Saturday, November 29, 2008

Bad Boll 8.1.1998

I gave my paper yesterday. People have had nice things to say about it. Last night, a group asked if I have through of writing a novel.

Before this, during Marjorie Suchocki’s plenary paper, I wrote a note to myself: “If I cannot tell my own story, then what story can I tell? And how can I tell my story if no way opens?”

In the past, I would have construed all this in terms of vocation/calling. Now that language seems empty to me, or, more precisely, the universe (imaginative? metaphysical?) to which it has reference no longer seems to exist for me.

Perhaps I’ve courted my story and danger for too long, not consciously, but just by the way I’ve lived. In such a life, clarity is not often available. And yet clarity’s what I most need now—neat mathematical clarity of the sort that places all the pieces in the puzzle, just so.

But have I foreclosed myself to such clarity precisely by that courting of mystery and danger? And how laughable to talk about my dull middle-aged life as one of mystery and danger. It certainly wouldn’t appear that way to many people. But to me, it does, from the inside. Mystery in the danger in the sense that I’ve never quite settled for . . . answers. And how desperately one needs . . . answers as one grows old.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Bad Boll 30.7.1998: Healing Springs and Living Wine

Evening of a rainy day spent in the Swabian Alb. I’m sitting at the open window looking out at the ridge line behind the academy at Bad Boll A moment ago still, unwilling mist was rising from a point in the trees, very appealing to the eye, suggesting the Ur-roots of German culture (I’m overusing that Ur word in this journal, aren’t I?). Now it’s almost, but not quite, obliterated by heavy rain. I imagine some presence there, rising from the mist.

On the windowsill a glass of Württemberger Riesling. I like to see how it catched the light that’s still strong despite the rain. Wine does look alive under such circumstances, as the oenophiles maintain. This wine—Stetterner Wartbühl—is not bad, perhaps just the way to celebrate such an ordinary, extraordinary, evening.

I’m enjoying the time alone after too much intense time with too many people. The rain, the guttering sound of it on all sides, the evening light, the now clearing skies, the wine: all make me content to be here, just here, at this window now.

Opening the bible, I turn to Luke 8, where Jesus casts out demons and heals the woman with the flow of blood. Lately, I keep coming to passages about healing. Why? I don’t feel much healed. To the contrary, I feel roiled with deep emotions, among with self-loathing and envy predominate, at academic conferences. It’s so easy for the macho-hetero sexist big boys, and they’re so oblivious to the torments they inflict, as they babble on about overcoming sexism and fostering inclusivity.

Is everything in this spot contrived to bring healing, this ancient Kurort? Do some places have a kind of “natural” healing virtue? A psychotherapist at the conference tells me there are ancient holy wells and springs under all the great cathedrals . . . .

+ + + + +

Moving to full night now. I’ve been lying in bed reading David Leavitt’s While England Sleeps and watching the falling, rain-ridden and haunted light ring fascinating changes on the stucco walls of the two buildings to be glimpsed through the window.

One has cream-colored walls, the other yellow, though the point of it all is that, in this brief space of time, they’ve become so many different colors it’s hard to tell what either “really” is. A luminous yellow and gold, under the brown and red tile roofs they have; then a pink and a faded dusky tawny color. And now a rather ominous bleached white next to a nondescript brown, the windows of the buildings sullen sore eyes without sight, gazing vacantly into the distance.

With such light, such buildings, no wonder Central Europeans can so easily conjure up vampires.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Bad Boll 29.7.1998: Dark Mountains, Neat Villages

At Bad Boll now for the second day. We spent both days in Bubsheim, Steve’s Kuld Ur-village (at least, the village to which he’s traced his earliest roots—to the early 1600s—in the Schwäbische Alb just east of Rotweil.

An interesting area, different again from many we’ve been in. Very Swabian, I suppose, without knowing much about it. Bädecker says Swabians tend to farm part-time on small land holdings, while having other jobs. That seems to be borne out by all we’ve seen—no large farms, just orchards on the hillsides, and higher up (as at Bubsheim), what seem to be unfenced pastures. And in every village, small factories making clothes, metal parts of machines, etc.

So the people seem to bear out the notion that Swabians are hard-working, thrifty, etc. The villages exceedingly neat, physically pretty, but a bit drab in the human sense, with no shopping area. Bubsheim has no shops at all, in fact, and no restaurant, though it’s a large (and obviously more prosperous) village than many we’ve been in.

The lack of a shopping area—or any focus (the church is on the perimeter of the village)—gives the place a forlorn feel. One scarcely sees people anywhere, and at noon all’s eerily quiet, with shutters over windows.

The countryside, by contrast, is beautiful—dark mountains in the distance, those large pastures, a cool breeze sweeping over all. But in winter, mustn’t it often be bleak—or have been, before travel could occur?

Friday, November 21, 2008

Braunschweig 26.7.1998: Fledermäuse and Moses

Feeling very out of sorts today, after two nights of too little sleep, with nightmares and anxieties.

What to say? A flea market in Braunschweig yesterday with Mareile, where Steve and I bought a small painted pottery pitcher for Mareile, of the sort she collects, and one for ourselves, along with a bowl from the Tyrol. Two days before, in Braunschweig, we had bought at an antique shop an art nouveau/Jugendstil trivet with a swan on a blue and yellow background, and silver edging. Also bought a set of those lace and embroidery edgings for cupboard shelves one finds in Germany, with little sayings worked into them.

After the flea market, wurst with brötchen—clearly Mareile’s attempt to please us, since I can’t imagine her eating such food, at picnic tables surrounded by gabbling shoppers. Then back home, where we cleaned house, had a siesta, and worked in the garden.

After a dinner of leftover pizza and pasta, back into Braunschweig, where we walked a bit in a pretty park with a rather frightening black obelisk, a military monument, in its center. Very Prussian, severe, formal, earnest to a fault . . . . More walking in the city, and then we ended up in the Magniviertel where Mareile and I had glasses of a good crisp Mosel wine, and Steve a local beer. Back home for a bit more wine (red) as we sat together while full night fell, on the patio with a candle burning. A good end to a good day, as we watched bats flit overhead—Fledermaus or pippistrella, as the Italians call them, according to Mareile.

Today, Mass at the Dominican parish, an ugly concrete barn of a place from the 1950s, with bleak angular crosses and stations of the cross, and a little Marian chapel with the most hideous Madonna I’ve ever seen, all gold and bug-eyed, looking like an alien creature from a Hollywood science fiction film.

We spoke with the priest afterward. He told us he believes some blessing for gay couples will one day be sanctioned by the church. As he said, the irony now is that the church blesses everything—autos, soft drink machines, crops—but not two men or two women together.

Then a walk around the Teich of a former Cistercian abbey, Riddagshausen, outside Braunschweig. It left me cold, as the ruins of Cistercian places in Ireland don’t do. Why the difference? In part, I think, because the place is not a ruin, but a Protestant church that continues to be used, with Protestant iconography that clashes with the vestiges of monastic life—heavy gravestones of various local gentry and abbots, as the pastor continued (continues) to be called after the dissolution of the monastery. The pulpit has an ornately carved Moses, with the ten commandments, holding up the pulpit itself—almost funny in its earnestness and its intent to reduce everything to this one literal root.

