Travelogue LXII: Liminality

Liminality, noun. From the Latin limen, threshold. The quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete.

In common usage, liminality describes any period of transition, where the individual has the feeling of being on both sides of a boundary or threshold. It is often a time of discomfort, of waiting, and of transformation. (source)

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Between Mainz and Geisenheim.

July 26, 2016 I find myself in a liminal space. In three weeks, I will be in Vermont. The day after tomorrow, I will defend the thesis I came to Germany to write. Everything is in flux.

Next week I will be spending the last night in my beloved apartment in the Old City.  It’s been the first place in my life that belonged only to me—above the flower shop, in a cobblestone street where the bums call out “Good morning, Whistling Girl!” when they see me and the waiter in my favorite Weinstube knows my name. The leave-taking is hard. Last spring, I watched the mourning doves outside my window raise a family while I went to the theater alone; this spring, I was the one making a nest. And now I’m packing everything into suitcases again and starting over on the other side of the world.
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Between Hamburg and Copenhagen.

 July 30, 2016 Germany, it seems, is also in a liminal space. It’s a strange and heady time here, when it seems like Europe is falling apart a little at the seams, where in Germany especially the greatest of challenges is faced and answers are sought to very hard questions. The face of this country is in flux.
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Some parts of the change you are used to already, even when you don’t want to be. For instance, you are drinking wine with friends when one of them excuses himself to go call friends in Munich to make sure they are ok, and you say, “Another terrorist attack?“ and know that the answer is yes and somehow are not even shocked anymore.
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Some things you are still learning. For instance, you are standing in Berlin in the train station surrounded by thousands of people and you think fleetingly that any one of those suitcases, any one of those sunglassed tourists could be about to blow the place up. You are learning not to be scared. You are not scared.
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But still, there is always something in the air, an underlying current of discomfort that only needs the tiniest of triggers to come to the surface. You are at the Christopher Street Day in Mainz, laughing and dancing and watching a line-up of the Pfalz’s finest drag queens, when someone pops a balloon behind you—louder than usual, cutting through the music. You jump and cling together for a second and have to admit that the first thought that entered your head was that this was finally it, the nightmare come to Mainz….
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Ambiguity, discomfort, transformation. The whole country is waiting; the ritual is not yet at an end. And right now, all one can do is stand in a torn-apart kitchen and wash windows and almost cry as Rheinhard May sings “Wann ist Frieden endlich Frieden?“—when is peace finally peace? 
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Between Mainz and Frankfurt

August 25, 2016 I’ve been back in Vermont for ten days now, in this place that seems so silent and peaceful and non-transformative in comparison to what I just left.

Taking the bus up to Vermont from Boston, the driver plays the country station I grew up listening to, wedged between my father and my siblings on the seat of the pickup. We fly up the interstate and I am suddenly surrounded by the Green Mountains, for the first time in over a year. This is home, I think, I’m back.

But later that night, the liminality of it all is brought back to me again. Even after 24 hours of jet-lagged travel, I can’t sleep, in my own childhood bedroom. The silence and dark–things I once treasured, things I needed to sleep–are suddenly oppressive, foreign. I want the echoes of footsteps on cobblestones, want the friendly light from the street lamp in the courtyard. In the huge drafty room I share with my sister, I feel lost.

And so the transition goes on. After the first few nights, I can sleep in Vermont again. But in two weeks, I will be leaving even this for a strange city on the West Coast and a new field of studies and a new way of life. I will arrive again, and put down roots, and I am deeply looking forward to this.

At the moment, though, I’m still standing on both sides of the threshold.

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Travelogue LXX: Sweden

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The wood-fired sauna in the back garden of friends. In Germany, saunas are a sort of Holy of Holies–no talking, no eating, no nonsense. In Sweden, well, there are often beer bottle openers nailed up to the doors.

June 3, 2016 Last Friday morning I found myself for the first time in six months suddenly no longer writing a thesis. A surreal experience, that, to hold in my hands the culminating project of the degree I came to Germany to get. At any rate, a bit of celebration was in order.

Jonathan had been invited to give a lecture at the Swedish Wine Association, and I took the train up to join him a few days later in Varberg, a tiny town on the Western coast. He spent a couple years helping build up a young winery there, and still has deep connections to the people who run the place.

