Thursday, July 31, 2008

Hamburg 30.12.99: Millennium Approaching, Past Dragging Along

A feeling of finality, as the end of our trip approaches, as well as the end of a year that ends a millennium (no problem for me, calling 2000 the first year of the new millennium). This journal, too, is soon to end, physically.

I’m sitting in the dim light of this Missionsakademie room, a room unbelievably ill-appointed. Suddenly thoughts of that “other house,” on Lee St. in Little Rock, come to mind.

Why does that house haunt me? At some level, I know: some amazing traumas occurred to me there. It’s also the first house we lived in that I can remember with more or less total clarity. And it’s the house where I first went to school, which is to say, first began to read, and in doing so, found ways to escape the suffering my parents imposed on me.

At another level, though, I’m not sure why this house haunts me, why it won’t let me go. It’s like the idea that I should write: just there, inside, repressed but constantly reasserting itself.

Perhaps I should write about the house? If so, how, what? Am I in Little Rock again to retrieve something, some connection to my puer self that will free me to be creative.

I don’t know. I fear I grasp at straws. Nothing seems to manifest redemption to me; at least, not the kind of redemption I need. I’ve felt so leaden and tired on this trip, unable to think and write (and, my mind whispers, full of dread).

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Hamburg 29.12.99: Pirouettes and Eyes That Can But See

And the recurring dreams continued even in Braunschweig, mixing people from that horrible organization, Regional AIDS Interfaith Network (RAIN) Arkansas with dreams of the house I remember best from childhood—the one on Lee St.—with dreams of my mother buried and yet alive to cause grief.

Driving now from Braunschweig to Hamburg, after two days with Mareile, M., B., and their son C. Weather’s sunny for the moment, but that means little in Germany: at any moment it might cloud over and rain or snow.

And what to write about? I feel a great lethargy, as though I could lie down and sleep as I did on the way from Bavaria to Braunschweig two days ago. In Braunschweig, too, I slept long hours each night.

It’s tiring being in strange, and often inconvenient, surroundings. I hate German beds, those heavy duvets full of feathers that activate all my allergies, those almost non-existent (and again feather-filled) pillows, the hard little mattresses. And the smoke in Mareile’s house (she and Maria smoke) does also do me in—though I feel very ungrateful grousing about people whose hospitality is so gracious.

Speaking and listening to a language you have only partial proficiency in is also extremely tiring. There have been evenings in the past week and a half when I’d have given my kingdom to go early to bed and read, rather than sitting around eating and talking, and continuing to talk after the evening bread.

But this tiredness goes deeper, of course. As the dreams tell me, it’s about the ugly self-righteous treachery of the RAIN folks, and about unresolved family issues.

And being away gives me no real distance, no new insight. So many of my life experiences have just been there, to be lived through, to be lived around. They’re there as the scalding hot pain of recent experience, or the dull ache of remembered suffering.

How I wish that something that would lift us up, beyond further outrageous assault, would happen to us suddenly. How I wish I might suddenly be given a voice, to speak back to my tormentors. But I’ve wished this so long now, and no redeemer seems to come. I just live through one more grinding experience.

+ + + + +

In Braunschweig yesterday, with B. and M. We went inside the Dom, and it was moving to see again that ancient crucifix Mareile loves so much. Sitting in the chair in front of it was an elderly woman bundled in winter clothes, praying, as Mareile did when we were last there, open-eyed, with deep presence to the cross.

Seeing this made me think of how Lutheran piety is so cross-centered. The German soul seems attracted to this theme, to the starkness of this plain, striking crucifix against a white and unadorned wall.

In the church, a feeling that I must write. (But about what? And how, given the life I’m forced to read?)

+ + + + +

Also in Braunschweig, M. wanted to take B. to a shop where she’d set aside two outfits, both black, one with a short skirt and the other with a long skirt. We sat as she modeled each in turn, and the short again, since B. required another look.

Fascinating. M., a perfectly capable and well-educated woman, playing the role of sex-slave to her husband, in order to obtain these clothes. She pranced. She tossed her hair back. She held out her arms and pirouetted on tiptoe, al lthe while giving pleading, sultry, little-girl looks at B. Since just the night before M. had told Mareile in my presence how hard life with B. is, I could see these scenes only as a cleverly arranged act.

And a good act: M. ended up getting both outfits, to the tune of some $700. At some level, B. must have known he was being toyed with, and was doomed to pay through the nose. He, in turn, toyed back, the trapped mouse cheeking the cat before the feline pounce.

B. required multiple flounces on M.’s part, as he critiqued and deliberated—the long dress was a little outmoded without being utterly out of style; the short dress, which M. had evidently chosen to tease B. into buying the long one, was preferable. Knowing he was trapped, B. made M. model the sexy dress over and over, forcing her to play the sex-slave role she’d chosen in order to get the long dress.

Why did I see all this? Is it a scene that would happen in America? I think it could, though the heavy-handed German male control of the wife’s money (M. works, after all) geht’s nicht in Amerika.

But being out of one’s cultural element can often make one see what one simply misses in one’s own culture. It’s eye-opening, is travel.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Oberpfalz, Kreis Waldmünchen 27.12.99: Duck and Dumplings and Dreams of Home

Preparing to drive back to Braunschweig this morning. Past several days snowy and rainy, with ice on Christmas day, when Steve, Hermann, and I drove to Regensburg to spend several hours with his son Reinhard. A walk around the Altstadt in the ice and snow, the cobblestones making the walk dangerous, since they accumulate glaze ice (Glateis) quickly.

Glateis: glaze ice—do the English inherit the term from the Germans, or vice versa? In Germany, I seem to keep meeting some Urquelle of my own imagination. Though German seems more specific in the way it names concrete reality—a language made for ordering and managing the world?

+ + + + +

A German housewife can work busily all morning in the kitchen with a duck, potatoes, salad ingredients, banging pots and pans with great intensity, and when she’s finished, will have produced merely a duck, some potatoes, and a salad. It’s a culture that seems curiously tone-deaf when it comes to the possibilities of food. The duck is considered good if it’s well-roasted, not well-seasoned. And the potatoes vary only to the extent that they take different forms, from parslied, fried, to Knödels. None of these presentations takes away their essential potatoness.

We ate Ente and Knödels on Christmas day at the Alte Linde beside the Donau and the Steinerbrücke. We ate Ente and Knödels at the Ederers on Stephen’s day. For supper on Stephen’s day, we had Ente and Knödels at the S.’s.

+ + + + +

Leave-taking: Marcel Proust was right, Partir, c’est mourir un peu. The birds slowly circling the snowy fields remind me of the ducks over the rice stubble as we drove back and forth to Arkansas in that awful winter my mother came back from Sri Lanka.

Somehow, the past days, the experience of being in Germany this winter melds with the experience of taking care of (taking leave of?) my mother. I haven’t yet fully believed that all this happened, her decline, the move back to Arkansas, the nursing home. Like so much in my life, this sequence of events has no name. It’s just there, in memory and experience, beyond any language I’ve learned to speak.

I know that this experience is melded with being in Germany because of my dreams. Ever since the day or so before Christmas, I’ve had recurring dreams of home, unsettling ones. Home follows us like the whipped cur wherever we go.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Oberpfalz, Kreis Waldmünchen 25.12.99: Playing Putti and Approaching Millennium

Millennium approaches . . . . Heinrich Böll, Missing Persons and Other Essays, trans. Leila Vennewitz (Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1994), “Missing Persons”:

"It is not the permanent I am after but the present that has become the past. Not what is told, not even what is true, and certainly not what is eternal. I want the present of those who belong to the past . . . . I want the one hair of the head that has fallen to the ground” (pp. 7-8).

+ + + + +

Those stories Aunt Kat used to tell us at night, when we were all snuggled into bed upstairs with her in my grandmother’s winter-cold attic bedroom: she’d carry them along and then suddenly, precipitously end them with a boom. The protagonist would die cruelly and unexpectedly; the beautiful maiden would, beyond all prediction, choose the frog and not the handsome prince.

I understand the temptation. In part, it’s the thrill of hearing the children who are hanging on one’s every word shriek with horror at the outrageous dénoument which precedes even the noument.

It’s also the irresistible attraction of the end. If the end is there, and is inevitable, then why not bring it onstage now, and save oneself the trouble of all the of the noument?

But was it also the authorial act of ownership? It was, after all, her story, and she could take it where she wished, or let the story take her where it would.

+ + + + +

Driving now to Regensburg. Still in the country lanes of the Oberpfalz. This is a landscape that is always pretty to the eye. “Pretty” is the appropriate word. The rolling hills and village churches tucked in their folds, the snow-covered fields, the mist-shrouded hilltops in the distance—these aren’t dramatically beautiful, but they are decidedly pretty. In summer, the hills smile, showing all their dimples; in winter, they fold their white mantles coyly over themselves and take their rest.

(God. Who wrote those sentences?)

Midnight Mass in an Oberpfälzer village: everyone walks. No one talks to anyone else. Regina sprints ahead and sits downstairs, presumably with the women; we sit upstairs, and I can’t see down.

