Travelogue XXIX: Und es war alles alles gut

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFebruary 22, 2015 Today it felt almost like spring–clear skies, and a warmth to the sunshine I haven’t felt since sometime in October. I decided to call a momentary halt to the paper-writing, and took the train an hour north up the Rhine to Koblenz. The trip is one of the most beautiful stretches in all of Germany, I think–steep vineyards all the way down to the water, tiny villages on the shores, a dozen 1,500-year-old castles at the top of the cliffs. It is the land of the Lorelei, of Rheinromantik, of all the poets and painters of German Romanticism who found in the area something sublime and exalted.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Not Stolzenfels–another smaller castle halfway up the mountain.

I visited Castle Stolzenfels, a few minutes outside of Koblenz. It has a long and colorful history: the original fortress was built in the 13th century as a toll station on the Rhine River, was occupied by French and Swedish troops during the Thirty Years’ War, and was partially destroyed by the French army in 1689. In 1823, the ruins were gifted to Prussian Crownprince Frederick William IV, who had the entire structure rebuilt as a summer palace in the most fairy-tale-like of styles–New Gothic, Romanticism, full of gilded lanterns and tiny gardens and heavy silk tapestries.

First, though, there was the walk up to the castle, a good kilometer above the Rhine River valley.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Footpath: To the Castle.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe feeling of space, of clear air, height and movement, far above the city and the trains and the noise–I was giddy. I love Mainz, but one is never really alone there. Here, on a Sunday afternoon in late February, I felt like I had the whole river valley to myself.

And the castle–I think it speaks for itself. One had the feeling of being in some hermetic universe of Romantic loveliness, inside of some charmed scene from an Eichendorf novel. How does Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts end? Birdsong and music, und es war alles, alles gut–all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well. It was that, exactly.

I was utterly enchanted.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Inside the chapel–stained glass and red velvet and a gold ceiling.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Gargoyles on the chapel spires.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

On to the gardens…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

Advertisements

Travelogue XXVIII: Hier bin ich Narr -or- Hermine ist in der Hölle

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

An explosion of color after four months of gray.

February 17, 2015 I am fascinated by the Apollo-Dionysus dichotomy–it’s one of the most pervasive themes in German literature, brought to philosophical expression by Nietzsche in his Birth of Tragedy from 1872. Apollo, he says, is the Greek god of sun and lyre, reason, clarity, self-control, thought, sanity, the Word. Dionysus is his opposite: darkness, sensuality, insanity, debauchery, intoxication, unbounded ecstasy. German literature asks, How to bring the two together? How to find a balance, a Gleichgewicht, a middle road between two extremes? Too much of the one leads to sterility and lifelessness, too much of the other to insanity and dissolution. Look at the works of Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann, for instance: so many of their characters fail or succeed, live or die by their ability to bring Apollo and Dionysus together without destroying themselves and others.

The famous Tanz auf der Lu (Dance on Ludwigsstreet). A live band, thousands of costumed revelers of all ages dancing on the streets, from Schillerplatz all the way back to the cathedral.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Karnival–Fastnacht–is the working-out of that dichotomy in German society, on the streets instead of in art. Five days of pure Dionysus–it’s the balance found, the other half of the equation. Most of the time, as the stereotype goes, German society is driven by Apollo: reasonable, orderly, efficient, rigorous. But then there’s Fastnacht, when all that goes out the window. For five days, the whole city goes mad–no holds barred, Dionysus is Joker und Bacchus, and all the rules are broken. It’s what the Greeks experienced during the great national performances of their tragedies: ekstasis, catharsis. The Self as a rational, autonomous element dissolves into the Whole.

And it is not just the students, the young people who would be out partying anyway–it’s everyone. The four-year-old with his hair dyed green screaming “Helau!” at the parade, the 70-year-old couples in the Weinstube in the Old City, singing and beating on the tables. And everyone else: there’s thousands of revelers on the streets at night, dancing and drinking and throwing the wine bottles on the ground instead of in the recycling bin. You see it in the city, too, normally so neat and orderly: the bus schedule is hopelessly screwed up, everything is color, and the streets are covered in streamers and glitter and green glass Jägermeister bottles.

