Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Washington, D.C. 24.10.2009: Luminous Turners and Fake Gelato

Steve had two meetings today near the National Gallery of Art, so after the meetings were finished, we walked to the museum. Didn’t have any particular objective in mind in going there. That is, there wasn’t a current exhibition that had particularly caught my eye.

If anything, I wanted to have another look at the Turner seascapes, which never tire the eye. And it occurred to me that I had never tried to find the few Winslow Homers that are at the National Museum. I don’t have a thing for Winslow Homer. But I realize as I age that I haven’t done as much to familiarize myself with American painters over the years as with European ones, so I wanted to fill in some of those gaps.

We found the Winslow Homers, and they were nice to look at. But what really caught my eye in the same series of rooms in which the Homers hang were Thomas Eakins’ paintings.

He hasn’t been on my radar screen, though now that I know a bit more about him, I realize he did the famous homoerotic “Swimming Hole” work that has appeared—I think—on some editions of Whitman’s poetry. In fact, Eakins and Whitman were friends, something I surely must have known already somewhere back in my mind, since I’ve read a number of Whitman biographies.

“Swimming Hole” isn’t in the National Gallery. But several other of his works there rang a bell for me—to be specific, a homoerotic bell. I’m not sure what it was in the sensibility and composition of these works that said “gay” to me, but something did, and I wasn’t surprised, as a result, to see in the Gallery bookstore a number of biographies of Eakins noting a debate about his sexual orientation. I bought one of these, William McFeely’s Portrait, and have begun reading it with great interest.

We did happen on the Judith Leyster exhibit, and I am glad to have seen it, though I can’t say I was bowled over by her work. It’s technically superb, but derivative in a way that most of the Dutch old masters seem to me—derivative, in particular, of Rembrandt and Vermeer, though Rembrandt was almost precisely Leyster’s contemporary and Vermeer somewhat younger than she was, so she can’t have been imitating their work.

That’s not precisely what I mean by “derivative.” What I mean is that when you’ve seen what Rembrandt and Vermeer excel at—the play of light and shadow in precisely drawn, evocative portraits of people posed in interior settings—any other painters of their time and place employing similar techniques seem less imposing. Worth looking at; technically astonishing. But not world-shaking in the way Vermeer and Rembrandt are.

Leyster reminded me, strangely enough, of some of her Spanish contemporaries—Velasquez in particular. I don’t believe there was any intersection of influence between her and Velasquez or other Spanish court painters of their period. But something about the way that they pose their subjects and then study the play of light on their countenances seems similar. Not surprising, I suppose, to find interplay of Spanish and Dutch cultural influences in this period, given the political ties between the two countries.

What will long remain in my mind, though, from this visit are Turner’s seascapes, with their luminous, gloriously transcendent blues. I will never grow weary of looking at them.

After our stroll through the American and British 19th-century galleries and the Leyster exhibition, Steve and I had coffee and gelato in the café below the museum. As we sat near the waterfall that cascades down outside a window there, it struck me how essential places like this are to the human spirit—how they ought to exist in every city.

Places to sit amidst and look at art in various media, to hear and watch the play of water and light, to have coffee and pastry, listen to music, talk, dream. Humane cities and towns build such spaces into their cultural landscapes as a matter of course, as essential needs of the human spirit.

I wish I could recommend the gelato that accompanied this restful, soul-building experience. It was horrific, though. Without my prompting him to comment on his raspberry-cherry choice, Steve exclaimed, after tasting a spoon, that it was totally artificial. As was my dulce de leche choice, with its cloying synthetic (and probably petroleum-based) rum flavoring.

Why, I have to wonder, do we Americans produce such monstrosities and then try bill them as “authentic” culinary compositions? Why try to pass off what is so screamingly fake as the real thing? Why do we not demand better—especially in our national capital, in a place people from many different cultures will be visiting in the expectation of having an iconic American experience?

I have to conclude that we don’t ask for better because we don’t know better. And because sham often attracts our attention more than the real thing does.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Washington, D.C. 23.10.09: Crabcakes and Ginkgos

In D.C. these days for a short trip. Steve has several business meetings and I’m tagging along. The first two days we were here were beautiful fall days, with crisp temperatures and lambent golden light unimpeded by humidity—a wonderful time of year to see the monumental architecture of the city, its wide, tree-lined avenues, and the brick townhouses of Georgetown. Since then, the weather has turned back to Indian summer and things are a bit overcast. Still, it’s nice to be here after the muggy heat of summer, which can make D.C. so intolerable, has broken. And such a treat to see the beautiful ginkgo trees that line so many D.C. streets as they turn bright yellow in the fall weather.

We’re staying at an unmemorable hotel in Arlington, the only place available after Steve had initially made arrangements in town and his first plans had to be changed due to schedule alterations in one of the foundations with which he’s meeting. We asked the first evening in town about nearby places to eat, and the lady at the hotel desk directed us to a French-Italian bistro behind the hotel.

But when we found it, we saw that it was beside a Vietnamese pho restaurant, and we went there instead, and were glad we did. The pho was wonderful, with its fragrant broth spiked with star anise and five spices. It came with a large plate of bean sprouts, lime, sliced jalapeños, and sprigs of basil. We couldn’t have had a supper more to our liking.

One of Steve’s meetings took us to Bethesda on our second day in the city. We drove up Wisconsin Ave. to get there, enjoying the sight of the shops of Georgetown and Tenley along the way, the sight of the national cathedral at the top of the hill as one climbs away from downtown. On our way back into the city, we stopped at the cathedral and visited its gift shop, where we found a new hedgehog for Mary.

Very nice woman staffing the shop that day. She told us she had worked there over 20 years, and is delighted with the change in the federal government in the last election. She also told us of a book recently translated from French to English, featuring a hedgehog—in its title, at least. I think by someone Burberry? Will have to look for it and tell Mary about it.

We also spent some time in a thrift shop on Wisconsin operated by some group called something like the Christ Child Society. Fascinating, if a bit pricey, junk, including lots of sets of old china, discarded oil paintings, many of them of the ilk that Landrum used to call “something one’s great-aunt might paint,” and lamps galore. The latter were being snapped up by a woman from Virginia, shopping with her reluctant and seemingly in-tow husband, who was apparently footing the bill for her purchases. As she said, they left the shop in darkness, since she was buying lamps that were in use to light the wares.

That evening, we once again ate near the hotel in Arlington, this time at a highly recommended New Mexican restaurant that was truly awful. Nary a green chile in sight. The food was mediocre Tex-Mex at best, and left my stomach roiling all night long. The manager-owner and waiter couldn’t have been nicer. But, clearly, this place has seen better days, or those who have reviewed it so highly don’t have a clue about authentic New Mexican cooking.

