Locus Amoenus V: Geisenheim

Locus Amoenus, Latin: the lovely or pleasing place. A common trope in Ancient Roman literature, usually a garden or woodland–a spot of inherent safety, comfort, and striking beauty. The concept features in works by authors as early as Homer, and it was reveled in by the later pastoral poets before being passed on to the writers of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Locus amoenus is a place to retreat to, often with overtones of Elysium on earth.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAApril 2, 2017 This time, the locus amoenus I am writing about isn’t my own, or not directly at least. It’s Jonathan’s–his tiny apartment in Geisenheim, where he studies viticulture and has lived on and off for the last seven years. In the time that I have known him, I’ve come to love the place, too. Now, he is beginning the long process of tearing it all apart, because he’s going to be leaving everything at the end of the summer and moving to California to be with me as I work towards my degree. It’s all thrilling, of course, but difficult: How does one fit 30 years of life into a few suitcases and set off for the other side of world? 

These sorts of processes are harder for Jonathan than they are for me. I love packed bookshelves and art on the walls, but a part of me has always been equally thrilled by minimalism. It’s exciting, and easy, for me to pare down everything to a suitcase, to give away and leave behind, and just go without it all.

Jonathan, however, is a materialist in the richest sense of the word. He revels in the feel and shape and smell of the physical, in beautiful and useful things, in collecting and saving and creating. His apartment is packed with stories as told by objects, full of leather and paper and wood and green growing plants. There is a record player, and a tiny glass still for making gin. There is a dark wood cabinet that folds open to reveal a collection of matching tumblers and wine glasses. There are small wooden drawers full of vials of seeds, rainbow-colored tin, pocket knives, sealing wax. There are boxes and boxes of old letters and photographs.

All of these things are a part of him, and I love him for it. But they all make the leave-taking so much harder. Almost none of this will make it to California, at least not at first. So I took my camera during my last visit to try to capture a bit of it. I wanted to try to get the feel of this lovely place onto film before he, or actually we, pack up, leave all this, and start something new.

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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.


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.


Café Slavia

Café Evropa

Café Evropa

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

Travelogue XXXVII: Im Dachstübchen II

Carl Spitzweg, The Poor Poet

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

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

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


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


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


Coats and Caspar David Friedrich.

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


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


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


The Kitchen.


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


“I think somebody up there likes me.”


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


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

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


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

Travelogue XV: Frankfurter Buchmesse


14. Oktober, 2014 When I was working on my application for the DAAD, I was asked to write about why I wanted to study in Germany, specifically, as opposed to continuing on in America. I had already written about my love of classical German literature, and the wonderfully traditional program at my university that gave me a firm grounding in everything that fell between Goethe’s Werther in the 1770s and Thomas Mann’s death in 1955. Beyond that date, however, German literature was for me largely an unknown territory, and that unnerved me. I wrote:

In the end, there is always something discomfiting about my study of old art–a feeling that, by taking it all so seriously, I am disconnecting myself from the issues of today. With this in mind, while in Germany I would like to examine the heritage of Germany’s early creators in the context of the 21st century. How do these figures continue to be a part of cultural and political dialogues, and how are current thinkers building on their legacy? In Germany, the answers to these questions are grounded in reality, and will give me a concrete starting-place to extend my knowledge of German literature and art up to the present day.


I spent all day Saturday at the Frankfurter Buchmesse (Book Festival), and found there just the sort of starting-place I had been looking for–a place to learn and network and make connections to the who’s-who in 21st century German art.

Like so many events in Germany, the festival has a tradition that stretches back half a millennium, to Johannes Gutenberg’s first printing-press in Mainz. Since its official re-opening in 1949, the Buchmesse serves not only as a meeting-place for publishers, authors, and readers, but also as a platform for political figures, artists, directors, translators, academic and cultural exchange students, news agents, and media moguls from all over the world. Organizers pick a country to formally “host” every year–Finnland this year, Brazil last year–and center the festival around the literature of that land, with hundreds of political and cultural events open to the public.

I looked at books and picked up magazines, listened to live programs from Arte and ARD, tried not to freak out too much. My reading list grew exponentially. It was all so utterly different from my journeys of the last few months–this had nothing to do with cobblestone streets and Baroque architecture, with old literature and history and music. Everything was as cutting-edge as it gets, thoroughly modern–an entirely different atmosphere, and therefore exceptionally exciting.

Below, just some of the materials I picked up on current literature. Not just in Germany, but in Switzerland, Austria, etc….


More pictures. The hall devoted to international literature was spectacular. We had the feeling of being on Embassy Row in Berlin or Washington DC–it was clear that these publishers were here to represent much more than literature. Many booths were quite beautiful, with flags and local artwork and displays that reflected the architecture of their particular country. After walking through such a room, one realizes how very little one knows of the world.

