Travelogue XXXVII: Im Dachstübchen II

Carl Spitzweg, The Poor Poet

 April 6, 2015 My Spitzwegian life-under-the-eves in the Mainzer Altstadt continues. Here’s a tour of the inside of my new apartment, to satisfy all of you snoopy (I mean, curious!!) readers out there. 😉 I’m finally fully moved in, a process that took several weeks of back-and-forth and carrying suitcases up lots of stairs.

The entire apartment is exactly 14 square meters. That’s about the size of a large walk-in closet. But it’s incredibly efficient–there’s a bed/living room, a bathroom with a tub, two skylights and a dormer window, and a tiny kitchen. It’s rather like living in a Hobbit house, minus the cave part. Micro-living at its finest.

It’s super reflective of the German/European relationship with space, actually, which is entirely different than the American McMansion-and-four-door-sedan mindset. Here, less is more, and not just because there is so little space–I think people actually like it that way. One family I know, for instance, who own what would be considered in America a normal-size home for four people, actually turned the first two stories into apartments because it was too much space. That doesn’t happen all too often in the US.


The spiral staircase (blue cast iron!) and balcony with room for exactly one person. And a cup of tea. It’s rather barren at the moment, but I am planning to install an entire forest of herbs as soon as it warms up enough.


Many students in Mainz want to live in the Neustadt (New City)–it’s super hip, Mainz’s “little Berlin,” full of bars and clubs and funky places to eat. Apartment prices are lower, and the entire neighborhood caters to the student life. But there, you can’t sit on a balcony every and drink tea and listen to the bells in the Augustinerkirche.


Coats and Caspar David Friedrich.

Also, when I was putting together these pictures, it struck me how many absolutely fantastic people have contributed to the apartment in small or large ways, and, really, to my entire existence in Germany. Thanks, guys. Not to get too sappy, but I wouldn’t be here without you.


The beautiful Persian rug is on loan from a friend, as is the desk. The host father of another friend of mine helped me with the move, which included re-locating a wooden wardrobe from the 5th story of an apartment complex to a room at the top of a spiral staircase, and his wife is sewing me curtains. People are amazing.


A farewell present from Sissy from Finland, a fellow WWOOF-er on the farm in Kulmbach.


The Kitchen.


Mugs from the Christmas Markets in Germany, glass from a dear friend in Vermont, and champagne–a birthday gift–from my host family in Mainz.


“I think somebody up there likes me.”


Lentil-Coconut milk curry on the stove. Drop spindle and wool from home, books (Reclam FTW!!), Kandinsky poster inspired by an afternoon with the German Expressionists in Munich, and daffodils bought from the local farmers’ market. In a Jägermeister bottle, of course. Also, you know you aren’t in the country anymore when you have to PAY MONEY for flowers, people.


I bought a tiny bust of Goethe IN Goethe’s house in Weimar. It doesn’t get much more awesome than that, even though he looks super grumpy.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo, there it is. I’m super proud of it, actually, if you haven’t picked up on that already. My first apartment–another step on the road to adulthood. I got my first electricity bill yesterday and just about passed out. It was only for 20E, but, I mean, I got an electricity bill. There’s no going back from there.


Best of all, the trees outside my window have bloomed.

Travelogue XXXIII: Humans of Vermont

Vermont is full of extraordinary people. The Green Mountains seem to attract the hardiest and uniquest of souls–both those who have been born and raised here, and those who have chosen to make a life in the state. The Vermonters remind me a more than a little bit of so many of the Germans I have gotten to know, actually, especially during my time on the farm in Kulmbach–politically liberal and socially open-minded, intensely practical, environmentally conscious, slightly hippie and invested in sustainable living, and with a deep love of language and tradition and place. It may take a good five years before the old timers will accept a newcomer, but once they do the friendships are deep and lasting.

In Vermont, especially, I am fascinated by not only how people live, but where–what physical objects they surround themselves with, the type of structure they choose to live in. There are our neighbors Hannah and Dave, for instance, who lived in a school bus for years while building their off-the-grid bungalow with a wall of glass windows facing into the mountains, or Joe and Bob from down the road, who raised a family in an octagon-shaped home made of rough-hewn granite with storage space for the cider press and barrels of maple syrup. And so many more.

