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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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 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 LVI: Bayreuth III: Wagner City

Wagner-City

Wagner-City

August 29, 2015 Even 130 years after Wagner’s death, Bayreuth belongs entirely to him. The city is beautiful, but the atmosphere is strange: part cult, part kitsch, part ever-present and often-disturbing history. Certainly, there are other dignitaries who feature in local history–Franz Liszt, Jean Paul Richter, etc.–but they pale beside the Festival and everything associated with it. The influence of the Great Master is still inescapable.

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Above, Villa Wahnfried, the home King Ludwig built for the Wagner family in Bayreuth. The name means freedom from illusion–I have always wondered what Wagner meant by that.

The Villa is a peaceful and lovely place, backed by a gorgeous park full of flowing water and walking paths. During Wagner’s time, and for many decades afterwards, it was a place of pilgrimage for the world’s artistic and intellectual elite, full of art and discussion and beauty.

Wagner's grave, directly behind Wahnfried. To the side, the graves of his beloved dogs.

Wagner’s grave, directly behind Wahnfried. To the side, the graves of his beloved dogs.

Of course, Wahnfried is not entirely unproblematic: during the 1930s, Hitler lived part-time with the Wagner family in a small house next to the villa. Richard himself was at that point long dead, but the Führer and everything he stood for were welcomed with open arms by his children and wife Cosima.

Statue of King Ludwig, and the fresco above the door: Wagner in the center as Wotan, Cosima on one side and the opera singer  Schröder-Devrient on the other representing Tragedy and Music, and his son Siegfried.

Statue of King Ludwig, and the fresco above the door: Wagner in the center as Wotan, Cosima on one side and the opera singer Schröder-Devrient on the other representing Tragedy and Music, and his young son Siegfried.

The park behind Wahnfried, looking towards the Residenz.

The park behind Wahnfried, looking towards the Residenz.

Back in the city, Wagner becomes a selling-point, a way to draw in tourists and maximize your selling power. Stick a Wagner bust in your window, or name your breakfast specials after Der Ring des Nibelungen, and the crowds will come. Much of this sort of advertising strays into kitsch, which is somehow hilarious and endearing at the same time.

A wonderful old book store featuring everything one could ever want on Wagner: biographies and libretti, orchestral scores and old Festpiel programs...

A wonderful old book store featuring everything one could ever want on Wagner: biographies and libretti, orchestral scores and old Festspiel programs…

Breakfast specials at the cafè named after Wagner operas--"Siegfried" and "Meistersinger."

Breakfast specials at the cafè named after Wagner operas–“Siegfried” and “Meistersinger.”

Valkyrie-Street

Half of the street signs in the city are named after characters in the operas, or after Wagner’s family members. Here, Valkyrie-Street.

Even the pharmacies are named after Wagner!

Even the pharmacies are named after Wagner! Here, Parsifal, his last opera.

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During the Festival, the black market for opera tickets is booming. Here, Siegfried and Götterdämerung tickets for sale.

During the Festival, the black market for opera tickets booms. Above, Siegfried and Götterdämerung tickets for sale.

Wagner-windows. Here, a tobacco shop with tiny Wagner doll. Cute, oder?

Wagner-window I. Here, a tobacco shop with tiny Wagner doll. Cute, oder?

Jewelry shop where you can buy "Der Ring," rofl. "Dein Gold" (Your Gold) instead of "Rheingold" (first opera of the Ring Cycle), get it??

Wagner-window II. Jewelry shop where you can buy “Der Ring,” rofl. “Dein Gold” (Your Gold) instead of “Rheingold” (first opera of the Ring Cycle), get it??

Hair salon with Wagner bust and score of Tristan und Isolde. I have no idea, either.

Wagner-window III. Hair salon with Wagner bust and score of Tristan und Isolde. I have no idea, either.

Reverse-advertising. "In this house lived Richard Wagner--never."

Reverse-advertising. “In this house lived Richard Wagner–never.”

Siegfried in one direction, Festival Hill in the other.

Siegfried in one direction, Festival Hill in the other.

Despite a complicated past and kitschy present, however, Bayreuth is lovely–relaxed festival atmosphere, full of beautiful cars and well-dressed opera-goers eating in the open air cafès and reading Wagner libretti in the parks. The whole city has a sort of holiday air, a feeling of being removed from the rest of the world, shut away in a tiny universe dedicated to the power of music.