I found it all incredible. This, the presence of Fastnacht in society, is the balance, the Gleichgewicht, which Faust and Gustav Aschenbach and Harry Haller tried and failed, perhaps, to find.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“Here I am a fool”–spoofing on Goethe’s Faust. “Hier bin ich Mensch”–“Here I am human.”

It all reminds me of the famous scene from Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, “Hermine ist in der Hölle”–Hermine is in hell. Harry Haller the Apollonian gives himself over to Dionysus for a night of excess, frenzy, and sweat-soaked dance in the pit of hell. It’s not an entirely untroubling scene, but it is a moment of transcendence, and the Steppenwolf emerges with a sort of redemption.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ludwigsstreet, before the start of the dance.

I was on the tram headed into the city on Saturday afternoon. It was full to bursting, and the sun had come out for the first time in what felt like weeks. Someone had brought a boom box, and the entire train turned into a party, giddy people jumping and dancing and trying to pour shots of Jägermeister and singing at the top of their lungs:

Eins kann uns keiner nehmen, und das ist die pure Lust am Leben. There is one thing nobody can take from us, and that is the pure love of life.

Of course Fastnacht has problematic aspects–the police presence in the city skyrockets by necessity, and my main concern on the bus on the way home Monday night was not getting barfed on. But moments like the one on the tram transcend.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Kreppel, aka Berliner, aka Jelly Doughnuts. Only available in Mainz during Fastnacht.

Naturally, though, it is not all insanity and merrymaking. Like the theater in Germany, nothing here can ever be merely entertaining. A key element of Fastnacht in Mainz is politics–political commentary, critique, satire. The floats in the big Rosenmontag parade are all of a political nature, some quite scathing. Many of them I didn’t understand fully, since my knowledge of local politics is not exactly up to snuff. But international politics featured as well….

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Obama the sitting duck.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Invasion of the Chlorine-Chicken. Lol.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Rosenmontag parade.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And there it was. Fastnacht in Mainz, in all its Dionysian glory. I was downtown this evening, and the city crews were already at work, sweeping thousands of pounds of glittery trash off the streets and taking down the stages. It was entirely melancholy, actually.

I don’t think I could take more than one carnival a year, but it was very good while it lasted.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Selbst Johannes Gutenberg hat mitgefeiert!

 

Travelogue XXVII: Fastnacht I: Altweiberfastnacht

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

February 12, 2015 When I arrived in Mainz, I had no idea I had landed in one of the biggest PAR-TAY centers in all of Germany. At least, it’s a party during Karnival–or Fastnacht, or Meenzer Fassenacht if you really want to sound like a local–the Thursday through Tuesday directly preceding the start of Lent in the church calendar. Mainz’ celebration is rivaled only by Cologne in Terms of all-around grandeur–six day of partying, uninhibited foolery, and dissolution of all sorts.

It all kicked off this morning at 11:11am. Eleven is the number of the fools, cheeky, sinful, and askant, positioned between the orderly numbers 10 and 12. Ten commandments, 10 fingers on a perfect human body, 12 months in the celestial year, 12 clockwork hours in a day–so much structure and elegance has no place during carnival.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Helau helau helau!

In the official Fastnacht calendar, Thursday is Altweiberfastnacht–the Old Ladies’ Carnival, in memory of a stubborn group of German washerwomen who staged a rebellion in 1824 and broke into the male-dominated celebrations for the first time. Traditionally, women are given full political, social, and sexual reign on Altweiberfastnacht–crossdressing is permitted, the mayor hands over the keys of the city, and women claim their dominance over men by cutting off their ties (Freud would have a hay-day with the symbolism behind that one, let me tell you!).

Another vitally important part of Fastnacht is the music. Specifically, the Schlager–the incredibly catchy, incredibly annoying German Party music which everybody hates when they are a more rational state of mind, but apparently can’t get enough of during five days of the year.

Due to my huge camera, people assumed I was from the newspaper, and practically threw themselves at me trying to get me to take their picture.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Steampunk FTW. So much dapper, I can’t even.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“Are you from the newspaper??!! Hold on hold on, I gotta pose.”

