Travelogue LXII: Liminality

Liminality, noun. From the Latin limen, threshold. The quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete.

In common usage, liminality describes any period of transition, where the individual has the feeling of being on both sides of a boundary or threshold. It is often a time of discomfort, of waiting, and of transformation. (source)

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Between Mainz and Geisenheim.

July 26, 2016 I find myself in a liminal space. In three weeks, I will be in Vermont. The day after tomorrow, I will defend the thesis I came to Germany to write. Everything is in flux.

Next week I will be spending the last night in my beloved apartment in the Old City.  It’s been the first place in my life that belonged only to me—above the flower shop, in a cobblestone street where the bums call out “Good morning, Whistling Girl!” when they see me and the waiter in my favorite Weinstube knows my name. The leave-taking is hard. Last spring, I watched the mourning doves outside my window raise a family while I went to the theater alone; this spring, I was the one making a nest. And now I’m packing everything into suitcases again and starting over on the other side of the world.
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Between Hamburg and Copenhagen.

 July 30, 2016 Germany, it seems, is also in a liminal space. It’s a strange and heady time here, when it seems like Europe is falling apart a little at the seams, where in Germany especially the greatest of challenges is faced and answers are sought to very hard questions. The face of this country is in flux.
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Some parts of the change you are used to already, even when you don’t want to be. For instance, you are drinking wine with friends when one of them excuses himself to go call friends in Munich to make sure they are ok, and you say, “Another terrorist attack?“ and know that the answer is yes and somehow are not even shocked anymore.
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Some things you are still learning. For instance, you are standing in Berlin in the train station surrounded by thousands of people and you think fleetingly that any one of those suitcases, any one of those sunglassed tourists could be about to blow the place up. You are learning not to be scared. You are not scared.
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But still, there is always something in the air, an underlying current of discomfort that only needs the tiniest of triggers to come to the surface. You are at the Christopher Street Day in Mainz, laughing and dancing and watching a line-up of the Pfalz’s finest drag queens, when someone pops a balloon behind you—louder than usual, cutting through the music. You jump and cling together for a second and have to admit that the first thought that entered your head was that this was finally it, the nightmare come to Mainz….
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Ambiguity, discomfort, transformation. The whole country is waiting; the ritual is not yet at an end. And right now, all one can do is stand in a torn-apart kitchen and wash windows and almost cry as Rheinhard May sings “Wann ist Frieden endlich Frieden?“—when is peace finally peace? 
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Between Mainz and Frankfurt

August 25, 2016 I’ve been back in Vermont for ten days now, in this place that seems so silent and peaceful and non-transformative in comparison to what I just left.

Taking the bus up to Vermont from Boston, the driver plays the country station I grew up listening to, wedged between my father and my siblings on the seat of the pickup. We fly up the interstate and I am suddenly surrounded by the Green Mountains, for the first time in over a year. This is home, I think, I’m back.

But later that night, the liminality of it all is brought back to me again. Even after 24 hours of jet-lagged travel, I can’t sleep, in my own childhood bedroom. The silence and dark–things I once treasured, things I needed to sleep–are suddenly oppressive, foreign. I want the echoes of footsteps on cobblestones, want the friendly light from the street lamp in the courtyard. In the huge drafty room I share with my sister, I feel lost.

And so the transition goes on. After the first few nights, I can sleep in Vermont again. But in two weeks, I will be leaving even this for a strange city on the West Coast and a new field of studies and a new way of life. I will arrive again, and put down roots, and I am deeply looking forward to this.

At the moment, though, I’m still standing on both sides of the threshold.

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Travelogue LXXII: Terroranschläge

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November 14, 2015

March 22, 2015 I’ve always reveled in the German language. Above all, it’s the words that draw me in–the sound of them, the feel of them, their sensuality, their potential for music and profundity. In my teenage years, learning German through a thousand hours of opera and later through a painstaking obsession with literature, I collected vocabulary like so many tiny works of art–toys, really, that I could take out and polish up and delight in.