Festival atmosphere--open-air cafés, cappuccinos and ice-cream and late-afternoon walks.

Festival atmosphere–open-air cafés, cappuccinos and ice-cream and late-afternoon walks.

Travelogue LV: Bayreuth II: Festspielhügel

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August 24, 2015 Three operas down, two to go. I’m in Bayreuth, people, and I still can’t quite believe it. The afternoon walks up to the Festspielhügel (Festival Hill), the darkness before the music starts, the glass of wine afterwards–it all seems so normal, like this isn’t one of the most extraordinary experiences in human existence. But then again, I can’t stop smiling, and I have to restrain myself from geeking out at various inopportune moments. Girl, you are at the f%$#@ Festspiele.

In the end, though, Bayreuth is a strange and contradictory place.

On the one hand, the atmosphere is all very relaxed and playful. The weather is gorgeous, and the intermissions last an hour so you have time to walk into town and eat dinner. Or, if you are as [impoverished and] boss as Katie and I, you spread out a 15-Euro picnic right in front of the Festspielhaus. You get to know the people who sit next to you every night and exchange stories about art and music and life in general. You sleep in the next day at the youth hostel and spend the afternoon before the performance going to book stores and giggling over the Wagner kitsch all over the city. You walk through the gardens up to the opera house an hour early so you have time to admire/creep on the extraordinarily well-dressed Europeans who drop 2,000 Euros on a week in Bayreuth, with their Gucci bags and dinner reservations at some five-star restaurant during the intermissions. Take the taxi into town, take the taxi back an hour later.

The fashion, too, is delightful. I knew people dressed up for Bayreuth, but I wasn’t expecting tuxedos and ball gowns, not during the last week of a non-premiere production. In the last few days, however, we have seen it all–five-inch-heels and parasols, black ties and polished wing-tips, silk handkerchiefs that match the dress that match the purse. Of course some of it strays horribly (hilariously!) into kitsch–poofy pink princess gowns from the 80s, etc. In the end, though, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much genuine elegance and sartorial beauty in one place in my life. People–adults!–revel in the chance to play dress up and be seen.

Parasols abounded.

Parasols abounded.

Carrying the mandatory cushion (bring your own!). Wooden fold-down seats become incredibly uncomfortable after the first three hours of music.

Heatedly discussing the finer points of the evening’s Tristan, mandatory seat-cushion in hand (bring your own!). Wooden fold-down chairs become incredibly uncomfortable after about the first three hours of music.

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View from above.

View from above. That yellow suit, though.

Dapper.

Wind-swept dapper.

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The spoils: Fancy handbag, 10 Euro flutes of champagne, Reclam-edition of the libretto.

The spoils: Fancy handbag, 10-Euro flutes of champagne, Reclam-edition of the libretto.

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View through the Festspielhaus doors.

View through the Festspielhaus doors, right before I got taken out by the No-Photography-Inside-the-Festspielhaus police.

On the other hand, though, Bayreuth is not really a pleasant place at all. I don’t think I have ever been surrounded by such a high concentration of genuine snobbery in my life.

That means that afterwards, you don’t revel the beauty you just experienced and reflect on the fact that you, in your designer gown and high heels, are one of the most privileged people on the planet. No, you critique the Brühnhilde’s upper register (Where’s Birgit Nilsson when you need her?) and deplore the flatness of the tenor (Botha is great, but really, can’t he change it up a bit?) and absolutely hate on the production (Regie-trash! Euro-trash! Skandale!! Oh, for the 1950s and the days of Wolfgang Wagner!!). Of course it is not all bad, but even your praise must be critical and highly informed at all times (The direction of the brass section was excellent, but of course nothing in comparison to Solti. Oh, you don’t like Solti either? Well anyway, Botha’s Winterstürme was lovely, although that hardly makes up for his botching of the Wälse earlier in the act).

The amount of sheer expertise amongst the opera-goers is staggering. These people know their Wagner, or at least know how to pretend like they do, and can talk the talk like there’s no tomorrow.

All of which, honestly, is mostly fine with me–I love a good snobby opera rant once in a while. But in the end, I miss the pure, unadulterated awe with which I encountered Wagner for the first time. Naive and a bit blind, perhaps, but full of appreciation and real joy–isn’t that the best way to encounter great art?

