on the stage of the New York City ballet.

The windows in Mainz are the only such pieces he created for a German church, and the last stained glass he created before his death in 1985. When he began work, he was 91 years old. He intended, he wrote, for the finished windows to serve as a symbol of Christian-Jewish unification, a gesture of rebirth after the ravages of World War II.

Today, some 200,000 visitors a year come to the Stephanskirche to see his work.

Mainz_Stiftskirche_StStephan_2810_RET_1024x768The windows turn the light in the church deep blue, with highlights of rainbow. One almost has the feeling of being under water and looking up at the sun.

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For me a stained glass window is a transparent partition between my heart and the heart of the world. Stained glass has to be serious and passionate. It is something elevating and exhilarating. It has to live through the perception of light. To read the Bible is to perceive a certain light, and the window has to make this obvious through its simplicity and grace…

Marc Chagall

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Details from two of the dozens of scenes from the Bible painted on the three windows behind the altar.

The Stephanskirche is in the Oberstadt (literally, the over-city), the part of town up on the hill and a little apart from the bustle of the center. It’s my favorite area in Mainz, full of slanty pathways and stone stair steps. Below, the walk back into the city.

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