The upstairs balcony is full of older men, all stocky and placid in the stifling and very rigid little pews—that is, they make one sit bolt upright, and the back of the pews catches one right across the upper back. In addition to the old men and the two foreigners are young couples smelling of the last cigarettes they hurriedly finished before coming into the church.

The Mass is theater, a code I can’t quite grasp. It begins with a literal theatrical performance, a play by a troupe of young folks. All’s in Bayerisch.

Then on to the liturgical theater. For the most part, we in the balcony watch. I have no choice; I know none of the responses and prayers in German, not even the Our Father. Why the others remain silent, I have no idea, since the code is unknown to me. I can only assume that, in this Catholicism still so caught in the Baroque moment of the Counter-Reformation, the point is to watch—to watch a sacred play unfold. The point’s to be there, to affirm one’s national (i.e., Bavarian) cultural identity.

Communion comes. Several old men stand to watch who goes to the communion table. Only 2 or 3 leave the balcony. Judging from our experience at Fronleichnam, and the paucity of communicants from the balcony, I assume that the numbers are very low.

All the while, the organ plays a jaunty little tune like the tune a game-show plays as the contestants deliberate over their replies. We’re up against the organ. Unconsciously, I’m tapping my feet to the sprightly little tune. Steve reaches over to stop me, whispering that I’m bouncing the whole pew.

Play seems to be a big concept in Baroque Catholicism. Light plays across the golden folds of the altar and statues; the putti play, sometimes naughtily, on the pillars above the altar. All is light, smiling, pretty—but to my untutored eye, with its inability to read the code—without depth. This is a deeply enculturated Catholicism, with (seemingly) little critical distance from the shortcomings of the culture it inhabits.

I wonder: is it the same in the Eifel? There, the old Romanesque and Gothic churches remain, not overbuilt with spun-sugar Rococo ornament, as in Bavaria. In the Eifel, I felt a darker, more mysterious spirit—along with poverty, backwardness, a sense of the cultural isolation that doesn’t seem to be present in Bavaria.

And over all these Catholic Christmas festivities the old pope presided, both metaphorically (since he wasn’t in Germany) and literally (since he presides over the system that very much affects life here).

We saw him on t.v. last night, live from the Vatican, draped in some kind of multicolored silken shawl that didn’t seem to be a liturgical garment, per se. His face was very unattractive, set, unsmiling, his hooded eyes peering out now and again in an almost demented, barely comprehending, way, as people from Asia and Polynesia and everywhere else brought gifts to him. They have been permitted no ecclesial voice under this papal regime. But they can be ornamental children at play before the unbending old man who sways the world in his multicolored shawl.

I don’t like this old man, and feel defensive about saying this. It seems very ungracious to take pot shots at a doddering, old, and very sick man.

But I haven’t disliked him only when he became old. I’ve disliked him all along. He reminds me of a Renaissance pope in his single-minded determination to rule. And if we can now look back and decry the abuses of power of those popes, why not of this one?

This man has hurt very many people, in his determination to safeguard a system of ecclesiastical power, a culturally determined and mutable way of organizing and administering the church. And he has seemed not to care. He has not grown old gracefully, because he has not been gracious—full of grace—to people in his lifetime.

At his death, and it will be soon, he’ll be lionized—and lionized by all the worst people in the world. He has defended male power and privilege; he has given the appearance of defending the grossest capitalists possible. The royalty of Europe traipsed before him last night, celebrating the sole institution left in the world that takes their titles for granted as more than mere words.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Oberpfalz, Kreis Waldmünchen 24.12.99: Circling Crows and Fir-Clad Hills

Heilige Abend. In today’s local paper, Bayerwald-Echo from Cham, I read in the personals column an ad from a woman, “Ich will keine Schokolade; ich will ein Mann.” This in bold letters. The ad goes on to say that the man should enjoy old movies and should be nice and optimistic. Well, yes. Who doesn’t need such a man? Heilige Abend . . . .

I must be wrong about white as the interior color in north Germany. Here, too: every room in this house is painted white. Most are also stippled or stuccoed. Upstairs, there’s a kind of faux stucco wallpaper, unobtrusively plastic, with little designs—leaves, etc.—of pale gray and brown. Germans like things cool, understated, “natural” in a very well-defined and entirely artificial sense.

And what a house this is, in a village the backside of nowhere. Steve’s doing the ironing now in the Badzimmer, the main bathroom for the house, downstairs. Hermann built it, as he did, I suppose, everything in the house. It’s so cool, beautiful, well-appointed, with white tiles (again, rippled) interspersed with plane tan ones with Egyptian motifs. The large elevated tub is designed to be used for Kur, with bath salts.

The surprise is to find such a well-designed, well-appointed house in a tiny village in an out-of-the-way place. These aren’t people of great affluence, obviously; they’re village folks. In Germany, the standard of living is so much higher for people who would, in other locales, be close to the bottom of the economic ladder. Here, there barely seems to be a bottom.

Mind not nimble today. We sat around all day yesterday. The plan was to go, with Hermann, to Weissensulz and various churches he’s redone—Bieberbach, Heinrichskirche—after they had shopped.

But when they came back at noon, they said travel to the Czech Republic seemed dangerous, due to the forecast of rain (Der Wetterberricht hat Regen ausgesacht, said one of those phrases in a German lesson book that seems never to leave the mind when more useful ones remain maddeningly beyond memory's grasp). So the day was a sit-around kind of day, and I feel dull and a bit edgy as a result.

I wish I could draw or paint the view from the window. I’m looking south and east, from the Wintergarten room. Sky is completely gray, but to the east, where the sun’s behind the clouds, there are bright spots of pale yellow light in the gray, where the clouds are less gray. All this over the roofs of neighbor houses, themselves the same pale yellow color. Hermann’s workshop is also on the southeast side of the house, itself the same peach color as the house, a very pleasant color. These muted pastels stand out against the unbroken white of fields and roofs.

To the south, in the distance, a dark, tree-covered hilltop. The hills are evergreens, but whether pines, junipers, or some other winter evergreen, I don’t know. There’s also a large old barn on this side of the house, of a gray, unpainted wood that seems to be commonly used by farmers here. In front of it are a greenhouse where the S.’s grow tomatoes and cucumbers in summer, and Hermann’s wood-drying shed, with neatly stacked pieces of wood he uses for his art work.

Further afield are snow-covered fields, and lives of fruit trees. Over the fields large blackbirds (crows?) are slowly gliding, seeking mice or other small animals in the snow, I imagine.

+ + + + +

Home follows us like the whipped cur wherever we go. From my car window, Bach playing on the radio, I watch the snow-covered hills of the Bavarian Oberpfalz pass . . . by . . . . They stretch over dark-firred mountains in the Czech Republic, Europe’s dark heart.

Then out of the corner of my eye, I catch a bird slowly circling the fields; and I’m back in Arkansas, on I-40 headed east, flocks of ducks and wild geese rising from the rice stubble with morning promise more than mouth can say, as my mother lies lost in a hospital bed I cannot reach.

+ + + + +

Heilige Abend has come and gone, so to speak. It is evening, 6:20, and we’re waiting for the “midnight” Mass at 10. But anti-climax is in the air. The family has gathered, R. from Regensburg and J. from Rötz, with her husband E. and child S.

The “children” seemed eager to come for a brief time and then go. They have their own lives. R. has moved far from his village origins. Hermann tells us R. did very well in school, and his friend is a Juristin. J., by contrast, did poorly, so that R. went to Gymnasium, J. to a trade school. R. speaks impeccable English, and J. hardly any—a surprise, given her generation. J. married an auto mechanic.

The village seems to be a place to be from. The city—Rötz, all as it is, and Regensburg—exerts a well-nigh irresistible attraction. The parents in the village represent the life to be left behind, so visits are infrequent, politely cool, and fraught with unspoken tensions. The village parents have come to prefer their quiet life in the country, which the children (and the unspoken tensions they introduce by their visits) unsettle. And the children are happy to make their perfunctory visits, pay filial respect, and return to their more exciting lives in the city.

Steve and I always seem to find ourselves in the anti-climactic moment, with the left-behind old people. I’d like (I think?) the excitement of a party tonight, or at least a walk along a city street with brightly lit windows.

Instead, it will be 10 P.M. “midnight” Mass in the village. I’ll very much on display, the American guest.

+ + + + +

R. tells me the line about not wanting chocolate, but a man, is from a song of the 1960s or 1970s. So much for my amusement at it. And what of the ad for Thürn u. Taxis beer I saw in the paper today, which very much amused me? It showed a woman sipping beer from a large glass, here eyes closed in ecstasy.

What struck me as so funny when I saw it was the use of a woman, a sexy woman, to sell beer. Beer is a man’s drink, a football drink. A woman drinking beer, geht’s nicht. Men enjoying being men don’t want to be reminded of women, except as sex objects, ornaments draped across car hoods, perhaps. They certainly don’t want to be reminded of women’s sexuality.

In America, women don’t drink beer, at least not in beer commercials. In Germany beer is equally a woman’s drink, so the use of female sexuality to sell beer is perhaps not so strange after all.