Below, a few of the other people I have had the privilege of getting to know during the last two decades, and the spaces they call home.

IMG_3191Justine, Montpelier, Vermont: ninety-one years old, shepherdess, reader of storybooks and teller of tales. Before she moved full-time to her Montpelier apartment, my siblings and I spent countless afternoons on her falling-down farm in Northfield. She fed us tuna fish sandwiches and ginger ale floats, and we fished the dead mice out of her pool before jumping in in our underwear. She taught us all to knit, and we spent hours digging pieces of old china out of the creek bed at the bottom of her field. Her collection of ancient silver spoons was delightful, and my sister and I picked different ones for our ice-cream each time we visited. When my brother was born, she knit him a sweater with her own wool, still a bit stiff with lanolin, bits of hay spun into the yarn.

Her apartment, where she has lived alone since the death of her Latin-teacher husband a decade ago, is full of the mementos of a long and full life–turn-of-the-century artifacts, photographs and old books, pressed flowers and butterfly wings.



The windowsills of Justine’s farmhouse were always full of her findings–smooth stones and feathers, seed pods and colored leaves. She has carried on the tradition in her apartment.


The tapestry is a family heirloom from the 1780s, a scene from Shakespeare’s Henry VI.



Her windows overlook the dam on the Winooksi River. “The river is different every time I look out the window. Isn’t that wonderful?” she said.

Dian and Tom, Chelsea, Vermont: I met Dian during the hottest afternoon in July three summers ago. My mother had dragged me into town to watch our stand at farmers’ market and I was doing a poor job of it–half dozing, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain propped open in my lap. All of the sudden, Dian was standing in front of me. “Do you like that book?!” she said, and then we talked about Mann for half an hour on the commons in downtown Chelsea, population 800. Sometimes life is awesome like that.

Dian is an actress with a degree from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, an author and journalist, a painter, director, dancer, and erstwhile sword-fight choreographer. Her husband Tom writes and illustrates children’s books and plays his own compositions on the old upright piano in the bedroom.


Their home–The Palace of the Artists–is a restored camp, with colorful doors and an adjoining studio and windows looking into the birch woods and the mountains. It is full of their own artwork and beautiful objects collected during a lifetime of world travel. In the back yard, there’s a little gypsy wagon, where you can sleep in the summer.




Dian’s studio and study.



One of Tom’s two loft-studies–“This one’s for writing my books, and the other one is for looking at my stocks,” he explained. (photo: Anna)

Travelogue XXX: Im Dachstübchen I


Carl Spitzweg, Im Dachstübchen–The Little Room under the Eaves, 1849.

March 2, 2015 I’ve just moved into a Carl Spitzweg painting. His works belong to the Biedermeier period in Germany, those few decades between the Vienna Congress in 1815 and the start of the Revolution in 1848. It was a time of conservatism in German art, where painters and writers turned to the private and idyllic instead of the public and messily political. Spitzweg’s works are utterly charming, full of quaint people living quiet lives in a stable universe. Eine heile Welt, das sanfte Gesetz: the world is safe, the laws are gentle. The Bourgeoise is a sanctuary.

My tiny new apartment belongs to that world, I think. It’s in the middle of the Altstadt (Old City)–cobblestone streets, a spiral staircase and terrace, under the eves with sloping ceilings and a dormer looking out over slate roofs. There is a cloister behind me and a dozen candle-lit Weinstuben where you can sit at night and drink Riesling and talk to 80-year-old couples who have never lived anywhere other than Mainz. The bells are always ringing in some church or another.

For me, it’s another Gleichgewicht, just like Fastnacht was–the balance, the other half. The 20th-century literature with which I spend so much time is so damned complicated–the Welt is no longer heil, people do horrible and senseless things, and art may just be a joke, in the end. It can begin to wear on one. Being able to walk home over cobblestones, through air full of church bells–it is a chance to exhale, to regain, in some small way, one’s belief in the heile Welt.


The Blumenladen downstairs.

