Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Munich 4.6.1998: Dürer Wild Men, Moderne Friends

On train, Gräfelfing to Munich, with breakfast just over. Maria has just told us of two friends of hers, gay men, who live, I think, in the Low Countries, and who dislike the term “gay,” because it’s so common (?). They’ve invented their own term, “moderne,” which Maria claims is spreading, in part, due to her apostleship of it. She seems to have quite a few moderne friends.

+ + + + +

At the Neue Pinakothek: the Dürer exhibit. “Glim Lamentation”” death and the heavenly city, recurring fixations of Christianity.

The Paumgartner altarpiece: Paumgartner family kneel humbly (as tiny figures) before the Madonna and child. As with the death-heavenly city theme, a concern with transmutation. Yet this is pretend humility, since these wealthy burghers are immortalized forever in the painting, having had money to buy such “humble” immortalization.

Dürer’s self-portrait, fur coat: more transmutation. A self-conscious echo of the Vera Ikon tradition: artist as Christus. Transmutation appeals to any artist, since it’s what art’s all about—making the ordinary sacramental.

The Oswalt Krel painting: I see transmutation again. Guidebook notes that Krel’s portrait is idealized, an attempt to portray the inner self. The wild men on either side (which may or may not be part of the original composition) are interesting. Gothic legend has it that descendants of Cain lived as “natural men” in wooded areas. Here, they hold coats of arms for Krel and his wife—civilization transmuting nature, which nevertheless wants to retain its “wild” basis, albeit “civilized.”

Hadler: interesting 20th-century (?) German painter. I need to learn more about him.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Munich(2) 3.6.1998: Pilzen and Paprika, Gilded Sunbursts and Somnolent Organs

(Evening): A whirlwind tour of Munich with Maria as our tourguide. It began with a rather uninteresting ride on the S-Bahn from Gräfelfing into Munich.

We first toured the Marienplatz, which was confusing and a bit off-putting, due to some carnival now occurring in association with the Pentecost holidays. Lots of tourists, many pushy little people. Germans don’t line up for entrances, and an “excuse me” when one steps in front of someone else on the street seems unheard of.

We then walked by St. Peter’s church, where one may view the city from the church towers, and whose walls have battered monuments to long-dead Gräfs, and went to the Viktualienmarkt. Sauerkraut wafting through the air from tables outside beer halls, rows of vegetables one mustn’t touch, strings of dried Pilzen and paprika, containers with lavender and hearts fashioned out of lavender, and a woman with a twitching face: that’s the Viktualienmarkt.

From there to the Asamkirche, a Rococo jewel that left me curiously cold, as if I were watching the wedding of a couple I barely knew, or, more apt, gorging on their wedding cake. I know why, I think: it’s all the allusions—heavy ones—to the era of Catholic triumphalism, to Counter-Reformation piety. The gilded sunbursts, the too-cute cherubs’ heads protruding from the wall, the playful profusion of marble: can anyone have ever felt deeply engaged by this wedding-cake view of paradise?

Perhaps that’s what put me off: if Baroque, and even more so, Rococo, is a glimpse of heaven on earth, then it’s this heaven itself that repulses me, with its glitz and fleshy self-satisfaction, its somnolent organs and exaggerated jubilation. This God of Rococo is not only all to carnal: it’s a God whose carnality is entirely imbued with the spirit of the age, with triumphalism and doctrinalism in which mystery has been transmuted into paint and plaster.

Enough of all that. Is it really how I feel, in any case? Or do I resent a world that has so decisively excluded me, even as I long for its security?

After les frères Asam, coffee at a café inside (that is, just off) a Gasse with exclusive clothing shops. We sat outside at high tables, on high stools, and I was so thirsty I had Kirschsaft and mineral water as well as coffee.

Then a walk to the university section and Schwabing, at first along Ludwigstrasse. The intentional Roman references—statuary, neo-classical architecture (Rome appropriating Greece)—are interesting. It’s not just that Bavaria’s so near Italy, so tied to it by mutual Catholic affiliation: it also strikes me that European regimes in the 19th century needed those Roman references to bolster their belief that, threatened as they felt, they were still the grandeur that was Greece and the glory that was Rome.

And of course the Theatinerkirche en route, which we saw only outside. Maria likes it because she says that the color and appearance of the façade change continuously, with altered light and different weather. And the Dom, unimpressive even though a Munich cultural landmark: the inside is all post-war, and very undistinguished, with unadorned walls and nondescript stained glass windows.

Schwabing I liked, with its little side streets full of intentionally lowbrow ethnic restaurants (Turkish, Greek, Spanish), and small speciality shops, in one of which I bought a postcard, a detail from a painting of Carl Spitzweg entitled “Im Dachstübchen.” Maria recognized it immediately—that is, that it was a Spitzweg. I’m looking forward to seeing the collection of his work at the Neue Pinakothek. I like that genre of gentle late Romantic comic representation of all the ideals of the Romantic period.

Then home, as C. was tiring, with shopping for tomorrow’s dinner (menu and grocery list in back of this journal). (Southern fried chicken, parsley potatoes, seasonal vegetables, asparagus vinaigrette, shrimp and sausage gumbo, cornbread and/or biscuits, cobbler). In the afternoon, I cooked the strawberry cobbler and the gumbo, which are now cooling in the basement.

Liqueurs as we cooked—grappa and Calvados—followed by a little Spatzierengehen with B. and C. Not far from here is a field of wheat, with a overlook part and a large house (now apartment, B. tells us) set back in a field, with a dirt road leading to it.

I like this, in Germany, the mix of city and country even in very sophisticated large cities—the way one can find unselfconsciously preserved country estates and even farmsteads cheek-by-jowl with suburban houses.

In America, we’d tear the farmhouses down to make suburban-developer money, or we’d preserve them in a very self-conscious, olde crafte way. The German attitude bespeaks a praiseworthy sense of rootedness in the earth and an agrarian past, that’s the basis of any solid culture.

The Spitzweg: it’ll be my little lodestar to remember Bavaria by.

And oh yes, Abendbrot: Leberkäse, which has no liver at all, but, rather, minced pork and veal, with some Bavarian cheeses, various good German breads (including a spice bread with caraway, anise, and cardamom), and a salad of various greens—the Feldsalat I loved so much on my last trip!—dressed with a vinaigrette that included pumpkin-seed oil. Afterwards, Maria served us a liqueur her elderly Austrian cousin had made, an Obstler. It was wonderful, with a distinctive summer fruit smell and flavor. Neither Maria nor B. knew the various fruits that had gone into its making. I tasted pear, and they thought plum as well.

Reminded me of M.F.K. Fisher’s observations about the no-name fruit liqueurs her neighbors made when she lived in Switzerland. They would put imperfect and windfallen fruit into barrels in the orchard, and at the end of the season, would take these to the distillery and have liqueur made. She, too, speaks of the summer fruit taste and smell it had, and the healing virtues the Swiss believed it contained: it was used to rub on sprained joints and for massages, and to bathe the forehead if one was fevered.

An overload of sensory impressions, little digested, and recounted very superficially . . . . And what runs through it all? Underneath it all? And what do I hope to find on this Odysseus’ journey?

Munich 3.6.1998: Belle Époque Houses, Rucola Gardens

In Munich. We arrived yesterday afternoon and spent a pleasant evening with Maria R. and her family (husband B. and son C.). They live in a suburb southwest of Munich called Gräfelfing.

After coffee and cake on their balcony overlooking the garden—spent lilac blossoms, pine trees, starlings—we took a walk to shop in the fine hot afternoon. Passed an interesting house that Maria said is a good example of Belle Époque, with various carved and vaguely astrological symbols on its stucco walls. It had that small balcony under the gables one sees on many Bavarian houses, and, at the corner of the house below the roof, a Madonna and child, very faded and weather-beaten. The whole house was in poor repair, with the balcony spindles decaying, and many having fallen off.

Many houses we passed were in pastel colors—green, pinks, beiges—with gaily painted religious medallions on them—St. Christopher, the Madonna, St. Joseph. Another indicator of Bavaria: last night we went with Maria and Berndt to water the garden of some friends of theirs, and when we arrived, an elderly lady was watering her garden next door. Maria greeted her, Grüss Gott, and she responded in kind.

The garden was interesting: an assortment of potted plants (oleander, camellia, yucca, dahlias), and herbs and salad greens planted in flats (parsley, chives, rosemary, sage, thyme, marjoram, lemon balm, arugula [Rucola for Germans]).

So why do I write this rather silly, rather pedestrian travelogue? The truth is, I don’t know what else to write, how to freeze-frame this restless and relentless heart of mine, to tame its turbulence into words. No. that’s not it at all: I don’t know how to stop the stream long enough to see it—a portion of it—with any clarity at all.

And so words betray me. I don’t have words for what’s happening inside, because I don’t know what’s happening.

