Travelogue LXIX: Fachwerk

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Eschwege

May 4, 2016 I spent a weekend in April in Eschwege, a tiny, lovely, half-forgotten German town on the former border between East and West Germany. Although not necessarily a popular tourist destination, the town is full of fascinating architecture–Fachwerk, to be specific, which translates to something like timber framing. It’s a quintessentially German form of construction, in which a load-bearing timber frame is built and the spaces between the beams filled with bricks or lath and plaster. Instead of covering the outside of the buildings with plaster or clapboards, however, the beams are left exposed and then carved and painted according to local traditions, each town or geographical area with a slightly different style.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEschwege was left intact during the second World War, which means that the buildings are original. Many, however, are fairly new by European standards: much of the town center only dates back to the mid-seventeenth century, as the town center was destroyed during the Thirty Years War in 1637.

In the downtown area, each building is unique, painted in jewel tones and carved with curlicues or geometric shapes or faces or mermaids. Yes, mermaids. I was delighted.

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Moustaches ftw.

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Although Fachwerk is today a prized and sought-after part of Germany’s architectural heritage, it was originally a poor man’s construction–if you can’t afford stone, you build with wood.

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Keeping things level wasn’t exactly a priority, apparently. Or maybe things have shifted since the 17th century.

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The latinized form of the town’s name.

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My personal favorite.

And then in good German fashion, fitful rain turned to snow and so we headed for home, where we ate an enormous Sunday lunch with a fire in the stove behind our backs.

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My fellow Fachwerk-investigator, here rather taken by the local Glockenspiel.

Travelogue LXXIII: Spring

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Mount Belchen in the Black Forest in southern Germany, where I spent Easter.

Osterspaziergang

Vom Eise befreit sind Strom und Bäche
durch des Frühlings holden belebenden Blick,
im Tale grünet Hoffnungsglück;
der alte Winter, in seiner Schwäche,
zog sich in rauhe Berge zurück.
Von dort her sendet er, fliehend, nur
ohnmächtige Schauer körnigen Eises
in Streifen über die grünende Flur.
Aber die Sonne duldet kein Weißes,
überall regt sich Bildung und Streben,
alles will sie mit Farben beleben;
doch an Blumen fehlt’s im Revier,
sie nimmt geputzte Menschen dafür.

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A view into the Black Forest from the local castle ruins.

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Staufen

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAKehre dich um, von diesen Höhen
nach der Stadt zurückzusehen!
Aus dem hohlen, finstern Tor
dringt ein buntes Gewimmel hervor.
Jeder sonnt sich heute so gern.
Sie feiern die Auferstehung des Herrn,
denn sie sind selber auferstanden:
aus niedriger Häuser dumpfen Gemächern,
aus Handwerks- und Gewerbesbanden,
aus dem Druck von Giebeln und Dächern,
aus den Straßen quetschender Enge,
aus der Kirchen ehrwürdiger Nacht
sind sie alle ans Licht gebracht.

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Dialect: Wein (wine) becomes Woi in Mainz, Wii in Staufen

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Brunch

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASieh nur, sieh! wie behend sich die Menge
durch die Gärten und Felder zerschlägt,
wie der Fluß in Breit und Länge
so manchen lustigen Nachen bewegt,
und, bis zum Sinken überladen,
entfernt sich dieser letzte Kahn.
Selbst von des Berges fernen Pfaden
blinken uns farbige Kleider an.
Ich höre schon des Dorfs Getümmel,
hier ist des Volkes wahrer Himmel,
zufrieden jauchzet groß und klein:
Hier bin ich Mensch, hier darf ich’s sein!

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust I

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Spring

 

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Travelogue LXXII: Terroranschläge

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November 14, 2015

March 22, 2015 I’ve always reveled in the German language. Above all, it’s the words that draw me in–the sound of them, the feel of them, their sensuality, their potential for music and profundity. In my teenage years, learning German through a thousand hours of opera and later through a painstaking obsession with literature, I collected vocabulary like so many tiny works of art–toys, really, that I could take out and polish up and delight in.

My favorites: Dämmerung, Lenz, Gesamtkunstwerk, Leidenschaft, pfaublau, Rausch, Ausschweifung, Kastanienbaum, Lust. I can still hear those words in their places in the opera scores, see them on the pages of my battered copies of Musil and Hesse and Mann.

Living in Germany has added a whole new dimension to this loving-of-words. Here, I sit in my Weinstube and wonder at the way that Wein softens into Woi and schön into schee, in the melodious dialogue of the Pfalz. Words-on-a-page turn into real dialogue here, with faces and laughter on the other side of a glass of wine.

