Travelogue LXX: Spain I

JL049409.jpgAugust 7, 2017 We are spending two weeks in Spain with friends from Stanford, in a villa on the sea an hour outside of Barcelona. It’s glorious, and a different Europe than anything I have experienced before. The colors are new to me, and the air, and the entire way of living.

The days start late here, with a long breakfast at 11am, and then a bit of work (we are all grad students and thus always have work, even in August in Spain), and then siesta until perhaps 5pm. During the siesta hours, absolutely nothing stirs here, no dog-walkers, no children playing outside, no traffic noise. Most of the businesses in the city are closed. Jonathan and I went for a walk one afternoon, and it felt like we were the only people alive in this particular corner of the planet.

It’s not about laziness though, however it may appear to, for example, the early-to-bed-early-to-rise Germans. It’s simply another way of doing things. And practically speaking, it’s also about the heat. It is hot in Spain in August–90, 95, 100 degrees every day, dipping down into the 80s or perhaps the 70s at night. The heat is a constant presence, all-encompassing and always to be reckoned with. One spends the days in as little clothing as possible.

At any rate, the early evenings here bring a hint of a cool breeze from the Mediterranean, and the shops open again in the little town of Palamós. We emerge from various napping spots and go down to the beach to swim, or take the car to some seaside medieval village. Still, nothing really happens until perhaps 7pm, when people do their food shopping and then start thinking about dinner. The restaurants won’t open until at least 8pm. We cook at home, however, and the dinner’s on the table by 10pm: on the deck overlooking the ocean, with a full moon and lit candles. Afterwards, wine and conversation until it is finally cool enough to get some sleep–1am, 2am perhaps.

You just don’t spend summers like this in Germany, or anywhere else I have lived.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFrom the little beach near the house, it is possible to walk along the sea from one cove to the next, high on the cliffs above the sea. The water in the Mediterranean here is blue, shifting shades of cerulean, and impossible to capture in photographs. It’s so clear that you can see straight to the sea floor when you look down from the cliffs. It’s also warm, and saltier than the oceans I know, and very easy to swim in. Every cove is full of naked sunbathers, children diving from the rocks. There are fishermen’s dinghies drawn up on shore and larger sailboats anchored farther out. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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I have my favorite adventure buddy back, too!

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A tiny fishermen’s village, only accessible by footpath or water. 

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The Catalonian flag. 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo it’s gorgeous here, and so fascinatingly different. After a month in France and now these weeks in Spain, this summer has brought home to me the diversity of Europe, where you travel a few hours by bus over a border and find yourself in another world. Culturally, linguistically, culinarily, architecturally: Spain couldn’t be more different than Germany, and they are both worlds away from France. There are sweeping differences in America, too, but the spaces are larger and the English language tends to serve as a sort of great leveler, I think. I’ll be glad to be back on the West Coast in a few weeks, but for now, this is a gift.

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And there is ice cream. 🙂 

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Travelogue LXVII: Rheingau

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMarch 22, 2017 I’m back in Germany for just a couple bittersweet weeks, before the start of the new semester in California. I wanted to wait for a sunny day to climb into the vineyards on the Rhine to take pictures like the ones I took almost exactly 13 months ago, but waiting for clear weather in Germany in spring can be an entirely unproductive undertaking. So we went out anyway and walked into a misty gray morning, which had in the end its own sort of loveliness.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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The vines have been pruned and trained along wires for the next growing season…

The vineyards on the Rhine are full of walking paths, zigzagging back and forth across the slopes. It is possible to hike the entire length of the Rheingau, sometimes through the vineyards and sometimes through the woods, dipping down into the villages in the valleys. The roads that crisscross the vineyards are primarily there for the winemakers, enabling them to ferry workers or small equipment high up the steep sides of the mountain. But they are also there for those who want to enjoy the beauty of the valley for its own sake, from curious tourists to serious hikers to locals out for a Sunday stroll. The paths are dotted with benches and the occasional gazebo at the particularly lovely spots.