What one culture sees as natural/normal, the-way-things-are, another culture raises its eyebrows at.

Distracted as I write. We’re in the Wohnzimmer with the lighted Christmas tree. The television is on. It’s a program about the history of Stille Nacht. I’m shocked at how well I understand it.

A small male choir (it’s the choir that’s small) is singing, as the camera pans across an 18th-century crèche that was in the church where Stille Nacht was first performed. It’s all very appealing.

But . . . who was it recently who told me of how pro-Nazi most Austrians really were? All day, as Hermann drove us to various churches in the countryside where he has renovated statues and paintings, I kept thinking, How did any of this help, when Nazi times came?

This is not a Protestant question. It’s not about the efficacy of church art and devotions related to such art. It’s about the efficacy of any rituals and devotional practices, when culture beckons or evil presses. If all this wonderful church art in Bayern bespeaks a deep-generations deep-piety, then why was the whole countryside not up in arms, as Hitler came to power? Why did anyone fight in his army? Why does every church have a conspicuous monument to the dead of the two world wars?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Oberpfalz, Kreis Waldmünchen 23.12.99: Boehmerwald and Dark Heart of Europe

When did I last write in this journal, and what has happened since then? Well, yesterday a trip into the Czech Republic to visit the archives in Pilsen.

Hermann S. drove us early, before sunrise, to Waldmünchen, where we met Georg. It was magical to see the snow-covered hills and little villages in the half dark.

Georg and his wife Resi met us in their house, both looking rather worried, she above all. We gave her presents, which she only half-acknowledged as she fussed over Georg, handing him a lunch (their word, pronounced German-style) she had prepared. Georg told us later she was concerned about road conditions, and both worried about the car being stolen. It was also his first trip driving to Tschechien; he’s gone before, but always with someone else driving.

The border crossing (just the other side of Waldmünchen) was a little tense. Normally, they only look at his passport and wave him on, Georg said. But Steve’s passport they took inside their station, and we waited a full five minutes as they . . . what? Checked some computer database? And why? Do Americans come into the Czech Republic and cause trouble? Or did they suspect he was not a bona fide American?

Georg says things were considerably friendlier when the border had just re-opened. For various reasons, tensions are now re-asserting themselves. The mix of surface joviality with underlying brutality in the border guards: it always makes me nervous, and cast a pall over the trip into this former Soviet fiefdom.

Almost immediate after we entered Tschechien, Georg showed us the site of a former Böhmisch (i.e., German) village which the Czechs razed completely when they expelled all Germans in 1946. There’s no sign of it now, at least not under the snow. Evidently, to keep the border secure, brush was allowed to grow up all along the border, and according to Georg, an electric fence was erected the length of the border.

The ridge of mountains that form the beginning of the Böhmerwald is another barrier, and must be part of the reason (the natural reason) that the Grenze between Bayern and Böhmen ran just here. The people, at least the German-speaking ones, were, after all, the same as the Bavarians. Borders are often such unnatural divisions that it helps to find a natural barrier to justify them.

In the snow, the mountainous, forested area is pretty, but also a bit forbidding. Without modern means of travel, it must have been very forbidding. Even yesterday, there was beaten-down snow on the roads. I can understand Resi’s apprehension: had it snowed again before our return—or, worse, rained—these roads would have been well-nigh impassable.

There’s a stillness in the woods I notice often in middle-European areas, here abetted by history. Passing through the Böhmerwald, one feels as if one is entering the very heart of Europe—I’m tempted to write, “the dark heart.” I had read the day before that the east-west watershed of the continent does run very close to Steve’s ancestral village, Weissensulz. That makes the heart metaphor more compelling.

And Georg tells us that the forest-and-mountain-chain acts as a weather barrier, blocking the very cold weather from Russian in winter. The barrier also blocks wet weather from the Atlantic, so that Böhmen has drier, sunnier weather in summer than Bayern has. Georg maintains that the Böhmisch farmers were outstanding, and had larger, more prosperous farms than their Bavarian cousins had.

The weather barrier manifested itself almost immediately, as we drove into heavy fog for miles and miles, the east side of the forest. Here, one begins to wind through small, very grim viallages, most of them at one time German, although one we passed through had always been Czech, according to Georg, who also says that the German villages were at one time prosperous, cheery, well-maintained.

Not now. Now, all these places—anyplace we saw en route to Pilsen—look like the backside of nowhere. I try to imagine the life of, say, a teenager in such a place. At least in winter, everything seems dirty, deprived, geographically, culturally, and spiritually closed in. Perhaps some other, more appealing, life is going on inside the apartment buildings and houses we passed, but not in the street—not to my eye, at least.

On to Pilsen: also exceedingly dirty, industrial, and forbidding, though the downtown squares by night, as we left for our drive back, were pretty, with Christmas lights and lots of people shopping in the evening. The city seemed more active by night than it was by day, when we arrived.

Steve had good luck in the archives, as he, Georg, and I pored over 18th- and 19-century records of the Weissensulz parish and its mother parish, Heiligenkreuz. We were able to follow the Steinsdörfer line back into the 1600s, always in Weissensulz, where Steve’s ancestors were scribes, teachers, then sievemakers and farmers.

I got little feel for Czechs and Czech culture on this quick trip. The people we met in the archives were friendly, trying out a few words of English and laughing at their attempts. We had to communicate in German. They, the way they live, seem lost somewerhe in the 1940s or 1950s. There’s just not anywhere near the level of material comfort you find in Germany, where everything’s so cushy and well set-up, or in the U.S. At least, if the material comfort’s there, it’s not immediately apparent to the eye of a casual observer.

And everywhere, all over Western Bohemia, industrial pollution hangs like a heavy gray curtain, compounded in winter by the brown coal (or so it’s called in German) the Czechs burn. Its foul smell is everywhere; you can’t even shut it out of the car, as you drive. It’s one of the reasons so many buildings are begrimed.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Oberpfalz, Kreis Waldmünchen, 21.12.1999: Winter Gardens and Blue Hills of Bohemia

*In Bavaria, at Steve’s cousins’ in the Oberpfalz. I’m sitting in a room they call the Wintergartenzimmer, off the kitchen at the back of the house. It has windows on two sides, floor to ceiling, and on the side that joins the kitchen, a beautiful corner stove for heat. This has a marble or perhaps faux marble top, resting on a stone base that forms the top of the stove. The stone is graven. A similar stone is beneath the stove.

The room has a tile floor of light tan, and white walls. In the middle is a table with an old-seeming sewing machine for its base. I feel quite sure Hermann S. built the room. He’s amazingly talented. He paints, gilds and repaints church statues, works in wood.

It’s a simple room, but so esthetically pleasing. Atop the stove are two ebony statues, I think of Masai people, since there is a similar statue upstairs that Hermann tells us comes from the Masai people. One the wall over my shoulder is a statue of St. George killing the dragon. The saint has a brightly colored cape, and the base on which the statue sits is gilded—Hermann S.’s own work. The Bavarians don’t leave their saints in church; they bring them home.

Over the table is a light fixture made from what appears to be an old oxen yoke, of darkened wood and leather with iron studs. The door to the room is plain wood, but ornamented with a carved scroll beneath the window. Outside, as I look at the peach-colored stucco walls of the house, I see that Hermann S. has painted scrolls of gray, yellow, and brown above and below the window—the Bavarian sensibility, to ornament.

It snowed last night and during the previous day, perhaps for days before here. The snow must be about 10 inches deep, but the temperatures are just above freezing, so the snow is packing slowly. Rain is predicted for Wednesday—the 23rd. It so, I hope it washes the ice and snow off the roads, so that a trip to Weissensulz will be possible. Getting here yesterday afternoon was a bit tricky. Dark had begun to fall as we left the autobahn and started our trek through the Oberpfälzisch hills and villages. Several times, the care went into skids when we tried to stop and turn. Steve’s expertise pulled us out.

Very peaceful hear, the snow overlaying everything, the stove purring efficiently in the corner. But quiet for the visitor. I feel in my bones that if I lived here, I’d soon find it very unquiet. There is, almost literally, nothing to do, not even a shop or a bakery. The young leave, as they leave the Eifel. For those whose families have long been established, as the S.’s have, it’s home, and Hermann S.’s house shows that one can make a life here, a pleasant one. Still, a sadness hangs over the place, the sense that a way of life is soon to pass, as the young go to Rötz or father afield to Regensburg, and the parents nurture the village—for whom?

The sadness of any passing. What were those lines I thought of yesterday, as drove, one of those many blockbuster opening sentences I devise, never to complete the story they begin? “Being Irish, they enjoyed reciting the names of things, especially things that have passed from the earth. My grandmother used to recite the names of apples she knew in her youth, which were no more: Yates, Mollie’s Delicious, the Cullasaja, and on and on, a formidable litany. And when she’d take me to her attic to explore the contents of trunks up there—her mother’s, Kate Ryan the immigrant, her brother John’s, who died at her house, her mother-in-law’s—there would be lessons in forgotten quilt patterns, the Double Wedding Ring, Geese A-Flyin’, Broken Dishes. Many of the unquilted tops in her mother’s trunk she had pieced along with Grandma Kate. To see them was to remember a whole history now goine, since each quilt top incorporated pieces taken from the clothes of family members no longer alive—the black silk dresses of Kate herself, who was perpetually in mourning for a lost child, the bright sprigged gingham of little Lizzie who died as a girl, or the blue denim workpants of Tommy, who had fallen dead hoeing cotton one hot summer day.”

