Travelogue L: Berlin Impressions

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 July 20, 2015 Writing any sort of neat summary post about Berlin is more or less impossible. As I have written before, the very nature of the city defies all attempts at synopsis: historically and architecturally, it is a place of metamorphosis and not of stability. One minute you are walking down some gorgeous boulevard surrounded by theaters and old restaurants, the next you are standing in front of a construction zone, with half the street torn up and posters of what it all looked like before 1989 hanging on the chain-link fence beside you. But the constant shift is what makes it all so exciting.

And it is exciting. You ride the U-Bahn and S-Bahn (subway and overground) uptown, downtown, to some tiny restaurant in the Friedrichsstraße and back again to the Brandenburg Gate. You wolf down a plate of  peppers and couscous at the Turkish Market on the river. You stand for an hour in the line outside the National Gallery to see the Expressionists, in sunshine so penetrating that the museum staff passes out umbrellas. You talk until two, three, four in the morning about God and Eros and Art–after the Theater, in the hotel bar, in some gorgeous tiled courtyard at the Hackescher Markt. All through a haze of movement and wine and overstimulation that is both heady and exhausting.

“Man kann ja schlafen, wenn man tot ist,” I say. You can sleep when you’re dead.

Central Station.

Central Station.

This time around, it was Berlin’s infrastructure, and specifically the city’s massive public transportation system, that struck me the most.

The whole place runs on a great tangle of S- and U-Bahn stations, some works of art in and of themselves, some rivaling Frankfurt for dirt and stink. One has the feeling of being within a great machine–no, more than a machine, in some sort of living and breathing organism. The Central Station, five stories of glass and steel, serves some 1,800 trains and 350,000 travelers each day. The energy that pervades the rest of the city is felt in every station in the Innenstadt: a new train roaring in every three minutes, throw yourself on and then off again, stand because all the seats are taken.

Above all, I was shocked at (and perhaps more than a little proud of) the relative ease with which I was able to maneuver through it all, after a year abroad. It’s a feeling of accomplishment, of power even, to sift through thousands of connections and timetables, to get on the right train, and to know exactly where you are and where you are going. If only the rest of existence was that simple.

Still, it’s all something that can be learned. A year ago I didn’t even know that you had to push the “Stop” button the bus if you wanted to get off at the next station. But things move forward. The Mädchen vom Land (country girl) is now thriving in the European jungle, folks.

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Mirror image in the Central Station, S-Bahn platform.

The position of the Berlin Wall is marked throughout the city, even though it doesn't exist anymore--a line drawn through buildings, across streets, behind the Brandenburg Gate.

The position of the Berlin Wall is marked throughout the city, even though it doesn’t exist anymore–a line drawn through buildings, across streets, behind the Brandenburg Gate.

Inside the Ständige Vertretung.

Inside the Ständige Vertretung, a restaurant on the river that serves as a sort of shrine, in the best sense of the word. to pre-reunification Germany.

The Holocaust memorial--direct in the heart of the city, inescapable.

The Holocaust memorial–direct in the heart of the city, inescapable.

The seat of Hitler's bunker in Berlin, where he committed suicide and where Goebbel's wife killed her six children--a parking lot and utilitarian appartments. The lack of any sort of monument is just as fitting and unsettling as the massive memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust across the street.

The seat of Hitler’s bunker in Berlin, where he committed suicide and where Goebbel and his wife poisoned their six children–a parking lot and utilitarian appartments. The lack of any sort of monument is just as fitting and unsettling as the massive memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust across the street.

In the S-Bahn.

In the S-Bahn.

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Willkommen in Berlin. Welcome to Berlin.

In the end, after three days in Berlin I was completely and utterly exhausted. But I think that was more from the talking-till-four-in-the-morning than from anything else. Dialogue at its most intense is one of the most beautifully draining experiences on this planet.

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Travelogue XLIX: Weinkultur

 

At the Weinfest am Kirchenstück.

At the Weinfest am Kirchenstück.

July 5, 2015 Most Americans associate Germany with beer–Pilsner and Weizen, Oktoberfest, etc etc. But I am living in Rheinhessen, the single largest wine-producing area in the country, which means that the Germany I know is the land of wine. Weinkultur–Wine Culture–is definitely a thing.