And, because this is Germany after all, every once in a while there is a tiny self-serve kiosk where you can open a door and take out a bottle of local wine and glasses, pay by the honor system, and then sit and drink. It’s the perfect mix of nature and culture, I think: the gorgeousness of the Rhine River valley all around you, and then community over a shared bottle of wine. The last time we were here, an hour at a picnic table turned into two, and then three, and we shared stories and then walked with new-found friends all the way back to the village. It’s things like that that make me miss Germany.

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Checking out the wine selection at one of the many self-serve stations along the way, although it was too cold and too early in the day for a drink.

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Into the woods..

Travelogue LXV: Humans of Vermont II

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJanuary 5, 2017 Jonathan and I have flown in from opposite sides of the planet to spend Christmas in Vermont. We have a place to stay together thanks to the wonderful hospitality of Katharina and Glenn, who have lent us the use of the tiny cabin/sauna up the hill from the home they finished building last summer. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHere’s a look into the beautiful space Katharina and Glenn have created for themselves, using timbers from an old deconstructed barn. The house is on a back road about fifteen minutes from my family’s farm, surrounded by the other cabins and homes Glenn has built over the decades. They have big plans for the place–an outdoor kitchen this summer, an amphitheater built into the hillside, grapes on the south-facing slope, animals to keep the fields clear. They want a space for collaborative living, for projects and creators of all kinds.

During the day, the sun pours in the wall of south-facing windows, flooding the living room and kitchen with light and making the two wood stoves that heat the place almost irrelevant. But it is winter in Vermont, and the nights are long and it’s pitch black and ice cold again by 4:30. We spend the evenings installing speakers and a turntable for Glenn’s massive collection of records, or reading under a petroleum lamp in our cabin up the road. We trail along with Glenn and Katharina to a solstice celebration, a bonfire and poetry followed by bluegrass fiddling. One night we haul apple pie and wine up the hill and fire up the sauna. It’s snowing hard, and after we are thoroughly sweating we step outside and rub ice into our backs.

For Jonathan and me, it’s offered us space to reconnect after months of 5,600 miles of separation, and to make some pretty big and exciting plans about our future. And, of course, a chance to rest and revel in Vermont’s beauty. Jonathan has split wood and driven trucks to his heart’s content, and I’ve seen my mountains again.

Und es war alles, alles gut. 

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The sauna up the hill, where we are staying.

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Travelogue LXIV: Stanford

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADecember 31, 2016 One year ago today, I stood on the old stone bridge in Heidelberg between rolling hills and vineyards, screaming and laughing and hugging as New Year’s fireworks arched off the castle parapets. Now, 365 days later, we will leave this tiny Vermont village to dance in the new year in Montpelier’s old Grange Hall with the usual, lovely, giddy crowd of hippies and farmers.

And when it’s all over, I won’t be taking the train to the Mainzer Altstadt, but  flying back across America to the San Francisco Bay to start my second semester at Stanford, Ph.D. in German Literature and Languages. My brain, and my soul, haven’t quite caught up with the changes of the last year.

On one hand, Stanford has been incredible. This is what I came back to American academia for–the incredible intensity and closeness of education, the in-class debates that blur the lines between scholarship and politics and life, the drinks with the professors at the end of the semester, the feeling of community and shared joy (and sometimes misery) among the students. And being at this particular school is a blessing; the resources and opportunities at my disposal are still shocking to me. You’re playing with the big boys now, Emily. How on earth did you get here? 

The sheer beauty of the place is staggering, too. It’s like living and working at a five-star resort, 365 days of the year. The long porticos and green lawns and palm trees–and the sun, this wonderful warm, dry light that I can’t get enough of after a childhood in New England and two years in Germany. I sit at the bright little cafe on the quad and drink my chai latte with almond milk, reading contemporary theater and overlooking green grass and flowers, and can’t quite believe it.

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Memorial Church

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From the steps of the library.

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The German Department building.