Then back home, where T. and B. have arrived. Mareile told me yesterday B. descends from both Franz Josef and wife Cissy. She seems nice, unassuming and rather plain, with front teeth at odds with each other and a dent running the length of her nose.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Braunschweig 25.7.1998: Amber Skylights and Clacking Hedgehogs

To Braunschweig yesterday to see the Dom—again, since Mareile took us on a tour of it the first time, we were here. I wanted to see the famous Imervard crucifix again.

As cathedrals go, it’s . . . engaging? I don’t have a cathedral language, because, despite all my attempts to appreciate them, cathedrals still simply leave me cold. I can’t connect to this expression of medieval faith—to medieval faith insofar as it’s embodied in cathedrals. Nothing I experience as faith seems reflected in those high cold spaces glittering with jeweled glass, echoing with sound, commemorating noble men and women, but, nowhere, those built these palaces.

Even as art, I just don’t quite get them. It’s always as if I’m reading a language I’m supposed to know, but don’t quite.

What appealed to me in Braunschweig: the austere chalkstone, with its soft marl and muted lights; the clear windows in the walls—an innovation, but one to my taste, modifying the gloom of most cathedral interiors; and of course the crucifix.

Not quite sure why I like the latter. Perhaps because I’ve been told to marvel at it, I try to do so, without ever being sure what makes it marvelous. I like the austere, no-nonsense, Saxon way its massive height and breadth are displayed against a plain white wall. I like the face, which seems simultaneously rapt away to heaven and fully aware of all those who gaze on it, all those it lifts up to God in its act of obedience. And the flowing, highly stylized robes seem to me both to prefigure humanism, and—somehow—to reinforce the hieratic mystery of the crucifixion, as those flowing lines in Celtic iconography are said to bespeak the numinous power of the saint around whom they flow.

Mareile took us to sit in front of the crucifix for about 10 minutes, saying not a word—just the right way to do it. She has such class: that overworked and slightly ridiculous phrase out of a 1940s film is the only way I know how to describe it. I wasn’t at all surprised to find yesterday that she’d gone to a finishing school in England run by the Madames de Sacre Coeur. That erect carriage, the intelligent, ladylike piety, the cultivated air, say it all. Was it they who taught her to forgo escalators, to climb stairs without touching the banister, to shudder at the very idea of eating ice cream on the streets (which Steve and I boorishly did after the cathedral tour)?

Not at all a surprise, then, to hear that not only is her son T. married to an aristocrat; so is P. It’s actually the latter who married a von Buhlow. T.’s wife B. is a descendant of the Austrian royal family, of Elizabeth wife of Franz Joseph.

After hearing of these connections, I asked Maria last night how it happened that two of her brothers married aristocrats: do Mareille or Walter have noble blood? No, Maria said, we’ve just a very special family. It’s that special, aristocratic, quality in Mareile I’ve tried to describe—a natural aristocracy.

After the crucifix, a tour of the eerie crypt of the Dom, full of the coffins of dukes and duchesses of Braunschweig. Mareile took us into a passageway leading to the tombs of Henry the Lion and Matilda, built by Hitler when he sought to legitimize National Socialism by appealing to luridly romanticized notions of the German past.

The place was eerie to the extreme: all heavy black squares of rock glinting with feldspar, with black grouting. Vents here and here had crosses atop crosses, the bottom ones turned upside down. Over the tombs themselves, a skylight of amber seemed to flicker like fire, like an implacable fiery eye. I didn’t like the place, and wanted out immediately. My flesh crawled.

Mareile had told us on our last visit to the cathedral that Hitler had used it for mystic rituals designed to access the power of Henry. He was evidently disappointed when he opened the tomb and found Henry to be a small man, and not the giant Teuton of the master race in its Ur-days. A brochure in the crypt said that Hitler used the Henry myth to justify his Lebensraum policy in the Slavic lands, claiming that Henry had Christianized these, and hence it was fitting that a Reich founded on him should take these lands over.

After Braunschweig, home for a pizza and pasta supper on the terrace with Maria, while Mareile attended a party—Steve’s birthday supper. A nice evening, ending with the coming of a hedgehog to the rhododendrons around the terrace. We heard it rustling and clacking against the leaves, and saw them moving. Finally we got up and peered in, and there it sat, very docile, watching us. Maria put out a bowl of milk for it, and I went to bed, to dream horrible nightmares.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Braunschweig 24.7.1998: Precious Purple, and Blue Angels

Yesterday a trip with Mareile to Wolfenbüttel, where she works in the Herzog August Bibliothek. We toured it in the late afternoon, as rain poured down outside. (People are beginning to complain bitterly of the rain, saying it has ruined gardens and crops.)

Library interesting, and Mareile a marvelous tour guide. I was particularly interested in a bible from Reichenau, a monastery in the Bodensee area that had a particular style of religious art, in which scenes were reduced to a symbolic essence. In the one we saw—the angel meeting the two Marys—Jesus’s resurrection was signified by his grave clothes rolled into a ball and left in the empty tomb.

On the facing page was an oval of gorgeous purple, leaning more to red than to blue, appearing like faded silk with ripples. Mareile explained that purple was, into the Middle Ages, a more expensive color than silver or gold, because it came only from a certain “snail” (squid?) of the Mediterranean, whose ink, on contact with air, turns this color.

She went on to say that because of the preciousness of purple, the Roman Emperors permitted no one else to wear it except themselves, the senators being allowed only a border of it on their robes. Mareile thinks this is why the Roman Catholic church uses a variant of the purple for cardinals’ robes.

All of which made me think of the color purple and its significance for gay life and culture. I had just told Mareile of Judy Grahn’s theory about the liminal significance of purple. She seemed interested.

More gorgeous and curious things in the library, including a 16th-century Portuguese navigational map for the journey around Africa and on to India, then we went on into Wolfenbüttel, where we stepped inside the hof of the schloss of the Duke of Braunschweig, and then visited the town. It has pleasing fachwerk houses in abundance, and seemed to have that air, not quite cheerful, but solid and serene, that one finds in these regions. The Saxon air?

After Wolfenbüttel, back here for abendbrot at friends’ of Mareile’s—Wolfgang and Anka. He’s a Braunschweig gardener, she Marile’s closest friend, her heart-and-soul friend, as Mareile describes her. Wolfgang showed us the garden, which is arranged to open into wheat fields by way of two pools, water gardens full of cattails and water flowers. There was also an interesting sculpture, two blue metal pieces about 10 feet long, mounted so that they moved like wings. Wolfgang refers to it as an angel.

We ate in a garden house with open sides, under an arbor of white wisteria that became very fragrant as night went on, in the cool damp air. Anka and Wolfgang’s daughter Katrina, who lives next door, joined us. She, too, is a gardener, and is taking over her father’s practice as he retires. She’s unmarried, has short hair, with an athletic body and a long, mannish stride, and an unnerving directness and unnerving frank gaze.