After that, a long, tedious day at the National Archives, made more tedious by the bewildering bureaucracy, which seems to have proliferated nonsensical regulations since our last visit. I had found references to a collection of documents about the history of the cemetery at Pittsburg Landing from 1866 to 1870 in a published history of the Shiloh Cemetery. Bill Russell and I think it’s possible—likely, even—that somewhere in the National Archives, there may be documents indicating how Dr. Wilson Bachelor got the appointment as physician in charge of the cemetery’s construction in 1867, and why he left in 1870. We also think those documents may contain some indication of his medical education and qualifications for the position.

I sent the document numbers for this collection to the National Archives in an email prior to our visit, and they confirmed that the documents were, indeed, in their D.C. holdings, and I could access them while in D.C. What they didn’t tell me—what I didn’t see anywhere at all on the very user-unfriendly, bureaucratically top-heavy website of the NARA—is that they now have a system whereby documents are pulled at only certain hours of the day.

We arrived right after the 11 A.M. pull and before the 1:30 one, which meant a long wait for our documents to begin arriving in the reading room after 2:30. And though some of the staff members who tried to help me fill out forms to request the material were well-meaning, not one was really knowledgeable about this collection, or even about how one goes about researching the early history of a national cemetery. All had that bureaucratic tendency to try to shuffle you to the next desk, to bark peremptory answers to questions that require thought and expertise if they're to be answered adequately.

It’s a shame that public research facilities like this are so often so badly inefficient and so hostile to the public they’re meant to serve. There is no overall guide anywhere—including in the NARA itself—to the extensive holdings of the National Archives. Finding materials is a hit-or-miss affair that requires the use of many tattered old typewritten indices that could easily be collated in one online collection, and updated and made comprehensive with new digitalized additions to these indices.

But creating government institutions that serve the public has hardly been the objective of recent federal administrations, has it? And when you visit a place like NARA now, you see the end result. Many of our central government institutions now function at a level about comparable to that of developing nations.

That evening, back to the pho restaurant, since we had enjoyed it so much two nights previous. This time, I tried their chicken option, knowing that pho is traditionally beef, but wondering if the chicken might be seasoned differently. It wasn’t. In fact, it wasn’t so tasty as the thin slices of beef. It was dry, roasted chicken sliced and added to the broth of the beef pho—but wonderful at that. It’s a treat to have the kind of good, home-style Vietnamese food we remember from New Orleans and from our Vietnamese friends in Little Rock in the 1970s. It’s impossible to find at the Vietnamese restaurants in Little Rock now, which cut corners and cater to middle American tastes.

Before the pho supper, we browsed a bit in a little Italian deli near the hotel, and found it marvelous. Bought hefty chunks of good parmesan and pecorino at prices we don’t see at home, as well as two panfortes, one to eat now and one to give as a Christmas gift, a box of torrone, a bottle of San Giovesi red wine, and a sandwich of mixed Italian meats, cheeses, and salads. We split the latter as a midnight snack later in the evening, with a glass of the San Giovesi.

Yesterday, another meeting up in the Chevy Chase area, after which we drove to Annapolis for several hours in the Maryland Hall of Records. I had a specific record I wanted to find—rather, a series of specific records, with one citation of a particular document in the series. I was looking for any and all estate records of Thomas Hodgkin, who died in Charles or Prince George Co., Maryland, in 1756.

My previous visits to this research facility have been hair-tearing ones. This was slightly better, due to the kind help of a noted Maryland historical-genealogical researcher, who was staffing the research desk at the archives when we visited. He helped me a bit to steer my way through the maze of finding aids and bewildering designations by which Maryland files its documents. As he noted, one of the complexities of Maryland research in the colonial period is that documents were often filed simultaneously (or indiscriminately) at both the county and the state level.

He also pointed out the good work that he and others have done to survey all that seems to be known of some of these early colonial families. Even so, that “all” often overlooks key tidbits in the documents, if one can locate the original documents and read them carefully.

For instance, I found the inventory of Thomas Hodgkin’s estate compiled in Prince George Co. in 1756 signed by two of his children, both of whom noted beside their signature that they were children of the deceased. These two children—Philip and Lucy—appear in no published works about this family that I’ve seen. And this is an important lead, since the name of the son Philip seems to connect Thomas Hodgkin to the Philip Hoskins who died in Maryland in 1716, and who was part of the same kinship network to which Thomas Hodgkin’s family connects—the Brookes, Dents, Hansons, Contees, and so forth.

After several hours of work in the Hall of Records, made more exasperating by some of the officious and rude young men assisting the noted Maryland genealogist, we decided to drive across to the Eastern Shore to look for a restaurant we’d read about on Kent Island, at the Narrows. The restaurant is called the Narrows.

We got there around 3: 30 and were surprised to find we weren’t the only folks having a late lunch or early supper—a lupper?—beside Chesapeake Bay. The restaurant was wonderful—unpretentious but elegant, with an old-fashioned porch across the back where one can sit right on the water.

We had crabcakes with a side of garlic mashed potatoes and another of cole slaw, and found them wonderful—full of big pieces of what the restaurant advertises to be local blue crab meat, barely held together with mayonnaise, and lightly sautéed on both sides. It was a heavenly meal, with good bread and butter and real, well-brewed ice tea.

I don’t know if I’ve ever driven to the Maryland coast at this time of year. It was interesting to do so yesterday. I particularly enjoyed seeing how the state uses wild native plants, as one nears the coast, to line the roadside. I’m not sure of the identity of all of these plants, but I recognize them as native plants that often grow in old fields and that either flower or go to seed in the fall.

One is a bit like life-everlasting, with pearly, slightly translucent, nacreous small flowers in big bunches at the top of tall stems. The other is a native grass like broomsedge, which turns a handsome shade of gold-brown this time of year. I saw this planted along a dark brick wall lining the road as we got near the coast, a striking combination of colors.

Light always shifts slightly or dramatically as one nears a seacoast. The shift is less dramatic in the mid-Atlantic states, where colors are more muted everywhere than in more tropical areas, and where the interplay of light and dark is more temperate.

Still, it’s there, and it lures the eye. And the heart.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Braunschweig and Frankfurt, Germany 13.7.09: Fernet-Branca and Baroque Chapels

A full day yesterday, Sunday. It began with Mass at Mareille’s church, the Dominican church, which we attended to be polite—though Mareille asked if we wanted to go with her and would have been content with our demurral.

Because the acoustics are so bad in the church, neither Steve nor I could hear or understand much, which is, all things considered, not always a bad thing in churches. What I could hear struck me as far more thoughtful and intelligent than what one routinely hears in American churches. The priest quoted St. Benedict and St. Gregory the great in a homily about Jesus’s sending forth the apostles two by two.