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Ästad Vingård, the winery.

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Consulting services for a small-scale ecological wine grower.

And so we spent the first couple days attending to business at the winery, or rather Jonathan attended to business and I looked at everything and tried simultaneously to learn Swedish and to not break anything and also drank a lot of wine. On the second day, we spent six hours perched on the back of a four-wheeler spreading natural fertilizer on grape vines and singing Irish drinking songs at the top of our lungs. On the third day, we cleaned out and tilled a little garden plot for a friend and then ran and jumped in the North Sea, which was disgustingly frigid. It doesn’t get much more romantic than that.

Even if I hadn’t been experiencing it all with a particularly dear human being, I still would have reveled in it. This new world I have been introduced to in the last few months–the vineyards, the people who work them, the wine cellars and shops and curious tourists who keep the family business afloat–is something I knowSheep people are not that much different than wine people, at the end of the day. Agritourism is agritourism, no matter which side of the pond you are on. I find the same vocabulary and passions on a winery on the coast of Sweden that I do on a tiny sheep farm in central Vermont. And the more I journey on into the heady world of academia and scholarship, the more I find myself eternally drawn back to these things.

Anyway, in exchange for the work we got two nights in the winery inn–lovely room, wood-fired saunas, three-course dinners in the restaurant followed by all the delights of an open bar. A fair trade, if you ask me.

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Barefoot gardening 100 meters from the North Sea.

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There were wood-fired hot tubs next to the saunas, yo.

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Typical Swedish architecture–wooden construction, straw roofing (below).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn the last day, we walked up the coast outside of Varberg–a surreal, rugged world of rocks and seaweed and trees bent over backwards from the wind off the sea. Gray and monotone when shot through a macro lens, but infinitely detailed and colorful and rich when viewed up close.

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Looking back at Varberg’s fortress and harbor.

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Varberg’s harbor.

Then it was over, and we made the 15-hour journey back home–through three countries, change trains in Copenhagen and Hamburg, take the ferry into Germany, arrive in Mainz in the pitch black and catch the last bus home.

After so much time on trains, their rhythm and swing get into your bones. For hours afterwards you feel like your entire world is moving, like you are still rushing on into the night with rain water slanting off the windows.

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Half-way between Denmark and Germany.

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Travelogue LXIX: Fachwerk

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Eschwege

May 4, 2016 I spent a weekend in April in Eschwege, a tiny, lovely, half-forgotten German town on the former border between East and West Germany. Although not necessarily a popular tourist destination, the town is full of fascinating architecture–Fachwerk, to be specific, which translates to something like timber framing. It’s a quintessentially German form of construction, in which a load-bearing timber frame is built and the spaces between the beams filled with bricks or lath and plaster. Instead of covering the outside of the buildings with plaster or clapboards, however, the beams are left exposed and then carved and painted according to local traditions, each town or geographical area with a slightly different style.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEschwege was left intact during the second World War, which means that the buildings are original. Many, however, are fairly new by European standards: much of the town center only dates back to the mid-seventeenth century, as the town center was destroyed during the Thirty Years War in 1637.

In the downtown area, each building is unique, painted in jewel tones and carved with curlicues or geometric shapes or faces or mermaids. Yes, mermaids. I was delighted.

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Moustaches ftw.

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Although Fachwerk is today a prized and sought-after part of Germany’s architectural heritage, it was originally a poor man’s construction–if you can’t afford stone, you build with wood.

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Keeping things level wasn’t exactly a priority, apparently. Or maybe things have shifted since the 17th century.

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The latinized form of the town’s name.

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My personal favorite.

And then in good German fashion, fitful rain turned to snow and so we headed for home, where we ate an enormous Sunday lunch with a fire in the stove behind our backs.

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My fellow Fachwerk-investigator, here rather taken by the local Glockenspiel.

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.

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Travelogue L: Berlin Impressions

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 July 20, 2015 Writing any sort of neat summary post about Berlin is more or less impossible. As I have written before, the very nature of the city defies all attempts at synopsis: historically and architecturally, it is a place of metamorphosis and not of stability. One minute you are walking down some gorgeous boulevard surrounded by theaters and old restaurants, the next you are standing in front of a construction zone, with half the street torn up and posters of what it all looked like before 1989 hanging on the chain-link fence beside you. But the constant shift is what makes it all so exciting.