Anka and Wolfgang very pleasant: both humorous and quick to laugh, he a bit sly and merry, she slow and . . . well, Saxon . . . solid and serene. Abendbrot fairly ordinary, with salamis, cheeses, boiled eggs, a tuna salad with chopped onion and dressing, a salad of cottage cheese and chives, a paté adorned with sprigs of thyme from the garden, and the tomato, basil, and mozzarella salad that’s becoming ubiquitous with German upper crusty circles.

Is it that the Germans are simply unimaginative when it comes to food? Or do they like sameness, the reassurance of stability a predictable meal brings? On the one hand, there’s that admirable sociability the Germans insist on when eating and drinking. But on the other hand, there’s the appalling dullness of it all—the monochromatic food eaten over and over again, always in abundance, with a kind of dreamy self-absorption and much earnest talk. This hardly elevates mealtimes to occasions of wit, sparkle, and gustatory excitement. And perhaps that’s the point: everything in German life seems designed to mute, to order, to control, to assure that nothing unpredictable occurs.

Ah, well. Kind of these genial, cultured people to invite us to dinner, and a good time was had by all, followed by schnapps (plum) in Katrina’s garden, where two large pots of angel’s trumpet stand, not yet blooming. We picked up apples from the ground to make applesauce, and then visited the family’s sheep at a little pasture with more apple trees and lots of undergrowth. Then to Mascherode . . . .

(And the abendbrot wine redeemed the good if uninspired food: a white dry Muscat from the Tyrol, with a Tyrol red I didn’t try after I saw it poured. It had that weak color of German red wine, the color that promises insipidity. The white was very good, and served cooler than is usual in Germany, where many people seem to take cellar temperature for chilled.)

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Braunschweig 23.7.1998: Inge's Rescue and Little Red

More Mareile stories. It seems that after the war she and her family were hungry. They had prayed for the Americans, father than the Russians, to liberate them. When the troops came, they instructed families to pull down their black-out shades as the troops came through Königslutter. Mareile peeked out of the corner of a shade and saw black soldiers in a truck—the first black people she had ever seen. Later, she and her brothers went to the barracks and begged for food, saying, “I have hunger.” When her mother found out they’d begged, she was furious. The black soldiers called Mareile “little red.” She liked their friendliness.

Care packages of food and clothes came from America. Mareile’s family were virtually the only Catholics in town who weren’t refugees from the east. The priest refused to give them food and clothes, reserving these for refugees. Because the family were truly hungry, Mareile’s mother begged. At this, the priest said they could have a package, if the mother came by night so no one would see her. It was full of glorious food, things unattainable in Germany: raisins, white flour, chocolate (Mareile claps her hands and her eyes dance as she tells this).

There were no shoes to be bought. If one bartered an item of one’s own at some exchange center, one could obtain shoes, etc. All Mareile had to barter was her doll. She did so, for shoes. Each day she’d go to the shop to visit Inge, looking for her in the display window. One day, Inge was gone. That Christmas, Mareile received her as a gift. A friend of her mother’s had bought her, to keep for Mareile. Mareile still has Inge—as Maria says, “Inge still lives.”

Because the family’s house had been bombed (in one night, 20,000 people died in Braunschweig), all their clothes were destroyed. When Mareile’s father returned from the war, he had nothing to wear. A neighbor’s husband had been in the SS. She gave one of his uniforms of black wool to Mareile’s father: the best material in der Welt, Mareile says. Her mother turned the uniform inside out, and it became a new suit for the father, with tailoring. Mareile received a new coat from a care package, all gray wool and too small. Her mother sewed brown fabric onto the sleeves and hem, to lengthen the coat. Mareile wore it for years—ganz schick!

Mareile’s father was a judge in Braunschweig. As Hitler rose to power, the father didn’t want to serve a state ruled by Hitler. He moved the family to Königslutter, resigning his job. People told him he was crazy to forfeit his career.

And more on yesterday: after the tour of Königslutter, Mareile drove us back to Mascherode by way of the Elmwald, from which the chalky stone for the Königslutter cathedral was mined. She told us that after the war, people would forage for mushrooms and fireweood in the forest. She and Walter spent many days hiking there.

It is a beautiful forest, with a mix of conifers and deciduous trees. After we passed through it, we entered very attractive farmland, with rolling hills of cattle and horses—something like Virginia. In the flatter land near Braunschweig, as one descends from the mountains in which the Elmwald is found, sugar beets and grain grow, along with asparagus. Mareile tells us that this sandy and peaty soil is the most fertile in Germany. Here great-grandfather came here in the 19th century, from Thuringia, to seek work in the Braunschweig factories. Catholic families in southern Germany migrated in this period, as the many children overtaxed the farms, causing the land to be divided and divided again. Unlike the Protestant proletariat, though, the Catholic workers avoided some dehumanizing aspects of industrialization, Mariele thinks, since the church kept community and spiritual life alive for them.

+ + + + +

Like so much about the war in Europe, what Belmont Abbey did just ever quite make sense. If I tell myself they abused so many people because they were financially insecure, then I remember the wealth the monks have. If I say they persecuted people, then I have to ask how the rest of the faculty stood by passively as this was done. No answer is ever sufficient, just as with attempts to explain or understand what went on in Germany from 1920 to 1945.

Is it better, then, to live in the questions, than to have the answers? Am I nobler and deeper for being perplexed? Or is my refusal to forget, to settle for life-as-it-is, a sign of some dis-ease, some craving for a security life never affords anyone, inside myself?

+ + + + +

Seamus Deane, Reading in the Dark (London: Vintage, 1997):

“Much of it must have been ornament, people making strange little alliances in their heads between things they had heard or read about, seeking to assert themselves in those endless conversations, implying they were in the know, there was much else they could tell but . . . ." (pp. 182-3).

+ + + + +

Mareile again: We didn’t know what was happening to the Jews. We knew they’d been sent away, yes, but often one by one, so no one noticed. My parents said that it only began to be clear to them, what was happening, shortly before the war.

Then, after the war, our school was forced to watch films showing in detail what had been done. I cried and cried. After that, whenever I had any pain, I told myself, It can’t be as bad as what the Jews suffered. When I had dental work done, I didn’t have an anaesthetic, because no pain I experienced could be as bad as theirs.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Braunschweig 22.7.1998: Oasis of Roses, Hunting Hares

Sitting in Mareile’s garden in Mascherode—a fine, hot, cloudless day already, early in the morning. What . . . cultivated, in every sense . . . lives these cultivated Europeans live. The garden is tended to, meals are social occasions, every room has nosegays of old roses. With Mareile, one always feels as if body and spirit sing in harmony. Here life is so expressive, so much a movement of cultivated spirit out into a a corporeal world experienced not as threat but as grace. A catholic world: something one never quite forgets with Mareile, since her piety is always to the fore, but never quite obtrusive.

