Travelogue LXII: Hamburg I: Reeperbahn

Nota Bene: anyone who isn’t interested in a frank portrayal of the sex industry in Germany may want to stop reading now. This isn’t my usual territory, either, but sometimes you just have to say things.

Sex for 39 Euros! 100% satisfaction guaranteed!

Sex for 39 Euros! 100% satisfaction guaranteed!

September 26, 2015 Hamburg is a fascinating and beautiful city, known for its massive harbor and Speicherstadt and really good fish–and for its red light district, the Reeperbahn, affectionately referred to as die sündigste Meile der Welt (the most sinful mile in the world). I spent a couple hours there before my train left for Lübeck.

Why go at all? Because it’s a part of Hamburg, and a part of the world in general, and because you don’t get the chance to walk through a European red light district every day, and dang it if I wasn’t going to experience this, too. So I checked out of the hostel and took my camera and went.

Part of me, strangely enough, wanted or expected to like it, at least a little–wanted to be open-minded to the point of being able to view it as a celebration of sexuality, wanted to have some sort of profound relationship-deepening experience like the woman in this really superb article. But instead I just found it gross and dirty and unspeakably sad. Who gets any sort of satisfaction from 39 Euro sex? Almost laughable, that.

And as I discovered, it’s hard to have a profound relationship-deepening experience when you are walking around all by yourself on a Wednesday morning, surrounded by street sweepers and lorries delivering vodka. I don’t suppose there are very many things in the world more lonely and less romantic than being a solitary female in a red light district at 10am.

Sex and Döner--what more do you need?

Sex and Döner–what more do you need?

Certainly, the place was not without a certain aesthetic–the apotheosis of kitsch, neon, street art. There was a sort of strange charged energy in the air, even after-hours, that made even non-participatory observation into something problematic and moving. As an objet d’art, the whole place worked.

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But for me, the troubling nature of it all outweighed the aesthetics.

Leaving aside all the questions associated with the sex industry in general, what disturbed me most were the signs in the windows of many bars and blocking the entrance to one entire street: Zutritt für Frauen verboten. Entrance for women forbidden. Not that I necessarily would have wanted to go into those places anyway. But what other spaces in the 21st century West explicitly forbid the presence of women? Sure, there are implicit bans–the glass ceiling, and all of that. But a sign telling me I can’t walk through a public street because of my gender? Really??

Strangely enough, the only other place I have ever personally encountered the explicit ban against the physical presence of women is in the church–in a traditional Jewish tabernacle in Würzburg, in a Southern Baptist service in my own home town. Not that I am making any sort of comparison between the church and Hamburg’s red light district. But it’s ironic how things work, sometimes.

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Entrance for youths under 18 and women strictly forbidden.

Entrance for youths under 18 and for women forbidden.

All that to say: at the Reeperbahn, I didn’t go in the bars and I didn’t walk down the street. I took my pictures and I left. No victory for feminism there.

But in the end, though, isn’t the exclusion of women in such a space all-pervasive, even without the explicit signs? The entire street, and the entire concept behind the street, caters to and exists only as a function of the male gaze. The female gaze–her perspective, desires, reality–is nonexistent. The women on the tables and behind the windows aren’t women at all, but rather projections of male fantasy that happen to have taken on flesh and blood.

The real women are out there on the other side of all of those Frauen verboten signs. Here, they don’t exist. Which is strange, since “girls” are the main attraction.

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Travelogue LXI: Gotland III: Landscape

Yoga under a sea stack on Fårö Island.

Yoga under a sea stack on Fårö Island. As far north as I’ve ever been in my life. 

September 24, 2015 One final post on Gotland–I’ve written about the people and the farms, but nothing about the natural landscape itself, which is, after all, the backdrop to and shaper of everything that goes on on the Island.

Gotland makes Mainz seem tame and domesticated, civilized to the point of complete docility. In Germany, the pre-Christian, pre-modern past is hidden behind layers of growth and technology and gorgeous Baroque cathedrals. You can almost fool yourself into thinking it never existed–that Germany has always been this post-Enlightenment land driven by progress and the Church. On Gotland, however, it all feels very close–the Vikings, the wooden ships, Odin and Valhalla and all the rest. Portrayals of Mary are more similar to Freia than to anything Christian. On Fårö, the tiny island to the north of Gotland, farmers still raise their livestock in thatched barns and behind stone walls.

One of the 92 (!!) churches still in weekly use on the island. They were built between the 11th and 12th centuries--Romanesque or Gothic architecture, sometimes with a defense tower in front.

One of the 92 (!!) nearly-identical churches still in weekly use on the island. Nearly all were built between the 11th and 12th centuries–Romanesque or Gothic architecture, sometimes with a defense tower in front.

