Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Braunschweig 7.1.94: Germoney Graffiti and Warm Hospitality

So much happening, and so few minutes to write, that I’m falling behind.

To return to the chronicle of yesterday: morning of 4th January, we drove to Braunschweig, unfortunately taking a federal road rather than the autobahn. I say “unfortunately,” because it took us almost all day to drive a distance that would have taken 2 hours; but we did see beautiful flat farmland and placid little villages of red brick and thatch.

Stopped for lunch at a café in Ülzen, a very pretty city with a fairly well-preserved Altstadt and a rather impressive church. We looked inside the latter after lunch, and found some women and a man doing some work. Almost immediately they left, telling us they wanted to lock the church, and suggesting that we look at a gold ship in a glass case. We did so rather assiduously, then went outside, where I noticed that two 17th-century memorial plaques on the church wall had been sprayed in black paint with the slogan, Gegen Razismus.

As we walked back to the car, I saw a building painted with the sign, “F—k Off, Germoney.”

Braunschweig: the J.’s turned out to be lovely people. M. met us at a gas station, and drove us to their house. She looks to be about 60, and is a wiry, lively woman with a boyish thatch of bright red hair, and intense, dancing blue eyes. W. is more ponderous, a tall, rather courtly Austrian with black hair and wise, sad blue eyes.

The first evening, M. gave us tea and cookies when we arrived, then we asked to walk, and she took us for a stroll around her village, now a part of Braunschweig.

Then we returned home to find that W. had arrived, and had a supper of turkey and pineapple in a sauce, severed over fried broad spinach noodles, with bread, cheese, and sausage. How I long for fresh fruit and vegetables in Germany!

Afterwards sat and talked desultorily re: diverse things. M. told us she had read Karl Rahner in their youth. They are well read, in that way educated, middle-class Europeans are—a way that is so unselfconscious, genuine, and broad that it puts Americans to shame.

Their home is surprisingly unprepossessing, considering that M. is a judge’s daughter and W. the head of a hospital in Braunschweig run by the Daughters of Charity, called Vincentianas in Germany. The house is new, three stories, very solid and well-appointed in that way German houses are, without being fussy: windows, including french doors, that open both from the top and sides, precisely fitted shades that really work, etc. M.’s teapot had a little sponge attached beneath the spout, and a chain thing running from the handle to the spout to hold the lid on.

I really admire the way such European families choose to live. Nothing is show, but nothing is uncomfortable. The “space” that one buys by settling such a home enables one to garden, read, travel, entertain friends to whom one can talk wittily and widely about gardening, books, travel.

Travel: the J.’s have traveled all over Europe and the Near East, and are intelligent travelers, with a catholic sympathy for countries like Italy, whose German-engorged beaches they avoid like the plague, preferring the rich layers of history of the small inland cities.

And languages: after traveling in France, M. realized her French was inadequate, and she and the children studiously enrolled in a language school in order to hone their skills. W. has met on a weekly basis with an Italian tutor for several years and now speaks very good Italian.

Hamburg 6.1.94: Red Wigs and Booming Voices

En route to Stuttgart, i.e., to Besigheim-Ottmarsheim, where Steve’s cousin Ludwig Sponer lives. Leaving W. and K. difficult. What first-rate human beings and wonderful friends they are—and to have hosted us with such welcome for so many days. I have no doubt we often tried their nerves.

Our night on the town of 3 Jan. turned out not to be much. At Café Gnosa, we met two of S.W.’s friends, a half-German, half-Honduran young man named Siegfried, and a German named Björn. Last names were proffered, but I never quite get German surnames when I hear them, so I stuck with deciphering the first two names.

Desultory, not unpleasant, chat around the table. I was closest to Björn, who told me he has an English boyfriend and wants to learn English, so we practiced away. He’s a baker from some little town in Schleswig-Holstein, and we discussed working conditions in Germany, stress, coming out (both Siegfried and Björn are in a coming-out group with S.), and our relationships with our families.

Siegfried said he has been expelled from his family, who blame Germany for making him queer. His father is the Salvadoran, and thus into machismo, and cannot have a son who does not (as he feels) perfectly and narcissistically reflect his own impeccable masculinity. Yet Siegfried has a lesbian sister, so the family had already dealt with homosexuality . . . .

After Gnosa, a horrible meal in a urine-smelling Chinese restaurant in St. Georg, then a walk on the Reeperbahn. We parked on Grosse Freiheit, the bawdiest of all Reeperbahn streets, and walked on it first, disappointing the barkers outside the show: “Live f—k on stage. Come in!” As we passed them without coming inside, they made rude comments (now in German, whereas their come-hither invitations were English) to our backs.

It was raining, and miserable, so we rather quickly walked to a gay bar that is a favorite of S.’s—something with a Plattdeutsch name, Toom something or other. But regulars call it Katrina’s, after its owner, a transvestite named Katrine, who was tending bar that evening. She’s a matronly, huge thing with a dowdy red wig and the kind of dress any village Hausfrau might wear, who speaks in a booming bass voice.

The bar itself was shabby and cozy, with lots of red this and that and the old battered wood settles Germans seem to love in cafés and bars. It was surprisingly quiet for a gay bar full of people (not that I am any expert: I can count on the fingers of one hand the times I’ve been to a gay bar). There were both men and women, and the place was so smoky that I could hardly breathe after a few minutes.

German gay men: hulking, many of them, with severe haircuts, and often with ugly glasses. An air of suppressed, barely curbed aggressiveness. Lots of men at the bar blowing obligatory smoke through their noses.

But the other side of the coin is that many are also fresh-faced, innocent looking, fetchingly androgynous—often far younger looking than they actually are. Even straight German men can look and act this way, which might lead an adventurer to jump to conclusions that could be quite unfortunate, since I sense more and more that the heritage of German patriarchal militarism causes German men to repudiate homosexual advances decisively and even violently.

Hamburg 3.1.94: A Créole Réveillon and Enzian Schnapps

Early afternoon. Yesterday at the W.’s, where we served our meal to the parents and siblings of W. and K., as well as the sibs’ partners and children. We were 15 or 16 in all.

Not a bad day, though high anxiety for me. Tension with Steve, as he appears intent on creating a façade of indifference to me. It snowed all through dinner and into the evening. Since I had a seat at table watching Gryphiussstrasse, I could at least watch the snow pelt down, to take my mind off my anxiety.

After dinner, a brief walk in the dark and now wet snow to the Alster, first with K.’s parents and W. and K., at last only with W., since K. and her parents found it too wet. A nice chat with W. re: the complexities of the German professorial system, and the choice with which it presents him now. It he is to be the equivalent of full professor, he must have that rank before he’s 52. So if he is offered the job for which he recently applied, he will become full professor, but that’ll give him another choice—he’ll have to become much more of a specialist, and he’s not sure what area of specialization would be best.

In the evening, the R.’s came from the S-Bahn to the W.’s flat. They were just off the train from Munich—a Bavarian post-Christmas sojourn. R. had bought us a bottle of Kirschwasser and one of Willemsbirne. He also had for W. a bottle of liqueur exclusive to Bavaria, made from gentian blossoms. We tasted it—an interesting, subtle earthy, herbal taste.

Not much sleep after that, and Chuck arrived this forenoon and is now sleeping. After that, off to shop and walk, then meet S.W. at Café Gnosa for dinner and an outing.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Hamburg 1.1.94: Prosit Neujahr!

9:30 P.M. Feeling somewhat behind in this journal, partly because the last days at the cottage at Öhe seemed to drag, and I haven’t felt like writing. The weather grew steadily worse, till the last day at the cottage (29th), it poured continuously, as it did much of yesterday. This morning was the first day the sun has shone in ages. As a result—and because it was New Year’s day—hordes of brisk, healthy, and frighteningly earnest north Germans marching along the Elbchausee and the walks around the Alster. Marching, that is, when they weren’t eating with just as much earnestness and gusto at the fine restaurants in both areas.