The building I am living in has its own name–Zum Braunenfels–and has foundations dating back to the mid 1500s. In the 17th and 18th centuries it served as a milliner’s shop. It was, along with most of the Mainzer Altstadt, almost entirely destroyed during WWII and then rebuilt in the original architectural style: Fachwerk, that exposed post-and-beam structure that is so quintessentially German.

And today, the ground floor is a flowershop. It doesn’t get much more romantic than that.

I will do another post on the apartment itself after I get everything in order. For now, though, here’s a tour of the neighborhood, which is pretty hard to beat. Certainly, it does cater to the tourist crowd–but from my balcony, which faces into the inner courtyard and not into the street, all I can hear are the bells and, occasionally, the street musicians. I can more than live with that.


This is what I see on my walk from the bus station…


…before turning in to this alleyway….


…or this one.


The inner courtyard is full of trees…


The building next to mine just happens to be the Augustinerkirche, one of the loveliest Baroque-Roccoco churches in Mainz.


Cobblestones, Vespas, and a shrine.


There are over a dozen Weinstuben within a three-minute walk of my apartment, often side-by-side.


Over-priced Mainzer specialities, with reflection of photographer. 🙂



The nearest butcher shop.


My second-favorite street musicians in Mainz. My top favorite are the three Turkish guys who are always playing at the train station–Turkey meets Klezmer meets jazz.


Weinhaus zum Spiegel.

Eine heile Welt, indeed.

Travelogue XXIX: Und es war alles alles gut

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFebruary 22, 2015 Today it felt almost like spring–clear skies, and a warmth to the sunshine I haven’t felt since sometime in October. I decided to call a momentary halt to the paper-writing, and took the train an hour north up the Rhine to Koblenz. The trip is one of the most beautiful stretches in all of Germany, I think–steep vineyards all the way down to the water, tiny villages on the shores, a dozen 1,500-year-old castles at the top of the cliffs. It is the land of the Lorelei, of Rheinromantik, of all the poets and painters of German Romanticism who found in the area something sublime and exalted.


Not Stolzenfels–another smaller castle halfway up the mountain.

I visited Castle Stolzenfels, a few minutes outside of Koblenz. It has a long and colorful history: the original fortress was built in the 13th century as a toll station on the Rhine River, was occupied by French and Swedish troops during the Thirty Years’ War, and was partially destroyed by the French army in 1689. In 1823, the ruins were gifted to Prussian Crownprince Frederick William IV, who had the entire structure rebuilt as a summer palace in the most fairy-tale-like of styles–New Gothic, Romanticism, full of gilded lanterns and tiny gardens and heavy silk tapestries.

First, though, there was the walk up to the castle, a good kilometer above the Rhine River valley.


Footpath: To the Castle.



OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe feeling of space, of clear air, height and movement, far above the city and the trains and the noise–I was giddy. I love Mainz, but one is never really alone there. Here, on a Sunday afternoon in late February, I felt like I had the whole river valley to myself.

And the castle–I think it speaks for itself. One had the feeling of being in some hermetic universe of Romantic loveliness, inside of some charmed scene from an Eichendorf novel. How does Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts end? Birdsong and music, und es war alles, alles gut–all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well. It was that, exactly.

I was utterly enchanted.






Inside the chapel–stained glass and red velvet and a gold ceiling.




Gargoyles on the chapel spires.




On to the gardens…





Travelogue XXIII: Marc Chagall, Stephanskirche

IMG_11216. January, 2015. Just another lovely spot in Mainz–the Stephanskirche. I’ve been wanting to write about it for weeks, but held off to wait for clear skies. The sunlight makes the windows come alive.

The Church of St. Stephan was originally built in 990, on the highest point of land in the city. It was almost entirely destroyed on February 27, 1954 during an American air raid, and has slowly been rebuilt over the course of several decades. Today, the church is renowned for its nine stained glass windows created by Marc Chagall, one of the greatest Jewish artists of the 20th century.

Chagall’s story is one that can be told by dozens of European artists of his time–early renown in Europe, displacement by war, flight to America, observation of Europe’s self-destruction from afar, rebirth and recreation. He was a leading figure of early modernism and heavily involved in the Surrealist and Symbolist movements in Paris. Today, his large-scale paintings and stained glass can be seen in a Jerusalem synagogue, on the ceiling of the Paris Opera, in cathedrals in England, in the United Nations building, and on the stage of the New York City ballet.

