Travelogue LVIII: Wine and Home

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASeptember 12, 2015 I’m back in Mainz for a bit of time, before the travels start again in the few weeks before my second year at the University. Being away–it makes me realize how much Mainz has become home to me in the past twelve months. “You’ll be back in America in a year! You’re going home soon!” my dear parents say. But Germany is home now, too. When I get off at the sketchy Mainz train station, there are the same feelings of relief and general wellbeing I have when we take the exit off the long green highway headed into Vermont. Can you have more than one Heimat?

In the end, what makes Mainz feel the most like home is not the flashy tourist parts, all prettified and spiffed-up for an international paying public. The Augustinerstraße on a Saturday afternoon, with tour groups from Japan and selfie-taking couples from the cruise ship docked on the Rhine–all very picturesque, but somehow slightly less than authentic. I’d rather have the Augustinerstraße on a Monday morning, full of trucks making deliveries to the cafés and bike riders on their way to work, and the smell of hot bread from the bakeries.



The outer courtyard.

The outer courtyard.

The tiny winery in the New City is another spot that makes Mainz, for me, into Home. Owned by Marcus Landenberger and family, it opens for wine tasting for friends-of-friends-of-friends every Friday evening, rain or shine. I found out about it during my first weeks in Mainz (thanks, Max!), and have been a regular attendee ever since. Marcus opens up his tiny courtyard to guests, and serves fresh bread, meat, and cheese along with the wine on the single long table inside. You pay for as much as you think you’ve eaten.

The guests are a mixture of students from the University and Mainz’s older generations, talking in broad dialect and ranting about local politics, the weather, the harvest season. You introduce yourself by your first name and use the informal pronouns, and laugh more than you have laughed for a long time. In the winter, everyone sits closer and wears coats indoors against the cold. If you are lucky, Marcus opens up the wine cellars across the courtyard and the entire group goes down the stone steps and look at the huge dusty barrels of Riesling and Silvaner in the half-light. Come at seven and stay until midnight.


The hand-written wine card.

The hand-written wine card.

The wines for sale.

The wines for sale.

Meat, bread, and cheese--the best of the best of German cuisine.

Meat, bread, and cheese–the best of the best of German cuisine.


The spoils.

The spoils.



As always, I am astounded by the sheer knowledge and love of these people, young and old alike, for the drinking of wine–their wine, from their city, not some import from Italy or France. The wine list at Marcus’ only seldom varies, but everything is reveled in anew each week.

Did you try the 2011 Riesling? It really is exquisite. Perhaps because of the rain we got that year, do you remember that? Of course. 

...And the night goes on.

…and the night goes on. Conversation and clean plates.

Travelogue XXVIII: Hier bin ich Narr -or- Hermine ist in der Hölle


An explosion of color after four months of gray.

February 17, 2015 I am fascinated by the Apollo-Dionysus dichotomy–it’s one of the most pervasive themes in German literature, brought to philosophical expression by Nietzsche in his Birth of Tragedy from 1872. Apollo, he says, is the Greek god of sun and lyre, reason, clarity, self-control, thought, sanity, the Word. Dionysus is his opposite: darkness, sensuality, insanity, debauchery, intoxication, unbounded ecstasy. German literature asks, How to bring the two together? How to find a balance, a Gleichgewicht, a middle road between two extremes? Too much of the one leads to sterility and lifelessness, too much of the other to insanity and dissolution. Look at the works of Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann, for instance: so many of their characters fail or succeed, live or die by their ability to bring Apollo and Dionysus together without destroying themselves and others.

The famous Tanz auf der Lu (Dance on Ludwigsstreet). A live band, thousands of costumed revelers of all ages dancing on the streets, from Schillerplatz all the way back to the cathedral.


Karnival–Fastnacht–is the working-out of that dichotomy in German society, on the streets instead of in art. Five days of pure Dionysus–it’s the balance found, the other half of the equation. Most of the time, as the stereotype goes, German society is driven by Apollo: reasonable, orderly, efficient, rigorous. But then there’s Fastnacht, when all that goes out the window. For five days, the whole city goes mad–no holds barred, Dionysus is Joker und Bacchus, and all the rules are broken. It’s what the Greeks experienced during the great national performances of their tragedies: ekstasis, catharsis. The Self as a rational, autonomous element dissolves into the Whole.