Whatever it is, it surely has something to do with the Old Subject. With Maria and B., it’s in the open: they know Steve and I are a couple. We discussed all this (a comprehensive all) last night, and Maria told us Munich has the largest gay population of any city in Germany, because it’s such a desirable place to live. As she put it, though, Berlin’s more liberal, München’s more aesthetic, and gays are aesthetes.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Little Rock 16.5.05: There and Back Again--Old Skin, Itchy Selves

I need to bring this travel narrative to a close. I keep thinking of things I want to say in it, then I don’t take time to do so. Up early again due to the jet lag; we haven’t slept past 5 A.M. since our return, and are going to bed before 9 each night. Past two days, I’ve taken long, stuporous naps in the afternoon.

So, the trip is over and done with, and I’m back, but betwixt and between, neither fully here nor there. My old life and old comforts (and old certainties) slip around me like a skin whose contours are very well-known. But the skin is also confining.

One should come back from a journey different. It’s a theme as old as the Odyssey. And not just different as in bearing gifts or trophies to demonstrate to envious friends that you have been “there”: different in some essential human way.

I know all the clichés, and they’re as true as any cliché is true: travel broadens; we see things differently and realize our perspective is limited and culturally determined; we encounter cultural artifacts that transform heart and mind.

But for me, this trip needs to mean more. I feel stuck. Yet something in the trip made it all “better”—the grand tour as 19th-century cure for nervous prostration. What is that something.

In part, it’s the chance to live as a different person, an unknown entity, someone without a past, drifting dreamily through days and nights. All the more so when you’re in a foreign country speaking a foreign language. As Rilke says, to learn other tongues is to assume other, new souls.

This experience renews, precisely because it does take you out of your skin. I feel a renewed sympathy for other human beings against whom I’ve been bumping blind in the night, a resumed sense of all they mean to me. I feel a renewed civility, a willingness to engage in the small rituals that ease the discomfort of human encounters—hello, pleased to meet you; thank you, how lovely, etc. One cannot travel without assuming that persona—at least, not travel successfully. One should bring something of it back.

Travel also reduces life to its bare essentials much as a retreat does. At least, a certain kind of travel does this. Where shall we get food? How shall we ask for it? We need it to fuel our bodies as we walk. And you do have to walk: to buy bread, to mail a letter; to obtain stationery. What comes easily in the everyday—what is already at hand—is obtained as you travel at a certain cost. It demands effort.

Travel is about fulfilling basic needs—for food, shelter, warmth, human companionship. It’s about relearning basic steps: Wieviel kostet das? How much is 2 € in $? Let me remember: does halb neun mean 8:30 or 9:30?

It is good, if sometimes very uncomfortable, to have to deal with such bedrock realities of everyday life. Travel can burst the oh-so-insulating bourgeois bubble.

But then there’s the self at the end—the itchy, irascible self you began the journey with, glowering and pouting and expecting you to pick it back up. To my shame, I always do. I’ve never been able to integrate that new self I become briefly and gloriously as I travel, and the self I always seem to carry around with me.

I feel I’m waiting, as always, for the summons. When will it come? And will it take me away from Little Rock, where things feel stifling?

On the other hand, there’s that deep need for once to dig my heels in and stick it out, to have a pied à terre. I’m betwixt and between two powerful currents here.

As I am with the quandary—always there—of choosing Narcissus or Goldmund, the aesthetic or the politically engaged. Both are powerful impulses. I don’t know how to decide between (or balance?) them.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Frankfurt 12.5.05: Phallic Fatuity and Schmucke Schminke

Frankfurt airport, waiting for flight. We spent last night at the airport hotel. Airports have always struck me as perfect matches for purgatory—waiting rooms with little to recommend them except that they’re the “terminal” to which you must go in order to take the final stage of a journey, or initial stage, as it may be.

If airports are purgatory, airport hotels are so a fortiori. There’s no reason at all to be in one except to while away boring hours before a flight takes off. One sleeps badly, tossing and turning for the call one knows will come too early.

And everything is designed for someone else: someone rich, someone svelte, someone who travels frequently, someone male or the kind of female who fits easily into male hierarchical structures—e.g., an airline stewardess.

At the Frankfurt airport, you see all of this in its most methodical, thorough German fashion. Open the minibar and the first thing you discover is a pack of condoms.

Turn on the t.v., and you find that for a modest fee, you can buy non-stop porn from 12 to 12—pornography designed for men, with woman-demeaning titles like “Backdoor Babes.” It’s multilingual, for the convenience of travelers who speak English, French, or German.

It’s European—cosmopolitan, in other words, but with American taste ultimately prevailing, E.g., every film features repeated scenes involving one woman and two men. Europeans are evidently frank about the fact that two men enjoy getting it on with a woman as an excuse and buffer to enjoy homoerotic contact that simultaneously prevents their turning gay.

But in the European originals, there’s always a bit of sword clashing, of penis knocking against penis as the activity proceeds. In these Frankfurt airport hotel films, though, all that’s very carefully edited out. American men cannot admit that they enjoy or want what is the evident—the palpable—purpose of this form of sexual activity: the excitement of male-on-male action, albeit screened and mediated by the woman who makes it all okay.

Hence you see shots where it’s evident that the two members have just rubbed against each other, but the footage has been clipped out lest American male sensibilities be offended.

Which reminds me: the other big consumer of the Frankfurt airport hotel is American servicemen. With them above all, the stew of homoerotic desire that bubbles everywhere in this intensely male-bonded society must never be acknowledged or made conscious. Our infantilism must, at all costs, be carefully preserved. Our way of life depends on it.

Yes, dear reader, I blush to admit I did watch. And became quickly bored. One must do something in purgatory.

Things I learned from this trip: ebenfalls; gleichfalls. In Bad Soden, the doughty little Sparkasse cashier with too much blue eyeshadow who went toe-to-toe with the gentleman of the lost coin said ebenfalls, when I said to her as we checked out, Schönen Abend.

And Schminke. Happened on it in the dictionary, and then began to see it everywhere. The art museum in Köln had a Kinderschminke activity.

I also noticed that Schmuck can apparently be used in adjectival form to mean “pretty," but perhaps in the sense of over-the-top pretty. So I presume one could say, Wie schmucke Schminke! to complement someone’s make-up. Is there any language in the world where that statement is expressed in such outrageously funny words whose sound in no shape, form, or fashion seems to equal the idea expressed?

And so the trip comes to an end. I’m fatigued and low-spirited. Was when I left. Feel the same now, with a few knocks and bumps added.

Travel is frankly taxing. All the props of everyday life are gone—all those mechanisms (“I must work!”) some of us so expertly employ to keep relationship at bay are removed, and there’s only naked encounter, day after day, with one’s traveling companions, when one is supposed to be having fun.

With Steve, it seems that I am always capable of saying something utterly simple and flat, and, to my surprise, I find it has suddenly entered a world of never-never land, and we’re talking about the moon when I started with the sun.

+ + + + +

Sitting in the waiting room listening to my rude compatriots howling into their cell phones, oblivious to anyone around them, brings back to mind our last evening in Köln.

We went to a restaurant near our hotel called Jan von Werth on Christophstrasse. It looked a bit touristy but turned out to be a local hangout. We’d tried to get into a smaller and very local place behind Gereonskirche earlier, only to find every table reserved, and to be told nothing would be free before 7.

The waitress at van Werth was a sweetheart, very solicitous. It helps to speak a bit of the language—helps to soften the ugly American edge. She brought us a snack as we had beer—Schmalz spread thick on brown bread!

Food was good. We both had an Eintopf served in little silver cups with handles, potato, carrot, onion with sliced sausage on top. Then Steve had a Schweineschnitzel with kohlrabi and I a goulash with butter späzle and apfelmus. Good, but too much (and too salty) after the Eintopf and two Kölsch.

Anyway—the point I’m wending my way to—at some point, a young German man came in and proceeded to make a call on a cellphone at the bar near us. Had on an ill-fitting and very ugly brown pinstripe suit of some polyester-like material, wide lapels and wide pinstripes. He looked to be involved in some shady, unsavory business—all hole and corner in his expression.

As soon as he gets on the phone, the waitress glides up and tells him firmly he may not work in the restaurant. That strikes me as an interesting and fruitful approach to the encroachment of the cellphone monster.

Not, You’re disturbing people (as you clearly are, but such social strictures increasingly carry little weight with people anywhere). But, This is a Kneipe; people are here to eat and drink, not work. There’s a time and place for everything—a typically German idea: Wohnzimmer activity is not Schlafzimmer activity is not Toilette activity.

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Colm Tóibín, The Master (London: Picador, 2004):

“He envied them their lack of self-consciousness, their unawareness that their American voices, so filled with enthusiasm, were not as original as they imagined, nor as uncomplicated by history as they supposed” (222).

“Remaining invisible, becoming skilled in the art of self-effacement, even to someone whom he had known so long, gave him satisfaction. He was ready to listen, always ready to do that, but not prepared to reveal the mind at work, the imagination, or the depth of feeling” (226).

“Old Newport, the old ladies and the half-Europeanized families, believed in talent, he said, more than they did in money, but that was because they had plenty of money, or had inherited enough never to think about it” (308).

