Travelogue LXVI: We

unspecified-10January 10, 2016 In the few years of this blog’s activity, I’ve tried to keep purely personal narratives to a minimum, to reveal the goings-on in my life only to the extent that they were applicable to the business of being abroad. But some of you may have noticed that the I in my posts has been more and more frequently replaced by a we. Maybe that deserves a bit of an explanation.

And anyway, some joys are just too big not to be shared.

unspecified-4unspecified-5unspecified-2unspecified-7unspecified-3unspecified-9unspecified-8unspecified-14unspecified-13unspecifiedAll pictures were taken by my wonderfully talented sister, Anna.

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People I: Andrea Noeske-Porada

In my last few months abroad, I would like to add to my exploration of physical spaces of Germany a look at just a few of the people who live here. Because I have gotten to know some pretty extraordinary folks in the last two years. So, in the spirit of Shakespeare’s Miranda, here’s Emily Abroad: People.

Oh, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in ’t!
blah

Photo credit: Iris Kaczmarcyk

Andrea Noeske-Porada: felter, teacher, artist. 

I met Andrea while my parents were in Germany–my mother wanted to take a felting course with one of Germany’s many world-renowned fiber artists, and sent me a list of names to check. Most were far away, in Munich or Berlin, but Andrea just happened to be right across the Rhine. And so I called her, and my mother ended up taking a day-long workshop with her.
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And then it just so happened that she needed someone to translate her website into English, and someone to help her in the studio with her next exhibit, and that was that. I’ve since spent many afternoons in her workshop, helping prepare pre-felts or working on small projects of my own or just drinking tea and talking. I grew up felting, and put myself through college by teaching fiber art classes on the farm and making thousands of felted dolls to sell.  And then I became a grad student, and working-with-my-hands was replaced by working-with-my-mind. My creative life  now mostly consists of libraries and pages instead of soap bubbles and wool. The chance to return to physical creation at the side of someone as inspiring as Andrea is something wonderful, indeed.

Her studio space itself is fascinating: a converted town hall in a tiny wine-soaked village outside of Mainz. There’s a stage at one end, now full of boxes and boxes of fiber, and a tiny kitchen at the other, where there is always tea and chocolate. There’s a CD player for playing tango or Ray Charles, and the afternoon sun shines in your face as you work. It’s all a bit disorderly, as places of creation should be.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHere is Andrea in her own words, in an artistic statement I just translated for her to deliver before the workshop she is currently giving in Argentina:

Ever since the 70s, I kept myself busy artistically with textile materials alongside my study of law. At that time it was mostly graphic wax batiks; since then I have become interested in three-dimensional objects. After my children left home in the early 2000s, I began to look for new materials and techniques. In a round-about way I encountered felt, and after several attempts I discovered the material’s potential for spatial creation. I decided to complete a two-year-long training program, in order to get to know felt from the ground up. 
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My interest has always been primarily for abstract, reduced, and form-based art and construction, which my study of art history only strengthened. Therefore, it was increasingly difficult for me to take pleasure in the many often overblown, decorative elements, the rounded edges, and the ever-recurring spiral-shaped features which I found so frequently in felt. It appealed to me more and more to attempt the opposite in felt and to find out how and if the medium would comply with my wishes. Inspired from the work of the Op-Art artist Victor Vasarely, I began to felt graphically with angular, sharp-edged geometric forms. The next step was the transferring of these images into the third dimension, that is, into reliefs. 
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One of Andrea’s creations, on the left, in an art exhibit in Wiesbaden. (Photo credit)

The development of this form of construction took awhile, and still continues today. The creation of single spaces is relatively straight-forward, but the linking of repeated space structures requires a sophisticated plan. Speculating about the logical sequence and the construction became more and more the most exciting part of my work, and the following process of realization completely lost its meaning. I am always getting new ideas about how to make the process better, or discovering new more suitable materials.
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More from Wiesbaden. (Photo credit)

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn my artistic work, as I said, the construction itself often takes first place, although the changeability and the liveliness of the finished object is also important to me. Textile materials are in their original meaning construction materials: their lightness, omnipresent availability, malleability, flexibility, and focused or spontaneous changeability make them the ideal medium for me. I am not a felter: for me, even the material has an artistic message and it is therefore always vital to think about why I want to achieve something in or with felt instead of some other substance.