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The library.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt the same time, though, the last semester has been hard and unsettling in new ways. I’m experiencing culture shock for the first time in my life, in the country I was born in. Arriving in Germany felt like coming home–some part of me immediately recognized something there, and I fell for the place hook, line, and sinker. Here, even now I’m still struggling to find my feet under me, to make sense of exactly what this whole place is about, to find something to hold on to in the rush and energy of the Silicon Valley.

And it turns out that living on a five-star resort starts to become a bit freaky, after a while. We spend the day in Berkeley, with its dirt and its homeless, and the campus here begins to seem disturbingly prettified. We count more Apple products than people in the cafes in Paolo Alto.  Our student housing has a sauna and pool, and we swim under the stars and palm trees and discuss an article from Die Zeit–about families in our community who make $50,000/year and still live on the streets, because the housing market is booming and things can be a bit problematic if you don’t work for Google or have a Stanford stipend. But we don’t see any of that ourselves, not on our daily walks between our newly-renovated subsidized apartments and the school. We have the sneaking feeling that something very real is missing from our experience of the Bay Area.

It’s not that saunas and MacBooks are bad things, and it’s not at all that I am ungrateful for the incredible gift of these next five years, for the opportunity to do what I love in such a stunning and secure environment. But this place asks some hard questions when you peek below the gorgeous, red-tile-and-sandstone surface.

Maybe that’s a good thing, though. Check your privilege, all ye who enter here. I would like to learn how to do that.

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A few of the dozens of Rodin sculptures on campus.

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Hoover Tower

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I still can’t get over the palm trees.

Travelogue LXXI: Berlin Again

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Hackischer Höfe–street art, anarchy, eros, tourism.

July 20, 2016 Berlin again–my fourth time in the city, and the first time I was able to get a glimpse into the world behind the city’s glamorous tourist front, if only for the few days we spent visiting friends and sleeping in an apartment in Neukölln with the s-train roaring by all night long. The whole place is growing on me.

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Berlin is full of artists and hippies and anarchists, and also hipsters posing as artists and hippies and anarchists. Gentrification is the most pressing buzzword in the Vororte (outskirts)–the process by which poor, “problematic” neighborhoods are cleaned up to suit the values and tastes of middle-class apartment-buyers. “First the social workers show up, and then the police, and then the hipsters,” said a friend of Jonathan’s, himself a social worker in an especially metamorphic area of the city. “In a few years, no local will be able to afford to live here anymore.” What do you do when you find your neighborhood suddenly sanitized beyond recognition, and the rent prices are going through the roof, and you are suddenly surrounded by the young and privileged and have nowhere to go?

Right now, Berlin is in transition, and the discrepancies that come along with that are obvious even to an outsider. It is a jarring experience, to sit in a café surrounded by MacBooks and 4-euro coffee served artfully in mason jars (and to be drinking that coffee yourself), and look out the window at legless beggars and children in dirty clothes playing on the sidewalk.

Am I at this moment part of the the solution, or part of the problem? 

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In the end, though, Berlin has always been a city in transition of some form or another, and despite or because of the tension and discrepancy the city has something–an openness, sexiness, energy, a pressing sense of the past and a vicious exhilarating drive towards the future. You can be whatever you want here–queer, crazy, bourgeois, elite–and you will find a place to fit in to–a dive-bar in Neukölln with police sirens blaring by outside at all hours of the day and night, or a flower-filled garden outside of the Literaturhaus, the arts section of Die Zeit open on your lap.

Jonathan and I both said that if our careers and lives weren’t taking us in two opposite directions, we would move to Berlin together. We weren’t alone, we were told. “The whole world wants to move here,” said a friend, himself a student and long-time resident. “We thought the hype would stop eventually, but it just keeps getting stronger. So act now. In two years, even people as privileged as us won’t be able to afford the place.”

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After a week we were exhausted but also wanted to stay longer. Mainz, with not a soul in sight when we got off the train at one in the morning, seems almost eerily peaceful in comparison.

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Frohe Weihnachten!

Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
This bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.