Visitors are confronted with the more troubling aspects of Bayreuth's past: a permanent display on antisemitism and Hitler in Bayreuth stands directly in front of the opera house. This is Wagner, after all--things are never uncomplicated.

Visitors are confronted with the more troubling aspects of Bayreuth’s past: a permanent display on antisemitism and Hitler in Bayreuth stands directly in front of the opera house. This is Wagner, after all–things are never uncomplicated.

Ultimately, there is an element of passionate suffering, of Leidenschaft (Leidenschaft=passion, leiden=to suffer) about it all. It’s almost comic, actually. If you don’t have a ticket, you stand around outside with an absolutely forlorn expression on your face and a “Suche Karte” (“Looking for a ticket”) sign, until some merciless person deigns to part with the last act of Götterdämmerung for three times the selling price. You act all friendly towards your neighbor until he or she opens up a cough drop in the middle of the performance. God forbid that the sacred space be polluted by the sound of a Halls wrapper!! The entire Galarie suffers together until the end of the act!!

The physical space of the Festspielhaus itself contributes to this atmosphere of martyrdom. Simple architecture, straight-backed wooden seats, no air conditioning–it is clear that the focus here is on THE MUSIC and not on the physical gratification of the Festspiel-goers. After five hours in a cramped seat in 85-degree heat, the level of self-mortification is absolutely saintly.

In the end, though, the lack of luxury is a very good thing, and fits in with Wagner’s radical vision for Bayreuth as a place of direct confrontation with artistic beauty unspoiled by physical indulgence. He was the first to darken the house during performances, after all, the first to place the emphasis fully on the stage and not on being seen by those around you. Bravo, there.

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The orchestra’s brass section plays motives from the opera to call guests back to their seats at the end of intermission.

And despite everything, of course, it really is all about the music. That’s why I’m here–that’s why I keep coming back to Wagner, all questionable decadence and politics aside. There is a power and a beauty there that gets under my skin.

So last night during Tristan und Isolde, sitting behind a column with my 10-Euro ticket, the cough drop wrappers and botched high notes and arrogant snobbery paled absolutely beside the music, welling up from the covered orchestra pit in the darkness below and slowly, slowly changing the world.

Walking in the gardens surrounding the Festival House during intermission.

Walking in the gardens surrounding the Festival House during intermission.

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Travelogue LII: Bayreuth I: Richard Wagner

Reading list for Bayreuth 2015.

Reading list for Bayreuth 2015. Mann and Nietzsche are, in my opinion, still the very best Wagnerians.

August 15, 2015 In a week I will be at the Richard Wagner Opera Festival in Bayreuth, Germany. Six days, five operas, some twenty hours of music. The tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen and Tristan und Isolde to boot.

For those readers who may not be aware of just how impossibly cool the preceding few sentences are–the Bayreuth festivals were started in 1876 by Wagner himself, in the theater he designed specifically for the performance of his operas. Today, the wait-list for tickets is about ten years, unless you know the right people and happen to get insanely lucky. Which, apparently, I did. What.

For me, it’s the great closing of the circle, the realization of years of Mythos and fantasy and love-from-afar. After all, it’s Wagner’s fault that I am here in Germany in the first place. When people ask me how I ended up studying comparative literature in Mainz, I always go back to July 4th, 2008–I had just turned sixteen and was awkward, precocious, tomboyish, and painfully nerdy. There was a flea market after the local parade and I bought a copy of Das Rheingold (the first opera of the Ring) for a dollar because the picture on the front was cool and because it looked intellectual. At that point in my life I was in my phase of checking books out from the library because they seemed scholarly and forcing myself to read them no matter how dull the contents. Indeed.

Anyway, I listened to the entire CD as soon as I got home and was not overly impressed. Dark, Teutonic, incomprehensible. This opera thing, though, was new and fascinating. I spent the next six months becoming increasingly obsessed–first the Italians, then the French, Mozart, Britten, Strauss. And when I finally got around to playing Das Rheingold again, on some freezing December evening in Vermont, I was suddenly completely, utterly, hopelessly hooked. Wagner–where had he been all my life? His particular brand of disturbing beauty hit me like a brick wall.