And it is exciting. You ride the U-Bahn and S-Bahn (subway and overground) uptown, downtown, to some tiny restaurant in the Friedrichsstraße and back again to the Brandenburg Gate. You wolf down a plate of  peppers and couscous at the Turkish Market on the river. You stand for an hour in the line outside the National Gallery to see the Expressionists, in sunshine so penetrating that the museum staff passes out umbrellas. You talk until two, three, four in the morning about God and Eros and Art–after the Theater, in the hotel bar, in some gorgeous tiled courtyard at the Hackescher Markt. All through a haze of movement and wine and overstimulation that is both heady and exhausting.

“Man kann ja schlafen, wenn man tot ist,” I say. You can sleep when you’re dead.

Central Station.

Central Station.

This time around, it was Berlin’s infrastructure, and specifically the city’s massive public transportation system, that struck me the most.

The whole place runs on a great tangle of S- and U-Bahn stations, some works of art in and of themselves, some rivaling Frankfurt for dirt and stink. One has the feeling of being within a great machine–no, more than a machine, in some sort of living and breathing organism. The Central Station, five stories of glass and steel, serves some 1,800 trains and 350,000 travelers each day. The energy that pervades the rest of the city is felt in every station in the Innenstadt: a new train roaring in every three minutes, throw yourself on and then off again, stand because all the seats are taken.

Above all, I was shocked at (and perhaps more than a little proud of) the relative ease with which I was able to maneuver through it all, after a year abroad. It’s a feeling of accomplishment, of power even, to sift through thousands of connections and timetables, to get on the right train, and to know exactly where you are and where you are going. If only the rest of existence was that simple.

Still, it’s all something that can be learned. A year ago I didn’t even know that you had to push the “Stop” button the bus if you wanted to get off at the next station. But things move forward. The Mädchen vom Land (country girl) is now thriving in the European jungle, folks.

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Mirror image in the Central Station, S-Bahn platform.

The position of the Berlin Wall is marked throughout the city, even though it doesn't exist anymore--a line drawn through buildings, across streets, behind the Brandenburg Gate.

The position of the Berlin Wall is marked throughout the city, even though it doesn’t exist anymore–a line drawn through buildings, across streets, behind the Brandenburg Gate.

Inside the Ständige Vertretung.

Inside the Ständige Vertretung, a restaurant on the river that serves as a sort of shrine, in the best sense of the word. to pre-reunification Germany.

The Holocaust memorial--direct in the heart of the city, inescapable.

The Holocaust memorial–direct in the heart of the city, inescapable.

The seat of Hitler's bunker in Berlin, where he committed suicide and where Goebbel's wife killed her six children--a parking lot and utilitarian appartments. The lack of any sort of monument is just as fitting and unsettling as the massive memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust across the street.

The seat of Hitler’s bunker in Berlin, where he committed suicide and where Goebbel and his wife poisoned their six children–a parking lot and utilitarian appartments. The lack of any sort of monument is just as fitting and unsettling as the massive memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust across the street.

In the S-Bahn.

In the S-Bahn.

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Willkommen in Berlin. Welcome to Berlin.

In the end, after three days in Berlin I was completely and utterly exhausted. But I think that was more from the talking-till-four-in-the-morning than from anything else. Dialogue at its most intense is one of the most beautifully draining experiences on this planet.

Travelogue XLIX: Weinkultur

 

At the Weinfest am Kirchenstück.

At the Weinfest am Kirchenstück.

July 5, 2015 Most Americans associate Germany with beer–Pilsner and Weizen, Oktoberfest, etc etc. But I am living in Rheinhessen, the single largest wine-producing area in the country, which means that the Germany I know is the land of wine. Weinkultur–Wine Culture–is definitely a thing.

Here, wine is much more than something you pour at dinner, is about much more than the alcohol content. You don’t just drink wine–you talk about it, you debate and discuss, you admire. You make a trip once a year to your favorite tiny winery somewhere in Flomborn or Büdesheim or Bingen and come back with a trunk full of €600 worth of champagne. You sit every Friday night in the same Weinstube you have been going to since after the Second World war and make speeches about the Riesling for the benefit of the Mädchen from America.