The windows in Mainz are the only such pieces he created for a German church, and the last stained glass he created before his death in 1985. When he began work, he was 91 years old. He intended, he wrote, for the finished windows to serve as a symbol of Christian-Jewish unification, a gesture of rebirth after the ravages of World War II.

Today, some 200,000 visitors a year come to the Stephanskirche to see his work.

Mainz_Stiftskirche_StStephan_2810_RET_1024x768The windows turn the light in the church deep blue, with highlights of rainbow. One almost has the feeling of being under water and looking up at the sun.





For me a stained glass window is a transparent partition between my heart and the heart of the world. Stained glass has to be serious and passionate. It is something elevating and exhilarating. It has to live through the perception of light. To read the Bible is to perceive a certain light, and the window has to make this obvious through its simplicity and grace…

Marc Chagall



Details from two of the dozens of scenes from the Bible painted on the three windows behind the altar.

The Stephanskirche is in the Oberstadt (literally, the over-city), the part of town up on the hill and a little apart from the bustle of the center. It’s my favorite area in Mainz, full of slanty pathways and stone stair steps. Below, the walk back into the city.


Travelogue XIX: Würzburg Kreuzweg


24. November, 2014 On the way back from the farm in Kulmbach, we stopped in Würzburg, the half-way point on the Autobahn between eastern Bavaria and Mainz. It’s still the city I know best in Germany–my first introduction to the country, and a place I will always feel a bit homesick for. On the last evening I spent there, I drank wine on the bridge and bid farewell to a dear friend–hot July night, street musicians playing klezmer, the castle all lit up on the hill behind us. It’s been four months since then. Tempus fugit. 

We only had a couple hours, so we decided to walk up the Kreuzweg (stations of the cross) to the beautiful Käppele, high above the vineyards outside of the city.  The path–247 steps!–dates from the 1760s and leads up to the chapel and a tiny cloister.


The almost-bare branches, the stone steps, the clear light–it all had a fairy-tale-like feel to it. Märchenhaft. 





Inside the chapel–baroque, one of the few buildings in Würzburg not destroyed during World War II. It’s never been restored, which means the interior has a hazy-dusty-dreamlike feel to it.


Looking back into the city, and then across to the Festung Marienberg.


The sky was the bluest of blues, for what seems like the first time in weeks. I love the Rhine, but living on its banks means that Nebel (fog) is an unavoidable fact of existence during the winter months. And sure enough, the clear skies in Bayern turned overcast as soon as we took the exit towards Mainz.


I think, though, that the afternoon of sun in Würzburg will be enough to keep me going for awhile yet.

Travelogue XII: Mainzer Dom

640px-Gotisches_MaßwerkfensterIt’s no secret that I have some pretty significant ideological problems with the Catholic Church. But when it comes to aesthetics, I find it completely inescapable. No other religious tradition of my personal acquaintance does beauty so well. I’ve been in dozens of catholic churches across Germany, and the sheer power and loveliness of it all always takes me by surprise.

At the same time, though, I find the physical beauty of the buildings themselves deeply unnerving. This splendor, decadence, theatricality–it blurs the line between art and religion, between aesthetic and spiritual experience. I grew up in protestant New England, going to Sunday services in tiny white clapboard churches–functional, lovely in their own way, but entirely lacking in anything that might be described as gorgeous. There were no candles burning, no stained glass windows, no towering organ, no gothic vaults hazy with incense. Just straight-backed wooden pews, a piano, a plain pulpit–stark perhaps, but refreshingly straightforward, not plagued with questions about the role of decadence and art in religion. And somehow honest: the congregation is not wooed into belief by the power of beauty.

How different it is here in Germany, where I go to a mass in the Frauenkirche in Munich and think, This is as good as a Wagner opera. 



The cathedral in Mainz is one of the most stunning I have seen, and therefore also one of the most unnerving. It is sprawling, visible from almost anywhere in the old city, and dates originally back to 975AD. The building has been restored and rebuilt dozens of times since them, and features architectural components from nearly every Western stylistic period of the past millennium. Outside, there’s the marketplace and dozens of cafes and a really good H&M–inside, a whole separate, echo-y world of vaulted ceilings and stained glass.

