Friday, October 31, 2008

Oberhochstadt, Rhine Palatinate 3.7.1998: Horseradish with Wine, and Elvis Presley

Now driving back from Baden (and the Rhineland Pfalz) to Hamburg. We left Jöhlingen yesterday morning and drove to Oberhochstadt, east of Landau, where Steve believes his Wolf family lived.* This is not far at all from Jöhlingen, but in passing Karlsruhe going east, one passes out of Baden and into the Pfalz—and, we discovered, out of one linguistic zone and into another.

In the Pfalz, they speak a Pfälzischer dialect, and even our ears could detect a difference between that and the Baden dialect. People we met in Oberhochstadt told us the dialect is the same one spoken by the Pennsylvania Dutch, and that they can understand the Pennsylvania Dutch very well, even though quite a bit of their dialect is archaic Pfälzisch.

People around Oberhochstadt don’t distinguish between p and b, so that Pressler = Bressler, or something in between, similar in quality to that blended labial b and v of many Hispanics. One finds the name spelled both ways here.

One clear difference I can hear between the dialect of Baden and the Pfalz is in its rhythm. The Baden folk were more sing-songy, where the Pfälzisch ones are more phlegmatic. Nor did I hear the latter say ish for ich, as in Jöhlingen, but that could have been because I didn’t listen carefully.

Oberhochstadt is a wine village on the Südliche Weinstrasse, rather pretty and neat, but a bit less . . . ornate? . . . than the Baden village. It has grown together with Niederhochstadt, so that both today form one village.

In Oberhochstadt, we found the church locked and the parish office (which wasn’t marked, so we could have been at the wrong place altogether) closed. We asked in a bakery across the street, and found all church books are now in Speyer.

Then the husband of the bakery manager, Herr M., took us to the house of the parish secretary, a Frau S., who offered us coffee. At this, M. decided we should eat, and took us to a Metzgerei, where he rather mysteriously ordered for us two pork schnitzels and pomme frites, as well as food for himself and his wife. We paid for all.

As we waited for the schnitzels, he told us that beef with horseradish and something—potatoes? noodles?—is a local speciality, and that during the August wine fest, people come to eat this and drink wine (horrible-sounding combination, wine and horseradish). As he told us this, people came and went, all friendly, in a bit gruffer, more overt way than in Baden, and many large and slow, big-boned and heavy, as Herr M. was.

Then back to Frau S.’s where we ate our schnitzels and potatoes as she and her husband sipped coffee and ate the cherry kuchen we offered them, from Frau Klink. They talked of how too much freedom has produced egoism, and has caused the youth to leave the churches. I found it a bit eerie and unnerving to hear all this, as we sipped mineral water and apple juice from glasses with the papal crest, from his visit to Speyer. The feeling was fascist, in that covert way in which fascism continues in European (and American) Christianity, running underground—so smug and decisive, and closed to self-criticism after World War II.

From Frau S.’s to Herr Pressler, a local teacher and historian who, the S.’s thought, might be able to advise Steve about his quest for roots. The Presslers were very gracious, offering us some of their own Gewürztraminer, which was very good.

With Herr Pressler, we talked of many things. He told us that Hochstadt is paired with a town in Pennsylvania whose name sounded something like Hosh, which Herr Pressler said is how local dialect would pronounce hoch. Apparently many of the inhabitants of the Pennsylvania town came from Hochstadt, primarily, I gathered, in the 18th century, as Protestant emigrants. There’s been much to-ing and fro-ing between the two communities, and Herr Pressler and his frau have been there three times.

Herr Pressler told us that the lineage of Elvis Presley has been traced to the Hochstadt Pressler family, and a man in Little Rock, who descends from this family, has been in touch with him and plans to write a book about the line. (He also told us an exchange student from Little Rock lived in Hochstadt last year.)

He told Steve that Wolfs had, indeed, lived in Oberhochstadt, but the name has died out. Unlike Steve’s family, these were Protestant, and were in the 18th-century migration to Pennsylvania.**

According to Herr Pressler, Oberhochstadt had belonged to the bishop of Speyer, and Niederhochstadt to the Knights of St. John. Somehow, in the various historical transitions that occurred in the area, this community became Protestant, and that remained Catholic, and the area remains very religiously divided today.

Herr Pressler also got onto the war, telling us that Hitler appeared to many Europeans as an alternative to communism, hence his popularity. He said that this is why the churches remained silent as he rose to power . . . .

He spoke, too, of the fate of the local Jews, claiming that, in contrast to the Speyer bishop, the Knights of St. John permitted the Jews to live in their community, and so the Jews were treated less horribly in Niederhochstadt and during the war than in other areas.

Though they were expelled, and the synagogue pulled down—not burned, because it was attached to wooden buildings on either side. Nevertheless, descendants returned after the war and have been (so he said) cordially received. If I understood aright (all of this in German), the last two Jews of the town were sent to a camp in France during the war, and died there as elderly people.

Other bits and pieces from Herr Pressler: the local people were Franks originally. In the Thirty Years War, the community was decimated (as with Jöhlingen), and many Swiss came to the area. (In Jöhlingen, many folks seem to have come from the region of Württemburg near the Swiss border, as the Kulds did, so that Jöhlingen today has a mix of Frankish, Alemmanic, and Swabian blood—perhaps the same in Hochstadt, though the Frankish may predominate?)

Herr Pressler recommended that we stay overnight in Offenbach, whose Rathaus has the civil birth, marriage, and death records for Oberhochstadt. We did so, and found the village tedious—no center, traffic everywhere, since it’s on the highway to Landau and other places, and, in general, glum and cheerless. No windows had flowerboxes, though this is the mildest climatic region of Germany, and fields of nursery flowers grow all around.

Does the lack of ornamentation have to do with the religious character of the region? Or am I reaching for an explanation, and in doing so, reaching into a tired old grab-bag of religious tricks? Still, it’s possible: Regina Klink told us that Wössingen near Jöhlingen is an historically Protestant village, with a rather repressive culture that disapproves of dancing, etc.

Last night unmemorable. A walk here and there in the town in a futile attempt to find something, anything, that would look like a shopping area, a town center or square. After that, a sauna and swim at the hotel (Krone), for which we’d paid dearly, so felt obliged to use these, followed by a light dinner (Steinpilz in consommé and salad for me; some broccoli and carrot and potato squares fried and served with rice) with good local Gewürztraminer, and a splurge—ice cream with hot raspberry sauce and whipped cream.

This morning, to the Rathaus, where Steve drew a blank—nary a Wolf in the birth index from 1793 to the 1940s. Is he barking up the wrong tree altogether?

And then the drive back to Hamburg. Now somewhere north of Frankfurt on the terrifying autobahn, made more terrible today, somehow, by the fine weather and Friday afternoon vacation mentality: eager, earnest Germans on Urlaub, a force not to be taken lightly!

I liked the Rhineland, the wine culture and smiling landscape, though the experience in Offenbach showed me village life in the landscape can be dreary. Offenbach was more like an American town than anything I’ve encountered in Germany: pretty fields all around, and then that . . . faceless . . . center of human life plopped down in their midst. To the extent that there was any life, it was in the “suburban” area where a filling station, Pennymarkt, and drink shop were to be found. Religiously fueled individualism transmuted into American culture? We could have been in Anywhere, Iowa.

Is this because of the strong ties of the region to parts of the U.S.? Or am I making large, unfounded assumptions on the basis of too little evidence? I am, after all, only passing through these areas. Perhaps it would be better to keep quiet, given that I know so little: my initial impulse when I began keeping this travel journal.

+ + + + +

Going north (we’re now north of Kassell): always, that discernible thing about the northern sky, whether in Canada, northern Germany, Scandinavia: discernible and yet so hard to describe. Is it that the light recedes (and yet it’s more constant in summer, the further north one goes)? Or is it the humidity in the atmosphere of a cool, damp land?

This I know: in southern Germany, there was a difference. The light makes things simply . . . brighter . . . the further south one goes. People say that climactic theories about regional character are bosh, and they can be; but I’m hard-pressed to deny that something of the phlegmatic temperament of northern regions is due to the drabness of color, there, in this always muted light. Those impossibly dreary colors of the Canadian Group of Seven . . . .


*Note: a few years down the road, we were to discover we were in the wrong place. The Wolfs came from Oberhöchstadt in Nassau, close to Frankfurt. See my German travelogue for 2005 on this blog. One umlaut can make a world of difference.

**When we found that Steve’s roots lie in Oberhöchstadt of Nassau, instead, we also found his Wolf ancestor—who came to Minnesota in the mid-19th century—left Germany after serving in the defeated Catholic army of the prince of Nassau, as the Prussians seized control of the area.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Weingarten, Baden 1.7.1998: Dead Cemeteries, Abbeys à la Disney

In Weingarten after another long day in Jöhlingen, first part of which we spent in the Pfarramt reading church books.

Then to Steve’s cousin Frau Helga Klink’s for Mittagessen. But before that we stopped at Frau Rita Kuld’s to return pictures Steve had copied and to say goodbye, and there Steve locked the keys in the car, to my intense consternation.