And thus by the time I graduated from high school my German vocabulary was enormous, and also entirely impractical. Words like “love-death,” “springtide,” and “gloaming” are all of utmost importance to the hardcore Wagnerian, but, as I discovered within my first actual five minutes in Germany, are absolutely useless in all other situations.

All the same, Wagner’s work stood at the center of my intellectual existence. In him I found the beginning of the drive, the love, the energy that is still behind everything I do. The operas propelled me back to his own sources–to Goethe, Beethoven, Shakespeare, the Greeks–and forward to his skeptics and lovers–Nietzsche, Mahler, Berg, Mann. I reveled above all in his critics, found his oeuvre suspect and horrible and bewitching all at once.  To difficult to love, too seductive to hate.

And then I walked onto my college campus and ran into a German professor on my first day who told me I should sign up for his introductory language class, and that was that. The floodgates opened.

 

The shrine to opera, or rather to Wagner, in my childhood bedroom. With full orchestral scores, Furtwängler and Solti, and posters from the Otto Schenk Ring. So, so nerdy.

A very old photo: the shrine to opera, but mostly to Wagner, in my childhood bedroom. With full orchestral scores, Furtwängler and Solti, and posters from the Otto Schenk Ring. It doesn’t get much more nerdy than that.

Now, it’s been years since I have listened to the Ring in its entirety, laying on my back under a down comforter in my freezing childhood bedroom, German-English libretto propped open on my chest. One CD a night, fifteen nights in a row, until fire and water had destroyed the world and all the gods were dead. That experience–the circle of light surrounded by darkness, the music through my headphones, the whole world flying open–was my childhood, perhaps the defining  experience of my teenage years. And now I’m going back.

It’s not that I haven’t listened to Wagner in the meantime–there was the crazy regietheater Walküre in San Francisco, the Parsifal HD broadcast from the Met which silenced a carload of college students. And, in possibly the most remarkable experience of my existence to date, the Tristan und Isolde in France where I fell in love and learned more about myself in five hours than I had in the past 23 years. But the total immersion, the intensity, the feeling that Wagner was there, tangible, at the very forefront of my existence–I thought I had left that behind me when I packed my bags for college and left home.

I think, though, that it is all going to come back. Actually, re-reading and re-thinking myself into the Ring‘s mythos over the past week, I am finding that it perhaps never went anywhere at all. Below the surface, yes, but intact.

At any rate, Leitmotiv is once more keeping me awake at night. And I am delighted.

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Travelogue XLV: Letters to Milena

Drinking tea--not absinthe!--and reading and writing in Cafe Slavia.

Drinking tea–not absinthe!–and reading and writing in Café Slavia.

June 5, 2015 Reading Kafka’s Letters to Milena in Prag–eight hours on the bus on the way here, now on the streets and in cafés until the entire city turns into a series of variations on his story.

It’s strange–as I move forward with my education in the field of literature, I find that my approach to books and reading is becoming ever more, well, academic, supra-personal, professional even. Mostly, this is a good thing, as I have always tended to personalize art to the extent of being completely incapable of talking about it in any sort of academic setting. I am pursuing the reading and teaching of literature as a career, after all, and I want to be able to do those things with as much professional integrity as possible.

But I don’t think I will ever be able to escape the personal-ness of Kafka. As I have written in the past, I can’t read his works any other way than the way I read books as a child: as something intensely private and intimate, as personal messages aimed right into the soul of the reader. With him, there is no wall between art and life. When faced with The Castle or his letters, all of my hard-won Literaturwissenschaftlerin-professionalism flies out the window.

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Café Louvre

So, the Letters to Milena. When they began writing, Kafka was 37 and she was 24, the translator of his works into Czech. They exchanged letters for three years, until some months before his death in 1924. She died twenty years later in a concentration camp in Germany, deported because of her involvement with Jewish and political refugees–yet another one of Kafka’s inner circle destroyed by the Second World War. It is perhaps a good thing that he never lived past the 1920s.

