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 LXVII: Academia

December 7th, 2015 I have been doing a lot of thinking over the last couple months about academia, as I prepare applications for the next step of my education. The whole process has been tinged with nostalgia–a Ph.D. in German Literature in the US is a wonderful thing, but it will mean leaving Germany, leaving a particular place and the particular people who have worked their way into the deepest part of my existence.

But the only way to live is to move forward. And so I have been writing applications like a crazy person and thinking about academia. There are many things I have learned to love about the German university–the freedom, the flexibility, the time and space. At the same time, I miss the the raw intensity of my education in the US, the unabashed willingness of the professors to make it personal, the passion of everyone involved.

While looking through various old documents, I came across something I wrote about the Writing Center at my undergraduate institution, a tiny liberal arts college in the Midwest. I had almost forgotten I had written it, squeezed in somewhere between my own frantic paper-writing and stacks of German flashcards.

I read it now, and I think, I want this again, this crazy fervor and passion-on-the-edge and raw love of learning. We were a community, not unproblematic and certainly not peaceful, but in the end all pulling together for beauty and for some sort of Truth. This this is why I am going back to America for my PhD; I want to fight for the existence of this environment for the rest of my career. There are very few things worse than apathy and cynicism, in my book.

So, here’s the Writing Center of small-town American academia. It’s not the sort of thing I usually post. But nostalgia is a part of abroad, too.

The heady academic jungle in Germany. 

Writing Center

You work in the Writing Center, and you love it.

The place is a little sanctuary in the ancient basement of the Old Student Union, full of MLA handbooks and half-drunk mugs of coffee and tea. The entire side wall is a blackboard, scrawled with thesis diagrams, pictures of phoenixes, and the usual quotes from Eliot and Shakespeare. Words, words, words. And the Fire and the Rose are one. During Finals’ Week some witty Latinist replaced the diagrams with a line from Virgil’s Aenead: Forsan et haec olim meminisse juvabit. And perhaps someday you will rejoice to remember even this.

You and the other tutors play at being half-psychologist-half-Socrates. You are only allowed to ask questions, absolutely no being “directive,” as the crazy bearded English professor who runs the place informs you. If the students cry on your watch, well then, that is their own fault and not yours. They should have started their papers earlier. He has no pity for criers, nor did he when he himself was an undergrad Writer Center tutor. Things were tough, back in the day.

When it comes to the tutoring sessions, you are quite run-of-the-mill. Tell me what you think about Odysseus, give me a thesis, what do you know about commas, have you considered that your textual evidence is worse than non-existent? Contrary to the bearded English Professor’s creed, you can’t help but feel sorry for the sniffling freshmen on their third all-nighter, twelve hours to go before class and only a half-cocked thesis to go on. You give them tissues, and remind them that they are here to engage in the lofty pursuit of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, not to lose their sanity over a looming C- on a lit paper. Such a line of argument, however, is rarely successful.

Some of your fellow tutors are more, well, novel in their methods. Isaac* manages to terrify every student who signs up for him, even the Honors’ kids, by conducting his sessions perched on the back of a chair while bouncing a tennis ball maniacally off the edge of the table–already balding at the age of 23, bow-tie disheveled, a bit wild-eyed, always smelling a little of pipe smoke and whiskey. Somehow he is able to turn each 20-minute session into a monologue on Eucharistic imagery in Hamlet (the topic of his honors thesis), whether the paper at hand is on Homer or Dante or twentieth-century aestheticism. You and the other tutors are awed and a bit frightened by his ability to do this.

