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.



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.



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.


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


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.


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


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.


Riot gear.


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



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


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.


Prostitution is legal in Germany.


Bikes at the train station.


The night club after hours, Kaisterstraße.


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


Cigarettes and vodka, Rheinufer.


More vodka, Old City.




Housing on Kaiserstraße.


Döner, Bahnhofstraße.


Cigarette vending machine, Weintorstraße.


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



Travelogue XXXIX: Because my land is fair….




When Spring unfolds the beechen leaf, and sap is in the bough; 
When light is on the wild-wood stream, and wind is on the brow; 
When stride is long, and breath is deep, and keen the mountain-air, 
Come back to me! Come back to me, and say my land is fair!

When Spring is come to garth and field, and corn is in the blade; 
When blossom like a shining snow is on the orchard laid; 
When shower and Sun upon the Earth with fragrance fill the air, 
I’ll linger here, and will not come, because my land is fair.

J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings




Grüßender Sonne spielendes Gold,
Hoffende Wonne bringest du hold!
Wie labt mich dein selig begrüßendes Bild!
Es lächelt am tiefblauen Himmel so mild
Und hat mir das Auge mit Tränen gefüllt!

Grünend umkränzet Wälder und Höh’!
Schimmernd erglänzet Blütenschnee!
So dränget sich alles zum bräutlichen Licht;
Es schwellen die Keime, die Knospe bricht;
Sie haben gefunden, was ihnen gebricht:
Und du?

Rastloses Sehnen! Wünschendes Herz,
Immer nur Tränen, Klage und Schmerz?
Auch ich bin mir schwellender Triebe bewußt!
Wer stillet mir endlich die drängende Lust?
Nur du befreist den Lenz in der Brust,
Nur du!

Schubert, Frühlingssehnsucht




Travelogue XXXVIII: Sonnenuntergang in Mainz


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.



The summer mixed drinks are back…


Germans love putting locks on bridges.




Travelogue XXVII: Fastnacht I: Altweiberfastnacht


February 12, 2015 When I arrived in Mainz, I had no idea I had landed in one of the biggest PAR-TAY centers in all of Germany. At least, it’s a party during Karnival–or Fastnacht, or Meenzer Fassenacht if you really want to sound like a local–the Thursday through Tuesday directly preceding the start of Lent in the church calendar. Mainz’ celebration is rivaled only by Cologne in Terms of all-around grandeur–six day of partying, uninhibited foolery, and dissolution of all sorts.

It all kicked off this morning at 11:11am. Eleven is the number of the fools, cheeky, sinful, and askant, positioned between the orderly numbers 10 and 12. Ten commandments, 10 fingers on a perfect human body, 12 months in the celestial year, 12 clockwork hours in a day–so much structure and elegance has no place during carnival.


Helau helau helau!

In the official Fastnacht calendar, Thursday is Altweiberfastnacht–the Old Ladies’ Carnival, in memory of a stubborn group of German washerwomen who staged a rebellion in 1824 and broke into the male-dominated celebrations for the first time. Traditionally, women are given full political, social, and sexual reign on Altweiberfastnacht–crossdressing is permitted, the mayor hands over the keys of the city, and women claim their dominance over men by cutting off their ties (Freud would have a hay-day with the symbolism behind that one, let me tell you!).

Another vitally important part of Fastnacht is the music. Specifically, the Schlager–the incredibly catchy, incredibly annoying German Party music which everybody hates when they are a more rational state of mind, but apparently can’t get enough of during five days of the year.

Due to my huge camera, people assumed I was from the newspaper, and practically threw themselves at me trying to get me to take their picture.



Steampunk FTW. So much dapper, I can’t even.



“Are you from the newspaper??!! Hold on hold on, I gotta pose.”

And there it was: the opening moments of one of the biggest events of the year, on a gray Thursday morning, in downtown Mainz. It was a PAR-TAY, I tell you.


Booooze! A very important part of just about any German festival….

Stay tuned….

Travelogue XXV: Politics in Mainz


15. January, 2014 Here in Mainz, some 2,500 people took to the streets in a political demonstration this past Monday, starting at the train station and marching through the old city and back again.