In the case of the Felt Foldings [Andrea’s signature technique], the appeal lies in the apparent contradiction between theme and material. The warm, flattering felt does something to angular, sharp-edged objects: it absorbs sound, light, and reflection. Through the mobility of felt, the object or sculpture is no fixed entity, but rather something that can be transformed. One’s perception of and emotions surrounding the finished work can vary according to distance. From close up, the material plays a larger role than the form; from farther away, the architecture comes to the foreground.

Andrea's left-over scraps, ready to be used in a project of mine.

Andrea’s left-over scraps, ready to be used in a project of mine.

Evaluating felt samples for the next art object.

Evaluating felt samples for the next art project.

Spray bottles and soap.

Spray bottles, soap, and old pantyhose–tools of the trade.

Tea is important.

Tea is important.

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Frohe Weihnachten!

Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
This bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.

Hamlet, Act I Scene I

Mainz

Mainz

December 25, 2015 Christmas-not-in-Vermont will never stop being something strange. I skype with my family and see my father, wearing three flannel shirts one on top of the other, coming in from doing chores and standing in the doorway because he is still wearing his work boots. And my siblings, flown home from college and sprawled in front of the fire on sheepskins with the dog. And my mother, cooking enough delicious food for an army because, heck, it’s Christmas. And the tree in its usual spot, and the manger scene without Baby Jesus because he technically hasn’t been born yet, and Bing Crosby singing White Christmas in the background.

And I miss those people, and I miss that place. It’s a feeling of lack that is otherwise blessedly foreign to my experience abroad.

But then again, when I’m standing at my favorite Glühwein-stand in Mainz with my small community of fellow Comp Lit students gossiping about professors, or drunkenly singing Christmas carols on the street with Valerie after the Market in Ingelheim, or experiencing the towering hospitality of the people who have opened their lives and homes to me, I think, this isn’t so bad either.

In fact, maybe it’s more than just not bad.

Merry Christmas from Germany, folks.

Travelogue LX: Gotland II: Sheep People

Gotland sheep grazing near a fishing village on Fårö, a tiny island off the northern coast of Gotland.

Gotland sheep grazing near a fishing village on Fårö, a tiny island off the northern coast of Gotland.

September 20, 2015 Most people come to Europe for the high culture, or the art museums, or the ancient buildings, or the cuisine. My parents, on the other hand, come to Europe for the sake of a tiny, wind-swept island in the middle of the Baltic Sea. Or, more specifically, for one particular breed of sheep on that island. Gotlands–small and hardy, with a lustrous silver fleece prized for both pelts and yarn–are inseparable from the natural landscape of the island, a beloved part of Sweden’s national heritage. Everyone, it seems, raises sheep.

Gotlands are incredibly rare in America, and my family owns one of the only farms with the breed on the East coast. My parents, and my mother in particular, were thrilled for the chance to travel to the island itself–a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn and look behind the scenes and ask questions that only Gotland farmers know the answers to.

The flag of Gotland Island.

The flag of Gotland Island.

The sheep graze right down to the edge of the Baltic Sea.

The sheep graze right down to the edge of the Baltic Sea.

And so we spent a long weekend on Gotland traveling from farm to farm, visiting shops and talking to people. I am, I admit, usually the fine-cuisine-and-art-museum type, but I surprised myself by loving the entire trip–not, as in the case of my parents, because of all the technical sheep-talk that went on, but because of the way we travelled. This was no superficial tourist trip: stay three nights in a youth hostel, hit the big sights, and never speak with a local. Instead, the four days on Gotland were gritty, real, in-your-face–dialogue after dialogue with the people who make their living there, raising sheep in thatched-roofed barns on 1,200-year-old farmsteads. This is how I want to travel.

Thanks to local advice, we strayed pretty far from the beaten path. We attended, for instance, the island’s annual ram auction–dozens of Gotland’s most gorgeous animals selling to buyers from across Sweden, prices up to 8,000 dollars. I mean, how many of your average summer visitors can boast of that?! “It’s like Christmas for sheep people!!” one shepherd told us with utmost enthusiasm, wrist-deep in the fleece of one particularly handsome ram. You don’t get that every day.

Ram auction ahead!

Ram auction ahead!

Before the start of the ram auction--potential buyers have the chance to examine the sheep and talk to the shepherds.

Before the start of the ram auction, potential buyers have the chance to examine the sheep and talk to the shepherds.

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Our personal favorite, a perfect example of the traits of the Gotland breed.

The sheep are ranked in multiple categories (weight, color, wool luster, curl depth, etc.), and the results are printed in a booklet handed out to all buyers. The scores are consulted and the animals carefully examined before the bidding begins.