When there are no students, you talk. Professors, grad school, Shakespeare Shakespeare Shakespeare. And Eucharistic imagery in Hamlet, of course. Lots of that. You know to stay away from the topic of women in academia, because you don’t want to hear again that your only options are getting married and raising a family. There is always someone being converted to Catholicism outside in the hall, or in the study rooms in the back. There are always debates on the validity of Cormac McCarthy, or Camus, or whoever happens to be the topic of the semester’s honors seminar. One night before Finals’ Week, someone reads the Ghost scene from Hamlet aloud. The time is out of joint….oh, that ever I was born to set it right. Each of you, this room full of ambitious, angsty literature students in love with the heady worlds of art or religion, feels like Shakespeare was talking to you when he wrote that.

~~~~~~

For an entire month at the end of every semester, the senior Honors students write their theses. They take up the four “cells” at the end of the center, the normally tidy blue rooms with just space to set a laptop. Now they are full of old pizza boxes, pipe tobacco, icons, prayer books, crucifixes, stacks and stacks of books–Elizabethan England, Aesthetics, Bonhoeffer, T.S. Eliot, The Sublime. Someone took the whiteboard markers and drew a hundred pictures of fat cats all over the glass windows. It was probably Jacob, who is rather obsessed with cats. The college-aged mind’s innate surrealism never ceases to amaze you.

During senior year, Mark has the most orderly cell. He, double major in Classics and History, buzzed up on gallons of bad free coffee from the Career Center across the hall, is having a FANTASTIC thesis writing experience. He informs everyone of this fact at least six times each evening. He is writing on Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer is AMAZING, EVERYONE should LOVE him, he CAN’T BELIEVE how brilliant he is, isn’t it WONDERFUL to be able to write such a thing as a thesis?? He finishes his final draft a week early. This is hard for the rest of the thesis-writers to stomach.

Isaac, the maniacal ball-bouncer, takes it particularly hard. Fifty pages behind, in disagreement with his adviser, he has started sitting under his desk because the lowness of the position matches the increasingly-penitential nature of the whole undertaking. He is desperately regretting giving up both cigarettes and beer for Lent. His various mutterings are becoming ever more incoherent.

“Chaos…chaos…why is my brain full of chaos? Why is every paper I write on Hamlet? Chaos, I tell you……”

Emma, the kindest of the tutors who bakes cookies for the weeping freshmen, is concerned. “Do you want consolation, or an answer? Or tea? How about some tea?” But there aren’t any clean mugs left.

He caves the night before his defense and smokes a cigarette, Lent be damned. This prompts an existential crisis the following morning, and a hasty trip to confession. But his defense is brilliant, and you tell him you think he is going to be fine. You are all going to be fine, actually, you say, after you have your last tutoring session of the year, and when you meet in the Center one last time after everything is over, to clean the blackboard and wash a semesters’ worth of stale coffee out of the mugs. You are all a bit haggard, from lent or theses or the looming prospect of finals.

But you will rejoice at even this. You know because you are already rejoicing.

 

*Names changed, personalities left as-is. 

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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One Year in Germany

July 1, 2015 It’s been a year in Germany, folks. Wahnsinn. Insane. I have had a thoughtful few days. Last night was a full moon, and I didn’t sleep.

What is this whole business of traveling and of living abroad, in the end? What on earth am I doing? Perhaps things are as T.S. Eliot says:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring 
Will be to arrive where we started 
And know the place for the first time.

We turn abroad to come home, to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to stay and to know and to love a single place. Or perhaps, conversely, Tennyson was right:

I am a part of all that I have met; 
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’ 
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades 
For ever and forever when I move.
h
To him, traveling is end-less, a process of insatiability, the great awakener of greed and curiosity and wanderlust. There is no such thing as home. We turn outwards to keep turning outwards.
h
Even after a year, I don’t know who is right.

And why Emily Abroad? Why take the pictures and tell the story? Here, I have more of a definite answer.

Firstly, I write because I don’t want to forget. The opportunity to travel and see the world is an absolute privilege, one I want to pursue with intention and with eyes wide open. Posting a thousand pictures to Facebook isn’t enough: I want to think in some tangible way, I want to ask questions and make connections on paper between land, people, and literature. I want, as I wrote nearly two years ago in my DAAD application, to ground my love of art in reality.

This all has practical grounds, too, of course. The great dream is to become a professor of German literature, and I want my teaching to be based in reality. This is the time for me to gather and record experiences, to build bridges that, one day, could be important for my students.

After all, if not now, when?

But there is another personal reason for Emily Abroad, perhaps for me the most vital. I have had problems for years with chronic pain, and writing, simply put, offers me the chance to tell my story without that pain. The chance to heal myself. When I write, “I hiked up to the castle on the mountain and it was glorious,” it was glorious, and the fact that I took breaks every 15 minutes to rest and force back tears of frustration is no longer important. Because I so don’t want to remember the pain.

Writing, then, is first and foremost catharsis.