Then back to Mareille’s house for a lunch of mozzarella and tomatoes with basil, and a rest of several hours before we drove to Liebenburg to visit Mareille’s brother Peter, who had invited us for the evening. He lives in a retirement house provided by the diocese at the foot of what was once the schloss of the Bishop of Limburg.

Mareille’s friend Franz Josef drove us. We had met him at church—a very nice man who grew up in East Prussia and was expelled from there with his family as a boy after the war. They walked for days over the ice, rucksacks on their backs, to reach the German border.

We had met Peter some 15 years ago when he was pastor in Goslar, and liked him. Seeing him again was a great gift. He was warm, animated, an embarrassingly gracious host.

Mareille had cooked a casserole for the evening meal, and when we got that and a basket of Peter’s laundry she had washed and ironed attended to, we sat outside for coffee. The house in which Peter lives is something like a mountain chalet, a single room with the bedroom upstairs off a small staircase in the middle of the room below, which is a large living room with a small kitchen partitioned off from the living area.

Windows are everywhere, especially on the wall overlooking the patio, which in turn overlooks the Harz Mountains in the distance—a splendid view.

As we prepared for coffee, Peter bustled around, bringing out cookies and sweets, bottles of marillenschnapps and of elderberry juice he makes from the elderberries that grow all around the house in what Peter calls his garden—i.e., in the woods.

There was a long discussion about why Mareille had decided not to bring kuchen, which reminded me of how much Germans consider afternoon coffee a formal meal, with its own rules, one of which, Franz Josef kept insisting, is kuchen. To make up for the lack of it, Peter produced a bar of marzipan made in a Benedictine cloister at Chiemsee, and proceeded to divide it up with his Swiss army knife. It was the most wonderful marzipan I’ve ever had, far superior to Lübeck marzipan, sweet and grainy, and intensely almond-tasting.

After coffee—again, typical German fashion—a walk to work off the sweets and prepare for supper. Peter took us up the hill to what remains of the old burg the bishop of Limburg built here in the high middle ages, as the Braunschweig Herzog repeatedly attacked his lands.

From there, we climbed yet higher to the schloss and visited its magnificent Baroque chapel, one of the best examples of Baroque in north Germany, according to Peter. A student of the Asam brothers painted its altar and ceiling murals of the Annunciation and the life of St. Clement. They’re masterful and beautiful, the blue of Mary’s cloak echoed in the sky across the ceiling.

Peter explained the murals in great detail, commenting on how the Annunciation shows Mary engaging Adam and Eve, who stand beneath her, the snake on whose head Mary stands writhing around them, the tree of life and angel guarding paradise over their shoulders. As he noted, the mural is a profound theological commentary on the Annunciation.

The St. Clement story was harder to follow—literally so, because the chapel is small and the ceiling high, and it was very difficult for me to crick my neck at any angle that allowed me to see directly overhead. This cycle of painted stories from the golden legend of Clement that circulated through Europe in the middle ages is one the Limburg bishop wanted as the chapel ceiling because he himself was named Clemens August, and the scenes slyly support his resistance as a bishop to the power of the Kaiser.

After the chapel, more climbing through the woods to a medieval watchtower atop the hill over the burg and schloss, from which soldiers guarding the area could look in the direction of Limburg and send signals for reinforcement if attacks came. We climbed the stairs inside to the top and looked out over the plain checkered with gold and green fields and ringed by the blue mountains—a beautiful sight.

And then back for dinner, for Mareille’s casserole of pork cutlets in a cream sauce with green peppers and spring onions. Peter insisted on pouring more wine even if we drank a few sips, so I quickly learned to guard my glass and sip very slowly. He had already pressed glasses of sherry on us before the meal began, and I had not even finished that preprandial before my wine glass magically overflowed with a crisp, cool, dry white wine perfect for a muggy summer evening.

We ate outside and talked and talked into the evening, about many things—about Obama and his importance to the whole world, about the war years, and Mareille and Peter’s memories of the American and British soldiers who came to Braunschweig, about names and the significance of names, and on and on. As we talked, Peter poured more marillenschnapps and glasses of Fernet-Branca, which I was delighted to taste, since I had just read James Hamilton-Paterson’s hilarious novel Cooking with Fernet-Branca, and had no experience on which to hang my imagination as I read its disgusting recipes for dishes full of the bitter digestive.

All this, as we ate on the patio, Mozart playing on a c.d. player inside, rain falling, Peter unrolling a canopy to cover the table as Mareille and Franz Josef wondered if we should eat inside, saying, “Yes, we can!” as he unrolled the canopy.

And then gifts: he insisted on pressing gifts on each of us as we left. For Steve, a huge 18th-century key from one of his many collections of antique nails, keys, curious rocks, and fossils; for Christoph, his choice of a fossil from a bowl full of them; and for me, a beeswax pilgrim’s candle from Jerusalem.

+ + + + +

Now in Frankfurt, where we drove today to spend a day before we return on the 15th. We’re sitting on the shady side of Leipzigerstrasse on a hot, dry summer day, sipping apple schorle (me) and beer (Steve). Have been looking in shop windows and enjoying the fresh air and chance to stretch our legs.

I keep thinking of a word Mareille taught us: pfiffig, if I heard it right, which is equivalent to verschmitzt, and is, so Mareille said, halfway between lustig and geistig. Franz Josef actually used the word pfiffig yesterday, and I asked him to clarify. He said it meant “clever.”

The distinction—the sharp distinction—between geistig and lustig escapes me, frankly, so I have no way of guessing the middle point between them. It strikes me as amusing that a people so careful about displaying exuberant emotion should have such a precise linguistic calibration of degrees of enthusiasm, though, admittedly, these are degrees of intellectual sharpness.

But in a way, that’s not surprising, is it? The two go hand in hand, perhaps: emotional reserve and careful verbal calculation of degrees of spiritedness.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Braunschweig, Germany 12.7.09: Apple Trees in Church, Shopping Malls in Manor Houses

The flea market yesterday: in addition to booths selling defunct dolls and pictures of decrepit Victorian (what’s the German equivalent to that term, I wonder?) ancestors, there were food vendors—Turkish (as always), Indian, Dutch (fried doughnuts), seafood and sandwiches made from fish from the North Sea, pea soup, and so forth. It was a pleasant morning, picking among the alluring detritus, much of it different from what one might find in an American flea market, smelling the alluring (and sometimes disgusting) smells from the food vendors, all in a circle outside that looked like some sort of race track.

In the afternoon, Mareille took us and her grandson Christoph, who arrived at 3 on the train from Münster, to an old schloss in the inner city, which was destroyed along with everything else in the bombing of World War II. It’s in a grand neo-classical style, with Ionic columns and imposing civic statuary.