Called into existence by the attacks in Paris, the demonstration officially centered around opposing PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West), a political movement started in Dresden last October. Despite accusations of racism and Fremdenfeindlichkeit (xenophobia), the group has gathered a massive following in the last few months–some 25,000 people attended the most recent rally in Dresden. An opposing movement has grown just as quickly, with passionate counter demonstrations across Germany. Ten days ago, for instance, the city of Cologne turned out the lights in their famous cathedral in protest, and the sheer number of anti-PEGIDA protesters in the streets forced the group to cancel the parade they had planned for the evening.

Monday’s demonstration was the first of its kind in Mainz, organized over the weekend by a few young people per Facebook (as is just about everything these days). There were news reporters and a film crew in attendance, along with some of Mainz’s most important political figures–the Oberbürgermeister Michael Ebling and CDU-Kreischef Wolfgang Reichel among others. People walked with candles and pencils in memory of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, held signs and banners with messages against extremism of every sort.

There were speeches, too, at two different points along the way. The speakers called for a new definition of WIR, we, as a culture, country, and world. We aren’t responsible for the terrorist attacks in Paris, but we are responsible for the society in which such tragedies take place. It was as much a memorial for the dead as a call to action.

For me, having grown up in a town of 800 in a place where individual freedom is prized much more than political solidarity, it was quite a sight to see.


The crowd at the train station before the demonstration began. 


Flag of Europe.

As I have said before, living in Germany right now means having these issues in the forefront of your mind: interculturality, political asylum, immigration, Islam, Christianity, freedom of expression, multiculturality, the failure of multiculturality. It’s not an easy, quiet, or particularly peaceful story, as any amount of time spent listening to the news here will make clear. But I think the difficult nature of the dialogue is one of its strengths. I once heard a sociologist give a lecture on cultural integration, and he argued that Germany’s sometimes-troubled engagement with the cultural/religious Other is what sets them above other, more outwardly peaceful European countries. “Just because there’s quiet on the surface doesn’t mean there’s peace. It just means the lid is clamped down on a pot of boiling water that could explode any minute,” he said. In Germany, there’s no lid on the pot at all.


Diversity instead of Simplicity.


Open eyes, open hearts, open doors.

Travelogue XXI: Mainz Spaziergang


Sunday, 21 December. A walk through the Old City of Mainz, during the time between sunset and darkness when the sky turns such a peculiarly lovely shade of blue. Gloaming.

The city is full of lights because it’s almost Christmas. It’s not raining, for once. There’s a girl in a long wool coat singing carols on the corner, and people are sitting on the edge of the old fountain to listen.

Veni, veni, Emmanuel…






Travelogue XX: Mainzer Weihnachtsmarkt


13. December, 2014 My first Christmas in Germany; my first Christmas not spent at home; my first Christmas without my family. It’s a strange and rather melancholy season, this.

At the same time, though, it is beautiful here. It’s funny: in German classes in America one learns all about various holidays and traditions in Germany–Karnival, Fasching, Oktoberfest, Silvester, St. Martins Tag–but Christmas is rarely on the list. And yet, only halfway through December, I can say that Christmas in Germany is turning into the richest, most lovely season I have experienced here. Even in a largely secular country, Advent is something to revel in, anticipated for months and welcomed with joy.


At the center of it all are the Weihnachtsmärkte, the Christmas markets, some nearly a thousand years old, found in the  squares of every decent-sized town in the country. They are open every day during Advent, and full of lights and music and very good food.

In Mainz, everyone goes to the Weihnachtsmarkt, and not just once–on Sunday afternoons with the family, in between classes, on Friday evenings before hitting the clubs, during intermissions at the theater. Here, removed from major centers like Frankfurt or Nürnberg, it’s not so much of a flashy tourist affair, but rather something more local and grounded. If you want to brush up on your local dialect, it’s the place to be.


In terms of food and drink, Glühwein–wine, red or white, mulled with oranges, cloves, and cinnamon–is at the center of it all. It’s hot, bitter and sweet at the same time, served at the market in tiny ceramic or glass mugs. Up on the university campus, you can buy it for a euro and drink it from a plastic cup in between classes.

