Travelogue LXXI: Berlin Again

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Hackischer Höfe–street art, anarchy, eros, tourism.

July 20, 2016 Berlin again–my fourth time in the city, and the first time I was able to get a glimpse into the world behind the city’s glamorous tourist front, if only for the few days we spent visiting friends and sleeping in an apartment in Neukölln with the s-train roaring by all night long. The whole place is growing on me.

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Berlin is full of artists and hippies and anarchists, and also hipsters posing as artists and hippies and anarchists. Gentrification is the most pressing buzzword in the Vororte (outskirts)–the process by which poor, “problematic” neighborhoods are cleaned up to suit the values and tastes of middle-class apartment-buyers. “First the social workers show up, and then the police, and then the hipsters,” said a friend of Jonathan’s, himself a social worker in an especially metamorphic area of the city. “In a few years, no local will be able to afford to live here anymore.” What do you do when you find your neighborhood suddenly sanitized beyond recognition, and the rent prices are going through the roof, and you are suddenly surrounded by the young and privileged and have nowhere to go?

Right now, Berlin is in transition, and the discrepancies that come along with that are obvious even to an outsider. It is a jarring experience, to sit in a café surrounded by MacBooks and 4-euro coffee served artfully in mason jars (and to be drinking that coffee yourself), and look out the window at legless beggars and children in dirty clothes playing on the sidewalk.

Am I at this moment part of the the solution, or part of the problem? 

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In the end, though, Berlin has always been a city in transition of some form or another, and despite or because of the tension and discrepancy the city has something–an openness, sexiness, energy, a pressing sense of the past and a vicious exhilarating drive towards the future. You can be whatever you want here–queer, crazy, bourgeois, elite–and you will find a place to fit in to–a dive-bar in Neukölln with police sirens blaring by outside at all hours of the day and night, or a flower-filled garden outside of the Literaturhaus, the arts section of Die Zeit open on your lap.

Jonathan and I both said that if our careers and lives weren’t taking us in two opposite directions, we would move to Berlin together. We weren’t alone, we were told. “The whole world wants to move here,” said a friend, himself a student and long-time resident. “We thought the hype would stop eventually, but it just keeps getting stronger. So act now. In two years, even people as privileged as us won’t be able to afford the place.”

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After a week we were exhausted but also wanted to stay longer. Mainz, with not a soul in sight when we got off the train at one in the morning, seems almost eerily peaceful in comparison.

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Travelogue LXX: Sweden

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The wood-fired sauna in the back garden of friends. In Germany, saunas are a sort of Holy of Holies–no talking, no eating, no nonsense. In Sweden, well, there are often beer bottle openers nailed up to the doors.

June 3, 2016 Last Friday morning I found myself for the first time in six months suddenly no longer writing a thesis. A surreal experience, that, to hold in my hands the culminating project of the degree I came to Germany to get. At any rate, a bit of celebration was in order.

Jonathan had been invited to give a lecture at the Swedish Wine Association, and I took the train up to join him a few days later in Varberg, a tiny town on the Western coast. He spent a couple years helping build up a young winery there, and still has deep connections to the people who run the place.

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Ästad Vingård, the winery.

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Consulting services for a small-scale ecological wine grower.

And so we spent the first couple days attending to business at the winery, or rather Jonathan attended to business and I looked at everything and tried simultaneously to learn Swedish and to not break anything and also drank a lot of wine. On the second day, we spent six hours perched on the back of a four-wheeler spreading natural fertilizer on grape vines and singing Irish drinking songs at the top of our lungs. On the third day, we cleaned out and tilled a little garden plot for a friend and then ran and jumped in the North Sea, which was disgustingly frigid. It doesn’t get much more romantic than that.

Even if I hadn’t been experiencing it all with a particularly dear human being, I still would have reveled in it. This new world I have been introduced to in the last few months–the vineyards, the people who work them, the wine cellars and shops and curious tourists who keep the family business afloat–is something I knowSheep people are not that much different than wine people, at the end of the day. Agritourism is agritourism, no matter which side of the pond you are on. I find the same vocabulary and passions on a winery on the coast of Sweden that I do on a tiny sheep farm in central Vermont. And the more I journey on into the heady world of academia and scholarship, the more I find myself eternally drawn back to these things.

Anyway, in exchange for the work we got two nights in the winery inn–lovely room, wood-fired saunas, three-course dinners in the restaurant followed by all the delights of an open bar. A fair trade, if you ask me.

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Barefoot gardening 100 meters from the North Sea.

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There were wood-fired hot tubs next to the saunas, yo.

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Typical Swedish architecture–wooden construction, straw roofing (below).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn the last day, we walked up the coast outside of Varberg–a surreal, rugged world of rocks and seaweed and trees bent over backwards from the wind off the sea. Gray and monotone when shot through a macro lens, but infinitely detailed and colorful and rich when viewed up close.

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Looking back at Varberg’s fortress and harbor.