And it is not just the students, the young people who would be out partying anyway–it’s everyone. The four-year-old with his hair dyed green screaming “Helau!” at the parade, the 70-year-old couples in the Weinstube in the Old City, singing and beating on the tables. And everyone else: there’s thousands of revelers on the streets at night, dancing and drinking and throwing the wine bottles on the ground instead of in the recycling bin. You see it in the city, too, normally so neat and orderly: the bus schedule is hopelessly screwed up, everything is color, and the streets are covered in streamers and glitter and green glass Jägermeister bottles.

I found it all incredible. This, the presence of Fastnacht in society, is the balance, the Gleichgewicht, which Faust and Gustav Aschenbach and Harry Haller tried and failed, perhaps, to find.


“Here I am a fool”–spoofing on Goethe’s Faust. “Hier bin ich Mensch”–“Here I am human.”

It all reminds me of the famous scene from Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, “Hermine ist in der Hölle”–Hermine is in hell. Harry Haller the Apollonian gives himself over to Dionysus for a night of excess, frenzy, and sweat-soaked dance in the pit of hell. It’s not an entirely untroubling scene, but it is a moment of transcendence, and the Steppenwolf emerges with a sort of redemption.


Ludwigsstreet, before the start of the dance.

I was on the tram headed into the city on Saturday afternoon. It was full to bursting, and the sun had come out for the first time in what felt like weeks. Someone had brought a boom box, and the entire train turned into a party, giddy people jumping and dancing and trying to pour shots of Jägermeister and singing at the top of their lungs:

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 love of life.

Of course Fastnacht has problematic aspects–the police presence in the city skyrockets by necessity, and my main concern on the bus on the way home Monday night was not getting barfed on. But moments like the one on the tram transcend.



Kreppel, aka Berliner, aka Jelly Doughnuts. Only available in Mainz during Fastnacht.

Naturally, though, it is not all insanity and merrymaking. Like the theater in Germany, nothing here can ever be merely entertaining. A key element of Fastnacht in Mainz is politics–political commentary, critique, satire. The floats in the big Rosenmontag parade are all of a political nature, some quite scathing. Many of them I didn’t understand fully, since my knowledge of local politics is not exactly up to snuff. But international politics featured as well….


Obama the sitting duck.


Invasion of the Chlorine-Chicken. Lol.


The Rosenmontag parade.



And there it was. Fastnacht in Mainz, in all its Dionysian glory. I was downtown this evening, and the city crews were already at work, sweeping thousands of pounds of glittery trash off the streets and taking down the stages. It was entirely melancholy, actually.

I don’t think I could take more than one carnival a year, but it was very good while it lasted.


Selbst Johannes Gutenberg hat mitgefeiert!


Travelogue XX: Mainzer Weihnachtsmarkt


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

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


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

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


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

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


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


Wurst from a local butcher.


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



Candle makers.


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


Hand-made wooden ornaments.


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


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


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


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


Recipe: Bavarian Sauerkraut

IMG_0838Tools of the trade: Holzbrett, Stampfer, Krauthobel.

When I arrived at the farm in Kulmbach last weekend, I was immediately assigned to the task of making sauerkraut–an entire day’s undertaking even for a relatively small batch, as I discovered. I was given a hand-written recipe and more or less left to my own devices, with liberal advice from whichever of the family members happened to be passing through the kitchen. It turned out pretty decent, if I do say so myself…not bad for an American. 😉

IMG_0835Fresh from the root cellar, harvested during my stay in August.

Ingredients: white cabbage, sea salt, caraway seeds

Instructions: Wash cabbage, remove several of the large outer leaves from each head, and set them aside for later. Cut the cabbage into small pieces. If you don’t have a traditional cabbage cutter (Krauthobel), a knife works just as well. Apparently, it is best to cut it into long, narrow strands–it tastes better that way, according to my hosts.


Beat the cut cabbage in a crock or large pot until enough liquid has come out to entirely cover it. This takes some hefty work–if you can’t seem to get enough liquid out, you will need to add a bit of water later. Let stand for an afternoon, or overnight.


IMG_0870Allll the Sauerkraut….

Add salt (30 grams per kilo of cabbage) and sprinkle with caraway seeds. If you are making a large batch, it is best to work in layers–a kilo of cabbage, then salt and seeds. Stop between layers to compact the cabbage as firmly as possible. If you are making a small batch, this can be done in a glass canning jar–for a large batch, use a crock or pot.

IMG_0875Cover the shredded cabbage completely with the whole leaves (set aside previously). At this point, the shredded cabbage should be quite compact, and completely immersed in its own liquid–if not, add a bit of water.