When it is freezing and raining, which is always the case in Mainz in December, it is very easy to drink three mugs on a Thursday evening before you really know what you are doing. You sit on a stoop out of the wind and look at the lights and the people, and the air is full of cathedral bells, and the entire world is enchanted.


Below, some of the sights from the Mainzer Weihnachtsmarkt–minus the cobblestones, the church bells, and the smell of hot almonds and orange rind. To get those things, you have to be here.


Wurst from a local butcher.


Heiße Maronen–hot chestnuts, served in little striped paper bags. Gebrannte Mandeln–roasted almonds, rolled in coffee or powdered sugar or cinnamon–are also common. And delicious.



Candle makers.


Lebkuchen–gingerbread, here a specialty of Nürnberg. Often heart-shaped, strung on ribbons, with sappy sayings in icing.


Hand-made wooden ornaments.


Reibekuchen, also known as Kartoffelpuffer, Erdäpfelpuffer,  Reiberdatschi,  Reibeplätzchen, Dotsch, Kartoffelpfannkuchen, or Kartoffelplätzchen depending on where you are in Germany. It’s a sort of fried potato pancake, served piping hot with applesauce.


Feuerzangenbowle–untranslatable. Basically an open cask of hot mulled wine with rum-soaked, flaming sugar loaves above it on a rack. The burning rum melts the sugar, which drips down into the wine. Impressive, delectable, and extraordinarily unhealthy.


Schneebälle–literally snowballs, a specialty from Rothenburg ob der Tauber. Basically just balls of sweet dough covered in marzipan or sugar and dipped in chocolate.


And of course Glühwein, and countless other variations of hot alcohol–Kirchwein, Kinderpunsch, Glögg, Glümost, Jagertee, and a dozen other regional specialties that I haven’t yet tried. I’ve still got two weeks, though.


Travelogue XVII: Bonn and Beethoven

bonn_beethovenBeethoven statue on the town square.

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

I am what is there.
I am everything that is
that was and that will be.
No mortal man
has 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!

Travelogue XIV: People

O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!

The Tempest V.i., William Shakespeare


3. Oktober, 2014 I am, in general, delighted by people. The chance to get to know more of them has been for me one of the greatest joys of this whole traveling experience. To get to know–by that, I don’t necessarily mean in the way of forming lasting friendships, though that is good too, but rather to encounter, to engage in dialogue, to come into contact with beings so marvelous that they slightly change, over the course of a conversation, the way you see the world.

There was, for instance, the woman on whose couch I slept my first night in Mainz, who gave me potted plants and a beautiful Persian rug for my room. She restores paintings at the art museum in the city–Baroque graphics, mostly, and a few impressionistic watercolors. When I stopped by her workspace, she lovingly turned over two of the works on her dest and showed me the strip of brighter paint around the edges, as wide as a fingernail clipping. “That’s where the old frame was,” she said. “We’ll never get the color back. But aren’t they beautiful? From a private collection–what a treasure.” From the amount of care in her voice, she could have been talking about a child or a dear friend.

Or a few days ago, the elderly gentleman in the cafe in the city, a composer of music for silent films–German expressionist films of the 1920s, to be exact, the same works I had studied and fallen in love with last semester. He was a talker. He came under the spell of Richard Wagner as a young boy and can still play all the piano reductions. He had read the entire opuses of both Robert Musil and Thomas Mann. His favorite scene Musil’s The Man Without Qualities is where Ulrich shoots the grand piano to pieces with his pistol. And he knew someone in Austria who had a portrait of the family estate painted by Hitler. “Das ist Erzählung–that’s story,” he said.

IMG_0638Drop-spindling on the marketplace.

Or just this evening, there was a local bum sitting near me in the Old City, where I was leaning on the edge of a fountain and spinning wool. “Is that a spindle?” he said, and without waiting for me to answer launched into a monologue on the effects of handwork on the soul in a rushed world, drawing in references to the Virtuous Woman in Proverbs and the Senecan concept of internal rest, speaking of the necessity of practicing stillness in order to live well and to prepare for death. “Das Meer der verzehrten Menschen ist sehr groß,” he said. “The see of wasted men is vast.” I thought, he has voice of an actor and the syntax of a poet or a professor of literature. But before I could ask him how he came to speak like that, he turned around and walked off.

Beauteous, indeed.