Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Olomouc, 4.7.03: Im Schatten, Poppy Fields, Holy Murals

Holiday at home. I had—how many? I’ve found almost 20, I think—ancestors who were Revolutionary soldiers or abetted the Revolution, including Sgt. Robert Leonard and Samuel Kerr, both killed in action. And I had at least one Loyalist ancestor, David Dinsmore, who was at some of the same battles as the Revolutionary ones, including King’s Mountain, fighting against them.

History. It’s so easy to choose the wrong side, as the Sudetendeutsch did, paving the way for their expulsion. The Czechs were justified in what they did, a fortiori after years of German Übermensch behavior towards them. And yet, they’ve lost much in the process, culturally and historically, as the U.S. perhaps did in its own “expulsions” of Loyalists.

How to live in history? Im Schatten, I’m convinced. More and more, I want to disappear, not to be here, to observe silently events that I do not try to control.

The row of houses across the street from the hotel, leading to a park, all with elaborate façades that look to be at least 18th-century: one is painted pink, the one beside it gold, then another pink, lighter and with a touch of brown mixed in, followed by beige handsome in the morning sun, light gold, dusky rose with yellow trim, and gold again. And all the street lights, I suddenly notice, are purple. Why?

The tree on the corner that I took to be fir in the rain is clearly not. Is it gingko biloba? Could be—it has that graceful swooping and drooping way of growing. But the trunk looks too dark and the leaves too thick.

How manifold are thy works, o Lord. In wisdom hast thou made them all. To think of a creator who relishes—sheer delight!—the plurality of creation.

Which means we must entertain the idea that God creates gay people to enliven creation. The burden of proof vs. that conclusion is on those who find homosexuality socially noxious. On what ground? The complementarity of male and female? If that’s so essential, why did Rome early on suppress coed monasteries? Rome exalts an all-male priesthood and hierarchy while telling us men need women to be complete?! (Hidden assumption, of course: women are there in their place.)

If homosexuality is so noxious to family, why has the “traditional” family declined while and when homosexuality was savagely repressed? It had done badly enough on its own two feet, thank you very much.

And what is the “traditional” family? I see, both now and throughout history, manifold forms of family.

No, the burden of proof is increasingly clear. Those favoring repression of gays (and of women) need to demonstrate why their position is not socially toxic.

Yesterday, the road from Libava to Budisov: much of it must be the very old road that ran between the places, since it’s cobbled. And out in the middle of nowhere, in no guidebook we have, a jewel of a Baroque church, rising in a small valley, a little jewel.

It’s a church dedicated to St. Ann, in the process of being restored, according to signs. It’s painted a bright pink with white trim, and has magnificent carved lintels. The central one had a cherub’s face that was especially attractive.

Signs told something of the history. The place was apparently called Altwasser. A Prof. Helmut Losert of Munich has written about it and its history and takes tours there. This was of interest to Steve, since one of the families that came to America with his Schnirchs and intermarried with them was the Losert family, and we did see the name often in the church books we studied in Olomouc, often spelled Loserth.

The whole was surrounded by a very old brick wall, recently restored where it was crumbling. There were benches under two huge old lindens buzzing with bees, where we had a lunch of farmer’s cheese, tomatoes, pickles, red cabbage and onions (also pickled), grapes, ham, bread, and beer. A pleasant respite in a pleasant place.

When we arrived, there were two older women and a man examining the church and the remains (very sparse, the pediments of ornate banisters to a staircase) of a monastery attached to it. As we ate, two more cars of sightseers arrived separately, all rather amazing, considering this was a very out-of-the-way place.

[On Wednesday, after we went to the Internet café, we went into an old Dominican (I believe) church of the Assumption of Mary. It had remains of gorgeous 14th-century frescoes.

iHiBut my point: it was full of people, old and young, with Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament followed by the Rosary. Young nuns in habits, engrossed in their prayers. Long-haired, thin young men kneeling at the back of the church on the hard marble with no support for their torsos.

It’s a scene I’ve seen in other churches here, though never quite so dramatic. It almost makes one think that old-time religion can and will return. And the piety is impressive, undeniably so.

But outside, life is going on, and it’s not moving in the direction the church would have people take. The young want to escape. Simon, the waiter, told us that. He’s back in Slatina only unwillingly to care for his dying father (who tells him he does nothing right) and will go to Australia again the instant the father dies, if immigration laws allow.

And they’re also clearly mating like rabbits, polymorphously so. Simon said that, more or less, and we’ve heard it from other young people. He’s going today with several “mates” and girls to south Moravia near the Austrian border. The implication, the winks and nods, were clear. It’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight, replete with bed-hopping, and Simon’s interest will not be only or primarily in the two girls.]

