Travelogue XXXIV: Sonnenaufgang in Mainz

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March 24, 2015 I arrived back in Mainz at the crack of dawn this morning–street sweepers, crowds of pigeons at the train station, too early for church bells. I dragged my luggage down the cobblestone street and up two flights of stairs, waking up approximately the entire neighborhood in the process, threw it all in the apartment, and walked down to the Rhine for the sunrise.

It was wonderful being home, back in Vermont for the first time since last June. My family is amazing. I doted on the cats and lit fires in the fireplaces and ate my mother’s phenomenal cooking. I missed Germany, though, more than I miss Vermont when I am here.

I mean, there were actual swans on the effing Rhine River, and as the sun was rising all the bells in Wiesbaden started ringing. WHAT. 

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Guten Morgen, Mainz!

Also, spring came to Germany while I was gone. When I left Vermont yesterday morning, it was -3 degrees (-19 Celcius) without the windchill, hard-packed, dust-gray snow on the ground that hadn’t melted since it fell last November. Here in Mainz, the almond trees are blooming and there are daffodils everywhere. I went down to the water in a light jacket and scarf, and there was a real heat to the sun’s light. A pair of mourning doves have started making a nest above the gabled window across from mine.

As I walked back to my apartment, the bells in the Mainzer cathedral started ringing. It’s almost Easter. Sie feiern die Auferstehung des Herrn, denn sie sind selber auferstanden…

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I shall spy on Beauty as none has spied on it yet. Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire

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Travelogue XXXIII: Humans of Vermont

Vermont is full of extraordinary people. The Green Mountains seem to attract the hardiest and uniquest of souls–both those who have been born and raised here, and those who have chosen to make a life in the state. The Vermonters remind me a more than a little bit of so many of the Germans I have gotten to know, actually, especially during my time on the farm in Kulmbach–politically liberal and socially open-minded, intensely practical, environmentally conscious, slightly hippie and invested in sustainable living, and with a deep love of language and tradition and place. It may take a good five years before the old timers will accept a newcomer, but once they do the friendships are deep and lasting.

In Vermont, especially, I am fascinated by not only how people live, but where–what physical objects they surround themselves with, the type of structure they choose to live in. There are our neighbors Hannah and Dave, for instance, who lived in a school bus for years while building their off-the-grid bungalow with a wall of glass windows facing into the mountains, or Joe and Bob from down the road, who raised a family in an octagon-shaped home made of rough-hewn granite with storage space for the cider press and barrels of maple syrup. And so many more.

Below, a few of the other people I have had the privilege of getting to know during the last two decades, and the spaces they call home.

IMG_3191Justine, Montpelier, Vermont: ninety-one years old, shepherdess, reader of storybooks and teller of tales. Before she moved full-time to her Montpelier apartment, my siblings and I spent countless afternoons on her falling-down farm in Northfield. She fed us tuna fish sandwiches and ginger ale floats, and we fished the dead mice out of her pool before jumping in in our underwear. She taught us all to knit, and we spent hours digging pieces of old china out of the creek bed at the bottom of her field. Her collection of ancient silver spoons was delightful, and my sister and I picked different ones for our ice-cream each time we visited. When my brother was born, she knit him a sweater with her own wool, still a bit stiff with lanolin, bits of hay spun into the yarn.

Her apartment, where she has lived alone since the death of her Latin-teacher husband a decade ago, is full of the mementos of a long and full life–turn-of-the-century artifacts, photographs and old books, pressed flowers and butterfly wings.

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The windowsills of Justine’s farmhouse were always full of her findings–smooth stones and feathers, seed pods and colored leaves. She has carried on the tradition in her apartment.

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The tapestry is a family heirloom from the 1780s, a scene from Shakespeare’s Henry VI.

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Her windows overlook the dam on the Winooksi River. “The river is different every time I look out the window. Isn’t that wonderful?” she said.

Dian and Tom, Chelsea, Vermont: I met Dian during the hottest afternoon in July three summers ago. My mother had dragged me into town to watch our stand at farmers’ market and I was doing a poor job of it–half dozing, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain propped open in my lap. All of the sudden, Dian was standing in front of me. “Do you like that book?!” she said, and then we talked about Mann for half an hour on the commons in downtown Chelsea, population 800. Sometimes life is awesome like that.