Below, the booth for Asian literature, and Russian books across the corridor.



Mass public. Frankfurt alone has 10x the population of the state I grew up in. I have never seen such crowds in my life. And all for the sake of books!


It wasn’t just high culture, either–here is the German pop-band Glasperlenspiel, giving an impromptu concert after marketing their recently published book of knitting patterns (?!). So. Many. Fangirls.


Also, the one huge building was more or less a Comic-Con, complete with thousands of cosplayers and geekery of all types. My siblings would have loved it. I had my picture taken with some storm-troopers, because that’s just what you do sometimes. 🙂 Below that, more cosplayers eating German wurst.



For me, the highlight of the day was a prescreening of Martina Gedeck’s new film Das Ende der Geduld (The End of Patience), sponsored by ARD, and then an interview with the actress herself! I am rather a huge fan–her films Die Wand and The Lives of Others are at the top of my list. Das Ende der Geduld was also exceptional, and intensely relevant–brutal, political, problematic, asking the sorts of questions that need to be asked today in Germany as well as in America.


There she is!!


So that was the Frankfurter Buchmesse. On the train back to Mainz, we were so exhausted we could hardly talk. It was a good day.

Leseliste I: Kafka Tagebücher

Also get ready for posts on books, because traveling and reading go together awesomely…..


Kafka, Diaries 1910-1923: Bought at the tiny Antiquariat (above) behind the Cathedral in Wuerzburg. Crazy stuff–descriptions of insomnia, his dreams (“I dream, I don’t sleep”), the women he sees on the streets but is somehow never able to talk to (“if I should live to be 40 I would settle down comfortably with an ugly old maid–but I won’t live till I’m 40”), his list of reasons pro and contra marriage to Felice Bauer (“I must be alone. All that I have done is an accomplishment only of solitude”), the way he is entirely made of literature and wants to do nothing else with his life but write, but is simultaneously unable to experience literature and writing as anything other than torture.

IMG_0071Drinking Chai and reading in some lovely cafe in Munich.

The last entry, before tuberculosis took away his ability to speak and eat, a year before his death:

12. Juni, 1923 Die schrecklichen letzten Zeiten, unaufzählbar, fast ununterbrochen. Spaziergänge, Nächte, Tage, für alles unfähig, außer für Schmerzen.

Immer ängstlicher im Niederschreiben. Es ist begreiflich. Jedes Wort, gewendet in der Hand der Geister – dieser Schwung der Hand ist ihre charakteristische Bewegung –, wird zum Spieß, gekehrt gegen den Sprecher. Eine Bemerkung wie diese ganz besonders. Und so ins Unendliche. Der Trost wäre nur: es geschieht, ob du willst oder nicht. Und was du willst, hilft nur unmerklich wenig. Mehr als Trost ist: Auch du hast Waffen.

June 12, 1923 The horrible end times, innumerable, almost incessant. Walks, nights, days, incapable of everything except pain.

More and more fearful in putting things in writing. It is understandable. Every word, turned in the hands of the spirits–this turn of the hand is their characteristic motion–becomes a lance aimed at the speaker. An observation like this entirely peculiar. And so on into endlessness. The only consolation would be: it is happening, whether you want it to or not. And what you want helps hardly at all. More than consolation is: even you have weapons.


IMG_0082Reading and soaking my feet in a fountain in a courtyard in the Residenz, surrounded by surreal little statues–half children, half fish. 

Travelogue I: Munich

KandinskyWassily Kandinsky, Häuser in München, 1908 

 11. Juli, 2014 Arrived in Munich with the high-speed train at 6pm. The group left on a walking tour, and I took a taxi into the city for dinner. “I’m looking for a cafe somewhere near the Odeonsplatz,” I told the cab driver. “Cafe Tambosi–das wollen Sie bestimmt!” he answered. “It’s where you go to see and be seen in Munich.” So I went to Cafe Tambosi on the most beautiful square in the city and sat under a linden tree, and drank Riesling with my Pasta Aglio, and read Kafka’s diaries until it was too dark to see.

tambosi-odeonsplatz_0Cafe Tambosi, outdoor seating overlooking Odeonsplatz

12. Juli, 2014 I went into the city again early, to find out how to get a rush ticket to a new play by Elfriede Jelinek on in the Residenz that evening. Afterwards, I heard music, and walked behind the box office to find a rehearsal of the Staatsoper orchestra for an open-air concert that evening. It was pouring rain, and I sat on a ledge under some ponderous marble overhang and listened and got mostly soaked. And then who should come out but Diana Damrau herself, wearing a scarf and coat because of the cold, to sing Strauss Lieder and joke with the conductor about the abysmal weather.

Strauss’ Morgen, Diana Damrau

IMG_0069There she is!