The dinner at Frau Klink’s was unbelievable. Began with Sekt, followed by soup of what seemed to be beef stock with fresh peas from her garden and Butterklösschen, with chopped chives. I also tasted marjoram, but she said not so. Could the stock have been made previously, with marjoram seasoning, and she had forgotten?

After soup, Burgunderbraten—beef soaked in red wine, a bit of vinegar, and spices. This was served with Spätzle, which we watched her make, and a delicious sauce, and two salads—one of fresh lettuce, cucumber, and onion from the garden, the other of Italian tomatoes and onion. The Spätzle were topped with breadcrumbs fried in butter, and were wonderful. With the meal, we had some of Frau Klink’s own white wine, the Jöhlinger Hasensprung from Auxerrois grapes, grown only in Jöhlingen, if we understood correctly (that is, only here in Germany?).

After the meal, sliced pineapples in a sauce of eggs beaten with white wine and perhaps cream, followed by a raspberry kuchen and a cherry one, both made from fruit from the garden. This served with a huge bowl of whipped cream with grated chocolate on top, and followed by a grappa the family makes, from the must after fermentation. And coffee, of course, good and strong . . . .

I should say that a little pause followed the pineapple and preceded the kuchen. This was a trip to the Judenfriedhof we’d tried to find yesterday, between Jöhlingen and Wössingen. Frau Klink’s daughter-in-law, Regina Klink, who was at dinner, took us.

Quite an experience. It’s forlorn, fenced in and gated to keep vandals out. The mayor of Wössingen keeps the key. It’s on a hillside, and is only half full of graves, as if waiting for a fulfillment that will never come. There were two stones dating from 1936, with none later.

What a stark commentary on the cessation—the absolute cessation—of Jewish life and presence in the village after that date. I’d never before thought of a continuously used cemetery as a sign of life, but in a curious way, it is, isn’t it? It connects the living and dead in an intimate communion, in which the dead are remembered, venerated, kept alive as members of the family.

This cemetery was silent, awfully silent. I wonder if anyone ever returns to it to seek her or his family members. There it stands on the hillside, frozen as a partly forgotten shrine to German guilt, with its stones overgrown with ivy, half full, ad saecula saeculorum.

Seeing it, I thought of all the Jews I know, whose sad story I was only glimpsing as a guilty bystander. I thought, too, of the historic guilts that touch my life—the guilt of my English ancestors for their destruction of the lives of my Irish ancestors, and the guilt of my slave-holding forebears. Are black cemeteries in the South any more venerated by whites than this Jewish one by contemporary Germans?

After cake and coffee (and how can I even write about that after telling the preceding story?), we made our final goodbyes to the Frau Klinks, and again to Frau Kuld, who gave us three bottles of Hasensprung from her cellar.

Then we drove on to Maulbronn abbey, arriving just as the museum and church closed at 6. What an impressive set of well-preserved monastic buildings. And how sad to see them now used, many of them, as gift and froufrou shops no different from ones you’d find in the U.S. La Trappe à la Disney (or should I say Citeaux à la Disney?).

After Maulbronn, a drive by back roads into the Black Forest, to have a taste of it. We went as far as Tiefenbronn south of Pforzheim, and then returned to Weingarten. Enough to see the appeal of the Schwarzwald, with all those waiting green trees, cool trails tracing everywhere and rather frightening little inns here and there along the road.

The rough, often extraordinarily beautiful, kindness the Germans are capable of, side by side with what they (or some of them) did so recently to the Jews . . . . And I can’t get the latter out of my mind, though even as I say that, I also think again about how my own roots run to such historic sin, such callous oblivion to the mere humanity of the Other. It’s so easy to scapegoat others, so hard to confront the tangled malice and indifference in our own souls, coiled snakelike to strike at all one thinks and does.

Which makes me confess that part of the problem I attribute to Steve these days (the locking-keys-in-car incident, misplacing our money and passports) is me, mine. I feel so on tenterhooks traveling and wondering when we’ll be snubbed or attacked for being gay—so tired of having to watch and guard. I recall that bitter and spiteful journal I wrote on my first trip to Europe, full of ugly remarks about Steve and K. and A. God spare me, this trip, from such fatuity.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Weingarten, Baden 30.6.1998: Witches' Nests and Pogroms

So. Back in the pretty little church, where it turns out witches were persecuted, Jöhlingen having been quite a nest of Hexes, according to cousins Steve met yesterday. We also discover that the synagogue here, too, was pulled down on Kristallnacht and all the Jews sent packing. A cousin Steve met yesterday tells us there are families still living in the village who are well-respected, who participated in this action—who broke Jews’ windows and pulled their clothes and furniture onto the street.

How can human beings do something so horrifying? Casts an altogether different light onto this pretty little Baroque church. Iris, the cousin, showed us a picture taken in the village as the war began. Shows 5 or 6 smiling Mädchens in front of a sign where someone has chalked the slogan, Die Juden sind unser Unglück. Iris says most of these women still live in the village, elderly now.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Weingarten, Baden 29.6.1998: Peeping Putti and Carolingian Graves

Sitting at the Kuld corner in Jöhlingen, trying to draw—and very badly—the statue of a whittling man that sits beside the millstones the city has placed in a fountain, from the Kulds’ mill. Just saw the church and cemetery, both beautiful. The former appears to have been built 1785-1790, after the first church was destroyed (?) in 1781. A Carolingian gravestone from the 9th century is in the church.

It’s restrained Baroque, less active and gaudy than Bavarian Baroque, with walls and ceiling of light pink, green, white, and yellow (the latter all pastel colors, too). Over the confessionals on either side of the church are very kitschy cherubim, peering down mischievously onto the two confessional doors (curtains). Sin transmuted into kitschy fun: I rather like it.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Hamburg 26 and 28.6.1998: Ancestral Millstones and Reminders of Krystallnacht

26.6.1998

Today Simpson would be 47 years old, and my parents 50 years married. As I lay abed drowsing, Simpson’s face popped into my mind, reminding me of this anniversary. And in the weeks prior to this, I’ve had flashes of Simpson’s face, often as a young, fresh-faced boy. This makes me know in my heart of hearts how much I miss him, and how much loss I feel, as I look back down the one-way tunnel of years to our childhood.

Hamburg 28.6.1998

Course in Hamburg now over—Deo gratias—and Steve and I are now driving to his Kuld ancestral village in Baden, Jöhlingen. Have just passed Hannover.

A gray day—another gray one, after several such days in a row, with heavy rains in Hamburg. That, and the cold Steve and I both now have, and too little sleep last night, and fatigue from that seminar, have me tired and despondent.

How to assess the seminar? The students seemed well-disposed, even friendly, and interested. Several people (Wolfram, Dietrich W., a Missionsakademie student) told me it was astonishing that all the students came every day and participated.

But I feel so empty and unsuccessful at the end, as if I sought to conduct a symphony and ended up with a high school band playing out of tune. Perhaps my own sense of emptiness, that life has passed me by?

If I do feel that way, I do so in addition to all the horrors life has dumped on me—because I don’t ever know how to connect, in and from my heart of hearts, with others. We discussed the place of gays and lesbians in society. I didn’t tell them I’m gay, didn’t know if I was permitted to do that. And there was Steve. I didn’t tell them he’s my longtime companion.

Ought I have? There are all those considerations about rules, regulations, how far to go, what might be permitted.

And then there’s that . . . uncontactability . . . of Germans. On the surface, gruff friendliness and politeness (at best). But one’s never invited further, and with my lack of linguistic ease, how can I even think of assaulting that barrier?

So. Nice, energetic students, whom I’ll never see again, and with whom I made only the barest of contact.

I feel so old, so used up and cast off, so rapidly passing through life without real contact or meaning. Who will deliver me from this body of death?

Last evening spent with the R.’s, who were exceedingly kind. We drove in the cold wet evening to Wohltorf. The Sachsenwald, and the neat—and affluent—little villagesn were very appealing. In Wohltorf, posh and urbanized as it is (urbanized by proximity to Hamburg), there were fields with cattle, horses, pigs—working farms, play-pretty little farms.

Rudy had made a risotto of Pfefferlinge and parsley, with bits of seasoning ham—very good. We had that after champagne, followed by a home-made blackberry ice, with copious amounts of Rotwein and Kirschwasser as a digestif. A pleasant, enchanting evening, with light falling in the garden all around their house, the apple trees laden with fruit, the windows looking out on all sides. As night fell, C. played Chopin for us; he’s an accomplished pianist. A European evening, with cultivated people whose culture is simply taken for granted, worn lightly, not exhibited ostentatiously as it might be in the U.S.

We talked of many things, including C.’s French teacher, an East Prussian. Rudi says that people from that region are very—was it bescheid?—very modest, able to live with very little while pursuing very high cultural standards. He (the teacher) can sleep with equanimity on the floor or in a bed, saying, “It could be worse: it could be Siberia.” He’s helped Rudi and C. renovate the cottage they all jointly own on the Île d’Oléron, and has masterfully preserved architectural features (e.g., an old door) they might have thrown away. He’s given C. his old Citroën, “Ente,” along with a set of tools he handcrafted to work on it.