My favorites: Dämmerung, Lenz, Gesamtkunstwerk, Leidenschaft, pfaublau, Rausch, Ausschweifung, Kastanienbaum, Lust. I can still hear those words in their places in the opera scores, see them on the pages of my battered copies of Musil and Hesse and Mann.

Living in Germany has added a whole new dimension to this loving-of-words. Here, I sit in my Weinstube and wonder at the way that Wein softens into Woi and schön into schee, in the melodious dialogue of the Pfalz. Words-on-a-page turn into real dialogue here, with faces and laughter on the other side of a glass of wine.

I can’t get enough.

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January 8, 2015

But there are some words I never, ever wanted to learn.

Terroranschlag, for instance. Terrorist attack. Or worse yet, Terroranschläge, plural. There is no part of me that ever wanted to learn that word. But suddenly, one day last January it was all everyone could talk about. And a whole world of others soon followed.

Attentat. Assassination attempt. Razzia. Raid. Massaker. Massacre. Religiöse Extremisten. Religious extremists. Geiseln. Hostages. Sprengstoffgürtel. Explosive belt. Ausnahmezustand. State of emergency. Drahtzieher. Mastermind. Selbstmordattentäter. Suicide bomber. Radikalisierung. Radicalization.

And on, and on, and on. I kept a dictionary open in one computer window, the news in the other. My linguistic horizons expanded horribly overnight.

Those words show up nowhere in Wagner’s universe, or Musil’s, or Goethe’s. They are ugly–no beautiful playthings there, no sensuality. My cravings for vocabulary were replaced suddenly and shockingly by disgust.

And part of me says, I didn’t sign up for this. And another part of me, the part that marched with the protestors and photographed the memorials in Mainz and learned every damn word by heart in spite of the nausea, says yes you did.

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January 17, 2015

But still, recently I was starting to forget, and the forgetting was sweet.

How ironic, that just when all that vocabulary was becoming a bit rusty through disuse, I sit at a computer in a sun-filled library on a Tuesday morning and remember everything all over again.

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Locus Amoenus IV: Home

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.

December 7, 2015 I’ve always had a very strong connection to home. Even as a small child, I had an intense awareness of what constituted my people, my land, my place: this is where I came from and where I may leave, but also to where I will always return. Then, as now, I was drawn as much to the physicality of home as to the people who make it up–to the space of it all, to the anatomy and physique. How do we define our most intimate places physically, with what do we choose to surround ourselves? What, anatomically speaking, separates a roof over my head from my home?

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The Bohemian Garett in Vermont. (Photo Credits: Anna Goodling)

For the longest time, home to me was the farmhouse in Vermont I grew up in, and I reveled in the place’s form and build and being just as much as I reveled in its people. There was the iron daybed on the porch where I plowed through Thomas Mann and Nabokov and Nietzsche, sweating even in the shade through the hottest July afternoons. Or the room I shared with my sister–the “Bohemian Garret,” we called it–with patchwork quilts on the beds and silk scarves pinned up to hide the leak in the roof. Or the wood stove downstairs, snow slanting like sand against the window in January, where I lay on a sheep rug next to the cats and scorched the back of my flannel nightgown.

All that to me was home, and when I left for far-away college at age 18 I wasn’t really looking to find it any place else. Sure, my roommate and I etched out our spaces in campus housing, hanging posters and trying to keep our plants alive, but it was never really came close to what I had in Vermont. And I didn’t need it to. I knew my father would arrive in his beater car every spring to load boxes and take me back.

My window in the American college dorm--almost home, but not quite.

My window in the American college dorm–almost home, but not quite.

Now, though, things are changing. I want home, am longing for it, actually, but this longing isn’t accompanied by the desire to return to Vermont. Instead, for the first time in my life I want to create, want to see if I–right here, right now, alone in this country that is in the end still foreign–can make a physical space with as much meaning and pull as the Vermont farmhouse.