I can’t get enough.

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January 8, 2015

But there are some words I never, ever wanted to learn.

Terroranschlag, for instance. Terrorist attack. Or worse yet, Terroranschläge, plural. There is no part of me that ever wanted to learn that word. But suddenly, one day last January it was all everyone could talk about. And a whole world of others soon followed.

Attentat. Assassination attempt. Razzia. Raid. Massaker. Massacre. Religiöse Extremisten. Religious extremists. Geiseln. Hostages. Sprengstoffgürtel. Explosive belt. Ausnahmezustand. State of emergency. Drahtzieher. Mastermind. Selbstmordattentäter. Suicide bomber. Radikalisierung. Radicalization.

And on, and on, and on. I kept a dictionary open in one computer window, the news in the other. My linguistic horizons expanded horribly overnight.

Those words show up nowhere in Wagner’s universe, or Musil’s, or Goethe’s. They are ugly–no beautiful playthings there, no sensuality. My cravings for vocabulary were replaced suddenly and shockingly by disgust.

And part of me says, I didn’t sign up for this. And another part of me, the part that marched with the protestors and photographed the memorials in Mainz and learned every damn word by heart in spite of the nausea, says yes you did.

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January 17, 2015

But still, recently I was starting to forget, and the forgetting was sweet.

How ironic, that just when all that vocabulary was becoming a bit rusty through disuse, I sit at a computer in a sun-filled library on a Tuesday morning and remember everything all over again.

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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.

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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!

Travelogue LXIX: Snow

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My roofs.

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St. Stephan’s.

January 17th, 2016 Sometimes, you find yourself dancing in some dive bar in the Neustadt at four in the morning. And then sometimes you look out the window to find that it is snowing, really snowing, for the first time since last winter, and the entire world is delighted. You run to the window and laugh, and everyone runs to the window and laughs, and someone opens the door and white fat flakes blow on to the dance floor. You step into the street, and they melt on hot skin. Even the DJ is euphoric.

And then you wake up the next morning after three hours of sleep and take your camera and run out into the cold because this is something.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd then you skip back to your warm apartment to sleep off your hangover, and the air is full of church bells and the cafés full of Sunday-brunchers, and you are very much content.

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The Sunday-brunchers.

Frohe Weihnachten!

Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
This bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.

Hamlet, Act I Scene I

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Mainz

December 25, 2015 Christmas-not-in-Vermont will never stop being something strange. I skype with my family and see my father, wearing three flannel shirts one on top of the other, coming in from doing chores and standing in the doorway because he is still wearing his work boots. And my siblings, flown home from college and sprawled in front of the fire on sheepskins with the dog. And my mother, cooking enough delicious food for an army because, heck, it’s Christmas. And the tree in its usual spot, and the manger scene without Baby Jesus because he technically hasn’t been born yet, and Bing Crosby singing White Christmas in the background.

And I miss those people, and I miss that place. It’s a feeling of lack that is otherwise blessedly foreign to my experience abroad.

But then again, when I’m standing at my favorite Glühwein-stand in Mainz with my small community of fellow Comp Lit students gossiping about professors, or drunkenly singing Christmas carols on the street with Valerie after the Market in Ingelheim, or experiencing the towering hospitality of the people who have opened their lives and homes to me, I think, this isn’t so bad either.

In fact, maybe it’s more than just not bad.

Merry Christmas from Germany, folks.

Travelogue LXVIII: Weihnachten

St. Bonifatius watches over the Christmas Market in Mainz.

St. Bonifatius watches over the Christmas Market in Mainz.

December 23, 2015 For such a unapologetically secular country, Germany does Christmas like nobody’s business. Here, Christmas is not just a day in December preceded by weeks of materialism and bad music on the radio, but rather a real season, full of ritual and traditions that transcend packed department stores and Santa kitsch imported from America.

Christmas day (the 24th in Germany, not the 25th) is the final tiny door on the advent calendar, the last mug of Glühwein, a simple plate of potato salad and sausage because the lady of the house doesn’t have to cook. Weihnachten, halt.

The Market in Ingelheim, in the ruins of an 800-year-old church.

The Market in Ingelheim, in the ruins of an 800-year-old church.

At the center of Christmas in Germany are the Weihnachtsmärkte, the Christmas Markets, opened all day every day starting the beginning of Advent. Almost every town has one, small or large–a few stands in the local Dorf, an entire village in Frankfurt or Nürnberg.