We talked, too, of C.’s piano teacher, a Russian Jew with a Russian soul, who screams, threatens, hugs, kisses, praises. C. adores him. His sister C. refuses to go to him.

Just at Hildesheim now. Pretty landscape, with fields of grain and rows of trees running through them, and hills (the Harz Mountains?) in the distance.

+ + + + +

So. Now at Weingarten, a few kilometers from Jöhlingen, the latter village having proven to have no guesthouses, pensions, hotels, or Fremdenzimmer. The place we’re at here—the Golden Lion—is seedy but clean, half as cheap as the other places we checked, all full. It’s either an old inn, or a converted farmplace whose farmyard (enclosed farmyards typical here) has been taken in and converted to the inn.

When we drove into Jöhlingen in the late afternoon, another stroke of luck. I happened to see a name painted on a house—Kuld, along with Küferei and Weinbau—and told Steve about it. He stopped, and the place turned out to be his ancestral house, built in the early 1700s. Was a farm and mill, plus a cooper and wine-equipment maker.

In the house was only a Frau Kuld, whose husband died in 1991, and whose only son died in 1995, two years older than Steve. She showed Steve a Stammbaum that matches his, and then took him across the street to two millstones from the old Kuld place which the village has erected into a fountain with a plaque saying that they’re from the Kuld family’s old mill.

After Jöhlingen, back here to eat at a local restaurant that turned out to be very pricey, indeed. Steve and I had only appetizers, soup, and wine, and it still came to 102 DM.

I did enjoy my victuals, though—a summer salad of field greens, asparagus, and sugar peas, along with a tomato soup with pesto, ravioli, and gnocchi. Steve had herring filets and mushroom soup. We drank one of the good white wines of the region, and are now enjoying a Riesling from Jöhlingen itself, back in the hotel room.

I like this region. The people seem more mixed (Protestant and Catholic, German tinged with a bit of French), and thus more tolerant and sophisticated than Bavarians. There’s a pleasant, unhurried joie de vivre air about them. Perhaps because we speak some German, or because they could see we were penurious travelers, the restaurant owners brought us an on-the-house tray of small amuse-bouches, tiny tastes of the bounty of the local farms. That made the experience in the restaurant even nicer.

Lots of interesting Fachwerk buildings, too. But walking tonight after dinner, we happened on something horrifying: a plaque on the Catholic church (built immediately behind the Protestant one) saying that across from the church stood a synagogue that was destroyed on Krystallnacht in 1938.

This is recent history. Who tore down that building? Did local people stand by and shake their heads sadly, or did they participate? Did these gemütlich folks orchestrate the whole thing? Did they plan it cold-bloodedly? And what of their Jewish neighbors and friends? This region seems to have been full of Jews. What became of them? Who remembers today? Is the war just over and forgotten, along with all that preceded it? Or does anyone remember, atone, feel shame?

The church bells outside the window (yes, those very same church bells) have just rung 10 P.M. A long day, and now I hope, a bit of sleep.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Hamburg 25.6.1998: Barlach's Wiedersehen and Perfect White Teeth

Sitting in the office provided for me at Binderstrasse 22, in the pale light of a late-June morning in Hamburg, after two days of incessant rain. When we awoke this morning, slugs had invaded our apartment, having sought the open windows in the night.

As I think about Hamburg in conjunction with the essays of Richard Rodriguez I’m reading—about San Francisco—I think what a masculine city Hamburg is, in a very masculine country. Yesterday, we were at the city art museum: such a heavy, overweening, macho experience. Columns of black faux marble with brown ceilings, dark green walls. The art collection actively repulsive: heavy, badly displayed, not honored.

Perhaps I’m out of sorts, with a cold and touch of bronchitis since Ireland. The Barlach house was, by contrast, a wonderful oasis, reverent pieces in a reverent setting. The Christ and Thomas piece is beyond belief.

+ + + + +

7 P.M. A storm has suddenly blown up. The day turned sunny and warm at noontime, and after our commitments at the university were done around 5, Steve and I took the train back here to walk by the Elbe.

But almost as soon as we set off on the walk, it began to thunder and become dark, so now we’re back at the apartment listening to the rain and feeling at loose ends.

Disspirited. I feel pulled down by the cold, insufficient sleep, the stress of getting through this course.

Insubstantial. Nothing I say or do seems to make much sense, to promise any openings for the future.

And so much goes unsaid. Dare I to speak of the lust—the active lust—I feel for some of the German men I meet? That milk-freshness they seem to have even when debauched, those eyes of glass-blue, and, my God! the teeth! The perfect teeth. Do they even begin to know the response they elicit? Is the innocence a tease? Are they all as slow as Steve always is to give in to pleasure, to know his heart? Head knowledge must be kept from heart knowledge: a key motto of German life, which must make for some very split psyches.

Faulkner says the only point of literature is to tell the story of the heart. After Ireland, I keep mulling over—or is it fantasizing?—a novel about Mullinavat, New Orleans, Shubuta, Orion. The trick would be to avoid artifice and deceit . . . .

Well, those are the words that pop into my head. What I think I mean, rather, is that’d have to avoid the artifice of the path well trod, of the conventional emigrant epic. That’s a tale that has been told, over and over. Where’s the heart in it?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Hamburg 23.6.1998: Midsummer Eve and Confederate Flag

Steve says the summer solstice—St. John’s eve or Midsommernacht—was the 21st, but I heard someone in Ireland say it’s the 23rd. Unless the heavy cloud cover breaks, we won’t be able to see the long light today.

Last night, taking the taxi from the airport, we passed a Confederate flag braving the north winds behind a garden wall in suburban Hamburg. An incongruous sight: I fear it means that someone there is advertising Nazi sympathies.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Dublin (2) 22.6.1998: Gay Liberation and Purgatorial Airports

Later, same day, en route from Brussels to Hamburg: enjoying a huge Belgium Weissbier (Hoegaarden) with cheese cubes, salami, and mustard. Aer Lingus caused us to miss our connection to Hamburg, and we must now wait four hours for a connecting flight.

Last days in Ireland: on the evening of my Mullinavat pilgrimage, we took John and Maura to dinner in Kilkenny, to a pub-restaurant they like. It was a bit garish—as they said, a mishmash of styles—with olde worlde wood nooks and very new (and tawdry) skylights of stained glass. We sat beneath one of these at a marble table with a red velvet sofa on one side.

I had the place’s seafood platter, and Steve a lamb dish. Service was well-intentioned but appalling, as often seems to happen in Ireland. Lots of beefy preening middle-class Irish men, and young couples with hard-looking women and seedy-looking men. A beer in the bar afterwards, as we waited for an ale tasting that had been advertised but never materialized, and then home to bed.

Next day to Dublin to meet Chuck. A vexatious day, with the usual travel delays and then trouble finding our lodging on Eglinton Rd. A quick dinner at a nearby Indian restaurant and then to the Abbey Theater for “St. Joan,” first time it’s been staged at the Abbey since 1972.

It was a good performance, if uninspired: a preview performance, since it opens only this week, to a full house. The playbill speaks of the director’s sense that, as nationalism reasserts itself around the world, with attendant right-wing movements, the play reminds us of the absurdity of the nationalist-driven war, and of the need to be vigilant. Speaks also of Shaw’s fascination with suffragettes, and how male power cliques break powerful women, then reassemble them as controllable icons.

Then to a gay bar where we met Chuck’s friend Brian, who had gotten the rooms for us. Should say that on the way up from Piltown, we listened to a radio program re: gay pride week in Ireland, which said that the nation has begun to change in fundamental ways re: this issue.

E.g., in the Cork St. Pat’s day parade last year, the gay float won best prize—this at a time when gays and lesbians trying to march in New York’s parade are arrested, with court support.

The pub was absolutely packed—smoky, sweaty, full of writhing bodies, including, behind us, two men kissing passionately and fondling each other’s privates, and two men and two women dancing, as one of the men lowered his pants. Eight years ago when we were in Dublin, Steve and I called a gay information line to ask what there was to do, and were told there was a grimy and dispiriting bar—a single one. Not being familiar with the bar scene, we didn’t go—information only.

Now everything’s wide open. The taxi driver who took us home told Steve that, in the past five years, Dublin has changed more than in the previous twenty.

But are things changing according to an American model of gay liberation? The friends accompanying Chuck’s friend Brian were snobby to us, as if full of American attitude, since we’re not young/beautiful/politically correct/fashionable.

Sunday, yesterday, a whirlwind tour of Dublin. We began with Mother Redcap’s market beside Christ Church, where we met an interesting photographer from Philadelphia, now living in Ireland, who photographs details from tombstones and then reassembles them in interesting patterns. We bought one for Charlotte.