Cathedral ruins in Visby. Many catholic churches on the island were abandoned after the Reformation.

Cathedral ruins in Visby. Many catholic churches on the island were abandoned after the Reformation.

The museum in Visby had a fascinating collection of engraved stones, both pre- and post-Christianity. Here, a woman holds a snake as part of a pagan ritual.

The museum in Visby had a fascinating collection of engraved stones, both pre- and post-Christianity. Here, a woman holds a snake as part of a pagan ritual.

Christian and pagan imagery combine.

Christian and pagan imagery combine.

Boats outside of a small fishing village.

Boats outside of a small fishing village.

Fishing huts with stakes driven into the ground for drying the nets.

Fishing huts with stakes driven into the ground for drying the nets.

Thatched barn on Fårö Island.

Thatched barn and windmill on Fårö Island.

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Another fishing village on  Fårö.

Another fishing village on Fårö, only accessible by a winding track along the edge of the ocean. The rental car took a bit of a beating, there.  

White limestone beaches.

White limestone beaches.

The northernmost point of  Fårö is lined with Sea Stacks, limestone towers formed over millennia by wind and water.

The northernmost point of Fårö is lined with Sea Stacks, limestone towers formed over millennia by wind and water.

Lilla Karlsö Island off the eastern coast of Gotland, where one farmer we talked to grazes several hundred sheep.

Lilla Karlsö Island off the eastern coast of Gotland, where one farmer we talked to grazes several hundred sheep. There were dozens of white swans swimming in the Baltic along this stretch of the coast. 

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Travelogue LX: Gotland II: Sheep People

Gotland sheep grazing near a fishing village on Fårö, a tiny island off the northern coast of Gotland.

Gotland sheep grazing near a fishing village on Fårö, a tiny island off the northern coast of Gotland.

September 20, 2015 Most people come to Europe for the high culture, or the art museums, or the ancient buildings, or the cuisine. My parents, on the other hand, come to Europe for the sake of a tiny, wind-swept island in the middle of the Baltic Sea. Or, more specifically, for one particular breed of sheep on that island. Gotlands–small and hardy, with a lustrous silver fleece prized for both pelts and yarn–are inseparable from the natural landscape of the island, a beloved part of Sweden’s national heritage. Everyone, it seems, raises sheep.

Gotlands are incredibly rare in America, and my family owns one of the only farms with the breed on the East coast. My parents, and my mother in particular, were thrilled for the chance to travel to the island itself–a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn and look behind the scenes and ask questions that only Gotland farmers know the answers to.

The flag of Gotland Island.

The flag of Gotland Island.

The sheep graze right down to the edge of the Baltic Sea.

The sheep graze right down to the edge of the Baltic Sea.

And so we spent a long weekend on Gotland traveling from farm to farm, visiting shops and talking to people. I am, I admit, usually the fine-cuisine-and-art-museum type, but I surprised myself by loving the entire trip–not, as in the case of my parents, because of all the technical sheep-talk that went on, but because of the way we travelled. This was no superficial tourist trip: stay three nights in a youth hostel, hit the big sights, and never speak with a local. Instead, the four days on Gotland were gritty, real, in-your-face–dialogue after dialogue with the people who make their living there, raising sheep in thatched-roofed barns on 1,200-year-old farmsteads. This is how I want to travel.

Thanks to local advice, we strayed pretty far from the beaten path. We attended, for instance, the island’s annual ram auction–dozens of Gotland’s most gorgeous animals selling to buyers from across Sweden, prices up to 8,000 dollars. I mean, how many of your average summer visitors can boast of that?! “It’s like Christmas for sheep people!!” one shepherd told us with utmost enthusiasm, wrist-deep in the fleece of one particularly handsome ram. You don’t get that every day.

Ram auction ahead!

Ram auction ahead!

Before the start of the ram auction--potential buyers have the chance to examine the sheep and talk to the shepherds.

Before the start of the ram auction, potential buyers have the chance to examine the sheep and talk to the shepherds.

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Our personal favorite, a perfect example of the traits of the Gotland breed.

The sheep are ranked in multiple categories (weight, color, wool luster, curl depth, etc.), and the results are printed in a booklet handed out to all buyers. The scores are consulted and the animals carefully examined before the bidding begins.

The sheep are ranked in multiple categories (body composition, color, wool luster, curl depth, etc.), and the results are printed in a booklet handed out to all potential buyers. The scores are consulted and the animals carefully examined before the bidding begins.

The official scoring booklet, published by the Gotland Sheep Association.

The official scoring booklet, published by the Gotland Sheep Association.

The whole event was a family affair--much laughter and greeting of old friends, a communal lunch, white-blond children playing in the barn, a communal lunch.