IMG_0877Set some sort of press on top of the whole leaves, with a weight on top heavy enough to push everything down below the level of the liquid. We used a large plate, weighted down with a jar full of water. The most important thing is that the actual cabbage is fully submerged–this will keep it from spoiling.

IMG_0880That’s 18 kilos of Sauerkraut, yo. 

Put a lid on the crock, jar, or pot, and set in a cool place. Ferment for five weeks, and enjoy! Geschafft! 

IMG_0883Sauerkraut, don’t touch!!

Locus Amoenus I: Farm Kitchen

In ancient Roman literature, one common trope is the locus amoenus–the lovely or pleasing place. Usually a garden or woodland, the locus amoenus is a spot of inherent safety, comfort, and natural 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.

IMG_0367The kitchen in Kulmbach.

It’s no Virgilian garden, and certainly not beautiful in any classical sense of the word, but one of my most treasured loci amoeni is the farm kitchen in August. Some of my earliest memories are of our kitchen at home, during harvest season–standing on a chair at the sink and pushing zucchini through the food processor, steam billowing off the pots of sterilizing jars on the stove. The whole process was somehow magical, my mother some sort of goddess of cooking. How does she know how to do all that, to transform hundreds of pounds of vegetables into something we can eat for the next six months?

There was a rhythm to it all which I found comforting and intimate. Harvest, wash, snap, cut, boil, strain, can, bag, label, freeze–after so many Augusts, I have the feeling that I could do it almost in my sleep. And when the garden is at its peak, it’s a race against time. Put up the food or lose it.

IMG_0365Pesto-making station–fresh basil, garlic cloves, roasted hazelnuts, olive oil. 

Here on the farm in Kulmbach, in August and therefore at the height of harvest season, I’ve worked in the kitchen nine hours a day for the past three weeks. It’s the same locus amoenus from my childhood, now thousands of miles from home. I have all the recipes from my mother, the same laundry baskets full of beans or squash or apples, the same damp cutting boards and buckets of peels and pits left over afterwards. It’s so strange, to be doing this in a foreign country, alone, without my family, in someone else’s kitchen–and even more strange, how familiar it all is. It seems like there is nothing separating me from all those past Augusts, or from the current harvest season at home in Vermont, where my mom and sister are standing in the kitchen doing the exact same thing I am.

Last week, though, I wasn’t alone. There was a little girl here from France, Sofia, who spoke fluent German and Italian and babbled on for hours about her recent vacation in Sicily. She helped me make apple sauce, and I gave her the pot to lick when we were finished. “When you were little and helped your mom in the kitchen, did she let you have the pot when everything was done?” she asked. “Yes,” I said, “Yes, she did.”

IMG_0417The all-important Speisekammer, with everything that has already been canned or preserved–almost full and it’s only mid-August!

Recipe: Zwetschgenknödel


Last night I learned how to make Zwetschgenknödel, a traditional Austrian dish that translates to something like plum dumplings. My host’s little brother Adrian was kind enough to show me how everything worked, and to let me copy down his recipe afterwards–passed down from his father. He told me that his family usually makes them when all the children are at home, and have a contest to see who can eat the most. And I can see why…I ate about five myself.

Plum_tree_with_fruitZwetschgen–plums–in the garden.


1/2 Liter flour

4 egg yolks

10-12 small potatoes

Stick of butter

A bit of sugar

1 cup coarse flour, like semolina (Grieß in Germany)

20 small Zwetschgen, of course–just normal plums in America


Cook and peel the potatoes, then mash completely until there are no more lumps. Let cool.

To make the Teig (dough), combine the cooled potatoes, egg yolks, flour, and a pinch of salt. It should be quite sticky.

Carefully cover each of the plums in a thin layer of dough–these are the Knödel (dumplings). You will need to cover your hands with flour first, or the Teig will get everywhere.

Place each of the  Knödel into a pot of boiling, lightly salted water. They are finished when they rise to the top. Remove with a slotted spoon.

In a large flat-ish pan, boil the butter, a bit of sugar, and the GrießPlace the Knödel into the mixture, a few at a time, and fry on high heat until they are nice and brown. Remove, and serve right away.

To eat Zwetschgenknödel in the proper German manner, cut each one in half and sprinkle liberally with sugar.

IMG_0343Ingredients for the Teig.

IMG_0344Wrapping the Zwetschgen.

IMG_0346Boiling the Knoedel. 

IMG_0348Frying in butter and flour.

IMG_0349Finished—ganz lecker!!