Many people–and above all Germans, for whom the private sphere has an almost religious importance–have asked whether I truly feel comfortable living my life and travels in such a public way. But everything I write, as should be clear from the previous paragraph, is Selbstinszenierung–self-staging, self-production, self-creation. I write about real life, but the reality I present is told, is storied.

In this view of things, I take my cue from pop divinities like Lady Gaga, for whom the public life is purely art, and from certain French theorists (Foucault, Barthes) who preached the disappearance, the death, of the author through the very process of putting words on a page. In telling my own story I make the leap from reality to art and in so doing destroy my own presence in the work.

So, in the end, the Emily in the blog isn’t me–or maybe she is, actually, since storied reality is all we have. All history is only tale-telling, after all (Geschichte).

At any rate, it is the tension between poetry and truth (Dichtung und Wahrheit!) that creates great art. Not that I am creating great art, of course, or any sort of art at all. I’m just a girl from Vermont who likes to take pictures of things and then write about them. And that’s exciting enough.

So there it is. One year down, one to go. As I said, Wahnsinn.

And finally, an enormous thank you to everyone who has reached out to me–emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, professionally, financially–in the last year. A German author who spent time in the USA with the DAAD spoke in Mainz today about the isolation of living abroad, the loneliness and the feeling of being shut off from all practical support. I can honestly say that, while a certain amount of purifying isolation most likely always accompanies travel, the drastic alone-ness he spoke of has not been my experience. Far from it.

To name just a few people who have been there in some vital way: my family and grandparents, the Professor and the rest of the Hillsdale faculty, Dian, Aunt Sylvia, Ralf and Jutta, everyone from the farm in Kulmbach, the Komparatistinnen, Kodiak, Mikal, Valerie, Max, Annika and family, Madlon and Ulrich, Professors Lamping and Eckel from Uni Mainz, usw usw.

Thank you.

Travelogue XLVI: Kafka and Jazz in Prague

Franz Kafka memorial

Franz Kafka memorial.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJune 5, 2015 My first day in Prague was all Franz Kafka–the museum, his house and apartments, the monument to him near the Jewish Cemetery.

I was in some sort of strange over-excited mood all afternoon. “You’re shaking, Emily,” said Ralf at lunch. “You need to calm down and chill out. Take some deep breaths.” But I didn’t want to chill out. I’ve never been good at that, anyway, and especially not in the city of The Trial and The Metamorphoses and all those crazy, crazy stories….

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The house Kafka was born in, now a café. 

So, Kafka’s Prague. Unlike many of the intellectuals and artists of his time, he had no enormous international career–in fact, he hardly travelled at all, except for his stays at various sanatoriums and Kurorte. Even within Prague, his movements were limited–on a map, his various apartments and offices trace a tiny circle in the heart of the Old City and Jewish Quarter. Below, a few small impressions from my walks in the area.

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Absinthe, which is banned or not readily available in other European countries, is reveled in in Prague.

Absinthe, which is banned or not readily available in other European countries, is reveled in in Prague.

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Marionettes in the Old City.

A dude with a really big snake...

A bit surreal.

The city was hot, hot, the buildings and streets still releasing heat long after the sun went down. That evening, I went back to the Café Louvre–not to the light-filled upstairs salon I had eaten in earlier, but to the Jazz Club and bar downstairs. Dark rooms, red velvet upholstery, a woman in a black dress singing jazz standards, cocktails and red wine in between sets, the heat–it all had something of the cabaret about it, of old German films, and perhaps a bit of Steppenwolf, too.

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Travelogue XLV: Letters to Milena

Drinking tea--not absinthe!--and reading and writing in Cafe Slavia.

Drinking tea–not absinthe!–and reading and writing in Café Slavia.

June 5, 2015 Reading Kafka’s Letters to Milena in Prag–eight hours on the bus on the way here, now on the streets and in cafés until the entire city turns into a series of variations on his story.

It’s strange–as I move forward with my education in the field of literature, I find that my approach to books and reading is becoming ever more, well, academic, supra-personal, professional even. Mostly, this is a good thing, as I have always tended to personalize art to the extent of being completely incapable of talking about it in any sort of academic setting. I am pursuing the reading and teaching of literature as a career, after all, and I want to be able to do those things with as much professional integrity as possible.

But I don’t think I will ever be able to escape the personal-ness of Kafka. As I have written in the past, I can’t read his works any other way than the way I read books as a child: as something intensely private and intimate, as personal messages aimed right into the soul of the reader. With him, there is no wall between art and life. When faced with The Castle or his letters, all of my hard-won Literaturwissenschaftlerin-professionalism flies out the window.

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Café Louvre

So, the Letters to Milena. When they began writing, Kafka was 37 and she was 24, the translator of his works into Czech. They exchanged letters for three years, until some months before his death in 1924. She died twenty years later in a concentration camp in Germany, deported because of her involvement with Jewish and political refugees–yet another one of Kafka’s inner circle destroyed by the Second World War. It is perhaps a good thing that he never lived past the 1920s.

Like the diaries, Kafka’s letters are almost more intense than his novels and stories. To read them is to become a voyeur, an observer of the most private sphere of one distinctly troubled individual.