Frau S. comes and goes as I write, a stricken look on her face. Unlike her husband, who’s solid and very relaxed, she flits nervously here and there. Even in Germany, I’ve never seen a house so immaculate. When we were here at Fronleichnam, she was preparing her yard for the procession by pouncing like a bird on infinitesimal pieces of detritus in the grass, as we men sat talking in the evening air.

There’s something fierce in the busyness, the cleanliness of German woman, something I wouldn’t want to encounter in an enemy. Even as I write, she’s moving purposefully across the snow-covered driveway with a pail in her hand, talking to a neighbor all the while, poised as if to run back inside to complete her chores. She has an apron on, of course, that blue work apron that seems standard for so many village women.

What she tells me when she flits in and out, I’m never entirely sure. She speaks broad Bavarian, rapid-fire, in a guttural, forceful tone. She’s brought a carafe of tea, and is telling me how to line up the red dot with the opening. And now she has bottles of mineral water, lemonade, and homemade apple juice. I think she’s saying—yes, I do understand this clearly—that the apple juice is cold from the cellar, and I shouldn’t drink it cold for fear of harm to my throat.

They eat only bio food. No white sugar or flour, only whole grain and brown sugar from Africa. Breakfast this morning was a very delicious muesli with grated apples and grains. Dinner last night was wonderful—a fresh trout fried in butter with almonds (truite almandine), served with parsley potatoes and salad—a really good salad of onion, bell pepper, lettuce, and tomato, with a simple vinaigrette. The dressing was the first non-sweet, non mayonnaise or cream dressing I’ve had on this trip to Germany.

*This posting resumes a travel narrative whose last installment was posted on this blog on 12 May. Now that I've re-located my misplaced travel journal, I can complete the saga of this particular trip to Germany.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Shannon, 4.7.90: In the End Is the Beginning

Waiting in Shannon airport for our flight to be called. Horribly smoky—in fact, think I’ll wait till I’m on the plane to write more.

Over the Atlantic now, noon Atlanta time, having just eaten wretched airline food. Why this trip?—that’s the refrain that keeps going through my head. Have hesitated all day to write at all because I feel so full of gloom, shrouded or swathed in a cloud of it. But just now a thought struck me that seems to point a way.

On the one hand, so much was wrong about the trip. Wrong in its very conception—hurtling across the sea to fall here and there, flit about à l’Américain, seeing nothing but one’s own miserable self all around. The tourist American. Justifiably despised, scorned, ridiculed by all the world.

How did it happen that I fell into this trap? Most of all, being hooked into traveling with people who are not congenial to me and who are as ignorant as the day is long? Trying to see and do everything and thus nothing. The one dominant emotion I feel about it all is frustration—a tired frustration at only skimming the surface. I’ve traveled in a culture-bubble—and one reinforced by my own emotional state—and have hardly met a resident of the countries in which I’ve traveled.

But the ray of hope. If I ask myself what impression from the trip has been lasting, what points in a utopian direction, it was a few isolated experiences in Hamburg. Above all, the evening I spent in conversation with theologians from all around the world. That night lit something in me—a feeling of humble joy that I am somehow present within the upper room of a new Pentecost, thinking and praying and acting with others around the world who hear the call to continue faith and work for justice; and a desire to spend some time in Hamburg studying. This seems a “real” projection of my future because a) I never would have thought it, b) several people urged me to do it, and c) the thought brings great hope.

What brought all this to mind again now was a stray recollection of Dorothee Sölle’s lecture. Had one asked me at the time what I got from it, I would have said nothing. I was tired; I don’t speak German well. But the recollection of it is tinged with much brighter colors: serious students engaged in serious listening and dialogue—a roomful of intent faces as the bright but waning light of evening poured through the tall windows of the lecture hall. I really do want to go back.

Because the future is the not yet that we can probe only in fantasy, all else I can say now is only postscript to the already, and a sorry postscript at that. I am really very tired of analyzing/critiquing/complaining. Want to shut that book and begin a new and better one. Criticism and hope. Was it on this trip I dreamt Tad D. critiqued my solidarity book as not adequately Christian because too pain-sans-hope-centered? If so, then the trip itself is prodding forth some necessary and painfully healing recognitions.

Life is journey. This trip has been a journey within a journey, a parenthetical but not extrinsic experience of that journey. In that sense, pilgrimage and moment of grace. At the crudest level, grace because a privilege few people have in life.

What I think I’m beginning to see in this pilgrimage is that the journey is dreadfully difficult, fraught with dangers and monsters unforeseen—the old maps of Europe that show all the terra and mare incognita west of Europe as inhabited by sea monsters. We struggle against principalities and powers, and in every age these forces, monsters, have new shapes. The Hydra myth speaks to us today.

Among the monsters I see are my own pettiness and hopelessness, and perhaps above all the woeful way I cling to my wounds and expect to be consoled, when I must bear them inconsolable. I also look at K. and A. and wonder despairingly if one simply lives one’s life and dies, having trudged the same old treadmill to the end. Above all, what they say to me and I fear the most is that one becomes trapped in ugly relationships and the personae they create. I write re: how I sometimes feel loathing towards Steve. What I loathe perhaps more is what I am in relationship to him—a coiled spring, always expecting yet another outrageous blow, ready to strike back. I want no more of this.

But pilgrimage is also what Patrick Leigh Fermor calls a time of gifts. I’m not sure why I find myself unable to see the gifts. I suspect that a lot of it has to do with being always disappointed and (as I perceived it) misunderstood as a child (exhibit those wounds again!). What I really need (why am I using that word over and over—really?) is to let go, stop all the scheming and let be—what will be. This not as a fatalistic resignation but as hopeful expectation.

Ultimately, all journeys are deathward. Even when we tango hardest, we do the danse macabre. Grinning death capers with us and woos us to his arms. This need not be a grotesque recognition. What it ought to tell us, and oh I know how preachy it sounds, and how far I am from really (again!) believing it—what it ought to tell us is the stark, liberating truth of our human condition. Without our help He doth us make—we are creatures called and loved incredibly into being by a God whose mirthful way for us is beyond our ken. And I affirm this in the face of the outrageous suffering of so many in our world, not wishing to diminish or gloss over or falsely apotheosize that suffering in any way.

In face of death: life either has meaning or it does not. If not, it seems well-nigh intolerable to go on. If it does, then one must live lifewards simultaneously that one lives deathwards. What this means I confess I don’t have the faintest idea. But I think and hope (really!) that I can begin trying.

This may sound absurd, but I have an almost fetishistic sense that much that has happened in my life has been revelatory in the raw and primitive way that Rudolph Otto writes about. Hell—I’m fancying it up. What I mean to say is that things have happened to me and still do, and I have great trouble welcoming them. I also feel over-privileged and guilty—just leave lil ole me alone and I’ll be good and quiet and won’t get any more hard blows (because I deeply suspect the bitter must come with the sweet).

I know that I need to cultivate these things, or an attitude of receptiveness to them. I need to think, to dream dreams and caress them to higher polish in my waking state, to write and publish. I need to take time—“time, my chiefest enemy,” I said in a puerile poem I wrote as a pre-teen. The insight behind this only grows stronger—too little time, too much to do. Why do I think this? Here’s area for some soul-searching work.

To return to the Hamburg time of gifts, and bring this account of a journey to a close: one of the insights I garnered from this experience is that I do after all belong to a community—a community of scholars. Living in the U.S. robs one of the sight to see this. Even academic life in America ultimately succumbs to the functionalism that seems native and endemic to the culture. In Germany/Europe at large (I suspect), the intellectual constitutes a clan. One with its guild—responsibilities and code of etiquette, but also one with its privileges, and among those time.

I now see what my utopian fantasy leads toward—an idyll in Europe to have more time. Time to read, study, talk, and write. Time to explore and foster my connectedness to the theological enterprise now catching up so many people around the world.

Lord of the unknown face and the faces known in every nation, guide my steps to you. Open those doors you want opened, close that should be shut. Turn my face toward you as I journey step to step towards that bright day in which I shall be ready to behold you face to face.

Independence Day 1990

Monday, July 21, 2008

Kilkee, 3.7.90: Soeurs Chanteuses and Galway Bay

Sitting in car in front of our b and b in Kilkee, where we spent the night. Yesterday drove the Ring of Kerry, which was much less imposing than we had supposed—anticlimactic, even, after the less-publicized Beare Peninsula. A sad day. Trouble, trouble. I feel weary.

As we drove, I fantasized a bit about living in the barren country of the West. Wondered why I lost this vision of combining the intellectual life and the life in connection to nature. Yet I wonder if this even takes place with the many dropouts whose shops one sees in west Cork. Don’t they inevitably end up producing kitsch for tourists, or running tasteful and vegetarian hostels for the discriminating bourgeois tourist? Is there any way out of a system whose tentacles reach everywhere?