Hamlet, Act I Scene I

Mainz

Mainz

December 25, 2015 Christmas-not-in-Vermont will never stop being something strange. I skype with my family and see my father, wearing three flannel shirts one on top of the other, coming in from doing chores and standing in the doorway because he is still wearing his work boots. And my siblings, flown home from college and sprawled in front of the fire on sheepskins with the dog. And my mother, cooking enough delicious food for an army because, heck, it’s Christmas. And the tree in its usual spot, and the manger scene without Baby Jesus because he technically hasn’t been born yet, and Bing Crosby singing White Christmas in the background.

And I miss those people, and I miss that place. It’s a feeling of lack that is otherwise blessedly foreign to my experience abroad.

But then again, when I’m standing at my favorite Glühwein-stand in Mainz with my small community of fellow Comp Lit students gossiping about professors, or drunkenly singing Christmas carols on the street with Valerie after the Market in Ingelheim, or experiencing the towering hospitality of the people who have opened their lives and homes to me, I think, this isn’t so bad either.

In fact, maybe it’s more than just not bad.

Merry Christmas from Germany, folks.

Locus Amoenus IV: Home

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.

December 7, 2015 I’ve always had a very strong connection to home. Even as a small child, I had an intense awareness of what constituted my people, my land, my place: this is where I came from and where I may leave, but also to where I will always return. Then, as now, I was drawn as much to the physicality of home as to the people who make it up–to the space of it all, to the anatomy and physique. How do we define our most intimate places physically, with what do we choose to surround ourselves? What, anatomically speaking, separates a roof over my head from my home?

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The Bohemian Garett in Vermont. (Photo Credits: Anna Goodling)

For the longest time, home to me was the farmhouse in Vermont I grew up in, and I reveled in the place’s form and build and being just as much as I reveled in its people. There was the iron daybed on the porch where I plowed through Thomas Mann and Nabokov and Nietzsche, sweating even in the shade through the hottest July afternoons. Or the room I shared with my sister–the “Bohemian Garret,” we called it–with patchwork quilts on the beds and silk scarves pinned up to hide the leak in the roof. Or the wood stove downstairs, snow slanting like sand against the window in January, where I lay on a sheep rug next to the cats and scorched the back of my flannel nightgown.

All that to me was home, and when I left for far-away college at age 18 I wasn’t really looking to find it any place else. Sure, my roommate and I etched out our spaces in campus housing, hanging posters and trying to keep our plants alive, but it was never really came close to what I had in Vermont. And I didn’t need it to. I knew my father would arrive in his beater car every spring to load boxes and take me back.

My window in the American college dorm--almost home, but not quite.

My window in the American college dorm–almost home, but not quite.

Now, though, things are changing. I want home, am longing for it, actually, but this longing isn’t accompanied by the desire to return to Vermont. Instead, for the first time in my life I want to create, want to see if I–right here, right now, alone in this country that is in the end still foreign–can make a physical space with as much meaning and pull as the Vermont farmhouse.

The desire started, I suppose, when I first saw the apartment I have been renting now for almost a year. As soon as climbed the blue spiral staircase and ducked through the door behind the realtor, it was my space–the Garret again, but infinitely more Bohemian, 120 square feet of slanty ceilings and exposed beams, windows looking out into leaves and down onto cobblestones. And a tiny tiled bathtub behind a red-checked curtain. If I ever get a lover, that would be just big enough for the both of us, I thought, and somehow that sealed the deal.

“This is it.” I told the realtor. “This is my Carl Spitzweg painting, my La Bohème, my Dachkammer!! I can read German literature here!” Overly ecstatic, as always. “I’ve already had five offers this morning, but I will see what I can do,” he said, and walked me back to the bus stop in the rain. And then, of course, he called the next day: “Frau Goodling, I had to pull a damn lot of strings, but the place is yours, because I can see you living there.”

Tea on the tiny blue balcony.

Tea on the tiny blue balcony.