The desire started, I suppose, when I first saw the apartment I have been renting now for almost a year. As soon as climbed the blue spiral staircase and ducked through the door behind the realtor, it was my space–the Garret again, but infinitely more Bohemian, 120 square feet of slanty ceilings and exposed beams, windows looking out into leaves and down onto cobblestones. And a tiny tiled bathtub behind a red-checked curtain. If I ever get a lover, that would be just big enough for the both of us, I thought, and somehow that sealed the deal.

“This is it.” I told the realtor. “This is my Carl Spitzweg painting, my La Bohème, my Dachkammer!! I can read German literature here!” Overly ecstatic, as always. “I’ve already had five offers this morning, but I will see what I can do,” he said, and walked me back to the bus stop in the rain. And then, of course, he called the next day: “Frau Goodling, I had to pull a damn lot of strings, but the place is yours, because I can see you living there.”

Tea on the tiny blue balcony.

Tea on the tiny blue balcony.

And now, almost a year later, when I get off the crowded bus and turn into the cobblestoned street where I live, nearly empty at 8pm on a week night, there is coming to be the same lifting-of-weight, the same recognition and expansion I felt in the passenger seat of my father’s beater car, turning off the highway in New York into the green mountains of Vermont. The feeling that I am returning to my space, my home.

I still can’t quite place what it is, physically, that makes a dwelling place into a home. But I think I am uncovering it slowly.

Yesterday, for instance, I bought a Christmas tree for the first time in my life, because Christmas trees have always belonged to the anatomy of home in my world. It’s amazing how the presence of a tiny tree can turn a room into more than just a lived-in space.

Also, in the mean time, I may or may not have found out that my bathtub is indeed big enough for two, with candles around the edge and the skylight open above our heads.

I think someone up there likes me.

I think someone up there likes me.

And so I move slowly towards an uncovering of the anatomy of home, on my own this time, an ocean apart from all other known-ness. Is this a fundamental part of adulthood, this drive to make home where you are, with your own imagination and paycheck, to make a place speak to you and call you back at the end of the day?

Or does my desire to create home arise from the distance itself, from the physical vastness separating me from the spaces of Vermont? At the end of the day, for all my love of Germany and for all the reveling in land and language I have done in the last year, I am still abroad, living in a land that is not really my own. Perhaps the creation of home is a coping mechanism of sorts, a way to make sense of and process an expanse.

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My street.

In the end, with my Christmas tree and my bathtub and a pot of tea on the stove and basil plants on the counter and expressionistic art on the walls, I am left with an awareness of the incredible privilege of it all, this creating and having of a home.

Because Germany is filled right now with hundreds of thousands of people who have no home, who have had their physical spaces destroyed or made inhabitable. The architecture of home became the architecture of nightmare, and so they left everything and came here, and they are starting over in spaces that, however desperately needed, are everything other than home.

And I, sitting on my own bed with a glass of wine and Bocelli crooning in the background, have never had to do that. I left my home because I wanted to, because I was driven by passion and beauty and the desire to pursue my own education. I am going about creating a home in Germany because I can, because it is something lovely. It is as simple as that.

Which all makes me overwhelmingly thankful to be here. There is no terror behind my actions, and that is a miraculous thing.

And, I admit, maybe I’m a little proud of what my space is turning into, too. So the next time you are in a particular street in Mainz, Germany, stop by and I will give you a tour and serve you tea in my home.

In my home, people.

 

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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 XLI: PEGIDA and Beauty in Dresden

March 30, 2015 Dresden is a stunning city. People call it the Elbflorenz–Florence on the Elb River, the Jewel Box, Germany’s version of Italian Baroque.

I arrived at the train station in Dresden after the DAAD Conference in Jena, dropped my suitcase at the youth hostel, and headed for the city center. When I stepped off the tram at the Theaterplatz, the force of beauty hit me like a brick wall. So much pure loveliness needs no justification, no reason for being. It just is, and you stand there and blink back tears in the pouring rain, and are fully outside of yourself.

Perhaps even more staggering, however, is the fact that it is almost entirely all new–the entire old city was gutted by the American and British bombs that fell in February, 1945. Twenty-five thousand deaths, most of them of civilians, were recorded after the bombings, with thousands more left uncounted. The city as it exists today is a monument both to the horror of war and to the human capacity for hope and industry, I think. Restoration began soon after the war ended, and continues to this day–renovations of the Frauenkirche cathedral, for instance, were only completed in 2005.

