Travelogue LXXIII: Spring


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


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.



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




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.



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





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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Travelogue XXXVI: Ostern

April 5, 2015 I went to the Easter Vigil Mass at the cathedral in Mainz. It was the first time I had ever seen the place full: every seat taken, people standing in the isles, kneeling in the side chapels. I sat high up on the steps at the back of the nave–the only free spot I could find. Some two thousand people around me, I calculated. And I thought, If this really was the people of God, if these all were really men and women seeking to live each day in accordance with the teachings of Jesus Christ, all the complications of organized religion aside, what a power that would have. But Germany is a secular country, and even the believers are fallen.

The service began in blackness. How is it possible that such a crowd can be so silent? Even in the darkness, you can feel the vastness of the cathedral around you. Great stone buttresses like the trunks of trees, high gothic arches receding into black. It’s an eerie and pregnant space. I think of all the scenes in German literature that play out against such a backdrop–the sermon and the single light in Kafka’s Trial, the organ music in Hesse’s Demian.

Here, suddenly, a voice in the darkness: Tonight, death dies. Darkness falls away before the power of Light. Behold the Lamb who was slain, behold the King, the Redeemer of the world who comes clothed in light as in a robe. And the procession begins–the Mädchenchor (Girls’ Choir), altar boys, the Kardinal flanked by officiants bearing the insignia of church and city. At the front, a single candle lit from the fire in the courtyard outside. Light slowly spreading–first to the candles in the archways, then on to the steps leading up to the altar, then to the thousands of candles in the audience. From where I am sitting, from above, it looks as if the congregation is lit from within. Verklärung. Transfiguration.

Mädchenchor and organ–pure, uncanny music. But when the congregation sings, the entire building resounds. They can hear us in the streets. Two thousand voices: Do you deny Satan and the powers of Darkness? I deny. Do you believe in Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary, who in this night conquered Death and Darkness and who sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty? I believe. Amen. 

The service lasts for three hours. The feeling of release, of lightness, when the mass is dismissed is immense. The bells are ringing midnight; it’s clear and cold. Christus ist auferstanden. Christ is risen.

On Easter morning, the sun is shining. Aesthetically, the mass in the cathedral is the carbon-copy of last night’s–sunshine through stained glass, undisturbed joy, incense rising to the heavens. The officiants are wearing embroidered robes of pale gold. No more eerie Mädchenchor–there’s a full choir and orchestra, rows of trumpets.

Oh death, where is your victory? Oh grave, where is your sting? Sanctus Sanctus Sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth. Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua. Holy Holy Holy Lord God of hosts. The heavens and the earth are full of your glory. 

The service closes with Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus.

Afterwards, I think: This is why, no matter how far I may yet turn from traditional piety in my life, I will never, ever be able to denounce Religion fully, to wish it away, to pretend that it never existed and has no power. There is such beauty and wonder in this, such majesty, and the world needs more of that. Now the earth was formless and empty and the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the deep; what was dead will now live; the Kingdom and the Glory and the Power forever and ever, amen–there is such a majesty and power in those words, and in the Story behind them. Religion as a maker of Myth, of beauty and reverence and art–there will always, always be a place for that.

After the service in Mainz, the streets are full of people. I walk back home along the Rhine Promenade, and there are children everywhere and picnics and champagne. Wir feiern die Auferstehung des Herrn, denn wir sind selber auferstanden. We celebrate the resurrection of the Lord because we ourselves have arisen. Goethe, Faust.

Travelogue XXXV: Goethe


Goethe and Schiller

March 28, 2015 I am in Jena for the national DAAD-conference and, in an entirely irresponsible move, skipped out on half of of the second day to visit Weimar, the city of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. There will always academic conferences, but there are only so many opportunities to visit Goethe’s actual house.

So, Goethe. He’s what Homer was for the Greeks and Shakespeare for the British–an irresistible and towering figure, the shaper of language and form and art. The last Genie, my professor always said. Everyone with even the most dilettante interest in German literature has had some sort of formative encounter with him, I think. For me it was Werther, which I checked out of the library at age 16 and with which I immediately fell in love, and then Faust, of course, torturously deciphered during my third semester of German. My seminar spent half a semester on the work, and I paced up and down outside of the classroom building for an hour before each session, German dictionary in hand, reading out loud in a bad American accent until it seemed like every line was permanently engrained in my consciousness. It’s inescapable, that work.