Dian is an actress with a degree from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, an author and journalist, a painter, director, dancer, and erstwhile sword-fight choreographer. Her husband Tom writes and illustrates children’s books and plays his own compositions on the old upright piano in the bedroom.

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Their home–The Palace of the Artists–is a restored camp, with colorful doors and an adjoining studio and windows looking into the birch woods and the mountains. It is full of their own artwork and beautiful objects collected during a lifetime of world travel. In the back yard, there’s a little gypsy wagon, where you can sleep in the summer.

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Dian’s studio and study.

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One of Tom’s two loft-studies–“This one’s for writing my books, and the other one is for looking at my stocks,” he explained. (photo: Anna)

Travelogue XXXII: Inside the Studio

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMarch 15, 2015 My family owns a sheep farm and Bed and Breakfast Inn in the backwoods of Vermont. I grew up making beds and serving meals to guests from all around the world who, along with the hundreds of thousands of others who make up Vermont’s tourist industry, travel to the state to look at leaves or ski or learn about sustainable living. The constant presence of The Public on our farm means that the place has to be spic and span during the busy months–flower boxes on the porch, mowed lawn, the rusted-out farm truck banished to some back-40 field drive or another.

Our beautiful studio in the barn, too, is quite presentable during the summer months. It’s the seat of the farm store, where we sell yarn and fiber from our animals, and the space we use to teach classes or host visiting weavers and felters. There’s always something going on–a wine tasting or a children’s camp or an open studio day of some sort. My mother runs a tight ship, and the studio is usually an orderly and welcoming place.

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Photographing yarn for the online store, with the help of Moses.

In the winter, though, that all goes out the window. It’s the off season–no Public, since only the hardiest of guests want to stay on a farm on dirt roads in the middle of winter. That means that the studio no longer has to be orderly. It becomes the workroom for new projects and patterns, a storage space for boxes of yarn and raw fleeces in plastic bags waiting to be sent off to the mill in the spring. It’s half photography studio and half construction zone, full of inventory waiting to be shipped or listed online, and a winter’s worth of odds and ends and new ideas which will be brought to fruition when the weather turns warm again and the guests return.

That’s winter in Vermont, though–taking stock, resting, waiting, planing for the return of the warmth and the work of the summer. And despite the mess, the studio is still an absolutely fascinating place.

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Carding combs.

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Samples knit with patterns designed specifically for our yarn.

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Drop spindles, waiting for the next introduction to fiber arts course.

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A mural from past years’ children’s camps.

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Moses claimed one of the felted purse samples for his own.

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Looms in storage.

…And then back out through the barn, full of grain sacks and lumber and tractor pieces and bikes. Outside, though, everything is clean and white. It has been snowing more or less constantly since I arrived.

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Travelogue XXXI: Home

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Oh rhythm of my heart is beating like a drum
with the words “I love you” rolling off my tongue

No never will I roam for I know my place is home
where the ocean meets the sky
I’ll be sailing

Rod Stewart

It’s almost surreal: two days ago I was drinking chai tea in a cafe across from the Mainzer cathedral, watching the stone turn red in the setting sun and the theater fill up with people. And now I am sitting in front of a fire in a drafty farmhouse in the middle-of-nowhere Vermont, where the air permanently smells like sheep manure and the farmers are just starting to tap the sugar maples. The terms of human existence are different here–dirty rubber boots and vet visits instead of European philosophy and champagne at the opera–but equally as beautiful. And in the end, it’s the life I know best. I was a bare-footed farm girl long before I knew the heady, complicated world of German literature even existed.

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Headed home from the airport in Boston over Route 110–one of the prettiest drives in the state and, actually, in the world.

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The state is full of Covered Bridges….

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Will’s Store in Chelsea, VT, my home town–they make superb homemade ice-cream with a machine that dates back to before the first World War. Also, I saw more flags on the drive home than I saw during 8 months in Germany. America is a patriotic place; Germany is absolutely not.

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South Royalton Food Co-op, twenty minutes down the road. We stopped to pick up some bread to go with dinner.

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The pictures on the wall are of the farmers who stock the store—Buy Local at its best.

Country roads, take me home
To the place I belong.

John Denver

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Home at last: the grand view of Grand View Farm.

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Moses the fat barn cat. (photo: GVF)

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Chore time. (photo: GVF)

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Starting seeds in the Greenhouse. Note the snow drifts on the left-hand side–it’s over two meters in places.