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It was a weekend of beauty, of unabashed reveling in Western culture at its most stunning. I photographed statues and frescoes and saw the Old Masters and the German Romantics in the art museums. I stood in line at the box office and scored a student ticket (13 Euros!) for a Bach oratorio at the Semperoper. “It’s the most beautiful opera house in the world,” said the woman who sold me the ticket. Afterwards, I was almost ready to believe her.

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The Semperoper.

But of course, things aren’t so simple. This is Germany, after all.

Besides the museums and the opera and the Rococo architecture, Dresden is also the seat of PEGIDAPatriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West–the far-right political organization that has been hosting demonstrations in Dresden and throughout Germany since October. The group has disturbing overtones of xenophobia, hate speech, and nationalism, which is particularly problematic given Germany’s history.  The founder of PEGIDA, Lutz Bachmann, resigned in January after a photograph of him dressed as Adolf Hitler went viral. I mean, really?? That’s Western culture at its most pitiful, right there.

Although the number of protesters has fallen drastically from the roughly 25,000/week at the beginning of PEGIDA’s existence, Dresden is still something of a pilgrim site. The weekly “evening strolls,” as the group describes the demonstrations, still attract thousands of participants from across Germany. And unlike in other cities, there isn’t a counter-demonstration, or at least not one that I could see. In Frankfurt, the counter-protesters often outnumber the PEGIDA supporters twenty to one. There was none of that here.

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Incredibly surreal, to be drinking tea in some gorgeous cafe with riot police outside the window.

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An hour before the demonstration was to start, the police were already in place.

At the same time, the official position of Dresden as a city was made very clear. There were public banners and signs throughout the city calling for understanding and openness, demanding that Dresden wake up and consider the dignity of all human beings.

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Across from the Semperoper: “Doors open, hearts open, eyes open.”

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A three-story-tall banner across the street from the demonstration itself. “The worth of human kind is given into your hands. Protect it! It falls with you, and it will rise with you.”

At the actual demonstration, there were speeches broadcast by  loud-speaker, and hundreds of banners and hand-painted signs. The sheer ugliness of some of it contrasted starkly and ironically with the beauty of the surroundings.

A small selection of the signs:

“Deutschland wehrt sich”–“Germany is defending herself.”

“Klagt nicht, kämpft!”–“Don’t complain, fight!”

“Wir sind das Volk”–“We are the People.” At the counter-demonstrations in Frankfurt, this is turned around into “Wirr ist das Volk”–“The People are just confused.”

“Erst wird’s bunt, dann…”–“First diversity, then [a picture of a bloody hand grenade].”

“Wir lassen uns nicht mehr von Minderheiten terrorisieren!”–“We aren’t going to let ourselves be terrorized by minorities any more!”

The minorities mentioned above, apparently, include the LGBTQ crowd as well. As one speaker said, “We don’t want the homo-trans-whatever-sexual minority to slime their way into our schools and traumatize our children with their shit-talk!!” I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry after that one.

And the flags–I saw more of them in an hour than I had seen in the past 8 months, the soccer championships included. In Germany, unlike in America, you just don’t display the flag like that unless you have just won the World Cup, or unless you are trying to come across as problematically nationalistic at best and as a Nazi at worst.

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Riot gear.

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I saw more German flags in an hour than I had seen during the past 8 months in Germany, soccer world championships included.

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Departing for the march through the old city.

In the end, it was all a strange mixture of laughable and horrifying. The protestors, at least on the day I was there, weren’t much of hooligans–but rather neatly-dressed middle-aged middle-class, perhaps disappointed and discontent, but not really the stuff of revolution.

So I never felt like I was in danger–but it was an unnerving experience none the less, to find myself in the middle of thousands of people who share a worldview that fundamentally clashes with my own.

In the end, though, as I have written elsewhere, this is one of the main issues Germany is talking about today. Watching the demonstration in Dresden felt a bit like being a part of history.