The sheep are ranked in multiple categories (body composition, color, wool luster, curl depth, etc.), and the results are printed in a booklet handed out to all potential buyers. The scores are consulted and the animals carefully examined before the bidding begins.

The official scoring booklet, published by the Gotland Sheep Association.

The official scoring booklet, published by the Gotland Sheep Association.

The whole event was a family affair--much laughter and greeting of old friends, a communal lunch, white-blond children playing in the barn, a communal lunch.

The whole event was a family affair–much laughter and greeting of old friends, a communal lunch, and dozens of white-blond children. Older shepherds we talked to expressed delight that so many young families on the island are interested in raising sheep.

In the end, the best part of the trip were the people themselves: the farmers, the hand workers, the proud owners of small businesses that, ultimately, weren’t all that different from those in Vermont. It seems that farmers all over the world speak the same language–a language that I find myself eternally drawn back to, even after falling in love with the European metropolis. Farming people are somehow real, connected to land and tradition in a way that makes city life seem sometimes overblown and overcomplicated.

The hospitality of the Gotlanders we met was staggering. It began at the tiny airport in Visby, where an online knitter-friend of my mother’s  surprised us with a home-cooked lunch, a map of the island, and thirty  minutes of helpful advice. On every farm we visited, the shepherds opened their barns, stores, and studios to us, overcoming sometimes-limited English to answer hundreds of our questions and to ask their own. Family secrets were spilled and tall tales were told, and a whole lot of very technical sheep discussion took place that went right over my head.

A small wool mill that spins yarn for many of the farms on the island.

A small wool mill that spins yarn for many of the farms on the island.

The owner Eva talks to my mother about evaluating fleeces.

The owner Eva talks to my mother about evaluating fleeces.

The studio at the farm Lamm och Bi, where owner Annette sews fleece vests for boutiques in Visby.

The studio at the farm Lamm och Bi, where shepherdess Annette sews fleece vests for boutiques in Visby.

Annette and Dan, the owners of Lamm och Bi, standing in front of shelves of their products in the farm store.

Annette and Dan, the owners of Lamm och Bi, standing in front of shelves of their products in the farm store. The two of them care for some 600 sheep (without outside help!!), making them one of the largest Gotland farms in the world.

Sheep pelts displayed at Sindarve Farm.

Sheep pelts displayed at Sindarve Farm.

At Sigsarve Lamm Farm, shepherd Curre went out in the field and brought back a sample of different types of grass so we could see what Gotland farmers feed their sheep.

At Sigsarve Lamm Farm, shepherd Curre went out in the field and brought back a sample of different types of grass so we could see what Gotland farmers feed their sheep.

Besides raising sheep, Curre also grows and preserves several types of ancient grains. Here, fresh crackers made with spelt and served with sour-milk cheese.

Besides raising sheep, Curre also grows and preserves several types of ancient grains. After we arrived, he rushed back to the farmhouse to bring us fresh crackers made with spelt and served with sour-milk cheese.

Curre and his wife Lotte. "She do all the thinking! I just fix the fence!" he said, at which point my father decided they were secretly brothers.

Curre and his wife Lotte. “She do all the thinking! I just fix the fence!” he said, at which point my father decided they were secretly brothers.

Curre and his wife Lotte ("She do all the thinking! I just fix the fence!" he said) talked with us for nearly three hours over lunch.

Curre and Lotte talked with us for nearly three hours over lunch and coffee. Crazy sheep stories were swapped and hilarity ensued.

Most of the farms we visited were run by a husband-wife team, usually entirely without outside help. Everyone we talked to loved what they were doing, despite the work and the dirt and the isolation of living on a tiny island in the Balticum. “Gotland sheeps are fantastic animals,” we heard again and again. And because we also had Gotland sheeps, and because we were speaking the language, we were automatically a part of their inner sanctum, welcomed with open arms by people we had never seen before in our lives.

In the end, Curre put it best. “You know, we have the big problem today with the refugees–many Swedes say, they come in here, they take our jobs, they are so different. But I say, you have the cultures, religions–but underneath, the people are all the same. You just have to find something, some–what is the word?–connection, and you are all the same. The connection bring people together. Just like having sheeps,” he concluded, looking out into the pasture, squinting into the sun, real pride in his voice. “Sheeps bring people together, too. And that’s a real gud thing. Real gud.”

Curre and Lotte's flock, the most beautiful we had seen.

Curre and Lotte’s flock, the loveliest we saw.