Not much to say re: the Ring in terms of its physical features. I noticed little, frankly. They day was gloriously sunny, as is today. More and more touristy out here, and I hate it. Every little town full of junk shops, every “natural” sight studded “with real ould Irish” shops.

We drove from Ring of Kerry via Listowel across the Shannon at the Tarbert Ferry and up to Kilkee. Kilkee seems a nice enough town, rather unspoiled, and I suspect because it’s an Irish tourist place rather than hyped-up American.

+ + + + +

Steve and I walked up the hill from the beach, to the cliff or escarpment that protects Kilkee from the ravages of the Atlantic. This at “evening,” which is of course full sun in Irish parts. As walked, saw a number of men unselfconsciously disrobing to change into bathing trunks. K. said she saw a woman doing so. Not the stereotypical prudery of the Irish.

Then back to b and b, can’t even recall name of it, and supper with too much wine. I’m weary of the ceaseless silly chatter. Steve and I were going to go out for beer and music, but I felt too tired after the wine. Am coming down with a cold, too. We talked into the night, as a room of women next door smoked and talked excitedly.

Am writing this from a b and b near Shannon airport, Mrs. Donnellan’s, Meadowvale. After we got up this a.m., drove to Cliffs of Moher. Absolutely horrible—busload upon busload of American tourists talking nasally at the tops of their voices, flashing money and guarding their space. And a row of sad stage-Irish characters: a woman tatting lace, a red-faced man with a donkey and a dog that sat atop it pipe in mouth, with a sign asking 50p for a picture; a family of harpist, fiddler, flautists (all children and quite good) with a sign saying they were Irish music champions; a man belting out shlocky ballads; and two little girls with a music synthesizer and microphone and sign reading Soeurs chanteuses—why in French I don’t know—signing treacly songs in the funniest voices imaginable. K. of course bought a tape of this and I couldn’t keep from laughing as we played it in the car.

I was glad to leave the Cliffs and drive to Galway, but the day is really a blur, as I’ve felt increasingly sick and headachy. Galway seems rather charming, a slight Spanish air, and I liked much the central green or plaza. Took K. and A. to a fish restaurant, McDonnell’s or McDonagh’s, on Quay St., and K. of course made a scene. Would not have the delicious seafood chowder, and opted for trout, thinking inanely that trout (brook) of Galway = trout (sea) of New Orleans. Not so, of course—a pinkish-fleshed fish close to salmon. She picked at a bite of two and then ate none.

After that, a brief shopping tour. A very nice bookshop, Kenny’s, in High St., with a huge selection of good used books and nice poetry section. But I bought nothing. My tourist self is fading.

Then a hot afternoon drive to Shannon and a search for b and b off the road, and here we are, having eaten supper. Plan to get up tomorrow and go to airport in the a.m. to get settled.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Glengariff, 1.7.90: Wine Dark Seas and Tourist Traps

In Cork, we stayed at the O’Keefes’ Springdale Farm b and b—actually at Blarney, or more precisely Tower, I thin. Drove to Cork from Waterford after breakfast. A perfectly awful day, though the drive itself was lovely.

The colors of the coast amazing—metallic gray on the horizon, shading to a kind of luminous lilac where the clouds meet the sea, with shades of green and darker blue in the water itself, and hundreds of shades of green in the fields and verges. As I’ve noticed and remarked elsewhere in things I’ve written, the green seems lit from within, by an almost iridescent light, on cloudy days, and yesterday was cloudy of course—periods of soft fine rain alternating with sun. Seems warmer in this region than elsewhere in Ireland, and the flowers more profuse and lush.

The approach to Cork not promising, though the city itself—the heart of it—appears as if it could have a Mediterranean charm. Took K. and A. to lunch at the Quay Co-Op, K. complaining loudly all the way—doing her poor ole woman me act. A lot of the men at the place, particularly the servers, seemed gay. Willowy and graceful and dressed “artistically.” Had decent vegetarian food—hummus and pita and bean sprout salad and coleslaw—but unfortunately the bookstore itself was closed, due to renovations.

Then we walked around Cork a bit. Crowds of people, many of them in outrageous costumes of bright green. The feel of the town is more cosmopolitan, but is this simply because I had read it is so, with the West Brits and the counterculture Blowbys from western Europe? In any case, there did seem to be an English air about some things—the food slightly better, the cookery sections of bookstores a great deal fatter than anywhere else in Ireland, even in Dublin. One hears more self-consciously “intellectual” chat here, too. Our b and b hostess was also English, and the house far better decorated than any other we’ve seen, quietly tasteful.

In the evening, we returned to Blarney, rested a bit, as much as we could with teenagers playing rock music beneath the room, and walked. Found a strange set of ruined buildings up a hill pointing to Maranatha b and b. There was a kind of green and ivory clocktower, and what seemed to be the ruin of a pleasure palace, 19th-century. Steve and I groused at each other and I sat and pondered and saw a rainbow for my effort.

Then in to Cork in hopes of finding a pub with traditional music or a play, but no go—everyone was wrapped up in the World Cup match. Took photos of people in costume scurrying to the match, and of children out dancing and singing in the streets.

It was dreary and rainy all the while, so after a not too bad supper of Chinese dishes—shrimp and cashew, chicken and mushroom—we drove back and went to bed. But not to sleep, since three voluble young Frenchwomen next door talked excitedly into the night.

Today: awoke to have A. immediately begin harping on when and where’s Mass. So I rebelled and refused to go. Steve and I walked along the Lee river outside Blarney after a frantic search for a church for them. We had gone in to Blarney and stopped briefly at the big tourist trap, the Woollen Mills, to see if they could hit a church there.

When I walked into the shop, I felt almost a physical repulsion: chock full of Irish goods, woolens, china, crystal, and Irish teenagers to serve the tourists. I feel outraged at falling right into the tourist rut, and it’s very difficult to do otherwise with K. and A. Despite protests to the contrary, they’re very much at home there.

And, too, I find it odd to say the least that one sees no inconsistency in worshiping at the temple of mammon and then hopping over to church across the street to have a spiritual glut. I cannot call A.’s religion spiritual: one obeys the simple rules so that one can rest easy re: the big and uneasy questions—one is religious precisely in order not to listen, learn, be humbled, wait for providence.

After Mass, drove to Glengariff from which I’m writing. Oh, I should mention that as Steve and I walked this morning, we came on an interesting ruined church. Was not marked, but I think I saw a road sign later that read something like Inishcarra Cemetary [sic], because it was clearly a large church cum cemetery. Could it have been a Church of Ireland church, and this account for the sign? Many names in the cemetery were clearly English, and a 17th-century memorial plaque in the church was that of a prebendary—surely not an RC term. There were many Catholic graves, however, in the graveyard. I think I saw another Church of Ireland church in ruins today, in Glengariff—for sale, actually. Has the presence of the Church of Ireland become practically nil in the west of Ireland?

Not much to say re: the drive to Glengariff. Went first to Macroon, which seemed repulsively touristy as so much has been out here. Was also hot, almost Mediterranean—a day of full sun and intensely blue skies. People milling everywhere, as is the case in most Irish towns and villages. Where do they come from? Where are they going? Why are they never at work? One can be in a traffic jam any day in the smallest Irish town. I suppose today Mass was the big attraction; even little tiny places along the way had mammoth churches. Reminds me of Acadian villages in Cape Breton.

Glengariff is the ugliest tourist trap yet—big signs trying to get you to take an expensive boat trip to Garnish Island, men on the roadside who actually try to coax you over for this purpose, shops full of gaudily displayed souvenir stuff. At least, this is what one sees from the road. I refuse to go in any such place.

But we had the luck to find a very good b and b—the Heights, above Glengariff, with a marvelous view over the harbor. I’m writing from a lounges that has a glass window looking down—sloping yard very green, sheep fenced beneath this, then “wilderness” of trees, grasses, and rocks, falling down to the very blue water and several tree-clad islands. The family who own the b and b—Harringtons (which seems to be a common name in these parts—seem very nice.

After we checked into the b and b around 2 P.M., drove the Beare Peninsula. But first a pub lunch in the village at a place whose owners I didn’t like at all—mercenary and phony bourgeois-smarmy—though the chicken and tomato sandwich was good.

Beare Peninsula—couldn’t have had a prettier day for the drive. The “descending” side—Glengariff to Castlebere—was spectacular. Lots of rocky mountainside on the right, coast on the left. Same mix of colors as yesterday, thought not muted today by mist. The sea can be almost purple, but with patches of blue and aqua—the purple makes me think Homer’s wine-dark sea may not have been short of the mark.

The “ascending” side of the drive—back to Glengariff—has surprisingly lush growth of vegetation, including patches of pine. Along the way (but all on the “descending” side), saw a number of signs in German or advertising German accommodation and food. Passed an interesting restaurant-cum-craft shop that I suspect was run by Germans, but afraid to bring K. and A. in—what embarrassing and insulting remarks might they have made? Also saw a number of signs of realtors with Dutch names—E. Koop and Joop something or other.