What a city–everything is here, the beauty, culture, refinement–and the people who can afford to take it all in, coming to see and be seen, walking from Odeonsplatz to the opera, shelling out 8 euros for a glass of German Sekt in some rococo gem of a restaurant. I feel almost guilty to be loving it, to be able to be here in the first place. In the Middle East, people are blowing each other up. Back home, the farmer down the road, who is hardly older than I am, has probably been spreading manure for the second cut hay for the past two weeks. And here I am drinking tea in a cafe by the Hofbraeuhaus for 4.50 a cup, after having heard Diana Damrau sing Strauss. I went to the ladies’ room, and the sinks were all pink marble–polished gold fixtures, floor-to-ceiling mirrors.

IMG_0078Taking a break to read on the edge of a fountain in some inner courtyard of the Residenz–no one around. Note that the “carvings” on the walls are painted on–the effects of the war are still very much felt here, especially in the architecture. 

13. Juli, 2014 Shatteringly good theater last night. FaustIn and Out: a new work by Elfriede Jelinek, Austrian avant-garde at its most brutal. Typical for her,  the play was hard-hitting, dirty, sometimes pornographic–but also more philosophical and less unrelentingly naturalistic than Die Klavierspielerin (The Pianist), the other novel I have read by her. The plot was based on that horrible story from the news a few years ago: Austrian man keeps his daughter locked in the basement for 24 years, rapes her repeatedly, fathers 7 children, burns the stillbirths in the household oven. Jelinek’s take unfolded as a series of monologues, or arias, by the two characters in the story, sometimes lasting up to 30 minutes–not just a conversation between father and daughter, but between man and woman, Faust and Gretchen (the whole thing was full of Goethe quotes), perhaps above all between God and man. The daughter’s rants were sorts of prayers, addressed to a father who was God, Lord, redeemer, creator, and also a monster. Is the God we believe in a God who rapes us instead of loves us, who holds us captive in a windowless cellar, while only he is allowed to be free? etc. The penultimate word of the drama was “Freiheit” (freedom) à la Goetz von Berlichingen, shouted triumphantly by the father offstage. The daughter, looking out at the audience, replied quietly, flatly, in English: “What?”

FaustIn-and-out-the staging

The space itself was beautiful, which jarred rather harshly with the content of the play–Cuvilliés-Theater, inside the Residenz–completed in 1753, destroyed during WWII and then restored and reopened in 2008. Mozart premiered his Idomeneo there in 1781. We were up in the highest loge, in a box, chairs pulled up to the silk-covered edge of the balcony.


Afterwards a glass of cold Valpolicella at Tambosi. Long discussion of women in German literature, home very late.

14. Juli, 2014 Back in Wuerzburg, which seems very small and comforting in comparison to Munich. Yesterday was all modern art, at the newly-restored Lenbachhaus, a Florentine-style villa built in the late 1800s as the private home of Franz von Lenbach and acquired by the city of Munich in the 1920s.



Exhibition notes: stunning collection of Der Blaue Reiter, the German expressionist group from the early 1900s I fell in love with while researching for a paper on silent films last year. Brilliant, explosive, bright colors everywhere–for me, at first very hard to reconcile with the fractured and apocalyptic artist statements I listened to as part of the audio tour. Kandinsky, my favorite: playful and horrible at the same time, especially in the more abstract works. Exuberant on the surface–but underneath there is often something nightmarish. Not so brutal as Anselm Kiefer, say, but still marked by a feeling of impending immolation. In that way, not so different from the final chapters of Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain. 

kandinsky-improvisation19Kandinsky, Improvisation 19

Art today is moving in directions of which our forebears had no inkling; the Horsemen of the Apocalypse are heard galloping through the air; artistic excitement can be felt all over Europe – new artists are signalling to one another from all sides; a glance, a touch of the hand, is enough to convey understanding. Franz Marc, 1912

Kandinsky_-_Composition_VI_(1913)Kandinsky, Composition VI, 1913

The more frightening the world becomes… the more art becomes abstract. Wassily Kandinsky

8930072872_c3fa9e83ac_zKandinsky, Impression VI, 1911

The rest of the museum was noteworthy as well, with an extensive collection of very contemporary pieces as well as a wing of rooms from the original villa, rich and decadent and notably free of Blaue Reiter angst:




…And one more photo below from the after-1945 wing, which I can’t resist posting because German museums are insane. SM club meets modern art?? Viewers encouraged to participate, according to the placard. lol.


…and just for the sake of NOT ending on that note, here’s the gorgeous interior of the Theatinerkirche on Odeonsplatz:

So, there was Munich, in 48 hours. We were back in time to catch Germany’s victory in World Cup soccer. Air horns, fireworks, German flags, people singing in the streets…..