Only the outside has been restored. Inside is a shopping mall that was teeming with people on a rainy, cold Saturday afternoon. Amazing, the extent to which Germans seem mad for American culture. The mall could have been anywhere USA, with its Toys R Us and Starbucks. Racks and racks of clothes in each clothing store, with English slogans inscribed on all the shirts.

Then on to the Dom to see the beautiful old Imervard crucifix. There we found a surprise, an exhibit of garden plants—inside the cathedral—known to have been in the garden of Kaiser Otto IV.

Everything was done with typical German thoroughness, and was astonishing. Down the far aisles of either side of the church, apple trees—real ones—with fallen apples in the grass beneath them, grapes and vines and wine-making accountrements, gardens of herbs and flowers, squares of vegetables, implements for cutting cabbage into kraut, potted orange trees, displays of spices.

It was wonderful to find a garden inside a stony, cold cathedral that would otherwise be empty. And it brought people into a “sacred” space they might otherwise avoid, precisely because it is stony and empty, like almost any other cathedral anywhere in the world.

A garden in the church: the very fact that the idea is so astonishing is in itself astonishing. Perhaps every church ought to have wild or cultivated spaces inside for nature, and walls permeable to the natural and human world around the church.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Braunschweig, Germany 11.7.09: Riots of Roses and Bunzlau Jugs

In Braunschweig at Mareile’s. Always such a great pleasure to be here. She doesn’t appear to age or to change.

When we arrived and came through the gate, she came running down the garden path and kissed us, then ushered us inside and sat us very formally at the table she uses for reading and writing letters beside large windows overlooking the garden.

We sat, the three of us, in a semicircle around the table, as she talked to us as if we had parted only yesterday—though we realized as we talked that it’s been a whole decade since we were last here.

On the table, wild white sweetpeas she had picked for us on a walk in the woods, in a Bunzlau jug, and on the dining table, another Bunzlau jug of rose-colored white sweetpeas. Our bedroom has a vase of very sweet-smelling pink roses from her garden.

The garden is, as in the past, a wonder to behold, a riot of roses, foxgloves, peonies, sweet William, hydrangeas, hollyhocks, poppies, and many other flowers in a flowing, artfully arranged “wild” style, an English style à la Gertrude Jekyll.

Somehow Mareille creates all around herself a unique space, a civilized, contemplative one, in which one may talk with equanimity about roses and wild sweetpeas, Charlemagne, Benedict’s new encyclical, Bunzlau pottery, and Obama. A European space, highly cultured without being self-conscious or snobbish, and a space grounded in deep, authentic, non-showy piety.

I find it exceptionally restful, being here. Even listening to and speaking German continuously doesn’t strain me. I find myself hearing and understanding almost every single word, where in other settings, especially when I’m tired or strained, I sometimes get only the gist without understanding some words.

Her intense, searching, but always warm blue eyes remain young, and I was not surprised to see her, at the age of 73, spring up the stairs like a young mountain doe when she showed us our room.

+ + + + +

And now today just back from a weekend flea market, where we found 4 or 5 nice small watercolors for a euro or two each, and a brand-new Steiff hedgehog for Mary at a very good price. An enjoyable morning, followed by herb tea from herbs Walter’s aunt in Austria gathers in the wild verges of her yard. Last night, we had ham she still cures and smokes herself, as she approaches 100.

And I keep thinking about what I wrote yesterday re: the difference between north and south Germans, and how I need to balance those observations with a note about how what sometimes seems to be the phlegmatic nature of people in the north is often restful and serene when compared with the hectic air in the south. There’s a way in which north Germans leave each other and strangers along—in a good, non-obtruding, way—while south Germans seem to command social interaction. All those good mornings and guten Appetits are not merely social pleasantries. They’re also command performances, demanding that one respond in kind.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Cloppenburg, Lower Saxony, Germany 10.7.09: Sharecroppers and Saying Thanks

Yesterday to Vechta to the diocesan archives, where we did research on Steve’s ancestors, with the helpful Mr. M. along. Steve was able to confirm his own discoveries from microfilmed copies of the church books, though I believe the diocesan copies have information the ones he had used didn’t. He can now trace his Rolfes and Endemann ancestors back to around 1700, and with more work, may push the lines a bit further back.

I helped by reading through local histories and taking notes. It’s clear from the church records (and the histories confirm this) that the Rolfes family were in Werwe already by the 1600s and the Endemanns in Ehren by the same period.

An old Endemann farmhouse dating to the late 1600s or early 1700s is still occupied in Ehren, and it is beside that house that the small prayer chapel I wrote about yesterday stands.

The story that unfolded as I did research seems to be as follows: into the early modern period, villages in this area held land in common between the villages, for agricultural use. By the early modern period, a push occurred similar to the abolition of common land in England, and the land was marked: i.e., boundaries of ownership were marked.

An order was given in 1806 by the Herzog of Oldenburg to divide land and establish clear boundary lines in the various marks of the parish of Löningen, to which Ehren and Evenkamp belonged. We met Herr M.’s mother, who’s 86 yesterday. She grew up in Ehren and told us her family had to walk to the parish church in Löningen each Sunday, several miles and a hard job when snow was on the ground.

When the land was marked, the farmers began to have great power in the marks, and those living on the farms and working for the farmers—Heuermänner and their families—were reduced to a kind of servitude, though they were often the brothers and other close relatives of the farmer. Many of these Heuermann families had previously owned land, but as their families grew and one branch held the family hof, other lines fell to Heuermann status.

For their services, farmers gave the Heuermann family a small, poor house, a bit of land, and a few farm animals. The Heuermann and his family were required to work on the farmer’s land several days a week, and were on call for the farmer at any time.

As a result, the children of such families often could not attend school. The only way they could earn money was to hire out as servants, or to work in shops and factories.

Living conditions were harsh. Evening meals consisted normally of buttermilk and bread, and the main meal might add to that potatoes, vegetables from the Heuermann’s garden, and beans. One worked simply to obtain the wherewithal to live, to eat. There was no future, no way out of the system.

As a result, a mass exodus of these folks in this region began in the 1840s. They headed to American knowing they could buy land and become farmers there.

And Steve’s Gerhard Wilhelm Rolfes was among them. The marriage record of his parents in 1806 notes that they married at the Rolfes Heuerhaus in Werwe, where a list of farmers in 1700 shows them with a farm. The father of Gerhard Wilhelm, Gerd. Meinrad, reported to government officials in the 1830s that something had to be done to address the needs of those in the area, which were growing acute.

The ship’s list for Gerhard Wilhelm lists him as a tailor, and for several decades on the federal census, his occupation is given as tailor, though the same censuses make it clear he was farming, as well. And finally the census shows him as a farmer.