Then on to the obligatory visit to the Book of Kells, now to be approached through exhibits sponsored by some big corporation. The place was packed by multilingual hordes. I somehow ended up in a French tour led by an English speaker speaking very low, very precise French of which I understood every word.

+ + + + +

European airports: the search for a pool of air conditioning in summer, the busy polyglot crowds. When we waited in line to change our ticket in Brussells, two black women behind us who believed others had pushed ahead of them began to shout and carry on, in English. The counter man listened in stony silence, saying he was there only to help. In front of us, a very smelly crazy woman, who had pushed ahead of us, stood in a dingy Batik dress out of the sixties, her hair in a shamrock green elastic band. It was long, dirty, dyed blond.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Dublin 22.6.1998: Country Churches, Surly Priests

Kilkiernan’s a lovely place, down a hill on the hillside from the main road. As we left, I noticed cows watching with bovine half-curiosity from a field adjoining the holy place. Larks sang and swooped in the air.

John and Maura talked of some trouble over who controls the site. Apparently it was wild and overgrown until a local farmer, abetted by an American, cleaned it up. The American toiled a whole summer rebuilding walls and installing gates.

Then the ministry of national monuments stepped in to claim ownership, accusing the shrine’s rescuers of meddling. John R. himself got accused of interfering, since he apparently knew this cleanup was taking place. John and Maura said the work’s at a standstill, unless local people do it surreptitiously by night.

A pattern had just been held at the holy well. Maura tells me a pattern need not be a procession in honor of a saint, but can be a graveyard-working for those buried in the cemetery surrounding the well. Bright flowers in bunches were around all the graves.

After Kilkiernan, a lunch of salad at the R.’s, and to Mullinavat. Fearing the priest wouldn’t be at home, though we’d made an appointment, I called to tell him I was coming. “Hello,” he said rather brightly, “is this Kevin?” I explained who I was and said we’d be on our way. The response was a glum yeah.

We got to Mullinavat in good time, and Msgr. M. came to the door—having a wee dram taken, Steve and I thought. He ushered us into the rectory office—an old dining room with a wobbly square table in the center, dark with aged varnish, and a few rickety chairs about it. All was sad—disarray, a feeling of the . . . extrinsicness . . . of the church to people’s lives today. On the walls faded pictures of former pastors, stains running out at angles on the wallpaper behind them.

Msgr. M. presented me with one of those computer printouts that now seem to function as parish books in that part of Ireland, made a discouraging remark about “the sort of people who left Ireland in the Famine” and the paucity of records for them, and left. I flipped to the Ryans, and there they were—my Kate, baptized on the day of birth I have from her tombstone, her brother Patrick, and others I had never heard of—an Ellen, a John, the Val Jr. I'd already found.

I was stunned. Years of searching, and I’d found the end of the road. Why Rothe House told me they had no record of Kate and Patrick—despite money I’d sent for the search—is beyond me. And I had written Msgr. M., enclosing money and asking for a copy of the marriage record, only to be sent a transcript of what I already had, with a brief note saying he was unable to copy the record. No thanks for money enclosed. A copy machine stands in the rectory office.

When I found my Ryans in the printout, the monsignor warmed a bit and yielded to Steve’s insistence that we be allowed to see the original records. Steve further insisted on copying the originals, at which Msgr. M. bristled a bit: I was to promise to black out all other names on the page.

What’s the likelihood of my sharing information about illegitimate ancestors of parish folk in the 1830s and 1840s?

After the records search, a careful perusal of the parish graveyard, with John and Maura’s invaluable assistance. I found only one Ryan grave that seemed promising, a flat tombstone mentioning Glendonnell, a “suburb” of Mullinavat, and going back to the 1740s. I believe the Ryans of this stone are the ancestors of those in Buckstown.

Then to Buckstown, which is across a bridge and west of Mullinavat proper. There we talked to a young Mr. McEvoy, a teacher, who said he knew the Ryans often “stood for” McEvoys in church records, but weren’t related. He told us a Mary Ryan had been the last Ryan in Buckstown, and had given her farm (the family farm) to a Daniel McEvoy who took care of her.

He directed us up the road to his cousin Ann McEvoy G., who lives beside the old Ryan place. He also warned us to be careful that she might be suspicious of Americans coming to claim ancestral land.

Tom (or was it Pat?) McEvoy told us, too, of an elderly lady who’d just had a stroke, who grew up in a little house attached to Mary Ryan’s house, and of a Petey somebody, a man in his 80s who’d surely know of the Ryans, since he lives in Deerpark near Glendonnell, and the Ryans over there were kin of the Buckstown ones.

We trekked up to Ann G.’s, passing the old Mary Ryan place—now all overgrown—in the process. Ann G. was at first non-forthcoming and brusque. I thought I’d interrupted her tea and apologized for it, she saying nothing to the contrary, though I later learned she’d finished.

She told me the same Mary Ryan story, and said she believed the Ryan-McEvoy connection was that the Ryans and McEvoys had been neighbors from time immemorial, the Ryans having lived in three houses on the old Mary Ryan place, the smaller two now gone. (Tom McEvoy had told us the McEvoys came to Buckstown ca. 1820 from Fahin? on the Kilkenny-Tipperary border, and bought their land from a Mr. Walsh [pronounced Welsh in these parts] who was much given to drink.)

Ann G. also told me Mary Ryan was a single child, daughter of a Tom Ryan, and that Daniel McEvoy was her (i.e., Ann’s) uncle. I showed her the McEvoy names I’d copied from the computer version of the parish records, and she brought me inside to the kitchen to see papers she had, with the same information. As we talked, she told me there were no Tobins in Buckstown—never had been, it seemed—and that all the Tobins were from Listrolin-Tullogher way. She also said, significantly, that the Tobins are related to the McEvoys. Perhaps that explains why Ryans and McEvoys are always standing for each other in the parish.

Then to Mary Ryan’s. We climbed a rickety metal fence and went to the house, the bottom floor of which has been used to stable animals. Had to stoop to get through the door, it’s so short.

Inside we found two rooms, one atop the other. Where plaster had peeled from the walls downstairs was stonework that seemed old to Steve and me, though John Ryan believed the house is 20th-century. There were an old fireplace with an iron arm to hold pots and a built-in oven beside it, both now cemented up.

The stairs going up were very precarious, worn thin, and shifting in places. Two windows upstairs overlooking the road, with shutters inside. Sticks of broken furniture here and there, but no other signs of human occupancy for many years.

Outside we detected beneath elder, bramble, and vine an old stone animal pen with a high narrow window, and the remains of old stone walls. I picked a foxglove to press into this journal.

I felt that here, I was on ancestral ground, even if it seems that the Mary Ryan house is not so old. John Ryan said it’s curiously constructed, tall and narrow and unlike other farmhouses in the region.

And goodness! How could I have forgotten the time in the church, after our graveyard search? St. Beacon’s was built in 1802—early for an Irish country church of the penal years. That means that in this very church my ancestors were baptized, married, buried.

I looked again at the altar with its red Corinthian columns running to the ceiling, surmounted by a red and gold triangle depicting what? The Holy Spirit? God’s eye? I can’t recall.

It’s a plain church, a plain country church with white balconies in the—what’s it called, nave? The only statues are one of Mary, one of the Sacred Heart, either side the altar.

I sat for awhile, letting it all sink in and crying. The sadness of their leavetaking, which was so definitive. This church, the one I was seeing with my own eyes, was the same one they’d have seen, one final time, before leaving.

I thought, too, of the years I’d searched for this, of my grandmother and how she’d have loved to see this place. I thought of how this search had led me to Catholicism, and wondered in what sense I’m Catholic now, after all that’s happened. I thought of how the end of a long search, a long journey, is bittersweet: there’s the satisfaction of seeing one’s efforts rewarded, but the emptiness of the quest laid to rest. There’s also that nagging sense that no journey short of death (and even then?) is ever really definitively over. Every new end leads to a new beginning.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Dublin 21.6.1998: Holy Wells and Headache Cures

Now in Dublin. That last day with the R.’s was . . . sensational. Drove after breakfast to the Kilkiernan holy well, not far from Mullinavat. As with all these holy wells, such a peaceful and ancient spot, one with obvious “pagan” resonances.

There are a number of high crosses, along with a phallic stone from the pre-Christian era, and some stones whose name John and Maura called, but which I don’t recall—B. something—that may or may not predate the monks. If the former, it would seem the monks (7th century?) appropriated the “pagan” site, and sought to Christianize it. If the latter, these may simply have been the monks’ corn-grinding stones. They’re now regarded as holy objects, holy water fonts whose water has virtue for this or that.

The well is unassuming, a hole in the ground with a grate over it, black-appearing water (color from the surrounding rock) with moss in it. I dobbled my fingers in it, fearing to drink it. Nearby was an elevated font with a sign that the water was good for headaches.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Piltown, Ireland 19.6.1998: Choctaws and Quakers, Dozing Priests and Inaccessible Records

Yesterday in Waterford, and before that a stop in Kilmacow parish. It was shortly after 1 when we stopped there, and the priest, whom I awoke from a nap, seemed dazed and suspicious. He didn’t offer to let me see the church registry, but insisted on consulting, himself, a computer printout of the registry.

