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 LXXIII: Spring

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Mount Belchen in the Black Forest in southern Germany, where I spent Easter.

Osterspaziergang

Vom Eise befreit sind Strom und Bäche
durch des Frühlings holden belebenden Blick,
im Tale grünet Hoffnungsglück;
der alte Winter, in seiner Schwäche,
zog sich in rauhe Berge zurück.
Von dort her sendet er, fliehend, nur
ohnmächtige Schauer körnigen Eises
in Streifen über die grünende Flur.
Aber die Sonne duldet kein Weißes,
überall regt sich Bildung und Streben,
alles will sie mit Farben beleben;
doch an Blumen fehlt’s im Revier,
sie nimmt geputzte Menschen dafür.

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A view into the Black Forest from the local castle ruins.

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Staufen

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAKehre dich um, von diesen Höhen
nach der Stadt zurückzusehen!
Aus dem hohlen, finstern Tor
dringt ein buntes Gewimmel hervor.
Jeder sonnt sich heute so gern.
Sie feiern die Auferstehung des Herrn,
denn sie sind selber auferstanden:
aus niedriger Häuser dumpfen Gemächern,
aus Handwerks- und Gewerbesbanden,
aus dem Druck von Giebeln und Dächern,
aus den Straßen quetschender Enge,
aus der Kirchen ehrwürdiger Nacht
sind sie alle ans Licht gebracht.

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Dialect: Wein (wine) becomes Woi in Mainz, Wii in Staufen

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Brunch

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASieh nur, sieh! wie behend sich die Menge
durch die Gärten und Felder zerschlägt,
wie der Fluß in Breit und Länge
so manchen lustigen Nachen bewegt,
und, bis zum Sinken überladen,
entfernt sich dieser letzte Kahn.
Selbst von des Berges fernen Pfaden
blinken uns farbige Kleider an.
Ich höre schon des Dorfs Getümmel,
hier ist des Volkes wahrer Himmel,
zufrieden jauchzet groß und klein:
Hier bin ich Mensch, hier darf ich’s sein!

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust I

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Spring

 

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Travelogue LXVI: Herr, es ist Zeit

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Herbsttag / Autumn Day

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Herr: Es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß. / Lord, it is time. The summer was immense.

Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren / Lay your shadow on the sundials

Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren / Lay your shadow on the sundials

und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los. / and let loose the wind in the fields.

und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los. / and let loose the wind in the fields.

Befiehl den letzten Früchten reif zu sein / gib Ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage / Bid the last fruits to be full; / give them two more southerly days

Befiehl den letzten Früchten voll zu sein / Bid the last fruits to be full

gib Ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage / give them two more southerly days,

gib Ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage / give them two more southerly days,

dräng sie zur Vollendung hin und jage / die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein. / press them to ripeness, and chase / the last sweetness into the heavy wine.

dräng sie zur Vollendung hin und jage / press them to ripeness, and chase

die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein. / the last sweetness into the heavy wine.

die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein. / the last sweetness into the heavy wine.

Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr / Whoever has no house now will not build one anymore

Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr / Whoever has no house now will not build one anymore

wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben, / Whoever is alone now will remain so for a long time,

wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben, / Whoever is alone now will remain so for a long time,

wird lesen, wachen, lange Briefe schreiben / will stay up, read, write long letters

wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben / will stay up, read, write long letters

und wird auf den Alleen hin und her / and wander the avenues, up and down,

und wird in den Alleen hin und her / and wander the avenues, up and down,

unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben. / restlessly, while the leaves are blowing.

unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben. / restlessly, while the leaves are blowing.

Rainer Maria Rilke

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Travelogue LXV: Venice II: I am Venice

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“If one wanted to travel to somewhere incomparable, to a fantastic mutation of normal reality, where did one go? The answer was obvious. What was he doing here? He had gone completely astray. That was where he wanted to travel.”

San Marco.

San Marco.

October 20, 2015 It’s been over a week since I have been back from Venice, and I still don’t know quite how to write about it. The weirdest, loveliest, most contradictory place I have ever been in, yes–but what does that even mean? Venice is the most improbable (unwahrscheinlichste) of all cities, Thomas Mann says.

