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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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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