Monday, May 19, 2008

Braunschweig, 20.12.99: Garden Sumac and Phantasies

Just leaving Braunschweig, where we spent the night with M., and are headed to Bavaria. As we leave, I ask myself what makes M.’s house so restful.

Obviously, part of the answer is that she’s a holy, integrated woman, and has created around herself an outer environment that reflects her inner self. But there’s also the esthetic of her home (yes, home does apply here, rather than house).

There’s the white everywhere—marble windowsills full of white soup tureens of all sizes, many with plants (Alpenveilchen in full bloom, a rich salmon red above the green and bronze ivy-shaped leaves). Even in the bathroom, when I look up to the high windowsill, I see a white crock with a philodendron hanging out of it.

And white walls: in all the houses I’ve been inside in north Germany, the walls are painted white. Obviously, that’s the best way to maximize inside light, in this light-deprived land.

And there’s M.'s esthetic in general—the silver votives hanging from the crucifix, a woman wearing a hat and Trachten, a heart; the bronze statue amongst the tureens; the prints of her artist friend in Braunschweig on the walls; the painted Austrian farm Schrank; the obsidian Egyptian cat watching imperiously from the windowsill behind the dining table. And birds everywhere, of all types: a large sand crane atop the glass ring around the light above the table; the little chickadee, goldfinch, and purple finch we gave her perched in a philodendron in the window.

It’s an understated house, in the best sense of the word, a house in which order and regulation exist to allow spirit to emerge. I’m immensely drawn to such a place, but don’t think I have the wherewithal to achieve it. It takes resources, after all, to be able to be understated. One must have the ability to state before one can understate.

Thinking of how travel permits one to venture forth a bit. M. said last night that, in Germany, W. was always utterly reserved. But when they traveled, and he spoke other languages—particularly Italian, in which he was fluent—he became voluble. He assumed a non-German persona.

I am always so afraid of being hurt, that I rarely let myself out, even under circumstances where no one could know me—as in a foreign country. Nonetheless, I find that an inner self I dare not express freely “at home” does emerge—inside—when I travel.

I give myself permission to fantasize when I travel. Or ought I to write “phantasize,” since I’m surely treading well-trodden ground here, Jamesian ground, the ground of generations of effete bent scholars-writers-artists, who desire at a distance, who go to Europe to sigh and admire European tolerance, European frankness about little matters of desire.

It’s not a one-way street, cultural influence, is it? J. and M. have painted their apartment in Koblenz in American Southwestern colors, and have decorated with those colors and stylistic motifs from the Southwest.

Admittedly, these are Germans of a lower middle-class background, who love to come to America and buy a mobile home, trekking from Arizona to Florida and back. I have the impression that more cultured Germans would die rather than admit a wish to borrow so obtrusively from the infantile culture.

But the borrowing back does go on, both obtrusively and unobtrusively. Every bus stop is plastered with posters advertising some cigarette, a rugged young man holding it between his fingers and pointing it to the vagina of a woman in short shorts swinging her crotch towards him, with the slogan, Try it!, auf Englisch.

And at the high-culture level, one plays a bit of Billie Holliday, a bit of jazz, as one drinks one’s Jack Daniels in the evening.

The impossibly bright colors of the American advertising, with their promise of instant earthly paradise, look especially shocking in the East German Saxon towns we’re now driving through. We’ve just passed through Bernberg, en route south and east to Halle. Gray, dirty, full of decayed churches and grand houses. Here, the bright bits of advertising are the only bits of color to be found: too bright, too false in their promise of a paradise only money can buy.

And in a farmer’s yard, we’ve just seen a stand of sumac, obviously planted as a garden focal point. Surely sumac aren’t a native German tree? I think of them as native to North America—but, then, don’t the Lebanese use powdered sumac berries to flavor food?

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