Travelogue XLVIII: Johannisnacht

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Cabaret in Mainz  during the Johannisfest.

June 20, 2015 Summer is the time of festivals in Germany. It seems like every town has one, or several, from the tiniest Dorf to the largest city–a weekend of live music and dancing and wine (or beer, depending on which part of Germany you are in) and all sorts of unhealthy-but-delicious German culinary specialties.

In Mainz, there’s the Johannisnacht festival at the end of June. Things are a little different in Mainz than in the rest of Germany, I think–a bit more intensive, all-encompasing, more Dionysian perhaps. The Fastnacht spirit isn’t just limited to a couple weeks in February.

In Würzburg, for instance, the yearly Kiliani Festival takes place outside of town, on neat and properly contained fairgrounds. In Mainz, the Johannisnacht takes up half the dang town, with the bus schedule screwed up for days and the entire Inner City full of stages and lights and stands selling cocktails and bratwurst. And the Meenzers know how to throw a party–some 250,000 people attend the festival over the course of four days, despite the pouring rain and semi-arctic temperatures this year.

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One of the hundreds of local vineyards who set up a stand for the weekend...

One of the hundreds of local vineyards who set up a stand for the weekend…

Schlager behind the cathedral.

Schlager behind the cathedral.

Music plays an enormous role at the summer festivals. At the Mainzer Johannisnacht, there are four main stages and dozens of concerts over the course of a long weekend–from oldies and brass band to rap and hip-hop, and everything in between.

And Schlager. The Schlager concerts are inescapable. The genre is distinctly German–kitchy, danceable, inescapably catchy pop ballads with roots that go back to the operettas of the 1920s and 30s. Many of the songs sung today date from the 1950s or earlier and have been re-written and re-mixed and re-sung hundreds of times in the ensuing decades. Like Country Music in America, the texts are mostly about drinking and falling into and out of love, but also about the simple, unadulterated joy of being alive. The world of Schlager is full of schöne Tage (beautiful days). In the words of one Fastnacht hit, 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 joy of life…

And everyone knows all the words, it seems. During the Johannisnacht, one has the feeling that half of Mainz is standing in front of the stage, young and old alike, singing and crying and smoking and drinking beer and dancing in that awkward-but-infectious way that only Germans can.

I suppose part of me will always be the snobby operagoer who drinks champagne in the intermission and can talk for hours about a particular interpretation of Mahler’s 2nd. But every once in a while, you just need to link arms with a bunch of crazy Meenzers singing “Traum von Amsterdam” and let it all out.

And anyway, you can’t dance at the opera.

This guy managed to wear lederhosen, drink beer, twerk, and sing all at the same time. That takes skill, folks.

This guy managed to wear lederhosen, drink beer, twerk, and sing Schlager all at the same time. That takes skill, folks.

Despite the pouring rain...

Despite the pouring rain…

80s Rock in the pouring rain.

80s rock.

Cabaret. In some past life, I'm pretty much certain I was a Kabarettistin--coattails and lipstick, glass of red wine in one hand and cigarette in the other. 

Cabaret. In some past life, I’m pretty much certain I was a Kabarettistin–coattails and lipstick, glass of red wine in one hand and cigarette in the other.

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Travelogue XLVII: City, Moldau

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June 6, 2015 Today was a city day, a chance to revel in the beauty of Prague itself. It was my first time in a city not destroyed by American or British bombs in the second World War–the wholeness is visible on every street corner. There is a unity to Prague that is lacking, I think, in cities like Dresden or Munich or even Mainz, almost completely leveled during WWII and slowly rebuilt over a period of decades. Even though the cultural landmarks of those cities have been perfectly, meticulously restored, the effects of the bombs can still be felt–a stone-work facade only painted on, ancient buildings next to jarringly new construction, Old Cities shrunk to fit narrow budgets. In Prague, there is very little of that. One really gets a sense of how things were before human stupidity destroyed so many things.

The sheer loveliness of the city, at the same time, made it difficult for me to reconcile it all with the Prague that emerges from Kafka’s works and diaries. Even though I knew that much of the Jewish Quarter had been rebuilt in the early 20th century, I was somehow still expecting something claustrophobic, narrow, dark. And instead, this bright and enlightened European Kulturstadt. It didn’t help that the weather was absolutely lordly, as the expression goes in German–blue skies, hot, the clearest of early June days. No fog in sight. Not that I was complaining, of course.