The trip was the third in my series of Mann pilgrimages (Munich and Lübeck down, Davos still to go!), another working-out of this strange drive to live art that seems to dominate a good deal of my existence. In this case, the work behind it all was Death in Venice, the novella from 1911 that was my introduction to the author. Aging writer Gustav von Aschenbach travels to Venice, falls in love with a beautiful child, and destroys himself: Thomas Mann’s perfect irony played out against a heady backdrop of Nietzsche and Wagner and Plato and, of course, the city itself.

The flag of Venice.

The flag of Venice.

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“Can there be anyone who has not had to overcome a fleeting sense of dread, a secret shudder of uneasiness, on stepping for the first time or after a long interval of years into a Venetian gondola? How strange a vehicle it is, coming down unchanged from times of old romance, and so characteristically black, the way no other thing is black except a coffin….”

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“‘The signore wants to go to the Lido.’ ‘But not with you!’ ‘I row you well.’ True enough, thought Aschenbach, true enough, you will row me well. Even if you are after my cash and dispatch me to the house of Hades with a blow of your oar from behind, you will have rowed me well.”

Sam Marco Doge Venice

Winged lions at the Doge’s palace.

My first impression of Venice was one of beauty, pure and simple. I had the uncanny feeling of walking through a painting, all day, every day, through some stirring landscape of teal-blue water and delicate bridges and white marble facades fading into the morning haze. But it wasn’t unproblematic: in Venice, there is no escape from the aesthetically lovely, and it all therefore becomes incredibly exhausting. In Germany, there is always an escape–you can leave the Old City behind after a few blocks and find yourself surrounded by Aldis and 1950s apartment complexes. You can’t do that in Venice, however, and the constant in-your-face presence of so much gorgeousness is somehow wearing. Human beings aren’t meant for paradise.

And at the same time, too, Venice’s beauty is always backed by the Absurd. The gondolas are packed with baseball-cap-wearing Americans and selfie-stick-wielding Japanese. You can buy knock-off plastic carnival masks and knock-off Gucci bags and knock-off everything else on every street corner for five euros. Loveliness is exploited for money, illegally, and when the police walk by all the hawkers leap up at once from whatever square you are on and run, scattering fake Gucci bags behind them.

Even the aesthetic of the city itself, in the end, is flawed on closer examination: the lagoon stinks, even in October, and the marble facades are streaked with pigeon shit and crumbling into the water. The whole place is sinking.

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“Well, I shall stay, thought Aschenbach. What better place could I find? And with his hands folded in his lap, he let his eyes wander in the wide expanse of the sea, let his gaze glide away, dissolve and die in the monotonous haze of this desolate emptiness.”

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The Grand Canal.

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“Never had he known the joy of language more sweetly, never had he known so clearly that Eros dwells in the Word…”

But I fell in love anyway. Mit Erstaunen bemerkte Aschenbach, dass der Knabe vollkommen schön war. With astonishment, Aschenbach saw that the boy was perfectly beautiful: Where else in the world could that astounding sentence, which I am convinced is one of the most important in all of art, have been written? The breaking-in of beauty and Eros in Aschenbach’s life had to happen in Venice; it’s the only city unwahrscheinlich enough to sustain that level of passion.

And at the same time, Venice IS Mann’s definition of artistic creation, of art itself: beauty and transcendence backed by the suspect, by something just slightly nauseating and improper. Being in the city was like seeing Death in Venice, and maybe the entirety of Thomas Mann’s opus, from the inside out.

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“He fled from the crowded commercial thoroughfares, over bridges, into poor quarters. There he was besieged by beggars, and the sickening stench from the canals made it difficult to breath. In a silent square, one of those places in the depths of Venice that seem to have been forgotten and put under a spell, he rested on the edge of a fountain, wiped the sweat from his forehead and realized that he would have to leave.”

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Goldmund and I couldn’t decide if the water was blue or green, or both, or neither.