I’ve noticed (looking furtively and guiltily) that Mareile’s desk in her sitting room has a little shrine to Walter. Interspersed with photographs of Walter (a pensive side-view against a sky, a garden picture of him bending over a laughing Mareile in a lawn chaise longue), are postcards of the Sorrowful Mother, of the Pietà, of the crucifixion. One is a close-up of a weeping Madonna. All are pictures of medieval wood carvings. One daren’t mention these. This is a private shrine, albeit one shared, since it sits in a family room.

That’s how it is, always, with Mareile—much is said, without having to be spoken . . . .

In the midst of all this, in this oasis of roses, ranunculi, and hortensia, I think about the fate family is, and wonder what to do about that fate. Or can one do anything about it? Isn’t that the point of fate: it’s fated; it’s inexorable and foreordained. One can only undergo it, either defiantly or with submission. Mareile could not change the brute fact of Walter’s death, any more than the Mater Dolorosa could prevent her son’s crucifixion.

The air in which I think these thoughts seems so crystalline, so serene, because I’m away from my family. But how different it is when I’m “at home” . . . .

But perhaps what the mind can’t think through, the heart can try to resolve. In dreams, for example: as I write about my fate and my family, I think of a fragment of a dream I had last night. I was in a very ancient chapel that ran underground, with no roof . . . .

+ + + + +

Last night, Mareile told us of a priest in Berlin—“just an ordinary pastor, not an activist”—who was beheaded by the Nazis. Nobody was certain of the reason: perhaps it was because spies in his congregation construed his sermons as critique of the Reich; or perhaps it was due to a comment he made in a home he visited. There, he saw a crucifix with a picture of Hitler on one side and Göbbels on the other. He remarked, “Just as before, Jesus hangs between two thieves.”

Today, as we looked at the Alte Linde, the Kaiser Lothar Linde in the Domyard in Königslutter, Mareile told us of a teacher she had there, Thelo. Before the war he was a painter. When Hitler came to power, the modernist art Thelo painted was condemned as decadent, and he was forced to quit painting.

Thelo then became a teacher. As a degradation, he was assigned the task of teaching slow children. Somehow Mareile also became his pupil. On certain Protestant holidays, she and the few other Catholic children in the school would be taught by him. Then, the whole day, he’d tell fairy tales.

People in Könighlutter said that Thelo was odd. His windows had no curtains. He was a Quaker. Years later, after she had married and Thelo was an old man, Mariele drove with her children to see him. He had resumed painting, and she wanted to buy a picture of his. Not having much money, she chose the smallest one. When she found it was only 50 DM, she wished she had chosen a larger one.

(Mariele just showed it to us. It’s a configuration of squares, red, purple, yellow, orange, against a black background. There are a few gold squares as well. Mareile said it reminds her of Klee; it did me, too.)

The Dom in Königslutter was interesting, and made more interesting than it might have been by Mareile. It’s Romanesque, a very pure Romanesque, with an astonishing cloister, whose pillars twist and turn with every manner of design. Along the way, the side capitals are also ornately detailed. At either end are figures holding up capitals and looking full-face at the viewer. Mareile said it’s unknown if they’re reference to the God Wotan, or the carver himself. By legend, they’re carved by a master and his apprentice.

On an outer wall of the church was a wonderful hunter’s frieze, in which men—from either side—set dogs on animals. One side shows a rabbit being pursued, caught, carried on a pole by the hunter. Then all of a sudden, the reversal: the hunter’s on the ground, the hare’s tying him up hand and foot, atop him.

I asked Mareile if the frieze was simply a whimsical thing, or meant to speak some symbolic lesson. She said the latter. I thought of poor pursued nature avenging itself on its pursuers. A guidebook I’ve just consulted says it’s a memento mori message.

The linden, too, was fabulous—older than the church, it’s thought, and gnarled and virtually hollow inside, with iron bars to protect its hollow areas, and concrete to fill some of them. One low limb is held up by a kind of red metal pillar.

Mareile told us that, on certain occasions, the school would bring the children to the tree, to form a ring about it and dance in honor of the ancient Kaiser—a vestige of the Maibaum in these Protestant lands?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Braunschweig 21.7.1998: Limpid Maaren and Wood Sprites

Leaving Koblenz, 8 A.M., for Braunschweig yesterday, another drive to the Eifel—to Kelberg—for Steve to meet a man with information on the Schafer family. Then on to Dreis, where he bought a history of the village from the former bürgermeister.

Again, that beautiful landscape, where wheat was being harvested on a fine summer day, a hot one (30º). Part of its appeal is that, from a ridge, one can see so far—the rolling volcanic land, the little Maaren with their limpid water, and the fields. It’s also tame, a bit shaggier and poorer, than many of the farming areas of Germany, including the Bavarian Oberpfalz.

Which makes me wonder if the people here aren’t a good bit Celtic. I suppose I ask this because Herr M. and his wife—the former bürgermeister of Dreis—looked so Irish-Scottish to me: small, fine-boned, piercing blue eyes. They were sitting outside in folding chairs, and could just have easily been in the Ozarks or Texas, he with his cowboy shirt and jeans, she with her faded old print dress.

Their air, too, was Celtic—the open hospitality, the snap and spark of wit and laughter, the acerbic twist of tongue. Were the river valleys of the region Romanized and Germanized, while these high hinterlands with their poorer soil, lands which sheep still graze, and their solemn womblike little churches so different from the Baroque ones of Bavaria, left to the Celts?

After the Eifel trip, dinner beside the Rhine in Landstein. The food was gutbürgerlich, fulfilling three of Jup’s requirements for a good feed: gutbürgerlich, viel, und billig. We ate outside in a beer garden as we drank beer and listened to the raucous tables all around, full of Rhinelanders enjoying the fine summer evening beside the river, and guzzling beer and eating heartily of potatoes and pork. The gusto with which Germans tuck in—and celebrate—can be positively frightening.

Jup and Marian were very kind to us. We had wondered how much they knew about our relationship, and what they thought. On the Eifel tour, Marian asked what the church thinks of our living together. We told them about our experiences with our jobs, and they were furious. Turns out they have many gay friends, and feel very attracted to gay people.

A footnote to what I said re: Herr and Frau M. looking like an elderly Texas couple. What small-town Texas mayor would be able to produce a history of his community, spanning (and detailing) its history from its inception. Here, the Irish analogy works, but not the American ones. The interest in one’s tiny local area is as intense as in Ireland (and the small villages and sparse settlement again speak to me of Celtic origins).

Footnote to comment about the Eifel landscape: and those dark little forests scattered here and there, with their cool depths and whispers of ancient folk like and wood sprites . . . .

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Ӧhe 15.7.1998, Koblenz 17.7.1998: Changed Skies, Same Self

Caelum non animum mutant qui trans mare current (Horace).

Certainly true in my experience. Couldn’t be more miserably depressed, and I wonder why I’ve crossed the seas to find the same pit I find at home. At least that pit has comfortable niches and contours that have grown familiar to me. . . .