I stand inside the main sanctuary, and I think, Who built this thing? Who paid for it all, who mined all that red stone and brought it here? So many centuries ago, in a tiny town of just a few thousand residents, what motivated those in power to dedicate so many lives and so much money to the Church? These cathedrals are the ultimate Gesamtkunstwerke, really–equal parts piety and hubris, reverence and power, shaped by aesthetics, politics, Zeitgeist, music. As much celebrations of human creativity as places of worship.

Below, two of the entrances to the Mainzer Dom (Dom=cathedral).


IMG_0608Inside. The main sanctuary. The painted side panels tell the story of the life of Jesus, with Latin descriptions underneath.


IMG_0611Below, two of the many side chapels. The second chapel, with the very modern stained glass window, gate, and painting together with the traditional architecture, is a very common sight in Germany: after World War II, many churches were restored only partly to their original appearances, and thus feature this striking combination of old and new. 


IMG_0597The amount of detail is staggering. 


IMG_0600Alongside the focus on heaven and the Living God, the presence of death is heavily felt in the cathedrals I have been in. Skulls and skeletons are carved into many of the altarpieces and stone relief-work, and there is always a personified statue of Death somewhere. 

IMG_0605…But when the sun is out, the whole building is full of light. 



Travelogue VIII: Plassenburg, Kulmbach


23. August, 2014 Yesterday, I walked down into the valley and up the other side, to the castle which is visible from the high fields here. The Plassenburg–on the outside, much more rugged and Medieval than the Festung Marienberg in Würzburg, but quite lovely and elegant within the walls.







Afterwards, I walked back down to the old city. I got entirely lost on the way, and ended up in the maze of narrow alleys and overhanging balconies and stone steps that seem to dominate the quieter parts of every small town in Bavaria.



IMG_0489…back on track!


Below, the town square, which I finally found–complete with mandatory cobblestones, outdoor cafe, fountain, Rathaus with wooden beer barrels in front, view of the castle in the background. I ordered a Milchkaffe and read Siegfried Lenz and looked at the Plassenburg.




And best of all, on the long treck back to the farm there was a cat.

Travelogue V: Würzburg Alte Mainbrücke


26. Juli, 2014 One of the most lovely spots in Würzburg is the Alte Mainbrücke, the old stone bridge that connects the city to the Festung Marienberg, the castle on the other side of the river. The first foundations of the bridge date back to the 1100s, and the structure that exists today was completed during the 1400s. Today, there are always street musicians playing, and you can buy a glass of wine from the tiny open-air restaurant at one end and carry it onto the bridge–return the glass when you are finished.


View from the bridge back into the city–the Rathaus (city hall) on the left with the clock tower, the Dom (cathedral) at the end of the street.


The Festung in the distance, above the vineyards. The fact that one can see a thousand-year-old castle from almost any point in the city will never grow old to me. There are statues on both sides of the bridge–the holy family, Wuerzburg’s patron saints, Karl the great. Above St. Kilian.

IMG_0255The river is the Main, here rather sleepy and pleasant. In September, I’ll be moving to the city of Mainz, where it dumps into the Rhein.


Also there is hazelnut Gelato, jussayin’.

Kirchen und Shäkespeare

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust?

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

I once heard a professor say that these few lines were the ultimate statement on the Renaissance. It was a time when human beings–their creativity, ideas, power–were beginning to come to the forefront as inherently worthy of study and awe. But behind it all was still this pressing knowledge of mankind’s fragility, his limitations, his very smallness in the face of God, nature, death. It was possible to be both infinite in faculty and a quintessence of dust.

I think the churches here are fascinating reflections of the passage. As I said, they seem to be as much celebrations of human creativity and power as places of worship. But even amidst the walls of stained glass and stone, amidst the breathtakingly beautiful organs, frescoes, alters, columns, and statues, there is still this pervading feeling of quintessence-of-dust.

Schönbornkapelle, Dom St. Kilian, Würzburg

Asamkirche, München

Frauenkirche, München

Marienkapelle, Würzburg