It’s an art form in and of itself, talking about wine, and the amount of knowledge and genuine passion the average Weinstube-goer brings to the discussion is absolutely staggering. It’s like the way my little brother talks about baseball, or the way my piano teacher could compare the voices of Fischer-Dieskau and Wunderlich–the finest of nuances spun out into story, with a whole poetic vocabulary and symbolism to match.

I’m learning, too. After a year, I know what I like–dry Riesling, a good Rosé, and every now and then an Auslese because they taste like whatever the gods were drinking on Homer’s Olympus. But I’m no expert, can’t work out all the tiny differences that transform the drinking and talking about of wine into a sort of creative act.

Yet, anyway.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn Mainz, the opportunities to celebrate, learn about, and, most importantly, to drink wine abound. The city is one of the eight Great Wine Capitals in the world, after all, and people are verdammt proud of it.

At the University of Mainz, for instance, the student-run group Uni Vinum organizes a “Wine Express” once a month for students–€15, a charter bus, an afternoon of wine-tasting at a couple of the hundreds of wineries in the area. Most are small family businesses run by multiple generations, with histories that go back hundreds of years. A wine-tasting includes a tour of the vineyards and a presentation of the wines by a member of the family, with plenty of opportunities to ask questions and peek behind the scenes. For newcomers such as myself, it’s perfect.

The drive to diversify--many wineries have a small Gästehaus, or bed-and-breakfast inn.

The need to diversify–many wineries have a small Gästehaus, or bed-and-breakfast inn, alongside the wine business.

For me, equally as fascinating as the wineries themselves is the chance to be on the other side of agritourism for a change. When I am at home, on the farm and bed and breakfast in in Vermont, I live the family business. There, I am the second generation, the daughter on the family farm who serves simultaneously as actress, tour guide, and seductress of the curious strangers whose money allows us to do what we do. At home, as in Germany, it is all about storytelling. My ancestors purchased the land in 1650, I grew up in these vineyards with my father, we are the only fully organic winery in the area–my parents came from the city and started the business from scratch 30 years ago, I spent every summer in the garden with my mother, we are the only farm with Gotland sheep in New England. A family business is a family business, whether in Germany or America, and the rhetoric is always the same.

A multi generational affair: above, the son, below, the father.

A multi generational affair: above, the son (on the right–to the left is Max Lindemann, the force of energy behind Uni Vinum), below, the father.

Storytelling.

Storytelling.

And a cute cat, of course. The presence of a small and fluffy animal is guaranteed to increase the buying power of tourists.

And a cute cat, of course. The presence of a small and fluffy animal is guaranteed to increase the buying power of tourists.

Champagne reception in the garden....

Champagne reception in the garden….

Then into the cellars...

Then into the cellars…

...and then a tractor ride up to the top of the vineyards for wine tasting.

…and then a tractor ride up to the top of the vineyards for wine tasting.

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About 8 wines in. 🙂

For those who want access to more than one winery at a time, however, there are the dozens of wine festivals taking place in the area at any given moment during the summer. They range from tiny–a few stands at the corner of some vineyard on the Rhine–to immense–the Weinmarkt in Mainz lasts for two weekends and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors.

Last night, for instance, I went to the festival on the Kirchenstück, a small vineyard right outside of downtown Mainz. It was a local affair, almost entirely free of international tourists–no live music, no fancy show, just picnic tables set up between the rows of grape vines and a field turned into a make-shift parking lot. The German couple I was with knew many of the wineries personally.

And it was absolutely gorgeous.

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Weinschorle--half wine, half sparkling water--is very popular when the temperatures are in the mid 90s, as they were last night....

Weinschorle–half wine, half sparkling water–is very popular when the temperatures are in the mid 90s, as they were last night….

A family affair....

A family affair….

The spoils.

The spoils.

Rosé.

Rosé.

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When we left it was nearly midnight, and people were still coming in. Lanterns strung up over the road, crates of empty wine bottles stacked behind the stands, children running down between the long rows of grape vines. They were probably going to be there all night.