Spring in Weimar

Today: Weimar was clean and beautiful, full of light and blooming trees, and also a bit unsettling. The entire place was marked by the same cult-like atmosphere I experienced two summers ago in Bayreuth–a whole city given over to a single great man (or rather two great men–Friedrich Schiller also commands a good deal of attention). Genie becomes marketing ploy, selling-point, the foundation of a booming tourist industry. The entrance to Goethe’s house was efficient and commercialized–streamlined white registration desk, 8.50E for a student ticket (!!), trade your passport for an audio guide in 20 languages, stand in line to check your bags in the back. It was somewhere between entering the Holy of Holies and going through the TSA at the airport.

The Museum, in a building next to the house, was especially shrine-like–the normal objects of a long and full life preserved with relic-worthy care, behind class in darkened rooms. Goethe’s traveling cloak, mitten (just one), microscope, embroidered suspenders, used-up pens, and on and on and on. It, and of course the house itself, was full of tourists even in the off-season, standing in line to take selfies in front of his desk and to get a glimpse of the room he died in. A bit unheimlich, that.

But somehow, though, it was all extremely fitting. Goethe was a god even during his lifetime, and the pilgrimages to Weimar began almost as soon as he moved in. The selfie-taking tourists are part of a tradition that goes back some two centuries, and includes many of the world’s greatest political, artistic, and intellectual luminaries. Everybody, it seems, wants to see Goethe.


Before I even got to Goethe’s home in the city, though, there was his Gartenhaus, the tiny cottage in the middle of the Stadtpark along the banks of the Ilm river. Goethe was 27 when he came into possession of the house–his first, and a gift of Duke Carl August. It was easy to see the appeal the surroundings had for Goethe at that time–this was the landscape of Werther, published just three years before, of Empfindsamkeit and Romantik and Sturm und Drang. The cottage itself was modest and evocative–inside, scrubbed wood floors, shelves of books, windows opening into green, and outside, all of the Nature of Goethe’s early poetry. According to the guide in the cottage, Goethe’s nightly skinny dipping in the Ilm, hardly more than a creek, inspired his rapturous poems to the moon.


The Ilm

An den Mond

Füllest wieder Busch und Tal
Still mit Nebelglanz,
Lösest endlich auch einmal
Meine Seele ganz;

Breitest über mein Gefild
Lindernd deinen Blick,
Wie des Freundes Auge mild
Über mein Geschick.

Jeden Nachklang fühlt mein Herz
Froh- und trüber Zeit,
Wandle zwischen Freud’ und Schmerz
In der Einsamkeit.

Fließe, fließe, lieber Fluß!
Nimmer werd’ ich froh;
So verrauschte Scherz und Kuß
Und die Treue so.

Ich besaß es doch einmal,
was so köstlich ist!
Daß man doch zu seiner Qual
Nimmer es vergißt!

Rausche, Fluß, das Tal entlang,
Ohne Rast und Ruh,
Rausche, flüstre meinem Sang
Melodien zu!

Wenn du in der Winternacht
Wütend überschwillst
Oder um die Frühlingspracht
Junger Knospen quillst.

Selig, wer sich vor der Welt
Ohne Haß verschließt,
Einen Freund am Busen hält
Und mit dem genießt,

Was, von Menschen nicht gewußt
Oder nicht bedacht,
Durch das Labyrinth der Brust
Wandelt in der Nacht.

(English here)


Haus am Frauenplan

Although he never sold the Gartenhaus, Goethe moved in 1782 to his home on the Frauenplan in downtown Weimar, where he would live until his death in 1832. He was involved in every step of the extensive renovations he set in place in the original building–drawing plans, importing statues, hanging his own drawings on the walls, picking the paint in keeping with the color theory he had developed, and even overseeing the construction. He had enough energy for several lifetimes, that Goethe.


Goethe as classicist: his custom-designed, built in doormat. “Salve” means “Hello” in Latin. It doesn’t get much cooler than that in my book.


