Travelogue LI: Kulmbacher Bierfest


Rock those pink Lederhosen. Tracht–traditional dress, which in Bavaria consists of Lederhosen and Dirndl–is still very much in style.

August 3, 2015 I spent the weekend on my favorite organic farm in Kulmbach, a tiny Dorf in the heart of the Bavarian countryside. We weeded and harvested and chopped and canned and pickled, and then on Friday evening went down to the local Beer Festival.

As I have written before, the part of Germany I am living in is the land of wine–to the South and West, along the banks of the Rhine River. The cities are full of Weinstuben, and in the summer there is some Weinfest or another on almost every corner, with lights strung up in the vineyards and rows of champagne flutes and wine glasses, fancy French pizza and slices of Zwiebelkuchen.

Here in Bavaria, however, the Weinkultur is replaced by Bierkultur: a little more insanity, a little less inhibition, and a lot more of what looks to my mostly-vegetarian eyes like enormous portions of raw meat. No champagne flutes here–you drink from a Maßkrug, a glass mug that holds an entire liter of beer. And you dance, not on the ground in front of the stage like normal people, but on the tables.

A tent full of some 2,000 euphoric, Maß-drinking Germans dancing on picnic tables to Schlager is a sight to see. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Inside the Bierzelt (Beer Tent).

Inside the Bierzelt (Beer Tent).


The band interrupted itself every five minutes so that the entire hall could sing the ultimate German drinking song–Ein Prosit, ein Prosit der Gemütlichkeit!–mugs in the air, cheers all around.


Germans are not particularly well-known for their party dancing skills, but they have Schunkeln down pat–link hands with the friends or strangers next to you, sway back and forth until somebody falls off the bench or the next Prosit comes around.


Dapper Tracht-wearers.

After the sun went down, I went back to the festival without my camera, and danced on the tables with strangers and sang along to all the Schlager, and also to Sweet Caroline for good measure. Good times never seemed so good, and all that. The pure joie de vivre in the air was absolutely redemptive. 

Travelogue XLVIII: Johannisnacht


Cabaret in Mainz  during the Johannisfest.

June 20, 2015 Summer is the time of festivals in Germany. It seems like every town has one, or several, from the tiniest Dorf to the largest city–a weekend of live music and dancing and wine (or beer, depending on which part of Germany you are in) and all sorts of unhealthy-but-delicious German culinary specialties.

In Mainz, there’s the Johannisnacht festival at the end of June. Things are a little different in Mainz than in the rest of Germany, I think–a bit more intensive, all-encompasing, more Dionysian perhaps. The Fastnacht spirit isn’t just limited to a couple weeks in February.

In Würzburg, for instance, the yearly Kiliani Festival takes place outside of town, on neat and properly contained fairgrounds. In Mainz, the Johannisnacht takes up half the dang town, with the bus schedule screwed up for days and the entire Inner City full of stages and lights and stands selling cocktails and bratwurst. And the Meenzers know how to throw a party–some 250,000 people attend the festival over the course of four days, despite the pouring rain and semi-arctic temperatures this year.


One of the hundreds of local vineyards who set up a stand for the weekend...

One of the hundreds of local vineyards who set up a stand for the weekend…

Schlager behind the cathedral.

Schlager behind the cathedral.

Music plays an enormous role at the summer festivals. At the Mainzer Johannisnacht, there are four main stages and dozens of concerts over the course of a long weekend–from oldies and brass band to rap and hip-hop, and everything in between.

And Schlager. The Schlager concerts are inescapable. The genre is distinctly German–kitchy, danceable, inescapably catchy pop ballads with roots that go back to the operettas of the 1920s and 30s. Many of the songs sung today date from the 1950s or earlier and have been re-written and re-mixed and re-sung hundreds of times in the ensuing decades. Like Country Music in America, the texts are mostly about drinking and falling into and out of love, but also about the simple, unadulterated joy of being alive. The world of Schlager is full of schöne Tage (beautiful days). In the words of one Fastnacht hit, 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 joy of life…

And everyone knows all the words, it seems. During the Johannisnacht, one has the feeling that half of Mainz is standing in front of the stage, young and old alike, singing and crying and smoking and drinking beer and dancing in that awkward-but-infectious way that only Germans can.