And now, almost a year later, when I get off the crowded bus and turn into the cobblestoned street where I live, nearly empty at 8pm on a week night, there is coming to be the same lifting-of-weight, the same recognition and expansion I felt in the passenger seat of my father’s beater car, turning off the highway in New York into the green mountains of Vermont. The feeling that I am returning to my space, my home.

I still can’t quite place what it is, physically, that makes a dwelling place into a home. But I think I am uncovering it slowly.

Yesterday, for instance, I bought a Christmas tree for the first time in my life, because Christmas trees have always belonged to the anatomy of home in my world. It’s amazing how the presence of a tiny tree can turn a room into more than just a lived-in space.

Also, in the mean time, I may or may not have found out that my bathtub is indeed big enough for two, with candles around the edge and the skylight open above our heads.

I think someone up there likes me.

I think someone up there likes me.

And so I move slowly towards an uncovering of the anatomy of home, on my own this time, an ocean apart from all other known-ness. Is this a fundamental part of adulthood, this drive to make home where you are, with your own imagination and paycheck, to make a place speak to you and call you back at the end of the day?

Or does my desire to create home arise from the distance itself, from the physical vastness separating me from the spaces of Vermont? At the end of the day, for all my love of Germany and for all the reveling in land and language I have done in the last year, I am still abroad, living in a land that is not really my own. Perhaps the creation of home is a coping mechanism of sorts, a way to make sense of and process an expanse.

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My street.

In the end, with my Christmas tree and my bathtub and a pot of tea on the stove and basil plants on the counter and expressionistic art on the walls, I am left with an awareness of the incredible privilege of it all, this creating and having of a home.

Because Germany is filled right now with hundreds of thousands of people who have no home, who have had their physical spaces destroyed or made inhabitable. The architecture of home became the architecture of nightmare, and so they left everything and came here, and they are starting over in spaces that, however desperately needed, are everything other than home.

And I, sitting on my own bed with a glass of wine and Bocelli crooning in the background, have never had to do that. I left my home because I wanted to, because I was driven by passion and beauty and the desire to pursue my own education. I am going about creating a home in Germany because I can, because it is something lovely. It is as simple as that.

Which all makes me overwhelmingly thankful to be here. There is no terror behind my actions, and that is a miraculous thing.

And, I admit, maybe I’m a little proud of what my space is turning into, too. So the next time you are in a particular street in Mainz, Germany, stop by and I will give you a tour and serve you tea in my home.

In my home, people.

 

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Locus Amoenus III: Bahnhof-Romantik

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.

Berlin

Berlin.

November 27, 2015 Germany has a love-hate relationship with trains. The Deutsche Bahn (German Train) is as much an identity-shaping part of the  culture as good alcohol and soccer, but seems to always have some sort of bad rap–too expensive, chronic delays, the strikes. When I first arrived, I was surprised by the amount of general complaining, since to any [American] outsider it all seems to be a miracle of efficiency and expansiveness. After a year and a half, I’m still in love with it all, although I can now complain with the best of them, too. I swear, if they cancel the S-Bahn one more %$#@ time….ich meine, echt jetzt, Leute.

Before coming to Germany, I had been on exactly one train in twenty-two years. Now, I don’t know how many weeks of my life I have spent in train stations, in trains–the S-Bahn to Frankfurt for the opera, slow scenic trips up the Rhine, exotic voyages across country that span an entire day, flying in a window seat in the high-speed express. For me, all complaining aside, the German train station is quickly becoming another Locus Amoenusa space particularly charged with meaning and, yes, beauty, in a pigeons-and-diesel sort of way. A retreat, comforting through its known-ness.

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Farewells.

The stair of chocolate.

The stair of chocolate.

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Time.

In a sense, all train stations are the same: mythological Orte, artistic spaces, paradox. Places dedicated to not staying in one place, the great stationary enablers of all travel and adventure. They all rely on the same visual symbols, the same aesthetic and sensual building blocks that make up so much of my experience with travel.

Hamburg.

Hamburg.

There are always, for instance, young couples bidding farewell by means of a full make-out session next to the high-speed trains.