Wednesday evening (28th; to return to the chronicle): W. and K.’s neighbors U. and G. had made a marvelous dinner, and brought it over. It was a roast of lamb—perhaps the shoulder—stuffed with garlic and cooked with vegetables (bell pepper and onion, I believe, with a touch of rosemary and perhaps red wine and olive oil). They called it Lammkohl. With it, a salad made from a green I’ve never seen, Feldsalat, which is dark green like cress, but has none of cress’s bite. Turned out to be a wilted salad with fried bacon, a bit of onion, and croutons. G. said one name for it is Rapunzel Salat. Could the green be the rocket that so fascinated me in childhood, when I read the story? (But isn’t rocket a field cress?) And for Nachspeise, quark mixed with whipped cream and some stewed raspberries, with more stewed raspberries for a topping.

With this meal the fairly good red wine of the Ahr valley, and afterwards a fruit liqueur made from pears, cherries, and plums which U. says is common in north Germany.

Then to a concert in a nearby village whose name I never saw, but which sounded like Gelding. The concert was in the village church, a pretty little Baroque church built in the late 17th century, and painted a chaste blue ,white, gray, and gold inside. It was emphatically north German Baroque—austere, not at all gaudy or kitschy. The nave had been added later, W. thought, and its ceiling was dropped below that of the chancel, as was the ceiling of the narthex, which was lower than that of the rest of the church. The effect was incongruous, I thought. On one wall at back a crucifix.

The concert was a chamber music performance of a Handel organ piece, some Bach cantatas, and the 4th Brandenburg concerto. Good without being inspired, as so much music is in Germany; technically accomplished, but not ever soaring.

The soprano who sang the cantatas had a good, clear coloratura voice, and she hit the right notes. But it was not a strong voice, and I noticed that the woman in front of me—whose very back of the neck bespoke determination and solidity—never clapped for her.

In general, the people seemed to be very severe critics, and they expressed their criticism by not clapping when they thought the performance was not up to snuff. A cluster of old ladies ahead of and to the right of me positively sucked their lips and cheeks in and refused to clap after some performances.

In general, people seemed haughty and unfriendly, as they were in Flensburg, where we had gone earlier in the day. North German coldness? Vacation town hauteur? Village over-compensation?

Before Flensburg, we had stopped at the castle of the Schleswig-Holstein duchy, Glücksburg, which faces Denmark across the water, and which was for a time in the possession of the Danish monarchy. It’s beautifully situated, but has a sad, forlorn air about it. I couldn’t help thinking of Hamlet and the death of the world in which such a building made sense. It’s rather severe and white outside; again, none of the fancy of southern Germany or even of the Eifel region, or the Mosel and Rhine valley.

Inside, I was most struck by the chapel, one of the earliest Protestant churches in north Germany—built as a Protestant chapel, I believe in the late 16th century.

In the 1970s, the original Baroque frescoes—nothing to speak of, really—were exposed, and now form the ceiling decoration. What interested me most, however, was the way in which the richly carved, massive wooden pulpit surmounted and surpassed the altar. A perfect visual statement of Reformation theology, an arrangement the guidebook says is sometimes to be met with in north German churches.

And back to the concert, in this scattered hodgepodge of travel details. Afterwards, W. and K.’s friends V. and V. invited us over for drinks. They had come by W. and K.’s the evening before for drinks. V. is an economist who works in a managerial position in some big company. Had spent two years in Detroit, and speaks good English. He was a schoolmate of W.’s, and is a longtime friend. Seemed somewhat sensitive and more delicate than many north Germans, which may have made me warm to him on meeting him.

V. did a theology degree and now teaches grade school in some inner city neighborhood even more ethnically and economically diverse than Altona.

Their country house to which we drove is enormous—a huge barn of a house with three levels and glass everywhere. Must be nice by day, but on a rainy winter night in north Germany, it was a bit desolate and comfortless.

One enters by a slate-floored foyer that opens without interruption into a huge room containing the kitchen and dining room, and a sitting area on a lower level. In the middle is an enormous metal fireplace shaped like this ∩ that I took to be Scandinavian. V. explained that we would normally have sat down in the sitting area facing the fireplace, but water had come up beneath the floorboards there, warping them so that they’ll have to be replaced. The floor of the whole room beyond the foyer is a pretty wood—birch, maybe?

So we sat in an alcove of the upper floor where there was a massive armoire, of which all the houses of affluent young professionals we’ve been in have a collection, some of them imported from England, as was the Birmingham grandfather clock in the foyer, and W. and K.’s grandfather clock. V. told us he had gone to England, bought furniture, and transported it by ferry to Germany; then he rents a truck (lorry, as he calls it) and brings it to his house. The chairs on which we sat (from the dining table) were handmade Shaker chairs that V. had constructed in England.

I like the German formalities connected to food and entertaining. I admit it gets tiresome always to sit around a table and eat—as Germans do at the drop of a hat—and talk in that heavy German way. But there’s something very civilized re: the custom of not drinking till you’ve all raised your glasses to one another, and met each other’s eyes in a Prosit or zum Voll. This ritualizes the act of eating a shared meal—makes every meal a communication. And it helps one attend to the taste of food and drink in more than an animal way, as people comment on taste and compliment the cook. (But Germans do tuck in with a vengeance after the guten Appetit: I’ve never been in a country in which people eat so quickly, with such self-absorbed animal pleasure; they actually spoon the sauce from their plates! Chaucer’s fastidious abbess with her fancy French ways would not be edified.)

After the drinks at V. and V.’s, at which G. and U. and a neighbor, R., had been present, and the concert mercilessly dissected, we returned, and U. and G. brought over more liqueur—at midnight! The drinks were followed by a walk to the Baltic Sea, as on other nights—making every night a very late one, with lots of champagne and other food and drinks.

Thursday not much to report. Some desultory shopping in Kappeln, waiting around at the cottage for a man to come repair the entry door window, which U. had somehow broken the previous evening, and then a drive in the dark, nasty gloom of late evening to Hamburg and to the Missionsakademie to fall exhausted into bed.

Yesterday, Steve and I argued much of the day—a miserable New Year’s eve. We had eaten only breakfast—Müsli and milk—and went in the early afternoon to see if we could find an open café or restaurant. Not having found anything, by 4 or so, famished and out of sorts, we drove to Winterhude, hoping there to find a café. Got to one just as it closed, so they offered us coffee, but nothing to eat. Tramped around Winterhude, buying berliners for the W.’s for New Year’s eve, and sat arguing in the car.

Then to W. and K.’s, where we ate at 7—potato salad, pasta salad, tsatsiki, tomatoes with mozzarella and basil, meatballs (Frikkadelle to W. and K., but Bouletchen to their guests I. and B., neighbors of theirs from Braunschweig). And Sekt and more Sekt.

Whether because of the Sekt on an empty stomach, the all-day’s fight, or the arduous evening (re: which more below), I developed a splitting head, which has come and gone all day.

After the meal, at 20 till 8 there was a broadcast of a British comedy that has been broadcast every New Year’s eve for 30 or so years in Germany, and now plays all over the country. “Dinner for One,” it’s called, with a doddering old gentlewoman and her butler, lots of drunken slapstick, and the kind of broad humor the Germans (and, clearly, the Brits) relish.

Then back to the table—still loaded with platters and bowls and champagne bottles—for more to eat, including cheese. And after that off to a performance of “The Best of Dreigroschenoper.” It was mostly a performance of songs from the play, with a steel guitar and a bass steel guitar highly amplified—salt to the wound of my head, which throbbed more with the close room, heavy perfumes German women wear, effort to understand, and cigarette smoke after the intermission.

Amusing, though, in a way, to watch the rather ludicrous attempts of some of the audience to get down. A large woman with close-cropped black and gray hair in the row ahead rolled continuously, and bobbed her head about, much to the consternation of K. and B., who were sitting behind her.

Lots of ugly European glasses, too; some of them seem to be deliberately ugly, a new postmodern Brille with a neon-like colored bar on top and geometric lenses depending from it—the shape matched by necklaces worn by some men, with strange geometric pendants. Lots of that strange magenta red women color their hair here.