Like the diaries, Kafka’s letters are almost more intense than his novels and stories. To read them is to become a voyeur, an observer of the most private sphere of one distinctly troubled individual.

~~~~~~

Notes from my reading of the Letters:

Leere und Leidenschaft–emptiness and passion. Kafka’s great love and even greater fear of this girl–Mädchen, he calls her, not Frau–who is full of strength, courage, and vitality, and who is offering him a hand that he just can’t allow himself to reach out and take.

The closeness of love and pain. Kafka writes, Liebe ist, daß Du mir das Messer bist, mit dem ich in mir wühle. Love is: you are the knife I turn within myself. And Milena, as the editor suggests in the afterward, makes herself sick because he himself was sick–tuberculosis, hemorrhage of the lungs, coughing up blood in the night. She starts turning herself into him.

The eternal misunderstanding–you don’t know me yet, Milena, Milena, that was a silly joke which you did not understand–and the way in which Kafka is unable to translate words into physical nearness. At times one has the feeling that in some sick way he is reveling in the self-imposed, masochistic distance the pages of finely-crafted prose put between him and Milena. He loses himself in language and art so he doesn’t have to face reality.

In the end, I am undone by the Eros of Kafka, for the first time. Your hair on my brow, Milena, Milena, Milena, your lips turning towards mine in sleep… It really is true, as I once said to the Professor after trying and failing to understand Robert Musil’s Drei Frauen (Three Women), that you need to have experienced certain things in order to really read certain literature. Milena’s responses have all been lost, but at this moment, I think could have written her letters for her. I know what was in them.

Café Orient

Café Orient, empty this afternoon because of the heat.

And the backdrop to it all is the Prager Cafékultur. The city is full of cafés, many of which hosted (and still host!) Prague’s artistic and political circles. During his lifetime, Kafka was a regular frequenter of the cafés, of course, along with Max Brod and his entire circle of law students and philosophers. From the diaries and letters, it is possible to reconstruct the Cafékultur as he lived it: Arco, Slavia, Evropa, Louvre, and on and on.

The spaces are themselves works of art. Art Nouveau, Cubism, Jugendstil, and everything in between–polished table-tops, high ceilings, high windows with street cars racing by outside. Aesthetically, it’s all the polar opposite of the Mainzer Weinstuben I know so well, all candle light, dark wood paneling,  and tiny latticed windows with flower boxes, looking out onto cobblestones.

The Absinthe Drinker, a famous painting hanging in Café Slavia.

The Absinthe Drinker, a famous painting hanging in Café Slavia.

But here in Prague, even in the 21st century and on the brightest and most un-angsty of June days, you can almost still see them all–Franz Kafka, Max Brod, Smetana, Kubin, Werfel, Einstein, all drinking espresso and absinthe and talking about existentialism or theater or war or whatever else one talked about among geniuses at the turn of the 19th century. It’s heady stuff.

Much more to come.

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Café Slavia

Café Evropa

Café Evropa

Einem gewissen Mikal gewidmet, falls er dies mal lesen sollte. 

Travelogue XLI: PEGIDA and Beauty in Dresden

March 30, 2015 Dresden is a stunning city. People call it the Elbflorenz–Florence on the Elb River, the Jewel Box, Germany’s version of Italian Baroque.

I arrived at the train station in Dresden after the DAAD Conference in Jena, dropped my suitcase at the youth hostel, and headed for the city center. When I stepped off the tram at the Theaterplatz, the force of beauty hit me like a brick wall. So much pure loveliness needs no justification, no reason for being. It just is, and you stand there and blink back tears in the pouring rain, and are fully outside of yourself.

Perhaps even more staggering, however, is the fact that it is almost entirely all new–the entire old city was gutted by the American and British bombs that fell in February, 1945. Twenty-five thousand deaths, most of them of civilians, were recorded after the bombings, with thousands more left uncounted. The city as it exists today is a monument both to the horror of war and to the human capacity for hope and industry, I think. Restoration began soon after the war ended, and continues to this day–renovations of the Frauenkirche cathedral, for instance, were only completed in 2005.

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It was a weekend of beauty, of unabashed reveling in Western culture at its most stunning. I photographed statues and frescoes and saw the Old Masters and the German Romantics in the art museums. I stood in line at the box office and scored a student ticket (13 Euros!) for a Bach oratorio at the Semperoper. “It’s the most beautiful opera house in the world,” said the woman who sold me the ticket. Afterwards, I was almost ready to believe her.

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The Semperoper.

But of course, things aren’t so simple. This is Germany, after all.

Besides the museums and the opera and the Rococo architecture, Dresden is also the seat of PEGIDAPatriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West–the far-right political organization that has been hosting demonstrations in Dresden and throughout Germany since October. The group has disturbing overtones of xenophobia, hate speech, and nationalism, which is particularly problematic given Germany’s history.  The founder of PEGIDA, Lutz Bachmann, resigned in January after a photograph of him dressed as Adolf Hitler went viral. I mean, really?? That’s Western culture at its most pitiful, right there.