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At the restaurant in Köln (last evening), a group of Asian-American men came in to sit at the bar; they asked the waitress abruptly and insensitively something about the place catering to American needs or tastes. She looked rightfully put out.

They then paraded to the bar and all proceeded to light big cigars, to a man jack. They then discussed in loud puerile tones the virtue of this or that expensive cigar and how to obtain them.

I know such behavior has not gone out of style in the U.S. Far from it, though the cigar-bar craze of the virile 90s seems to have peaked. Still, it strikes me that a certain type of American male goes to Europe to glory in the unrestricted macho freedom still permitted there—or so these types appear to think. European cultures have only begun to restrict where and when one may smoke, and the anti-Puritan sentiment remains very strong.

In the hands of men such as these, though, what an uncouth use these traditions have been put to. The restaurant owner had to come and open the front door, apologizing to us. The we-own-it-all display of showmanship (and for what audience?) was disgusting.

+ + + + +

The way Tóibín tells the story, Henry James—it would be fair to say—may have excelled in the art of learning how to live. He paid a price: he himself never lived fully, though his awareness of the interior lives and motives of others was delicate and prescient.

And perhaps this is the role to which gay men have been relegated . . . . Perhaps it’s the role to which I have been relegated in my family . . . .

Monday, September 22, 2008

Köln 10.5.05: Decentering Touches and Dangerous Memories

As we left Stommeln last evening, having met Herr Wisskirchen, who has written numerous books and articles about the history of Stommeln, he spoke about the importance of remembering. He was headed off to give a lecture about the end of the war, which was officially announced on 8 May 1945, I believe.

He said his students ask why they should be compelled to remember. The guilt is their grandparents’ and great-grandparents’, after all—not theirs. And don’t other countries have their bloody pasts? Genocide in Armenia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Cambodia . . . ?

His reply: this is our guilt. This happened on German soil, and not so long ago—barbarous acts perpetrated by a “civilized” people. To forget is to court a repetition of barbarism . . . .

This is precisely why I cannot accept Ratzinger’s pretense that the church is the sole bastion of salvation and light in a dark and wicked world. To pretend so is to forget how the church closed its eyes in the Nazi times, or how it actively assisted the Nazis.

This is why Metz speaks of holding onto dangerous memories, even when they sting us. The memory of Jesus is such a memory, for Metz. Whereas Ratzinger remembers a church that pulled against Nazism, Metz remembers—in the same region, Bavaria—going to church, the whole village, singing and praying, and pretending that right outside the village, Jews were not being murdered and incinerated.

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Yesterday at the café in Pulheim, Steve pointed out to me that after the alte Damen and their daughters had had coffee and cake, one of the old women said, “Why don’t we have champagne now?” And so they did—a happy hour, indeed. They were a very pleasant bunch.

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I think of how I can recall the specific moment I learned some inconsequential German word. E.g., wahrscheinlich. That was in Jöhlingen, as we read the church books and electricity went off. Steve asked the secretary if this had happened throughout the village, and she replied, Wahrscheinlich nicht.

I had never heard the word before, but I worked it out in my head: wahr = true, schein = appear, and lich is, of course, the –ly suffix: trueappearingly = probably.

+ + + + +

Looking out a café window near Neumarkt. We’ve just had Milchkaffe with Apfelkuchen (Steve) and Monschnecken (me). The apple was especially wonderful, in a crust of buttery short pastry overlaid with almond slices, all flavored with a tiny bit of lemon zest and nutmeg. Nice to sit after a morning of walking and shopping.

We’ve bought lavender bags with hand-worked rose crowns on them—but not German work. I suspect they’re done in Asia. Also got an assortment of chocolates in the Schnäppchen basement of Karstadt.

Such typical Cologne people and scenes as we sit here: a chunky middle-aged lady in a tight brown jacket sauntering by, a cigarette held in the corner of her mouth; an apartment building across the street, that functional post-war architecture that’s all over Köln. It’s graceless, lacks any sense of style, and is usually dirty and with cracks in it.

Yet the Kölners have given it their own little stamp of style. I saw on the street today a cover of a power box on the side of a building, whimsically painted with two smiling, colorful cats holding hands.

And out of the corner of my eye, I see the woman in the corner across from us studiously downing her salad. She’s every bit the proper matron, stylish in a pink plaid linen jacket. Yet in her well-coiffed blond hair, cut no-nonsense short, is one streak of bright red, swirling up in a semicircle above her left eyebrow.

That’s Köln: the outrageous, unexpected little touch that nicely decenters everything. Perhaps it’s a way of saying they don’t entirely belong to anyone, these Roman-French-Jewish Germans on the Rhine whose mayor stoutly repudiated Hitler.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Köln 9.5.05: Stars of David and Kollwitz Pietà

As the cards tucked into the journal indicate, a visit to the Käthe Kollwitz museum at Neumarkt yesterday. A woman at a table near the entrance offered me a gift. Like the fool I am, I blushed and said no thanks—not listening or fully understanding. She persisted: a choice of balloons or cards, not both!

To cover my foolishness, I said (all this in my stumbling German): “But they’re for children.” “Ah, no, for all visitors,” she replied. I furtively palmed my cards, thanked her profusely, and walked off. They came with a nice little clip-style bookmark which is coming in handy for the book I’m reading—Colm Tóibín’s novel about Henry James’s life.

I had seen several of the Kollwitzes, and have a card of her engraving of the mother sheltering her children—“Let not the seed for sowing be milled.” Still, seeing these (again) brought tears to my eyes, and it does so to write about them.

It’s the need to shelter, so characteristic of women throughout history. And yet how ineffectual women often are at keeping their loved ones safe. If only Kollwitz had been heard! She could see; she could not prevent. And so her bronzes and engravings of women and children saying goodbye to their husbands and fathers as the men go to war, their faces hidden in grief behind all-encompassing hands, and her breathtaking Pietà, which I’d never seen.

History is full of Käthe Kollwitzes, deep-souled, deep-seeing, able only to stand by and grieve as tragedy unfolds. I identify in many ways with her, though I lack her purity of vision and intensity of commitment.

All this in a café in Pulheim (writing, that is), as happy hour unfolds. Yep, that’s what it says—Monday, happy hour. Surrounded by middle-aged women and their mothers eating enormous slices of cake, drinking coffee, and nattering happily away. It’s stiflingly hot in here, but admittedly cold and wet outside.

We’ve just come from the Stommeln cemetery, up on a hill behind the old part of town. Stommeln is built in a kind of little valley running out from the Rhine, surrounded by pretty rolling hills.

The Friedhof has the remains of the old medieval St. Martin’s church in it, which seem to have been rebuilt later into a usable church. It’s a beautiful cemetery, well-cared for and with old monuments, one erected by the Catholic Verein in 1874, with names of those who died or left, including “J.J. Schmitz, Amerika”—Steve’s ancestor Johannes Josef Schmitz.

For some reason, the area around Köln has some very old cemeteries—that is, older cemeteries seem to have survived here and not to have been replaced, as in other areas. On the way into Köln from Pulheim is what appears to be an old Jewish cemetery.

Speaking of which, it appears that two of Steve’s families from here may have Jewish roots—Canis (= Kahn) and Cöne (= Cohn/Kohn). His immigrant ancestor Johannes Schmitz had a grandmother Katherina Canis and John Schmitz’s wife Gertrude Ott had a grandmother Gertrude Cönen. The Friedhof has monuments from World War I to fallen villagers, including two with Stars of David.

Oh, the other large monument to which I alluded before—it’s commemorating the villagers’ service vs. or on behalf of Napoleon: I didn’t read carefully.

It, too, included Kahns, with that spelling. How badly Germany repaid these Jewish citizens for their contributions to the Fatherland, when Nazi times came.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Stommeln/Köln 8.5.05: Celebrating for Celebration's Sake

I awoke to the sound of the church bell chiming eight and doves or pigeons (don’t the Germans call the latter Tauben?) cooing softly outside the window. A nice sound—or, rather, combination of sounds—after a bad night.

I went to bed furious with Steve for various reasons: well, his stolid, never-varying German methodicalness, perfected. All night cars zipped past under the window, going where, I know not. We must be on a main road, perhaps feeding out of Köln.

As I write, peering out the café window (of our Gasthaus zur Trapp), I see branches down in the park, small ones, under a linden. Wind was very fierce at times yesterday. The roadway was white with horse chestnut blooms blown from the trees, flecked with bits of green leaves. The downed limbs in the little park, black and convoluted, look like ribs or horns of some animal that died there and has long since decayed.

I feel very gray today, very much without hope or meaning. Everything seems to conspire to produce such feelings: my weight and lack of sound health, the last U.S. elections, the unbelievable circus around John Paul’s death, and now Ratzinger. And conflict with Steve, above all.

I feel very much like Nick, the protagonist of Alan Hollinghurst’s novel Line of Beauty, which I’ve just finished. Those brutal scenes at the end, where the Feddens, with whom he had lived as family, voice frankly their distaste for him, their absolute dissatisfaction with his performance as a never-quite-acknowledged servant, though the fiction was that he was family (and though he paid them rent to be the unsatisfactory servant).

