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


I have my favorite adventure buddy back, too!


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


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.


And there is ice cream. 🙂 

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Travelogue LXIX: Saint-Émilion



July 23, 2016 Last week we took the afternoon train to Saint-Émilion, a lovely little medieval village half a hour from Bordeaux, now entirely given over to the region’s wine industry. It’s full of steep streets and walls to climb. The church at its center is carved directly into a sandstone cliff.

Saint Émilion, as the story goes, was an 8th-century monk who took up residence in that same cliff long before the church existed. He soon gained the reputation of a miracle worker amongst the local villagers. After his death, he was buried under the cliff, and visited by pilgrims and travelers of all sorts. The monks who came after him founded monasteries on the spot, and brought with them viticulture, and so the village slowly took on form. Today, one has to walk a kilometer from the tiny train station to reach St. Émilion, and the place is surrounded by gorgeous sandstone Chateaus and rolling hills of vines.


Here, they plant roses at the end of every row in the vineyards. The plants serve as a sort of early warning system for the winemakers, as they are the first to show diseases such as mildew. Romantic and rather morbid at the same time.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe church tower is the high point of St-Émilion, and we were told it was possible to hike to the top if one had good enough French to ask politely for the key in the Office de Tourisme. Which we apparently did, and so we were given the key, and pried open an old wooden door and climbed up several hundred damp stone steps to take in the windy view from the top.

And then we came down, and drank a good deal of wine. Bordeaux is mostly known for the red wines, but we were taken with the Rosés. They range from the palest of sandy pinks to translucent ruby, and seem to glow somehow in their glasses.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe storefronts in St. Émilion are all brightly painted wood, set into the sandstone buildings. If we could have had a dime for every place that sold vin we could have financed the whole afternoon. And what wine! We saw bottles for 800, 1,000, 5,000, even 12,000 Euros–old, strange, rare vintages with names that said nothing to us, but would have said a great deal to Jonathan if he had been there, and did when I told him about them later.

“How on earth can anything taste good enough to be worth 12,000 euros?” I asked.

“It’s not about the taste of those wines,” he said. “Most of them aren’t particularly good after so many decades. It’s about the collection, it’s about the art-form. It’s like buying a Chevall window to hang up in your living room.”

By the end of the afternoon, we were slightly tipsy. We had to run to catch the last train to Bordeaux, and took a detour through the vineyards of a Chateau that may or may not have been private property, and ended up having to climb over a rather tall and very spiky gate. All as it should be.

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Travelogue LXXII: Terroranschläge


November 14, 2015

March 22, 2015 I’ve always reveled in the German language. Above all, it’s the words that draw me in–the sound of them, the feel of them, their sensuality, their potential for music and profundity. In my teenage years, learning German through a thousand hours of opera and later through a painstaking obsession with literature, I collected vocabulary like so many tiny works of art–toys, really, that I could take out and polish up and delight in.

My favorites: Dämmerung, Lenz, Gesamtkunstwerk, Leidenschaft, pfaublau, Rausch, Ausschweifung, Kastanienbaum, Lust. I can still hear those words in their places in the opera scores, see them on the pages of my battered copies of Musil and Hesse and Mann.

Living in Germany has added a whole new dimension to this loving-of-words. Here, I sit in my Weinstube and wonder at the way that Wein softens into Woi and schön into schee, in the melodious dialogue of the Pfalz. Words-on-a-page turn into real dialogue here, with faces and laughter on the other side of a glass of wine.

I can’t get enough.


January 8, 2015

But there are some words I never, ever wanted to learn.

Terroranschlag, for instance. Terrorist attack. Or worse yet, Terroranschläge, plural. There is no part of me that ever wanted to learn that word. But suddenly, one day last January it was all everyone could talk about. And a whole world of others soon followed.

Attentat. Assassination attempt. Razzia. Raid. Massaker. Massacre. Religiöse Extremisten. Religious extremists. Geiseln. Hostages. Sprengstoffgürtel. Explosive belt. Ausnahmezustand. State of emergency. Drahtzieher. Mastermind. Selbstmordattentäter. Suicide bomber. Radikalisierung. Radicalization.