IMG_0369The top-secret recipe, translated above. : )

Travelogue VI: WWOOFing in Kulmbach

kulmbach st. petriKulmbach. With castle, of course. 

8. August, 2014. The amount of contrast this life affords is astonishing to me. Just a week ago I was drinking champagne, trying to figure out which fork to use in the cafe after the opera. And now I have dirt permanently stuck under my fingernails and have just spent the last eight hours cutting up cucumbers and stuffing them in jars. Wahnsinn.  

I’m currently in the tiny town of Kulmbach in Bavaria, working on a farm as a part of WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms). It’s an exchange program of sorts, where people travel all over the world and work for their keep on farms, gaining skills and networking and learning languages. We’ve had WWOOFers on and off at our place for years, and when it works it is an absolutely fantastic experience.

The couple I am staying with now spent the last five years WWOOFing themselves, in Japan and Serbia and Africa and Switzerland, and have just begun their own farm. They have a little of everything, and of course too much work to do–huge sprawling garden, orchard with plums and apples and pears, four pigs, fifty chickens, two donkeys, geese, dogs. When they moved in, the barn was falling in from decades of neglect, the garden hadn’t been tended in years, there were no fences or watering systems or cleared trails. They, along with a seemingly constant stream of WWOOFers from around the world, are just starting to take things back.


I’m thrilled to be here. I loved my month with the Wuerzburg program–dress up every evening, go to concerts and modern art museums, talk about Musil and Nietzsche while drinking wine on some gorgeous terrace somewhere, be refined and intellectual and decadent. But I love this too–dirt and animals everywhere, the electric fencer half taken apart on the kitchen table, neighbors dropping in with a basket of dill to talk in broad dialect about the excess of cucumbers.

And honestly, it’s what I know best. I’ve spent my Augusts in a farm kitchen since before I could walk. I can snap beans in my sleep.

IMG_0363Heinrich and Henrietta, plus a friend. Animals that have names don’t get eaten. 

Differences in atmosphere aside, though, here there is still this internationality that I find so staggering. Right now, we are four or five countries all together, all with drastically different worldviews and upbringings. That’s the wonderful thing about good people, though–that somehow it all works out in the end and the household runs smoothly and we have fun. I love the dynamism of it all, the fluid approach to language, where the conversation at dinner flows back and forth between English and High German and Finnish and Bavarian depending on who is trying to make themselves understood. Last night we sat around the fire and sang–I taught them all Irish drinking songs, and learned German folk tunes and a bunch of mournful dirges from Finnland. I explained to my hosts that a cruise and a crusade are not the same thing, and learned the difference between Teig and Teich and Lärche and Lerche. Tricky stuff, that.

IMG_0315Getting ready for dinner in front of the fire, sitting on sheepskins–eat with your hands. 

IMG_0335Afterwards, singing until midnight because tomorrow is a rest day and we don’t have to get up early. 

At this time of year on a farm, everything revolves around food. Breakfast is after chores at 8:30, with two loaves of fresh bread (wheat ground on the farm), one with raisins and one with pumpkin seeds–also cheese and pickles and blackberries and juniper syrup in tea. Then everyone leaves and I make 25 pounds of pesto while the bread-and-butter pickles started last night heat up to be canned. At 1pm it’s time for lunch, and the girl from Finnland fries carrots and beets while I make a cucumber salad–yoghurt, fresh mint, salt and pepper. There’s also chocolate zucchini cake and an apple pie with the first of the apples from the orchard. After lunch, someone brings an entire laundry basket of beans in from the garden, and we wash and snap and boil and freeze until 6pm, when it is time to get ready for dinner.  I make two platters of tomato, mozzarella, and basil leaves, with calendula blossoms on top for a garnish. My host’s little brother  shows me how to make Zwetschgenknödel for dessert, which are a sort of Austrian plum dumplings and absolutely delicious. We spread a feast in front of the fireplace, and eat the tomatoes with chicken roasted over the flames.

IMG_0309Vegetables everywhere–there’s even pumpkins, tomatoes, and basil growing in front of the farmhouse, as if the huge garden out back wasn’t enough.

IMG_0361Apple orchard. There’s almost too much fruit for the branches to support. 

The sheer abundance and richness of it all is staggering. Inside, baskets and barrels and cans upon cans of food, and outside a jungle of greenery and vines and fruit. The Garden of Eden.

IMG_0338The colors are brilliant. 



….And the infamous Zwetschgenknödel. Suuuuper lecker!!!