Travelogue LVIII: Wine and Home

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASeptember 12, 2015 I’m back in Mainz for a bit of time, before the travels start again in the few weeks before my second year at the University. Being away–it makes me realize how much Mainz has become home to me in the past twelve months. “You’ll be back in America in a year! You’re going home soon!” my dear parents say. But Germany is home now, too. When I get off at the sketchy Mainz train station, there are the same feelings of relief and general wellbeing I have when we take the exit off the long green highway headed into Vermont. Can you have more than one Heimat?

In the end, what makes Mainz feel the most like home is not the flashy tourist parts, all prettified and spiffed-up for an international paying public. The Augustinerstraße on a Saturday afternoon, with tour groups from Japan and selfie-taking couples from the cruise ship docked on the Rhine–all very picturesque, but somehow slightly less than authentic. I’d rather have the Augustinerstraße on a Monday morning, full of trucks making deliveries to the cafés and bike riders on their way to work, and the smell of hot bread from the bakeries.

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The outer courtyard.

The outer courtyard.

The tiny winery in the New City is another spot that makes Mainz, for me, into Home. Owned by Marcus Landenberger and family, it opens for wine tasting for friends-of-friends-of-friends every Friday evening, rain or shine. I found out about it during my first weeks in Mainz (thanks, Max!), and have been a regular attendee ever since. Marcus opens up his tiny courtyard to guests, and serves fresh bread, meat, and cheese along with the wine on the single long table inside. You pay for as much as you think you’ve eaten.

The guests are a mixture of students from the University and Mainz’s older generations, talking in broad dialect and ranting about local politics, the weather, the harvest season. You introduce yourself by your first name and use the informal pronouns, and laugh more than you have laughed for a long time. In the winter, everyone sits closer and wears coats indoors against the cold. If you are lucky, Marcus opens up the wine cellars across the courtyard and the entire group goes down the stone steps and look at the huge dusty barrels of Riesling and Silvaner in the half-light. Come at seven and stay until midnight.

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The hand-written wine card.

The hand-written wine card.

The wines for sale.

The wines for sale.

Meat, bread, and cheese--the best of the best of German cuisine.

Meat, bread, and cheese–the best of the best of German cuisine.

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The spoils.

The spoils.

Gloaming.

Gloaming.

As always, I am astounded by the sheer knowledge and love of these people, young and old alike, for the drinking of wine–their wine, from their city, not some import from Italy or France. The wine list at Marcus’ only seldom varies, but everything is reveled in anew each week.

Did you try the 2011 Riesling? It really is exquisite. Perhaps because of the rain we got that year, do you remember that? Of course. 

...And the night goes on.

…and the night goes on. Conversation and clean plates.

Travelogue LVII: Bayreuth IV: Ring

Frank Castorf's Ring production: Euro-trash or a provocative examination of capitalism, greed, US-Germany relations, etc. etc? Here, the final act of Siegfried under a socialistic Mount Rushmore.

Frank Castorf’s Ring production: Euro-trash or a provocative examination of capitalism, oil, US-Germany relations, etc. etc? Here, the final act of Siegfried under a socialistic Mount Rushmore. (All Photos)

August 31, 2015 And just like that, the curtain closed on the final act of Götterdämmerung and we were applauding, partly out of enthusiasm and partly out of relief, fifteen hours of music and bad seats behind us, and then we walked down the five flights of steps from the Galarie one last time and drank one more glass of wine and took the taxi back to the hostel. “Ah well,” said the man who sat next to me through all four operas, “I suppose it’s time to leave the Magic Mountain and re-enter the real world.” Indeed.

Götterdãmmerung: the Gibichungs are owners of a Döner shop somewhere in the slums of Berlin.

Götterdãmmerung: the Gibichungs are owners of a Döner shop somewhere in the slums of Berlin.

I think, in the end, it will be the smaller moments that will stick with me the most. Like standing behind the brass players, close enough to touch them, as they played Siegfried and Brünnhilde’s theme on the balcony in the rain at the end of an intermission. Or like our picnics on the lawn, and the local Bayreuther who walked by every day at precisely 6:30 with a big, fat, drooling, wheezing, entirely self-satisfied bulldog, to the general disgust of the ball-gowned Festival guests.

Or walking back in a torrential downpour after the best Siegfried I had heard in my life, with Anders from Denmark and Philip and Thomas from Germany, to drip-dry and drink cheap wine in some sketchy Turkish restaurant next to the train station, and talking and talking until the restaurant owner threw us out.