And on, and on, and on. I kept a dictionary open in one computer window, the news in the other. My linguistic horizons expanded horribly overnight.

Those words show up nowhere in Wagner’s universe, or Musil’s, or Goethe’s. They are ugly–no beautiful playthings there, no sensuality. My cravings for vocabulary were replaced suddenly and shockingly by disgust.

And part of me says, I didn’t sign up for this. And another part of me, the part that marched with the protestors and photographed the memorials in Mainz and learned every damn word by heart in spite of the nausea, says yes you did.


January 17, 2015

But still, recently I was starting to forget, and the forgetting was sweet.

How ironic, that just when all that vocabulary was becoming a bit rusty through disuse, I sit at a computer in a sun-filled library on a Tuesday morning and remember everything all over again.

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Travelogue LIX: Gotland I: Cottage


September 19, 2015 My dear parents are visiting from Vermont, and the last stop on their journey is a week on Gotland, a tiny island off the coast of Sweden and home to the breed of sheep they raise on the farm back home. We’ve spent the last couple days driving from one gorgeous end of the island to the other, networking, gathering information, talking and talking with the farmers whose entire lives revolve around Gotland sheep.

I think I’m in love with the entire place. In many ways, it reminds me of Vermont–the strong connection to the Land, the agriculture-based community, the feeling of being a part of the natural world. But somehow it is all entirely different: the air smells like cow manure and fresh-cut hay, like Vermont, but also like the sea and like something damp and vitalizing I can’t quite place. There is a whole island mentality, too, which is new to me: the rich tourists who keep the place going aren’t flatlanders and city slickers, like they are in Vermont, but rather mainlanders. The people who don’t make their living on a tiny island in the middle of the Baltic Sea.


Our first meal on Gotland Island, thanks to a wonderfully kind friend of my mother's--rhubarb lemonade and Saffranspannkaka, a saffron cake made with almonds and raisins and served with fresh cream.

Our first meal on Gotland Island, thanks to a wonderfully kind friend of my mother’s–rhubarb lemonade and Saffranspannkaka, a saffron cake made with almonds and raisins and served with fresh cream. Dangggg.

And Lakritz.

And Lakritz, the tiny black cat who, exactly like Moses the Barn Cat at home, spends his days schmoozing off gullible tourists and trying to break into the guest quarters. Not that I have a problem with any of that.

We are staying in a tiny, white-washed cottage on a dairy farm, surrounded by climbing roses and a tangle of flowers and apple trees in desperate need of a good pruning. As I have written before, it is very strange to find oneself on the other side of agritourism for a change–especially for my parents, I think, who are normally themselves the working farmers with the guest rooms, courting curious strangers who want to experience “country living.” In the end, though, I think they are loving it. When we arrived, the barn was full of the sounds of chore time: cows, sheep, grain in buckets and milking machines in place. “We don’t have to do ANYTHING!” my mother said. “KICK BACK!” said my father. Strange, and somehow wonderful in a Schadenfreude sort of way, to be on a farm and simultaneously to not work.

Eating Saffron Pancake and NOT WORKING.

Eating Saffron Pancake and not doing chores.

The cottage.

The cottage.






So we, the leisurely paying guests from the mainland, unpacked the rental car and grilled Baltic salmon and watched re-runs of the Big Bang Theory dubbed into Swedish. The last time my parents took a real vacation from the farm, I was ten years old.

It's the best feeling in the world, SEEING livestock and not having to DO anything about it!

It’s the best feeling in the world, SEEING livestock and not having to DO anything about it!

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Travelogue LIII: Kulmbach

The courthouse on the town square, with the flags of Bavaria, Kulmbach, and Germany.

The courthouse on the town square, with the flags of Bavaria, Kulmbach, and Germany.

August 20, 2015 Before we head to Bayreuth, Katie and I are farm-sitting for friends in Kulmbach–sprawling stone farmhouse, beautiful views, pigs and gardens and physical labor and evenings in front of the fire. For me, it is a chance to get out of my head: I cook in the huge kitchen for hours every day, stack wood for the fire. There’s not much space to overthink things.