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The view from my bedroom window.

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Wood fires.

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I haven’t seen the stars in months. It is good to be home. (photo: Anna)

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Nota Bene: Photos credited to Anna were taken by my insanely talented sister. 

Photos credited to GVF were filched from our farm website

 

Reading List II: Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer, Die Farm in den Grünen Bergen

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The Zuckmayer’s farm was near Silver Lake in Barnard Vermont–it looks about the same today as it did in 1940.

 Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer: The Farm in the Green Mountains, 1949: part memoir, part diary, part fascinating account of rural life in 1940s Vermont, the state I grew up in. I’ve been slowly reading it since Christmas, mostly on the train between Mainz and Frankfurt. And, check it out–it’s even available in English!

The authoress Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer was an actress in Berlin in the 1920s, where she met her husband. Carl Zuckmayer was a prominent author and playwright from Mainz, where he is still quite a point of pride–I’ve seen his plays at the Mainzer Staatstheater, and gone to an exhibit about his life at the local library. They fled Germany with their two daughters in 1939 and, after a short stint in New York City, acquired a run-down farm in Barnard, Vermont. They were upper-class Europeans and artists, utterly without prior experience in farming or rural life, but they somehow made it all work.

In many ways, minus of course the exile and the upper-class-European-artist part, it’s the story of my parents, who also moved to Vermont decades ago to raise a family and start farming from the ground up, through trial and error and sheer force of will. I spent the first 18 years of my life on our sheep farm and Bed and Breakfast outside of Chelsea, another tiny village not all that far from Barnard. It’s a small world.

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The rams’ shed on our farm after a snowstorm–cosy and picturesque, sure, but not fun if you’re the one who needs to bring them water twice a day.

I can understand so much of what Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer writes in the book–these are things that haven’t changed at all in the last century in Vermont, things I know every time I go back to visit. The sounds an old post-and-beam farmhouse makes when it gets cold, for instance, or the way the snowplow rattles the windowpanes at 4am, the way that all travel slows to a crawl during Mud Season, the vow that you make to yourself every year on slaughtering day to never eat meat again, the way you structure a day around caring for animals, what it means to make a living with your hands on a small piece of land that you own.

We seem to have traversed much of the same ground, too–she spends an entire chapter describing her monthly pilgrimages to the libraries, theater, and art galleries of Dartmouth College in Hannover, New Hampshire, that ivy-league sanctuary in the middle of the sprawling Connecticut River farmlands. I spent my teenage years driving an hour and a half over bad roads to sit in those same libraries, to look at the art and to attend live broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. To me, as to Alice, Dartmouth College was an oasis, a mecca, super-saturated with the sort of refined intellectual and artistic beauty that struggles to find a place in any rural landscape.

Above all, though, it’s the people I recognize most from her descriptions. The Vermonters–they haven’t changed a bit in the past century, and probably never will.  It’s all the same: the liberal politics and tough-as-nails self-sufficiency, the immediate and lasting suspicion of anyone not born in the state, the willingness to impart copious free advice at all hours of the day and night, the fierce devotion to place, tradition, community. She writes, “Vermont is a relatively poor state in comparison with the rest of America, but they do not shy away from their poverty, and they do not love wealth. Their autonomy and sense of balance grants them independence even in the most uncertain times, and gives them their sense of pride and fearlessness.” Indeed.

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Mud Season, Vermont’s fifth season, at its best–the road that runs along side our farm last April.

On the other hand, though, there are many things I do not know at all in the world Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer describes. What it feels like to leave one’s family behind forever, or to live in a land of peace and plenty while one’s homeland is being torn apart by the bombs of the very country in which you have found shelter–I can’t say that I can relate to all that. And yet it was the experience of so many thousands of European intellectuals and artists from Alice’s generation, men and women who left Europe to start new lives in Los Angeles or New York, or on a farm in the backwoods of Barnard, Vermont.

With all that in mind, what has lingered with me the most after reading is the strength of Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer herself. Reading between the lines, it’s clear that she was the driving force in the family, and a vital support system for her husband who would rather have been back in Europe writing books and directing plays. It was because of her great will that her family was able to pull together in a new land, and because of her energy, curiosity, and good humor that they were able to thrive. That’s true heroism, there.

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!