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Varberg’s harbor.

Then it was over, and we made the 15-hour journey back home–through three countries, change trains in Copenhagen and Hamburg, take the ferry into Germany, arrive in Mainz in the pitch black and catch the last bus home.

After so much time on trains, their rhythm and swing get into your bones. For hours afterwards you feel like your entire world is moving, like you are still rushing on into the night with rain water slanting off the windows.

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Half-way between Denmark and Germany.

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People I: Andrea Noeske-Porada

In my last few months abroad, I would like to add to my exploration of physical spaces of Germany a look at just a few of the people who live here. Because I have gotten to know some pretty extraordinary folks in the last two years. So, in the spirit of Shakespeare’s Miranda, here’s Emily Abroad: People.

Oh, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in ’t!
blah

Photo credit: Iris Kaczmarcyk

Andrea Noeske-Porada: felter, teacher, artist. 

I met Andrea while my parents were in Germany–my mother wanted to take a felting course with one of Germany’s many world-renowned fiber artists, and sent me a list of names to check. Most were far away, in Munich or Berlin, but Andrea just happened to be right across the Rhine. And so I called her, and my mother ended up taking a day-long workshop with her.
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And then it just so happened that she needed someone to translate her website into English, and someone to help her in the studio with her next exhibit, and that was that. I’ve since spent many afternoons in her workshop, helping prepare pre-felts or working on small projects of my own or just drinking tea and talking. I grew up felting, and put myself through college by teaching fiber art classes on the farm and making thousands of felted dolls to sell.  And then I became a grad student, and working-with-my-hands was replaced by working-with-my-mind. My creative life  now mostly consists of libraries and pages instead of soap bubbles and wool. The chance to return to physical creation at the side of someone as inspiring as Andrea is something wonderful, indeed.

Her studio space itself is fascinating: a converted town hall in a tiny wine-soaked village outside of Mainz. There’s a stage at one end, now full of boxes and boxes of fiber, and a tiny kitchen at the other, where there is always tea and chocolate. There’s a CD player for playing tango or Ray Charles, and the afternoon sun shines in your face as you work. It’s all a bit disorderly, as places of creation should be.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHere is Andrea in her own words, in an artistic statement I just translated for her to deliver before the workshop she is currently giving in Argentina:

Ever since the 70s, I kept myself busy artistically with textile materials alongside my study of law. At that time it was mostly graphic wax batiks; since then I have become interested in three-dimensional objects. After my children left home in the early 2000s, I began to look for new materials and techniques. In a round-about way I encountered felt, and after several attempts I discovered the material’s potential for spatial creation. I decided to complete a two-year-long training program, in order to get to know felt from the ground up. 
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My interest has always been primarily for abstract, reduced, and form-based art and construction, which my study of art history only strengthened. Therefore, it was increasingly difficult for me to take pleasure in the many often overblown, decorative elements, the rounded edges, and the ever-recurring spiral-shaped features which I found so frequently in felt. It appealed to me more and more to attempt the opposite in felt and to find out how and if the medium would comply with my wishes. Inspired from the work of the Op-Art artist Victor Vasarely, I began to felt graphically with angular, sharp-edged geometric forms. The next step was the transferring of these images into the third dimension, that is, into reliefs. 
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One of Andrea’s creations, on the left, in an art exhibit in Wiesbaden. (Photo credit)

The development of this form of construction took awhile, and still continues today. The creation of single spaces is relatively straight-forward, but the linking of repeated space structures requires a sophisticated plan. Speculating about the logical sequence and the construction became more and more the most exciting part of my work, and the following process of realization completely lost its meaning. I am always getting new ideas about how to make the process better, or discovering new more suitable materials.
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More from Wiesbaden. (Photo credit)

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn my artistic work, as I said, the construction itself often takes first place, although the changeability and the liveliness of the finished object is also important to me. Textile materials are in their original meaning construction materials: their lightness, omnipresent availability, malleability, flexibility, and focused or spontaneous changeability make them the ideal medium for me. I am not a felter: for me, even the material has an artistic message and it is therefore always vital to think about why I want to achieve something in or with felt instead of some other substance.

In the case of the Felt Foldings [Andrea’s signature technique], the appeal lies in the apparent contradiction between theme and material. The warm, flattering felt does something to angular, sharp-edged objects: it absorbs sound, light, and reflection. Through the mobility of felt, the object or sculpture is no fixed entity, but rather something that can be transformed. One’s perception of and emotions surrounding the finished work can vary according to distance. From close up, the material plays a larger role than the form; from farther away, the architecture comes to the foreground.

Andrea's left-over scraps, ready to be used in a project of mine.

Andrea’s left-over scraps, ready to be used in a project of mine.

Evaluating felt samples for the next art object.

Evaluating felt samples for the next art project.

Spray bottles and soap.

Spray bottles, soap, and old pantyhose–tools of the trade.

Tea is important.

Tea is important.

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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

Mainz

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.