~~~~~~

Notes from my reading of the Letters:

Leere und Leidenschaft–emptiness and passion. Kafka’s great love and even greater fear of this girl–Mädchen, he calls her, not Frau–who is full of strength, courage, and vitality, and who is offering him a hand that he just can’t allow himself to reach out and take.

The closeness of love and pain. Kafka writes, Liebe ist, daß Du mir das Messer bist, mit dem ich in mir wühle. Love is: you are the knife I turn within myself. And Milena, as the editor suggests in the afterward, makes herself sick because he himself was sick–tuberculosis, hemorrhage of the lungs, coughing up blood in the night. She starts turning herself into him.

The eternal misunderstanding–you don’t know me yet, Milena, Milena, that was a silly joke which you did not understand–and the way in which Kafka is unable to translate words into physical nearness. At times one has the feeling that in some sick way he is reveling in the self-imposed, masochistic distance the pages of finely-crafted prose put between him and Milena. He loses himself in language and art so he doesn’t have to face reality.

In the end, I am undone by the Eros of Kafka, for the first time. Your hair on my brow, Milena, Milena, Milena, your lips turning towards mine in sleep… It really is true, as I once said to the Professor after trying and failing to understand Robert Musil’s Drei Frauen (Three Women), that you need to have experienced certain things in order to really read certain literature. Milena’s responses have all been lost, but at this moment, I think could have written her letters for her. I know what was in them.

Café Orient

Café Orient, empty this afternoon because of the heat.

And the backdrop to it all is the Prager Cafékultur. The city is full of cafés, many of which hosted (and still host!) Prague’s artistic and political circles. During his lifetime, Kafka was a regular frequenter of the cafés, of course, along with Max Brod and his entire circle of law students and philosophers. From the diaries and letters, it is possible to reconstruct the Cafékultur as he lived it: Arco, Slavia, Evropa, Louvre, and on and on.

The spaces are themselves works of art. Art Nouveau, Cubism, Jugendstil, and everything in between–polished table-tops, high ceilings, high windows with street cars racing by outside. Aesthetically, it’s all the polar opposite of the Mainzer Weinstuben I know so well, all candle light, dark wood paneling,  and tiny latticed windows with flower boxes, looking out onto cobblestones.

The Absinthe Drinker, a famous painting hanging in Café Slavia.

The Absinthe Drinker, a famous painting hanging in Café Slavia.

But here in Prague, even in the 21st century and on the brightest and most un-angsty of June days, you can almost still see them all–Franz Kafka, Max Brod, Smetana, Kubin, Werfel, Einstein, all drinking espresso and absinthe and talking about existentialism or theater or war or whatever else one talked about among geniuses at the turn of the 19th century. It’s heady stuff.