Although the number of protesters has fallen drastically from the roughly 25,000/week at the beginning of PEGIDA’s existence, Dresden is still something of a pilgrim site. The weekly “evening strolls,” as the group describes the demonstrations, still attract thousands of participants from across Germany. And unlike in other cities, there isn’t a counter-demonstration, or at least not one that I could see. In Frankfurt, the counter-protesters often outnumber the PEGIDA supporters twenty to one. There was none of that here.

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Incredibly surreal, to be drinking tea in some gorgeous cafe with riot police outside the window.

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An hour before the demonstration was to start, the police were already in place.

At the same time, the official position of Dresden as a city was made very clear. There were public banners and signs throughout the city calling for understanding and openness, demanding that Dresden wake up and consider the dignity of all human beings.

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Across from the Semperoper: “Doors open, hearts open, eyes open.”

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A three-story-tall banner across the street from the demonstration itself. “The worth of human kind is given into your hands. Protect it! It falls with you, and it will rise with you.”

At the actual demonstration, there were speeches broadcast by  loud-speaker, and hundreds of banners and hand-painted signs. The sheer ugliness of some of it contrasted starkly and ironically with the beauty of the surroundings.

A small selection of the signs:

“Deutschland wehrt sich”–“Germany is defending herself.”

“Klagt nicht, kämpft!”–“Don’t complain, fight!”

“Wir sind das Volk”–“We are the People.” At the counter-demonstrations in Frankfurt, this is turned around into “Wirr ist das Volk”–“The People are just confused.”

“Erst wird’s bunt, dann…”–“First diversity, then [a picture of a bloody hand grenade].”

“Wir lassen uns nicht mehr von Minderheiten terrorisieren!”–“We aren’t going to let ourselves be terrorized by minorities any more!”

The minorities mentioned above, apparently, include the LGBTQ crowd as well. As one speaker said, “We don’t want the homo-trans-whatever-sexual minority to slime their way into our schools and traumatize our children with their shit-talk!!” I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry after that one.

And the flags–I saw more of them in an hour than I had seen in the past 8 months, the soccer championships included. In Germany, unlike in America, you just don’t display the flag like that unless you have just won the World Cup, or unless you are trying to come across as problematically nationalistic at best and as a Nazi at worst.

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Riot gear.

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I saw more German flags in an hour than I had seen during the past 8 months in Germany, soccer world championships included.

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Departing for the march through the old city.

In the end, it was all a strange mixture of laughable and horrifying. The protestors, at least on the day I was there, weren’t much of hooligans–but rather neatly-dressed middle-aged middle-class, perhaps disappointed and discontent, but not really the stuff of revolution.

So I never felt like I was in danger–but it was an unnerving experience none the less, to find myself in the middle of thousands of people who share a worldview that fundamentally clashes with my own.

In the end, though, as I have written elsewhere, this is one of the main issues Germany is talking about today. Watching the demonstration in Dresden felt a bit like being a part of history.

Travelogue XL: Hinter den Kulissen

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May 9, 2015 Mainz is not cobblestone streets and old churches and beautiful Europeans drinking wine by candlelight. Or not just those things, anyway.

I am learning that cities are like people–a thousand contradictions and transfigurations inhabiting a single space. Apollo and Dionysus, dark and light, straight-forward and complex. The human being has a million souls instead of Faust’s two, Hermann Hesse writes. So does the city, I think.

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Prostitution is legal in Germany.

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Bikes at the train station.

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The night club after hours, Kaisterstraße.

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Jägermeister, Kaiserstraße. I could do an entire photo series on alcohol bottles left in public.

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Cigarettes and vodka, Rheinufer.

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More vodka, Old City.

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Kaisertor.

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Housing on Kaiserstraße.

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Döner, Bahnhofstraße.

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Cigarette vending machine, Weintorstraße.

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Graffiti, everywhere in Germany, often blurs the line between vandalism and art.

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Münsterplatz.