+ + + + +

17.7.1998: In Koblenz now. We drove here yesterday to spend several days with Jup and Marian F. A little walk around the old city last night, in the rain. Had wine/beer at a beer garden beside the Mosel, overlooking a statue to Kaiser Wilhelm. Then to a Chinese restaurant in the city run by Vietnamese neighbors of Jup and Marion.

Those Chinese menus in German are always mystifying. Everything sounds so . . . frank, not exotic, as Asian food ought to be, but described to death in graphic German carnivorous terms. And the food’s equally mystifying: nothing approximating American ideas of Chinese food. And certainly not Chinese food itself.

The soups are invariably turgid with something like cornstarch, and tomato-based. Hot dishes are described in ominous capitals as SCHARF!!, and simply aren’t. Garlic is unheard of. Nothing even smells Chinese; vegetables are a whisper of a garnish (and aren’t anywhere near something Oriental). Meat’s the name of the game.

I’m homesick, and beginning to pick, pick. Scenes of home keep flashing through my mind, and God! how I miss the dogs, and feel guilty at being away from them.

Koblenz seems to be a nice city, what we’ve seen of it, though both now and the first time I was here, it struck me as a bit grimy and industrial. Jup and Marian showed us where portions of one of the old churches, perhaps the Liebfraukirche, are having to be replaced, as pollution erodes the stonework. (Or did they mean only cleaned?)

In the old counting house, now a Rhineland museum, in the old city, we watched a clock chime 6. The clock has eyes going back and forth (the pendulum), and as it chimes the hours, it sticks out its tongue, once for each hour. Very droll.

+ + + + +

9:30 P.M. Just back from a day’s trip to Luxembourg and Belgium. The horrible cold, wet weather of the past days continued until our return, when it began to clear at Trier. The weather, the scary autobahns, being cooped up with Steve and my own horrible self: all have me fit to be tied.

What can I say of Luxembourg? We just drove through, so any impressions would be very superficial.

The bit I saw was . . . nondescript, as the guidebooks say: neither French, German, nor Belgian, nor an identifiable mix of the three. Just itself, its unremarkable self.

Got lost trying to get around the city to head to Pétange, our destination, where Steve’s ancestors (Lommel) lived on the Belgian border. Stopped for help at a Rastplatz, and was quite an experience—a jumble of Germans, French, Luxembourgers, all eating with that eager vivacity of lunch at a European Rastplatz (well, vivacious because of the French; none of that dreamy self-absorption Germans bring to food eaten alone). Harrowing, the mob of people and the babble of languages I understood only in fragments.

Two young men even more harrowing. One had his hair tied up in a kind of horsetail thing young toughs now affect in Europe. Had a black shirt with a slogan denoting him as some kind of “Killah.” Some girl said something to him that he evidently didn’t like, and he replied with an animalistic growl and face, something about Luxembourgish. I took it he was speaking the Luxembourgish dialect and told her to lump it or leave it. The naked hostility of it was astonishing—nationalism reasserting itself via hooligan fascism, as the millennium approaches.

Then on to Pétange, which we reached sometime after noon. An unattractive, grimy little place with a forlorn, ill-used air. Granted, it was chilly for July, but not raining: even so, not a soul anywhere in sight.

We wanted to find the church secretary, the church itself being locked. We saw a man eyeing us from his doorway, the house next to the church. I asked him in French where the church office was. His wife was there. He spoke French to her, but somehow I could tell they spoke Luxembourgish instead of French as their mother tongue.

A sign at the parish office said it would be closed until 2:30, so Steve decided to drive on into Belgium to Hachy, where his cousin Robert Lommel lives, past Athus, the ancestral village. We passed Hachy, seeing no sign for it, and turned off at Habay.

There, went into the tourist stop restroom, and in English, a man said to me, “There’s no paper. Can you ask for some?” I dutifully did so, in French, and it appeared. How he knew I spoke English and could speak French is beyond me . . . .

At Hachy, found Robert Lommel, who told us the villages up to Hachy from the Luxembourg border were all Luxembourgish-speaking, and from there, French, but French is now prevailing. The whole area seemed a bit dreary—again, that not-quite-this-nor-that feeling. I thought of Rimbaud and his need to escape the nearby French Ardennes. I understood that need. All seemed so bourgeois, so Catholic in the narrowest sense. Signs at the tourist stop bar proclaimed in loud, endless letters that drunkenness and the moral corruption of youth wouldn’t be tolerated. (Nice for a change to understand the signs without effort, in both Luxembourg and Belgium.)

Then back, with a stop at Trier to shop for Marian and Jup’s birthday, and a dinner of vegetable soup and salad at Zum Domstein, where Steve and I ate a few years ago. I like Trier, with its French air (garlic bread—and bread!—with the soup and salad).

Beautiful drive in the Eifel, which I find so appealing. Those silent, dark hills with little villages and golden fields, and the Roman presence at Trier—they tell a tale of a very ancient history, one fundamental to what became Europe.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Ӧhe 14.7.1998: Ordnung and More Ordnung

Just had one of those absolutely maddening German discussions in which we decided, through endless back and forth and consideration of every possible eventuality, who would sit where today, as we each work on some academic (or, in the case of T. and K., reading) project.

Why don’t simple manners sort things like this out—we all know where we’d least disturb the other. So it makes sense to light there, silently. Is this all about German order, or that we need to have each room used for what it’s meant for?

Monday, November 10, 2008

Ӧhe, 13.7.1998

Waiting now to go to the ferry for a day trip to Denmark. Yesterday a nice relaxed day with continuous sun, in contrast to the preceding day, when it rained intermittently. I find the vista very relaxing when the sun’s shining: the light blue northern sky, the gold of sand and wheat, all the greens starred with white and pink shrub roses.

Not much to say, except that it’s nice to be here, under sunny skies, enjoying life in a summer cottage. Even if we did perhaps indulge too liberally in the meal I cooked last night—stuffed eggplant, fettucine with walnuts, cauliflower, and red bell peppers, salad, and fruit with ice cream . . . . Lots of red wine, or course, followed by a medicinal grappa that didn’t save W., K., or me from a bad night . . . .

+ + + + +

Spent the day in Denmark. Took the ferry from Gelting to Fåborg, then on by car to Rudkøbing on the island of Langeland. It turned out to be a very touristy little place, much to W.’s and K.’s surprise, since they’d been there some years ago, and it wasn’t that way then. The 18th- and 19th-century merchants’ houses were interesting, several with neo-classical façades, all painted in pleasing pastels, of which a yellow gold predominated.

The countryside also pleasant—rolling hills planted to wheat, barley, and what seemed to be turnips, with roadside stands selling potatoes and new potatoes (nyekartofler) and strawberries (jordbaer). The countryside and its cottages, and above all the shoreline of Fåborg, reminded me of Waterford—same culture predominating, since Waterford was founded by the Vikings?