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“It is well that the world knows only the beautiful work and not also its origins, the conditions under which it came into being; for knowledge of the sources of an artist’s inspiration would often confuse readers and shock them…When Aschenbach put away his work and left the beach, he felt worn out, even broken, and his conscience seemed to be reproaching him as if after some kind of debauchery.”

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And so I walked the city for hours at a time, without a map, entirely lost, in some sort of Mann- and Venice-induced half-stupor. The place was full of tourists even at the very end of the season,  but it was shockingly easy to get away from it all: to take two turns off the beaten path and find oneself entirely alone next to some shady canal, with some black gondola gliding by. They really are silent, as Thomas Mann writes.

On the third day we went to the Lido, the island next to Venice where Death in Venice takes place, and lay on the beach in the sun and looked at the waves and were extraordinarily happy. Even there, though, the atmosphere around us was strange, melancholy somehow: long empty stretches of sand, bathing houses already battened down for the winter, only a few stragglers in the water. We were nearly the only guests at the sea-side café, where we split a pizza and put on our coats and scarves after the sun went down.

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Above, live music in the cafes at San Marco. Below, the Grand Hotel des Bains on the Lido, where Thomas Mann stayed in 1911, fell in love with with the 11-year-old Polish Baron Adzio Moes, and began writing Death in Venice on hotel stationary.

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“The lulling rhythm of this existence had already cast its spell on him; he had been quickly enchanted by the indulgent softness and splendor of this way of life. What a place this was indeed, combining the charms of a cultivated sea-side resort in the south with the familiar ever-ready proximity of the strange and wonderful city.”

On the last afternoon in Venice, which I spent alone, I ducked into a store off of some tiny side-street and found myself surrounded by lace and paper mache and hanging dark brocade: a carnival shop, a real one this time, no plastic here. A young man around my age sat at a work table painting filigree onto a row of masks. Diamond stud in one ear, dark hair, paint-stained apron. I saw the piece I wanted to buy as soon as I walked in: the half-mask of Commedia dell’artes Columbine with the Phantom’s hand over one eye, two figures in one, the coming-together of male and female and dark and light. “Did you make this one, too?” I asked the young man at the table after I had made my purchase. “No,” he said, “that was my father. Do you want to know the story behind it?” And so he spent the next thirty minutes talking to me about making art and living in Venice, pulling down masks from the wall to show me the different techniques, talking about the Commedia and carnival revelries and showing me his tiny boat parked in the canal outside.

“There is nothing for a young man in Venice–nothing for me here,” he said as I was collecting my things to go. “The entire city is for the tourists. If I want to go out or dance I have to go to the mainland and take a taxi. It is very hard to live here; in the past 25 years three-quarters of the population have left.” “Why don’t you leave, then, too?” I asked. “Because I am Venice,” he said, and then a gondola-load of tourists came into the shop, and I took my purchase and got on the vaporetto back to the apartment and Goldmund, and was very much content.

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“A sacred, deranged world, full of Panic life, enclosed the enchanted watcher, and his heart dreamed tender tales. Sometimes, as the sun was sinking behind Venice, he would sit on a bench in the hotel park to watch Tadzio, dressed in white with a colorful sash, at play on the rolled gravel tennis court; and in his mind’s eye he was watching Hyacinthus, doomed to perish because two gods loved him.”

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“For Beauty, dear Phaedrus, only Beauty is at one and the same time divinely desirable and visible: it is, mark well, the only form of the spiritual that we can receive with our senses and endure with our senses. For what would become of us if other divine things, if Reason and Virtue and Truth were to appear to us sensuously? Should we not perish in a conflagration of love, as once upon a time Semele did before Zeus?”

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“He sank down on one of the seats, deliriously breathing the nocturnal fragrance of the flowers and trees. And leaning back, his arms hanging down, overwhelmed, trembling, shuddering all over, he whispered the standing formula of the heart’s desire–impossible here, absurd, depraved, ludicrous and sacred nevertheless, still worth of honor even here: ‘I love you!'”

All quotations from Death in Venice, translated by David Luke.

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