It’s there in black and white: the lengths to which self-righteous bourgeois society at the end of the 20th century will go to pin all moral failings and corruption on gay men. He’s the worm in the apple, the little parasite who has wormed himself into the family to feed vicariously on its energies since family is denied to him. He’s the hostile observer let inside the gates only to open them to the barbarian hordes.

He’s all that was ever said about the Jews—one of us, capable of incredible mimicry so that we hardly know he’s there as the malicious parasitic presence. He’s all the more frightening because he appears to be so capable of adaptation and imitation. And all this from adulterers and inside traders who are mopping up in the reign of the Lady Thatcher . . . .

And, of course, what he’s blamed for ultimately has nothing at all to do with their real shortcomings, their real travesties, which are exposed by their daughter . . . .

+ + + + +

Alan Hollinghurst, The Line of Beauty (London: Picador, 2004): “Something happened when you looked in the mirror together. You asked it, as always, a question, and you asked each other something, too; and the space, shadowy but glossy, the further room in which you found yourself, as if on a stage, vibrated with ironies and sentimental missions” (255).

+ + + + +

Köln: we’ve checked into our hotel, Zur Kupferkessel, and have just walked across to St. Gereon’s church and then down to the cathedral. We’re now having raspberry torte, nougat bretzel, and milchkaffee in a café on Breitgasse, and a band comes by, resplendent, totally unexpected, gloriously meretricious. It’s preceded by slim dark women wearing hats like airline stewardess caps and highstepping. The band, only 20 or so men playing extraordinarily well and very loudly, have black hats like from the Franco-Prussian wars, with bright red plumes bobbing as they play.

What are they celebrating? Steve thought it was a parish group—but if a saint’s festival, why no statue, no priest, no religious regalia? If mothers' day, there’s no sign of that, either.

It’s like a celebration of nothing, celebrating for celebration’s sake. I’m interpreting it as a private welcome to Köln, the city that celebrates to celebrate.

People speak loudly, boisterously in this region. They cry out in the streets in a way that would be distinctly frowned on in other areas of Germany, especially the north.

+ + + + +

Barbara Kingsolver, Small Wonder (New York: HarperCollins, 2002): “I’ve spent hundreds of pages, even whole novels, trying to explain what home means to me. Sometimes I think it’s the only thing I ever write about. Home is place, geography, and psyche; it’s a matter of survival and safety, a condition of attachment and self-definition . . . . Homelessness is the loss of community and finally of the self” (197-8).

“Whatever else ‘home’ might be called, it must surely be a fundamental human license. In every culture on earth, the right to live in a home is probably the first condition of citizenship and humanity” (198).

“Home is where all justice begins” (201).

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Stommeln 7.5.05: Kölsch and Maibäume

Now in Stommeln outside Köln. We drove here from Wiesbaden this morning, arriving shortly after noon, and took a room for one night in a small hotel on the street with the church.

Interesting towns, with small brick cottages. The churches are also brick, beautiful brickwork. It’s hard to say how old much of it is. A history of our hotel says it was built 1646-8, and is the oldest house in town. The history implies the town was built around that time—why so late? An extension of Köln?

But the sign for the synagogue says the Jewish community here dates from the early 1300s. So the town can’t have first been built in the 1600s. What does the little history mean?

A different feel here than anywhere I’ve been in Germany. The architecture looks at times like something out of Amsterdam—those steep-gabled buildings with steps and whorls leading up to the gable. Landscape is flat, too, though nowhere near so flat as Holland.

Some houses painted colors I’ve never seen in Germany—strong Mediterranean blue, bright orange. And trees have colored streamers—obviously Maibäume—something I didn’t see anywhere in the Taunus region, Marburg, or Wiesbaden.

Wonderful meal this evening at a place near the town Bahnhof recommended by the hotel owner—Bauernstube. Steve had a leg of lamb—thick steaks—in a Madeira sauce with green beans in bunches and Dauphinoise potatoes. I had schnitzel in mushroom cream sauce with spätzle and salad.

Before we ate, they brought us asparagus salad—wonderful, in a creamy vinaigrette that wasn’t sweet. Almost impossible to find a non-sweet dressing in Germany. With the asparagus was chopped ham, and there was onion or leek also. Delicious!

The spätzle were so much better than in Marburg, and the schnitzels (two of them) were enormous. I could eat only one and Steve had the other.

His green beans had been cooked with an herb that was, I suspect, summer savory. Isn’t that what Germans call Bohnenkraut? They were wrapped into bunches (Bohnenbönchen) with bacon. The Dauphinoise potatoes were very rich—croquettes flavored with nutmeg.

With all of this, several glasses of Kölsch, light and refreshing. I like the small glasses, so you don’t feel as if you’re drinking like a pig. Sauf dich voll und friss dich dick . . . .

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Wiesbaden 6.5.05: Bloody Mary Mix and Memories of War

At the Hauptstadarchiv for Hessen in Wiesbaden. It’s one of those almost frighteningly efficient modern buildings Germans create, all muted lights (what do you call them? They’re dangerous to put into lamps at home, since they cause fires) and gray, brown, black fixtures and furniture.

Outside, through huge slats on an external window covering that can be adjusted according to the light, a slice of Hessen: starlings hopping and pecking in a daisy-sprinkled lawn. As I watch them, I think of the ways that bring us where we are: how complex, inextricable, and unpredictable they are. I’m not sure I’d ever have come to Germany.

But Wolfram contacted Gregory B., who put him in touch with me. One door open, totally unanticipated—and seminars in Hamburg and travel money to interview Dorothe Sölle.

And then Steve and his ancestry: it has brought us repeatedly to places like this, where even an ardent tourist might never choose to go. And where, I suspect, my uncle once walked.

But what did he see? Rubble, human suffering, a people who were the Enemy and whose tongue he could not speak, but who touched his heart nonetheless—as they did the heart of his half-brother Carl.

I feel horrible today, dizzy and nauseous. We ate late yesterday afternoon at a little restaurant pub—Beck’s?—at what was called, if I remember, the Bäckerei spring, a hot spring. Sat at an outside table just across from a tap flowing with hot water from the spring.

We both had asparagus with melted butter, ham (raw for Steve), and new potatoes—three slices of rolled ham, four asparagus, and three potatoes with a little cup of butter. Things did not taste fresh. The first slice of ham was like one on the outside of a package left open in the refrigerator.

I awoke, stomach rolling, with nausea and dizziness several times in the night. It was still with me when I finally got up.

Breakfast did not help. Poor-quality stuff for American tastes—all eye appeal and no taste appeal. It’s hard to get bad bread in Germany, but they’d managed. Cold, clotted scrambled eggs, bloody Mary mix disguised as tomato juice (one does not want cayenne and Worcestershire sauce on a rolling stomach), and bitter, barely potable coffee.

No supper for me unless I’m over this! Well, perhaps a fruit ice :-) . . . .

+ + + + +

Sun now shining through the little aperture created by the shutter thing. Wind blowing through the trees and hedge that divide the archive lawn from a building next door.

As I see the sparkling, fluttering leaves, the daisies, dandelion seed globes, and plantain spikes studding the lawn, I think, even in the war, there must have been days when the sun shone in May, and all seemed beautiful. What did people feel, I wonder, as May came, and the war decimated the country, disrupted its life, brought unimaginable suffering (along with shame and guilt)?

An amazing bird arrives to strut among the daisies as I wrote this—a large black bird, but with white ovals above its wings, and a white lower body—as if it’s wearing a very elegant tux, though black where white should be and vice versa. The black and white of human existence, May giving way to December and December to May.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Wiesbaden 5.5.05: Frankfurter Grünsosse and Challenge of Remembrance

Ascension Day—Himmelfahrt—which Wolfram tells us is also called Vater Tag, and is celebrated by men collecting large amounts of beer and schnapps in wagons and going off to drink with other men. No women allowed. Ascension is apparently not always recognized as the reason for the holiday, though it’s a national holiday for all of Germany.

And, sure enough, as Wolfram stood with us in a park outside the Marburg University gasthaus, a man walked up and proceeded to ask questions about Himmelfahrt. He did mock airplane motions as Wolfram explained it all to him, and said perhaps the sky is blue because Christus went there. Wolfram thought this was all facetious faux naiveté, and I agree.

As the entry suggests, we spent the evening with Wolfram. He arrived late—near 10—after long delays on the autobahn as everyone headed south for the long weekend.

As we waited, Steve and I took several walks in Marburg, in between rain showers. It kept promising to fair off and then clouded over again. We spent one rainy spell (after Elisabethkirche) in Klingenhöfer’s café, having coffee. Steve had gulasch (guschi, I hear the waitress call it) and I a Williams toast, which turned out to be two very thick slices of toast topped with ham, over which cheese was melted, and then topped with a pear half strewn with red currant compote. Good, but very filling. To help digestion, Steve had a grappa and I an Asbach, something we had seen on menus and wondered about. Turned out to be a dry, good brandy.

