Travelogue LX: Gotland II: Sheep People

Gotland sheep grazing near a fishing village on Fårö, a tiny island off the northern coast of Gotland.

Gotland sheep grazing near a fishing village on Fårö, a tiny island off the northern coast of Gotland.

September 20, 2015 Most people come to Europe for the high culture, or the art museums, or the ancient buildings, or the cuisine. My parents, on the other hand, come to Europe for the sake of a tiny, wind-swept island in the middle of the Baltic Sea. Or, more specifically, for one particular breed of sheep on that island. Gotlands–small and hardy, with a lustrous silver fleece prized for both pelts and yarn–are inseparable from the natural landscape of the island, a beloved part of Sweden’s national heritage. Everyone, it seems, raises sheep.

Gotlands are incredibly rare in America, and my family owns one of the only farms with the breed on the East coast. My parents, and my mother in particular, were thrilled for the chance to travel to the island itself–a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn and look behind the scenes and ask questions that only Gotland farmers know the answers to.

The flag of Gotland Island.

The flag of Gotland Island.

The sheep graze right down to the edge of the Baltic Sea.

The sheep graze right down to the edge of the Baltic Sea.

And so we spent a long weekend on Gotland traveling from farm to farm, visiting shops and talking to people. I am, I admit, usually the fine-cuisine-and-art-museum type, but I surprised myself by loving the entire trip–not, as in the case of my parents, because of all the technical sheep-talk that went on, but because of the way we travelled. This was no superficial tourist trip: stay three nights in a youth hostel, hit the big sights, and never speak with a local. Instead, the four days on Gotland were gritty, real, in-your-face–dialogue after dialogue with the people who make their living there, raising sheep in thatched-roofed barns on 1,200-year-old farmsteads. This is how I want to travel.

Thanks to local advice, we strayed pretty far from the beaten path. We attended, for instance, the island’s annual ram auction–dozens of Gotland’s most gorgeous animals selling to buyers from across Sweden, prices up to 8,000 dollars. I mean, how many of your average summer visitors can boast of that?! “It’s like Christmas for sheep people!!” one shepherd told us with utmost enthusiasm, wrist-deep in the fleece of one particularly handsome ram. You don’t get that every day.

Ram auction ahead!

Ram auction ahead!

Before the start of the ram auction--potential buyers have the chance to examine the sheep and talk to the shepherds.

Before the start of the ram auction, potential buyers have the chance to examine the sheep and talk to the shepherds.

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Our personal favorite, a perfect example of the traits of the Gotland breed.

The sheep are ranked in multiple categories (weight, color, wool luster, curl depth, etc.), and the results are printed in a booklet handed out to all buyers. The scores are consulted and the animals carefully examined before the bidding begins.

The sheep are ranked in multiple categories (body composition, color, wool luster, curl depth, etc.), and the results are printed in a booklet handed out to all potential buyers. The scores are consulted and the animals carefully examined before the bidding begins.

The official scoring booklet, published by the Gotland Sheep Association.

The official scoring booklet, published by the Gotland Sheep Association.

The whole event was a family affair--much laughter and greeting of old friends, a communal lunch, white-blond children playing in the barn, a communal lunch.

The whole event was a family affair–much laughter and greeting of old friends, a communal lunch, and dozens of white-blond children. Older shepherds we talked to expressed delight that so many young families on the island are interested in raising sheep.

In the end, the best part of the trip were the people themselves: the farmers, the hand workers, the proud owners of small businesses that, ultimately, weren’t all that different from those in Vermont. It seems that farmers all over the world speak the same language–a language that I find myself eternally drawn back to, even after falling in love with the European metropolis. Farming people are somehow real, connected to land and tradition in a way that makes city life seem sometimes overblown and overcomplicated.

The hospitality of the Gotlanders we met was staggering. It began at the tiny airport in Visby, where an online knitter-friend of my mother’s  surprised us with a home-cooked lunch, a map of the island, and thirty  minutes of helpful advice. On every farm we visited, the shepherds opened their barns, stores, and studios to us, overcoming sometimes-limited English to answer hundreds of our questions and to ask their own. Family secrets were spilled and tall tales were told, and a whole lot of very technical sheep discussion took place that went right over my head.

A small wool mill that spins yarn for many of the farms on the island.

A small wool mill that spins yarn for many of the farms on the island.

The owner Eva talks to my mother about evaluating fleeces.

The owner Eva talks to my mother about evaluating fleeces.

The studio at the farm Lamm och Bi, where owner Annette sews fleece vests for boutiques in Visby.