In it, he found Margaret Ryan, sister of my Catherine! She was baptized 3 Aug. 1838, and listed as a daughter of Bridget Tobin. The father’s name was too faint for the indexers to read.

A wonderful record to find, since it proves that Valentine and Bridget Tobin Ryan are, indeed, my ancestors. We had (or her tombstone has) Margaret’s birthdate awry—2 Aug. 1835—but this Kilmacow Margaret is clearly mine.

Then on to Waterford. What to say? A lived-in city, lived in and lived on for generation upon generation . . . . In a shopping mall downtown are the foundations of a Viking church—discovered far beneath the ground as this block of the city was excavated. It has an apse, perhaps the first in Ireland, as well as burial crypts. There it is on the basement floor, encased in glass, to be gawked at, with a panorama of garishly painted Vikings around the walls.

The Irish live with their artifacts—have no choice except to do so. They live lightly with them, passing them with nary a glance, or telling an amusing story about some primeval escapade that occurred at that place. It’s not that they’re unconscious of their history. It’s just that it’s there, all around them, like the tattered antimacassars of a shabby old country house. The Germans would put up neat signs with erudite guides to these shrines, and in doing so, distance the places from their contemporary selves. Not the Irish. They leave them be.

And in doing so, allow them to decay—the downside of the Irish character, the feckless manifestation of Irish lightness of being. Waterford’s a shabby, grimy, third-world city, and not a shabby genteel one. It’s full of loutish teens puffing on fags, their faces pasty in the gray light of an Irish day. Like Ireland as a whole, it’s pocked by inveterate poverty, with longterm poverty’s attendant ills—ignorance, narrowness, scheming and resentment.

We did the tourist bit—a tour of the heritage center, where a display of Viking artifacts (also discovered when part of the city was excavated) is on show, along with a stunning display of the city’s charters. There were Aoife and Strongbow in all their bright-colored lifesize glory, to be seen in a panorama.

When one looks at the characters, all one can think is how intertwined—how incestuously intertwined—is Ireland’s history with England’s. This Viking and Hibernian city, decreed into existence by English monarchial fiat, and then divided and subdivided as booty given to English lords who pleased English regents . . . .

One is ineluctably aware of that history when one sees the old manor places. In the morning, John and Maura took us to pick strawberries on the old manor estate of the Earl of Bessborough, Mr. Ponsonby, now Kildalton Agricultural College. The house itself is Georgian, of local limestone, with serene classical proportions and a beautiful grand stairway pirouetting up out of the entrance hall.

As one sees it, one tries to imagine the life lived in such a place, in such a nation. John and Maura say the earl lived here only sporadically, perhaps three nights a year. But the house was kept staffed with a large year-round staff of servants, so that it would be impeccably groomed at any time the earl happened to drop in.

When he did so, the local gentry gathered for balls and soirees in the elegant gardens, part of which are still there to be seen—the yew walk, the deer park, the little man-made lake, rhododendron tumbling to Irish excess and chaos all around the tiny artificial areas laid out by human intervention.

And what did these gentry talk about, I wonder, as they waltzed and sauntered so self-consciously aware of setting a glittering social standard in a barbarous and incomprehensible place? Themselves, no doubt, and London, sweet London, the center of their universe, and so the world’s. Did they ever debate the merits of Swift’s modest proposal? Did they wonder what my ancestors talked about in their smoky little cabins where chickens clucked beside pipe-smoking grannies beside the fire?

William Trevor gives us a glimpse of these social worlds and social interactions, and, to an extent, Brian Friel. Yet I still want to know more, to be inside that social world, to a degree.

All these thoughts reinforced as we drove up to the estate of Lord Waterford last night, as John and Maura stories of him. We drove through an interesting little mill village, Portlaw, which I believe Quakers laid out, though John and Maura don’t know of that.

They tell stories of Lord Waterford (who still owns huge tracts of good land) as if they were still the 19th-century tenants on the lord’s manor—half-affectionate, horrified stories about this very alien man with very alien cultural norms on whose good pleasure their existence depends.

It seems that in his youth he was a wild, reckless man, who would drive like a demon down the road, heedless of children or dogs in his way. That he tried to shoot himself after a favorite hunter was killed in a hunting accident. That the family were cursed by an old woman whom a former Lord Waterford evicted, who foretold that, for generations, the male heirs of the family would die violently, and not in their beds. And so it has come to pass . . . .

The Quakers: John and Maura speak kindly of them. They apparently helped tremendously during the Famine, though many of their ancestors came as liege soldiers in Cromwell’s army, and got land for their service.

John and Maura also tell me that the Choctaw Indians sent money for relief during the Famine! This is commemorated in Waterford, where a plaque about it hangs in the Carnegie library, and a few years ago, a delegation of Choctaws came to Waterford for some celebration, and were warmly received.

Portlaw Quakers who operated cotton mills using cotton from the American South; Choctaws whose homeland is Mississippi sending money to relieve hungry Irish people: do any of these strands interweave with the story of my Ryans, who sailed off to New Orleans and Mississippi cotton lands in 1852? To know history at all, one must have a story. One must sense a story where others see bare fact. One must tease narrative out of the stony ground of document and artifact.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Piltown, Ireland 18.6.1998: Bare Wood Floors,Tears and Pain

In Ireland now, at John R.’s in Piltown. He’s quite an avid gardener, hence the pots of geraniums I’ve painted and sketched all too crudely. On all sides, the house is surrounded by carefully tended pots of flowers, shrubs, flowerbeds, and fruit and vegetables. It’s idyllic.

As so much of Ireland is, when you drive through it. I especially like the landscape and the small towns as we drove south past Carlow, which is grimy and urban-looking) (and yesterday’s Dublin paper says, increasingly a bedroom community for Dublin).

Stopped in Mullinavat as we drove down. To all appearances a rather poor community in hilly land. As I’ve read, the English landlords were less interested in that land and left it to the Gaelic Irish. And the whole area does have that wild Gaelic highland feel—a bit forlorn, with overgrown roadsides and hills in the distance.

The rain added to the forlorn feeling: heavy, unremitting, driving rain all the way from Dublin—and more forecast today. As I sit on John R.’s small sun porch, the clouds are lowering and clotted.

Steve and I walked through the Mullinavat cemetery, getting thoroughly soaked, even though we had umbrellas. Saw a few Ryan and Tobin graves. Many stones are almost illegible.

We also went into the church, a poor little church with bare wood floors that are unwaxed and worn thin from years of use. Here and there shiny, incongruous linoleum covers them.

Yet I feel spiritually at home in such churches in a way that I don’t in Bavarian ones. Hard to fell silence when the walls and ceiling are at play with gilded garlands and gay colors. Here in Mullinavat, there’s that feel of years and years of concentrated silence. And tears and pain.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Hamburg 17.6.1998: Lawns with Buttercups, Turkish Vegetables

In plane en route from Hamburg to Brussells, where we change planes to Dublin. Yesterday taken up with preparations for the seminar I gave in the evening—a vexatious, even harrowing, day preceded by fitful sleep, nightmares, stomach turmoil. I am so insecure teaching, and feel so hollow these days, so disoriented, so much the half-released spectator and not the participant.

Hamburg: green everywhere. With Nienstedten’s passion for English gardens, one never forgets one’s in northern Europe: green, damp, shade, cool are all around. Lawns aren’t mown this time of year, or rarely. The one outside our apartment is dotted with buttercups, those surprising little ranunculi with their shiny porcelained petals. Other lawns have tiny white daisies.

Wolfram W. incredibly, extraordinarily nice, as ever. Took us to lunch at a Turkish restaurant yesterday (vegetables, glorious vegetables!), and let us get our email from his computer. I feel so linked to him, and afraid of and embarrassed by the depth of my feeling, lest it appear to be something other than what it is, a friendship in which feeling runs very deep on my side.

And the German soul is mystical, I see in the faces of the seminar students. But also intently practical. In Nazism, the two interacted horribly—that mystical attraction to the dark-forested myth of the Urseele of the nation, coupled with efficiency so hyperdeveloped it could create gas chambers, and use them pitilessly, rationally, meticulously, to kill people.

And who am I? Rilke talks of feeling God’s call to write, even in his childhood—to transmute pieces of ugly childhood memory and experience into this and that, the stuff of poems. And I? Will I ever feel less tired? Will I ever find a place?

Ireland: I expect restful landscape, and positively exult in the opportunity to hear my own language spoken again—though, truth to tell, after Bayern, Steve and I haven’t had to function in German very much at all. Will there be some play in Dublin we might attend?

Monday, October 13, 2008

Hamburg 16.6.1998: The Blues, Silent God

Blue tonight—feeling self-reproachful, unambitious, afraid I’ll fail absolutely spectacularly in the seminar.

In the morning, we drove the rental car to the airport, taking an African woman we met at the Akademie to the airport at the same time. She’s a Presbyterian from Cameroon who seems to travel a great deal as a kind of spokeswoman for black women in the churches.