The performance was a by a man who lives in W. and K.’s apartment building, Dominique Horowitz, a French Jewish man who is married to or the co-vivant of a Hamburg woman. K. told me he’s a Broadway hit, and sure to be a Hollywood star. I wondered what it feels like to caper and cavort—in German, yet—before and audience of children and grandchildren of those who served in the Germany army in the Nazi period.

At midnight, glasses of yet more Sekt appeared as if by magic, and were passed to everyone in the theater. A solemn toast, followed by kisses all around, then an even more solemn toast (Prosit Neujahr!).

Then the doors opened onto trays of berliners, which one must eat in order to have good luck, and people began positively to stampede, shouting, “Berliners! Berliiiiners!!” W. tells me that the tradition is to fill one in every batch with mustard, but we don’t think any last night had Senf. They were a dry and tasteless Apfelmuss, which was eaten with much finger-licking and studiousness.

Then outside for fireworks, which to my surprise are completely legal, and had been being fired all day by both children and people passing by in parts of the city where we walked—people who like to drop a firecracker surreptitiously at one’s feet as one walks by. In the U.S., I have no doubt this would provoke street warfare. Not in Germany, which is such a strange mix of utter conformity, surprisingly effective honor systems (one of the payoffs of conformity?) like the U-Bahn, where one buys a ticket that is only rarely checked or the parking places where one displays the time one has parked on a time wheel on the dashboard, and controlled anarchy. There’s such a strong social sense among Germans—at least, with regard to some things—that I suppose the anarchy of something like these fireworks works, where it couldn’t possibly work in our “free” U.S. cities.

Then inside for a party in the theater basement, an old synagogue being restored. This centered around food, of course. Everyone immediately herded to long tables, then proceeded to set them up in even more methodical German order (but, I noticed, to facilitate community, too).

The food was on the side, help-yourself: frankfurters, French bread, potato salad, a cloyingly sweet salad of corn, bell pepper, and assorted what-nots, and salami and cheese. Not tasty, really, but not bad—as most German food is, solid and mediocre, without being really good or appallingly bad.

And, of course, a bar, with wine, beer, and champagne there for the taking. By the time we left at 2 A.M., as dancing threatened to start, my head felt like a watermelon on the verge of splitting, and my eyes were bleared and nose in torment from the thick smoke.

Today, an orgy of cooking at W. and K.’s—roast daube, stuffed zucchini, fish with remoulade sauce, ambrosia, green salad. Steve and I cooked from 2 P.M. till almost 8, then back here, where I must now close this chronicle and sleep, because the meal is for W. and K.’s parents and siblings, to be followed by a repeat performance in the evening with R. and C. Promises to be an arduous day, so I need to sleep, if only to assure time to exercise, too

Öhe 28.12.93: Nacreous Skies, Sullen Burghers

On the other side of this page, a field we saw yesterday, as snow gathered. But not quite right; not anywhere near right. The colors are softer under the Northern winter sky, which itself glows with a nacreous apricot around the horizon, a pearlier tone in the high heavens. The green of fields is particularly hard to get—lush, almost springlike even in winter. The kind of grass one sees in damp, cool climates like Ireland, as if the green is not some color inherent in grass, but springs new-minted in each blade of grass of the soft dark earth. Grass in hotter climates is a harsher green—has to be, to survive the sun.

We drove today with K. into Kappeln (having gone there last night for supper at a not-impressive Italian restaurant). The drive was magic. Had snowed, and the snow still hung on all the trees and covered all the fields. In Wormshöft, a village near Maasholm and en route to Kapeln, three pretty thatched cottages with snow lying heavy on their roofs. All the buildings the soft red brick of northern Germany, with pretty windows of heavy glass and unpainted wooden frames.

Kappeln is a handsome little village with red-brick buildings and winding streets, though catering, I reckon, primarily to all the well-heeled Hamburgers and Berliners who have cottages hereabouts. The shopkeepers rather rude, on the whole, with appraising eyes. Went to one shop that seemed to be owned by a couple of which the man was German and the woman Latin American. He looked (as many affluent, educated German men in their 40s look) as if he had once been a hippie and has now settled down to making money in the best way he can.

On the streets, people didn’t seem very attractive, either. A mix of haughty yuppie couples and mean-looking teenagers with many nose- and ear-rings, smoking cigarettes, some with head shaved and heavy boots.

I feel increasingly a sense of the weight of Germany history, as I see these people. Not the same weight I felt in Russia, where everything seemed so shot through with tragedy and sad, failed aspiration.

Here, it’s different. All works very well in Germany. Pot lids fit to a T. Every road is marked by numerous signs, helpful instructions, didactic warnings. Nary curve must be taken uncalculated.

In such a culture, there can be no tragedy. What there is, is an ugly sense of the failure to muster everything and that deep, sullen, pig-like German anger that arises from this sense. From tragedy, one can profit, learn to be wiser. From thwarted ambition that never learned to temper the limits of its aspiration, only angry resolve to try again can grow.

In the restaurant last night, a family that typified this for me, somehow. A huge woman of early 40s, I’d reckon, very dirty hair, a young son who looked just like her, and a teenaged daughter with a tangle of greasy hair, too.

The woman ate with methodical self-absorption through a soup course, then a salad one. Then she stopped to have a cigarette. After that, her main course arrived—a gargantuan plate of fettucine in a cream sauce. The son announced, Es ist sehr viel, richtig! Then he went into a hiccup fit.

It wasn’t just the good appetite of the woman that was repulsive. It was the unconscious sense of entitlement she projected, combined with her obvious lack of real appreciation for the food she was eating. In fact, she ended up leaving most of the fettucine. She and her children were slit-eyed boors, laughing and talking about others in the restaurant, never reflecting on their own lack of culture.

This is the flip-side of gutbürgerlich German culture . . . .

On a totally different theme: I keep thinking that somehow my dream of several nights ago—teaching praxis—crystallizes much of my struggle now.

No. That’s not what I want to say, exactly. It provides me a new vantage point from which to look at my calling. Even here, in this distant land, I feel calling breaking in. The problem is, I don’t see where to direct the energies that well up as a result.

Except to my imagined book project, which must somehow contain a section about how modern culture is breaking down, giving way to postmodern. It must also note the giftedness of gay people as artists, those who pick up detritus and give it new value.

From a religious standpoint, gay people are in a unique position to pick up the churches’ cast-offs, pieces of tradition that have been discarded and undervalued by modernity.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Öhe 27.12.93: Glühwein and Nightmares

Looking out the window now. A dreamy Baltic Sea landscape, rolling green meadow shrouded in mist, cold rain, beneath a never-varying gray sky. Houses lie nestled just beneath the last rise of the meadow, in the distance.

God. Where, who, is God in such a place, on such a day? A very bad night. My ears hum and sing. I feel constant dull pressure in my head. I awake with pounding heart, toss and turn with troubled dreams all night long.

Oddly, the evening that provoked such a night was a pleasant one. I was tired by 6 P.M., and bathed while W. took K. to the airport. When he returned, T. came to say that the neighbors had invited us all for Glühwein and snacks.

So I got dressed and we took a little walk, then went and had wine. Was nice—sitting around in a circle laughing and talking, eating and drinking. The Oma spoke no English, so W. decreed we’d speak German, and that Steve and I would stretch ourselves to do so. We did, with varying degrees of success.

Despite the relative ease I felt in the evening, I simply could not rest all night long. Dreams of Belmont Abbey College, horrible ones . . . .

E.g., I’m at Belmont Abbey, and A., the academic vice-president is there. I discover that he kneels on a towel with inscriptions on all four sides, as he speaks to the college community. The inscriptions tell him what to say, how to react, in any situation. They’re simplistic and sycophantic sayings, with only four variations: things like yes, yes; no, no, sit, stand; jump, fall.

I expose A. as a fraud and tell him he’ll receive his just reward for his dishonest behavior. He does, and meets some downfall.

Then some scene in which I look in a mirror and see my eyes, behind my glasses. They eyes shift in different ways, and finally look dead.

