Locus Amoenus V: Geisenheim

Locus Amoenus, Latin: the lovely or pleasing place. A common trope in Ancient Roman literature, usually a garden or woodland–a spot of inherent safety, comfort, and striking 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.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAApril 2, 2017 This time, the locus amoenus I am writing about isn’t my own, or not directly at least. It’s Jonathan’s–his tiny apartment in Geisenheim, where he studies viticulture and has lived on and off for the last seven years. In the time that I have known him, I’ve come to love the place, too. Now, he is beginning the long process of tearing it all apart, because he’s going to be leaving everything at the end of the summer and moving to California to be with me as I work towards my degree. It’s all thrilling, of course, but difficult: How does one fit 30 years of life into a few suitcases and set off for the other side of world? 

These sorts of processes are harder for Jonathan than they are for me. I love packed bookshelves and art on the walls, but a part of me has always been equally thrilled by minimalism. It’s exciting, and easy, for me to pare down everything to a suitcase, to give away and leave behind, and just go without it all.

Jonathan, however, is a materialist in the richest sense of the word. He revels in the feel and shape and smell of the physical, in beautiful and useful things, in collecting and saving and creating. His apartment is packed with stories as told by objects, full of leather and paper and wood and green growing plants. There is a record player, and a tiny glass still for making gin. There is a dark wood cabinet that folds open to reveal a collection of matching tumblers and wine glasses. There are small wooden drawers full of vials of seeds, rainbow-colored tin, pocket knives, sealing wax. There are boxes and boxes of old letters and photographs.

All of these things are a part of him, and I love him for it. But they all make the leave-taking so much harder. Almost none of this will make it to California, at least not at first. So I took my camera during my last visit to try to capture a bit of it. I wanted to try to get the feel of this lovely place onto film before he, or actually we, pack up, leave all this, and start something new.

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Locus Amoenus III: Bahnhof-Romantik

Locus Amoenus, Latin: the lovely or pleasing place. A common trope in Ancient Roman literature, usually a garden or woodland–a spot of inherent safety, comfort, and striking 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.

Berlin

Berlin.

November 27, 2015 Germany has a love-hate relationship with trains. The Deutsche Bahn (German Train) is as much an identity-shaping part of the  culture as good alcohol and soccer, but seems to always have some sort of bad rap–too expensive, chronic delays, the strikes. When I first arrived, I was surprised by the amount of general complaining, since to any [American] outsider it all seems to be a miracle of efficiency and expansiveness. After a year and a half, I’m still in love with it all, although I can now complain with the best of them, too. I swear, if they cancel the S-Bahn one more %$#@ time….ich meine, echt jetzt, Leute.

Before coming to Germany, I had been on exactly one train in twenty-two years. Now, I don’t know how many weeks of my life I have spent in train stations, in trains–the S-Bahn to Frankfurt for the opera, slow scenic trips up the Rhine, exotic voyages across country that span an entire day, flying in a window seat in the high-speed express. For me, all complaining aside, the German train station is quickly becoming another Locus Amoenusa space particularly charged with meaning and, yes, beauty, in a pigeons-and-diesel sort of way. A retreat, comforting through its known-ness.

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Farewells.

The stair of chocolate.

The stair of chocolate.

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Time.

In a sense, all train stations are the same: mythological Orte, artistic spaces, paradox. Places dedicated to not staying in one place, the great stationary enablers of all travel and adventure. They all rely on the same visual symbols, the same aesthetic and sensual building blocks that make up so much of my experience with travel.

Hamburg.

Hamburg.

There are always, for instance, young couples bidding farewell by means of a full make-out session next to the high-speed trains.

There is always a contingent of punks sitting on the ground outside the station, listening to music and smoking and wearing black shirts that say “Refugees Welcome!” or “Fuck Nazis!”.

There are always enormous advertisements for Ritter Sport chocolate that only serve to make me regret my own lack thereof.

There are always book stores where I can stand and sneak-read National Geographic in German, waiting for the connection to Heidelberg or Berlin.

When I stand at the tracks at night, I always fight off the literary fear that I will board the train and the darkness outside the windows will turn into an endless tunnel and I will never, ever get out. Thanks, Dürrrenmatt.

And somewhere, it always, always smells like urine.

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Exhaustion.

Frankfurt

Frankfurt.

For me, somehow, none of those things ever get old, and probably will never get old, no matter how many hundreds of times I have stood in a particular train station and printed my ticket and ran for my connecting train. To someone who spent a childhood in a rural landscape where life moves at a snail’s pace and people stay put, the sheer sense of movement is like a drug.

There’s the thrill of departing: push the dirty “Doors Open” button with the back of your hand and leap into the unknown, haul your suitcase into the train and defend your window seat against all comers.

And the thrill of arriving: perhaps to someplace entirely new, which is its own sort of rush, to buy a city map and drag your suitcase and your exhausted self to some cheap youth hostel or another, and to look at the most ordinary of things with 100% delight and awe just because you have never seen them before. Or perhaps to someplace known: back home in Mainz, for instance, or to a particular small sunlit city on another river, to catch the 54 or look for your lover’s car, to get back to your apartment and make tea and rest.

None of it ever gets old.

In the S-Bahn.

In the S-Bahn.

Locus Amoenus II: Theater

Locus Amoenus, Latin: the lovely or pleasing place. A common trope in Ancient Roman literature, usually a garden or woodland–a spot of inherent safety, comfort, and striking 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.