Here, wine is much more than something you pour at dinner, is about much more than the alcohol content. You don’t just drink wine–you talk about it, you debate and discuss, you admire. You make a trip once a year to your favorite tiny winery somewhere in Flomborn or Büdesheim or Bingen and come back with a trunk full of €600 worth of champagne. You sit every Friday night in the same Weinstube you have been going to since after the Second World war and make speeches about the Riesling for the benefit of the Mädchen from America.

It’s an art form in and of itself, talking about wine, and the amount of knowledge and genuine passion the average Weinstube-goer brings to the discussion is absolutely staggering. It’s like the way my little brother talks about baseball, or the way my piano teacher could compare the voices of Fischer-Dieskau and Wunderlich–the finest of nuances spun out into story, with a whole poetic vocabulary and symbolism to match.

I’m learning, too. After a year, I know what I like–dry Riesling, a good Rosé, and every now and then an Auslese because they taste like whatever the gods were drinking on Homer’s Olympus. But I’m no expert, can’t work out all the tiny differences that transform the drinking and talking about of wine into a sort of creative act.

Yet, anyway.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn Mainz, the opportunities to celebrate, learn about, and, most importantly, to drink wine abound. The city is one of the eight Great Wine Capitals in the world, after all, and people are verdammt proud of it.

At the University of Mainz, for instance, the student-run group Uni Vinum organizes a “Wine Express” once a month for students–€15, a charter bus, an afternoon of wine-tasting at a couple of the hundreds of wineries in the area. Most are small family businesses run by multiple generations, with histories that go back hundreds of years. A wine-tasting includes a tour of the vineyards and a presentation of the wines by a member of the family, with plenty of opportunities to ask questions and peek behind the scenes. For newcomers such as myself, it’s perfect.

The drive to diversify--many wineries have a small Gästehaus, or bed-and-breakfast inn.

The need to diversify–many wineries have a small Gästehaus, or bed-and-breakfast inn, alongside the wine business.

For me, equally as fascinating as the wineries themselves is the chance to be on the other side of agritourism for a change. When I am at home, on the farm and bed and breakfast in in Vermont, I live the family business. There, I am the second generation, the daughter on the family farm who serves simultaneously as actress, tour guide, and seductress of the curious strangers whose money allows us to do what we do. At home, as in Germany, it is all about storytelling. My ancestors purchased the land in 1650, I grew up in these vineyards with my father, we are the only fully organic winery in the area–my parents came from the city and started the business from scratch 30 years ago, I spent every summer in the garden with my mother, we are the only farm with Gotland sheep in New England. A family business is a family business, whether in Germany or America, and the rhetoric is always the same.

A multi generational affair: above, the son, below, the father.

A multi generational affair: above, the son (on the right–to the left is Max Lindemann, the force of energy behind Uni Vinum), below, the father.

Storytelling.

Storytelling.

And a cute cat, of course. The presence of a small and fluffy animal is guaranteed to increase the buying power of tourists.

And a cute cat, of course. The presence of a small and fluffy animal is guaranteed to increase the buying power of tourists.

Champagne reception in the garden....

Champagne reception in the garden….

Then into the cellars...

Then into the cellars…

...and then a tractor ride up to the top of the vineyards for wine tasting.

…and then a tractor ride up to the top of the vineyards for wine tasting.

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About 8 wines in. 🙂

For those who want access to more than one winery at a time, however, there are the dozens of wine festivals taking place in the area at any given moment during the summer. They range from tiny–a few stands at the corner of some vineyard on the Rhine–to immense–the Weinmarkt in Mainz lasts for two weekends and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors.

Last night, for instance, I went to the festival on the Kirchenstück, a small vineyard right outside of downtown Mainz. It was a local affair, almost entirely free of international tourists–no live music, no fancy show, just picnic tables set up between the rows of grape vines and a field turned into a make-shift parking lot. The German couple I was with knew many of the wineries personally.

And it was absolutely gorgeous.

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Weinschorle--half wine, half sparkling water--is very popular when the temperatures are in the mid 90s, as they were last night....