Much more to come.

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Café Slavia

Café Evropa

Café Evropa

Einem gewissen Mikal gewidmet, falls er dies mal lesen sollte. 

Travelogue XXXVII: Im Dachstübchen II

Carl Spitzweg, The Poor Poet

 April 6, 2015 My Spitzwegian life-under-the-eves in the Mainzer Altstadt continues. Here’s a tour of the inside of my new apartment, to satisfy all of you snoopy (I mean, curious!!) readers out there. 😉 I’m finally fully moved in, a process that took several weeks of back-and-forth and carrying suitcases up lots of stairs.

The entire apartment is exactly 14 square meters. That’s about the size of a large walk-in closet. But it’s incredibly efficient–there’s a bed/living room, a bathroom with a tub, two skylights and a dormer window, and a tiny kitchen. It’s rather like living in a Hobbit house, minus the cave part. Micro-living at its finest.

It’s super reflective of the German/European relationship with space, actually, which is entirely different than the American McMansion-and-four-door-sedan mindset. Here, less is more, and not just because there is so little space–I think people actually like it that way. One family I know, for instance, who own what would be considered in America a normal-size home for four people, actually turned the first two stories into apartments because it was too much space. That doesn’t happen all too often in the US.

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The spiral staircase (blue cast iron!) and balcony with room for exactly one person. And a cup of tea. It’s rather barren at the moment, but I am planning to install an entire forest of herbs as soon as it warms up enough.

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Many students in Mainz want to live in the Neustadt (New City)–it’s super hip, Mainz’s “little Berlin,” full of bars and clubs and funky places to eat. Apartment prices are lower, and the entire neighborhood caters to the student life. But there, you can’t sit on a balcony every and drink tea and listen to the bells in the Augustinerkirche.

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Coats and Caspar David Friedrich.

Also, when I was putting together these pictures, it struck me how many absolutely fantastic people have contributed to the apartment in small or large ways, and, really, to my entire existence in Germany. Thanks, guys. Not to get too sappy, but I wouldn’t be here without you.

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The beautiful Persian rug is on loan from a friend, as is the desk. The host father of another friend of mine helped me with the move, which included re-locating a wooden wardrobe from the 5th story of an apartment complex to a room at the top of a spiral staircase, and his wife is sewing me curtains. People are amazing.

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A farewell present from Sissy from Finland, a fellow WWOOF-er on the farm in Kulmbach.

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The Kitchen.

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Mugs from the Christmas Markets in Germany, glass from a dear friend in Vermont, and champagne–a birthday gift–from my host family in Mainz.

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“I think somebody up there likes me.”

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Lentil-Coconut milk curry on the stove. Drop spindle and wool from home, books (Reclam FTW!!), Kandinsky poster inspired by an afternoon with the German Expressionists in Munich, and daffodils bought from the local farmers’ market. In a Jägermeister bottle, of course. Also, you know you aren’t in the country anymore when you have to PAY MONEY for flowers, people.

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I bought a tiny bust of Goethe IN Goethe’s house in Weimar. It doesn’t get much more awesome than that, even though he looks super grumpy.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo, there it is. I’m super proud of it, actually, if you haven’t picked up on that already. My first apartment–another step on the road to adulthood. I got my first electricity bill yesterday and just about passed out. It was only for 20E, but, I mean, I got an electricity bill. There’s no going back from there.

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Best of all, the trees outside my window have bloomed.

Travelogue XXXV: Goethe

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The dining room

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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.

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Faust was written at that desk.

Johann_Joseph_Schmeller_-_Goethe_seinem_Schreiber_John_diktierend,_1831

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 XXVIII: Hier bin ich Narr -or- Hermine ist in der Hölle

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An explosion of color after four months of gray.

