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.

Like Emily Abroad on Facebook!

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Café Slavia

Café Evropa

Café Evropa

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

Travelogue XLIII: Rheinromantik

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMay 24, 2015 This afternoon, a trip down the Rhine to Bacharach, a tiny town in the midst of the Loreley region. There was still and warm air, birdsong, and solitude in the midst of the Sunday tourists. The chance to get out into the green and move and breathe a bit.

The town itself was lovely, of course, full of timber-frame homes and grape vines climbing up stone walls, built up around a 1,000-year-old church. Wine and religion–the two great shaping forces behind the appearance of so many small towns in this region of Germany.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I first hiked up to the castle, high above the town–Burg Stahleck, originally dating back to the 11th century, and now a youth hostel.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The only way one can get up to the castle was by climbing steps.

Lots of steps.

Lots of steps.

So. many. effing. steps.

So. many. effing. steps.

The top step. My poor calves.

The top step. My poor calves.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

But the castle was lovely–very rustic, partially carved out of the mountain side.  It serves as a youth hostel today, so you can actually come and spend the night.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There was also an abandoned Gothic cathedral on the way up.

….And then back down into the gorge and up the other side, into the vineyards. The air smelled like freshly-cut hay–the smell of a Vermont meadow in high summer, here in May and thousands of miles from home.

Along the Rhine, the vineyards plunge right down to the water’s edge. There are zigzagging paths along the tops of the stone terraces, and one can walk for miles, high above the river and the slate rooftops below.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The views down into the town were lovely.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Vineyards--plunging down to the Rhine, almost impossible steep. Here, Riesling and Scheurebe....

Vineyards–all the way down to the Rhine, almost impossibly steep. Here, Riesling and Scheurebe….

Teeny tiny grapes!

Teeny tiny grapes!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I stopped at one of the Weinstuben in the town on my way back to the train station to eat a bowl of excellent potato soup and drink a glass of wine grown from the grapes on the slopes behind me. I sat across the table from an older gentleman who was on his yearly bicycle tour, from Stuttgart to the Rhine, and then down river all the way to Koblenz.

Zum Wohl,” I said, when my wine arrived. “Cheers.”

He spoke about the Rhine as if he was talking about a person. “There is such power there,” he said, “and such violence. You have to accept it, have to give yourself to it heart and soul. It is impossible to do otherwise, especially if you are out on the water itself. Even those great powerful barges you see can’t escape it. Vater Rhein–Father Rhine–there is something to that, I think.” We talked about the Rhine as a creator of art, of Mythos, of music, from the Middle Ages to Wagner and back again. I told him I most likely wouldn’t be in Germany at all without the opening chords of Wagner’s Das Rheingold–E-major swelling into the sun, the Rhine as creator, as Father and Mother and God all at once. “That river is the original Genie,” he said. Yes, exactly.

Lorch on the left, Bacharach on the right. Father Rhine, indeed.

Lorch on the left, Bacharach on the right. Father Rhine, indeed.

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Riot gear.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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 XXXVIII: Sonnenuntergang in Mainz

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

19. April, 2015 It is officially spring in Germany, and not in the tentative way of a few weeks ago, half-way between warmth and cold, but full-on and confident and heady. I had forgotten what a beautiful color green is. The sunshine changes the entire feel of the city–people sit on the steps of the Staatstheater and eat ice-cream, the side-walk cafes are full, you can buy wine and drink it on the bank of the Rhine river. After six months of rain and cold, you can feel the lightness and the euphoria in the air.

I walked across the bridge to the Wiesbaden side of the Rhine the other night, to sit on the pier and read and watch the sun set over Mainz.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The summer mixed drinks are back…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Germans love putting locks on bridges.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Kitchen.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“I think somebody up there likes me.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

Travelogue XXXV: Goethe

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Goethe and Schiller

March 28, 2015 I am in Jena for the national DAAD-conference and, in an entirely irresponsible move, skipped out on half of of the second day to visit Weimar, the city of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. There will always academic conferences, but there are only so many opportunities to visit Goethe’s actual house.