The studio at the farm Lamm och Bi, where shepherdess Annette sews fleece vests for boutiques in Visby.

Annette and Dan, the owners of Lamm och Bi, standing in front of shelves of their products in the farm store.

Annette and Dan, the owners of Lamm och Bi, standing in front of shelves of their products in the farm store. The two of them care for some 600 sheep (without outside help!!), making them one of the largest Gotland farms in the world.

Sheep pelts displayed at Sindarve Farm.

Sheep pelts displayed at Sindarve Farm.

At Sigsarve Lamm Farm, shepherd Curre went out in the field and brought back a sample of different types of grass so we could see what Gotland farmers feed their sheep.

At Sigsarve Lamm Farm, shepherd Curre went out in the field and brought back a sample of different types of grass so we could see what Gotland farmers feed their sheep.

Besides raising sheep, Curre also grows and preserves several types of ancient grains. Here, fresh crackers made with spelt and served with sour-milk cheese.

Besides raising sheep, Curre also grows and preserves several types of ancient grains. After we arrived, he rushed back to the farmhouse to bring us fresh crackers made with spelt and served with sour-milk cheese.

Curre and his wife Lotte. "She do all the thinking! I just fix the fence!" he said, at which point my father decided they were secretly brothers.

Curre and his wife Lotte. “She do all the thinking! I just fix the fence!” he said, at which point my father decided they were secretly brothers.

Curre and his wife Lotte ("She do all the thinking! I just fix the fence!" he said) talked with us for nearly three hours over lunch.

Curre and Lotte talked with us for nearly three hours over lunch and coffee. Crazy sheep stories were swapped and hilarity ensued.

Most of the farms we visited were run by a husband-wife team, usually entirely without outside help. Everyone we talked to loved what they were doing, despite the work and the dirt and the isolation of living on a tiny island in the Balticum. “Gotland sheeps are fantastic animals,” we heard again and again. And because we also had Gotland sheeps, and because we were speaking the language, we were automatically a part of their inner sanctum, welcomed with open arms by people we had never seen before in our lives.

In the end, Curre put it best. “You know, we have the big problem today with the refugees–many Swedes say, they come in here, they take our jobs, they are so different. But I say, you have the cultures, religions–but underneath, the people are all the same. You just have to find something, some–what is the word?–connection, and you are all the same. The connection bring people together. Just like having sheeps,” he concluded, looking out into the pasture, squinting into the sun, real pride in his voice. “Sheeps bring people together, too. And that’s a real gud thing. Real gud.”

Curre and Lotte's flock, the most beautiful we had seen.

Curre and Lotte’s flock, the loveliest we saw.

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Study Abroad | Guest Post

I’ve had the opportunity to write about studying and living abroad for my fantastic undergraduate institution….thanks, Hillsdale College!

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Emily Goodling graduated from Hillsdale College in 2014 as a double-major in German and Classics. She is now getting her master’s degree in Comparative Literature in Mainz, Germany, as a DAAD scholarship holder. When she isn’t studying like a responsible graduate student, she is usually photographing some political protest or another, geeking out about German theater, or drinking Riesling on the banks of the Rhine river. She blogs about living and studying in Germany, and other things, at emilysarahabroad.wordpress.com.


Had you taken any languages before coming to Hillsdale? What made you decide to study abroad?

I came to Hillsdale as a Classics major, so, like a typical nerdy homeschooler, I had had Latin and Greek in highschool. I actually started German with the goal of being able to read Classical scholarship, but I fell too much in love with the language itself and decided to continue with it. At…

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Locus Amoenus II: Theater

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.

Staatstheater_Wiesbaden_foyer028Foyer of the Staatstheater in Wiesbaden, just over the Rhein. 

Like the farm kitchen, the first of my personal loci amoeni I wrote about, the theater is no Vergilian garden–but a spot for me equally as transfixing, equally as bound up with memory and childhood and beauty. Like the kitchen, the theater is something that transcends all cultural boundaries: the moment before the curtain goes up or the conductor comes on stage is always the same, whether one is in Munich or in some drafty town hall in Vermont.

My love of the theater started when I turned 15, and began working as an usher in the next tiny town over. The Barre Opera House–certainly no Baroque jewel, but it had white molding and red velvet curtains and four box seats (no one sat in them anymore, but they existed!). To me, it was an entirely enchanting place. I would always work the balcony so I could use the secret spiral staircase in the wings, and lean out over the polished wooden railings, and pretend that I was in Vienna in 1791 for the premiere of Mozart’s Magic Flute. I loved the audiences, too–the aging, tenacious contingent of small-town Vermonters who could talk with equal ease about the local milk prices and the symphony on the program. Most evenings I had the feeling I was the only one in the place younger than 75, and I collected compliments from old men wearing immaculately pressed suits that must have been new sometime in the late sixties. There where two operas a year, and I remember driving home after Le Nozze di Figaro through the worst blizzard of 2008, drunk on Mozart for the first time in my life.