From Rudkøbing on to Odense, where we had falafels (!) and then walked around the city in the late afternoon. Signs of H.C. Andersen everywhere—the museum, his boyhood home, a house in which he lived, a statue of the tin soldier. We had coffee, speaking a combination of English and German to the waitress. The Danes seem to be between the two languages, with perhaps more facility in the former—or less willingness to speak the latter, even when they know it.

As the shops closed at 5:30 and we had to be at the ferry soon after 6, we drove back to Fåborg and walked briefly around the town—more of those pastel houses, many with doors painted in blues and grays, their geometric shapes brought into relief by darker blue lines.

Then the ferry back, where we treated W., K., and T. to a buffet. They like to avail themselves of it every so often, and find it very good, but it didn’t excite me. Several strange adaptations of American and Tex-Mex dishes—barbecue ribs, guacamole (thin, runny, tasteless, and full of mayonnaise), and salsa (big chunks of mystery vegetables in a sweet red sauce). There were fried shrimp in a thick batter that managed to be both gummy and insipid, and about four potato dishes, all equally without savor. Ah well. The baguettes and butter were good, and the Carlsberg beer a good accompaniment.

And now to bed, and Rimbaud’s African years . . . .

Friday, November 7, 2008

Ӧhe 11.7.1998: Slate Seas and Linden Alleys

At Ӧhe now. Steve and I just walked along the seacoast under lowering skies, until it began to rain. Nice to see this place in summer—high summer—as it was dead of winter when we were last here. I’m not really a seaside person, or, at least, have never thought of myself as one. But I quite like the Baltic seacoast today. Those slate seas with hints of green, blue, even purple, are very pleasing to the eye, with small sailboats far out on the horizon. The sand has bits of a rose-colored seaweed strewn across it, in some places very artistically arranged, with pieces of a seashell that’s dark blue, with gray bands and glinting mother of pearl.

Sitting now in the cottage’s sitting room, where two large windows overlook a linden alley that runs alongside fields of wheat now gold for the harvest. Again, a vista pleasing to the eye, one restful to contemplate.

+ + + + +

Charles Nichols, Somebody Else: Arthur Rimbaud in Africa 1880-1891 (London: Random House, 1998): “It is a restlessness in the heart, an impossible desire: one which all travelers in some measure feel . . . .” (p. 14).

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Amsterdam 9.7.1998 (2): Little Hagiographies Amidst Pimps, and Whores

The next day, more walking—first to the Albert Cuyp market south of the Heineken brewery. A disappointment, since its many booths were almost all selling new things. We did buy some cheesecloth, aka muslin, to add to our collection of window treatments.

Then more kicking around the city, followed by beer at a café near Suzanne’s, on a gracht, where I felt very sophisticated and European watching people of every nationality pass by, sitting beside this woman with an astonishing unruly nimbus of dark frizzy hair anointed with shocking red here and there.

Suzanne talked vivaciously about her husband’s affairs, her sometimes unsatisfying relationship with her current boyfriend, and a dove that appeared at her house a few days before her son died, and then remained, walking in into the house as mourners gathered. That death understandably looms large in her mind (he was burnt to death in a barn fire, while camping with friends). She talked about how, independently, all family members decided that the color of the funeral was to be yellow, and how she “saw” a Tibetan monk and a rabbi at the funeral, and lo! it came to pass. All this talk was embroidered with talk of white doves and her son’s continuing presence in her life.

I say vivaciously, but that’s not quite the word. Suzanne is energetic, but a bit tattered at the edges. Like anyone with a message, she tends to hold the floor, and with Germanic earnestness, made even more serious by her Calvinist heritage. I’d tend to think her talk about her son is the slightly deranged attempt of a mother to retrieve something, anything, from such an abruptly ended life.

Except. Except the first evening I met Suzanne, she quickly sketched in the missing pieces, as I told her, not telling the whole story, about Simpson’s death and Mother’s decline. That showed me that she’s a woman of astonishing acuity of perception. To such a woman, why shouldn’t such unbelievable things happen? And there are those strange eyes, not quite blue, green, or yellow, but somewhere in between the three, which could so easily be cats’ eyes, if the pupils were slit. I half believed her when she said she’s half a witch, and wasn’t surprised when she said her father’s name is some Swiss equivalent of “Welshman,” and her dark hair and light eyes evidence of her Celtic heritage. Mountain people are so strange . . . .

And oh, I almost forgot, that visit to the Protestant community—very interesting. Herman J., our tour guide, was himself interesting: all head and sweet piety and unawakened sexuality beneath it all. I sensed this, and wondered if he were gay, and as we drank beer, Suzanne told us how emotionally landlocked K. and his brothers are, and how she’s wondered if Herman is gay, or has a sex life.

Everything he told us had the form of a little hagiography: the Story of How We Acquired the House; the Old Synagogue/Monastery; the Redemption of the Sex Cinema; the Burning of All the Houses Around; etc.

In the very bottom of one of the buildings is a tiny chapel that’s thought to be an old medieval cistern, and where a Jewish family were successfully hidden during the war: an eerie place. The main chapel’s an interesting room, one that’s simultaneously Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. Around its side and back walls is a series of water troughs, stone ones with pebbles in the bottom, each larger and deeper than the last. They function as baptismal fonts and pools, so that each denomination can baptize as it prefers. When not in use as a baptistry, the series of pools is a constantly running stream, which is recycled, and which contains a few drops of Jordan water, Herman told us.

When we entered the chapel, Michael, a curious little man, was incensing it with a proper ecclesiastical censer. He turned out to be the custodian of the chapel, and was strange, indeed—small, dark, lithe, with tight black leather pants and that holy hostility of a monk whose inner sanctum is invaded by gross laity. I’ve met them everywhere. They must cooperate with the officially sanctioned hospitality that monastic life’s all about. But they do so disdainfully, resentfully, bristling with superiority.

Speaking of gross laity and our invasion, Herman told us a long, involved story I’m not quite sure I understood about how the room the chapel’s in once functioned as part of a porno cinema. It’s this same room that might, just might, have also been a synagogue.

The chapel has an iconostasis, altar, icons, and holy pictures—interesting, that Protestant need for ritual (incense, no less) even when the Word continues to predominate (the chapel floor’s an always widening set of concentric circles beginning at the pulpit and moving out onto the sidewalk outside). As Herman explained, the vision of the community is to live the gospel within the red light district. It’s the gospel, the Word, and not the Eucharist, that centers the community, and which it wishes to bring to the world.

All of which made me feel rather eerily distant from the place, from Herman and the tour. At one time, I’d have been energized by it all, and there was that old quasi-erotic attraction to the chapels, the life of repose, meditation, and community, the seriousness of purpose.

But the . . . zeal . . . was also off-putting and the little hagiographies with which Herman stitched the tour together were irritating. How can we be so confident that we—we!—represent the gospel, in the midst of the pimps and whores, junkies and porno purveyors. To say that God keeps preserving the place from fire (when all the neighboring houses burned), etc., feels to me like saying that God chooses to preserve some rather than others. Not all the Jews in Amsterdam survived the Holocaust . . . .