Today, we took a break from the work to spend a few hours downtown, along with the two other young ladies who are watching the farm with us.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAKulmbach, like almost every other tiny Dorf in northern Bavaria, is beautiful–not in a touristy, expensive way, but with the sort of effortless charm that reminds me of the villages in Vermont. We drank cappuccinos and then hiked up to the castle outside of town, in the rain, wearing wool sweaters. Autumn is almost here.

The inner courtyard of the Plassenburg, the local castle.

The inner courtyard of the Plassenburg, the local castle.


Farmers' day off: we all stopped a the café for coffee and ice-cream, thanks to a generous tipp from the young farmer who bought two piglets from us yesterday.

We all stopped a the café for coffee and ice-cream, thanks to a generous tipp from the young farmer who bought two piglets from us yesterday.

The clock-tower at the Lutheran church.

The clock-tower at the Lutheran church.



On the other side of the camera, for once. Thanks, Katie.


Kulmbacher Bier. Kulmbach, village that it is, is renowned across Germany for their breweries.

Kulmbacher Bier. Kulmbach, village that it is, is renowned across Germany for its breweries.

And perhaps best of all, there are mountains.

And perhaps best of all, there are mountains in northern Bavaria.

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Travelogue XXIII: Marc Chagall, Stephanskirche

IMG_11216. January, 2015. Just another lovely spot in Mainz–the Stephanskirche. I’ve been wanting to write about it for weeks, but held off to wait for clear skies. The sunlight makes the windows come alive.

The Church of St. Stephan was originally built in 990, on the highest point of land in the city. It was almost entirely destroyed on February 27, 1954 during an American air raid, and has slowly been rebuilt over the course of several decades. Today, the church is renowned for its nine stained glass windows created by Marc Chagall, one of the greatest Jewish artists of the 20th century.

Chagall’s story is one that can be told by dozens of European artists of his time–early renown in Europe, displacement by war, flight to America, observation of Europe’s self-destruction from afar, rebirth and recreation. He was a leading figure of early modernism and heavily involved in the Surrealist and Symbolist movements in Paris. Today, his large-scale paintings and stained glass can be seen in a Jerusalem synagogue, on the ceiling of the Paris Opera, in cathedrals in England, in the United Nations building, and on the stage of the New York City ballet.

The windows in Mainz are the only such pieces he created for a German church, and the last stained glass he created before his death in 1985. When he began work, he was 91 years old. He intended, he wrote, for the finished windows to serve as a symbol of Christian-Jewish unification, a gesture of rebirth after the ravages of World War II.

Today, some 200,000 visitors a year come to the Stephanskirche to see his work.

Mainz_Stiftskirche_StStephan_2810_RET_1024x768The windows turn the light in the church deep blue, with highlights of rainbow. One almost has the feeling of being under water and looking up at the sun.





For me a stained glass window is a transparent partition between my heart and the heart of the world. Stained glass has to be serious and passionate. It is something elevating and exhilarating. It has to live through the perception of light. To read the Bible is to perceive a certain light, and the window has to make this obvious through its simplicity and grace…

Marc Chagall



Details from two of the dozens of scenes from the Bible painted on the three windows behind the altar.

The Stephanskirche is in the Oberstadt (literally, the over-city), the part of town up on the hill and a little apart from the bustle of the center. It’s my favorite area in Mainz, full of slanty pathways and stone stair steps. Below, the walk back into the city.


Travelogue VIII: Plassenburg, Kulmbach


23. August, 2014 Yesterday, I walked down into the valley and up the other side, to the castle which is visible from the high fields here. The Plassenburg–on the outside, much more rugged and Medieval than the Festung Marienberg in Würzburg, but quite lovely and elegant within the walls.







Afterwards, I walked back down to the old city. I got entirely lost on the way, and ended up in the maze of narrow alleys and overhanging balconies and stone steps that seem to dominate the quieter parts of every small town in Bavaria.



IMG_0489…back on track!


Below, the town square, which I finally found–complete with mandatory cobblestones, outdoor cafe, fountain, Rathaus with wooden beer barrels in front, view of the castle in the background. I ordered a Milchkaffe and read Siegfried Lenz and looked at the Plassenburg.




And best of all, on the long treck back to the farm there was a cat.