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.

~~~~~~

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. 

Locus Amoenus III: Bahnhof-Romantik

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.

Berlin

Berlin.

November 27, 2015 Germany has a love-hate relationship with trains. The Deutsche Bahn (German Train) is as much an identity-shaping part of the  culture as good alcohol and soccer, but seems to always have some sort of bad rap–too expensive, chronic delays, the strikes. When I first arrived, I was surprised by the amount of general complaining, since to any [American] outsider it all seems to be a miracle of efficiency and expansiveness. After a year and a half, I’m still in love with it all, although I can now complain with the best of them, too. I swear, if they cancel the S-Bahn one more %$#@ time….ich meine, echt jetzt, Leute.

Before coming to Germany, I had been on exactly one train in twenty-two years. Now, I don’t know how many weeks of my life I have spent in train stations, in trains–the S-Bahn to Frankfurt for the opera, slow scenic trips up the Rhine, exotic voyages across country that span an entire day, flying in a window seat in the high-speed express. For me, all complaining aside, the German train station is quickly becoming another Locus Amoenusa space particularly charged with meaning and, yes, beauty, in a pigeons-and-diesel sort of way. A retreat, comforting through its known-ness.

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Farewells.

The stair of chocolate.

The stair of chocolate.

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Time.

In a sense, all train stations are the same: mythological Orte, artistic spaces, paradox. Places dedicated to not staying in one place, the great stationary enablers of all travel and adventure. They all rely on the same visual symbols, the same aesthetic and sensual building blocks that make up so much of my experience with travel.

Hamburg.

Hamburg.

There are always, for instance, young couples bidding farewell by means of a full make-out session next to the high-speed trains.

There is always a contingent of punks sitting on the ground outside the station, listening to music and smoking and wearing black shirts that say “Refugees Welcome!” or “Fuck Nazis!”.

There are always enormous advertisements for Ritter Sport chocolate that only serve to make me regret my own lack thereof.

There are always book stores where I can stand and sneak-read National Geographic in German, waiting for the connection to Heidelberg or Berlin.

When I stand at the tracks at night, I always fight off the literary fear that I will board the train and the darkness outside the windows will turn into an endless tunnel and I will never, ever get out. Thanks, Dürrrenmatt.

And somewhere, it always, always smells like urine.

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Exhaustion.

Frankfurt

Frankfurt.

For me, somehow, none of those things ever get old, and probably will never get old, no matter how many hundreds of times I have stood in a particular train station and printed my ticket and ran for my connecting train. To someone who spent a childhood in a rural landscape where life moves at a snail’s pace and people stay put, the sheer sense of movement is like a drug.

There’s the thrill of departing: push the dirty “Doors Open” button with the back of your hand and leap into the unknown, haul your suitcase into the train and defend your window seat against all comers.

And the thrill of arriving: perhaps to someplace entirely new, which is its own sort of rush, to buy a city map and drag your suitcase and your exhausted self to some cheap youth hostel or another, and to look at the most ordinary of things with 100% delight and awe just because you have never seen them before. Or perhaps to someplace known: back home in Mainz, for instance, or to a particular small sunlit city on another river, to catch the 54 or look for your lover’s car, to get back to your apartment and make tea and rest.

None of it ever gets old.

In the S-Bahn.

In the S-Bahn.

Travelogue LXVI: Herr, es ist Zeit

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Herbsttag / Autumn Day

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Herr: Es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß. / Lord, it is time. The summer was immense.

Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren / Lay your shadow on the sundials

Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren / Lay your shadow on the sundials

und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los. / and let loose the wind in the fields.

und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los. / and let loose the wind in the fields.

Befiehl den letzten Früchten reif zu sein / gib Ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage / Bid the last fruits to be full; / give them two more southerly days

Befiehl den letzten Früchten voll zu sein / Bid the last fruits to be full

gib Ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage / give them two more southerly days,

gib Ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage / give them two more southerly days,

dräng sie zur Vollendung hin und jage / die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein. / press them to ripeness, and chase / the last sweetness into the heavy wine.

dräng sie zur Vollendung hin und jage / press them to ripeness, and chase

die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein. / the last sweetness into the heavy wine.

die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein. / the last sweetness into the heavy wine.

Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr / Whoever has no house now will not build one anymore

Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr / Whoever has no house now will not build one anymore

wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben, / Whoever is alone now will remain so for a long time,

wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben, / Whoever is alone now will remain so for a long time,

wird lesen, wachen, lange Briefe schreiben / will stay up, read, write long letters

wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben / will stay up, read, write long letters

und wird auf den Alleen hin und her / and wander the avenues, up and down,

und wird in den Alleen hin und her / and wander the avenues, up and down,

unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben. / restlessly, while the leaves are blowing.

unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben. / restlessly, while the leaves are blowing.

Rainer Maria Rilke

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Travelogue LXV: Venice II: I am Venice

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“If one wanted to travel to somewhere incomparable, to a fantastic mutation of normal reality, where did one go? The answer was obvious. What was he doing here? He had gone completely astray. That was where he wanted to travel.”

San Marco.

San Marco.

October 20, 2015 It’s been over a week since I have been back from Venice, and I still don’t know quite how to write about it. The weirdest, loveliest, most contradictory place I have ever been in, yes–but what does that even mean? Venice is the most improbable (unwahrscheinlichste) of all cities, Thomas Mann says.

The trip was the third in my series of Mann pilgrimages (Munich and Lübeck down, Davos still to go!), another working-out of this strange drive to live art that seems to dominate a good deal of my existence. In this case, the work behind it all was Death in Venice, the novella from 1911 that was my introduction to the author. Aging writer Gustav von Aschenbach travels to Venice, falls in love with a beautiful child, and destroys himself: Thomas Mann’s perfect irony played out against a heady backdrop of Nietzsche and Wagner and Plato and, of course, the city itself.

The flag of Venice.

The flag of Venice.

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“Can there be anyone who has not had to overcome a fleeting sense of dread, a secret shudder of uneasiness, on stepping for the first time or after a long interval of years into a Venetian gondola? How strange a vehicle it is, coming down unchanged from times of old romance, and so characteristically black, the way no other thing is black except a coffin….”

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“‘The signore wants to go to the Lido.’ ‘But not with you!’ ‘I row you well.’ True enough, thought Aschenbach, true enough, you will row me well. Even if you are after my cash and dispatch me to the house of Hades with a blow of your oar from behind, you will have rowed me well.”

Sam Marco Doge Venice

Winged lions at the Doge’s palace.

My first impression of Venice was one of beauty, pure and simple. I had the uncanny feeling of walking through a painting, all day, every day, through some stirring landscape of teal-blue water and delicate bridges and white marble facades fading into the morning haze. But it wasn’t unproblematic: in Venice, there is no escape from the aesthetically lovely, and it all therefore becomes incredibly exhausting. In Germany, there is always an escape–you can leave the Old City behind after a few blocks and find yourself surrounded by Aldis and 1950s apartment complexes. You can’t do that in Venice, however, and the constant in-your-face presence of so much gorgeousness is somehow wearing. Human beings aren’t meant for paradise.

And at the same time, too, Venice’s beauty is always backed by the Absurd. The gondolas are packed with baseball-cap-wearing Americans and selfie-stick-wielding Japanese. You can buy knock-off plastic carnival masks and knock-off Gucci bags and knock-off everything else on every street corner for five euros. Loveliness is exploited for money, illegally, and when the police walk by all the hawkers leap up at once from whatever square you are on and run, scattering fake Gucci bags behind them.

Even the aesthetic of the city itself, in the end, is flawed on closer examination: the lagoon stinks, even in October, and the marble facades are streaked with pigeon shit and crumbling into the water. The whole place is sinking.

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“Well, I shall stay, thought Aschenbach. What better place could I find? And with his hands folded in his lap, he let his eyes wander in the wide expanse of the sea, let his gaze glide away, dissolve and die in the monotonous haze of this desolate emptiness.”

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The Grand Canal.

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“Never had he known the joy of language more sweetly, never had he known so clearly that Eros dwells in the Word…”

But I fell in love anyway. Mit Erstaunen bemerkte Aschenbach, dass der Knabe vollkommen schön war. With astonishment, Aschenbach saw that the boy was perfectly beautiful: Where else in the world could that astounding sentence, which I am convinced is one of the most important in all of art, have been written? The breaking-in of beauty and Eros in Aschenbach’s life had to happen in Venice; it’s the only city unwahrscheinlich enough to sustain that level of passion.

And at the same time, Venice IS Mann’s definition of artistic creation, of art itself: beauty and transcendence backed by the suspect, by something just slightly nauseating and improper. Being in the city was like seeing Death in Venice, and maybe the entirety of Thomas Mann’s opus, from the inside out.

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“He fled from the crowded commercial thoroughfares, over bridges, into poor quarters. There he was besieged by beggars, and the sickening stench from the canals made it difficult to breath. In a silent square, one of those places in the depths of Venice that seem to have been forgotten and put under a spell, he rested on the edge of a fountain, wiped the sweat from his forehead and realized that he would have to leave.”