Then I’m teaching at a program like Loyola Institute for Ministry, though connected to Belmont Abbey. I pass a whole line of bookshelves, and there’s an essay in a book the students have found that speaks of Steve and me, in some way exposing our relationship, so that I see the students know, but value us all the more.

After this, I lecture. I tell them we’re doing it wrong by lecturing without beginning with praxis. I lead them through a door marked “Praxis,” and tell them praxis can be action on behalf of the poor, as with Bread for the World. Then I think that I should also mention action on behalf of justice for gays. So I do.

When I awoke from the dream, it was with a sense that the dream uncovers some deep, beneath-the-anguish layer of vocation, in which I can see that I am a theologian, with a calling to be one, and that I’m sometimes effective at my vocation.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Öhe 26.12.93: Cold Sea Winds and Goose with Red Cabbage

Just awakened. Looking out the window at W. and K.’s cottage dining room, where one can see in the distance the little copse giving way to gray, mist-shrouded sea. One can’t see the sea from here, but one feels its presence in the air that’s half breeze, half salt water, in the lushness of grass that’s nonetheless stunted by salt and cold wind, in that vastly alluring presence that any sea is.

And this sea, for me, is more. This area of Germany is called Angleland. It’s where the Angles lived before they invaded England. Somehow, I feel as I’ve felt approaching other places my ancestors lived: that I’ve been here; that my blood belongs here. I want to walk by the sea this morning after we breakfast.

Last night, a Christmas celebration in our honor. We roasted a goose with rosemary, an apple and raising stuffing. With it, knödels and red cabbage.

After we ate—and ate—we had aquavit and more red wine, my fruit cake (which is not a success—too moist), Zimtsterne and other cookies W.’s mother had baked.

Then at around 11, the people who live in the other half of this cottage (constructed, as the whole row was, for farm laborers) came over for more Rotwein. A very nice couple, U. and G. He had lived for two years in Dallas in the early 1960s, and came back to Germany when the Vietnam War broke out. He was attractive, with a boyish bristle of black and gray hair and a rounder, less sculpted face than many Germans have. She had frosted hair pulled back into a mane with hairclips, and was little and vivacious. Steve said later they looked and acted like people who aren’t really German, but who came here from elsewhere. An apt observation.

7 P.M. Drove today into the nearest little village, Maasholm Bad. It’s not much to see, really—or could be seeing it on a Sunday afternoon two days after Christmas is not seeing it at its best.

Walked twice today, too. First time to the Baltic Sea, from which a very fierce, cold wind was blowing. Then after dark—at 4:30 P.M.—into Maasholm to use the telephone.

W. now gone to take K. to Flensburg. She has to go back to work tomorrow, and since it has snowed south of here and the roads are icy, she doesn’t want to drive.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Öhe 25.12.93: Weihnachtsmann and Klepper Hymns

At W. and K.’s cottage on the Baltic Sea. We drove here in the early afternoon. It’s about 2 hours north of Hamburg, east of Flensburg, at Öhe.

It’s lovely, a two-story yellow-brick house on an old farm. The houses are along a lane leading to the farmhouse, an imposing red-brick building of two or three stories, with wings almost like an English manor house. Past the farmhouse is the sea, which we saw only after night fell, as snow and rain whipped off the water.

Yesterday, we drove to W. and K.’s about 2:30 P.M. They had fixed Knödeln and Rotkohl and turkey, and we had a bit to eat, then drove to K.’s sister’s house, A. Her husband U. is an engineer with Electrolux, which in Germany is a manufacturer of industrial kitchens.

The house is very glitzy—white marble floors, a high-tech kitchen all polished marble and steel with an oven one cannot yet buy commercially, one that cooks faster than a microwave, cool white linen walls everywhere, with banks of windows and French doors, sparkling bathrooms with the best polished-steel fixtures, a huge wine cellar and play rooms for U. and his four-year old son P. (a workout room with elaborate sauna, a tool room, a room in which U. and P. have constructed a miniature steam engine!). As we passed the laundry room, U. said it was “his wife’s” washing room.

At first I was a bit uncomfortable. Tried to pet the family’s cocker spaniel Dinah, and K.’s father told me not to do so. Her father a small man with a set mouth and lines in his cheeks to accompany it, and blue eyes that seemed to stare and stare all night long. Her mother is a very pleasant stocky blond woman who laughs easily and gruffly, as K. does. Both were dentists, as is K. and as her sister A. is.

W.’s parents arrived a little later, she thin and gray-haired with a sympathetic, somewhat nervous face, her hair cut in an engaging boyish shingle, he taciturn and frail-seeming, with a face like something a puppet-carver would make—close-set (and deep-set) blue eyes, a long, thin nose. Then came W.’s sister H. late, as she had been the night of the children’s music performance. She told me at dinner the reason for her lateness was that she had felt sick at her stomach, had taken medicine, then lay down to rest and overslept.

K. told us in the car today that H. is unsettled; married in 1970 and divorced in ’71, then has been unable to get subsequent relationships to work and regrets that she will not have children of her own. W. and K. have left instructions that if they die, H. is to raise T. and A.

I like H. She clattered on in my ear at supper last night, talking re: fat farms she goes to, her compulsive eating, her increasing dissatisfaction with Weight Watchers (it now allows chocolate and ice cream: one taste leads to another). The older people looked as if they wanted her to shut up: Frau throws herself at American man, WWII revisited. The younger ones seemed to pity her and think she was shaming herself.

Shame’s a big force in the German psyche. One’s expected to get it right, and if one doesn’t, there’s not a lot of leeway granted.

But I liked H., as I’ve said, and found her public fragility endearing. I sensed that she’s lonely and unhappy. K. told us she fights constantly with the man with whom she lives. He was decidedly not there last night, and at one point U. said something to the effect that he wondered what her Freund would make of all her attention to me.

Heiligabend: after champagne toasts were drunk very formally, tea and coffee and kuchen and tortes were served. Then we retired to the living room, the candles on the Weihnachtsbaum were lit, and Weihnachtsmann knocked at the door. It was W. in a Santa suit (with face mask). P., the adorable little boy of U. and A., does not know that W. is Weihnachtsmann. W. does a really good job; speaks in a gruff voice as he interrogates everyone re: whether they’ve been good or bad. We all stood in a semi-circle in the foyer for W.’s appearance.

Then exchange of gifts. Everyone sits and opens presents that the giver brings around. K.’s mother gave us a homemade Eierlikör, H. a bottle of wine each, W. and K. a cup and saucer each, and A. and T. a box of marzipan each.

W. and K. gave her mother a wooden toilet seat, which she wants because the painted ones are so cold. W.’s father suggested she put it over her head to display it. Someone suggested she get a heated seat, and she said, Ach, nay! She didn’t want to cook herself, just to be warmer.

After presents, a meal of herring salad made by K.’s mother, containing chopped salami, boiled eggs, apple, pickle, onion, and yoghurt, in addition to the herring. Also a herring salad from W.’s mother, with sour cream, bay leaves, and juniper berries. And smoked salmon (an Irish pink salmon) with horseradish in cream. With this, bread, cheeses, and tea, coffee, and wine. Afterwards, a really good French red wine from U.’s cellar to drink with the last bits of cheese.

Then at 10:15 to Katharinenkirche in the Innenstadt, for the 11 P.M. Gottesdienst. We met the R.’s there, sat with them, including R.’s mother. The church was destroyed during the war, and rebuilt afterwards. I didn’t see a lot of it, as we simply walked down the aisle and sat; but it wasn’t really pretty inside. Too stark—white walls, no stained glass windows.

A good, though small, choir, and a sermon by Peter Cornehl of the University of Hamburg. The sermon preceded and followed by readings from Isaiah and Luke, with carols sung by both the choir and the Gemeinde.

The sermon, to the extent that I followed it, hit on the theme of darkness, the darkness that the light of Christ appears to illuminate. Peter Cornehl spoke of the darkness of poverty and political repression, referring specifically to the Nazi period in Germany and present resurgence of Nazism, the situation in Russia, sickness (he mentioned D. Sölle in particular). All this was interwoven with the story of Jochen Klepper, whose hymn Die Nacht ist vorgedrungen we sang. He was a poet whose wife was Jewish, a resister of the Nazis, whose hymns are now sung in churches.

