Travelogue LXXI: Weinbergen

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFebruary 28, 2016 Yesterday, the sun shone in Germany–really shone, with a strength and warmth that have been absent for months. And when the sun shines in Germany in the winter, you leave the libraries at the university behind and you get out and you do something.

So we packed a picnic lunch and tea and tools into the back of a rattly rainbow Volkswagen and drove into the Weinbergen (vineyards; literally “wine mountains,” which I think is much more poetic). In the late winter the vintners begin the process of pruning the grape vines in preparation for the next growing season, and I was lucky enough to be invited by one particular vine-pruner to tag along.

And it was marvelous.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe vineyards of the Rheingau are almost ridiculously steep, falling straight down to the banks of the river. The slopes are covered in slippery silver-blue or red slate. Standing upright requires strong legs and a good sense of balance; actually doing something at any level of efficiency while standing upright requires genuine skill.

In these vineyards, the steepness means that all of the work is still done by hand, using techniques that have been in place for centuries. Pruners now use battery-powered clippers, but the process is still the same: cutting away old or unwanted growth from each plant and training selected shoots to grow in the proper directions. It all sounds simple enough, but is in fact anything but–every plant is a decision, a tiny work of art, shaped and re-shaped over a period of decades by dozens of hands.


Stone steps are built into the walls to access lower terraces.

And so we worked. Or rather, J. pruned like a professional while I took pictures, did not fall off any walls, tried not to cut off the wrong things, and generally enjoyed myself more than I have in a long time.


Hands down the most excellent vine-pruner in the Rheingau.


Different types of slate.


Battery-powered clippers.


Yes, that’s me cutting grape vines in a flannel shirt from Vermont in a vineyard on the Rhine. With thousand-year-old-castle ruins in the background. Sometimes it is possible to get the miraculousness of existence into a photograph. 

I think the rest of the pictures speak for themselves. Even from the most distant of perspectives, the Rheingau in late February, perched on the dividing line between winter and spring, is pretty dang gorgeous.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt the end of the day, we hiked up to the very top of the ridge. Tired legs, chapped hands, lunch long forgotten. But the sun was slowly falling towards the mountains on the other side of Rhine and we didn’t want to go.

I’ve never been one for meditation in any traditional form. But this, I thought, sitting on a bench and looking at the mountains and not being alone, this comes pretty close.


A gazebo at the very top of the mountain, with a self-service shelf of wine and glasses for hikers.


Gloaming. Dämmerung.


Sunset. Sonnenuntergang.

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Travelogue LXIX: Snow


My roofs.


St. Stephan’s.

January 17th, 2016 Sometimes, you find yourself dancing in some dive bar in the Neustadt at four in the morning. And then sometimes you look out the window to find that it is snowing, really snowing, for the first time since last winter, and the entire world is delighted. You run to the window and laugh, and everyone runs to the window and laughs, and someone opens the door and white fat flakes blow on to the dance floor. You step into the street, and they melt on hot skin. Even the DJ is euphoric.

And then you wake up the next morning after three hours of sleep and take your camera and run out into the cold because this is something.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd then you skip back to your warm apartment to sleep off your hangover, and the air is full of church bells and the cafés full of Sunday-brunchers, and you are very much content.


The Sunday-brunchers.

Travelogue XXXI: Home


Oh rhythm of my heart is beating like a drum
with the words “I love you” rolling off my tongue

No never will I roam for I know my place is home
where the ocean meets the sky
I’ll be sailing

Rod Stewart

It’s almost surreal: two days ago I was drinking chai tea in a cafe across from the Mainzer cathedral, watching the stone turn red in the setting sun and the theater fill up with people. And now I am sitting in front of a fire in a drafty farmhouse in the middle-of-nowhere Vermont, where the air permanently smells like sheep manure and the farmers are just starting to tap the sugar maples. The terms of human existence are different here–dirty rubber boots and vet visits instead of European philosophy and champagne at the opera–but equally as beautiful. And in the end, it’s the life I know best. I was a bare-footed farm girl long before I knew the heady, complicated world of German literature even existed.


Headed home from the airport in Boston over Route 110–one of the prettiest drives in the state and, actually, in the world.



The state is full of Covered Bridges….


Will’s Store in Chelsea, VT, my home town–they make superb homemade ice-cream with a machine that dates back to before the first World War. Also, I saw more flags on the drive home than I saw during 8 months in Germany. America is a patriotic place; Germany is absolutely not.


South Royalton Food Co-op, twenty minutes down the road. We stopped to pick up some bread to go with dinner.