He had clearly left as a young unmarried man of a Heuermann’s family, who had taken up the trade of tailoring to provide money as he labored on the farm. The promise to have his own farm lured him to America, and there, he realized his dream.

I don’t understand all the ins and outs of it, but it seems the church did not have the same strong hand of ownership in this region that it had in south Germany, perhaps because this is a small Catholic island in a Protestant sea. And that allowed farmers to develop strong economic and political power.

You don’t see in this area the big abbeys that dominate Catholic life (and which once controlled economic life) in places like the Eifel or along the German-Swiss border. What you do see is large, imposing farm places with large, comfortable farmhouses, barns, and outbuildings, dispersed on the land between small villages—very much like the pattern of the American Midwest, to which so many people went from here.

Steve said today that it’s curious that towns in the Midwest which are the size of ones here have so little culture and so little sense of history. But it occurs to me, Whose culture and whose history? When those pouring into an area were Norwegian and German and Polish, how to choose?

And when the Germans were themselves Badish and Bohemian and Prussian and from every region of Germany, with different dialects, religious views, and cultures, which to pick as dominant? So much of the American experiment has been about negotiating difference and learning to live together. That hasn’t left time and energy to build a common culture or cultural artifacts expressing that shared consensus.

Dreary here, the past two days. It has rained each day we’ve been in the north, and is raining heavily now as I (try to) write this while we drive to Braunschweig. Miserably cold and windy, too, so much so that folks in Cloppenburg were wearing winter coats today.

I wonder if this kind of weather is part of what makes people so gloomy seeming here, so reserved and frigid and sometimes downright oafish. Herr M. scolded Steve yesterday when Steve thanked him for his generous assistance, saying one thanks is enough and the difference between Germans and Americans is we thank and thank again.

Well, why not? One should express thanks, and it seems to me merely civilized to do so each time thanks are due.

Nor is this stolid reserve characteristic of all of Germany. Everywhere we ate in the Black Forest region, anyone passing our table would smile, say good day or evening, and wish us a hearty appetite.

Here, they just pass, gloom on their faces. It’s unattractive. And the food reflects the anal-retentive manners—horrible beyond belief.

People in north Germany say the friendliness and hospitality in the south are put-on, as insincere as our friendliness and hospitality in the American South. And that may well be true, and as an outsider, I may just not see through it all.

Still, was Quentin Crisp (or was it Wilde?) wrong when he said that the lie is the foundation of all polite society? What do we have to oil the wheels and make the engine run smoothly, if we can’t smile and pretend?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Cloppenburg, Lower Saxony, Germany 9.7.09: Green Lanes and Prayer Chapels

Not much to report the last two days that would be of interest to anyone reading a travelogue. The 7th, Jochen and Regina had invited family over—Iris E. and her sister from Boston, and Jochen’s brother Lothar and his wife.

From mid-afternoon, we sat outside in the garden drinking champagne and talking a polyglot mix of English, German, and Badish—the latter mostly incomprehensible to me. I realize as I listen that the tendency to clip the final consonant off words like Garten runs through the whole dialect, and the indefinite article becomes something that sounds like d’ to my ear, regardless of gender or case, so that die Strasse becomes d’ Straush.

And Baden-Baden is, amusingly, Bade-Bade. But a long evening of listening to people talk animatedly in a language I only partly understand is tiresome in the extreme, despite the little nuggets of linguistic recognition that might occasionally enliven it.

As rain approached, we moved inside, and carafes of red and white wine appeared, along with bowls of peanuts and corn chips followed by sausage, cheese, and smoked fish. Then began the real Badish gabfest, with story after story, flailing hands, leers and winks, uproarious laughter. People in this part of Germany don’t fit the stereotype of the reserved, cool German at all.

I understood little, except one funny story Jochen told about someone he knows, who went into a shop and wanted to speak “good” German so he wouldn’t be dismissed as a country oaf.

He wanted a Tüte, which people around Jöhlingen apparently call a' (literally: a sound like “uh” for ein/eine) Guk. But since Badish often substitutes g for c and he wanted to be hyper-correct, he corrected the word to Cuk and threw in the final –e for good measure. He asked for a’ Cuke.

Regina told a story about Fronleichnam, when the town gathers at the church square at the end of the procession and sings, “Grosser Gott, wir loben Dich.” At a previous Fronleichnam event, near her were two people from the village known to be simple.

People call the man by some Italian song he’s famous for belting out at any gathering whatsoever—Volare Cantare, or something like that. The woman has large breasts and smiles to beat the band, always.

As the hymn began, Volare grabbed his companion’s breasts with one hand, raised the other to wave, and then launched into his Italian song. And as Jochen said later, these stories are told affectionately. Characters are a part of village life, and when they leave, there’s a hole in the heart of the community.

And then yesterday, a long, tiring drive by the autobahn through Frankfurt and on to Dortmund and Osnabrück. Steve had made a 3 P.M. appointment with a Herr M., a local historian, at the hotel in Cloppenburg, and we were afraid we’d be late, which added to the stress of the trip.

We arrived about 15 minutes late and found Herr M. waiting outside the hotel in his car, and he then gave us a driving tour of the area in which Steve’s ancestors lived—Augustenfeld, Evenkamp, and Werwe.

Beautiful Saxon countryside with restful-looking brick houses and barns, the occasional fachwerk and thatched-roof structure, fields of corn, wheat, and asparagus, and pastures with cows and horses.

The country lanes are deeper and greener, less sunnier and open, than in Baden. And people are, of course, less sunny and open—on the surface, at least—more reserved and cautious about smiling or saying hello.

This is a rare Catholic area in a Protestant region, and the church in Löningen, which formerly served the entire area, is an interesting mix of south German baroque and north German restraint—a mix I liked, since the baroque motifs don’t run wild and become simply silly-looking, as they sometimes do, and there’s space left in the church for silence, emptiness, contemplation.

In front of the main altar at the end of the aisle is a huge bible of handmade paper with beautiful modern illustrations, hand-drawn by someone local, to illustrate each page. One page is turned each day. The presence of this large, open bible at the foot of the altar is yet another reminder that Catholics in this region co-exist with Protestants, and have learned from the tradition of their evangelical brothers and sisters.

Also, out in the country—perhaps at Evenkamp—Herr M. took us to a little brick prayer chapel. It was beautiful inside, with old oak beams, a brick floor, two simple handmade wooden stools, and a crucifix. A place to sit and pray as one goes about the business of the day . . . . It was apparently built by someone with one of Steve’s family names, Endemann.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Wössingen, Baden, Germany 6.7.09: Holy Nooks and Champagne in the Garden

Two less hectic days since we left Freiburg. Yesterday we drove first to Wagensteig, where we’d been told there was a Heimatsmuseum for the Buchenbach and Falkensteig area.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Kirchzarten, Baden, Germany 5.7.2009: Wild Astilbe and Green Pastures

Most arduous day yet, but a pleasant one in retrospect. Began with a train and bus trip up the Höllental to Feldberg, the highest point in the Black Forest.