After the sermon, a bidding prayer, in which the pastor of the church (in a big ruff) went to the high altar and prayed for the Somalians, Bosnians, South Africans, Latin Americans, homeless, etc. As we left the church, a collection was taken up for Bread for the World.

Then home, bed, and up at 10:30 to drive to W. and K.’s, where we had breakfast, packed, and came here. Along the autobahn north, not much to see, but on the country roads over, pretty rolling wet pastures with hawks hovering over them, and crows (Krainen in German, I learned) on fenceposts and telephone wires, prosperous villages of red-brick houses and vacation houses, with little farms right within the villages, green pastures, cows, chickens.

A particularly pretty village called Kappeln just as one approaches the coast, with an inlet of the Baltic called Schlei. (Is this related to our English word “slough”? When I was growing up, the waters that backed up from rivers near us were always called sloughs.) the village has a harbor with fishing boats, houses perched on a hill overlooking the Schlei, a clean Scandinavian look. In some ways, it reminded me of those little Scottish fishing villages one sees on the east coast of Cape Breton, rugged, but not made coarse by ruggedness.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Hamburg 24.12.93: Christmas Eve Coffee Panic and Maria Schutzmantel

11:30 A.M. We slept till 9:30; another one of those nights for me. I cannot seem to rest, to recover, to settle in any way.

We’ve just walked to Nienstedt for coffee, only to discover our coffee shop is not open—for coffee; they’re doing a booming business selling baked goods. Guess on Christmas eve they don’t want the extra bother of preparing breakfast. I have the impression stores will close anyway at noon, for the day.

I keep thinking of a statue we saw in the parish church at Daun, Nikolauskirche. It’s one of which I’ve seen pictures (if not of this statue, at least of other examples of it). Schutzmantel Maria: Mary with her mantel spread, and lots of little people sheltering beneath it, their upturned faces pious and a bit surprised. At what, I don’t know—the happy discovery that they’re among the blessed?

I like it very much, always have, so it was a pleasure to see it. I like the idea of a maternal providence that surprises us with its unexpected solicitude, and the idea that little people are especially subject to such solicitude. I also like the sense of eschatological overthrow of injustice, for the people under the mantel are not priests, nuns, potentates, but ordinary peasants.

A sign at the back of the church, telling its history, says the statue is a copy of another dated early 15th century (1421?), which is now in a museum in Berlin. Would be nice to see the original.

The Eifel, Kreis Daun 23.12.93: Counting Cousins (Not!) and Village Marketing

In the car, on the A1, about ½ hour south of Köln, driving back from Dreis to Hamburg. It’s about 10:45 A.M., and the first really clear, sunny day we’ve had—though the sky still has clouds. Flat, pretty farmland with rich, red-brown earth and church steeples in every direction. Actually looks like a lot of southern Minnesota. Catholic Germans imported the village-clustered-around-a-church pattern virtually intact.

Impressions: the store in Dreis, the one and only store, as far as I could see. We go into it after our walk round Dreis in the snow and rain in which we sketched and snapped pictures. It’s on the 421 highway, one long rectangular building with a rather dirty window occupying much of the roadside wall. In it that forlorn and dusty collection of odds and ends one finds in the store window of any village anywhere, lined up a bit with kitschy Christmas objects.

The shop owner, an officious woman of about 50 with short black hair and appraising gray eyes, pelts out a deep-throated, rather minatory Guten Morgen!, though it’s afternoon. Steve goes up to the cheese-and-meat counter at the back of the shop, behind which she stands chatting to a village woman, and asks for postcards. She comes out and shows him the rack of cards, disdainfully. He selects various views of Dreis, then goes to pay.

As he does so, the village woman walks out with her basket. I step aside in the narrow aisle and say Entschuldigung. She doesn’t look at or acknowledge me, as I’m stone and she cold water running past. In general, the women coming in and out (as several do while we’re in the shop) have the same cold, challenging air of the shop owner—as if they want to communicate that we outsiders needn’t feel superior to them, or attempt to impress them with our money, fine clothes, sophistication. Any disclosure of who we are must begin with us.

When Steve pays, he tells the shopwoman he’s a Dreiser by descent. She thaws, if only imperceptibly—enough to ask bold questions, such as where his family lived in the village, with whom we’re staying in Dreis, where we’re going, whether our friends in Hamburg are male or female. All in German, of course.

Another round, short woman with warmer brown eyes and a very heavy, almost freakish auburn mustache fringing a mouth full of bad teeth, comes up behind Steve and listens. She talks animatedly in that splashy, wet way people around here speak German. I understand only some of what she ways. Steve mentions the Sprünckers and Lambertys, and they say these are not Dreis families. They’re from Dockweiler and Hohelfels, villages only 1 and 2 kilometers away, which the Dreisers treat as if they’re other countries. This is an attitude we meet several times when we discuss Steve’s ancestral families: there’s a very precise sense of where each family is to be situated, and it corresponds to Steve’s records. The Lambertys were from Hohenfels.

Conversely, a family (e.g., the Schäfers) in any given village has a clearly delineated sense of who its kin are, a not very extended sense. In all the villages, families such as the Schäfers, Sprünckers, and Lambertys claim that there are separate, unrelated families of the same name in the village—which is hardly likely to be the case. In such small villages, it’s certainly highly unlikely that everyone of the same family name would not ultimately stem from the same common ancestor—especially when these names are not particularly common.

Discussion over, we turn to leave the store. A cross-eyed woman comes in as we go out. She appears to stare balefully, though this may be because her eyes can’t do anything else.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Eifel, Kreis Daun 22.12.93: Fachwerk Houses and Lace Curtains

Snowy, nasty weather. We walked in Dreis and I drew, but that’s not easy to do, with the snow mixed with rain which smeared the ink. Also, my hands froze.

Over the church door, a beautiful angel’s head that Steve photographed, and which I ought to include in future pictures, and the date 1823.

Inside, a sweet gay man about 20 decorating the church with a younger boy for Heilig’ Abend. He spoke a bit of charming, heavily accented English. Was erecting the crèche—churches here don’t decorate at all for Christmas until the eve of Christmas.

On the reverse of this page, a drawing of the old Burg in the oldest section of Dreis. In some store, we saw a picture of it in a guidebook, and I stupidly did not note a date or information about it. It’s on the main road running through the town (421, Daun to Hillesheim) west of the church and the oldest buildings of the village.

It’s not in excellent repair, though not dilapidated, and there are things stacked around that seem to indicate it will be repaired. Has rather a forlorn air, as if whatever importance the village had, and which supported the castle’s existence, is long since vanished.

On the other side of this page, one of the few Fachwerk houses in Dreis, which is adjacent the Burg. The drawing is of the main side of the house, facing 421 west of the Burg. The house has a date. I didn’t record it, but Steve took a picture—was it 1728 or 1740?

As one goes on, a street called Ringstrasse comes up, and very old buildings are on the street—the old farmhouse with a picture of a man plowing painted on its side, old buildings of stacked stone, a barn through which the road runs.

I wish I could draw the neat, obviously handmade, lace—and tatting—work hanging in most windows.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Eifel, Kreis Daun 21.12.93: Twitching Curtains and War Monuments

Morning. My second good night of sleep since we arrived in Germany. No nightmares last night, for the first time . . . .

My dreams have been fitful every night in Germany, dominated by images that wake me, mouth dry, heart pounding . . . . Dreams: the deep soul speaking, crying out for attention. In that deep, fertile, dark, pained, redemptive place, we anguish. We anguish at the realization of death, which comes so suddenly, and with our own complicity in many cases. I anguish at my inability to care adequately for those I love, let alone myself.

I also anguish at the pained life I’ve had to live because of homophobic violence—in high school no less than now. Perhaps being in a foreign country has enabled me to see how strong the line of continuity is. At home, I’m aware, but not in the stark way my dreams have shown it to me away from home.