February 17, 2015 I am fascinated by the Apollo-Dionysus dichotomy–it’s one of the most pervasive themes in German literature, brought to philosophical expression by Nietzsche in his Birth of Tragedy from 1872. Apollo, he says, is the Greek god of sun and lyre, reason, clarity, self-control, thought, sanity, the Word. Dionysus is his opposite: darkness, sensuality, insanity, debauchery, intoxication, unbounded ecstasy. German literature asks, How to bring the two together? How to find a balance, a Gleichgewicht, a middle road between two extremes? Too much of the one leads to sterility and lifelessness, too much of the other to insanity and dissolution. Look at the works of Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann, for instance: so many of their characters fail or succeed, live or die by their ability to bring Apollo and Dionysus together without destroying themselves and others.

The famous Tanz auf der Lu (Dance on Ludwigsstreet). A live band, thousands of costumed revelers of all ages dancing on the streets, from Schillerplatz all the way back to the cathedral.

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Karnival–Fastnacht–is the working-out of that dichotomy in German society, on the streets instead of in art. Five days of pure Dionysus–it’s the balance found, the other half of the equation. Most of the time, as the stereotype goes, German society is driven by Apollo: reasonable, orderly, efficient, rigorous. But then there’s Fastnacht, when all that goes out the window. For five days, the whole city goes mad–no holds barred, Dionysus is Joker und Bacchus, and all the rules are broken. It’s what the Greeks experienced during the great national performances of their tragedies: ekstasis, catharsis. The Self as a rational, autonomous element dissolves into the Whole.

And it is not just the students, the young people who would be out partying anyway–it’s everyone. The four-year-old with his hair dyed green screaming “Helau!” at the parade, the 70-year-old couples in the Weinstube in the Old City, singing and beating on the tables. And everyone else: there’s thousands of revelers on the streets at night, dancing and drinking and throwing the wine bottles on the ground instead of in the recycling bin. You see it in the city, too, normally so neat and orderly: the bus schedule is hopelessly screwed up, everything is color, and the streets are covered in streamers and glitter and green glass Jägermeister bottles.

I found it all incredible. This, the presence of Fastnacht in society, is the balance, the Gleichgewicht, which Faust and Gustav Aschenbach and Harry Haller tried and failed, perhaps, to find.

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“Here I am a fool”–spoofing on Goethe’s Faust. “Hier bin ich Mensch”–“Here I am human.”

It all reminds me of the famous scene from Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, “Hermine ist in der Hölle”–Hermine is in hell. Harry Haller the Apollonian gives himself over to Dionysus for a night of excess, frenzy, and sweat-soaked dance in the pit of hell. It’s not an entirely untroubling scene, but it is a moment of transcendence, and the Steppenwolf emerges with a sort of redemption.

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Ludwigsstreet, before the start of the dance.

I was on the tram headed into the city on Saturday afternoon. It was full to bursting, and the sun had come out for the first time in what felt like weeks. Someone had brought a boom box, and the entire train turned into a party, giddy people jumping and dancing and trying to pour shots of Jägermeister and singing at the top of their lungs:

Eins kann uns keiner nehmen, und das ist die pure Lust am Leben. There is one thing nobody can take from us, and that is the pure love of life.

Of course Fastnacht has problematic aspects–the police presence in the city skyrockets by necessity, and my main concern on the bus on the way home Monday night was not getting barfed on. But moments like the one on the tram transcend.

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Kreppel, aka Berliner, aka Jelly Doughnuts. Only available in Mainz during Fastnacht.

Naturally, though, it is not all insanity and merrymaking. Like the theater in Germany, nothing here can ever be merely entertaining. A key element of Fastnacht in Mainz is politics–political commentary, critique, satire. The floats in the big Rosenmontag parade are all of a political nature, some quite scathing. Many of them I didn’t understand fully, since my knowledge of local politics is not exactly up to snuff. But international politics featured as well….

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Obama the sitting duck.

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Invasion of the Chlorine-Chicken. Lol.

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The Rosenmontag parade.

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And there it was. Fastnacht in Mainz, in all its Dionysian glory. I was downtown this evening, and the city crews were already at work, sweeping thousands of pounds of glittery trash off the streets and taking down the stages. It was entirely melancholy, actually.

I don’t think I could take more than one carnival a year, but it was very good while it lasted.

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Selbst Johannes Gutenberg hat mitgefeiert!