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Goldmund and I couldn’t decide if the water was blue or green, or both, or neither.

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“It is well that the world knows only the beautiful work and not also its origins, the conditions under which it came into being; for knowledge of the sources of an artist’s inspiration would often confuse readers and shock them…When Aschenbach put away his work and left the beach, he felt worn out, even broken, and his conscience seemed to be reproaching him as if after some kind of debauchery.”

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And so I walked the city for hours at a time, without a map, entirely lost, in some sort of Mann- and Venice-induced half-stupor. The place was full of tourists even at the very end of the season,  but it was shockingly easy to get away from it all: to take two turns off the beaten path and find oneself entirely alone next to some shady canal, with some black gondola gliding by. They really are silent, as Thomas Mann writes.

On the third day we went to the Lido, the island next to Venice where Death in Venice takes place, and lay on the beach in the sun and looked at the waves and were extraordinarily happy. Even there, though, the atmosphere around us was strange, melancholy somehow: long empty stretches of sand, bathing houses already battened down for the winter, only a few stragglers in the water. We were nearly the only guests at the sea-side café, where we split a pizza and put on our coats and scarves after the sun went down.

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Above, live music in the cafes at San Marco. Below, the Grand Hotel des Bains on the Lido, where Thomas Mann stayed in 1911, fell in love with with the 11-year-old Polish Baron Adzio Moes, and began writing Death in Venice on hotel stationary.

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“The lulling rhythm of this existence had already cast its spell on him; he had been quickly enchanted by the indulgent softness and splendor of this way of life. What a place this was indeed, combining the charms of a cultivated sea-side resort in the south with the familiar ever-ready proximity of the strange and wonderful city.”

On the last afternoon in Venice, which I spent alone, I ducked into a store off of some tiny side-street and found myself surrounded by lace and paper mache and hanging dark brocade: a carnival shop, a real one this time, no plastic here. A young man around my age sat at a work table painting filigree onto a row of masks. Diamond stud in one ear, dark hair, paint-stained apron. I saw the piece I wanted to buy as soon as I walked in: the half-mask of Commedia dell’artes Columbine with the Phantom’s hand over one eye, two figures in one, the coming-together of male and female and dark and light. “Did you make this one, too?” I asked the young man at the table after I had made my purchase. “No,” he said, “that was my father. Do you want to know the story behind it?” And so he spent the next thirty minutes talking to me about making art and living in Venice, pulling down masks from the wall to show me the different techniques, talking about the Commedia and carnival revelries and showing me his tiny boat parked in the canal outside.

“There is nothing for a young man in Venice–nothing for me here,” he said as I was collecting my things to go. “The entire city is for the tourists. If I want to go out or dance I have to go to the mainland and take a taxi. It is very hard to live here; in the past 25 years three-quarters of the population have left.” “Why don’t you leave, then, too?” I asked. “Because I am Venice,” he said, and then a gondola-load of tourists came into the shop, and I took my purchase and got on the vaporetto back to the apartment and Goldmund, and was very much content.

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“A sacred, deranged world, full of Panic life, enclosed the enchanted watcher, and his heart dreamed tender tales. Sometimes, as the sun was sinking behind Venice, he would sit on a bench in the hotel park to watch Tadzio, dressed in white with a colorful sash, at play on the rolled gravel tennis court; and in his mind’s eye he was watching Hyacinthus, doomed to perish because two gods loved him.”

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“For Beauty, dear Phaedrus, only Beauty is at one and the same time divinely desirable and visible: it is, mark well, the only form of the spiritual that we can receive with our senses and endure with our senses. For what would become of us if other divine things, if Reason and Virtue and Truth were to appear to us sensuously? Should we not perish in a conflagration of love, as once upon a time Semele did before Zeus?”

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“He sank down on one of the seats, deliriously breathing the nocturnal fragrance of the flowers and trees. And leaning back, his arms hanging down, overwhelmed, trembling, shuddering all over, he whispered the standing formula of the heart’s desire–impossible here, absurd, depraved, ludicrous and sacred nevertheless, still worth of honor even here: ‘I love you!'”

All quotations from Death in Venice, translated by David Luke.

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Travelogue LXIV: Venice I: Love Calls Us to the Things of This World

October 14, 2015 Ever since having been introduced to Richard Wilbur’s superb Love Calls Us to the Things of This World in a Sunday School class over a decade ago, I have been searching for a place like the one described in the poem. Who knew I would have to travel to Giudecca, a tiny island in the Mediterranean off the coast of Venice, to find it?