Well, yes, maybe I am the seed that fell on rocky soil, and I now want to find any excuse to dispense with faith. But I don’t know how to get around it: the followers of Christ grow, ever more powerfully, into a formidable obstacle to my belief.

+ + + + +

I just thought of something as I read Colm Toibin’s account of his walk along the Irish border. It’s a bit like Amhlaoibh O’Suilleabhain’s account of his walk around Co. Kilkenny in the early 19th century. Walking around, poking our noses into things: an Irish travelers’ tradition, one I may be carrying on. Toibin’s like O’Sullivan in the alacrity with which he accepts free feeds. And am I any different?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Amsterdam 9.7.1998: Mythopoeic Imaginings, Gawking and Glomming Tourists

Leaving Amsterdam—gray skies, a slight oppressiveness to the weather after two rather nice days. And I’m thinking desultory thoughts—about why some cities and places rather than others attract artists; and about what voice one uses to write a travelogue here, now, at the end of the 20th century.

About the first question: it’s clear that Amsterdam is one of those cities. Steve and I felt that immediately. I wonder why. There’s, of course, that intangible thing called charm: the small grachts, whose scale helps them retain the small perspective so essential to good art, which always has to find the world in the grain of sand; ad the way in which each gracht, still water and reflected sky, creates a quiet little world of its own in a bustling city.

There’s also the . . . what? whiff of decay? The old houses, the faded glory, the omnipresent sex industry, the drugs: these form a moist and fertile bed for creativity, which never bubbles up so easily in dry and sun-scorched worlds. And there’s the alternate economy of small boutiques, flea markets, black markets—an economy of barter, exchange, tom-foolery and trickery—that always thrives in such a city.

Somehow, a thriving artistic culture goes hand in hand with such an economic culture—I’m not quite sure why. Is it that artists manqué find it so easy to fit into an economy of barter and trade? If one can’t print or write, one can always collect a few bright gewgaws and fob them off to unwitting tourists (and the tourist thing is part of the equation)? Transmutation of another sort than outright artistic creation . . . .

And there are all those legends . . . . Suzanne thinks her house was built by Portuguese Jews, though on what basis was never clear to us. And yesterday, in the red light district, we toured several old houses owned by a Protestant religious community with which Karel’s brother Hermann J. is loosely associated. He told us that the community’s chapel just may have been a synagogue in the 17th century . . . on what basis, it wasn’t ever quite clear to us. Another section of the house just might, just possibly, have been a monastery at some time . . . . Artistic places have (or foster?) mythopoeic imaginations.

And then there are all those charming little houses built just to the human scale, and full of fascinating little details—the various gables, the name plaques, the inscriptions over doorways, the tiny patios tucked away in back. Worlds within worlds . . . .

About the second question: no American with any pretensions to culture ever keeps a travelogue in Europe without hearing echoes of previous “cultured” travelers—Hawthorne, Henry James, Edith Wharton, even, God help us, Twain.

No. That’s not quite what I wanted to say, to notice. It’s more about the pressure of European culture, its sheer weight and density, its givenness and facticity, its sublimely arrogant assertiveness. We colonials have always measured ourselves against it—had to do so—and have found ourselves wanting. It’s the very vacuum that makes us have to travel in Europe, after all: here I am, all empty America; fill me up, please.

And today as we drove out of Amsterdam, I suddenly wondered if it really matters, after all. I despise those Americans who are crassly unperturbed at their lack of polish, but I also wonder whether that’s not becoming, simply, the status quo everywhere. Which is to say, the center of cultural gravity has shifted west; Europeans travel to America not simply to feel superior, but to encounter an exotic culture that they can now identify as culture.

No. That’s not quite it, either. The mind just somehow keeps slipping off track. Not sure what the point of all this was, which is to say, perhaps, I’m not sure who I am, at all.

Impressions piled on impressions: Tuesday (today), we did the obligatory tourist thing, going to the van Gogh museum and the Rijksmuseum. An utterly tiring day in which we walked from early morning until nightfall.

The van Gogh left me curiously cold, perhaps because of the incessant roiling sea of (other) tourists who swept en masse around every painting and prevented us from taking them in. Two Americans, husband and wife, had blue jean jackets with red embroidery on black, advertising their affiliation with a movement to foster inner spiritual awareness.

Which made me, somehow, feel ashamed to be there with other worshipers at the shrine of excruciating, suicidal awareness. An interesting book I noticed as we left the gift shop studies this, how van Gogh has become a cult, has been made a cult. It’s probably a cliché to say so, but how ironic, how bleakly funny, that this driven, maniacal genius whose life was such a failure should now be the subject of such a gawking and glomming cult. Why, you can even get your van Gogh address book at the gift shop, or a set of van Gogh watercolors that will enhance your perception of things, if not your creativity. I didn’t buy one there, having bought one at a stationer’s the day before.

The surprise of the van Gogh collection was the collection of paintings showing Japanese influence. I hadn’t known much about them. Was intrigued by them, and was rather proud of myself for picking up on it in a painting of almond blossoms, before we came to the explicitly Japanese work.

Coffee and a much-needed breather in the van Gogh coffee shop, and then on to the next dragon, the very formidable Rijksmuseum, where we promised ourselves to be self-disciplined and only look at the Rembrandts and Vermeers.

Same problem here: tourists, other tourists, piled one atop each other, gawking and shoving and prattling away in a polyglot of tongues. But mostly French. I seem to have a talent for getting caught up in French tours. It happened in Dublin, and here again, in the Vermeer room.

They were all so small, but also so . . . dense . . . and so solid. So that even when you can see over their heads, you can’t approach the painting you want to see, because of the sheer density of French flesh cordoning it off.

I tried a tactic of moving to the least densely guarded paintings, and then, as the crowd shifted en masse in that direction, back to the one they’d just vacated, or semi-vacated. Only problem was, these French culture vultures seemed to have an unwritten rule that one moves only clockwise around the room, and out of the corners of my eyes, I could detect fierce little French glares that I was violating the rules. As Steve says, they’re very much pack animals, these French tourists.

And what to say about the Vermeers. Well, I’ve seen them. Yes, there was the old thrill of seeing paintings one has long admired in books, in their inimitable own colors. But I’d lie if I said that I forgot my tired feet and irritation at the pack in a rush of transcendence, as I gazed at the woman and her jug, the woman and her letter.

Then on to Rembrandt, which, despite the press of tourists, was easier to see (at least the “Night Watchman,” because of its size). I know nothing about the “Watchman,” but what struck me as I looked was how all the business of the painting seems to revolve around that light-surrounded little girl, with the dead fowl, as if she’s an unnoticed angelic presence in this intensely self-preoccupied, intensely male, world of statues and money, of guns and glory.

Is it possible to read the painting as Rembrandt’s unconscious statement about what was to come of the world of nature and the female, in the hands of modernity? On the one hand, it’s there, the angelic presence, giving radiance to the world of might and economic exchange. On the other hand, it’s there as a dead or disembodied presence, an unnoticed presence, a controlled and exploited one. It’s surrounded by all those men, so busy about their . . . well, their business.