Glad to return, actually—drive longer and more tiring than I expected. Steve and I took a walk up to the hilltop and back down and up again, and now awaiting dinner. Will be our first b and b dinner.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Tramore, 29.6.90: Gluts of Ruins and Vanishing Nora

Haven’t written for days now because so dispirited. Dublin drab—glad to be away from it. First night there, we arrived just as the Irish soccer team beat Czechoslovakia in the World Cup. You would have thought the saints were marching in. Cheers inside every house and pub, people pouring out into the street singing Olé, Olé, Olé, Olé, Olé, Olé! A little old lady passed me, tears in her eyes. “Wasn’t it grand?” The implication was that we’re all vitally interested, that we all think Ireland’s fate hung on this. Would London behave this way? All night cars drove up and down the street, people waving flags and singing. Someone passed beating a drum.

Next day went to National Library. It was closed till 2, despite what books said—typical Irish occurrence. So we bookshopped. Some nice bookshops in Dublin, particularly generous poetry sections. Then to National Library where I tried to get Tithe Applotment books—“We don’t have them; they’re at the PRO,” said Sister Librarian, despite guidebook information that the NL has microfilm copies.

In the evening, Steve and I had a very nice Chinese meal at a Chinese-Malaysian restaurant on Dame St., near Temple Bar. We had chicken with ginger and onion, and shrimp (prawns in Dublin) and cashews. The latter served in a nest of shredded fried potatoes—I’ve never seen this. Good, except vinegar had been sprinkled on the potatoes. At night, got A. out of his sulk enough to get K. and A. to go to some Cultural Center whingding in Dun Laoghaire to hear traditional music. Good—a narrator-singer, who was also flautist, another flautist, a harpist, and a violinst. The second flautist a young girl with wild curly black hair who also clogged; the violinist a sensitive young man. They did Roisin Dubh—or, rather, the narrator did a solo of it. Another lady did a ballad about a woman whose lover went to die in the West Indies.

Next day, we all drove into Dublin and I stopped at the Public Records Office. I got instructions to request the Tithe Applotment survey, filled out forms for it, and waited forever (at both NL and PRO, you request and then wait for records). When it came, it was Griffiths. No time for more, because the others were waiting. I felt like giving up. Next, to Registry of Deeds. After having been insulted by a little doorman at PRO—I had questioned his directions because they didn’t make sense, and he said, “Just listen now!”—I didn’t want to ask, and had trouble finding the way.

Inside Registry of Deeds, a nightmare. Signs said, “Don’t write on walls,” “Don’t partake of refreshments,” “Don’t smoke.” One big room full of records and full of people, books everywhere. Women with Liverpudlian accents saying fookin’ this and fookin’ that. A teenager with earrings and a nose ring and long pony tail with two ties, and a shirt saying, “Meet Deth.”

I managed to get the attention of a woman working in the room—Nora, I found out—and she told me I had to pay a £ to search. Which I didn’t have, so I went to the car to get it, knowing full well that Nora (who said just look for me when you return) would be gone when I returned.

Sure enough, paid the £ and never saw her again. Went to wait in the big records room and no one paid the slightest attention to me. Like something out of Kafka—or, as another man waiting said, very Dickensian. There were lots of little buereaucrats or workers bustling around, but with that air of inaccessibility that signals don’t bother me. And all the while all the weird people in the room were talking to each other as though they were regulars, and might have been for all I know. They gave me a feeling that I was too “civil” and too moral or something, because the general air was of a kind of worldweary cynicism, as if all these researchers or whatever they were were indeed out of Hard Times.

This is something I have noticed about the Irish. There is, as observers have noted, a chaotic air to everything. The “stabilizers” purportedly did not work as we docked at Rosslare, and this was announced in florid regretful euphemisms. Then, later in the day I went to the Civil Registry, we went to the National Museum. We watched a video, and the attendant could not get the lights to dim or switch off. He fiddled and fiddled and then walked away, shrugging his shoulders and raising his palms. And no one seemed to mind. Finally an English man got up and turned off the lights.

Chaos, an amazing irritating tolerance for things going wrong. On the one hand, I think how Americans are hyper-scheduled and unrealistic in thinking things should work. And the tolerance for chaos in Ireland goes hand in hand with the ability to take time to sit down and talk.

But on the other hand, they tolerance for chaos seems to go hand in hand with a deplorable fatalism. Has the church inculcated the attitude that nothing matters, nothing will ever be better only heaven counts? Or is it rooted in the experience of horrible hunger and death little more than a century ago? Or is there just some Celtic racial thing that makes the people value song, dance, craic, and not cleanliness and order? They often do, as commentators have noted, appear more European than British—bright gaudy colors in clashing combinations, a shrug and wink attitude when the English would be morally outraged.

This is what I felt as I waited in the Registry of Deeds—none of it helped by the fact that Nora seemed supercilious, assuming I was a stupid American who had no knowledge of how to research. Her face had that bland faintly amused look of one thinking her own sarcastic thoughts while saying words that pretend otherwise.

After Registry of Deeds, the National Museum. Very tired by this point, and sick-feeling. Had lunch between times (and the day before) at the Kilkenny Kitchen in the Kilkenny Design Centre. Curry and lots of salad but bread with no salt. On the whole, Irish food is wretched—no seasoning, lots of starch, nary a veg.

Felt too sick at National Museum to see much of the exhibit on pre-Celtic and Celtic Christian artifacts. Am tiring of all of this—a glut of seeing ruins and carvings. Turned not a hair at the Tara brooch.

Evening, words with Steve, casting a damper on our plans to do something apart from the others. We also had to move from our b and b to another in Dun Laoghaire, and it was not nice. A dirty-seeming but pretentious woman with dyed black hair ran it. She asked—twice, as if she didn’t believe—the sex and marital status of all of us (K. and A. were in the car). The house was not exceedingly clean and was noisy and smoky, and breakfast was abominable—fried eggs swimming in rancid old grease. And as Steve paid her, she said, “We don’t get paid enough for all the work we do.”

Third day in Dublin a washout. Continued tension with Steve. We shopped half a day in Dublin—a few bookshops in Temple Bar, a used clothing shop off Francis St. in the Liberties, where I found two children’s Aran sweaters for £2 each.

I was glad to be shut of Dublin after a lunch of salads in a little street beside a Carmelite church, off Grafton. Dublin is too populated, too bustling, too rude and knowing.

After Dublin, drove all the rest of the day to K.’s ancestral homeplace near Louth village. We had a devil of a time finding it, and when we got near were directed to a b and b nearby, on the road to Eniskeen. It was this old country estate: Mary N., M. House, Louth, etc.

We arrived there late in the day, around 6 P.M., in a spell of rain. The drive had been alternately sunny and rainy, with beautiful fine weather and views around the coast between Dublin and Dundalk. We turned off before Dundalk and went through Drogheda to Louth.

When we got to M. House, I was positively frightened. It’s an old, forlorn grand house hidden back up a drive—neglected air, a plastic pot sitting forlornly on a garden bench beside the front entrance. Carved animal heads looked out at us from around the windows. I thought what a perfect place for a Gothic murder mystery, and wasn’t Francis Ford Coppola’s first movie—“Dementia 13”—set in just such an Irish countryhouse?

Then out came Mary N.—steel gray hair with tight curls (just done today, we later learned), fat, intense blue eyes with squeezed-out look, broken blood vessels in an apoplectic face. Welcome, she said, shaking our hands, and then threw back her head and laughed a mad high-pitched laugh out of all proportion to the situation. All sorts of thoughts went through my head—murdered and cooked for her tea, murdered to keep her company in perpetuity in her wild country retreat, murdered and rearranged in an attic as I saw once in a movie where a young boy killed girls to cut them up and make a perfect one out of their various parts.

Will you have tea, she said, cackling frantically—and I to myself, yes and arsenic, please. A good tea it was—scones and almond slices and raspberry jam, all homemade—but marred because I fancied there was a bitter taste and kept asking myself if arsenic had a detectable taste. As we ate, Mary N. told us Bord Failté would not approve her—said the girl who inspected the house told her it looked unlived in. “And I said, ‘Yes, you can see the bloody briars growing over the front door.’ What did she want, belly dancers? I’ve told this story so many times I’m going to make a video to spare my children. But I don’t give a damn what Bord Failté think.” All this in the half-Scottish sing-song of the North with its harsher metallic tones than those of the South.

The house itself was stunning: molding around the lights, of foxes and birds and fruit and flowers; good massive furniture; crystal and silver. But all this mixed in with junk, and all in great Irish disarray. I peeked into the scullery or larder or whatever it’s called and am sorry I did—all a big jumble, bug sprays and God knows what else thrown together with food.

Then we drove out to see K.’s family’s burial plot in the Knockbridge churchyard, and afterwards S. and I took a walk. Rather depressing part of the country—all vastly overgrown and trashed up and not nearly so cared for as around Co. Kilkenny, and I thought the people looked harder-faced, more suspicious, louder-voiced.

