Travelogue LXXI: Weinbergen

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFebruary 28, 2016 Yesterday, the sun shone in Germany–really shone, with a strength and warmth that have been absent for months. And when the sun shines in Germany in the winter, you leave the libraries at the university behind and you get out and you do something.

So we packed a picnic lunch and tea and tools into the back of a rattly rainbow Volkswagen and drove into the Weinbergen (vineyards; literally “wine mountains,” which I think is much more poetic). In the late winter the vintners begin the process of pruning the grape vines in preparation for the next growing season, and I was lucky enough to be invited by one particular vine-pruner to tag along.

And it was marvelous.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe vineyards of the Rheingau are almost ridiculously steep, falling straight down to the banks of the river. The slopes are covered in slippery silver-blue or red slate. Standing upright requires strong legs and a good sense of balance; actually doing something at any level of efficiency while standing upright requires genuine skill.

In these vineyards, the steepness means that all of the work is still done by hand, using techniques that have been in place for centuries. Pruners now use battery-powered clippers, but the process is still the same: cutting away old or unwanted growth from each plant and training selected shoots to grow in the proper directions. It all sounds simple enough, but is in fact anything but–every plant is a decision, a tiny work of art, shaped and re-shaped over a period of decades by dozens of hands.

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Stone steps are built into the walls to access lower terraces.

And so we worked. Or rather, J. pruned like a professional while I took pictures, did not fall off any walls, tried not to cut off the wrong things, and generally enjoyed myself more than I have in a long time.

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Hands down the most excellent vine-pruner in the Rheingau.

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Different types of slate.

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Battery-powered clippers.

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Yes, that’s me cutting grape vines in a flannel shirt from Vermont in a vineyard on the Rhine. With thousand-year-old-castle ruins in the background. Sometimes it is possible to get the miraculousness of existence into a photograph. 

I think the rest of the pictures speak for themselves. Even from the most distant of perspectives, the Rheingau in late February, perched on the dividing line between winter and spring, is pretty dang gorgeous.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt the end of the day, we hiked up to the very top of the ridge. Tired legs, chapped hands, lunch long forgotten. But the sun was slowly falling towards the mountains on the other side of Rhine and we didn’t want to go.

I’ve never been one for meditation in any traditional form. But this, I thought, sitting on a bench and looking at the mountains and not being alone, this comes pretty close.

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A gazebo at the very top of the mountain, with a self-service shelf of wine and glasses for hikers.

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Gloaming. Dämmerung.

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Sunset. Sonnenuntergang.

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Travelogue LXX: Fußball

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJanuary 31, 2015 The fact that I have made it an entire year and a half in Germany without ever having seen a live soccer match is miraculous in and of itself. That’s hard to do, in a country as Fußball-crazed as this one.

Still, the sport’s been on the periphery during my entire stay. I arrived in Germany during the World Cup, and when Germany beat Argentina 1:0 I heard the cheering and the fireworks and the air horns even from my apartment up the mountain outside of the city. Now, here in Mainz, I know all the songs associated with the local team (MAINZ NULL-FÜÜÜÜÜNF!!!) because they are sung joyfully and drunkenly outside my window in the Altstadt after every. single. dang. game. And I’ve played approximately 1,000 games of Kicker (foosball) with the little boy I babysit, and lost approximately 999 of them. There’s Fußball in the blood over here, I think.

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The local arena, seating some 34,000 people.

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Don’t even dream of wearing something other than red and white.

But last Friday night I found myself, along with 34,000 joyful Mainzers, pre-gaming at the local Irish Pub and then squeezing into busses and making the freezing treck across a field to the local stadium. We bought the requisite beer (or, in my case, mulled wine, because it is DANG COLD in Germany) and Bratwurst and climbed the steps to the very top of the cheap seats to stand in extremely close quarters with enthused strangers. And then the game began.

It was an experience, I tell you.

First, the fans. As my sports-obsessed little brother will tell you, European/German soccer fans have a different reputation than those in America–crazier, more devoted, with whole swaths of identity built up around The Team, The Game. Printed on our tickets were the words, “No entrance in the colors of the opposing team.” Yep. You don’t want to start a riot by wearing anything other than red and white. And during the game, you don’t just stand or sit quietly and observe. You discuss the happenings heatedly with your neighbor, and when you aren’t doing that, you wave your red-and-white scarf in the air and sing your head off. I don’t know how many songs and chants are associated with the Mainz 0-5ers, but they all sound pretty impressive when sung by a 35,000-voice choir. The sheer love and devotion in the air was palpable.

Afterwards, everyone squeezed into the busses again for the ride back to the city, where the real party was about to begin. With which I, in my apartment in the Altstadt, was already fully familiar.

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Two dudes and a drum player leading the entire stadium in song. Not that anyone needed much encouraging.

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The view from the cheap seats. Squeeze in tight and don’t spill your beer.

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Carnival’s right around the corner. Traditional Mainzer joker hats are encouraged.

In the end, though, soccer in Germany has to do with much more than just sheer devotion to a particular team: Fußball is the German version of patriotism. Here, it’s not yet OK to say, “I’m proud of my country,” but it is absolutely OK to say, “I’m proud of our team.” In fact, if you can’t say that, you are perhaps just a little bit suspicious.

But that’s not much of a problem, because pretty much everyone can. Fußball in Germany isn’t just entertainment for the masses; it’s a vital part of country and identity. The World Cup season is the only time when it is acceptable to fly the German flag, for instance–and they are flown, from balconies and car windows and garden fences, only to be taken down after the finale and packed away until next time. It’s a feeling of genuine pride and belonging that transcends all social class and standing: even the staidest of my literature professors at the university has a fangirl moment in his seminar the day after a big victory.

And on Friday, anyway, when the Mainz 0-5ers scored the only goal of the evening there was enough joy and revelry in the air to make one think the Berlin wall was coming down again. Scarves were thrown, songs were sung, and strangers were kissed.

It was a good night.

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In the words of one chant, Steht auuuuuffff, wenn ihr Meenzer seid! Stand up if you’re a Meenzer!