Entirely different theme: these piedmont villages and towns, the architecture, the air, the rows of fruit trees: they’re like no place in Germany so much as the subalpine regions of Württemburg, where we visited the Kuld Urort in Bubsheim several years ago. I suspect many of the early settlers of these German towns and villages were Württemburgers (and Ludwig Sponner told us as much) and had Swabian blood. I also suspect Switzerland and Bayern played a role in the development of these areas. If charming, the villages have a forlorn and earnest feel that I’ve found in Germany only in subalpine Württemburg. The burden of history is not all due to the expulsion of the Germans.

Everywhere we drive in this region, horse chestnut trees are blighted, brown, dying. This is a tragedy. In some areas, whole sections of road are planted with allées of them.

Writing now in Bautsch, to which we’ve returned. Steve hopes to do more research. This time, we drove in from the southeast rather than the southwest, as we did yesterday. The southeast road allows you to see the beautiful church with its twin onion towers on the hillside, the town nestled at its feet. It’s beautiful countryside, high fields of grain rolling to distant vistas with blue or fir-clad mountains all around.

Schloch/Slavkov: again, in the deep forest, which feels ominous on these days alternating between cloud, rain, and full sun (the latter now shining down on Budisov). It may at one time have been a beautiful “tief im Wald” place, but is now hideous. The army in Libava also apparently garrisoned here, and all the houses are gone. There are only ugly concrete apartment buildings and a dark wood town hall or train station, ominous looking.

As in Libava, people seem suspicious and unfriendly. I couldn’t wait to get away. There’s a plain dark-green cross marking the entry to the roadway leading to the town, making me think of massacres and mass burials in the woods, Nazi evil succeeded by Soviet deviltry.

The signs to Slavkov are turned backwards, with the one having a slash through it to greet you as you enter the town, the welcome sign facing you as you leave town. The whole place has a draconian feel to it, a word I choose deliberately in this area so close to mythic Transylvania and beset in the 1600s by witches and vampires.

Strdolesi/Mitwalde almost impossible to reach, only by a country road off the main highway. It’s idyllic, but, again, sad: very old buildings tumbling to the ground, that unkempt Slavic live-in-nature over-growth, geese and goats all over the village, something we’ve found in many of these small places.

The old cemetery was in pitiful condition, the stones overturned and broken—seemingly deliberately so—and everything deep in wild foxglove, bramble, and dock. We found no Ripers, the family name Steve was looking for, but did find all German names and German inscriptions. All the roadside shrines—in this area, invariably crucifixes, many with the Madonna underneath—are in German.

What can the people living in these places think about their own mixed heritage? There were candles, tea lights, all around the cemetery. Someone obviously goes there to commemorate dead who can only be their ancestors.

Yet the same someones have desecrated the cemetery and want it to revert to the wild. A foul-smelling pond is right beside the place, surely no accident. It’s overlaid with green scum. Steve thought it might be the town’s sewerage treatment area. I doubt anyone treats sewerage here, frankly. But the stagnant water has to add insult to injury, right beside the desecrated graveyard.

We had to pick a poppy—beautiful, white with purple spots—from a nearby field to dispel the foul odor from our nostrils. May its peace-inducing qualities rest both our hearts and those of all people broken by history.

Recollection from yesterday: Steve kept reading from the Czech-English dictionary as we sat in the garden of the people across from the Schnirch house in Bautsch. Yet what he was reading was the phonetic transliteration of the English word, for Czech speakers.

It was hilarious, as when someone thinks that speaking in his/her own language, very slowly, with a foreign accent constitutes communicating with the natives. But how to tell him?

A beautiful last evening in Olomouc. Sunlight just right, air cool without being wet and cold. If I were a poet, a Rilke or a who?. I’d have just the words to paint the picture—few words, pithy and incised, pregnant with meaning. The clear evening light illuminates the soft Baroque colors, picks up every nuance of the carved cornices. I see for the first time why Stanislaw Chojnacki says leaving something unrestored is the better choice.

Olomouc has wonderful fragments of murals—the ones in the Romanesque old bishop’s building (formerly thought to be a Premysid residence) beside the cathedral, the ones in the Dominican church of the Annunciation, and the two Steve and I saw today on a building near the Horni Namesti.

These, to me, are the best symbol of the region—its partly vanished but still present past, the trope partly emerging from the ruins, the evanescence of it all, on these borders where truth is always more evident in the self-proclaimed centers of power.

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