There is always a contingent of punks sitting on the ground outside the station, listening to music and smoking and wearing black shirts that say “Refugees Welcome!” or “Fuck Nazis!”.

There are always enormous advertisements for Ritter Sport chocolate that only serve to make me regret my own lack thereof.

There are always book stores where I can stand and sneak-read National Geographic in German, waiting for the connection to Heidelberg or Berlin.

When I stand at the tracks at night, I always fight off the literary fear that I will board the train and the darkness outside the windows will turn into an endless tunnel and I will never, ever get out. Thanks, Dürrrenmatt.

And somewhere, it always, always smells like urine.

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Exhaustion.

Frankfurt

Frankfurt.

For me, somehow, none of those things ever get old, and probably will never get old, no matter how many hundreds of times I have stood in a particular train station and printed my ticket and ran for my connecting train. To someone who spent a childhood in a rural landscape where life moves at a snail’s pace and people stay put, the sheer sense of movement is like a drug.

There’s the thrill of departing: push the dirty “Doors Open” button with the back of your hand and leap into the unknown, haul your suitcase into the train and defend your window seat against all comers.

And the thrill of arriving: perhaps to someplace entirely new, which is its own sort of rush, to buy a city map and drag your suitcase and your exhausted self to some cheap youth hostel or another, and to look at the most ordinary of things with 100% delight and awe just because you have never seen them before. Or perhaps to someplace known: back home in Mainz, for instance, or to a particular small sunlit city on another river, to catch the 54 or look for your lover’s car, to get back to your apartment and make tea and rest.

None of it ever gets old.

In the S-Bahn.

In the S-Bahn.

Travelogue LV: Bayreuth II: Festspielhügel

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August 24, 2015 Three operas down, two to go. I’m in Bayreuth, people, and I still can’t quite believe it. The afternoon walks up to the Festspielhügel (Festival Hill), the darkness before the music starts, the glass of wine afterwards–it all seems so normal, like this isn’t one of the most extraordinary experiences in human existence. But then again, I can’t stop smiling, and I have to restrain myself from geeking out at various inopportune moments. Girl, you are at the f%$#@ Festspiele.

In the end, though, Bayreuth is a strange and contradictory place.

On the one hand, the atmosphere is all very relaxed and playful. The weather is gorgeous, and the intermissions last an hour so you have time to walk into town and eat dinner. Or, if you are as [impoverished and] boss as Katie and I, you spread out a 15-Euro picnic right in front of the Festspielhaus. You get to know the people who sit next to you every night and exchange stories about art and music and life in general. You sleep in the next day at the youth hostel and spend the afternoon before the performance going to book stores and giggling over the Wagner kitsch all over the city. You walk through the gardens up to the opera house an hour early so you have time to admire/creep on the extraordinarily well-dressed Europeans who drop 2,000 Euros on a week in Bayreuth, with their Gucci bags and dinner reservations at some five-star restaurant during the intermissions. Take the taxi into town, take the taxi back an hour later.

The fashion, too, is delightful. I knew people dressed up for Bayreuth, but I wasn’t expecting tuxedos and ball gowns, not during the last week of a non-premiere production. In the last few days, however, we have seen it all–five-inch-heels and parasols, black ties and polished wing-tips, silk handkerchiefs that match the dress that match the purse. Of course some of it strays horribly (hilariously!) into kitsch–poofy pink princess gowns from the 80s, etc. In the end, though, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much genuine elegance and sartorial beauty in one place in my life. People–adults!–revel in the chance to play dress up and be seen.

Parasols abounded.

Parasols abounded.

Carrying the mandatory cushion (bring your own!). Wooden fold-down seats become incredibly uncomfortable after the first three hours of music.

Heatedly discussing the finer points of the evening’s Tristan, mandatory seat-cushion in hand (bring your own!). Wooden fold-down chairs become incredibly uncomfortable after about the first three hours of music.

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View from above.

View from above. That yellow suit, though.

Dapper.

Wind-swept dapper.