The Weihnachtsmärkte are not universally loved. Many Germans have to get a certain amount of complaining/general grumping out of their systems on the topic: It’s a lot of standing around in the cold…too commercialized nowadays…cheap alcohol and sugar. But somehow, everyone ends up in front of their favorite Glühwein stand anyway, tipsy and eating Bratwurst and generally having a marvelous time. And not just once. The translation company where I work had not one but two Christmas get-togethers at the Mainzer Weihnachtsmarkt within the space of two weeks.

Glühwein--hot mulled wine drunk from mugs--is at the center of Weihnachtsmarkt cuisine.

Glühwein–hot mulled wine drunk from mugs–stands at the center of Weihnachtsmarkt cuisine. 

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If Glühwein isn't enough, there's always Feuerzangenbowle: mulled wine with the addition of a rum-soaked, flaming sugarloaf. Bam.

If Glühwein isn’t enough, there’s always Feuerzangenbowle: mulled wine with the addition of a rum-soaked, flaming sugarloaf. Bam.

And of course there's meat.

And of course there’s meat.

Lots of meat.

Lots of meat.

But also roasted chestnuts....

But also roasted chestnuts….

...and Lebkuchen (gingerbread) hearts...

…and Lebkuchen (gingerbread) hearts…

...and Schneebälle (snowballs), sweet dough strips covered in chocolate and marzipan and nuts.

…and Schneebälle (snowballs), sweet dough strips covered in chocolate and marzipan and nuts…

…not to mention Reibekuchen (fried potato pancakes), Flammkuchen (thin-crust French pizza), Dinele (wood-fired flat bread), Stollen (like fruit cake only 1000% better), hot potato soup, candied almonds, chocolate-covered fruit, and Crepes with Nutella.

During the Christmas season in Germany, the Weihnachtsmarkt is pretty much the place to be.

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Locus Amoenus IV: Home

Locus Amoenus, Latin: the lovely or pleasing place. A common trope in Ancient Roman literature, usually a garden or woodland–a spot of inherent safety, comfort, and striking beauty. The concept features in works by authors as early as Homer, and it was reveled in by the later pastoral poets before being passed on to the writers of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Locus amoenus is a place to retreat to, often with overtones of Elysium on earth.

December 7, 2015 I’ve always had a very strong connection to home. Even as a small child, I had an intense awareness of what constituted my people, my land, my place: this is where I came from and where I may leave, but also to where I will always return. Then, as now, I was drawn as much to the physicality of home as to the people who make it up–to the space of it all, to the anatomy and physique. How do we define our most intimate places physically, with what do we choose to surround ourselves? What, anatomically speaking, separates a roof over my head from my home?

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The Bohemian Garett in Vermont. (Photo Credits: Anna Goodling)

For the longest time, home to me was the farmhouse in Vermont I grew up in, and I reveled in the place’s form and build and being just as much as I reveled in its people. There was the iron daybed on the porch where I plowed through Thomas Mann and Nabokov and Nietzsche, sweating even in the shade through the hottest July afternoons. Or the room I shared with my sister–the “Bohemian Garret,” we called it–with patchwork quilts on the beds and silk scarves pinned up to hide the leak in the roof. Or the wood stove downstairs, snow slanting like sand against the window in January, where I lay on a sheep rug next to the cats and scorched the back of my flannel nightgown.

All that to me was home, and when I left for far-away college at age 18 I wasn’t really looking to find it any place else. Sure, my roommate and I etched out our spaces in campus housing, hanging posters and trying to keep our plants alive, but it was never really came close to what I had in Vermont. And I didn’t need it to. I knew my father would arrive in his beater car every spring to load boxes and take me back.

My window in the American college dorm--almost home, but not quite.

My window in the American college dorm–almost home, but not quite.

Now, though, things are changing. I want home, am longing for it, actually, but this longing isn’t accompanied by the desire to return to Vermont. Instead, for the first time in my life I want to create, want to see if I–right here, right now, alone in this country that is in the end still foreign–can make a physical space with as much meaning and pull as the Vermont farmhouse.

The desire started, I suppose, when I first saw the apartment I have been renting now for almost a year. As soon as climbed the blue spiral staircase and ducked through the door behind the realtor, it was my space–the Garret again, but infinitely more Bohemian, 120 square feet of slanty ceilings and exposed beams, windows looking out into leaves and down onto cobblestones. And a tiny tiled bathtub behind a red-checked curtain. If I ever get a lover, that would be just big enough for the both of us, I thought, and somehow that sealed the deal.

“This is it.” I told the realtor. “This is my Carl Spitzweg painting, my La Bohème, my Dachkammer!! I can read German literature here!” Overly ecstatic, as always. “I’ve already had five offers this morning, but I will see what I can do,” he said, and walked me back to the bus stop in the rain. And then, of course, he called the next day: “Frau Goodling, I had to pull a damn lot of strings, but the place is yours, because I can see you living there.”