I whispered a little of this to Steve, with an American teenager of mixed Anglo and Asian ancestry listening, I was to discover, since, after I had finished, he turned around to ask me if I thought a monkey’s paw was reaching up from behind the little girl. I told him I didn’t see it. He described it insistently. I pretended to see it, and told him I knew nothing about it.

Then on to a room with an Antwerp altar, passing on the way rooms of 17th-century Dutch furniture and medieval statuary and vestments. I liked these rooms, though we didn’t notice anything in them, to speak of. One had a skylight and a marble floor, creating an oasis in the crowded hot museum.

I’ve just looked up, as we near the German border: sheep on a hillside, an artificial one, mixed dark and white ones, all very small.

After Antwerp (a disappointment), a lunch of salad and sausage on bread, with wine (me) and beer (Steve). Then more walking, walking, through Rembrandtsplein and the Waterloo Market, much more commercial than the Noordmarket we’d gone to the day before.

Rembrandtsplein was chock full of young people. Coffee shops everywhere, with psychedelic entrances hinting at the drugs to be obtained within. The odd sex shop here and there. All a bit tawdry and unalluring.

Then on to dinner at Suzanne’s. She fixed Iranian dishes she had learned while married to her husband—two kinds of rice, one with dill, potatoes, and some kind of white beans; a red bean and beef dish with dried lemons and chopped greens; a lamb and eggplant dish with tomatoes (or were the lemons in this dish?); and salad and fruit in custard cause, which the Dutch call something sounding like “fla,” (or which they may, then have learned from the Spanish?).

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Amsterdam 6.7.1998: Little Grachten and Old Lace

Second day in Amsterdam. We arrived early afternoon yesterday, finding our way to Bloemengracht, where our hostess, Suzanne H., lives in a 17th-century house, Jakob’s Droom. She’s a friend of R. and C., and an artist, and has kindly put us up in her boyfriend’s apartment in Oud West.

When we arrived, Suzanne showed us her beautiful house, which is long, narrow, and multi-storied, as those craftsmen’s houses of the 17th century are. Suzanne believes hers was built by Portuguese Jews. She’s painted it bright yellow inside, with blue accents—colors she loves (and which also appear in van Gogh’s later work.) She tells me the yellow began to appear after her oldest son was killed in a fire in his teen years—colors of light and transcendence.

What to say? It’s all so interesting. A little lunch and tea provided by Suzanne—delicious Turkish bread, along with Dutch, and ham, cheese, cucumbers, tomatoes, jam, peanut butter, cookies (including an almond-paste one that’s apparently very Dutch).

Afterwards, Suzanne’s boyfriend, Karel, a retired and seriously ill (sarcoidosis) carpenter, walked us around the city, along Prinsengracht and Kaisergracht, and into Leidesplein. We visited a café—i.e., pub—that’s exhibiting some of Suzanne’s work, which I quite enjoyed: old wood paneling and ceiling, and lots of atmosphere in the patrons.

After that, a wonderful Indonesian dinner Steve and I treated Suzanne, Karel, and Suzanne’s son Darius to, in a restaurant near Suzanne in Jordaan. I had bahmi goreng with shrimp and pork, and Steve had a vegetarian dish of bean curd and vegetables. Best food I’ve had in Europe . . . .

Today, a flea market near here, off Prinsengracht, full of people of every hue and language. We enjoyed the fabrics, the stalls selling lumpia (loempia to the Dutch), tables of assorted junk. One table had old and new linens, and it was a madhouse of women fingering fabrics and casting them in every direction. I competed with a very pushy black woman for some odds and ends of lace, which the saleslady, who seemed to like Steve, sold us at discount, throwing in two pieces as gifts.

Bought, too, a tin lantern to add to our tin collection, and some little birds crafted out of wood, feathers, and wires from a booth that had hundreds of these, of all sorts. We looked at beautiful quilted fabrics from India or Indonesia, of many bright colors, but didn’t buy any, since we couldn’t agree on them (and they were expensive). But did buy a bit more lace from booths that had it for sale by the meter.

After that, back here to eat Indonesian leftovers for lunch, and then back to town to walk into Rembrandtsplein. There, we saw the Jesuit church of Francis Xavier, full of color and character. I liked it very much, though Karel tells us it’s very conservative.

Rembrandtsplein was sad, with tourists everywhere, mostly young, and sex shops to allure the tourists, one of which Steve and I gazed into. Then back here, by way of a Turkish restaurant, where we had pizza and salad, along with good Dutch beer.

I like Amsterdam, what I’ve seen of it. The Dutch seem admirably democratic, plastic in their ability to accept other people and their cultures. Here there’s not that German Ordnung that makes everything dance to the German tune, so that other cultures don’t “pollute” the dominant one.

I can see why artists like Suzanne love this city. It’s dirty and probably has problems I can’t begin to know about, as a transient visitor, but something about the vibrant cultural mix, the little grachten, the live-and-let-live attitude, seems to stimulate creativity. Colors everywhere—in dishes, light fixtures, fabric shops, galleries. I like it.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Hamburg 4.7.1998: Grumpy Jonah, Whales in Hot Pursuit

A good night’s rest, after several poor ones. I feel as if I’ve turned a corner inside, and am now homewards, whereas for much of the trip, I was leaving home.

A dream I had last night makes me feel this, though I don’t know why. In it, I was someplace—my neighborhood, but some version of many neighborhoods—where everyone had prepared skits for a neighborhood festival . . . .

+ + + + +

Dinner last night at Nestor and Ella B.’s. He’s a Filipino student at the Missionsakademie. They had also invited a friend of theirs, another Filipino, Nilo, who is here as a gay partner of a German, Thomas.

Talked much of gay issues. Nilo and Nestor say Hamburg has just enacted legislation to allow foreign partners of gays to reside in Germany. This is good for Hamburg, but will have to be respected elsewhere in Germany.

Nilo says the gay population of Hamburg is 10%, at least 200,000. They’re being courted by various political parties, most of which don’t keep promises to the gay community after being elected.

What’s fascinating is that Nestor, a Baptist pastor, arranged this dinner meeting, and is active in supporting the gay-lesbian cause. He and Nilo and Ella speak of the silence surrounding this issue in Germany, and of the discomfort gays and lesbians experience at the University of Hamburg. Some are instructed by teachers not to speak about their experiences.

Why all this for us, now—from life/God? Somehow, I don’t want the burden of this knowledge, and of any call that might be implied in it. I don’t know what to do with it—don’t see a way to use the knowledge that has been given to me. I just want peace and quiet . . . .

And it surely hasn’t escaped my notice that almost uniformly, all the faculty members I’ve met at the University and the Akademie are intently heterosexist and unwilling to discuss gay issues as issues of justice, when they are passionate about justice in general. It is, in fact, an oppressively heterosexist atmosphere at the university, dominated by married or partnered straight men and the kind of women who fit into their world.