Weinschorle–half wine, half sparkling water–is very popular when the temperatures are in the mid 90s, as they were last night….

A family affair....

A family affair….

The spoils.

The spoils.

Rosé.

Rosé.

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When we left it was nearly midnight, and people were still coming in. Lanterns strung up over the road, crates of empty wine bottles stacked behind the stands, children running down between the long rows of grape vines. They were probably going to be there all night.

One Year in Germany

July 1, 2015 It’s been a year in Germany, folks. Wahnsinn. Insane. I have had a thoughtful few days. Last night was a full moon, and I didn’t sleep.

What is this whole business of traveling and of living abroad, in the end? What on earth am I doing? Perhaps things are as T.S. Eliot says:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring 
Will be to arrive where we started 
And know the place for the first time.

We turn abroad to come home, to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to stay and to know and to love a single place. Or perhaps, conversely, Tennyson was right:

I am a part of all that I have met; 
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’ 
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades 
For ever and forever when I move.
h
To him, traveling is end-less, a process of insatiability, the great awakener of greed and curiosity and wanderlust. There is no such thing as home. We turn outwards to keep turning outwards.
h
Even after a year, I don’t know who is right.

And why Emily Abroad? Why take the pictures and tell the story? Here, I have more of a definite answer.

Firstly, I write because I don’t want to forget. The opportunity to travel and see the world is an absolute privilege, one I want to pursue with intention and with eyes wide open. Posting a thousand pictures to Facebook isn’t enough: I want to think in some tangible way, I want to ask questions and make connections on paper between land, people, and literature. I want, as I wrote nearly two years ago in my DAAD application, to ground my love of art in reality.

This all has practical grounds, too, of course. The great dream is to become a professor of German literature, and I want my teaching to be based in reality. This is the time for me to gather and record experiences, to build bridges that, one day, could be important for my students.

After all, if not now, when?

But there is another personal reason for Emily Abroad, perhaps for me the most vital. I have had problems for years with chronic pain, and writing, simply put, offers me the chance to tell my story without that pain. The chance to heal myself. When I write, “I hiked up to the castle on the mountain and it was glorious,” it was glorious, and the fact that I took breaks every 15 minutes to rest and force back tears of frustration is no longer important. Because I so don’t want to remember the pain.

Writing, then, is first and foremost catharsis.

Many people–and above all Germans, for whom the private sphere has an almost religious importance–have asked whether I truly feel comfortable living my life and travels in such a public way. But everything I write, as should be clear from the previous paragraph, is Selbstinszenierung–self-staging, self-production, self-creation. I write about real life, but the reality I present is told, is storied.

In this view of things, I take my cue from pop divinities like Lady Gaga, for whom the public life is purely art, and from certain French theorists (Foucault, Barthes) who preached the disappearance, the death, of the author through the very process of putting words on a page. In telling my own story I make the leap from reality to art and in so doing destroy my own presence in the work.

So, in the end, the Emily in the blog isn’t me–or maybe she is, actually, since storied reality is all we have. All history is only tale-telling, after all (Geschichte).

At any rate, it is the tension between poetry and truth (Dichtung und Wahrheit!) that creates great art. Not that I am creating great art, of course, or any sort of art at all. I’m just a girl from Vermont who likes to take pictures of things and then write about them. And that’s exciting enough.

So there it is. One year down, one to go. As I said, Wahnsinn.

And finally, an enormous thank you to everyone who has reached out to me–emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, professionally, financially–in the last year. A German author who spent time in the USA with the DAAD spoke in Mainz today about the isolation of living abroad, the loneliness and the feeling of being shut off from all practical support. I can honestly say that, while a certain amount of purifying isolation most likely always accompanies travel, the drastic alone-ness he spoke of has not been my experience. Far from it.

To name just a few people who have been there in some vital way: my family and grandparents, the Professor and the rest of the Hillsdale faculty, Dian, Aunt Sylvia, Ralf and Jutta, everyone from the farm in Kulmbach, the Komparatistinnen, Kodiak, Mikal, Valerie, Max, Annika and family, Madlon and Ulrich, Professors Lamping and Eckel from Uni Mainz, usw usw.

Thank you.