One Year in Germany

July 1, 2015 It’s been a year in Germany, folks. Wahnsinn. Insane. I have had a thoughtful few days. Last night was a full moon, and I didn’t sleep.

What is this whole business of traveling and of living abroad, in the end? What on earth am I doing? Perhaps things are as T.S. Eliot says:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring 
Will be to arrive where we started 
And know the place for the first time.

We turn abroad to come home, to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to stay and to know and to love a single place. Or perhaps, conversely, Tennyson was right:

I am a part of all that I have met; 
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’ 
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades 
For ever and forever when I move.
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To him, traveling is end-less, a process of insatiability, the great awakener of greed and curiosity and wanderlust. There is no such thing as home. We turn outwards to keep turning outwards.
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Even after a year, I don’t know who is right.

And why Emily Abroad? Why take the pictures and tell the story? Here, I have more of a definite answer.

Firstly, I write because I don’t want to forget. The opportunity to travel and see the world is an absolute privilege, one I want to pursue with intention and with eyes wide open. Posting a thousand pictures to Facebook isn’t enough: I want to think in some tangible way, I want to ask questions and make connections on paper between land, people, and literature. I want, as I wrote nearly two years ago in my DAAD application, to ground my love of art in reality.

This all has practical grounds, too, of course. The great dream is to become a professor of German literature, and I want my teaching to be based in reality. This is the time for me to gather and record experiences, to build bridges that, one day, could be important for my students.

After all, if not now, when?

But there is another personal reason for Emily Abroad, perhaps for me the most vital. I have had problems for years with chronic pain, and writing, simply put, offers me the chance to tell my story without that pain. The chance to heal myself. When I write, “I hiked up to the castle on the mountain and it was glorious,” it was glorious, and the fact that I took breaks every 15 minutes to rest and force back tears of frustration is no longer important. Because I so don’t want to remember the pain.

Writing, then, is first and foremost catharsis.

Many people–and above all Germans, for whom the private sphere has an almost religious importance–have asked whether I truly feel comfortable living my life and travels in such a public way. But everything I write, as should be clear from the previous paragraph, is Selbstinszenierung–self-staging, self-production, self-creation. I write about real life, but the reality I present is told, is storied.

In this view of things, I take my cue from pop divinities like Lady Gaga, for whom the public life is purely art, and from certain French theorists (Foucault, Barthes) who preached the disappearance, the death, of the author through the very process of putting words on a page. In telling my own story I make the leap from reality to art and in so doing destroy my own presence in the work.

So, in the end, the Emily in the blog isn’t me–or maybe she is, actually, since storied reality is all we have. All history is only tale-telling, after all (Geschichte).

At any rate, it is the tension between poetry and truth (Dichtung und Wahrheit!) that creates great art. Not that I am creating great art, of course, or any sort of art at all. I’m just a girl from Vermont who likes to take pictures of things and then write about them. And that’s exciting enough.

So there it is. One year down, one to go. As I said, Wahnsinn.

And finally, an enormous thank you to everyone who has reached out to me–emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, professionally, financially–in the last year. A German author who spent time in the USA with the DAAD spoke in Mainz today about the isolation of living abroad, the loneliness and the feeling of being shut off from all practical support. I can honestly say that, while a certain amount of purifying isolation most likely always accompanies travel, the drastic alone-ness he spoke of has not been my experience. Far from it.

To name just a few people who have been there in some vital way: my family and grandparents, the Professor and the rest of the Hillsdale faculty, Dian, Aunt Sylvia, Ralf and Jutta, everyone from the farm in Kulmbach, the Komparatistinnen, Kodiak, Mikal, Valerie, Max, Annika and family, Madlon and Ulrich, Professors Lamping and Eckel from Uni Mainz, usw usw.

Thank you.

Travelogue XLVIII: Johannisnacht

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Cabaret in Mainz  during the Johannisfest.

June 20, 2015 Summer is the time of festivals in Germany. It seems like every town has one, or several, from the tiniest Dorf to the largest city–a weekend of live music and dancing and wine (or beer, depending on which part of Germany you are in) and all sorts of unhealthy-but-delicious German culinary specialties.