The grand staircase

Goethe’s close connection to antiquity was evident in every room–his whole house, actually, is a sort of monument to classical art. Goethe imported paintings and extensive plaster casts of  the ancient statuary he had seen during his travels in Italy. They were to serve as inspiration, he wrote, and as objects of his own classical studies, a way to keep the Ancients accessible in a world before photography and internet encyclopedias.


The dining room


The Juno room, where Goethe hosted concerts with some of the greatest composers and performers of the early 19th century.

Goethe’s study was one of the last rooms on the tour, and one of the only ones guests aren’t able to enter–it has been left more or less untouched since his death in 1832. Around the corner, his massive personal library, some 5,000 volumes in worn covers crammed onto high shelves. In the study, his famous writing lectern (he didn’t like to spend too much of each day sitting), quill pens, plants on the windowsills. I think the few moments I spent looking through the door will stay with me for quite a long time.



Faust was written at that desk.


For comparison’s sake: Johann Joseph Schmeller’s famous portrait of Goethe in his study, 1929/31. I was there, people.

Finally, the room Goethe died in, on March 22, 1832–not one of the huge, majestic halls upstairs, but a small corner bedroom near his study. He was sitting in the chair when he died, attended only by his daughter-and-law Ottilie. His last words, according to his doctor, were “Mehr Licht!” (“More light!”).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd then, after all of that, I took the S-Bahn back to Jena, where 500 of the world’s brightest, nerdiest young academics, representing 59 countries and hundreds of fields of study, were having a disco party.

Travelogue I: Munich

KandinskyWassily Kandinsky, Häuser in München, 1908 

 11. Juli, 2014 Arrived in Munich with the high-speed train at 6pm. The group left on a walking tour, and I took a taxi into the city for dinner. “I’m looking for a cafe somewhere near the Odeonsplatz,” I told the cab driver. “Cafe Tambosi–das wollen Sie bestimmt!” he answered. “It’s where you go to see and be seen in Munich.” So I went to Cafe Tambosi on the most beautiful square in the city and sat under a linden tree, and drank Riesling with my Pasta Aglio, and read Kafka’s diaries until it was too dark to see.

tambosi-odeonsplatz_0Cafe Tambosi, outdoor seating overlooking Odeonsplatz

12. Juli, 2014 I went into the city again early, to find out how to get a rush ticket to a new play by Elfriede Jelinek on in the Residenz that evening. Afterwards, I heard music, and walked behind the box office to find a rehearsal of the Staatsoper orchestra for an open-air concert that evening. It was pouring rain, and I sat on a ledge under some ponderous marble overhang and listened and got mostly soaked. And then who should come out but Diana Damrau herself, wearing a scarf and coat because of the cold, to sing Strauss Lieder and joke with the conductor about the abysmal weather.

Strauss’ Morgen, Diana Damrau

IMG_0069There she is!

What a city–everything is here, the beauty, culture, refinement–and the people who can afford to take it all in, coming to see and be seen, walking from Odeonsplatz to the opera, shelling out 8 euros for a glass of German Sekt in some rococo gem of a restaurant. I feel almost guilty to be loving it, to be able to be here in the first place. In the Middle East, people are blowing each other up. Back home, the farmer down the road, who is hardly older than I am, has probably been spreading manure for the second cut hay for the past two weeks. And here I am drinking tea in a cafe by the Hofbraeuhaus for 4.50 a cup, after having heard Diana Damrau sing Strauss. I went to the ladies’ room, and the sinks were all pink marble–polished gold fixtures, floor-to-ceiling mirrors.

IMG_0078Taking a break to read on the edge of a fountain in some inner courtyard of the Residenz–no one around. Note that the “carvings” on the walls are painted on–the effects of the war are still very much felt here, especially in the architecture. 