I first walked up to the castle (THE Castle, say many Kafka critics, though I had a hard time seeing it), with gorgeous views down to the city and the Moldau.

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The Charles Bridge

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The cathedral inside the castle walls.

The cathedral inside the castle walls.

Despite the beauty, though, I found the enormous crowds a bit unnerving. Here at the beginning of summer in one of the top destinations in Europe, the tourism is on a scale I have never seen before, despite having grown up in a state fueled by the money of rich outsiders who want to look at mountains. I think about how my family would always complain if there were 150 people at the local lake when we wanted to swim–in Prague, there are 150 people waiting to take a picture of a single monument at any given time on any given day. Mainz seems like a country Dorf in comparison, and that is a very good thing as far as I am concerned.

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We all had the same idea….!

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I love the streetcars here.

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Jan Hus memorial.

Jan Hus memorial.

The astronomical clock on the town square, a minute from the house Kafka was born in.

The astronomical clock on the town square, a minute from the house Kafka was born in.

In front of the Charles Bridge.

In front of the Charles Bridge.

That evening, I went boating on the Moldau. I am absolutely fascinated by rivers, and it’s not enough to just stand on a bridge. The Moldau, like the Rhine in Germany, is a force behind the Czech Republic’s mythology and art, bound up with creation and national identity. In all other ways, though, it is the Rhine’s polar opposite–gentle and comforting instead of bracing and wild. More feminine, perhaps, to the Rhine’s towering masculinity (the articles in German, after all, are feminine and masculine, respectively). A row boat on the Rhine would be swept half way to Koblenz in an hour; on the Moldau, you can paddle a bit and drink wine and drift without fearing for your life.

As a side note, it was entirely obvious during the whole process of renting a boat that Prague is NOT America. There were no signs informing prospective rowers that BOATING IS DANGEROUS AND YOU COULD DROWN, no lengthy papers to sign so that nobody would get sued, no confirmation of insurance, no lifejackets, no how-to instructions–just the friendly advice to keep 15 meters between yourself and the locks under the bridge. And so I handed over my 200 Crowns (about 8$) and found myself in possession of a bright blue rowboat with wooden paddles and a lantern hung at the bow.

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I rowed all the way to the bridge and back (without falling in the river or crashing into anything, thank you very much, which anyone who knows me will tell you is a feat). The sun set behind the castle and the river faded from pink to gold and out again to blue. The restaurants on the riverside were playing jazz. There are some moments where the awareness of the towering privilege of one’s life comes crashing in all at once.

When I got back to the docks, it was gloaming–blue water, blue air, the stone bridges faded out to gray.

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Fare thee well, Prague…

Travelogue XLVI: Kafka and Jazz in Prague

Franz Kafka memorial

Franz Kafka memorial.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJune 5, 2015 My first day in Prague was all Franz Kafka–the museum, his house and apartments, the monument to him near the Jewish Cemetery.

I was in some sort of strange over-excited mood all afternoon. “You’re shaking, Emily,” said Ralf at lunch. “You need to calm down and chill out. Take some deep breaths.” But I didn’t want to chill out. I’ve never been good at that, anyway, and especially not in the city of The Trial and The Metamorphoses and all those crazy, crazy stories….

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The house Kafka was born in, now a café. 

So, Kafka’s Prague. Unlike many of the intellectuals and artists of his time, he had no enormous international career–in fact, he hardly travelled at all, except for his stays at various sanatoriums and Kurorte. Even within Prague, his movements were limited–on a map, his various apartments and offices trace a tiny circle in the heart of the Old City and Jewish Quarter. Below, a few small impressions from my walks in the area.

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Absinthe, which is banned or not readily available in other European countries, is reveled in in Prague.

Absinthe, which is banned or not readily available in other European countries, is reveled in in Prague.

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Marionettes in the Old City.

A dude with a really big snake...

A bit surreal.

The city was hot, hot, the buildings and streets still releasing heat long after the sun went down. That evening, I went back to the Café Louvre–not to the light-filled upstairs salon I had eaten in earlier, but to the Jazz Club and bar downstairs. Dark rooms, red velvet upholstery, a woman in a black dress singing jazz standards, cocktails and red wine in between sets, the heat–it all had something of the cabaret about it, of old German films, and perhaps a bit of Steppenwolf, too.

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Travelogue XLV: Letters to Milena

Drinking tea--not absinthe!--and reading and writing in Cafe Slavia.