The trip by train through the same areas we’d seen several days before, then through mist on a cloudy day, yesterday on a fine, hot, sunny day, was fascinating. Dark, still forests bordered by lush strips of wildflowers full of astilbe and blue and purple lupines, green pastures running up steep hillsides at whose feet sprawled huge houses and barns in the Black Forest style: one could look forever.

At Feldberg, we took a lift to the highest point, with its observation tower, and walked around, looking to the Alps at the Swiss border, and a small lake surrounded by steep rocky cliffs below the observation area.

Then back to the bus-and-shopping center to mill around with throngs of polyglot other tourists as we waited for the bus back, which took us to our train connection to Freiburg. Have I mentioned that our hotel has an arrangement that permits guests to take buses and trains all over Baden for free?

In Freiburg, we walked and walked on a very hot day—28˚—with merciless sun, and then rendezvoused with Regina’s sister and her husband to sit beside the cathedral—more sun and more sunburn—and to drink a glass of white wine at the tables set up for the Weinfest. Then yet another meal of flammkuchen and one more glass of wine, and back to Kirchzarten and the hotel, to rest for the drive back to Wössingen tomorrow.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Baden and Alsace 4.7.09 (2): Flammkuchen and Sudden Storms

From Haut-Koenigsbourg to Riquewihr, where we walked up and down the main street with its tawdry tourist shops and macaroon vendors, and too preserved, too self-conscious and perfect artifacts of medieval life. As we climbed the hill of the main street, a fierce storm suddenly blew up and we took shelter under the awning of one of the souvenir shops.

Rain poured from the skies, sluicing a sudden river down the main street, as miniature whirlwinds turned it into spouts rising up from the street several feet high. Adding to the excitement, one of the large table umbrellas of the café across the street took flight, hurtling through the air towards several hapless people who had sought sanctuary outside another shop.

When it was over, we found a nice, quiet little restaurant, where the four of us shared three flammkuchens, all delicious. The first had onions, cheese bits and bacon, and crème fraiche; the second, gruyere and munster with the crème fraiche; and the third, sheep’s milk cheese, tangy and fresh, atop the base of crème fraiche and gruyere. All with wonderful Alsatian white wine from the area.

After this, we stopped at a shopping area—centre commercial—outside one of the towns near the border, and marveled at the huge selection of good French food: seafood and fish, sausages piled atop sausages, cheeses to satisfy any taste, wines and crémants from all over France. We bought a local crémant and a sausage, as well as a box of sugar roses for Mary and a small handmade French pitcher for ourselves, pretty with its dark blue glazing and sprays of yellow and pink flowers on a green bough.

Everywhere we went, people seemed confidently trilingual, switching from French and German to English with ease. In the castle, we tagged along on tours in all three languages (the French being by far the most informative and dramatic, with a vivacious compact little man acting out the medieval method of battle, noting that one got one’s enemy down and then frapper! frapper! frapper!, arms gesticulating the motion of the pummeling halberd).

But when we bought ice cream at a café in the shopping center near the border, the waitress either did not understand Regina’s German or refused to understand, and switched immediately to French. So our drei Kugeln became trois boules, and we went away happy after having negotiated the linguistic maze and gotten what we had ordered.

At the hotel, a meal of delicious Black Forest trout in brown butter with almonds, parsley potatoes, and salad, and to bed for a very welcome early evening, with several hours in the company of James Hamilton-Paterson and his hilarious (and often disgusting) Cooking with Fernet Branca.

Baden and Alsace 4.7.09 (1): Moses from the Mountain, Fierce Village Storms

Another full day. We drove back to Buchenbach after breakfast, since a sign at the parish house door had said the priest would be in on Friday morning. His secretary greeted us at the door, ushered us inside, and then went to ask if Steve could see the Kirchenbücher.

We heard a deep voice in the bowels of the building—God giving Moses the Torah—but like the Hebrew children at the foot of the mountain, never saw the regal speaker’s face. The assistant returned to tell Steve that all the information he wanted was in the episcopal archives in Freiburg.

Steve said he’d checked church records on microfilm from there, but didn’t understand where the records prior to 1817 were held. The village church was built in that year, apparently.

As well as I could understand, the assistant, who spoke a pronounced Allemanish German, said that prior to then, sacraments and services took place in a small chapel on a hill nearby, and in people’s houses. The population was thin and widely dispersed, and churches were not built until later. But the records from this earlier period? She didn’t know.

The lady at the Shouphof had asked us to return that morning, so we did so. She met us outside, saying her husband had been called to an appointment (he works a day job and also farms), and had asked if Steve would email him. She shared with us a family tree someone had put together, and told us her husband’s uncle Oscar had compiled much family information and had given it to the Rathaus—which the Rathaus staff had not told us the day before, though Steve specifically asked about the Shoup family.

And so then to Alsace . . . . We drove first to Haut-Koenigsbourg, passing along allées of trees right at the roadside, something not found on the German side of the line, and fields of corn, asparagus, ripened grain, and pick-your-own flowers. The little villages were neat with pots of bright scarlet and pink geraniums beneath windows, houses painted in various pastel shades, and high hills full of vines around them.

At Haut-Koenigsbourg, we parked and then climbed up to the pre-12th century château, which has been rebuilt and added onto several times, and finally restored under Wilhelm II early in the 20th century. These old castles just don’t do it for me, any more than cathedrals do.

Perhaps I went through my medieval phase too early in life. I recall reading with tremendous fascination one book after another about the middle ages when I was 9 or 10 years old, and fantasizing about returning to that period of history for a look around.

But those fantasies falter in the face of the architectural evidence re: what life must have been like for people who lived in castles (and went to cathedrals). In such high places where a cool wind blows through every nook and cranny even on a hot July day, it must have been intolerably cold in winter.

The forbidding stone; the house-as-fort with its peepholes and execrable weapons all around; the overweening masculine cast of life, with little room for anything outside virtues of valor and honor: I can’t imagine living in such a world. Any more than in the one I must now inhabit . . . .

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Kirchzarten, Baden, Germany: 3.7.09: Wine Fests and Black Forests

And then on the 2nd to Freiburg. Jochen drove us south through fields of corn, asparagus, pick-your-own blooms, wheat, flax, and then, in the area close to Freiburg, vines. We reached Kirchzarten about noon and checked into the Sonne, then sat in their restaurant garden and drank white wine schorles. Very hot here, both because it’s the hottest part of Germany and the weather is, according to Jochen and Regina, hotter than usual and schwül.