13. Juli, 2014 Shatteringly good theater last night. FaustIn and Out: a new work by Elfriede Jelinek, Austrian avant-garde at its most brutal. Typical for her,  the play was hard-hitting, dirty, sometimes pornographic–but also more philosophical and less unrelentingly naturalistic than Die Klavierspielerin (The Pianist), the other novel I have read by her. The plot was based on that horrible story from the news a few years ago: Austrian man keeps his daughter locked in the basement for 24 years, rapes her repeatedly, fathers 7 children, burns the stillbirths in the household oven. Jelinek’s take unfolded as a series of monologues, or arias, by the two characters in the story, sometimes lasting up to 30 minutes–not just a conversation between father and daughter, but between man and woman, Faust and Gretchen (the whole thing was full of Goethe quotes), perhaps above all between God and man. The daughter’s rants were sorts of prayers, addressed to a father who was God, Lord, redeemer, creator, and also a monster. Is the God we believe in a God who rapes us instead of loves us, who holds us captive in a windowless cellar, while only he is allowed to be free? etc. The penultimate word of the drama was “Freiheit” (freedom) à la Goetz von Berlichingen, shouted triumphantly by the father offstage. The daughter, looking out at the audience, replied quietly, flatly, in English: “What?”

FaustIn-and-out-the staging

The space itself was beautiful, which jarred rather harshly with the content of the play–Cuvilliés-Theater, inside the Residenz–completed in 1753, destroyed during WWII and then restored and reopened in 2008. Mozart premiered his Idomeneo there in 1781. We were up in the highest loge, in a box, chairs pulled up to the silk-covered edge of the balcony.


Afterwards a glass of cold Valpolicella at Tambosi. Long discussion of women in German literature, home very late.

14. Juli, 2014 Back in Wuerzburg, which seems very small and comforting in comparison to Munich. Yesterday was all modern art, at the newly-restored Lenbachhaus, a Florentine-style villa built in the late 1800s as the private home of Franz von Lenbach and acquired by the city of Munich in the 1920s.



Exhibition notes: stunning collection of Der Blaue Reiter, the German expressionist group from the early 1900s I fell in love with while researching for a paper on silent films last year. Brilliant, explosive, bright colors everywhere–for me, at first very hard to reconcile with the fractured and apocalyptic artist statements I listened to as part of the audio tour. Kandinsky, my favorite: playful and horrible at the same time, especially in the more abstract works. Exuberant on the surface–but underneath there is often something nightmarish. Not so brutal as Anselm Kiefer, say, but still marked by a feeling of impending immolation. In that way, not so different from the final chapters of Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain. 

kandinsky-improvisation19Kandinsky, Improvisation 19

Art today is moving in directions of which our forebears had no inkling; the Horsemen of the Apocalypse are heard galloping through the air; artistic excitement can be felt all over Europe – new artists are signalling to one another from all sides; a glance, a touch of the hand, is enough to convey understanding. Franz Marc, 1912

Kandinsky_-_Composition_VI_(1913)Kandinsky, Composition VI, 1913

The more frightening the world becomes… the more art becomes abstract. Wassily Kandinsky

8930072872_c3fa9e83ac_zKandinsky, Impression VI, 1911

The rest of the museum was noteworthy as well, with an extensive collection of very contemporary pieces as well as a wing of rooms from the original villa, rich and decadent and notably free of Blaue Reiter angst:




…And one more photo below from the after-1945 wing, which I can’t resist posting because German museums are insane. SM club meets modern art?? Viewers encouraged to participate, according to the placard. lol.


…and just for the sake of NOT ending on that note, here’s the gorgeous interior of the Theatinerkirche on Odeonsplatz:

So, there was Munich, in 48 hours. We were back in time to catch Germany’s victory in World Cup soccer. Air horns, fireworks, German flags, people singing in the streets…..

Anreise und erster Tag

Hallo hallo! Viele schöne Grüße von Deutschland! I apologize for the delay–internet is hard to come by here. K.H. and I arrived in Frankfurt at 9am Germany time, which felt like 3am. We found the rest of the group and traveled with the highspeed train (first class!) to Würzburg, in a weird mixture of exhaustion, exhilaration, and overstimulation.

The city is gorgeous. It is surrounded by wine farmers and lies on the banks of the Main river. The downtown area sits across the river from the Marienberg, a fortress built in the Middle Ages. Here is a picture of the view from the train, coming in:

And here is the place where we dined (and wined!) the first night, previously an old brewery. The restaurant was on the bottom floor, with high-backed chairs and low ceilings. One could quite easily imaging Goethe there, drinking beer and writing Faust…

Note the date the place was built on the above photo….

…And unfortunately my computer is out of battery. Much more later!  Tschüs!