And so it went: strolls, periods of rest in the hotel, strolls as we waited for Wolfram to arrive. Saw quite a bit of Marburg, which is a small city and compact, circling the castle on the hill in semicircular terraced streets with many Gässe.

It’s an interesting city, apparently not touched (as to architecture) by the war. I also had the feeling one day is enough to see it well, and Wolfram confirmed that. He said when he first saw it, he asked why he didn’t apply for a job there. Someone told him he’d have found it charming for a year or two, and then would have realized it was a small town where everyone knows one another—too well.

I had that impression as we walked. Old ladies greeted each other gaily in the streets. Take away the perigrinatory population of students (10,000), and it’s only about 50,000.

Wolfram always such a pleasure to be with. He infuses a good charge in the air, like the ozone rush following a sudden storm. He seems balanced—male/female, old/young, German/cosmopolitan. He’s boyish, in a non-derogatory way, young in an older man’s body. He’s also intensely aware of the needs/feelings of others, and I have the impression not so much through innate sensitivity as through careful training. Altogether an admirable human being . . . and I find few human beings really admirable.

Hessian landscape: less trimmed and spry than much of Germany, with profuse but manageable forests. Hilltops always forested—poor rocky land. The lowland is meticulously farmed in handkerchief-sized fields, alternately bright yellow with rape blossoms at this season, or rich green with upspringing grain.

Ah, yes, Steve has just reminded me of the restaurant last night. We had a very late meal of Schweineschnitzel and Spätzle. Wolfram didn’t like the choice of sauce—Bolognese—and asked for something more regional. It turned out to be Frankfurter Grünsosse, a cold sauce of herbs (parsley, mostly, I thought) in sour cream—not a felicitous choice with the fried schnitzel and spätzle.

For some mysterious reason, the schnitzel came with mounds of fries. Wolfram asked about the spätzle and was told it would come sofort. When it did, it was odd—strings instead of little sparrows—and tough. Perhaps their usual spätzle-maker wasn’t there.

Now in Wiesbaden. It’s an ugly city, hideous heavy late-19th century or early 20th-century architecture, one huge rooming house all in a row, marching down long allées with trees in the middle, which could be beautiful. It’s dirty and uncared-for, a polyglot place full of Gastarbeiter. The people we see on the streets look stolid to a fault.

And coming here, I suddenly seem to remember Aunt Kat telling me Dub was here in the war. If I remember aright, it figured largely in his experiences. Was it here he met the little boy he took under his wing, who called him Willi? Is the boy living? He’d be about Wolfram’s age.

+ + + + +

My father is dead. My mother has died. My brother a year younger than I died in 1991 at the age of 39. My grandparents are long gone. All my aunts and uncles have died except for two aunts, one maternal, one paternal. My father’s sister is in advanced stages of dementia.

If I do not remember, who will? Who but I recalls, now, that somewhere in Germany may be a little boy long grown up, whom my uncle fostered and protected during the war? He would, surely, remember if his mind is clear. His family would, if he spoke of it.

Even I’m not sure I remember. Like quicksilver, the tiny threads of memory still in my mind one by one slip away into some darkness I cannot fathom.

Where does what we once remembered go? Is it forever gone, when we are gone? Something in me wants to believe it transfers itself to other souls. It does so, of course, if we consciously choose to pass it on . . . .

I’d give all the world to encounter that little boy or anyone who remembers his story. Dub never spoke much of the war—as did no men of my father’s generation. Who can pass on what they did not choose to pass on?

And speaking of memory, Steve tells me I didn’t remember (or perhaps experience) the Frankfurter Grünsosse correctly. He says it had dill in the cream, predominantly.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Marburg 4.5.05: Krieg Frauen and Self-Advertising Church Patrons

If I were going to battle, I’d want an army of women with me who are all cashiers in German supermarkets. More shrewd, intelligent, fearless, no-nonsense people are hard to find.

Two days ago, we saw one do battle with a man over 75 cents. He was bound and determined to pay only 1.15 for a bottle of chilled water. She insisted the price was 1.90 for chilled, 1.15 for off-the-shelf, and so charged him.

He persisted. She stood her ground, or, rather, seemed to occupy her little cashier’s stool with even more determined force, her little cobby body hunkering down on it with a terrier’s refusal to give an inch. “Johnny (or some such name—all this was in German, of course), walk over and check the price on water,” she called out contemptuously, as she continued to ring up customers, clacking those plastic grocery dividers as if they were weapons of war. Snap! Crackle! Kein Problem, she’d say in a voice dripping with irony. She positively bristled, every hair on her head, conveying utter contempt for a man who’d dare to try to pull a fast one on her, and all for 75 cents.

And she won. He walked away.

The second encounter also involved a few pennies—a lost coin, to be exact. A man ahead of us managed to drop it and it rolled under a display case in front of the checkout counter.

He was most annoyed, grumbling and contorting himself ineffectually as he tried to retrieve it. The checkout lady was, sad to say, stonily unmoved by this scene of human misery. She perched on her little stool, looking wry and wise, telling the man not to worry, it was near closing time, and she’d find the money and spend it. In other words, she was gasoline to his smoldering, surly, penurious German male fire.

And she won. He did not find his lost coin. He left the store still grumbling.

She, for her part, sat there looking every bit the queen of the absurd—badly dyed blonde hair, soul-seeing dark blue eyes made even darker by unfashionable who-gives-a-shit heavy blue eyeshadow.

I quite liked her. She had plumbed the depths of humankind, especially male humankind, and had come up empty-handed. She knew, and didn’t mind telling anyone, what a vainglorious, peacock-silly lot we are, strutting and fretting our hour on the stage, all sound and fury.

Other profound observations on the German character: I’ve recounted an exchange with (better: lecture from) the man who got us told for parking too near the crossing stripes in Kronberg. Yesterday, as we drove through suburban Kronberg, Steve was over the speed limit a bit and a little schoolboy, all of seven, with a schoolbag on his back, looking on with an alarmed face, the weight of the world on his shoulders, gives him the arms-extended, palms-down slow-down gesture.

Can you imagine encounters like this in Ireland? Imagine the Irish taking it on themselves to instruct you in the rules for not parking near a crosswalk. (And remember: the man thought I was German, a local; he addressed me in dialect.) Imagine an Irish schoolboy being traffic cop to the world. So early are national characters formed.

And the oddity of German culture, with its spongelike ability to absorb other influences and still remain resolutely Teutonic: as we left the breakfast room, the hotel phone rang and the waiter ran to answer it: Ich gruβe dich. The phone played “Deep in the Heart of Texas” as it rang.

More Teutonica: as we enter the hotel at Marburg, I pull the door open to get my luggage through. It’s a door that swings both ways. A young woman entering pushes it . . . and instructs me that it’s better that way. Silly me, to have thought that pulling a door open might work . . . .

We just visited Elizabeth’s church. A grave young man, very ogre-like, comes in, genuflects conspicuously, crosses himself, and then does one of those macho nose-pulling things. It is a Lutheran church?

I later see he has a shirt with Benedict XVI in big letters on back. On front is, Machet Ratz! As we leave (he’s made the rounds, praying at every shrine possible), he comes out while we’re standing outside the church and eyes us distastefully. The brave new world won’t include the likes of us, even in churches over which Catholics no longer have jurisdiction.

Some interesting—and amusing—artifacts in the church, including what looks like a 15th-century carved stone Madonna (no: I’m entirely wrong; it’s 1860 and is Elizabeth). She’s holding her cloak full of roses. It’s called Rosenwunder.

How early is that trope, I wonder, the Lady (whichever one) with roses in her cloak? Certainly as early as Guadalupe, but probably much earlier, I’d guess. Roses from the mystic East, symbols of exotic treasure/pleasure . . . . It’s amazing how they captured the European imagination and became symbolic of so much.

Also amusing: a medieval panel (maybe part of a triptych?) showing the donors, obviously good burghers, kneeling in midair beside a crucified Jesus much smaller than themselves. A nifty little advertisement for themselves in perpetuity and disguised as piety.

In similar vein, the gravestone of Conrad (Elizabeth’s husband?) shows him huge and Jesus, crucified in the corner, very small. Between them the inscription, Ecce homo . . . which appears to apply much more to Conrad than to Jesus. Can the engraver truly have been unaware of the double entendre and irony?

Comment re: Ratzinger in German magazine Bunte, by Katja Woywood, actress: Die katholische Kirche erlebt eine Renaissance, die durch die charismatische, warmherzige Figur des ehemaligen Papstes sicher erklärbar ist. Ich glaube kaum, dass ‘Papa Ratzi’ diese fast schon bedingungslose Begeisterung forsetzen kann. In Alltag wird man sich vielleicht auch wieder daran erinnern, was in Name der Papste, besonders für uns Frauen, untersagt und reglierementiert wurde und wird.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Bad Soden (2) 3.5.05: Curative Air and Catholic Poor Relations

We’ve just driven into the Altstadt of Kronberg, which turns out to be beautiful. We parked high on the hill and walked down to the archives. The view from high up is very nice.