Or the sudden enlightenment from talking to more knowledgeable Wagnerians in between acts. So that’s why it’s set on Alexanderplatz! And that’s the reason for the dynamic between Siegfried and the Forest Bird. It’s not just regie-trash, something is actually being said! Clarity through exchange, there.

Siegfried and the Forest Bird on pre-reunification Alexanderplatz.

Siegfried and the Forest Bird on pre-reunification Alexanderplatz.

As cheesy as it sounds, I suppose it really all did come down to the people in the end–those crazy, passionate, snobby, suffering, over-dressed, opinionated, cynical-yet-somehow-endearing Festival-goers.

There was the gentleman behind me, for instance, who had sat in the Festspielhaus 79 times starting in 1961 and could remember the most minute details about every production he had seen. All that, while wearing full Bavarian dress: Lederhosen, red-and-white checked shirt, cap with feather.

Or the overly zealous Asian in front of me, who wept over a dog-eared copy of the libretto in between acts and booed the production until he was hoarse. Or the James Levine look-alike (I swear, it was this guy!) beside him, who took it as his personal duty to drown out the boos with so many enthusiastic BRAVIs that he almost fell over the balcony. And on and on and on…..

At any rate, I’ll be back.

Brünnhilde and the Rhine Maidens in the closing scene of Götterdãmmerung, against a backdrop of the New York Stock Exchange, previously the wrapped Reichstag.

Brünnhilde and the Rhine Maidens in the closing scene of Götterdãmmerung, against a backdrop of the New York Stock Exchange, previously the wrapped Reichstag.

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Travelogue LV: Bayreuth II: Festspielhügel

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August 24, 2015 Three operas down, two to go. I’m in Bayreuth, people, and I still can’t quite believe it. The afternoon walks up to the Festspielhügel (Festival Hill), the darkness before the music starts, the glass of wine afterwards–it all seems so normal, like this isn’t one of the most extraordinary experiences in human existence. But then again, I can’t stop smiling, and I have to restrain myself from geeking out at various inopportune moments. Girl, you are at the f%$#@ Festspiele.

In the end, though, Bayreuth is a strange and contradictory place.

On the one hand, the atmosphere is all very relaxed and playful. The weather is gorgeous, and the intermissions last an hour so you have time to walk into town and eat dinner. Or, if you are as [impoverished and] boss as Katie and I, you spread out a 15-Euro picnic right in front of the Festspielhaus. You get to know the people who sit next to you every night and exchange stories about art and music and life in general. You sleep in the next day at the youth hostel and spend the afternoon before the performance going to book stores and giggling over the Wagner kitsch all over the city. You walk through the gardens up to the opera house an hour early so you have time to admire/creep on the extraordinarily well-dressed Europeans who drop 2,000 Euros on a week in Bayreuth, with their Gucci bags and dinner reservations at some five-star restaurant during the intermissions. Take the taxi into town, take the taxi back an hour later.

The fashion, too, is delightful. I knew people dressed up for Bayreuth, but I wasn’t expecting tuxedos and ball gowns, not during the last week of a non-premiere production. In the last few days, however, we have seen it all–five-inch-heels and parasols, black ties and polished wing-tips, silk handkerchiefs that match the dress that match the purse. Of course some of it strays horribly (hilariously!) into kitsch–poofy pink princess gowns from the 80s, etc. In the end, though, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much genuine elegance and sartorial beauty in one place in my life. People–adults!–revel in the chance to play dress up and be seen.

Parasols abounded.

Parasols abounded.

Carrying the mandatory cushion (bring your own!). Wooden fold-down seats become incredibly uncomfortable after the first three hours of music.

Heatedly discussing the finer points of the evening’s Tristan, mandatory seat-cushion in hand (bring your own!). Wooden fold-down chairs become incredibly uncomfortable after about the first three hours of music.

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View from above.

View from above. That yellow suit, though.

Dapper.

Wind-swept dapper.

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The spoils: Fancy handbag, 10 Euro flutes of champagne, Reclam-edition of the libretto.

The spoils: Fancy handbag, 10-Euro flutes of champagne, Reclam-edition of the libretto.

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View through the Festspielhaus doors.

View through the Festspielhaus doors, right before I got taken out by the No-Photography-Inside-the-Festspielhaus police.

On the other hand, though, Bayreuth is not really a pleasant place at all. I don’t think I have ever been surrounded by such a high concentration of genuine snobbery in my life.