I’m not sure what to do with that recognition. On the one hand, I could give up and cry about my victimization—and, if my mother’s behavior signals anything, it’s that there’s a family tendency to do just that. I fear this so deeply in my mother; I run from it in her, because it’s also in me.

But the dreams of last night (mercifully for readers, this excerpt deletes the details) disclose and point me towards another possibility, one I’ve been exploring for some years now. This is the possibility of picking up pieces and putting them together differently, especially pieces of the past.

Funny that, in the middle of the horrific life I’ve been leading at Belmont Abbey, I think of pulling out a new fortune—red—and find old, rusted kitchen utensils as I do so. My intuition tells me this points to the need to retrieve pre-grad school aspects of my relationship with Steve.

That includes spirituality, a strong sense of calling and vocation. This trip needs to be (all trips need to be; life needs to be) pilgrimage.

+ + + + +

9 P.M. I feel I ought to write a bit more in this journal. But lazy, so don’t know what exactly to write. And the day was in some aspects a replication of the previous ones—to Daun, Kirchweiler, Hohenfels.

Went to Daun in hopes of finding land records, but reached a dead end in the city records office. A not-too-helpful young man told us that no land records prior to 1900 exist anywhere in Germany. Preposterous. Went then to the Stadtarchiv, and they sent us back where we’d been.

Then to Hohenfels, which turns out to be a pretty little village, unspoilt, beside a stream not far from Kirchweiler.

Someone (who? I can’t recall now) had suggested we speak to a Frau Christina Lamberty there, and after we saw the church (i.e., Kapelle), which is not old—1894—we found her house.

Turned out she was the wife of a still living Herr J. Lamberty, who believes he must be a cousin of Steve’s. They invited us in. They lived in one of those old interconnected house-farms arrangements one sees in these villages. A woman had told us to look for the gelbisches Haus, and gelbisch it was. Very neat. Firewood stacked in trim piles inside the old barn attached at a right angle to the house. A push broom tipped properly against the barn wall, broom part on the floor.

The Lambertys invited us in. A couple perhaps in their 70s, she large and with that red skin giving way to wrinkles one sees on German women of her age. Good skin, not thin and tissue-like in the English way (my people), enlivened by a lifetime of cream, Wurst, Käse. Clear blue eyes that might once have been shrewd, but are now good-humored. Ready to laugh, to talk heartily.

Herr Lamberty dark-eyed with a square face, sparse hair, heavy brows from which his eyes peer out underneath. He in a sweater, she in that dark blue work apron worn over a dress sprigged with small flowers that is the omnipresent costume of German Hausfraus hereabouts.

We sat at their table. Dining table would be an exaggeration, but it was in a room off the kitchen. The room was small and square with an old, not prepossessing, Last Supper scene on the wall, and other pictures of the same ilk, though secular.

Both Herr and Frau Lamberty talked incessantly and simultaneously. The made no concession to our feeble German—appeared to accede to it, then forget it, in their old-folks’ haste to talk.

I was nearer Frau Lamberty and was treated to an often incomprehensible monologue in an accent impermeable to me, about American soldiers and cold weather, and (I think) how the family fed them cheese and sausage. Then a story about homesick nuns and how they had to be sent food from home, and how their shoes and feet were sooo kleine. All this in a maddening gabble that almost approached English, but just hovered maddeningly out of reach. As if I were listening to some pre-English Germanic ancestor sitting by a fire babbling toothlessly. I understood—almost, not quite—but I did understand.

After that, we drove a bit here and there, then back to Dreis for a walk through the village as night fell and snow whipped wildly over the hilltop west of the village.

A very old Burg on the west side of town (pictured above). Around it, what clearly are the oldest remaining buildings in the village—a cluster of farm and house buildings, some with very old stone outbuildings, one marked Bauernhof.

Past this, a high hill that overlooks a valley of pretty farmland. The hill is wooded, and may be kept that way to catch the wind, which is notoriously fierce in the Eifel, and it was fierce tonight, and fiercely cold. It drove the snow at a slant parallel to the ground.

Village life: in some ways, this is what the Enlightenment was opposed to, its encumbrances, its mute churches overlooking everything, its order and restrictions and millennially old unwritten rules.

And I can see why the Enlightenment wanted to move this immovable mass to something, to anything. I never thought I’d be won over to saying this, but there’s an incredible stupidity about village life. Of course, that stupidity is stupidity as measured against Enlightenment (“civilized”) norms. It’s the stupidity of doing things this way over and over and never asking why. It’s the stupidity of assuming that religion is just a series of rituals to hallow life’s significant moments, to give them an otherworldly respectability. It’s the stupidity of assuming there are no other options.

Villages reveal how unthinking that stupidity is, how based not on reflection but on sheer inertia, when they are confronted with the pressures of late 20th-century media. Village folks succumb so readily, so easily, to these lures, never seeing how antithetical the false-brick front over the old plastered wall is to the cultural heritage of the village.

All I have to compare with these three days in an Eifel Catholic village is the afternoon in Wohltorf, which is an old village now annexed to Hamburg. The former has affinities to Irish villages in which I’ve spent time, with winding streets and houses right on the road, but even more in the sort of general dreariness of everything. Not that there’s not great beauty in both types of villages—their settings on running streams and against mountains, the lace curtains in windows.

It’s just that their very authenticity, their unselfreflectiveness, the tastelessness of the way they jumble styles and ornaments, is unappealing. Real village life smells of sties. It has balefully staring idiots and old people who seem forgotten by the youth who have fled them. People peer from behind curtains; hands twitch lace aside as one passes. One is as likely to see a vase of plastic flowers in a window as a pot of geraniums, a twisted aluminum deer ornamenting a plastic wall as a faded mural.

Not so Wohltorf. There, all’s immaculate, preserved, and artificial in an entirely different way. The 17th-century Schloss is impeccably restored, presided over by a woman of taste with a silk blouse and discreet handmade silver jewelry and a beautiful dachshund. In the Schloss, Baroque concerts are given regularly by string quartets. Exhibits are mounted of the work of Hamburg artists—pen-and-ink drawings of Jewish-looking women weeping as ships sail away, polished brass candlesticks of fantastical design.

At this point in my life, after years in which I would have fanatically defended the Eifel Catholic village, I see that I would far rather live in Wohltorf. Even with its maddening bourgeois pretensions. Here, the church is like a miasma over everything. There, it’s a discreet presence off to the side.

And those war monuments! Everywhere in Germany, we find, almost every single church we visit has a dark, heavy monument to the dead of the two world wars. In Dreis, the monument is beside the church, and commemorates village soldiers from 1870 to the second war. I understand the human need to remember one’s dead. What bothers me so much is the ease with which that need seems, in these villages, to coalesce with church life, when so many justifiable critical questions have been raised about the church’s silent (and sometimes active) complicity in the Nazi atrocities.

True, we have our monuments to the Confederate dead, and we bedeck them with flowers. But, at least, they are in the courthouse square and not cheek-by-jowl with the churches that upheld slavery . . . .

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Eifel, Kreis Daun 20.12.1993: Gothic Churches and Bitte Ein Bit

A long and profitable day. Got up around 8:30, the earliest we’ve been able to arise in Germany so far, and had an enormous breakfast, which comes with the room, and makes it a bargain—40 DM/night for each of us. It consisted of yoghurt (made from cream!), mine hazelnut and Steve’s raspberry, an omelet with bacon and green onion, slices of raw and cured ham, a cheese similar to Camembert, bread, waffles, jam, coffee. Even my teeth feel coated with fat: I worry about my cholesterol intake in Germany. All is cream, butter, cheese, meat. The food has been generally okay, never scintillating, but never bad, either.

After breakfast, we drove to Dockweiler, about a mile from Dreis. Stopped at a bakery to ask how to find the parish priest, and the owner very kindly offered to call him for us. It turned out the priest was to arrive at 10:30—a half hour after we arrived.

The man took us to the priest’s secretary’s house, and then the priest (Pastor Florin) arrived almost immediately. He brought us to the rectory, which is now unused, since he serves 7 or 8 parishes and lives in Kirchweiler, another of Steve’s ancestral villages.