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The spoils: Fancy handbag, 10 Euro flutes of champagne, Reclam-edition of the libretto.

The spoils: Fancy handbag, 10-Euro flutes of champagne, Reclam-edition of the libretto.

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View through the Festspielhaus doors.

View through the Festspielhaus doors, right before I got taken out by the No-Photography-Inside-the-Festspielhaus police.

On the other hand, though, Bayreuth is not really a pleasant place at all. I don’t think I have ever been surrounded by such a high concentration of genuine snobbery in my life.

That means that afterwards, you don’t revel the beauty you just experienced and reflect on the fact that you, in your designer gown and high heels, are one of the most privileged people on the planet. No, you critique the Brühnhilde’s upper register (Where’s Birgit Nilsson when you need her?) and deplore the flatness of the tenor (Botha is great, but really, can’t he change it up a bit?) and absolutely hate on the production (Regie-trash! Euro-trash! Skandale!! Oh, for the 1950s and the days of Wolfgang Wagner!!). Of course it is not all bad, but even your praise must be critical and highly informed at all times (The direction of the brass section was excellent, but of course nothing in comparison to Solti. Oh, you don’t like Solti either? Well anyway, Botha’s Winterstürme was lovely, although that hardly makes up for his botching of the Wälse earlier in the act).

The amount of sheer expertise amongst the opera-goers is staggering. These people know their Wagner, or at least know how to pretend like they do, and can talk the talk like there’s no tomorrow.

All of which, honestly, is mostly fine with me–I love a good snobby opera rant once in a while. But in the end, I miss the pure, unadulterated awe with which I encountered Wagner for the first time. Naive and a bit blind, perhaps, but full of appreciation and real joy–isn’t that the best way to encounter great art?

Visitors are confronted with the more troubling aspects of Bayreuth's past: a permanent display on antisemitism and Hitler in Bayreuth stands directly in front of the opera house. This is Wagner, after all--things are never uncomplicated.

Visitors are confronted with the more troubling aspects of Bayreuth’s past: a permanent display on antisemitism and Hitler in Bayreuth stands directly in front of the opera house. This is Wagner, after all–things are never uncomplicated.

Ultimately, there is an element of passionate suffering, of Leidenschaft (Leidenschaft=passion, leiden=to suffer) about it all. It’s almost comic, actually. If you don’t have a ticket, you stand around outside with an absolutely forlorn expression on your face and a “Suche Karte” (“Looking for a ticket”) sign, until some merciless person deigns to part with the last act of Götterdämmerung for three times the selling price. You act all friendly towards your neighbor until he or she opens up a cough drop in the middle of the performance. God forbid that the sacred space be polluted by the sound of a Halls wrapper!! The entire Galarie suffers together until the end of the act!!

The physical space of the Festspielhaus itself contributes to this atmosphere of martyrdom. Simple architecture, straight-backed wooden seats, no air conditioning–it is clear that the focus here is on THE MUSIC and not on the physical gratification of the Festspiel-goers. After five hours in a cramped seat in 85-degree heat, the level of self-mortification is absolutely saintly.

In the end, though, the lack of luxury is a very good thing, and fits in with Wagner’s radical vision for Bayreuth as a place of direct confrontation with artistic beauty unspoiled by physical indulgence. He was the first to darken the house during performances, after all, the first to place the emphasis fully on the stage and not on being seen by those around you. Bravo, there.

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The orchestra’s brass section plays motives from the opera to call guests back to their seats at the end of intermission.

And despite everything, of course, it really is all about the music. That’s why I’m here–that’s why I keep coming back to Wagner, all questionable decadence and politics aside. There is a power and a beauty there that gets under my skin.

So last night during Tristan und Isolde, sitting behind a column with my 10-Euro ticket, the cough drop wrappers and botched high notes and arrogant snobbery paled absolutely beside the music, welling up from the covered orchestra pit in the darkness below and slowly, slowly changing the world.

Walking in the gardens surrounding the Festival House during intermission.

Walking in the gardens surrounding the Festival House during intermission.

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