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. . . .

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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.

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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.

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