I suppose part of me will always be the snobby operagoer who drinks champagne in the intermission and can talk for hours about a particular interpretation of Mahler’s 2nd. But every once in a while, you just need to link arms with a bunch of crazy Meenzers singing “Traum von Amsterdam” and let it all out.

And anyway, you can’t dance at the opera.

This guy managed to wear lederhosen, drink beer, twerk, and sing all at the same time. That takes skill, folks.

This guy managed to wear lederhosen, drink beer, twerk, and sing Schlager all at the same time. That takes skill, folks.

Despite the pouring rain...

Despite the pouring rain…

80s Rock in the pouring rain.

80s rock.

Cabaret. In some past life, I'm pretty much certain I was a Kabarettistin--coattails and lipstick, glass of red wine in one hand and cigarette in the other. 

Cabaret. In some past life, I’m pretty much certain I was a Kabarettistin–coattails and lipstick, glass of red wine in one hand and cigarette in the other.

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


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.


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.


“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.


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.



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….


Obama the sitting duck.


Invasion of the Chlorine-Chicken. Lol.


The Rosenmontag parade.



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.


Selbst Johannes Gutenberg hat mitgefeiert!


Travelogue XXVII: Fastnacht I: Altweiberfastnacht


February 12, 2015 When I arrived in Mainz, I had no idea I had landed in one of the biggest PAR-TAY centers in all of Germany. At least, it’s a party during Karnival–or Fastnacht, or Meenzer Fassenacht if you really want to sound like a local–the Thursday through Tuesday directly preceding the start of Lent in the church calendar. Mainz’ celebration is rivaled only by Cologne in Terms of all-around grandeur–six day of partying, uninhibited foolery, and dissolution of all sorts.

It all kicked off this morning at 11:11am. Eleven is the number of the fools, cheeky, sinful, and askant, positioned between the orderly numbers 10 and 12. Ten commandments, 10 fingers on a perfect human body, 12 months in the celestial year, 12 clockwork hours in a day–so much structure and elegance has no place during carnival.


Helau helau helau!

In the official Fastnacht calendar, Thursday is Altweiberfastnacht–the Old Ladies’ Carnival, in memory of a stubborn group of German washerwomen who staged a rebellion in 1824 and broke into the male-dominated celebrations for the first time. Traditionally, women are given full political, social, and sexual reign on Altweiberfastnacht–crossdressing is permitted, the mayor hands over the keys of the city, and women claim their dominance over men by cutting off their ties (Freud would have a hay-day with the symbolism behind that one, let me tell you!).

Another vitally important part of Fastnacht is the music. Specifically, the Schlager–the incredibly catchy, incredibly annoying German Party music which everybody hates when they are a more rational state of mind, but apparently can’t get enough of during five days of the year.

Due to my huge camera, people assumed I was from the newspaper, and practically threw themselves at me trying to get me to take their picture.



Steampunk FTW. So much dapper, I can’t even.



“Are you from the newspaper??!! Hold on hold on, I gotta pose.”

And there it was: the opening moments of one of the biggest events of the year, on a gray Thursday morning, in downtown Mainz. It was a PAR-TAY, I tell you.


Booooze! A very important part of just about any German festival….

Stay tuned….

Travelogue III: Berlin

IMG_0144Berlin Wall

18. Juli, 2014 If Munich is all stability, conservatism and settledness, then Berlin is its polar opposite–restless, scandalous, disparate, a miss-mash of old and new, renewal and decay. It’s thrilling, though I think I will always prefer Munich’s particular beauty and stateliness.

IMG_0192A typical Berlin skyline–old and new together, everything in transition, always with a dozen cranes from construction sites in the background.

We arrived late last night, and got on a boat this morning to take a tour of the city. We docked at the Turkish Market, and climbed a flight of stairs to the street. Suddenly, we weren’t in Germany any more, but in some open bazaar in some city to the South and East–rugs and bolts of silk and glass beads and vegetables and Doener, all being hawked with utmost enthusiasm in Turkish, brilliant colors everywhere.