That means that afterwards, you don’t revel the beauty you just experienced and reflect on the fact that you, in your designer gown and high heels, are one of the most privileged people on the planet. No, you critique the Brühnhilde’s upper register (Where’s Birgit Nilsson when you need her?) and deplore the flatness of the tenor (Botha is great, but really, can’t he change it up a bit?) and absolutely hate on the production (Regie-trash! Euro-trash! Skandale!! Oh, for the 1950s and the days of Wolfgang Wagner!!). Of course it is not all bad, but even your praise must be critical and highly informed at all times (The direction of the brass section was excellent, but of course nothing in comparison to Solti. Oh, you don’t like Solti either? Well anyway, Botha’s Winterstürme was lovely, although that hardly makes up for his botching of the Wälse earlier in the act).

The amount of sheer expertise amongst the opera-goers is staggering. These people know their Wagner, or at least know how to pretend like they do, and can talk the talk like there’s no tomorrow.

All of which, honestly, is mostly fine with me–I love a good snobby opera rant once in a while. But in the end, I miss the pure, unadulterated awe with which I encountered Wagner for the first time. Naive and a bit blind, perhaps, but full of appreciation and real joy–isn’t that the best way to encounter great art?

Visitors are confronted with the more troubling aspects of Bayreuth's past: a permanent display on antisemitism and Hitler in Bayreuth stands directly in front of the opera house. This is Wagner, after all--things are never uncomplicated.

Visitors are confronted with the more troubling aspects of Bayreuth’s past: a permanent display on antisemitism and Hitler in Bayreuth stands directly in front of the opera house. This is Wagner, after all–things are never uncomplicated.

Ultimately, there is an element of passionate suffering, of Leidenschaft (Leidenschaft=passion, leiden=to suffer) about it all. It’s almost comic, actually. If you don’t have a ticket, you stand around outside with an absolutely forlorn expression on your face and a “Suche Karte” (“Looking for a ticket”) sign, until some merciless person deigns to part with the last act of Götterdämmerung for three times the selling price. You act all friendly towards your neighbor until he or she opens up a cough drop in the middle of the performance. God forbid that the sacred space be polluted by the sound of a Halls wrapper!! The entire Galarie suffers together until the end of the act!!

The physical space of the Festspielhaus itself contributes to this atmosphere of martyrdom. Simple architecture, straight-backed wooden seats, no air conditioning–it is clear that the focus here is on THE MUSIC and not on the physical gratification of the Festspiel-goers. After five hours in a cramped seat in 85-degree heat, the level of self-mortification is absolutely saintly.

In the end, though, the lack of luxury is a very good thing, and fits in with Wagner’s radical vision for Bayreuth as a place of direct confrontation with artistic beauty unspoiled by physical indulgence. He was the first to darken the house during performances, after all, the first to place the emphasis fully on the stage and not on being seen by those around you. Bravo, there.

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The orchestra’s brass section plays motives from the opera to call guests back to their seats at the end of intermission.

And despite everything, of course, it really is all about the music. That’s why I’m here–that’s why I keep coming back to Wagner, all questionable decadence and politics aside. There is a power and a beauty there that gets under my skin.

So last night during Tristan und Isolde, sitting behind a column with my 10-Euro ticket, the cough drop wrappers and botched high notes and arrogant snobbery paled absolutely beside the music, welling up from the covered orchestra pit in the darkness below and slowly, slowly changing the world.

Walking in the gardens surrounding the Festival House during intermission.

Walking in the gardens surrounding the Festival House during intermission.

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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 XL: Hinter den Kulissen

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May 9, 2015 Mainz is not cobblestone streets and old churches and beautiful Europeans drinking wine by candlelight. Or not just those things, anyway.

I am learning that cities are like people–a thousand contradictions and transfigurations inhabiting a single space. Apollo and Dionysus, dark and light, straight-forward and complex. The human being has a million souls instead of Faust’s two, Hermann Hesse writes. So does the city, I think.

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Prostitution is legal in Germany.

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Bikes at the train station.

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The night club after hours, Kaisterstraße.

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Jägermeister, Kaiserstraße. I could do an entire photo series on alcohol bottles left in public.

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Cigarettes and vodka, Rheinufer.

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More vodka, Old City.

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Kaisertor.

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Housing on Kaiserstraße.

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Döner, Bahnhofstraße.

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Cigarette vending machine, Weintorstraße.

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Graffiti, everywhere in Germany, often blurs the line between vandalism and art.

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Münsterplatz.

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)