Next day, today, we drove to Tully, where K.’s family, the Marrons, lived. We stopped to ask directions at a house and found we were in Tully, which is near Louth. The mistress of the house, R.W., invited us in for a cup of tea. Very nice of her, but her floor was like a pigsty and her dishtowels dirty and a hair floating in the plastic milk jug. Welcome to Ireland. She also had a very dirty front tooth that wiggled, and I was put off my cuppa.

She kept referring to her son J. as “that wee man”: “That wee man was two pounds when he was born.” When he pushed a toy across the floor, she said, “Don’t be bold, now.” She sent J. off to get a man, James M., who knew something of the Marrons—his nephew Patrick had inherited the Marron homeplace and farm from the last Marron, Peador.

James was red-faced and fat and had only two teeth and spoke with such a Northern accent I understood little of what he said. He kept speaking of a head of hair in the old Marron homeplace, which horrified me. Turned out to be a plait one of the girls had cut off her head when she emigrated to America.

James took us out to the old homeplace. K. was a little leery because she had heard there’s bad blood between the Marrons in the area and Patrick for getting the homeplace. And indeed Patrick seemed shy of us—red-haired, one blue eye and one blue with a brown spot, and seeming not altogether alert, as did many of the people around Louth. The Irish are not a cosmetic culture, do nothing to hide physical or mental “defects,” in fact appear rather to glory in them. In Graigue we saw a woman leaning on her doorpost weeping ,and in one of the largest bookstores in Dublin an old woman was sitting crying loudly and copiously.

The “wee house” of the Marrons to which James took us was an old cottage that has been made two-story and is attached to a barn. It’s “going to rack,” as he said—full of the sad detritus of an old house from which generations have emigrated and in which the last scion has died. There were old letters, some of them from New Orleans, and old photos, and a locked trunk.

Then James took us to see his thatched cottage: “It’s 500 years old, or maybe 1,000.” About his dresser he said, “It’s 100 years old, or probably 200.” He said Americans are unlike the Irish because they don’t have time for craic and a bit of a pipe.

And then we drove on to Waterford, stopping in ugly Navan for a horrible lunch at the Bon Appetit café, which had a stamp in the window advertising its cleanliness—an ill omen. The drive along the N-9 south is generally grim until you get south of Dublin. I’m probably prejudiced, but the North seems much dirtier, trashier, uglier than around Co. Kilkenny.

I’m writing this from Mountain View farmhouse outside Tramore, where we’re staying the night—Mrs. E. R. A lovely old thatched farmhouse horribly ruined—dropped ceiling, cut up into many rooms, decorated in the tweest of twee. Mrs. R. has a cast in one eye, as did our waitress at the Bon Appetit. I must tell Joe Moore about her: his mother was a R. before marriage.

Dun Laoghaire, 25.6.90: Beautiful Glendalough and Pink Spaghetti in Dun Laoghaire

Today we drove from Kilkenny to Glendalough—all too short a time there. Sense of imminent peace and holiness. It was an overcast but warm day, and this made the evergreen-clad slopes all the more somber and beautiful. Wicklow scenery very beautiful as well, but I feel depressed—found Kilkenny itself depressing.

Now we’re spending the night at a b and b in Dun Laoghaire—Tara House on Sandycove St. Had perfectly awful spaghetti dinner at some restaurant down the street—Wishbone. A. acting very childish—we did not stop to eat when he apparently thought he ought, but of course told no one.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Kilkenny, 24.6.90: Holy Wells and Pap for Tourists

Now outside Kilkenny, at Mrs. Neary’s, Tarn Farm, off the Freshford Road. Yesterday we drove to Inistioge and stopped to take photographs. In the town are a Church of Ireland church, the old church that is evidently part of the ancient abbey, surrounded by ruins, and a Catholic church just over the way. There’s a large cemetery, and not clear to me to which church it belongs. In the wall of the Catholic church, cemented in, are some ancient carvings and a holy water font. We spoke with a lady in the porch of the church, and she said these came from the old abbey—she said, pointing to the C of I church, “That was our church till Cromwell did his dirty work.”

Inistioge itself is a beautiful village, set on the banks of the Nore. Beneath the churches on the riverbank are picturesque ruins, which we photographed. Wooded hillsides in the distance, one with a ruined tower of some sort. Interesting tombstone on the wall of C of I church, which I photographed.

After Inistioge, drove to Jerpoint Abbey. A beautiful day to see this. I was struck particularly by the carvings, one of an abbot with upraised hands. This is covered in wavy lines, which I believe art historians connect with a primitive desire to depict numinous power. That is what comes across—a kind of religious power that provokes awe. Affinities with Ethiopian iconography—again, noted by historians, I think.

Then Thomastown, a less interesting village than any I’ve seen, and the people the most surly we’ve encountered in Ireland. Since it showered here and was noon, we stepped into a pub and had tea or ale, egg-salad and ham sandwiches. Then we went into a bakery shop and got some tarts, and A. made a fool of himself by asking the salesgirl if he looked Irish as he wore an “Irish” cap—she said bluntly no, and good for her.

On towards Ullard via Graiguenamanagh. Oh, yes, stopped at St. Molin’s well en route: was it before Thomastown? Rainy and eerie. The well is on a hilltop, with a hideous pink and white, almost plastic-looking statue of St. Molin. A sign warns anyone not to molest statues. The well itself is interesting, a stream in a hillside. Down from it a type of alter covered with broken statues of St. Anthony, Thérèse, etc., rosaries—like something out of peasant Latin Catholicism.

What struck me was the feeling that this is an ancient place, a place of now subterranean folk piety. People must have been coming to this spot as a holy spot since pre-Christian times—among them my ancestors, certainly in Christian times. I had a drink of the water, offered Steve one, and he emptied the glass back into the well and filled as fresh one—upsetting me no little bit.

Ullard was the highlight of the day. The ruined abbey and ruined C of I church sit atop a hill. The abbey is gorgeous, 12th-century, much less fussed than any I’ve seen, therefore able more than others to convey a quiet and strong sense of mystery and presence. Over the doorway are much-worn heads supposed to be of St. Fiacre (who founded the spot? but 6th century?) and Molins/Moling.

In the churchyard I found a number of very old Ryan graves, and copied them into my journal. People are still burying inside the abbey—a Mr. Tim Ryan up the road tells me his aunt was just buried there a few years ago, and that when they dug the grave, they found six skulls there. As we toured the cemetery, a cold but pleasant wind swept over everything.

After looking at the abbey, I went to see Tim Ryan—having been told Ryans lived past the church, and where Tim Ryan himself lived. And old farmhouse. He was tending cattle, but stopped and came in to talk with me. We could not connect, but he told me three Ryan families left the area in the Famine days, and their houses are now fallen down—one of these, if understood correctly, lived in the gatehouse for the English big house (Pattersons) across from the abbey. He also said that his grandfather’s brother John Ryan off to America and was never heard from again.

Tim Ryan told me the tale is that the Ryans of Ullard area came originally from Tipperary. He had very blue eyes, gray hair, not too talkative.

From Ullard, we tried to drive our guidebook’s “woodland tour” backwards through Muine Bheag, Leighlinbridge, Old Leighlin, and Castlecome, but this proved well-nigh impossible. We did go through Muine Bheag/Bagenalstown and Leignlinsbridge, but they’re a blur.

So went straight on to Kilkenny. Tired and disspired. Town seemed ugly and crawling with tourists like us. After a little walk down the hill to the river (not sure if it’s the Nore), we went back into town and had a nice dinner at Browne’s restaurant on Kieran St. I had fried plaice, cauliflower, peas, carrots, and potatoes; K. chicken and ham and same vegetables; Steve and A. lamb stew (Irish stew). All of us had vegetable puree soup, and apple tart and coffee—all for £6.75 each.

+ + + + +

Sitting outside St. Canice’s cathedral. After breakfast, drove into Kilkenny and took a waking tour. As with so many touristy things, it was superficial, too cutesy, and maddeningly imprecise. E.g., the son et lumière presentation that preceded it made no mention at all of the Statutes of Kilkenny, took care of all the post-Cromwellian period as a “time of great difficulty,” and made it appear as if the whole Cromwell campaign was due to merely political, not religious, issues. I suppose the idea is not to offend tourists, but I feel I’ve had a meal of sweet pap, not real food.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Rower, 23.6.90: Irish Hospitality and Tales of Haunts

Writing this about 5:45 A.M. as full light comes. A generous wind is sweeping the trees, making me think as I lay in bed that it was raining. All the farm animals are coming to life, though I hear no rooster—cows lowing petulantly as if hungry, and perhaps chickens; some bird carrying on.

I did not write last night because drunk as a lord. Not really so, but we went to visit Sr. Margaret C.’s mother Margaret and oldest brother Jim and his family at Listerlin, Tullogher about 2:30 P.M. yesterday. They took us into the parlor and plied us with strong and huge drinks (me, whiskey; the others, brandy) till I, at least, could barely stand. We had had only breakfast to eat, so the drink went right to the head.