As we sat, a storm brewed up in the mountains around the Dreisamtal, and we hoped for a respite from the hot, muggy weather. But, as Jochen predicted, the rain passed the low-lying areas by and we were left sweltering.

Then we ordered a meal, and waited and waited, as the waitress apologized for the inexplicable delay. The meal finally arrived and was very welcome after the wait—mine, a salad plate with cucumber salad, carrot, radish, beet, potato salad, a green salad, and a boiled egg. Perfect for a hot summer day with the crisp, cool schorle.

After that, on to Buchenbach, slightly higher towards the hills of the Black Forest, where Steve found a wonderful history at the Rathaus. He spoke with someone there who told him of a Shoup house and hof still lived in by family members. This turned out to be a massive old farmhouse in traditional Black Forest style, with low overhanging eaves.

In front a large statue of a cow painted the colors of the German flag, with a slogan saying the milk sold there was a fair-trade product. At the door of the house, standing outside as if to greet us, a very nice young man who went inside and got his mother, a formidable large woman dressed vaguely in lumberjack style, who came out and talked with one foot propped on a stump outside the doorway. Over her head the date of the house and farm were carved: 1657.

She took our contact information and asked us to return this morning when her husband would be in. And then Jochen drove us up into the Black Forest.

Glorious. Cool dark hills with rocky outcrops, wreaths of mist, rain, occasional clearings with fields and lonely clusters of houses. It was like going back to the period when the Alemanni first arrived here. There’s something primitive, something prehistoric, about mountainous areas and their ancient settlements.

One outcrop beside which the road runs overlooks another on the opposite side of the roads, and is called Hirschsprung—the rocks from which deer jump from one side to the other. All cool, beautiful, still, except for the cars racing madly towards Basel and Titisee.

On our way down, stopped in Falkensteig, where Steve’s ancestor Andreas Wenzel, who married Magdalena Shoup in Buchenbach and went to Pennsylvania, grew up. We saw a sign for cherries and asparagus and stopped to buy fruit.

Bought a bottle of kirschwasser and then, when we picked out a basket of cherries, the lady at the stand gave them to us as a gift. As we stood eating the succulent, cool fruit (it was 15˚ in the mountains, and 25˚ in Freiburg), I happened to look in the book Steve had gotten in Buchenbach, and I saw that it gave the number of the house in which Leo Wenzel, father of Andreas, had lived in 1817.

We looked around, and it turned out we had parked the car right beside the house. It’s on the main road through the village into the mountains, Höllentalstrasse. It’s a large two-story old farmhouse built into the hillside, modernized at several points in its history.

The whole façade facing the street covered in kitsch—little gnomes, animals, flowerpots, in every nook and cranny available. A Wintergartenzimmer with a sign asking visitors to bring luck inside was rife with the wee creatures.

As Steve snapped pictures, up the hill from the train came two unusual looking women, mother and daughter. The mother was in black knee-length nylon tights, with black and white tennis shoes and a black waistcoat over a white t-shirt. Her hair was in a long plait wrapped in black, with multi-colored plastic butterfly clamps in it.

The daughter was similarly, if a bit less eye-poppingly, dressed. She was carrying a canvas bag with Viagra printed on the side. It was their house.

And they were very gracious, insisted we come inside, told us the house was built in 1745, and showed us all around. At one time the bottom floor apparently had a large old kitchen connecting to the barn, where geese and swine were once housed, and a living room with a large old tile stove (the original tiles mounted on display beside the stove).

Every surface, every square inch, covered in kitsch. The walls dancing with more kitsch on every spot available. A plastic mock elk’s head which R., the house owner, played for us. It sang American rock songs and bobbed its antlers. A little chef who peed and then ground his pelvis obscenely, with an erection lifting his apron, and another on the pot who grunted and produced horrendous toilet noises as Handel’s Alleluia chorus played.

The daughter, J., did not want her mother to display these—Nein, Mutti! Nein, bitte. Nein. But the mother ignored her, and we laughed and laughed at the little figures. And then she kindly gave Steve a clock and a vase as mementoes of the house.

An original (referring to the woman, that is), as Regina said, perhaps someone who owns a flea market in Freiburg, we thought. Definitely someone who dances to her own music.

And then back, the train to Freiburg, where we walked from the Hauptbahnhof to the cathedral, where a wine fest was taking place in the cathedral square: tents with wine from various vintners of the region, food, music.

We found a tent with wine from the area around Jöhlingen and had a glass of cool, crisp, dry Riesling as a band played oompahpah music and people at another table lifted their elbows and shoulders and swayed to it in mock enthusiasm. I had a salad with shrimp garnele, shrimp in a potato batter with threads of potato covering the whole, and then fried. Good on a very hot, close summer’s day.

As we walked back to the train station, Jochen pointed out embedded in the stone sidewalk something now being placed all over Germany, he said—Stolpfersteine, gold squares with names of Jews killed in the Holocaust engraved on them, and information about what happened to them. Jöhlingen has some of these now, he told us.

Oh, and in the kitchen of the Wenzel house, a shrine to Mary, with a dinosaur peeping over her shoulder, and at her feet gnomes, tiny apiaries with bees, a fat little chef in a chef’s hat, and innumerable other gewgaws. Very much like what we saw in New Riegel, Ohio, in fact, where Steve’s Wenzel ancestors and others from this area of Baden went after they arrived in Pennsylvania.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Wössingen, Baden, Germany 3.7.09: Cloudbursts and Pots of Oleander

Days passing quickly and full, with little time to write. On the 1st, we traveled to Germany.

The experience with Ryan Air (on which M. had booked us to save pennies) was unsettling. When we arrived at the airport two hours before the flight, the snaking queue for their counter was horrendously long. They had apparently opened the counter only a short time before, after people had lined up and waited for hours (for all their flights), and it had too few staff.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Edinburgh 1.7.09: Officious Misses and Communion Tokens

To the Scottish national library yesterday, with folderol at the desk issuing a visitor’s card: two lasses talking at the desk, neither helping (or even acknowledging) those waiting for a card. When I was finally called to the desk, the officious miss I drew greeted me not with a hello, but with a “You’ve filled out only half of the form,” and a peremptory order to complete a form she provided me with on the spot, which was not offered online at the section of the website with forms where we’d downloaded and printed the application form weeks back.

She then tsked-tsked that I had written the date as 1.7, and told me it was 30.7, instead, writing 30 July in a big scrawl over my script. Whereupon I sweetly asked, “30th July?” and she caught herself, said, “I’ve gotten ahead of myself,” and softened to a quasi-humanity.