Tea on the tiny blue balcony.

Tea on the tiny blue balcony.

And now, almost a year later, when I get off the crowded bus and turn into the cobblestoned street where I live, nearly empty at 8pm on a week night, there is coming to be the same lifting-of-weight, the same recognition and expansion I felt in the passenger seat of my father’s beater car, turning off the highway in New York into the green mountains of Vermont. The feeling that I am returning to my space, my home.

I still can’t quite place what it is, physically, that makes a dwelling place into a home. But I think I am uncovering it slowly.

Yesterday, for instance, I bought a Christmas tree for the first time in my life, because Christmas trees have always belonged to the anatomy of home in my world. It’s amazing how the presence of a tiny tree can turn a room into more than just a lived-in space.

Also, in the mean time, I may or may not have found out that my bathtub is indeed big enough for two, with candles around the edge and the skylight open above our heads.

I think someone up there likes me.

I think someone up there likes me.

And so I move slowly towards an uncovering of the anatomy of home, on my own this time, an ocean apart from all other known-ness. Is this a fundamental part of adulthood, this drive to make home where you are, with your own imagination and paycheck, to make a place speak to you and call you back at the end of the day?

Or does my desire to create home arise from the distance itself, from the physical vastness separating me from the spaces of Vermont? At the end of the day, for all my love of Germany and for all the reveling in land and language I have done in the last year, I am still abroad, living in a land that is not really my own. Perhaps the creation of home is a coping mechanism of sorts, a way to make sense of and process an expanse.

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My street.

In the end, with my Christmas tree and my bathtub and a pot of tea on the stove and basil plants on the counter and expressionistic art on the walls, I am left with an awareness of the incredible privilege of it all, this creating and having of a home.

Because Germany is filled right now with hundreds of thousands of people who have no home, who have had their physical spaces destroyed or made inhabitable. The architecture of home became the architecture of nightmare, and so they left everything and came here, and they are starting over in spaces that, however desperately needed, are everything other than home.

And I, sitting on my own bed with a glass of wine and Bocelli crooning in the background, have never had to do that. I left my home because I wanted to, because I was driven by passion and beauty and the desire to pursue my own education. I am going about creating a home in Germany because I can, because it is something lovely. It is as simple as that.

Which all makes me overwhelmingly thankful to be here. There is no terror behind my actions, and that is a miraculous thing.

And, I admit, maybe I’m a little proud of what my space is turning into, too. So the next time you are in a particular street in Mainz, Germany, stop by and I will give you a tour and serve you tea in my home.

In my home, people.

 

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Travelogue LXVII: Academia

December 7th, 2015 I have been doing a lot of thinking over the last couple months about academia, as I prepare applications for the next step of my education. The whole process has been tinged with nostalgia–a Ph.D. in German Literature in the US is a wonderful thing, but it will mean leaving Germany, leaving a particular place and the particular people who have worked their way into the deepest part of my existence.

But the only way to live is to move forward. And so I have been writing applications like a crazy person and thinking about academia. There are many things I have learned to love about the German university–the freedom, the flexibility, the time and space. At the same time, I miss the the raw intensity of my education in the US, the unabashed willingness of the professors to make it personal, the passion of everyone involved.

While looking through various old documents, I came across something I wrote about the Writing Center at my undergraduate institution, a tiny liberal arts college in the Midwest. I had almost forgotten I had written it, squeezed in somewhere between my own frantic paper-writing and stacks of German flashcards.

I read it now, and I think, I want this again, this crazy fervor and passion-on-the-edge and raw love of learning. We were a community, not unproblematic and certainly not peaceful, but in the end all pulling together for beauty and for some sort of Truth. This this is why I am going back to America for my PhD; I want to fight for the existence of this environment for the rest of my career. There are very few things worse than apathy and cynicism, in my book.

So, here’s the Writing Center of small-town American academia. It’s not the sort of thing I usually post. But nostalgia is a part of abroad, too.

The heady academic jungle in Germany. 

Writing Center

You work in the Writing Center, and you love it.

The place is a little sanctuary in the ancient basement of the Old Student Union, full of MLA handbooks and half-drunk mugs of coffee and tea. The entire side wall is a blackboard, scrawled with thesis diagrams, pictures of phoenixes, and the usual quotes from Eliot and Shakespeare. Words, words, words. And the Fire and the Rose are one. During Finals’ Week some witty Latinist replaced the diagrams with a line from Virgil’s Aenead: Forsan et haec olim meminisse juvabit. And perhaps someday you will rejoice to remember even this.