But I should back up some and talk about the day. Early morning Steve and I took an unpleasant bickering walk down the road to New Ross. Discovered later that the New Ross road divides between a branch to Inistioge and one to The Rower. We’re on the left fork, to Inistioge.

As we walked, we could see The Rower on the hillside across the way. It has a ruined church tower, Norman, and a new church appearing to be built in imitation of the old. The landscape is spectacular—green, green hills (lush because of the rain, the C.’s said) intersected by dark hedges full of all sorts of vegetation.

After our walk, rental car finally arrived (oh—breakfast, of course, only difference with England being its unselfconscious generosity and brown soda bread). We took off around 10:30 to Graiguenemanagh. Went to Inistioge and got off on a trail, South Leinster Way, to Graiguenemanagh. Glorious drive all along—down into the valley where Inistioge is located, along the Leinster Way following the Nore River.

The road of course forked and forked with no signpost, so we realized we were lost, and when a car approached to squeeze by, Steve rolled window down and asked. “You’re kind of after going astray,” the man said. He got us on the right road—to Thomastown—and from there we found our way to Graiguenemanagh.

Surprises about Graiguenemanagh: it’s a sizable village and full of life, full of people, of children. The old abbey is spectacular, and the restoration job just wonderful. The interior of the church is tastefully done—painted white, as a Cistercian church should be, and the sickly sweet 19th-century iconography people seem to want to keep is kept to a minimum and hidden away in corners. Otherwise, the church is appropriately plain, with a mix of plain glass and stained glass windows that I should say are modern, but beautiful.

The knight in mail in the church is mounted on a wall in a kind of restored church porch, and nearby is a glass-encased bit of the medieval fleur de lys tiling. There’s a side-chapel with an icon that has been named Our Lady of Duiske—painted by an Irish nun after a Russian prototype. An explanatory paper says the icon is especially dedicated to reconciliation—people to be drawn together as close as Mary holds the infant Jesus to her cheek.

I lit a taper and knelt and prayed. The difference in this Irish church and many of the English ones we saw—here people are really praying. The church had several worshipers as we walked about, one a woman holding an ice cream cone, another a woman who appeared to be doing needlepoint as she prayed.

I don’t want to give the impression the church was full of tourists. We were the only ones in town, so far as I could tell.

As we approached the church, an elderly priest came out. I asked re: records and he told me that he was retired and the pastor might help. He told me Duiske is so named because it’s on the Duiske River, and this means “black water”—dubh uisce.

As we spoke, the pastor, Sean Swayze, came up with a calligrapher who manages the museum off the church, Railtin Murphy. I asked about records, and Sean Swayze took me to the rectory and drew me a map to Newtown Old School, where all the records are being typed and indexed by some parish young folks. This was impressive about Graiguenemanagh: a new library has been built, the church museum, the church itself restored, and interest in traditional crafts appears much alive.

Fr. Swayze told me the Ryans are “the old family” of the area, and that they donated the land for Duiske Abbey. He also showed me a wooden table altar from penal days that has just been discovered.

Went to Newtown Old School, encountering a flock of sheep in the road en route. What a disappointment—the 1853 Graiguenemanagh Valentine Ryan appears to be someone else than my Valentine Ryan.* This leaves me I don’t know where. Fr. Swayze had suggested we drive to Ullard, which is, he said, “Ryan country.” Could my Valentine have lived there? If so, did I miss him on Griffith’s? Are there any records from Ullard church? Was it a separate parish in 1850?

Afterwards, strolled in Graiguenemanagh churchyard. The 9th-century Celtic crosses are very impressive and sadly worn. The corpus, what can be made out, is much like the one on Bridget Ryan’s tombstone—a kind of orans quality about them, frank forward gaze. As with the Ryan graves at home, all these stones in Graiguenemanagh mention who erected them, on whose behalf.

After Graiguenemanagh church, to the Duiske glass place, which appears to be very touristy, and then on to the C.’s. With the whiskey there, talk and more talk. Jim C. has wild flyaway gray hair and animated gray eyes. Mrs. C. (Margaret) old and lame, but with similarly alive gray eyes.

They talked of Sr. Margaret—Peggy—of this and that, prices in Ireland, the poor in New Orleans. I wish I had had a recorder—so much wit, all of it so quick and light. I seemed to be the visiting celebrity, which wore on me. I prefer sinking back and listening.

After the drinks, a very merry and loud tea of egg sandwiches, rhubarb tart, lemon pie. That sobered us some, but as I got up, Mrs. C. ushered me back into the parlor and insisted I take another big glass of whiskey. Then Jim appeared with goblets of Irish coffee—talk about hair of the dog that bit you.

We talked again, this time about how the old folks used to tell ghost stories and how frightened this made children. Then Jim said, very casually, that he believed in ghosts, and that a rock near Inistioge bleeds once a year. He said a young girl was murdered there, and than a story about a priest on sick call at night attacked by an evil spirit that assumes the form of a greyhound—sometimes a bull. All this in the most matter-of-fact way. He said the spirit is at rest but promised to return at a certain time a few years from now.

I’m tiring of writing, so will close. After all this talk and merriment, we came home and I went straight to bed. I don’t feel hung over today, just my usual dismal self. Will try to walk some now.

* I should explain what brought us to Graiguenemanagh. As the preceding sections of narrative in Germany indicate, this was a trip on which Steve, two friends of ours (a married couple a generation older), and I flew to Germany and then made our way across England to Ireland. It was my first trip to Europe. I was able to make the trip, in part, because I had gotten a grant to interview German theologian Dorothee Sölle in Hamburg. Through the kindness of a colleague there, who had read some of my work and visited us in New Orleans, an interview was arranged.

The friends with us were interested in going to Ireland, not to Germany, but had come along to Germany for fear that they couldn’t fly easily alone to rendezvous with us in Ireland.
In Ireland, we made a beeline for what I believed was the birthplace of my great-grandmother Catherine Ryan—Graiguenemanagh. From her tombstone and family stories, I knew she had been born in Co. Kilkenny, but my family’s recollection of her precise place of birth had vanished by my generation. Using Griffith’s valuation of the early 1850s, I had located what I believed was the only man named Valentine Ryan in the entire county at this period. Catherine’s father was a Valentine Ryan whose tombstone also states that he was born in Co. Kilkenny. This Valentine Ryan lived in Graiguenemanagh—hence my interest in that village and my keen disappointment when it turned out that the parish register showed this was not my ancestor.

In a roundabout way, however, the visit to Graiguenemanagh
did eventually lead to my discovering that my Valentine Ryan had been born in Piltown, and was living in Inchacarran townland immediately prior to his emigration to New Orleans (and then Mississippi and Arkansas) in 1852. As a later snip of narrative will show, on this same trip I happened to mention my roots quest to a bookstore owner in Kilkenny. When he learned that I was interested in Ryans who may have had ties to Graiguenemanagh (it’s possible the Valentine there was related to my ancestor the same rare name), he gave me the address of a retired teacher, John Ryan of Piltown, who had written a historical novel about Duiske Abbey.

Some years down the road, I screwed up the courage to write John Ryan, who turned out to be a prince of a man, and who found for me my own Ryan roots in Co. Kilkenny—another story that will be told in full in later pieces of narrative on this blog.
I should also mention the visit to the C. family at Listerlin. A year or so prior to this trip, I had taught an Irish nun in a course for the Institute for Ministry at Loyola University in New Orleans. She died, suddenly and tragically, as I was teaching the course. When I planned the trip to Ireland, I made arrangements to visit her family, who treated us royally well, as this journal entry indicates.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Rower, Ireland, 22.6.90: Irish Time and Irish Directions

Too tired to write last night. We arrived at Rosslare in a summer storm about 6:30, but could not dock because of mechanical problems. Then the gangway wouldn’t go down—welcome to Ireland!—and we couldn’t get out until a bit past 7, hot and bothered.

Then mass confusion re: rental car and destination. It resolved itself into a free night with a standard transmission car, and a 2-night stay at Hillcrest, Mrs. Margaret Naddy, The Rower, Co. Kilkenny.

Directions we had been give to this were, of course, wrong. Countryside lush and beautiful, what we could see of it at evening and in the rain. As one moves inland from Cork Rd. to New Ross, hills begin. Where we are now at the Rower is hilly, but haven’t really seen much of it by daylight.

When we realized we were lost last night, stopped and asked for directions at a gas station. The helpful and soft-spoken young man had no idea what road it was, but gave us profuse directions to the Rower—where we were not precisely headed. Then we stopped a bit later at a pub, and Steve asked a drunk man watching the Ireland-Holland match for directions. “Sure, I know Mrs. Naddy. Can’t miss the big house. On the left or right.”

Finally, we knew we were lost, A. giving totally irrelevant and compulsive directions—New Ross as New Rock—in the back seat, so we stopped at a b and b far nearby of Jim Prendergast. The son of the family came out—so nice, took me in and called Mrs. Naddy. “The tourists are here, Margaret, and wonder if you’re after giving up on them.” The people have been so lovely, at tourist agency at airport, which booked our b and b, at Prendergast’s, and here (thought have not met Miss Naddy). Now to breakfast.