In Mainz, there’s the Johannisnacht festival at the end of June. Things are a little different in Mainz than in the rest of Germany, I think–a bit more intensive, all-encompasing, more Dionysian perhaps. The Fastnacht spirit isn’t just limited to a couple weeks in February.

In Würzburg, for instance, the yearly Kiliani Festival takes place outside of town, on neat and properly contained fairgrounds. In Mainz, the Johannisnacht takes up half the dang town, with the bus schedule screwed up for days and the entire Inner City full of stages and lights and stands selling cocktails and bratwurst. And the Meenzers know how to throw a party–some 250,000 people attend the festival over the course of four days, despite the pouring rain and semi-arctic temperatures this year.

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One of the hundreds of local vineyards who set up a stand for the weekend...

One of the hundreds of local vineyards who set up a stand for the weekend…

Schlager behind the cathedral.

Schlager behind the cathedral.

Music plays an enormous role at the summer festivals. At the Mainzer Johannisnacht, there are four main stages and dozens of concerts over the course of a long weekend–from oldies and brass band to rap and hip-hop, and everything in between.

And Schlager. The Schlager concerts are inescapable. The genre is distinctly German–kitchy, danceable, inescapably catchy pop ballads with roots that go back to the operettas of the 1920s and 30s. Many of the songs sung today date from the 1950s or earlier and have been re-written and re-mixed and re-sung hundreds of times in the ensuing decades. Like Country Music in America, the texts are mostly about drinking and falling into and out of love, but also about the simple, unadulterated joy of being alive. The world of Schlager is full of schöne Tage (beautiful days). In the words of one Fastnacht hit, Eins kann uns keiner nehmen und das ist die pure Lust am Leben. There is one thing nobody can take from us, and that is the pure joy of life…

And everyone knows all the words, it seems. During the Johannisnacht, one has the feeling that half of Mainz is standing in front of the stage, young and old alike, singing and crying and smoking and drinking beer and dancing in that awkward-but-infectious way that only Germans can.

I suppose part of me will always be the snobby operagoer who drinks champagne in the intermission and can talk for hours about a particular interpretation of Mahler’s 2nd. But every once in a while, you just need to link arms with a bunch of crazy Meenzers singing “Traum von Amsterdam” and let it all out.

And anyway, you can’t dance at the opera.

This guy managed to wear lederhosen, drink beer, twerk, and sing all at the same time. That takes skill, folks.

This guy managed to wear lederhosen, drink beer, twerk, and sing Schlager all at the same time. That takes skill, folks.

Despite the pouring rain...

Despite the pouring rain…

80s Rock in the pouring rain.

80s rock.

Cabaret. In some past life, I'm pretty much certain I was a Kabarettistin--coattails and lipstick, glass of red wine in one hand and cigarette in the other. 

Cabaret. In some past life, I’m pretty much certain I was a Kabarettistin–coattails and lipstick, glass of red wine in one hand and cigarette in the other.

Travelogue XLVII: City, Moldau

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June 6, 2015 Today was a city day, a chance to revel in the beauty of Prague itself. It was my first time in a city not destroyed by American or British bombs in the second World War–the wholeness is visible on every street corner. There is a unity to Prague that is lacking, I think, in cities like Dresden or Munich or even Mainz, almost completely leveled during WWII and slowly rebuilt over a period of decades. Even though the cultural landmarks of those cities have been perfectly, meticulously restored, the effects of the bombs can still be felt–a stone-work facade only painted on, ancient buildings next to jarringly new construction, Old Cities shrunk to fit narrow budgets. In Prague, there is very little of that. One really gets a sense of how things were before human stupidity destroyed so many things.

The sheer loveliness of the city, at the same time, made it difficult for me to reconcile it all with the Prague that emerges from Kafka’s works and diaries. Even though I knew that much of the Jewish Quarter had been rebuilt in the early 20th century, I was somehow still expecting something claustrophobic, narrow, dark. And instead, this bright and enlightened European Kulturstadt. It didn’t help that the weather was absolutely lordly, as the expression goes in German–blue skies, hot, the clearest of early June days. No fog in sight. Not that I was complaining, of course.

I first walked up to the castle (THE Castle, say many Kafka critics, though I had a hard time seeing it), with gorgeous views down to the city and the Moldau.