Afterwards, an hour’s bus ride back to Nienstedten, and then shopping. We then walked to the Nienstedten church and worked (sitting on a bench) on lectures for the seminar, and afterwards had coffee and cake in Nienstedten Marktplatz, where a fair is going on and ends today.

Then supper cooked in our apartment—bread, cheese, mushroom soup, steamed zucchini, and a salad of feldsalat and tomatoes.

I feel very down after eating, as if this trip is all flat, aimless, going nowhere. There’s just no spark, as there’s none in my life in general now. I recall feeling in Russia that there’s no place where one will ever find things very different. A queer’s a queer’s a queer the world around.

And God?

Yes, the north German architecture’s very pleasing—neat red brick and white door frames and thatched roofs. But all’s so . . . orderly and same-like, with everywhere oppressive green overgrowth. No sound, no sparkle, no difference to disturb the order.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Hamburg 14.6.1998: English Gardens, Cultural Diversity

In Hamburg now after a long tiring drive yesterday from the Oberpfalz. I found myself feeling sick—headachy with stomach upset, perhaps due to a heavy meal of Käsespätzle the evening before. The afternoon before that we gave to rest in the cool rainy weather, after a drive to Waldmünchen to see Herr Ederer, and then to Teunz to get postcards for Steve’s correspondent in Wisconsin, and to Tiefenbach to buy a rug from the Hutterer weaving shop.

In some ways, glad to leave the Bavarian countryside, which I had begun to find oppressive. Perhaps it was that everyone seemed to know our business. But it was even more the sense of being watched, and not always amicably.

The countryside itself is so pretty, though—mystical-seeming in the damp weather. The greens, the tranquility, the small, carefully groomed fields beneath scudding clouds, with villages everywhere the eye looks, are pleasant to see, if not to live in (one senses).

I slept much of the way north so can’t comment much on what we saw. The Bavarian border area, especially the city of Hof, seemed grimy and industrial. The former East German lands had a similar character, with substandard roads and huge fields—a carryover from the Communist period?

Hamburg begins to feel very homelike. After a very happy dinner at Erhard C.’s house last night, (with Wolfram and Karin, Erhard’s daughter and husband, a South African woman, Sandra), we slept long, and awoke to attend a Gottesdienst at the Akademie, followed by Mittagessen prepared by the Akademie students.

Writing now at a café overlooking the Elbe off the Elbchausee’s Wandernweg. Pretty weather, sunny with very brisk winds. Roses and lavender are in full bloom in the gardens of Blankenese, often planted together, with foxgloves, daisies, and poppies gone to see in the terraced gardens behind. The English style everywhere in evidence.

Erhard tells me the Jenischpark near Niendstedt, which he regards as the most beautiful part in Hamburg, once had a French formal garden—apparently when it was a landed gentleman’s estate in the 18th century. In the 19th century, a Scottish gardener was brought in to replant it in English style.

Erhard also tells me that when the Jews were expelled from Spain after 1492, many came here, and laid a foundation for Hamburg’s economic vitality and cultural diversity. As he put it, Grosse Freiheit in Altona is no accident: here, Protestant, Catholic, and Jew worshiped side by side in an atmosphere of freedom of conscience.

He also told me of a paper he’s written about a baron who had an estate northeast of Hamburg, who, in the 18th century, brought black slaves from St. Thomas to be educated in various trades for which it was difficult to find white laborers willing to go to the Caribbean. These slaves were Moravians, who worshiped in Altona, and were baptized on the baron’s estate.

Yesterday, driving into Hamburg, signs everywhere reading, “Wir sind auch Familie,” and demanding adoption rights for gays and lesbians. Wolfram tells us these were connected to a mass rally for gays and lesbians held yesterday.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Oberpfalz, Kreis Waldmünchen 11.6.1998: Gold and Incense, Whispers of Mist

Just back from the Fronleichnam procession in Hiltersried. Because of rain, the outdoor procession was canceled, causing everything to be held in the church.

Quite an experience. The tiny church (but larger than a chapel) was full to the brim with short, stocky Bavarians, for whom the absolutely torturous pews may have been a wee bit more comfortable than for Steve and me: they had extremely short seats, with no leg space, and a shelf atop each pew that thrusts itself into one’s back just below the shoulder blades.

The Mass was a high, high Mass with incense and gold vestments and children carrying flowers. Men sat on one side of the church; Steve and I made the mistake of sitting in the women’s side, where there were only a few boys in addition to all the women. A woman here and there braved convention and sat on the men’s side, including one stolid Oma with headscarf.

Before the Mass, a woman who may have been a sister, or a lay catechist, brought two little girls in chasubles and albs around the church, smiling, I thought, a little defiantly at the parishioners as she did so. The gender gap was pronounced, and made more apparent by the fact that many of the men were in some kind of uniform, and sported macho earrings in their left ears. Only one man received communion, whereas quite a few women (though by no means all) did so: another accentuation of the divide.

The songs were sung at full volume by priest and women, and many were familiar tunes whose titles in English I couldn’t think of. During the procession from altar to altar, with gospel readings, prayers, songs, and blessings at each altar, a little boy fainted and had to be taken, ghost-white, out of the church.

Though the liturgy was fascinating in a way, I also found it rather repulsive, and felt as I watched from another planet. This Corpus Christi feast is in and of itself so Counter-Reformation, so tied to kingly splendor and overt, in-your-face public piety, that it seems to belong to another world.

And when one adds the nationalist dimension with which Bavarian culture overlays the feast, it’s hard not to feel one is watching a spectacle that celebrates culture and culture Catholicism as much as it celebrates authentic religiosity. At the altar (alongside it on either side) were uniformed men holding flags of various kinds, which they dipped and waved at various points in the liturgy. The omnipresence of these uniforms, and the male domination of the band that played music for the Mass and procession, were positively oppressive.

One wonders how much Bavarian young people today participate in such piety, and when they do, whether they do so more out of familial obligation and cultural affiliation than out of real conviction. The feast does seem to be very family-oriented. After Mass was over, Steve and I drove to Tiefenbach, and found the village shut down tighter than a drum, as families gathered for a celebratory Mittagessen to be followed by naps and chatting, capped by Kaffe trinken and spatzierengehen.

The countryside seems more beautiful every day here. For the past two days, it’s been cool, overcast, with occasional rain. The fields glow green and gold beneath the clouds, giving a bit of light to the landscape. The dark tree-clad hills in the distance are shrouded in fingers and whispers of mist. One sense, in such weather and such a landscape, the deep Ur-roots of Germanic culture in the damp, dark forests of middle Europe. Little wonder the propensity of the people to huddle together in villages, with forest and mountain in sight, and not to seek the hillsides and hilltops, as the Celts so often did (or were forced to do).

A jumble of impressions, too many to record after several days of silence. Yesterday in Regensburg, for Steve to do research in the archives. I can’t say I enjoyed the city. I awoke tired, headachy, and out of sorts after a late night at Steve’s Schindler cousins’ (both Hermann in Hiltersried and Karl in Katzelsried), and the day was oppressively warm and muggy, in advance of the cold front.

The cathedral, with its famed west doors and beautiful windows, is undergoing work, with the doors being precisely what are covered by scaffolding, and unseeable. And with the gloom all the scaffolds created and the cloudy weather reinforced, the interior was so dim one could hardly see, and the windows dull. Still, it was possible to see why they are famous: where a bit of light shone on them, the colors were clear and pure, and the artistry of the designs very apparent.

The only other place we visited was Emmeram’s church, which we quite liked, with its radiant Baroque interior, after the cathedral. Here, I could glimpse why Baroque has so captured the Bavarian imagination: even on dark days, of which there must be many in southern Germany, all was light, light upon light, pink overlaid on white and gold streaming and swirling through both. If one can get around the fusion of church and empire that Baroque celebrates even more explicitly and emphatically than does Gothic, one can see why those who first saw these churches felt that heaven had opened for them.

For Steve, much of interest. Herr Ederer of Waldmünchen, a cousin of our Gasthaus host Herr Braun, has been superbly kind and helpful. He’s really a celebrated local genealogist, and has gone out of his way to give Steve copies of his records and extend the Schindler line back to a 17th-century miller of Schlademühle.

And his wife is also such a charming woman. Today, they had us over for coffee and homemade kuchen, tortes, and Quarkbällchen. They’ve been to Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota, and are obviously intensely proud of what their American cousins have accomplished.

Another impression: it’s a cliché, but I’ve never seen such immaculate, shining houses, in which everything smells so clean and fresh. And the yards and small gardens of flowers and vegetables are equally well-cultivated, as are the neatly laid-out fields. The German obsession with planning and order, with having everything just so, can be maddening, but it also makes life flow along very pleasantly, and creates vistas pleasant to behold.