They brought out the parish records, and we went through the Familienbuch, which arranges births, deaths, and marriages in family groups. We traced Steve’s family back to ca. 1720 in Dreis, Dockweiler, and Hohenfels/Kirchweiler.

There was a sadness re: the rectory, an unused feeling. It was dark and closed. Makes me wonder re: the wisdom of Pope JPII’s backwards perspective. Catholicism has thriven here since the 740s, but today all seems dispirited—too few priests, too many churches to fill, and a village life that is no longer cohesive, centripetal, centered on the church. The future is not in the past, even if it is in organic continuity with the past.

After the rectory, the church, built ca. 1100, or I should say founded then. It was hard to tell whether the present church dates at all from then. It was a dark and rainy day, and we couldn’t see well inside.

From what I could see, the interior is a rather simple Gothic, with a high alter having a cross of a drooping tree to which Jesus is fixed, with John and Mary on either side. To the right of the alter, on the wall, is a very striking wood carving that looks to be ca. 1300-1400, of the Father holding his dead Son in his arms.

Otherwise (with the exception of nice but not imposing stained-glass windows and pretty angels’ heads “holding up” the wooden ceiling beams), the furnishings and liturgical art are 19th- or 20th-century, and not very fortunate—a back side chapel to the Sacred Heart, icons of the Holy Family, a horrible banner on the altar.

There seems to be a Franciscan influence hereabouts. The bakery owner told us of a Dr. Schneider, a Franciscan from this area, who is a clarissimus in Rome. (Schneider is one of Steve’s ancestral lines. And what the heck is a clarissimus?) And he (bakery owner, who never told us his name) had a brother who was a Franciscan.

The outside of the Dockweiler church, which is dedicated to St. Lawrence, is pretty, especially against the fields and hilltops of the Eifel. The cemetery is a puzzle—no early graves, even 19th-century ones (why not?), and an ugly, dark, embarrassing monument to those from the parish who died in WWI and II, which we found replicated at the Kirchweiler church. On both, we found Steve’s family names—Schäfer, Sprüncker, Lamberty, Schneider, Meyer).

After Dockweiler, drove ca. 1 P.M. to Daun, where we did banking and went to a Schneider bookshop we had seen the previous night. The owner (I supposed her to be) does very attractive watercolors of the region. We chose one of a church seen across a lake that has the sun reflected in it.

She denied kinship with Steve, as Germans seem quick to do when it comes to names shared even in small villages: they seem to restrict kinship to recent relatives, those who can be easily traced. But she was nice, a vivacious 65 or so, spry with short gray hair worn in a straight fringe cut around her head. There was also a nice woman in the shop of around the same age who spoke a bit of English and had visited Florida last year. We find hardly anyone—not even the parish priest—who speaks more than a few words of English here.

Is this region isolated? Did Nazis thrive more here as a result? There was a really scary young skinhead in the hotel bar last night. I kept waking in the night thinking he was in the room. Something re: these villages—the animal skins on the walls, the Gemütlichkeit itself, the old men drinking bitterly in bars—tells me there’s a shadow side, one that lends itself to fanaticism like Nazism.

After Schneider’s, we had coffee at a very cozy bakery, where I had a streusel cake with raspberries and (of course) whipped cream, and Steve an apple strudel.

Then to the Verbandgemeinde, where Steve found the civil report of his emigrant ancestors’ marriage, as well as a typed copy of some record having to do with their emigration. It states that the son of Johann Schäfer and Anna Maria Lamberty—Johann Wilhelm—could not leave Germany till he had completed his military service, a fact that corresponds to Steve’s family stories. His family tradition is, in fact, that the family left Germany because they did not want their sons serving in the Prussian army, and that the son Wilhelm came after finishing his service, joining the family in Minnesota. The woman here was especially nice—gave Steve photocopies for free.

Then drove to Kirchweiler as it grew dark. We knocked about in the cemetery, but could not get into the church. It was locked.

Then back to Daun in the rain. The drive along all the roads is really pretty. High hilltops in the distance, topped with mist; green fields (even in winter) with a few sheep; little villages nestled in valleys or on hilltops, with attractive little white churches with domed spires.

The villages have narrow winding streets and old, whitewashed buildings right on the street. But to me, they feel claustrophobic. Could one be gay, even intellectually curious, in them?

In Daun, as night fell, we had supper. It was early, and so they opened the restaurant (shortly after 5) for us. I had fried plaice with salad and potato croquettes and a glass of dry white wine, Steve a deer goulash with noodles and apple compote and a Bitburger beer. Gut geschmekt.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Eifel, Kreis Daun 19.12.93: Animal Skins and Village Scenes

We’re now in Dreis (Steve’s tiny Schafer ancestral village in the Vulcaneifel), having driven here today from Hamburg. Since I last wrote in this journal, we’ve given our lecture at the Akademie (really, an evening seminar), and been to Wohltorf for dinner at R. and C.’s.

The former: uneventful, really. I felt uninspired. There were a Brazilian Calvinist, a Brazilian and Filipino Baptist, two Korean Presbyterians, a Lutheran who was (I think) from Argentina, a student from Togo who was (I think) Methodist, an Indian who was (I believe) Anglican, and two Africans I never quite placed—one, I believe, has finished his dissertation, the other belonged to one of the Pentecostal movements in Zimbabwe or Tanzania or South Africa.

Steve talked about AAR, especially about lectures on feminism and the place of gay scholars we had both heard at AAR. I talked about American Catholicism. There seemed to be a dismissive attitude re: the gay subject. All the people were church pastors except one of the Koreans, who was a deaconness married to the other Korean, and the Zimbabwean, who is a prophet. The Koreans seemed the most receptive, the Brazilian Baptist pastor, a black man, the least. He and several others were odiously testosteronish. In fact, the whole thing reeked of male dominance.

There were a number of questions afterwards re: where the group might go if it visited the U.S., and then all was mercifully over.

Because I slept poorly that night, as I often happens when I have run the gauntlet of a lecture, we got up late, in time only to go to the Nienstedt Marktplatz for coffee, then it was time to catch the train to Wohltorf. Lo and behold, S.W. was on the train, at least part of the way to the Hauptbahnhof, so we got to talk.

The trip out east to Wohltorf, which is actually only 20 kilometers from the former East German border, was interesting. We passed through several working-class suburbs with dreary shanty-like houses and little gardens of cabbage and cauliflower, beside the train tracks.

Then we came to a very posh village with fine houses and a sparkling shopping, are, and then to Wohltorf, which is an old village with a more middle-class lifestyle.

R. and C.’s son C., who must be about 14 now, met us at the station. He’s a very likable boy, one who hulks beside and over you as he talks in that utterly serious, utterly guileless way German children can have. He told us the village was an old one with a pre-Christian burial ground, and he spoke of the typical red-brick construction of houses as we passed them.

About the evening, what can I say? R. and C. were simply angelic. Soon after we arrived, they took us and W. and K., who had driven out earlier, on a long walk through the woods, the Sachsenwald near their house. The weather was awful (Was für hässlich Wetter, my Berlitz book teaches me to say), and we met places where we practically had to wade through mud and water, but I enjoyed the walk.

It was cool and misty, the forest full of pine, birch, and oak. Rudi told me the paths are marked and set aside as public walking paths. I saw signs explaining what some trees were, and there were numerous somber and healthy north Germans out hiking—young and old alike—on them.

On the hike, W. told us Dorothee Sölle was taken quite ill the day before, and is in the hospital with edema of the lungs and a very high fever. We had hoped to see her, and he was going to call. This was quite a shock. How fragile and short life is.

Once home, we had tea with wonderful cherry-and-chocolate cake, and an apple cape with whipped cream on the side. R. and C. have a lovely house with a living room opening onto a terrace. This wall is almost all windows, and the house is painted white inside and furnished in school Scandinavian colors with sisal carpeting, undyed. It’s restful to the eye, and must be lovely in summer.