So, Goethe. He’s what Homer was for the Greeks and Shakespeare for the British–an irresistible and towering figure, the shaper of language and form and art. The last Genie, my professor always said. Everyone with even the most dilettante interest in German literature has had some sort of formative encounter with him, I think. For me it was Werther, which I checked out of the library at age 16 and with which I immediately fell in love, and then Faust, of course, torturously deciphered during my third semester of German. My seminar spent half a semester on the work, and I paced up and down outside of the classroom building for an hour before each session, German dictionary in hand, reading out loud in a bad American accent until it seemed like every line was permanently engrained in my consciousness. It’s inescapable, that work.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Spring in Weimar

Today: Weimar was clean and beautiful, full of light and blooming trees, and also a bit unsettling. The entire place was marked by the same cult-like atmosphere I experienced two summers ago in Bayreuth–a whole city given over to a single great man (or rather two great men–Friedrich Schiller also commands a good deal of attention). Genie becomes marketing ploy, selling-point, the foundation of a booming tourist industry. The entrance to Goethe’s house was efficient and commercialized–streamlined white registration desk, 8.50E for a student ticket (!!), trade your passport for an audio guide in 20 languages, stand in line to check your bags in the back. It was somewhere between entering the Holy of Holies and going through the TSA at the airport.

The Museum, in a building next to the house, was especially shrine-like–the normal objects of a long and full life preserved with relic-worthy care, behind class in darkened rooms. Goethe’s traveling cloak, mitten (just one), microscope, embroidered suspenders, used-up pens, and on and on and on. It, and of course the house itself, was full of tourists even in the off-season, standing in line to take selfies in front of his desk and to get a glimpse of the room he died in. A bit unheimlich, that.

But somehow, though, it was all extremely fitting. Goethe was a god even during his lifetime, and the pilgrimages to Weimar began almost as soon as he moved in. The selfie-taking tourists are part of a tradition that goes back some two centuries, and includes many of the world’s greatest political, artistic, and intellectual luminaries. Everybody, it seems, wants to see Goethe.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Before I even got to Goethe’s home in the city, though, there was his Gartenhaus, the tiny cottage in the middle of the Stadtpark along the banks of the Ilm river. Goethe was 27 when he came into possession of the house–his first, and a gift of Duke Carl August. It was easy to see the appeal the surroundings had for Goethe at that time–this was the landscape of Werther, published just three years before, of Empfindsamkeit and Romantik and Sturm und Drang. The cottage itself was modest and evocative–inside, scrubbed wood floors, shelves of books, windows opening into green, and outside, all of the Nature of Goethe’s early poetry. According to the guide in the cottage, Goethe’s nightly skinny dipping in the Ilm, hardly more than a creek, inspired his rapturous poems to the moon.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Ilm

An den Mond

Füllest wieder Busch und Tal
Still mit Nebelglanz,
Lösest endlich auch einmal
Meine Seele ganz;

Breitest über mein Gefild
Lindernd deinen Blick,
Wie des Freundes Auge mild
Über mein Geschick.

Jeden Nachklang fühlt mein Herz
Froh- und trüber Zeit,
Wandle zwischen Freud’ und Schmerz
In der Einsamkeit.

Fließe, fließe, lieber Fluß!
Nimmer werd’ ich froh;
So verrauschte Scherz und Kuß
Und die Treue so.

Ich besaß es doch einmal,
was so köstlich ist!
Daß man doch zu seiner Qual
Nimmer es vergißt!

Rausche, Fluß, das Tal entlang,
Ohne Rast und Ruh,
Rausche, flüstre meinem Sang
Melodien zu!

Wenn du in der Winternacht
Wütend überschwillst
Oder um die Frühlingspracht
Junger Knospen quillst.

Selig, wer sich vor der Welt
Ohne Haß verschließt,
Einen Freund am Busen hält
Und mit dem genießt,

Was, von Menschen nicht gewußt
Oder nicht bedacht,
Durch das Labyrinth der Brust
Wandelt in der Nacht.

(English here)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Haus am Frauenplan

Although he never sold the Gartenhaus, Goethe moved in 1782 to his home on the Frauenplan in downtown Weimar, where he would live until his death in 1832. He was involved in every step of the extensive renovations he set in place in the original building–drawing plans, importing statues, hanging his own drawings on the walls, picking the paint in keeping with the color theory he had developed, and even overseeing the construction. He had enough energy for several lifetimes, that Goethe.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Goethe as classicist: his custom-designed, built in doormat. “Salve” means “Hello” in Latin. It doesn’t get much cooler than that in my book.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The grand staircase

Goethe’s close connection to antiquity was evident in every room–his whole house, actually, is a sort of monument to classical art. Goethe imported paintings and extensive plaster casts of  the ancient statuary he had seen during his travels in Italy. They were to serve as inspiration, he wrote, and as objects of his own classical studies, a way to keep the Ancients accessible in a world before photography and internet encyclopedias.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The dining room

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Juno room, where Goethe hosted concerts with some of the greatest composers and performers of the early 19th century.

