Rainer Maria Rilke
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.
23. November, 2014 I’ve just returned to Mainz after spending the weekend in Kulmbach, on the farm where I worked as a WWOOFer over the summer. Here in the city, I forget how wonderful perfectly silent, dark nights are. I forget how much I miss cooking for an entire family, what it’s like to structure one’s day around caring for livestock, and how splendid it is to sleep under down comforters in the freezing upper story of some drafty old house. A few years ago all I wanted to do was to escape that sort of life–but now, even a long weekend on the farm feels rather like going home.
I went out to see the sunrise on Saturday morning, before breakfast. In Vermont in November, everything is monotone–black branches, gray-brown fields, gray-white sky. Here, there’s still color, but it’s all pastels, pale blues and greens and golds. So different from the hyper-saturated vibrancy of last August, but perhaps even lovelier.
…And then back to the farmhouse, to make tea and get the breakfast on the table: German meat-cheese-homemade bread, American oatmeal and pumpkin pie. A most excellent start to the day.
2. November, 2014 So many cities here are defined by their connection to specific artists and thinkers in Germany’s past. Mainz, for instance, is the Johannes Gutenberg city–Bayreuth is Richard Wagner’s–Frankfurt (along with Weimar, of course) belongs to Goethe. One has the feeling that these figures are still very much present, as much a part of local rhythms as the marketplace, theater, Rathaus. There are streets and universities and drugstores named after them, statues on every square, museums and memorial associations that hold lectures and concert series in their honor. The past is exceedingly alive.
Bonn, where I was last weekend after the DAAD Conference in Cologne, is the city of Beethoven–he was born there, and spent the first 22 years of his life in the city before moving to Vienna. I was able to visit his house, which was converted to an archival museum in his honor over a century ago.
Surreal, to see Beethoven’s pianos arranged side-by-side, his reading glasses, his viola, the organ he played on as a boy. On his desk, there was a hand-written copy of a poem by Schiller, who had himself taken it from some ancient inscription in Egypt:
Ich Bin, was da ist
Ich Bin alles, was ist,
was war und was sein wird
Kein sterblicher Mensch
hat meinen Schleier
aufgehoben.I am what is there.I am everything that isthat was and that will be.No mortal manhas lifted my veil.
Beethoven had written it out on a slip of paper and it sat on his desk for years. A sort of life-motto, according to the elderly gentleman who worked in the museum.
Downstairs, there were newsreels from 1945, showing American soldiers entering the house, half-destroyed, and removing furniture and instruments covered in ashes. And there were pages from a guestbook dating back to 1890, containing the signatures and notes of the hundreds of famous men and women who had been there–Heinrich Böll, the Clintons, Isaac Stern, Indira Ghandi, Claudio Abbado, Joachim Gauck, the Dalai Llama. They were humbled, they wrote, and inspired, and grateful. Strange, to be sharing an experience with so many luminaries.
So there it was: standing in the house of yet another giant.
Beethoven aside, Bonn is a fascinating city. It was the de facto capital of West Germany until the fall of the Berlin wall, and remained the seat of government until 1999. Today, over twenty years later, the main evidence of its former position is the excessively extensive public transportation system–S-Bahn, buses, and subways galore, and a huge Autobahn that cuts right through the middle of the city.
Even during Bonn’s time as capital, the city’s position did not go unquestioned: due to its relatively small size it was referred to, more or less jokingly, as the Bundeshauptstadt ohne nennenswertes Nachtleben (Federal capital without nightlife worthy of the name) or the Bundesdorf (Federal Village). To me, it didn’t seem to fit: after having visited Berlin, the current capital of Germany, it’s hard for me to imagine Germany’s government anywhere else. That restless and crazy city, as I have written about before, seems to me to be supremely suited for the capital of a country like Germany. Bonn just doesn’t make one think in the way that Berlin does.
All the same, though, it’s a lovely place, especially at this time of year. It’s foliage season in Germany, which is automatically noteworthy to me, since I grew up in the one spot on earth known perhaps above all others for its autumns. Here, the colors are more muted than anything in Vermont, but still grand, especially in the vineyards along the Rhine. In Bonn, the yellow-gold-orange color scheme of many of the buildings complemented the leaves perfectly.
Of course, though, on the way back to Mainz a fog bank rolled in, and it’s been damp, drippy, and freezing ever since. Welcome to winter in the Pfalz!
Herr: Es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren
und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los.
Befiehl den letzten Früchten reif zu sein
gib Ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage
dräng sie zur Vollendung hin und jage
die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein.
Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr
wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben,
wird lesen, wachen, lange Briefe schreiben
und wird auf den Alleen hin und her
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.
Lord: it is time. The summer was immense.
Lay your shadow on the sundials
and let loose the wind in the fields.
Bid the last fruits to be full;
give them another two more southerly days,
press them to ripeness, and chase
the last sweetness into the heavy wine.
Whoever has no house now will not build one anymore.
Whoever is alone now will remain so for a long time,
will stay up, read, write long letters,
and wander the avenues, up and down,
restlessly, while the leaves are blowing.
Rainer Maria Rilke
30. August, 2014 When I was in German 201, which seems like decades ago, during the first week of September our professor made us read the Rilke poem out loud again and again and again. It’s lovely, filigree-fine–impossible to translate into good English.
Suddenly it is autumn on the farm. The tomato plants are turning brown, the plums are falling from the trees, the leaves perhaps aren’t as green as they were two weeks ago. Summer’s over….strange.
And I’m moving on, too–I’ll be in Mainz by this evening, where I will have the chance to unpack my suitcase for the first time in two months. It will be good to get there.
17. August, 2014 In Germany, everyone goes walking on Sunday afternoons. Here on the farm, even the animals come–two dogs, two donkeys. We walked through the woods, up to a high field where we could see the whole windswept valley, corn and wheat fields and rows of wind turbines in the distance.
Autumn came all at once last week to Kulmbach–two days of pouring, freezing rain, and now bright sunshine and cold wind. You can tell it’s autumn in Bavaria, we learn one morning at breakfast, when the plums in the garden are no longer warm to the touch. Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß…
When we come out into the field above the farm, there’s a tiny red-roofed dorf on the left, and the local castle, the Plassenburg, on the right. A castle. This constant proximity to 1200-year-old fortresses will never cease to astound me. In Würzburg, the Marienberg was visible from almost any point in the city–no small wonder, to take the bus to the Innenstadt every morning with a castle on the horizon. “Yes, marvelous, but think about everything behind it!” the professor says. “Suppression of the lower classes, cruel feudalism, some prince or other lording it over the masses in the stinking city and hauling up the occasional girl for his enjoyment….” “Sometimes you can think too much,” I say.
In the end, it’s amazing how fast I am falling in love with Bavaria. And not the sort of touristy, there-and-gone in a weekend sort of love, but the sort of love I have for Vermont–deep-seated, rooted in the people, the land, the way of life. I’m almost sorry to be studying in Mainz, all the way over in Rheinland-Pfalz. Still, I am here to learn and see as much as I can, and not to put down roots. In the end, it’s all good.