Signs into the city call Kronberg a Luftkurort. What, precisely, does that mean? I know, of course, what it means literally: the air is considered curative. But what does it mean as an official designation for a Kurort? I notice in books about the region that each Kurort is specialized. Bad Soden is heart, Homburg is circulatory disorders. Is the air itself thought to be healthy in other Kurorts? Perhaps Kronberg has no springs and has to rely on air to give it that Kurort cachet. Does it specialize in lungs and neurasthenia, t.b. and depression?

Kronberg’s Protestant, we read in a history last night. How does it happen that Oberhöchstadt and Schönberg, now one Gemeinde with Kronberg, turn out to be Catholic? Some very specific lines of ownership by lords-princes-bishops (take your pick) must have run through these communities at the Reformation and after. I have the feeling Schönberg and Oberhöchstadt are regarded as poor stepchildren, and religion must play a role.

But they’re revenging themselves with Benedict XVI (who matters little to their Protestant countrymen, or so I imagine): already, we saw at the bookstore in Schönberg yesterday, a book of his thoughts (a yearbook, day by day) has been published! And is proudly displayed.

As we walk through the Altstadt this morning, I heard a man greet another: A-ja, A-ja. Some archaic equivalent of Aye, aye?

Sybille Bedford, Pleasures and Landscapes, p. 69: “What was this magic? The beginning each day the same: the cold, slow, sluggish start with unthawed limbs and disjointed casting mind . . . .” Disjointed casting mind: yes! Perfectly captures the disorientation (loss of east) travel induces, both through dislocation and numerous stresses not encountered in daily life.

And (p. 73): “The irrevocable duty of casting always, always the bread of humanism upon the waters.”

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Bad Soden 3.5.05: Daisy Penises and Ugly Bookstore Man

Sitting at the Schirn fountain that marks the Marktplatz of old Kronberg. A local artist, Fritz Best, cast it in the late 19th century. Pleasant to hear and watch the water emptying ceaselessly from its three spigots.

I think, though, of the fountains in Olomouc and how cramped and uninviting (for outdoor existence) this one is, by comparison. Is it the difference between a more northerly climate and culture and a southerly one (but, then, is Kronberg more northerly than Olomouc: I doubt it)?

Or is it a Catholic-Protestant cultural difference? We’ve just come from the town church, St. John’s, and it has the sadness of all churches of medieval lineage lost to Catholicism in the Reformation, whether in England, Ireland, Germany, or elsewhere.

I hope I say that without chauvinism. After all, do I even call myself Catholic anymore? I shudder at Ratzinger. Can one be Catholic and have active disdain for the pope?

I feel the sadness of this spoilt church running right through my heart. It’s apparent to me they’ve won, those who were intent on making Vatican II null and void. A spate of articles as Ratzinger was enthroned, pointing out that of course the pope must be Catholic and of course he must uphold unchanging doctrine and moral teachings.

And of course, the church hasn’t changed, has it? Thank God a majority of Catholics in the developed nations hold fast to longstanding Catholic denunciation of birth control. And thank God the pope defends meatless Fridays and Latin Masses.

But despite the obvious—the Catholic church has changed and must change—those promoting Vatican II have lost. They have done so because Ratzinger and John Paul II have acted supremely indifferent to mere fact. They have acted as if no voice exists but theirs—the univocal one—and those that faintly echo the refulgent magisterial roar.

Say no long and often enough, and you win—by sheer force of stubborn refusal. And JPII was nothing if not stubborn.

These thoughts ran through my head in those dreadful dark hours last night, interlaced with thoughts of grad school. My wasted life. My wasted career.

I think Cahill (or was it James Carroll?) speaks the truth when he says JPII will one day be credited with destroying the church. But we won’t hear that criticism in our lifetime or see the concession. For now, they’ve won. There is no voice but theirs. The obvious—the devastating—truth people like Cahill/Carroll can speak so openly is not spoken openly at all within the church catholic.

Nice Fachwerk houses here in the Altstadt, all rebuilt (the really old ones) when a fire in 1728 (?) burnt down the 14th-century originals. I like the naïve stenciling some folks have added. There’s an interesting Three Knights’ house across from the city church, with carved knights as a cornice, two with penises showing and designed to be (the glans) the center of daisies.

Why two and not all three? That’s always the question, no?

+ + + + +

Altstadt bookstore in Kronberg: awful man running or owning it. I asked if there were a restroom. No. Books in English? No. I turn around to see a rack of books in English. Why did he bother being so rude? And why were we foolish enough to buy books from him?

Sitting now peacefully at a café again, behind the Schloss hotel. Again Victoria, whose profile’s engraved on a plaque at the city church—a tribute to her providing funds to help rebuild it. And about her relationship to the royals of Saxony . . . .

And now back “home”—a very temporary one, which we leave tomorrow for Marburg. At the Schloss café, I had tagliatelle in a wild garlic cream sauce, garnished with asparagus tips, broccoli, snow peas, and one very meretricious and precious tiny baby carrot with a bit of its green left on. Steve had tomato and mozzarella salad with raw ham.

Channel surfing: Germans have perfected (and picked up) American t.v. tropes, but they ring totally bizarre changes on these, à l’allemand. For instance, not one but two refurbishing shows, loosely modeled on “Queer Eye,” but the one I’m watching features a lissome, irritating blond (“Schooen!”) and three stolid men drilling crews, installing electric outlets, etc. Give German men a chance to use a tool and demonstrate proficiency with it . . . .

Asparagus—yes, phallic: saw a box of these on the streetcorner in Kronberg, thick, fat, white, flabby, and definitely phallic.

The old lady in Kirchweiler, Frau Lamberty: in the middle of my terrible sonnet night, I thought, “It was like that New Yorker cartoon, the people talking to the dog, and the dog hearing, ‘Blahblahblah bath blahblahblah ride blahblahblah treat.’ I heard bbbb soldiers bbbb nuns bbbb feet were so small bbbb snow.”

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Bad Soden (2) 2.5.05: Spargelzeit and Lilacs

Now sitting in the Stadtarchiv in Kronberg, the Kreisstadt for Hochtaunuskreis. It has proven to be a wild goose chase to find it. A book from which Steve had copied information says the archives are at an address we found to be part of the Stadtamt. But no one there seemed to know of the place. I had copied from the internet a description of the Stadtarchiv saying it was in the Landamt, part of the same complex. Again, not there.

So they sent us to the post office, and sure enough, a sign says the archives are here. We’re waiting now as an attendant retrieves materials.

Something seems awry this trip: lots of obstacles and frustrations. It may be simply I don’t want to be here. I feel like an appendage.

Steve is snappy, and I imagine I’m hardly good company. I ask what seem to me to be reasonable questions—“Is she (looking at a picture of a man and a woman) the daughter of those two?” (pointing to a picture of an older couple—and he looks blank, as if I’d asked, Did that cow just jump over the moon? We’re so . . . separate. It’s as if our minds occupy different planets, classic Venus and Mars conflict.

We passed that beautiful fountain again today. It’s, I now realize, on the outskirts of Kronberg, which seems to have some very posh houses, golf courses, the accoutrements of British spa-goers in the 19th century (including a very discreetly elegant Hotel Viktoria surrounded by a beautiful hedge of white rhododendron in full bloom).

I saw now, it’s a metal-clad fountain, definitely, though whether it’s copper, I couldn’t say. Wouldn’t copper have a patina? And I also see that I remembered it wrong—actually didn’t see it right yesterday. It has at least two sides, like a street sign. It’s lovely.

Looking out now on the Taunus Hills through a dormer window in the archives. Lovely slate roofs, black slate, framing the slice of hills. This seems more wooded country than I remember the Oberpfalz of Bavaria being, or the region around Jöhlingen.

Beautiful bushes of lilac in full bloom everywhere—purple, white, and well, lilac. I want to go and bury my face in them. Lilac is such a special treat for one raised in a southerly clime. Horse chestnuts also blooming. The ones lining the square where we ate last night were mostly mauve, a color I’ve never seen. And some very sweet fragrance in the air that I seem to have smelled before, but can’t put my finger on—maddening. It may be a small white flower I saw yesterday at the Oberhöchstadt church, similar to daphne, but not daphne.

In Kronberg, Steve parked in a no-parking zone. In typical German fashion, people would turn around and eye the car (and me: he had gone inside to ask directions) coolly, so that I knew immediately we were illegally parked. Finally—again, typically German—a man comes up, leans down to the car window, says, “Morje,” and proceeds to explain you can’t park within so and so distance of the stripes for the crosswalk. Lukily, Steve came up then and rescued me.

Also typically German: the spargel craze. Everywhere now, signs of asparagus, blackboards outside restaurants advertising asparagus this and that (one place, asparagus soup with salmon strips!) and—oddest of all to me—a sign in the supermarket over the wine selection telling you what wines go best with asparagus.