Goethe’s study was one of the last rooms on the tour, and one of the only ones guests aren’t able to enter–it has been left more or less untouched since his death in 1832. Around the corner, his massive personal library, some 5,000 volumes in worn covers crammed onto high shelves. In the study, his famous writing lectern (he didn’t like to spend too much of each day sitting), quill pens, plants on the windowsills. I think the few moments I spent looking through the door will stay with me for quite a long time.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Faust was written at that desk.

Johann_Joseph_Schmeller_-_Goethe_seinem_Schreiber_John_diktierend,_1831

For comparison’s sake: Johann Joseph Schmeller’s famous portrait of Goethe in his study, 1929/31. I was there, people.

Finally, the room Goethe died in, on March 22, 1832–not one of the huge, majestic halls upstairs, but a small corner bedroom near his study. He was sitting in the chair when he died, attended only by his daughter-and-law Ottilie. His last words, according to his doctor, were “Mehr Licht!” (“More light!”).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd then, after all of that, I took the S-Bahn back to Jena, where 500 of the world’s brightest, nerdiest young academics, representing 59 countries and hundreds of fields of study, were having a disco party.

Travelogue XXXIV: Sonnenaufgang in Mainz

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

March 24, 2015 I arrived back in Mainz at the crack of dawn this morning–street sweepers, crowds of pigeons at the train station, too early for church bells. I dragged my luggage down the cobblestone street and up two flights of stairs, waking up approximately the entire neighborhood in the process, threw it all in the apartment, and walked down to the Rhine for the sunrise.

It was wonderful being home, back in Vermont for the first time since last June. My family is amazing. I doted on the cats and lit fires in the fireplaces and ate my mother’s phenomenal cooking. I missed Germany, though, more than I miss Vermont when I am here.

I mean, there were actual swans on the effing Rhine River, and as the sun was rising all the bells in Wiesbaden started ringing. WHAT. 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Guten Morgen, Mainz!

Also, spring came to Germany while I was gone. When I left Vermont yesterday morning, it was -3 degrees (-19 Celcius) without the windchill, hard-packed, dust-gray snow on the ground that hadn’t melted since it fell last November. Here in Mainz, the almond trees are blooming and there are daffodils everywhere. I went down to the water in a light jacket and scarf, and there was a real heat to the sun’s light. A pair of mourning doves have started making a nest above the gabled window across from mine.

As I walked back to my apartment, the bells in the Mainzer cathedral started ringing. It’s almost Easter. Sie feiern die Auferstehung des Herrn, denn sie sind selber auferstanden…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I shall spy on Beauty as none has spied on it yet. Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Dian’s studio and study.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

img_3384

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 XXXI: Home

1466291_10151775340748233_473997763_n

Oh rhythm of my heart is beating like a drum
with the words “I love you” rolling off my tongue

No never will I roam for I know my place is home
where the ocean meets the sky
I’ll be sailing

Rod Stewart

It’s almost surreal: two days ago I was drinking chai tea in a cafe across from the Mainzer cathedral, watching the stone turn red in the setting sun and the theater fill up with people. And now I am sitting in front of a fire in a drafty farmhouse in the middle-of-nowhere Vermont, where the air permanently smells like sheep manure and the farmers are just starting to tap the sugar maples. The terms of human existence are different here–dirty rubber boots and vet visits instead of European philosophy and champagne at the opera–but equally as beautiful. And in the end, it’s the life I know best. I was a bare-footed farm girl long before I knew the heady, complicated world of German literature even existed.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Headed home from the airport in Boston over Route 110–one of the prettiest drives in the state and, actually, in the world.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The state is full of Covered Bridges….

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Will’s Store in Chelsea, VT, my home town–they make superb homemade ice-cream with a machine that dates back to before the first World War. Also, I saw more flags on the drive home than I saw during 8 months in Germany. America is a patriotic place; Germany is absolutely not.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

South Royalton Food Co-op, twenty minutes down the road. We stopped to pick up some bread to go with dinner.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The pictures on the wall are of the farmers who stock the store—Buy Local at its best.

Country roads, take me home
To the place I belong.

John Denver

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Home at last: the grand view of Grand View Farm.

IMG_2395-2

Moses the fat barn cat. (photo: GVF)

feeding-2Bhay

Chore time. (photo: GVF)

IMG_3203

Starting seeds in the Greenhouse. Note the snow drifts on the left-hand side–it’s over two meters in places.

IMG_3214

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The view from my bedroom window.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Wood fires.

img_4258-1

I haven’t seen the stars in months. It is good to be home. (photo: Anna)

_____________

Nota Bene: Photos credited to Anna were taken by my insanely talented sister. 

Photos credited to GVF were filched from our farm website