The whole event was a family affair–much laughter and greeting of old friends, a communal lunch, and dozens of white-blond children. Older shepherds we talked to expressed delight that so many young families on the island are interested in raising sheep.

In the end, the best part of the trip were the people themselves: the farmers, the hand workers, the proud owners of small businesses that, ultimately, weren’t all that different from those in Vermont. It seems that farmers all over the world speak the same language–a language that I find myself eternally drawn back to, even after falling in love with the European metropolis. Farming people are somehow real, connected to land and tradition in a way that makes city life seem sometimes overblown and overcomplicated.

The hospitality of the Gotlanders we met was staggering. It began at the tiny airport in Visby, where an online knitter-friend of my mother’s  surprised us with a home-cooked lunch, a map of the island, and thirty  minutes of helpful advice. On every farm we visited, the shepherds opened their barns, stores, and studios to us, overcoming sometimes-limited English to answer hundreds of our questions and to ask their own. Family secrets were spilled and tall tales were told, and a whole lot of very technical sheep discussion took place that went right over my head.

A small wool mill that spins yarn for many of the farms on the island.

A small wool mill that spins yarn for many of the farms on the island.

The owner Eva talks to my mother about evaluating fleeces.

The owner Eva talks to my mother about evaluating fleeces.

The studio at the farm Lamm och Bi, where owner Annette sews fleece vests for boutiques in Visby.

The studio at the farm Lamm och Bi, where shepherdess Annette sews fleece vests for boutiques in Visby.

Annette and Dan, the owners of Lamm och Bi, standing in front of shelves of their products in the farm store.

Annette and Dan, the owners of Lamm och Bi, standing in front of shelves of their products in the farm store. The two of them care for some 600 sheep (without outside help!!), making them one of the largest Gotland farms in the world.

Sheep pelts displayed at Sindarve Farm.

Sheep pelts displayed at Sindarve Farm.

At Sigsarve Lamm Farm, shepherd Curre went out in the field and brought back a sample of different types of grass so we could see what Gotland farmers feed their sheep.

At Sigsarve Lamm Farm, shepherd Curre went out in the field and brought back a sample of different types of grass so we could see what Gotland farmers feed their sheep.

Besides raising sheep, Curre also grows and preserves several types of ancient grains. Here, fresh crackers made with spelt and served with sour-milk cheese.

Besides raising sheep, Curre also grows and preserves several types of ancient grains. After we arrived, he rushed back to the farmhouse to bring us fresh crackers made with spelt and served with sour-milk cheese.

Curre and his wife Lotte. "She do all the thinking! I just fix the fence!" he said, at which point my father decided they were secretly brothers.

Curre and his wife Lotte. “She do all the thinking! I just fix the fence!” he said, at which point my father decided they were secretly brothers.

Curre and his wife Lotte ("She do all the thinking! I just fix the fence!" he said) talked with us for nearly three hours over lunch.

Curre and Lotte talked with us for nearly three hours over lunch and coffee. Crazy sheep stories were swapped and hilarity ensued.

Most of the farms we visited were run by a husband-wife team, usually entirely without outside help. Everyone we talked to loved what they were doing, despite the work and the dirt and the isolation of living on a tiny island in the Balticum. “Gotland sheeps are fantastic animals,” we heard again and again. And because we also had Gotland sheeps, and because we were speaking the language, we were automatically a part of their inner sanctum, welcomed with open arms by people we had never seen before in our lives.

In the end, Curre put it best. “You know, we have the big problem today with the refugees–many Swedes say, they come in here, they take our jobs, they are so different. But I say, you have the cultures, religions–but underneath, the people are all the same. You just have to find something, some–what is the word?–connection, and you are all the same. The connection bring people together. Just like having sheeps,” he concluded, looking out into the pasture, squinting into the sun, real pride in his voice. “Sheeps bring people together, too. And that’s a real gud thing. Real gud.”

Curre and Lotte's flock, the most beautiful we had seen.

Curre and Lotte’s flock, the loveliest we saw.

Travelogue LIX: Gotland I: Cottage

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September 19, 2015 My dear parents are visiting from Vermont, and the last stop on their journey is a week on Gotland, a tiny island off the coast of Sweden and home to the breed of sheep they raise on the farm back home. We’ve spent the last couple days driving from one gorgeous end of the island to the other, networking, gathering information, talking and talking with the farmers whose entire lives revolve around Gotland sheep.

I think I’m in love with the entire place. In many ways, it reminds me of Vermont–the strong connection to the Land, the agriculture-based community, the feeling of being a part of the natural world. But somehow it is all entirely different: the air smells like cow manure and fresh-cut hay, like Vermont, but also like the sea and like something damp and vitalizing I can’t quite place. There is a whole island mentality, too, which is new to me: the rich tourists who keep the place going aren’t flatlanders and city slickers, like they are in Vermont, but rather mainlanders. The people who don’t make their living on a tiny island in the middle of the Baltic Sea.