I remember from trips to Hamburg at Spargelzeit, asparagus means more than just asparagus to Germans. It’s a season it itself, an encapsulation of spring, winter over— Whan Zephyrus eek with his sweete breeth inspired hath in every holt and heeth the tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne . . . .

+ + + +

Signs everywhere in English. It could be because we’re so near Frankfurt; it could be because we’re in a resort area once frequented by the English. Or it could be just (as I observed when we were last in Hamburg) that mixing English and German is increasingly chic.

Perhaps a bit of all. Anyway, interesting to see a flower shop today with signs all in German and then a sign reading, “plants.”

Thinking a moment ago of our first trip to the Eifel, how we met an elderly Lamberty couple, and as Steve talked with him, I listened to the wife talk on and on, understanding little, except “American soldiers,” “snow,” “so cold,” “nuns,” and “Die Füβe waren so kleine.” Did the nuns have the small feet? At the time, I thought that was the gist of the story. And how did they fit into the story of the American soldiers, which seemed to be about soldiers in the woods around the village during the war?

Anyway, she was very nice, especially given that I could understand so little and could say almost nothing in reply. I do recall her asking if I had German blood, and I replied something like, “Leider habe ich kein,” and then told her I was Scottish, largely (for convenience, since I wasn’t sure how to say English and Irish). She answered, “Aber das ist ein gutes Blut.”

I also recall her asking (or did we say?) about religion, and when I said Catholic, she asked, “Römisch Katholisch?” I said yes, and she said, in German, “There are different kinds, you know."  That strikes me as odd to say, unless the Old Catholic split is still alive for German villagers.

It’s equally odd what specific memories I have of when I first heard a particular German word, of the tiniest details of what are, after all, very mundane conversations in other languages—and calling such encounters conversations is glorifying them, wince they were monologues without any turning to the other.

Sybille Bedford speaks of a Sherlock Holmesian sous entendu—what does that phrase mean? Something understood without being spelled out? She speaks as well of pollarded chestnuts. I don’t know what to imagine when I read that word. Not espaliered, it seems. Are all the large old trees we see here, cut back to mere nubbins of twisted, contorted trunks and limbs, pollarded?

More fractured German (English) in the supermarket—a sign reading, “Ananas—extra sweet.” Another said, “Softcake—ruby red grapefruit.”

+ + + +

And, of course, a whole section on German news tonight on—what else?—asparagus! We spent half an hour on it. Apparently the best (and biggest phallic) Spargel is from Poland.

And what did I have for supper? Risotto with asparagus and a green salad, with dry Riesling.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Bad Soden, Germany 2.5.05: Thermal Springs and Mad Bikers

Awake in what is the middle of the night here (1-2 A.M.), but supper time at home. Since we haven’t begun yet to make the adjustment on this second day of our trip, we went to bed at 7, full daylight, and I’m awake and hungry. The body is a creature of habit and knows it eats now at home.

We’re in the Taunus Hills outside Frankfurt for Steve to do research on his Wolf family. After we arrived and got settled yesterday at Bad Soden, where we’re staying, we drove to the village John Wolf left for Minnesota in 1869—Oberhöchstadt in the Hochtaunuskreis.

It’s pretty countryside—wooded hills with many walking and biking paths. The villages are thickly clustered, as in the Rheingebiet, one running right into the other, teeming with life on a fine May afternoon and evening. Warmer here than at home—high 70s, where it was low 60s when we left Little Rock. I saw on the weather forecast it’s supposed to be warmer in Frankfurt today than in Rome. And I brought only long-sleeved shirts, expecting it to be cool!

The other thing I notice about these villages is that they don’t seem to have an obvious or easily discernible town center. Maybe it’s in part that so much was destroyed in the war. Much of the architecture is new, that solid bourgeois German suburban architecture, rather undistinguished, but solid, well-built, with a certain attention to details that fit it into the environment.

I saw, for instance, a fountain yesterday in someone’s garden. It seemed to have a coppery sheen about it. It was very simple, like rocks placed in an irregular T on top of one tall rock, something like this ╤. I’m not sure what the material was, really, perhaps some beaten metal. It had ripples on it like stone long washed by running water, or sand as the tide recedes.

The water ran up the vertical part, along the reset, and then cascaded down. No: that’s too dramatic of a word. It rippled gently up and down.

But my point: this simple, minimalist fountain was perfect for the garden of the house. Like many houses on the outskirts of these towns, it was set in behind a thick green hedge. And like so many others in these resort bedroom communities of Frankfurt, it was on a hillside, deeply shaded.

The situation means that dappled green light plays all day on the little openings each house represents. Whoever conceived the fountain and placed it just there, in front of the house, had a very good feel for what the light would do through much of the day. It picks up the rippling water, the cast of green canopy, and turns it into quiet beauty. The Germans have a feel for that understated way of setting a resort house in just the right spot to point out the natural beauty of its surroundings. Perhaps the Europeans in general do. Perhaps all cultivated people do.

This is a resort area, one dating at least to the period of the grand baden towns so beloved by royals and aristocrats since the 1700s. Bad Homburg, nearby, was a favorite spot of the British royals and the Tsar and his family. Bad Soden is a Kurort, and from the time we arrived, people were traipsing through the little plaza in front of the hotel, which is tucked in a side street near the railway station, to walk into the Kurpark.

As befits an area with so many thermal springs, there are lots of fountains in the towns and villages, some seeming fairly modern. Again, this brings Baden and the Rhine region to mind.

But unlike those areas, it’s definitely not a Weingebiet. We did see some old orchards as we climbed high, but they seemed atypically (for Germans) neglected and overgrown with grass. We also saw signs suggesting Apfelwein is a local speciality.

Crops seem to be wheat just coming up and rape, which, in flower, has a rank, unpleasant scent, like a dog hit by a car decaying on the roadside. We stopped to take pictures of Frankfurt in the distance, at Oberhöchstadt. It shimmers just across a valley, a fold of hills. We snapped the photos to show a rape field at the top of the hill at Oberhöchstadt.

On the whole, though, agriculture doesn’t seem to be the main industry here. I’d say it’s providing weekend getaways for Frankfurters to hike and bike.

Some big event was going on yesterday, a bike race, which made it almost impossible to return to Bad Soden. As we drove, we noticed the roadways lined with cars, especially in the wooded green hilly areas. We thought something must be going on, though it was a fine Sunday May afternoon, and people may have been just hiking and biking in German tribal droves.

But the Wurst stands, the music, police and firemen, suggested more. Sure enough, as we headed back, the road was blocked and we were sent on a detour, only to drive around and around in circles trying to find an unblocked road back. We were hungry, jet-lagged, it was both hilarious (what are the chances?) and maddening.

Back for a quick walk in Bad Soden, a beer and a meal at a Biergarten that a restaurant had set up in the Altstadt. I had an omelet and salad, Steve what was called a Pfälzer vegetable mix—brussell sprouts, carrots, potatoes in hollandaise sauce. We came home and turned on t.v. to watch an Austrian family in the Wachau area harvesting apricots and making delicious-looking Marillenknödeln sprinkled with buttered bread crumbs, cinnamon, and sugar. They also made apricot jam, schnapps, and a liqueur made by macerating the fruit in brandy.

Some interesting architecture here—heavy dark slate roots with mansard slopes and dormers and even some unfinished wood buildings. In the few old areas that have survived in towns, some nice Fachwerk.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Belmont, North Carolina 11.1.94: None So Blind as Those That See

And back in Belmont. As the crossed-out absurdity* indicates, jet-lagged to the max. We got up at 4:15 A.M., which didn’t help matters, and are now sitting in front of the fire.

Maybe it’s good that this travel journal held a few pages to complete after our return—a chance to stitch together the experience of the trip with the life I go on living, we go on living.

The “experience of the trip”—shorthand for what? Lots of disparate experiences, and none of them so earth-shattering that they lifted me out of the ordinary.

In fact, maybe the trip is directing my attention to something re: the life I’ve been living for a long time—i.e., that it’s monochromatic, fear-encapsulated, emotionally bottomed-out.

I’m not sure, exactly, that I walk the arid plain of depression. It feels more like walking one step at a time, with no signposts, because there is no other way. Have to go on living, and the only way to live is to live, one day and one step at a time.

And that’s how the trip to Germany was—one step at a time, many of them in places I wouldn’t have chosen. The grace of the ordinary is the phrase that leaps to mind now.

The rare ordinariness of friendship: how strange to have made the friendship of W. and K., R. and C., and perhaps now of M. and W. That totally unanticipated chain of events that brings people together, even across the globe. How extraordinarily kind all of them were to us, so that now our lives have boundaries permeable to former strangers, and even across time and space, our dreams and sorrows—even our material resources; they were so generous to us—flow together.

That recognition is, I suppose, the core of the trip experience. I have friends in many places, and they’re truly a gift to me. Even in the arid, dark place in which I walk—especially in this place—I must not forget this.