Staatstheater_Wiesbaden_foyer028Foyer of the Staatstheater in Wiesbaden, just over the Rhein. 

Like the farm kitchen, the first of my personal loci amoeni I wrote about, the theater is no Vergilian garden–but a spot for me equally as transfixing, equally as bound up with memory and childhood and beauty. Like the kitchen, the theater is something that transcends all cultural boundaries: the moment before the curtain goes up or the conductor comes on stage is always the same, whether one is in Munich or in some drafty town hall in Vermont.

My love of the theater started when I turned 15, and began working as an usher in the next tiny town over. The Barre Opera House–certainly no Baroque jewel, but it had white molding and red velvet curtains and four box seats (no one sat in them anymore, but they existed!). To me, it was an entirely enchanting place. I would always work the balcony so I could use the secret spiral staircase in the wings, and lean out over the polished wooden railings, and pretend that I was in Vienna in 1791 for the premiere of Mozart’s Magic Flute. I loved the audiences, too–the aging, tenacious contingent of small-town Vermonters who could talk with equal ease about the local milk prices and the symphony on the program. Most evenings I had the feeling I was the only one in the place younger than 75, and I collected compliments from old men wearing immaculately pressed suits that must have been new sometime in the late sixties. There where two operas a year, and I remember driving home after Le Nozze di Figaro through the worst blizzard of 2008, drunk on Mozart for the first time in my life.

Writing of his own childhood, Thomas Mann says, “I can never forget the hours of deep, solitary happiness in the midst of the theater crowd–hours full of horror and delight of the nerves and intellect, of insight into things of the most vast and moving significance, such as only this art affords.” He, as always, gets it just right.

6758627-Staatstheater_Mainz_MainzStaatstheater in Mainz, with weekly market. 

Still, America–and small-town New England above all–isn’t really made for theater-goers. Once we got older, my sister and I went to a handful of operas and plays a year, usually traveling over an hour and paying 35$ or more for a spot in the cheap seats. I called up the opera houses every year to ask about student discounts, but never got anywhere.

The difficulties come in large part from the  infrastructure behind the arts in America, which has a distinct air of precariousness. Funding usually comes from audiences and donors alone: if no one buys the tickets, the theater closes its doors. On one hand, such a close relationship between the audience and stage is good–on the other, however, the entire set-up keeps ticket prices high and stifles the creativity of directors and actors. One need only look at the Metropolitan Opera, currently on the verge of bankruptcy due in large part to the “risky new productions” (read: non-traditional, moderately avant-garde) brought in by the new manager Peter Gelb.

IMG_0725The Alte Oper in Frankfurt. The inscription reads, “To the True, the Beautiful, and the Good.”

In Germany, the entire system runs on different terms, and better ones, I think. This is truly the land of theater: every small town has at least one, and an opera house, and a symphony to boot. The amount of productions even the smallest of theaters is able to put on over the course of a season is staggering to me. For instance: at the Staatstheater in Mainz, certainly no metropolis, there will 78 performances of some 30 different works in December alone, spread between several different stages and often performing simultaneously with one another. In America, such a vast program would be inconceivable anywhere other than a very large city. Here, between Wiesbaden and Mainz, two small towns within ten minutes of each other, I could go to the theater every night for the next two years.

The financial precariousness is entirely removed, too: even the smallest theaters in Germany receive hefty funding at the state or municipal level. It’s part of the mentality–being able to go to the theater in one’s own town is a point of pride, a vitally important facet of local culture and identity. At an artistic level, this financial situation means that almost anything goes on stage, for better or for worse (mostly for better, in my opinion). Directors can be as trashy or shocking or ground-breaking as they wish, without worrying about offending the sensibilities of a conservative audience. And for students, it’s an absolute windfall. With my card from the University I can see anything in Mainz for free, and get front-row tickets at pretty much any other theater in Germany for 4-8 €.

IMG_0741Schedules for the next month, hanging above my desk…

And so I go to the theater. There’s a sort of rhythm to it all–dress up, look at train schedules, run to the station and read on the train, wait in line at the box office, look around the city a bit during intermission (intermissions in Germany are long, because EVERYONE has to drink a glass of Sekt [champagne] and eat a Brezel!), rant about the whole thing on the way home. It’s exciting, and utterly new.

Staatstheater_Kaskadenbrunnen0106Staatstheater in Wiesbaden by night.

Some highlights of the past two weeks:

Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (or Nora in German, because Puppenheim just sounds weird). In Frankfurt, where we gawked at the sky scrapers and tried without success to find Goethe’s house. The production: shattering, minimalistic, with spotlights shone directly into the audience and rock music turned up too loud. It’s Germany; everything’s designed to make you uncomfortable. It’s astonishing to me how a work some 150 years old can be so relevant.

Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, performed in the local museum in a room full of frescoes and statues from ancient Greece. Mahler is absolutely wrenching live.

Elfriede Jelinek’s brand-new Rein Gold in Wiesbaden. Jelinek is insane; I’ve been obsessed with her ever since my professor told me I must on no account, read her novels, because they were borderline pornographic filth. She’s everything I love about German literature: edgy and hard-hitting, willing to ask the hardest of questions. Rein Gold was a Bühnenessay (Stage-essay; the first of its genre according to the authoress)–a witty, often disturbing meditation on Richard Wagner’s Ring, taking up the themes of capitalism and heroism in modern Germany. Lots of references to the current political situation that I didn’t understand, lots of references to Wagner that I did.

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!