Drinking tea–not absinthe!–and reading and writing in Café Slavia.

June 5, 2015 Reading Kafka’s Letters to Milena in Prag–eight hours on the bus on the way here, now on the streets and in cafés until the entire city turns into a series of variations on his story.

It’s strange–as I move forward with my education in the field of literature, I find that my approach to books and reading is becoming ever more, well, academic, supra-personal, professional even. Mostly, this is a good thing, as I have always tended to personalize art to the extent of being completely incapable of talking about it in any sort of academic setting. I am pursuing the reading and teaching of literature as a career, after all, and I want to be able to do those things with as much professional integrity as possible.

But I don’t think I will ever be able to escape the personal-ness of Kafka. As I have written in the past, I can’t read his works any other way than the way I read books as a child: as something intensely private and intimate, as personal messages aimed right into the soul of the reader. With him, there is no wall between art and life. When faced with The Castle or his letters, all of my hard-won Literaturwissenschaftlerin-professionalism flies out the window.

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Café Louvre

So, the Letters to Milena. When they began writing, Kafka was 37 and she was 24, the translator of his works into Czech. They exchanged letters for three years, until some months before his death in 1924. She died twenty years later in a concentration camp in Germany, deported because of her involvement with Jewish and political refugees–yet another one of Kafka’s inner circle destroyed by the Second World War. It is perhaps a good thing that he never lived past the 1920s.

Like the diaries, Kafka’s letters are almost more intense than his novels and stories. To read them is to become a voyeur, an observer of the most private sphere of one distinctly troubled individual.

~~~~~~

Notes from my reading of the Letters:

Leere und Leidenschaft–emptiness and passion. Kafka’s great love and even greater fear of this girl–Mädchen, he calls her, not Frau–who is full of strength, courage, and vitality, and who is offering him a hand that he just can’t allow himself to reach out and take.

The closeness of love and pain. Kafka writes, Liebe ist, daß Du mir das Messer bist, mit dem ich in mir wühle. Love is: you are the knife I turn within myself. And Milena, as the editor suggests in the afterward, makes herself sick because he himself was sick–tuberculosis, hemorrhage of the lungs, coughing up blood in the night. She starts turning herself into him.

The eternal misunderstanding–you don’t know me yet, Milena, Milena, that was a silly joke which you did not understand–and the way in which Kafka is unable to translate words into physical nearness. At times one has the feeling that in some sick way he is reveling in the self-imposed, masochistic distance the pages of finely-crafted prose put between him and Milena. He loses himself in language and art so he doesn’t have to face reality.

In the end, I am undone by the Eros of Kafka, for the first time. Your hair on my brow, Milena, Milena, Milena, your lips turning towards mine in sleep… It really is true, as I once said to the Professor after trying and failing to understand Robert Musil’s Drei Frauen (Three Women), that you need to have experienced certain things in order to really read certain literature. Milena’s responses have all been lost, but at this moment, I think could have written her letters for her. I know what was in them.

Café Orient

Café Orient, empty this afternoon because of the heat.

And the backdrop to it all is the Prager Cafékultur. The city is full of cafés, many of which hosted (and still host!) Prague’s artistic and political circles. During his lifetime, Kafka was a regular frequenter of the cafés, of course, along with Max Brod and his entire circle of law students and philosophers. From the diaries and letters, it is possible to reconstruct the Cafékultur as he lived it: Arco, Slavia, Evropa, Louvre, and on and on.

The spaces are themselves works of art. Art Nouveau, Cubism, Jugendstil, and everything in between–polished table-tops, high ceilings, high windows with street cars racing by outside. Aesthetically, it’s all the polar opposite of the Mainzer Weinstuben I know so well, all candle light, dark wood paneling,  and tiny latticed windows with flower boxes, looking out onto cobblestones.

The Absinthe Drinker, a famous painting hanging in Café Slavia.

The Absinthe Drinker, a famous painting hanging in Café Slavia.

But here in Prague, even in the 21st century and on the brightest and most un-angsty of June days, you can almost still see them all–Franz Kafka, Max Brod, Smetana, Kubin, Werfel, Einstein, all drinking espresso and absinthe and talking about existentialism or theater or war or whatever else one talked about among geniuses at the turn of the 19th century. It’s heady stuff.

Much more to come.

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Café Slavia

Café Evropa

Café Evropa

Einem gewissen Mikal gewidmet, falls er dies mal lesen sollte.