And there it was: the opening moments of one of the biggest events of the year, on a gray Thursday morning, in downtown Mainz. It was a PAR-TAY, I tell you.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Booooze! A very important part of just about any German festival….

Stay tuned….

Reading List II: Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer, Die Farm in den Grünen Bergen

3442119245_6182b2e65a_b

The Zuckmayer’s farm was near Silver Lake in Barnard Vermont–it looks about the same today as it did in 1940.

 Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer: The Farm in the Green Mountains, 1949: part memoir, part diary, part fascinating account of rural life in 1940s Vermont, the state I grew up in. I’ve been slowly reading it since Christmas, mostly on the train between Mainz and Frankfurt. And, check it out–it’s even available in English!

The authoress Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer was an actress in Berlin in the 1920s, where she met her husband. Carl Zuckmayer was a prominent author and playwright from Mainz, where he is still quite a point of pride–I’ve seen his plays at the Mainzer Staatstheater, and gone to an exhibit about his life at the local library. They fled Germany with their two daughters in 1939 and, after a short stint in New York City, acquired a run-down farm in Barnard, Vermont. They were upper-class Europeans and artists, utterly without prior experience in farming or rural life, but they somehow made it all work.

In many ways, minus of course the exile and the upper-class-European-artist part, it’s the story of my parents, who also moved to Vermont decades ago to raise a family and start farming from the ground up, through trial and error and sheer force of will. I spent the first 18 years of my life on our sheep farm and Bed and Breakfast outside of Chelsea, another tiny village not all that far from Barnard. It’s a small world.

100_0513

The rams’ shed on our farm after a snowstorm–cosy and picturesque, sure, but not fun if you’re the one who needs to bring them water twice a day.

I can understand so much of what Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer writes in the book–these are things that haven’t changed at all in the last century in Vermont, things I know every time I go back to visit. The sounds an old post-and-beam farmhouse makes when it gets cold, for instance, or the way the snowplow rattles the windowpanes at 4am, the way that all travel slows to a crawl during Mud Season, the vow that you make to yourself every year on slaughtering day to never eat meat again, the way you structure a day around caring for animals, what it means to make a living with your hands on a small piece of land that you own.

We seem to have traversed much of the same ground, too–she spends an entire chapter describing her monthly pilgrimages to the libraries, theater, and art galleries of Dartmouth College in Hannover, New Hampshire, that ivy-league sanctuary in the middle of the sprawling Connecticut River farmlands. I spent my teenage years driving an hour and a half over bad roads to sit in those same libraries, to look at the art and to attend live broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. To me, as to Alice, Dartmouth College was an oasis, a mecca, super-saturated with the sort of refined intellectual and artistic beauty that struggles to find a place in any rural landscape.

Above all, though, it’s the people I recognize most from her descriptions. The Vermonters–they haven’t changed a bit in the past century, and probably never will.  It’s all the same: the liberal politics and tough-as-nails self-sufficiency, the immediate and lasting suspicion of anyone not born in the state, the willingness to impart copious free advice at all hours of the day and night, the fierce devotion to place, tradition, community. She writes, “Vermont is a relatively poor state in comparison with the rest of America, but they do not shy away from their poverty, and they do not love wealth. Their autonomy and sense of balance grants them independence even in the most uncertain times, and gives them their sense of pride and fearlessness.” Indeed.

mud

Mud Season, Vermont’s fifth season, at its best–the road that runs along side our farm last April.

On the other hand, though, there are many things I do not know at all in the world Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer describes. What it feels like to leave one’s family behind forever, or to live in a land of peace and plenty while one’s homeland is being torn apart by the bombs of the very country in which you have found shelter–I can’t say that I can relate to all that. And yet it was the experience of so many thousands of European intellectuals and artists from Alice’s generation, men and women who left Europe to start new lives in Los Angeles or New York, or on a farm in the backwoods of Barnard, Vermont.

With all that in mind, what has lingered with me the most after reading is the strength of Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer herself. Reading between the lines, it’s clear that she was the driving force in the family, and a vital support system for her husband who would rather have been back in Europe writing books and directing plays. It was because of her great will that her family was able to pull together in a new land, and because of her energy, curiosity, and good humor that they were able to thrive. That’s true heroism, there.