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 XXIV: Nous Sommes Charlie Hebdo


11. January, 2015 Wednesday’s attack is in the air here in Mainz in a way that terrorist activity in a European city would never be in America. Here, it strikes closer to home. Paris is some four hours away from the German border–an entirely different country, yes, but in American terms it might as well be the neighboring state.

Every major German city has come together over the past several days to show their solidarity with the French people. In Mainz, there have been multiple demonstrations and memorials since Wednesday, some spontaneous, some planned by student and political groups. On Monday evening, there will be a demonstration against intolerance, racism, and hatred of all types at the train station, organized by a group of young people calling themselves Break the Circle. The Facebook page shows some 1,200 participants, myself among them.

Today, I walked into town and passed by the memorial in front of the French Institute–flowers, candles, comics, and signs with I am Charlie written in a dozen languages. There were pencils and pens covering the ground–so others could easily leave a message as well? As a symbol of the freedom of the written and spoken word? Powerful either way, I think.


I spent the whole afternoon in the city, and made my way back to the train station as the sun was going down. When I passed the French Institute again, I noticed a young Turkish couple, obviously Islamic, standing in front of the memorial. Very carefully, without disturbing the rest of the display, they were taking down the few comics showing muslim figures, crumpling them up, and carrying them to the trash can on the other side of the street.

This is a dialogue that is very much alive in Germany–you can feel it in the air, you can see it in the streets. And it’s good that way, I think.