The guesthouse owners have also been really kind. Because we were late yesterday, we ate en route from Regensburg in Roding (a Bavarian hunter’s platter for Steve, asparagus and ham in hollandaise sauce for me). This morning, Herr Braun insisted that we make up for the lost meal by having a midday meal of roast pork and knödels—with coffee and kuchen afterwards, both at the Ederers’ and the Hermann Schindlers’, we’ve eaten a bit too well today.

But there is the other side—dark stares from men at the Hiltersried church today, and giggles and gossip by a young couple who ate behind us the other evening, here at the guesthouse. I was sure I heard the man say, “Fremden Schwule,” and Steve said that, when I passed my plate to him to finish, he heard the oaf whisper about this to his girlfriend. She turned around several times and stared rudely, and he stared superciliously and with crude amusement all through dinner.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Oberpfalz, Kreis Waldmünchen 9.6.1998: Newfound Cousins and Rowanberry Schnapps

In the Bavarian Oberpfalz now, staying in a little village, Stein, near where Steve’s Schindler ancestors appear to have lived, Katzelsried. We drove here yesterday morning, passing around Regensburg.

The countryside here is very pleasant—rolling hills, fields of wheat, rye, barley, little villages with churches, houses surrounded by apple, cherry, and pear trees, and gardens with pansies, peonies, pink and white lupines, and even, here at our Gasthaus, a sumac tree. Outside the window of our room is a beautiful espaliered pear tree.

When we drove through Hiltersried yesterday, the village just south of Katzelsried, we saw a house painted with a fresco, and beneath it, Schindler. Steve stopped, and the woman invited us back. She recommended Gasthaus Braun in Stein, so we came here, checked in, and then drove around the countryside to see Katzelsried, Irlach, and Tiefenbach, all places associated with the Bavarian migration to Dyersville, Iowa.

The church in Tiefenbach was pretty, 18th-century Baroque, full of light and with newly gilded statues and paintings. There’s a proprietorial familiarity about these Bavarian churches, as if people have made them—and their saints and icons—their own. The Tiefenbach church had bouquets of flowers tied to the end of each pew, adding to the gaiety.

In the afternoon, we returned to the guesthouse, where Herr Braun had invited his cousin, a Herr Georg Ederer, to talk to Steve. He’s apparently a noted local historian and genealogist. He was a very nice man, and was delighted to find on the list of Bavarians who took the ship Charlemagne to America in November 1845 one of his own relatives about whom he had only partial information. Today he’ll meet with us in Waldmünchen to show Steve microfilm copies of the church books.

In the evening, we went to Hiltersried to meet Herr Schindler. He showed Steve the family records his mother had compiled, going back to an Urvater Adam Schindler born in 1807. Steve believes this is the brother of his Georg Schindler, born 1809.

We sat and talked with Herr Schindler and his brother into the night, drinking a glass of homemade schnapps from Austria, made with something called Vogelbeeren. Afterwards, he showed us his workshop, where he gilds statues, including a crucifix to be used on Thursday in Tiefenbach’s Corpus Christi procession.

Munich 8.6.1998: Marble Fauns and Marching Salvia

Stories Harry told us: he and Maria were at a concert, and saw a man Harry thought was beautiful. Harry and Maria talk a secret baby language, adding syllables to words. Harry told Maria he fancied the man, in their secret tongue. A man ahead of them turned around and said in the same language, “Watch out: I can understand you.”

Another: (a joke) Paul VI, who is supposed by many Europeans to have been gay, went to a jewelry shop after being named pope. Holding out his finger with the purple ring, he asked, “Do you have earrings to match it?” (I think this kind of humor must appeal to a German sensibility more than an Anglo one.)

Another joke: a man has an accident and the hospital puts him into a full-body cast, except for his penis. Three male nurses are assigned to care for him. The oldest goes in to adjust tubes, etc., and comes out to tell the others, “That guy has a tattoo on his penis. It says, ‘Am’.” The second oldest says, “This I have to see,” and goes in. He comes back and says, “You’re wrong. The tattoo says, ‘Adam’.” The third nurse, a very handsome young man, goes in. In a minute he comes out and says, “You’re both wrong. The tattoo says, ‘Amsterdam’.”

Writing this now in the car en route to Regensburg, having just left Munich. The weather has turned blessedly cooler, and as we head north, seems to be about to clear.

Yesterday morning a quick tour of Lenbach House, whose Kandinsky collection bowled us over. Didn’t know about it. We went there primarily to see more Spitzweg, but what they had was rather disappointing. I do like the subtle irony with which he sends up late 19th-century bourgeois pomposity.

The Kandinsky collection consisted of large paintings on canvas (including a series of improvisations where he seemed to be experimenting with use of free form to evoke certain subjects), small paintings on glass, even statuary (including a beautiful little carved Madonna and child, brightly painted, like the Alpine ones we’ve seen).

I liked, too, the framing of some of the smaller Kandinskys, with gilded frames painted naively in flower and symbol designs echoing the colors of the painting itself.

A Klee collection, but not particularly impressive, as my taste for Klee has changed.

One painting—August Macke’s “Türkischen Café II”—particularly struck me. What I realized as I looked at it is how artists teach us to see the world. After such a painting, no one who has seen it and visits Turkey will see Turkey in quite the same way, just as one sees the French countryside differently after Monet, van Gogh, Cézanne, etc.

People think, naively, that the world’s just there, to be recorded by an artist or writer. But seeing itself is an act of interpretation . . . .

Which makes me wonder: if I wrote about my sense that fascism will recur at a global level, and will brutally target gays again, would I—by the very fact that I bespeak this rise of hate—in part make it possible? Is it better not to speak certain possibilities, lest they be spoken into existence by our words?

After Lenbach House, an hour or so sitting outside it, while Steve and I journaled and wrote post cards.

We then went to the Glyptothek to see the magnificent Berberini faun. Though I know little about Greco-Roman sculpture, I was surprised at how profoundly it—and other sculptures—moved me. This . . . light . . . from times we would be tempted to call primitive, were we speaking of the Celts and German tribes of the same period, shining so bright in classical Greece and Rome and down through the ages of Western history.

I know all the reasons we should now question the exclusive claims of this cultural heritage to dominance: its patriarchy and subordination of women; its blithe acceptance of slavery; its martial character; above all, our growing awareness that every culture has something of value to contribute to world civilization. But still: this light, the sheer humanity of this way of seeing the world, reflected in the care with which the artists depicted the human form. Death-intoxicated and body-denying Christianity would be much the poorer, without this basis.

From the Glyptothek to Nymphenburg, where Steve and I walked in the park behind the palace as a storm blew up. Pleasant: formal allées with red salvia in strict straight rows along them, fountains, a canal, and those immaculate, groomed woods Germans like to seek wildness in.

As the storm came, people scurried to cars and shelters while a loud young American on a bike shouted (to whom?), “Come on, you guys. Hurry up!”

Steve and I waited out the storm (which really never came) in the car, and then met B., Maria, and C. for coffee at the Palm House café behind the castle. Kaffee trinken: the way Germans talk of having coffee makes it formal, a ritual, something importand—echoes of its 18th-century arrival in Europe.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Augsburg 7.6.1998: Ulrich's Ruby Ring and Flädlesuppe

Nudity in Germany: rather casual now, though people say this is a recent development. Day before yesterday, a little boy—4 or 5—running gloriously naked down a road by the Starnberger See, his penis flopping in the air. And yesterday in Augsburg, Maria said she saw a man standing in the sun on his balcony, fully nude.

Augsburg: first it should be noted that the weather remains unseasonably hot--35̊ yesterday! So touring—in long pants and long-sleeved shirts—was a chore.

Our tour guide, Harry O., Maria’s friend from the Allgau conference center at which they both worked, was a masterful tour guide, and obviously loves the city.

We began at the Rathaus, a symbol of the city’s pride and of its Roman origins, according to Harry. Some glorious Renaissance rooms, all restored after the war.

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Mary Tannen, Loving Edith (NY: Berkley, 1995): “That is how they imagine Real Life, as going on in the same space, but hidden, unseen, because they haven’t found the key, or the code, or the special glasses that allow them to see.”

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Impressions of Augsburg: that almost defiant German need to claim Romanitas, accentuated here by the city’s actual Roman roots, and the fact that the Claudian Way ran through the city. A messier, somewhat noisier version of Munich, but that may have to do with the fact that it was Saturday, and Pentecost holidays to boot.

I like the little canals all through the city, many of them now being uncovered, Harry told us: “more bridges than Venice”—over and over, he stressed the Italianness of Augsburg. Tour guide hype or German cultural insecurity?

The Dom: I loved the recently discovered crypt, which Harry called the most mystical place in Augsburg. (Does every city have an Ur place, a place from which its spiritual character emanates, in our minds?) In the crypt, we found another of those full-frontal seated Madonnas (“very Alpine”: Harry), before which Harry lit 3 candles, and Steve and I others. To reinforce the magic, we rubbed the ears of the brass lion on the cathedral doors as we went in, and the nose as we exited.