The pictures on the wall are of the farmers who stock the store—Buy Local at its best.

Country roads, take me home
To the place I belong.

John Denver


Home at last: the grand view of Grand View Farm.


Moses the fat barn cat. (photo: GVF)


Chore time. (photo: GVF)


Starting seeds in the Greenhouse. Note the snow drifts on the left-hand side–it’s over two meters in places.



The view from my bedroom window.


Wood fires.


I haven’t seen the stars in months. It is good to be home. (photo: Anna)


Nota Bene: Photos credited to Anna were taken by my insanely talented sister. 

Photos credited to GVF were filched from our farm website


Reading List II: Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer, Die Farm in den Grünen Bergen


The Zuckmayer’s farm was near Silver Lake in Barnard Vermont–it looks about the same today as it did in 1940.

 Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer: The Farm in the Green Mountains, 1949: part memoir, part diary, part fascinating account of rural life in 1940s Vermont, the state I grew up in. I’ve been slowly reading it since Christmas, mostly on the train between Mainz and Frankfurt. And, check it out–it’s even available in English!

The authoress Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer was an actress in Berlin in the 1920s, where she met her husband. Carl Zuckmayer was a prominent author and playwright from Mainz, where he is still quite a point of pride–I’ve seen his plays at the Mainzer Staatstheater, and gone to an exhibit about his life at the local library. They fled Germany with their two daughters in 1939 and, after a short stint in New York City, acquired a run-down farm in Barnard, Vermont. They were upper-class Europeans and artists, utterly without prior experience in farming or rural life, but they somehow made it all work.

In many ways, minus of course the exile and the upper-class-European-artist part, it’s the story of my parents, who also moved to Vermont decades ago to raise a family and start farming from the ground up, through trial and error and sheer force of will. I spent the first 18 years of my life on our sheep farm and Bed and Breakfast outside of Chelsea, another tiny village not all that far from Barnard. It’s a small world.


The rams’ shed on our farm after a snowstorm–cosy and picturesque, sure, but not fun if you’re the one who needs to bring them water twice a day.

I can understand so much of what Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer writes in the book–these are things that haven’t changed at all in the last century in Vermont, things I know every time I go back to visit. The sounds an old post-and-beam farmhouse makes when it gets cold, for instance, or the way the snowplow rattles the windowpanes at 4am, the way that all travel slows to a crawl during Mud Season, the vow that you make to yourself every year on slaughtering day to never eat meat again, the way you structure a day around caring for animals, what it means to make a living with your hands on a small piece of land that you own.

We seem to have traversed much of the same ground, too–she spends an entire chapter describing her monthly pilgrimages to the libraries, theater, and art galleries of Dartmouth College in Hannover, New Hampshire, that ivy-league sanctuary in the middle of the sprawling Connecticut River farmlands. I spent my teenage years driving an hour and a half over bad roads to sit in those same libraries, to look at the art and to attend live broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. To me, as to Alice, Dartmouth College was an oasis, a mecca, super-saturated with the sort of refined intellectual and artistic beauty that struggles to find a place in any rural landscape.

Above all, though, it’s the people I recognize most from her descriptions. The Vermonters–they haven’t changed a bit in the past century, and probably never will.  It’s all the same: the liberal politics and tough-as-nails self-sufficiency, the immediate and lasting suspicion of anyone not born in the state, the willingness to impart copious free advice at all hours of the day and night, the fierce devotion to place, tradition, community. She writes, “Vermont is a relatively poor state in comparison with the rest of America, but they do not shy away from their poverty, and they do not love wealth. Their autonomy and sense of balance grants them independence even in the most uncertain times, and gives them their sense of pride and fearlessness.” Indeed.


Mud Season, Vermont’s fifth season, at its best–the road that runs along side our farm last April.

On the other hand, though, there are many things I do not know at all in the world Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer describes. What it feels like to leave one’s family behind forever, or to live in a land of peace and plenty while one’s homeland is being torn apart by the bombs of the very country in which you have found shelter–I can’t say that I can relate to all that. And yet it was the experience of so many thousands of European intellectuals and artists from Alice’s generation, men and women who left Europe to start new lives in Los Angeles or New York, or on a farm in the backwoods of Barnard, Vermont.

With all that in mind, what has lingered with me the most after reading is the strength of Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer herself. Reading between the lines, it’s clear that she was the driving force in the family, and a vital support system for her husband who would rather have been back in Europe writing books and directing plays. It was because of her great will that her family was able to pull together in a new land, and because of her energy, curiosity, and good humor that they were able to thrive. That’s true heroism, there.