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Our first meal on Gotland Island, thanks to a wonderfully kind friend of my mother's--rhubarb lemonade and Saffranspannkaka, a saffron cake made with almonds and raisins and served with fresh cream.

Our first meal on Gotland Island, thanks to a wonderfully kind friend of my mother’s–rhubarb lemonade and Saffranspannkaka, a saffron cake made with almonds and raisins and served with fresh cream. Dangggg.

And Lakritz.

And Lakritz, the tiny black cat who, exactly like Moses the Barn Cat at home, spends his days schmoozing off gullible tourists and trying to break into the guest quarters. Not that I have a problem with any of that.

We are staying in a tiny, white-washed cottage on a dairy farm, surrounded by climbing roses and a tangle of flowers and apple trees in desperate need of a good pruning. As I have written before, it is very strange to find oneself on the other side of agritourism for a change–especially for my parents, I think, who are normally themselves the working farmers with the guest rooms, courting curious strangers who want to experience “country living.” In the end, though, I think they are loving it. When we arrived, the barn was full of the sounds of chore time: cows, sheep, grain in buckets and milking machines in place. “We don’t have to do ANYTHING!” my mother said. “KICK BACK!” said my father. Strange, and somehow wonderful in a Schadenfreude sort of way, to be on a farm and simultaneously to not work.

Eating Saffron Pancake and NOT WORKING.

Eating Saffron Pancake and not doing chores.

The cottage.

The cottage.

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So we, the leisurely paying guests from the mainland, unpacked the rental car and grilled Baltic salmon and watched re-runs of the Big Bang Theory dubbed into Swedish. The last time my parents took a real vacation from the farm, I was ten years old.

It's the best feeling in the world, SEEING livestock and not having to DO anything about it!

It’s the best feeling in the world, SEEING livestock and not having to DO anything about it!

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Travelogue LVIII: Wine and Home

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASeptember 12, 2015 I’m back in Mainz for a bit of time, before the travels start again in the few weeks before my second year at the University. Being away–it makes me realize how much Mainz has become home to me in the past twelve months. “You’ll be back in America in a year! You’re going home soon!” my dear parents say. But Germany is home now, too. When I get off at the sketchy Mainz train station, there are the same feelings of relief and general wellbeing I have when we take the exit off the long green highway headed into Vermont. Can you have more than one Heimat?

In the end, what makes Mainz feel the most like home is not the flashy tourist parts, all prettified and spiffed-up for an international paying public. The Augustinerstraße on a Saturday afternoon, with tour groups from Japan and selfie-taking couples from the cruise ship docked on the Rhine–all very picturesque, but somehow slightly less than authentic. I’d rather have the Augustinerstraße on a Monday morning, full of trucks making deliveries to the cafés and bike riders on their way to work, and the smell of hot bread from the bakeries.

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The outer courtyard.

The outer courtyard.

The tiny winery in the New City is another spot that makes Mainz, for me, into Home. Owned by Marcus Landenberger and family, it opens for wine tasting for friends-of-friends-of-friends every Friday evening, rain or shine. I found out about it during my first weeks in Mainz (thanks, Max!), and have been a regular attendee ever since. Marcus opens up his tiny courtyard to guests, and serves fresh bread, meat, and cheese along with the wine on the single long table inside. You pay for as much as you think you’ve eaten.

The guests are a mixture of students from the University and Mainz’s older generations, talking in broad dialect and ranting about local politics, the weather, the harvest season. You introduce yourself by your first name and use the informal pronouns, and laugh more than you have laughed for a long time. In the winter, everyone sits closer and wears coats indoors against the cold. If you are lucky, Marcus opens up the wine cellars across the courtyard and the entire group goes down the stone steps and look at the huge dusty barrels of Riesling and Silvaner in the half-light. Come at seven and stay until midnight.

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The hand-written wine card.

The hand-written wine card.

The wines for sale.

The wines for sale.

Meat, bread, and cheese--the best of the best of German cuisine.

Meat, bread, and cheese–the best of the best of German cuisine.

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The spoils.

The spoils.

Gloaming.

Gloaming.

As always, I am astounded by the sheer knowledge and love of these people, young and old alike, for the drinking of wine–their wine, from their city, not some import from Italy or France. The wine list at Marcus’ only seldom varies, but everything is reveled in anew each week.

Did you try the 2011 Riesling? It really is exquisite. Perhaps because of the rain we got that year, do you remember that? Of course. 

...And the night goes on.

…and the night goes on. Conversation and clean plates.