Writing of his own childhood, Thomas Mann says, “I can never forget the hours of deep, solitary happiness in the midst of the theater crowd–hours full of horror and delight of the nerves and intellect, of insight into things of the most vast and moving significance, such as only this art affords.” He, as always, gets it just right.

6758627-Staatstheater_Mainz_MainzStaatstheater in Mainz, with weekly market. 

Still, America–and small-town New England above all–isn’t really made for theater-goers. Once we got older, my sister and I went to a handful of operas and plays a year, usually traveling over an hour and paying 35$ or more for a spot in the cheap seats. I called up the opera houses every year to ask about student discounts, but never got anywhere.

The difficulties come in large part from the  infrastructure behind the arts in America, which has a distinct air of precariousness. Funding usually comes from audiences and donors alone: if no one buys the tickets, the theater closes its doors. On one hand, such a close relationship between the audience and stage is good–on the other, however, the entire set-up keeps ticket prices high and stifles the creativity of directors and actors. One need only look at the Metropolitan Opera, currently on the verge of bankruptcy due in large part to the “risky new productions” (read: non-traditional, moderately avant-garde) brought in by the new manager Peter Gelb.

IMG_0725The Alte Oper in Frankfurt. The inscription reads, “To the True, the Beautiful, and the Good.”

In Germany, the entire system runs on different terms, and better ones, I think. This is truly the land of theater: every small town has at least one, and an opera house, and a symphony to boot. The amount of productions even the smallest of theaters is able to put on over the course of a season is staggering to me. For instance: at the Staatstheater in Mainz, certainly no metropolis, there will 78 performances of some 30 different works in December alone, spread between several different stages and often performing simultaneously with one another. In America, such a vast program would be inconceivable anywhere other than a very large city. Here, between Wiesbaden and Mainz, two small towns within ten minutes of each other, I could go to the theater every night for the next two years.

The financial precariousness is entirely removed, too: even the smallest theaters in Germany receive hefty funding at the state or municipal level. It’s part of the mentality–being able to go to the theater in one’s own town is a point of pride, a vitally important facet of local culture and identity. At an artistic level, this financial situation means that almost anything goes on stage, for better or for worse (mostly for better, in my opinion). Directors can be as trashy or shocking or ground-breaking as they wish, without worrying about offending the sensibilities of a conservative audience. And for students, it’s an absolute windfall. With my card from the University I can see anything in Mainz for free, and get front-row tickets at pretty much any other theater in Germany for 4-8 €.

IMG_0741Schedules for the next month, hanging above my desk…

And so I go to the theater. There’s a sort of rhythm to it all–dress up, look at train schedules, run to the station and read on the train, wait in line at the box office, look around the city a bit during intermission (intermissions in Germany are long, because EVERYONE has to drink a glass of Sekt [champagne] and eat a Brezel!), rant about the whole thing on the way home. It’s exciting, and utterly new.

Staatstheater_Kaskadenbrunnen0106Staatstheater in Wiesbaden by night.

Some highlights of the past two weeks:

Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (or Nora in German, because Puppenheim just sounds weird). In Frankfurt, where we gawked at the sky scrapers and tried without success to find Goethe’s house. The production: shattering, minimalistic, with spotlights shone directly into the audience and rock music turned up too loud. It’s Germany; everything’s designed to make you uncomfortable. It’s astonishing to me how a work some 150 years old can be so relevant.

Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, performed in the local museum in a room full of frescoes and statues from ancient Greece. Mahler is absolutely wrenching live.

Elfriede Jelinek’s brand-new Rein Gold in Wiesbaden. Jelinek is insane; I’ve been obsessed with her ever since my professor told me I must on no account, read her novels, because they were borderline pornographic filth. She’s everything I love about German literature: edgy and hard-hitting, willing to ask the hardest of questions. Rein Gold was a Bühnenessay (Stage-essay; the first of its genre according to the authoress)–a witty, often disturbing meditation on Richard Wagner’s Ring, taking up the themes of capitalism and heroism in modern Germany. Lots of references to the current political situation that I didn’t understand, lots of references to Wagner that I did.

Travelogue XV: Frankfurter Buchmesse

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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.

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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….

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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There she is!!

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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.