(Forgot to say that on our walk we went into the 16th-century Wohltorf castle, built of red brick and also cool and sparse inside—a look R. says north Germans prefer, in contrast to the Baroque look in which all is displayed, in south Germany. The castle was lovely, with whitewashed walls inside, wide oaken windowsills, mullioned windows, beams with various designs—all in muted colors—overhead. The floor in the kitchen area was, of course, tile, red squares glazed. Upstairs, it was of massive oaken planks. There was a very attractive 17th-century hutch in the first room we entered. The sign said it was from Lübeck, and was of mixed birch and oak. The front had fruit and visages carved here and there on it.)

After tea, we sat and talked as the children (both of the W. and the R. family) played for us on an electric organ and piano. Then R. got out his sax and he and C. (piano) played a few jazz numbers, till R. did not play to C.’s satisfaction and the performance was over.

Then we exchanged presents. The R.’s seemed pleased with ours, for which I was grateful. They gave us a knapsack full—a videotape of a performance of Russian music, a Brahms requiem on c.d., a Dresdner stolen, and packages of Lübeck marzipan.

As we sat, R. brought out a wonderful champagne and we had a toast, then we toured the house. C. Showed me his collection of Steiff animals, which he said are “so sweet”—as was his accent when he said it. He encouraged me to buy one—a real German gift, he said.

We also toured C.’s train set in the basement—very elaborate, with recently constructed mountains and plans for a village, and R.’s wine cellar—also elaborate.

Then dinner. A mixed salad of red and yellow peppers, red cabbage, corn, lettuce, garlic, and dill, followed by potatoes au gratin, rice, lamb bourguignon. The meal was accompanied by a really good red Bordeaux. After chocolate mousse (prepared by R.), we had espresso and candies (wonderful kirsch batons from the Lindt people, and chocolate mints), and Willemsbirne. Then R. poured burgundy, and it was time to float/slide back to the train.

I enjoyed the evening and the warmth of both families tremendously, but I also felt very bad at points—head about to explode, nauseated, the whole gamut. After I got home, was in misery with stomach upset from the combination of social anxiety that so often plagues me at any gathering, and from having eaten and drunk too much.

Steve got us up today at 8 and we were off by 9 on the A1 to Köln and then south. I slept till almost noon. Weather awful. Rain all the way, except for one patch of clearing near Köln.

The region just north of Köln very industrial, then one begins to see little villages clustered around church steeples in pretty, flat farmland. After Köln, the Hohe Eifel—almost, but not quite, mountainous, houses all whitewashed.

We stopped in Arhütte and had a meal about 2 in the afternoon—not particularly impressive, but not bad either: Schweinebraten, boiled potatoes, mixed peas and carrots in a sauce, salad, and a Kölsch-type beer.

Then to Dreis. All these villages have a very old feel to them. They nestle up into hills and down into valleys, and have narrow winding streets dominated by church towers.

The people seemed different, though whether the difference from Hamburg is a city-country one, a Protestant-Catholic one, or a regional one, I’m not sure. Probably a mix of all, but they look different, broader faces, darker hair, and a more Low Countries and less Scandinavian look. They also talk in a more drawly, up-and-down way, less clipped and with more sh-sound to their words.

Steve has already discovered that Sprünckers, Schäfers, and Lambertys—his ancestral lines—are to be found here in Dreis, in Dockweiler, and Hohenfels.

We’ve rented a room in a little Gasthof-restaurant in Dreis, the Stube Vulcan. It’s not immaculate, but not really dirty, either, though I can’t say I like the smoke from the pub downstairs. There’s a hide tacked on the wall outside our room—some small animal—as there were stuffed squirrels, pheasants, foxes, and martens in the place we ate.

Since our rooms weren’t ready when we arrived, we drove to Daun and had tea and cake at a café there as night fell—or dark, rather. Daun seemed very pretty—a stone in its center says Daun, 1250 Jahre. People were walking even in the rain and driving wind. Shops beautiful—will see them tomorrow. And now to the b and b and, I hope, to bed.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Hamburg 17.12.93: Advent Wreaths and Ausländer Aus

Sitting in a café in Blankenese where we’ve just ordered coffee and torte. On the table an Advent wreath, which the waitress lit—three candles. A beautiful sonata on the piano, which I recognize but can’t name.

Outside, the wind is blowing briskly off the Elbe: I see a row of cedars bending over. But of course we know the wind is cold, because we just walked in, after having taken the Wandernweg from Nienstedt. The sun shines intermittently, then rain in between.

Yesterday, our presentation, which was actually at the University, not the Missionsakademie. It seemed to go well—students fairly attentive, and asking what we do to combat racism, whether there is an international neo-Nazi connection to the Ku Klux Klan, etc.: all those serious questions German students ask.

Then E. drove us to the Missionsakademie, where we immediately attended a Gottesdienst prior to a Christmas party. Barbara M. led the former, in the little chapel beneath the guesthouse. Very moving. Barbara M. had a Christmas story, most of which I got, because it was directed to the children (who had just had a Christmas party with presents). The gist was that the three kings could not identify Jesus, who had nothing to do with their gold and silver (or, in the case of one, with his intellectualism). But a child could: he saw the Niedrigkeit of the Christ child, his helplessness and dependence on others.

(N.B. If I write any theological autobiography pieces, talk about how Gélin’s book on the poor of Yahweh deeply influenced me as I began to read theology.)

All this was the more touching, because it was addressed to a multiracial, multicultural audience, mostly people from cast-off countries.

After the reading, we read a litany, in which Barbara M. voiced the sentiments of common sense and power (war and poverty are ineradicable, the only hope is in heaven, etc.), and the audience responded by reading biblical passages about Christ which affirmed his this-worldly salvific import.

Then the party. We were seated at a table with Frau R., the cook (whom we had met last time), a student from Togo, a young German woman from Bochum who will be ordained and pastor a church, and S.W., a theology student from near Lübeck, who will be ordained.

The food was good, if unexciting—a pork roast stuffed with apricots and prunes, a pork tenderloin, a spanakopita, fish in innumerable salads and smoked, two kinds of cole slaw, and a Römmergrot and a chocolate mousse, with bread and cheese, of course.

The big surprise: at table, I mentioned Thomas Mann to S.W. (when I found he was from near Lübeck), Death in Venice, and he winked as he told me the book was a favorite of his. Then, when the young German woman told Steve the “Father” Christmas at the children’s party was a woman, Steve mentioned that this transgressed gender lines, and S.W. winked again.

Gradually S.W. and I found ourselves sitting side by side at the table and I admired his ring. He told me it’s a Ghanaian ring given to men who enter a certain “club” as they mature. It was given to him by a Ghanaian friend.

One thing led to another, as they say, and he offered to take us out to Café Gnosa in St. Georg, which we had wanted to see. I can’t say I loved it. I can count on my fingertips the number of times in my life I have been to a gay bar, so I have nothing really to judge the experience by. Maybe it was the hour or the season, but it seemed a bit dreary—a long, narrow, smoky place with two rooms and tables along the wall.

The waiter was very sweet, though, and we met a cabaret performer and his boyfriend, who were enchanting—or whatever is between nice and enchanting.

Then home, very late, and I slept hardly at all. At 10:30, E. took us to the Stafford café in Nienstedt Marktplatz, where we had been before, for a breakfast of bread (and bread and bread), eggs, sliced meat and cheese, jam, butter, and coffee.

He told us the future of the Missionsakademie is in doubt. As more and more Germans declare no church membership and the church thus loses the 9% tax they pay, there’s talk of financial crisis, compounded by the economic hardships they country faces, the debt the West has assumed from East Germany, and, in particular, the debt the Western church has assumed from the East. At bottom, though, it’s political, he believes, and the talk of cutting expenses by closing the Missionsakademie is really motivated (he believes) by resistance to the “frivolous” third-world concerns of the Akademie.

E. told us that the front door of the Missionsakademie has been sprayed with anti-foreign neo-Nazi slogans. He and others have told us that Bischöfin Maria Jespen of Hamburg is increasingly embattled, attacked by the Right for her socially critical stands.

And now back to Nienstedt and, I hope, to sleep before our evening lecture.