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 . . . .

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