On the way back, we looked up events for the evening in a local newspaper. The professor and I found a baroque concert in Schloss Charlottenburg, and went to hear a Vivaldi concerto and early Mozart arias, surrounded by Berlin’s most wealthy and privileged.

schloss-charlottenburgSchloss Charlottenburg

19. Juli, 2014 Unbearably hot the entire day–I came early back to the hotel, blessedly one of the few with air conditioning in the entire city, and slept till early evening. Then off again, with the entire group this time, to the Deutsch-Französisches Fest–sponsored by the French Embassy, held in front of the Brandenburger Tor. “This is a good time for my country,” said the professor, “when the French feel that they can come to the most German spot in the most German city and throw a party. I find that very hopeful.” And the French know how to party–packed open-air tables, food and wine and German beer, drinking songs and dancing and then a performance by a Berlin rapper who is apparently insanely popular in France.

One has the feeling that Berlin is 10 cities instead of one. Crazy, that 24 hours ago I was sitting in evening-wear in a pristine concert hall, listening to Italian arias and drinking Champagne–and that 36 hours ago I was trying to figure out how to pronounce Gözleme, surrounded by Turkish housewives haggling over the price of fresh fruit or fish or bolts of fabric. And now I’m being deafened by an open-air rap concert at a table with 15 of my new best friends, eating French pizza and wishing I could dance.

brandenburger-torBrandenburger Tor, minus a bunch of very happy, very drunk French partygoers, and a very bad German rapper. 

In Munich, too, but especially in Berlin, the internationality of it all is staggering–in the Turkish Market, we might as well not be in Europe at all, in the tiny Italian cafe in Gendarmenmarkt, the couples at the other tables are from Australia, Holland, Italy. At the French-German Fest, we solve all the world’s problems at a table with Maria from Ireland, Jean from France, and the friends they had just met from Spain. With a shared bottle of rosé and a tarte flambée from the stand across the square, all screaming to be heard over the music, speaking in a mixture of German and English and very bad French. It’s all playing with language, with cultural differences, with stereotypes and idioms and bad jokes. Maria teaches us phrases in Gaelic, we all learn a French drinking song because the people at the next table haven’t stopped singing it for hours, and the American students give the German professors an education in modern American slang–“trolling,” “mosh pit,” “duckface.” Very important vocabulary, that.

To me, this is all so new–my childhood in small-town New England and undergrad in the conservative Midwest, wonderful as they were, didn’t really lend themselves to this sort of dialog. And here, I am loving it–a thousand perspectives and ways of thinking, a dozen new languages. If you listen hard enough, with a little Latin you can start picking up French and Italian within a few minutes.

And the pace, too, is so different from anything I am used to, here in one of most vibrant cities in Europe. Even with the conservative professors, you go out to eat AFTER the concert, not before, and then to a cafe for another glass of wine, and then back to the hotel to sit in the garden and talk and laugh harder than you have laughed in months. If you make it back to the room before 2am, it’s an early night.

20. Juli, 2014 In the morning, we take a tour of the Reichstag, the seat of German government. Only the outside is original–everything inside was re-built post-reunification, to match Germany’s new emphasis on transparency and clarity. The building is part art museum, part memorial, part politics, all glass and efficient clean lines. It’s possible to look right through the entire structure, through the parliament room and offices to the heaven on the other side, as our tour guide tells us. It is obvious that this is the political seat of a country that is peaceful and successful and at least half-way intelligent.

IMG_0136Reichstag from the river-side.

IMG_0186From the front. The inscription: “To the German people.”

IMG_0139The past is still very much felt–bullet holes left over from WWII.

10_57d8c64005816c718c79d310e001675aParliament, unfortunately minus Angela Merkel

IMG_0190Dome above the building, with views of the city on all sides and of the parliament room below.

IMG_0194Inside the dome

In the afternoon, it’s too hot to look at art. “I think I would have a panic attack if I had to see a Kandinsky right now,” says the professor. So I, who am always so uptight and driven and have to be doing doing doing, sit for four hours in a cafe at the beautiful Gendarmenmarkt, sometimes talking about literature or the funny things the students said last night, but mostly in silence. It’s a privilege, this.


Afterwards, the train ride back to Wuerzburg is pretty hellish. Delays on both ends, unbearably hot and sticky on the slow train to Hannover, missed connections and resulting loss of seat reservations between Hannover and Wuerzburg. But when we finally arrive in the tiny train station at 11pm, the clouds open and the heat finally breaks, with thunder and wonderfully cold wind on the way back to the dorms.


Note: for a less-rambly post on Berlin from two years ago, with lots more pictures and infos, click here.