You and the other tutors play at being half-psychologist-half-Socrates. You are only allowed to ask questions, absolutely no being “directive,” as the crazy bearded English professor who runs the place informs you. If the students cry on your watch, well then, that is their own fault and not yours. They should have started their papers earlier. He has no pity for criers, nor did he when he himself was an undergrad Writer Center tutor. Things were tough, back in the day.

When it comes to the tutoring sessions, you are quite run-of-the-mill. Tell me what you think about Odysseus, give me a thesis, what do you know about commas, have you considered that your textual evidence is worse than non-existent? Contrary to the bearded English Professor’s creed, you can’t help but feel sorry for the sniffling freshmen on their third all-nighter, twelve hours to go before class and only a half-cocked thesis to go on. You give them tissues, and remind them that they are here to engage in the lofty pursuit of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, not to lose their sanity over a looming C- on a lit paper. Such a line of argument, however, is rarely successful.

Some of your fellow tutors are more, well, novel in their methods. Isaac* manages to terrify every student who signs up for him, even the Honors’ kids, by conducting his sessions perched on the back of a chair while bouncing a tennis ball maniacally off the edge of the table–already balding at the age of 23, bow-tie disheveled, a bit wild-eyed, always smelling a little of pipe smoke and whiskey. Somehow he is able to turn each 20-minute session into a monologue on Eucharistic imagery in Hamlet (the topic of his honors thesis), whether the paper at hand is on Homer or Dante or twentieth-century aestheticism. You and the other tutors are awed and a bit frightened by his ability to do this.

When there are no students, you talk. Professors, grad school, Shakespeare Shakespeare Shakespeare. And Eucharistic imagery in Hamlet, of course. Lots of that. You know to stay away from the topic of women in academia, because you don’t want to hear again that your only options are getting married and raising a family. There is always someone being converted to Catholicism outside in the hall, or in the study rooms in the back. There are always debates on the validity of Cormac McCarthy, or Camus, or whoever happens to be the topic of the semester’s honors seminar. One night before Finals’ Week, someone reads the Ghost scene from Hamlet aloud. The time is out of joint….oh, that ever I was born to set it right. Each of you, this room full of ambitious, angsty literature students in love with the heady worlds of art or religion, feels like Shakespeare was talking to you when he wrote that.

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For an entire month at the end of every semester, the senior Honors students write their theses. They take up the four “cells” at the end of the center, the normally tidy blue rooms with just space to set a laptop. Now they are full of old pizza boxes, pipe tobacco, icons, prayer books, crucifixes, stacks and stacks of books–Elizabethan England, Aesthetics, Bonhoeffer, T.S. Eliot, The Sublime. Someone took the whiteboard markers and drew a hundred pictures of fat cats all over the glass windows. It was probably Jacob, who is rather obsessed with cats. The college-aged mind’s innate surrealism never ceases to amaze you.

During senior year, Mark has the most orderly cell. He, double major in Classics and History, buzzed up on gallons of bad free coffee from the Career Center across the hall, is having a FANTASTIC thesis writing experience. He informs everyone of this fact at least six times each evening. He is writing on Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer is AMAZING, EVERYONE should LOVE him, he CAN’T BELIEVE how brilliant he is, isn’t it WONDERFUL to be able to write such a thing as a thesis?? He finishes his final draft a week early. This is hard for the rest of the thesis-writers to stomach.

Isaac, the maniacal ball-bouncer, takes it particularly hard. Fifty pages behind, in disagreement with his adviser, he has started sitting under his desk because the lowness of the position matches the increasingly-penitential nature of the whole undertaking. He is desperately regretting giving up both cigarettes and beer for Lent. His various mutterings are becoming ever more incoherent.

“Chaos…chaos…why is my brain full of chaos? Why is every paper I write on Hamlet? Chaos, I tell you……”

Emma, the kindest of the tutors who bakes cookies for the weeping freshmen, is concerned. “Do you want consolation, or an answer? Or tea? How about some tea?” But there aren’t any clean mugs left.

He caves the night before his defense and smokes a cigarette, Lent be damned. This prompts an existential crisis the following morning, and a hasty trip to confession. But his defense is brilliant, and you tell him you think he is going to be fine. You are all going to be fine, actually, you say, after you have your last tutoring session of the year, and when you meet in the Center one last time after everything is over, to clean the blackboard and wash a semesters’ worth of stale coffee out of the mugs. You are all a bit haggard, from lent or theses or the looming prospect of finals.

But you will rejoice at even this. You know because you are already rejoicing.

 

*Names changed, personalities left as-is.