The stained glass windows of the south wall of the nave—the oldest figural stained glass windows in the world—were also interesting. They’ve been covered with glass outside because pollution was harming them. The famous bronze panels have been brought inside; I found their unorganized mix of classical mythology with scenes from Old and New Testaments whimsical.

The rest of the tour a whirlwind in the very hot weather: the Fuggerei, the Ulrich and Affra Kirche, the home of the Fuggers; the Lutheran church and Catholic chapel where the Fuggers are reburied . . . . In the Fuggerei, the little cottages (for virtuous poor widows who promise to pray thrice daily for the Fuggers in St. Mark’s church, itself an interesting late-Renaissance chapel) were pleasant. Each has a bronze doorpull of a different shape (“so they can find their way to their own door at night, when drunk”: Harry). And various lace curtains, door plaques, and window ornaments individualized them. A chic poverty . . . .

We paid homage to both Ulrich and Affra, now behind iron grates because people have stolen Ulrich’s ruby ring. Harry tells us every 10 years is an Ulrich year, in which his gold coffin is carried in procession to the Dom. A coveted honor to carry it . . . .

The Fugger house was a bit forbidding and severe, unornamented Renaissance stucco painted an ugly mustard yellow. A dames’ courtyard with a fountain/bath is where, supposedly, young women of high social status would gather to chat, while prospective suitors stood on the balcony above and picked their choice.

The Lutheran church is, supposedly, the sole Lutheran church with a Catholic chapel in all the world. The chapel is the burial place of the Fuggers, who would be horrified to be buried in a church in which Luther resided when he met Cajetan, and which is now Lutheran. Wonderful small marble putti on the wall separating the chapel from the rest of the church.

After Augsburg (and I should recall the wonderful Markt, full of bright flowers [multi-colored lupines] and vegetables [zucchini with the blossom left on], we came to Harry’s house in Newsäβ. He lives on land that was his grandfather’s in a double house (brother on the other side) next door to his mother. His brother, an architect, designed the house, which is a pleasant one-room cottage downstairs with bedroom and bath upstairs in a kind of loft.

Harry cooked for us a traditional Schwabisch meal: soup (always soup to begin a Swabian meal, he says), of calf stock and sliced pancakes (Flädle in Swabian, so Flädlesuppe), followed by salad and cheese spätzle (cheese and onions layered atop spätzle). Harry made the spätzle (“as a good Swabian housewife must”), using a round metal sheet with holes in the top and a flat pushing device to push them into the boiling water.

During the day, Harry talked about being gay in Germany today: better, but still far from paradise. He noted that, when one recalls that the Nazis killed gays just 50 years ago, things have changed rapidly. Attributes this in part to t.v. and cinema, which are making gay life known and recognizable.

Harry thinks, though, that neo-Nazis and fascist movements are burgeoning, and told us that a friend of his who was walking with a lover in Englischer Garten was assaulted a year ago, and beaten so badly he lost an eye.*

*The last I heard, Harry had become “ex-gay” and had married (a woman), in an arrangement in which, I believe, he lives on one side of the Atlantic and she another. Our German friends who were the point of contact with him celebrated the conversion out of homosexuality and his marriage. Though they accept gays and defend their right to live free of restraint and persecution, their own worldviews are still heavily heteronormative.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Munich 6.6.1998: Waiting Madonnas and "Small" Plates

A long and fairly pleasant day yesterday. In the morning, we helped B. remove sand from the apartment building’s sandbox, so that new sand for C. can be trucked in.

Maria then found that C. had a high fever, which altered our plans to go together to the Starnberger See to celebrate his birthday. She took C. to the doctor, and B. took us to the See.

A fine hot day--30̊. We drove out of Gräfelfing on a back road, passing houses and restaurants interspersed with guesthouses and beer gardens, quickly coming to fields. It was rather surprising how quickly we arrived in the countryside, in fact. Germans like that sense of having nature right there, at one’s fingertips—albeit a strictly controlled nature.

The guesthouses and beer gardens suggest to me that this is quite a vacation area. Their architecture’s pleasing—the high, steeply pitched tiled (usually red) roofs one sees all over this region, the dark balconies with bright flowers, the stucco walls—all looked bright and shiny in the sunlight, even a bit southern European.

The road to Starnberger See: the German genius for alternating village with farm with field and forest. It was all lovely, fairy-taleish: rolling hills, the Alps in the distance. The very countryside seems planned and ordered in Germany, as life itself is, with those little touches of (planned, ordered) wildness that remind us we’re in nature.

After a car tour, we stopped at a beer garden by the lake. “Would you like to make a little walk?” B said, and so we did, down a lane with guesthouses, one having a huge train set and play-castles in its yard. As we passed, a woman in the yard called sharply to Lisa, her exuberant German shepherd, who was bouncing down the laneway.

On past more beer gardens and we were at the lake, which is clear and blue, and had people fishing and sailing on it. B. suggested that we “take a little bite now,” as a prelude to a serious meal at a beer garden down the road. The waiter, typically Bavarian-gruff, informed us that we could eat only from the cold menu, so I chose a “kleines Portion” of smoked ham, Steve of sliced Schweinbrot, B. of smoked fish. Portions were, of course, enormous, the meats sliced and fanned out on a wooden trencher, with a slice of buttered bread, a radish, several slices of slightly sweet pickle, a leaf of bitter curly lettuce, and an orange slice.

The menu advertised all this as Brot. I like the German recognition of the centrality, the fundamentality, of bread to life, as if the meat and relishes were a condiment to accompany the bread. Very pleasant, with our Radlers under the Kastanien trees that invariably shade beer gardens in Bavaria, to keep the beer cool.

Germans in general like to mix serious eating with rather serious walking on holidays, but the Bavarian twist to this is to plan one’s walks and car tours to arrive at “just another quaint little beer garden I know down the road.” From beer garden to beer garden, life rolls on merrily through the countryside.

After the beer garden, a drive through more villages and farms to Bad Tölz. Baedeker says that there are more places combining living quarters and farms here than anywhere else in Germany (the usual pattern being to live in a village and go out to farm one’s land). And so it seemed: the farmhouses are often on hilltops, big square stuccoed houses with barns attached, the house always facing east, as Steve noted.

Bad Tölz is a pretty little city nestled beside the Isar beneath the Alps. The wide, cobbled main street, the Marktstrasse, winds up the hill between gabled houses of pleasant pastel colors, with frescoes of saints and other ornamentation.

We walked up to one of the town churches, an 18th-century late Rococo one, with an attractive light interior, frescoes and lots of gilt. An iron gate decorated with sunbursts protects the church proper, and seems to be a good idea, when one notes that the poor bos has holes in it where someone tried to pry it open.

Then back down the hill for ices at an Italian ice place on the main street, and through several gässe with attractive little shops, one combining plants for sale (the inevitable pink hortensias, oleander, which the Bavarians love, and a surprising pot of fragrant confederate jasmine) with blue glassware, white dishes, bright yellow candles.

From there, we climbed to a hill to the Kalvarienberg, topped by a 1726 pilgrimage church and a 1718 St. Leonard’s chapel. Both were in poor repair, the church positively scary. It struck Steve and me as Spanish, with its double cupolas jutting up from the hillside, though the guide to the church outside its front door doesn’t say there’s Spanish influence.

Inside, it’s a maze of chapels, running one beneath the other. All seemed neglected, forlorn, with frescoes and inscriptions peeling from the white fresco walls, candle wax dripped everywhere, and big black smudges of soot where candles had burned.

There was a—how to describe it?—waiting quality in the church, as if it were suspended outside time and holding its breath. One altar had a saint’s effigy entombed in glass beneath it. A lower chapel had the deathbed picture of an early pastor of the church. Nearby, in a dark recessed grotto, was a frightening Madonna, severely frontal, her glittering eyes the only point of light in the gloom of her cave. She was either squat and standing, or sitting: one couldn’t tell, because she was dressed in several layers of nondescript brown and gray clothes, with a gold rosary around her neck, and other, less precious, ones in her hands, along with a scapular.

This shrine had the only signs of life in the church—votive candles outside the grill, though where they came from I couldn’t see, since there was no display of them in sight. It felt holy, primitive, frightening, as if it drew people almost against their will to the dark grotto, the glittering eyes: what kind of prayer does one pray before such a primitive presence, numinous and chthonic?

The Leonard’s chapel was less interesting, except for its 1955 sign that seemed (God, my inadequate German!) to ask one to pray for our beloved Bavarian homeland, and farmers killed in a 1710 (1705?) war to protect Bavaria. Who was Leonard—a Crusader? His iconography, and cult, seem vaguely martial. The guidebook associates him with cavalry processions and blessing of horses.

Outside the chapel, beautiful wildflowers in the grass (including yarrow and wild caraway), with a walking path (a beer garden conveniently down the road, according to the signpost) and a field of sheep, some of the grazing just against the church. Attached to the church seemed to be living quarters—lace-curtained windows, one with a globe in it, and wash hanging on the line out back, a woman’s bright red dress included.

After this, home by way of back roads and a harrowing autobahn drive, where we found Maria making strawberry Quark, and C. better.