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!

 

Travelogue XXV: Politics in Mainz

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15. January, 2014 Here in Mainz, some 2,500 people took to the streets in a political demonstration this past Monday, starting at the train station and marching through the old city and back again.

Called into existence by the attacks in Paris, the demonstration officially centered around opposing PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West), a political movement started in Dresden last October. Despite accusations of racism and Fremdenfeindlichkeit (xenophobia), the group has gathered a massive following in the last few months–some 25,000 people attended the most recent rally in Dresden. An opposing movement has grown just as quickly, with passionate counter demonstrations across Germany. Ten days ago, for instance, the city of Cologne turned out the lights in their famous cathedral in protest, and the sheer number of anti-PEGIDA protesters in the streets forced the group to cancel the parade they had planned for the evening.

Monday’s demonstration was the first of its kind in Mainz, organized over the weekend by a few young people per Facebook (as is just about everything these days). There were news reporters and a film crew in attendance, along with some of Mainz’s most important political figures–the Oberbürgermeister Michael Ebling and CDU-Kreischef Wolfgang Reichel among others. People walked with candles and pencils in memory of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, held signs and banners with messages against extremism of every sort.

There were speeches, too, at two different points along the way. The speakers called for a new definition of WIR, we, as a culture, country, and world. We aren’t responsible for the terrorist attacks in Paris, but we are responsible for the society in which such tragedies take place. It was as much a memorial for the dead as a call to action.

For me, having grown up in a town of 800 in a place where individual freedom is prized much more than political solidarity, it was quite a sight to see.

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The crowd at the train station before the demonstration began. 

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Flag of Europe.

As I have said before, living in Germany right now means having these issues in the forefront of your mind: interculturality, political asylum, immigration, Islam, Christianity, freedom of expression, multiculturality, the failure of multiculturality. It’s not an easy, quiet, or particularly peaceful story, as any amount of time spent listening to the news here will make clear. But I think the difficult nature of the dialogue is one of its strengths. I once heard a sociologist give a lecture on cultural integration, and he argued that Germany’s sometimes-troubled engagement with the cultural/religious Other is what sets them above other, more outwardly peaceful European countries. “Just because there’s quiet on the surface doesn’t mean there’s peace. It just means the lid is clamped down on a pot of boiling water that could explode any minute,” he said. In Germany, there’s no lid on the pot at all.

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Diversity instead of Simplicity.

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Open eyes, open hearts, open doors.

Travelogue XXIV: Nous Sommes Charlie Hebdo

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11. January, 2015 Wednesday’s attack is in the air here in Mainz in a way that terrorist activity in a European city would never be in America. Here, it strikes closer to home. Paris is some four hours away from the German border–an entirely different country, yes, but in American terms it might as well be the neighboring state.

Every major German city has come together over the past several days to show their solidarity with the French people. In Mainz, there have been multiple demonstrations and memorials since Wednesday, some spontaneous, some planned by student and political groups. On Monday evening, there will be a demonstration against intolerance, racism, and hatred of all types at the train station, organized by a group of young people calling themselves Break the Circle. The Facebook page shows some 1,200 participants, myself among them.

Today, I walked into town and passed by the memorial in front of the French Institute–flowers, candles, comics, and signs with I am Charlie written in a dozen languages. There were pencils and pens covering the ground–so others could easily leave a message as well? As a symbol of the freedom of the written and spoken word? Powerful either way, I think.

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I spent the whole afternoon in the city, and made my way back to the train station as the sun was going down. When I passed the French Institute again, I noticed a young Turkish couple, obviously Islamic, standing in front of the memorial. Very carefully, without disturbing the rest of the display, they were taking down the few comics showing muslim figures, crumpling them up, and carrying them to the trash can on the other side of the street.

This is a dialogue that is very much alive in Germany–you can feel it in the air, you can see it in the streets. And it’s good that way, I think.

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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.

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Bolts-of-fabric-on-display

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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.

cafe-gendarmenmarktGendarmenmarkt

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.

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