The morning air in Italy is all awash with angels, people.
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Love Calls Us to the Things of This World

The eyes open to a cry of pulleys, 
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul   
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple   
As false dawn. 
                     Outside the open window   
The morning air is all awash with angels. 

    Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,   
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.   
Now they are rising together in calm swells   
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear   
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing; 

    Now they are flying in place, conveying 
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving   
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden   
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet 
That nobody seems to be there. 
                                             The soul shrinks 

    From all that it is about to remember, 
From the punctual rape of every blessèd day, 
And cries, 
               “Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,   
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam 
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.”

 

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  Yet, as the sun acknowledges 
With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors,   
The soul descends once more in bitter love   
To accept the waking body, saying now 
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,   
    “Bring them down from their ruddy gallows; 
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;   
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,   
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating   
Of dark habits, 
   keeping their difficult balance.”
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Travelogue LXIII: Hamburg III: Harbor City

If it looks freezing and stormy, that's because it was.

If it looks freezing and stormy, that’s because it was.

October 3, 2015 Hamburg is Germany’s harbor city, on the confluence of the Elbe, Alster, and Bille rivers and some 60 miles from the North Sea. The official opening of the harbor took place on May 7, 1189, and it is today among the twenty largest in the world. The city lives and breaths sea trade.

On my first morning, I immediately made my way down to the edge of the water, and realized that just standing on a pier and trying to figure out what I was looking at wasn’t enough.

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Warehouses and canals in the Speicherstadt, literally “Warehouse City.” In the late 19th century and continuing until very recently, the quarter was Hamburg’s bustling import and export hub, where goods were unloaded and into the brick storehouses right on the edge of the water.

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Today, it’s a rather quiet and peaceful place, full of offices and museums.

hamburg warehouses

And so I found myself on a tiny wooden boat in the middle of the Hamburger harbor on a freezing, windy, misty morning in late September.

Our boat had long benches and, in typical non-American style, no life-jackets or any sort of safety guidelines. We were merely told before boarding to hold on tight, “and if you are going to puke, do it downwind!” Our pilot was an old crotchety Hamburger, who spent most of the time smoking cigarettes and/or insulting the single passenger from Bavaria. As it turned out, though, he knew the harbor inside and out. His love of the place was evident. This had been his world for his entire life, and he was dang proud of it.

Despite the cold and the rather-large waves, I was fascinated. There was something intensely theatrical about all of it–these massive bodies entering and exiting before a backdrop of fog and storm-clouds and early morning light. The silent swing of a crane arm, the lines of wake behind the ferries–it was balletic, almost, a dance in slow motion. The industrial and utilitarian became aesthetic. And the way our guide described the twists and turns of harbor life, he may as well have been describing a work of art.

Cutting-edge new architecture in the so-called Harbor City. Apparently the German Schlager-singer Helene Fischer has an apartment there. "With her boy-toy," as the pilot informed us.

Cutting-edge new architecture in the so-called Harbor City. “It looks like a Döner-skewer,” said our pilot helpfully. Apparently the German Schlager-singer Helene Fischer  (“and her boy-toy!”) have an apartment there. 

The harbor isn't just for industrial ships--here, an enormous cruise boat at the dock.

The harbor isn’t just for industrial ships–here, an enormous luxury cruise boat at the dock.

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The introduction of  containers in the 1960s revolutionized the shipping industry. Before that, things looked pretty much as they did 1,000 years ago--wooden barrels and burlap sacks.

The introduction of containers in the 1960s revolutionized the shipping industry. Before that, things looked pretty much as they did 1,000 years ago–wooden barrels and burlap sacks.

A massive ship from Hong Kong being unloaded after the 57-day voyage to Germany.

A massive ship from Hong Kong being unloaded after the 57-day voyage to Germany.

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A tour-boat next to one of the container ships. Yep. Hold on tight. "He's driving too close!" said our pilot. "If one of those containers should fall right now, that's the end of the touring business in the Hamburger Harbor!!"

A tour-boat next to one of the container ships. Yep. Hold on tight. “He’s driving too close!” said our pilot. “If one of those containers should fall right now, you can kiss the touring business in the Hamburger Harbor goodbye!!”

All container ships are required to be dry-docked once every five years.

All container ships are required to be dry-docked once every five years.

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A view of the harbor from the tower of St. Michaelis Church in downtown Hamburg.

A view of the harbor from the tower of St. Michaelis Church in downtown Hamburg.

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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