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The Charles Bridge

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The cathedral inside the castle walls.

The cathedral inside the castle walls.

Despite the beauty, though, I found the enormous crowds a bit unnerving. Here at the beginning of summer in one of the top destinations in Europe, the tourism is on a scale I have never seen before, despite having grown up in a state fueled by the money of rich outsiders who want to look at mountains. I think about how my family would always complain if there were 150 people at the local lake when we wanted to swim–in Prague, there are 150 people waiting to take a picture of a single monument at any given time on any given day. Mainz seems like a country Dorf in comparison, and that is a very good thing as far as I am concerned.

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We all had the same idea….!

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I love the streetcars here.

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Jan Hus memorial.

Jan Hus memorial.

The astronomical clock on the town square, a minute from the house Kafka was born in.

The astronomical clock on the town square, a minute from the house Kafka was born in.

In front of the Charles Bridge.

In front of the Charles Bridge.

That evening, I went boating on the Moldau. I am absolutely fascinated by rivers, and it’s not enough to just stand on a bridge. The Moldau, like the Rhine in Germany, is a force behind the Czech Republic’s mythology and art, bound up with creation and national identity. In all other ways, though, it is the Rhine’s polar opposite–gentle and comforting instead of bracing and wild. More feminine, perhaps, to the Rhine’s towering masculinity (the articles in German, after all, are feminine and masculine, respectively). A row boat on the Rhine would be swept half way to Koblenz in an hour; on the Moldau, you can paddle a bit and drink wine and drift without fearing for your life.

As a side note, it was entirely obvious during the whole process of renting a boat that Prague is NOT America. There were no signs informing prospective rowers that BOATING IS DANGEROUS AND YOU COULD DROWN, no lengthy papers to sign so that nobody would get sued, no confirmation of insurance, no lifejackets, no how-to instructions–just the friendly advice to keep 15 meters between yourself and the locks under the bridge. And so I handed over my 200 Crowns (about 8$) and found myself in possession of a bright blue rowboat with wooden paddles and a lantern hung at the bow.

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I rowed all the way to the bridge and back (without falling in the river or crashing into anything, thank you very much, which anyone who knows me will tell you is a feat). The sun set behind the castle and the river faded from pink to gold and out again to blue. The restaurants on the riverside were playing jazz. There are some moments where the awareness of the towering privilege of one’s life comes crashing in all at once.

When I got back to the docks, it was gloaming–blue water, blue air, the stone bridges faded out to gray.

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Fare thee well, Prague…

Travelogue XLVI: Kafka and Jazz in Prague

Franz Kafka memorial

Franz Kafka memorial.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJune 5, 2015 My first day in Prague was all Franz Kafka–the museum, his house and apartments, the monument to him near the Jewish Cemetery.

I was in some sort of strange over-excited mood all afternoon. “You’re shaking, Emily,” said Ralf at lunch. “You need to calm down and chill out. Take some deep breaths.” But I didn’t want to chill out. I’ve never been good at that, anyway, and especially not in the city of The Trial and The Metamorphoses and all those crazy, crazy stories….

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The house Kafka was born in, now a café. 

So, Kafka’s Prague. Unlike many of the intellectuals and artists of his time, he had no enormous international career–in fact, he hardly travelled at all, except for his stays at various sanatoriums and Kurorte. Even within Prague, his movements were limited–on a map, his various apartments and offices trace a tiny circle in the heart of the Old City and Jewish Quarter. Below, a few small impressions from my walks in the area.

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Absinthe, which is banned or not readily available in other European countries, is reveled in in Prague.

Absinthe, which is banned or not readily available in other European countries, is reveled in in Prague.

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Marionettes in the Old City.

A dude with a really big snake...

A bit surreal.

The city was hot, hot, the buildings and streets still releasing heat long after the sun went down. That evening, I went back to the Café Louvre–not to the light-filled upstairs salon I had eaten in earlier, but to the Jazz Club and bar downstairs. Dark rooms, red velvet upholstery, a woman in a black dress singing jazz standards, cocktails and red wine in between sets, the heat–it all had something of the cabaret about it, of old German films, and perhaps a bit of Steppenwolf, too.

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