I come home a bit soul-rested, then, but also afraid. I’m afraid of so many things—of losing my sense of gratitude for all I’ve been given, of being crushed under routine and drudgery, of not seeing any point to my life here and now, of losing focus and becoming scattered, of sudden death, of losing Steve and not being able to cope, of continuing to live with Steve as we now live (so often quarrelsome or in stunned silence), of not seeing any doors open.

I’m also afraid of attempting to make changes in my life—losing weight, maintaining a daily schedule, reading more, studying German—that will help me onto the peach and health I’ve experienced on this trip. I know myself so well, how readily I relapse and then bitterly reproach myself for failing to live up to my goals.

At the bottom of it all—letting go. A journey is always letting go, of routine, certain comforts, one’s protective walls, obsessions and work, control of one’s schedule and environment. And since life itself is a journey to the ultimate letting go that faces us all, whether we want it or not, the puzzle is that we ever imagine we can live any other way except the way of letting go.

Ordinary grace and letting go—two phrases that run through my head over and over today, as I face resumption of my “old” life, and look back on the trip. The mystics say that life is full of grace. I’m yet to be convinced, but I do see grace at work in some rather “ordinary” ways in my life. The mystics also say that our failure to see is linked to our failure to let go.

For me, the problem is knowing how to let go. When we came to North Carolina, it seemed very important to have a comfortable house in a middle-class neighborhood. It seemed so because so much of our lives up that point had been a relinquishment we had not chosen, and one whose privations gradually ate into our sense of self-worth. We had begun to feel we deserved the crumbs from the table (the crumbs alone), and the kicks with which our generous benefactors dispensed the crumbs.

To face losing this house, the life we lead here, is very hard, then. It’s facing the resumption of that old life in which we had to accept that this is what queers must expect, since queers don’t count.

Maybe we ought to look at what has happened as a certain freeing from expectations that continue to be too small, however. The cliché—it’s a big world. To be in Germany is to see that in manifold ways. In such a big world, there’s surely a place for us, and that place may be more deeply satisfying and rich than any we’ve yet dreamt of.

That’s the point of letting go in mystical writing, I reckon—to learn to see that one’s preoccupations have been so misplaced, so focused on what is less rewarding and enriching. The life responsive to grace is not a life of dull self-obliteration, but of receptivity, celebration, grateful sharing of one’s blessings with others.

This is what’s hard for me. I haven’t learned to dance a certain dance, in which joy and sorrow, rage and resurrection, can interplay in my life. I don’t know how to be both light-handed and aware of my riches, to celebrate life in the midst of pain. Which is to say that I’m not the supple wild artist I’d like to be—an artist any saint is—but a dull, plodding, plebian creature who only dabbles in the creative and spiritual life.

In the last analysis, to be more than that, we have to let go even (especially?) of our hard-won virtues. These count as little in God’s eyes as our vices—perhaps less, because they have the greater potential to be hindrances to the life of grateful receptivity.

None so blind as those who see. One of the gifts of a trip such as that we’ve just taken is that one learns how very illusory one’s pretense to see clearly has been. The problem is not so much faulty vision; it’s locking into limited vision, as if that’s all there is. The world’s a big place. There are all kinds of people out there, all kinds of possibility, all kinds of ways of seeing, construing the world, thinking about it.

And now I must listen, to prepare myself for whatever immersion in that wide world will beckon me, when it’s time for me to be called to the next decisive step on my journey. To learn to listen well—there’s a focus of attention not unworthy of my thought, my life, in these days after the trip.

* I had inadvertently written Toronto, where we went to graduate school.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Over the Atlantic 10.1.94: And All Our Yesterdays Have Lighted

On the plane now. I hesitate to write anything. Just no get up and go.

It’s partly utter fatigue. But it’s more than fatigue, the bronchial and sinus infection I seem to have picked up from that horrible night in the Besigheim hotel. It’s the sad, inconsolable weight of things, in which tears are always to be found: Sunt lacrimae rerum.

As Proust knew (Partir, c’est mourir un peu), every ending partakes of death. And death is also judgment. No—hell—I can’t get my mind working these day. I know all I’ve written in the past few days is nonsensical, pretentious but incoherent, crap. What the hell is wrong with me?

There’s always that voice crying inside us, piteously: I want, I want, I want. Karl Rahner might call it the lure of the horizon, or Aquinas the voice of God within our nature reaching to completeness. Someone like Heidegger (or perhaps Sartre) might speak of the irresistible impulse of our need to find meaning in face of death, of the dissolution of our fated existences.

At one level, what I want is so clear, so material, even. These last few days, especially the two in Trier (and at M. and W.’s before that), I’ve realized how wonderful it would be to know a number of languages better than I do, as well as “average” Europeans know them. I had four years of Latin in high school and two in college, three years of Greek in college, three of French. I had to learn German to read in graduate school.

And yet I feel utterly tongue-tied when confronted with the necessity to use the languages I do know—to read Latin or Greek again, to speak French or German in more than rudimentary ways. I’d love to be more than rudimentarily informed about other cultures, art, music, books, history.

This crying out inside—I want, I want—makes me think of going back and studying languages on a regular basis, reading books in French and German, even polishing my Latin and Greek again.

But the voice within the voice, the want I can’t identify—such confusion, pain. Not turbulence, oddly enough, but a fatigue that so captivates my limbs, my will, that I live facing the snake charmer, and no other way. Holy damn—I cannot think or write! Not without resorting to those glib metaphors that mask as much as they disclose.

The ultimate wants—God? Love? Fulfillment? Self-acceptance? Peace with family? Clarity re: my vocation, the meaning of my life? I don’t know, don’t know how to name it, how even to begin to aim. I’m paralyzed.

An unshapen thought that haunted me in Trier, and yesterday as we revisited the little churches in Dockweiler and Dreis and saw the Maria Laach abbey church, is how so many generations of people who had to be diverse (and perhaps as mixed-up as I am) lived within the parameters of Catholic culture.

This is all so unclear: I guess what I’m trying to say is that I wonder how to make my peace with the church, to live in it in such a way that I draw strength and life from it without letting it destroy me. That, or how to leave, nake a clean break, move on to a new life.

Why even try? In part, because—the same tired old answer à la Chesterton, Belloc, etc.—Catholicism is an amazingly attractive religion. If . . . .

The tender sensuality of the mother of Jesus holding her dead son in the Maria Laach pieta; the heart-rending exposure of God’s pain in the statue of the father holding his crucified son in the Dockweiler church: no Christian tradition that truncates itself from the iconographic and liturgical traditions of early Christianity has the power to touch these depths. Not artistically, at least. Not liturgically. Such sensual (and simultaneously spiritual) depths.

The artistic heritage of the communions that have retained living connection to the earliest periods of Christianity—and even the doctrinal heritage, with all its contradictions and complexities—put one in touch with such symbolic transformative power, and one simply does not find power of that sort in some of the more recent Christian traditions.

In a city like Trier, one can’t help but be ineluctably aware of the continuity between European Catholic culture and the Graeco-Roman heritage. It’s everywhere, and perhaps not least in the way people stroll, stare, flirt, celebrate life. And that heritage contains strong gay currents. What else to make of the baths at Trier, the unabashed erections of satyrs in the stone carvings of the Rheinisches Museum?

But if . . . . If that heritage within Catholicism can be protected from the ravages of Enlightenment culture, particularly in the grotesque and bastardized way that culture impacts everyone today—via the American advertising industry with its attendant religious form, televangelism . . . .

And if that heritage can be rescued from the dreadfully—the astonishingly—short-sighted attempts of John Paul II and Ratzinger to freeze it, to puritanize it, to make it the willing servant of Enlightenment even as it believes itself to be critiquing Enlightenment!

All so intellectual. Back to the heart, to my heart. As I make such a move in my head, two things flash before me. One—for reasons I can’t explain—is an Epiphany procession I saw yesterday as we drove through a little Eifel village. Proud, happy children in white robes, gold crowns, black face.

Perhaps the attraction of that Augenblick is that I see in it how the heritage goes on. It’s lived, even if it may not be lived with all the self-conscious, ironic, defiant playfulness I would like it to muster. And where life is, there’s always the possibility of resistance and novel, unexpected adaptation.

The other flash is almost precisely an opposite one. It’s a feeling I have, one that has grown in me on this trip, of the rather sad sameness of human existence everywhere. The hideously ugly furnishings of Steve’s cousin’s house, his boorishness and grasping nature: these can apparently be found anywhere, in any suburb or village. There is no utopia, no pristine peasant/bohemian/intellectual utopia to which I can retire, or which can console me as I think of its existence, while I live in my own nightmare place.

What to do with these contradictory impulses? On the one hand, intellectual curiosity, desire to understand and experience, pushes and pushes me. On the other hand, I have such certainty that all my attempts to find the new will go the way of dusty death.

Is it possible to welcome the new, wherever it meets me, while living in the face of death? I don’t see any other option, if I’m not simply to give up, roll over, and die.

Steve says not to wait for some sign to come, for some miraculous savior, for some door to open. Wise words. But frankly, I often don’t know what else to do.