A few hours reading about Hugh Montgomery and James Hamilton and the settlement of Ulster, and then we walked to Jenner’s, where we had tea and bought two bottles of Montepulciano wine for the dinner. We stopped in Sainsbury’s and got plums for a cobbler, and then home to cook.

Made grillades and grits, using polenta for the grits, with a nice peppery rocket salad to which I added a sharp vinaigrette with a mustard bite. And then the plum cobbler, which turned out good, if I say so.

And I amused the table by trying to scoop out a dip of very hard-frozen ice cream, which went flying through the air and landed neatly in my dish.

Before dinner (well, tea, Ian called it), Margaret Berwick stopped by and she and Ian presented me with a gold token struck for the 400th anniversary, a replica of the 1909 token devised by John White. They gave Steve one, too, in some metal like pewter, and to both of us, replicas of communion tokens from the past. Very kind and very touching.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Edinburgh 30.6.09: Skye Terriers and Murano Hedgehogs

Another nice, slow day. Ian took us on a driving tour of various areas of Edinburgh, beginning with Valvona and Crolla, which he thought we’d like to see for its significance to Alexander McCall Smith’s stories.

It was certainly a beautifully arranged shop with beautiful food, but far less splendid than various sources had made me imagine. We looked but didn’t buy, since we fly to Germany on Ryan Air in two days and weight restrictions are strict.

From there to the Morningside area of the city, where J.K. Rowling used to live, and where she liked to shop at Waitrose. We went there to buy ingredients for our meal tomorrow. Didn’t spot J.K. Rowling or Alexander McCall Smith.

We did, however, enjoy a good cup of Italian coffee at a café on the main shopping street down from the store. And in a small second-hand shop for the disabled across the street, I found a pretty little handmade vase from Guernsey that I’ll bring back as a souvenir of my time in Edinburgh.

Then on to the Grassmarket, where Ian dropped us to shop. It was rather touristy and uninteresting, so we quickly found our way to Westport, a street with several used bookstores that Ian’s daughter Jennifer had kindly marked on a map for us.

Several of these turned out to be closed because it was Monday, so we could only stare longingly at the books displayed in their widows. We did find one open, though, and spent a delightful hour or so in its narrow tunnels of books guarded by a sleeping dog at the entrance—something we had just encountered at a little antiques shop in the Grassmarket, where a Skye terrier in a basket sleepily sprawled across the threshold as we stepped into the store.

People unfailingly helpful and hospitable even when we bought nothing from them. Steve had wanted to find a replacement for the two small thistle-marked whiskey glasses he’s broken from the set we got on our last visit here.

We looked in several second-hand shops to no avail, asking in each where we might find something like that. In each, we received recommendations to stores of nearby competitors, along with detailed instructions (Ebay, etc.) of other options to try if that failed.

In the shop with the Skye terrier at the door, I did spot, however, an adorable Murano hedgehog for Mary’s collection, and bought it. It’ll be handsome in her collection, with its dots of green, yellow, red, and blue on bottom catching light and throwing ribbons of color up into the sparkling crystal.

Then we stopped for a glass of beer and a sandwich at one of the many pubs on either side of the central square in the Grassmarket, and spent some time sitting and writing there, in a garden behind the pub, and on a bench in the square.

We walked on to a Barnados benefit shop selling old lace, and I found a pretty antique linen tea towel fringed with lace for Billie, and a handbag made of reclaimed vintage fabric (green and gold, glimmering in the light) for Kate. The day had turned sunny—our first sunny day since we arrived—and it was pleasant to be out.

A taxi ride home then with a taxi driver from Mauritius, a rest, and then to dinner at Fishers, a seafood place in the oldest part of Leith, where Ian had made reservations, since we wanted to take him and Donna and Albert out to thank them for their hospitality and celebrate Albert’s graduation.

A wonderful meal—fish cakes (smoked haddock and salmon mixed with mashed potato and bread crumbs) with a garnish of rocket salad and Sancerre wine to drink. Donna shared her appetizer of mussels cooked in white wine and garlic, and they were succulent, tender, and delicious.

For dessert, we shared an array of sorbet (raspberry and red currant), toffee cake, strawberries melba, and truffle cake. The latter surprising, since it seemed to be made with ground walnuts, like a Reine de Saba cake. It was delicious, light, not too sweet, with a smoky deep chocolate base.

Afterwards, a little walk around the old harbor area, very romantic as the haar settled in, muffling cries of seagulls above us. We went into the lobby of the old Malmaison hotel (Fishers was across from it) and admired the beautiful square, solid architecture and appointments one finds in many old Edinburgh houses and buildings. And then home to bed, and another chapter about Henrietta, Christopher Wren’s redoubtable traveling cat.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Edinburgh 29.6.09: Castles and Bright Poppies, Golf Courses and Rocky Beaches

Sunday after service Ian took us on a wonderful driving tour along the Firth of Forth south and east of Edinburgh. We went through fishing villages and vacation communities including Musselburgh (the honest town, a welcome sign proudly proclaimed), Prestonpans and Cockenzie, a traditional fishing village, Aberlady (chi-chi beach and golf town), and then inland into rich East Lothian farming country and the typical village of Dirleton, with its beautiful castle that gives the village its name.

Stands of bright scarlet poppies here and there, varied landscape and flora and fauna, ranging from areas of sand dunes and grass populated by many birds to rocky beach and rolling hills with golf courses. Inland, in the farming area, the land flattens and landscapes is dotted with farms, widely dispersed clusters of buildings, and cool green wooded areas.

The graphic is Alexander Runciman's "East Lothian Landscape," in the National Gallery of Scotland.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Edinburgh 28.6.09 (2): Roman Forts and Secret Gardens

After the church, Ian took us to a pub alone the Firth of Forth, overlooking Fife on the opposite shore. It was a wet, misty day and we could see only the outline of Fife, green and rolling, on the other side.

The pub, Starbank, is an old family-run place where we had each a different local beer on tap, a bowl delicious cauliflower soup with cream and flecks of chopped parsley, and an egg and onion sandwich. We shared a bag of crisps in one of those incomprehensible British flavors, roast beef and sharp mustard.

Conversations punctuated by cheers, as the patrons watched Wimbledon on t.v. and cheered when the Scot scored a point. As we sat, the owner brought around a plate of meat pies fresh from the oven and gave us one as a treat. I enjoyed watching the gray river through many-paned windows, some of them with those raised circles surrounding a spy-hole that one sees in windows overlooking water.

Then a driving tour through the little medieval fishing village of Cramond on the river Amond, and to what remains of the Roman fort near Cramond. There Ian took us to a church hall to see a piece of sculpture by the same artist who just made a memorial for the South Leith graveyard, for all those buried there in unmarked graves.

Margaret had shown this to us. It’s on a wall in what the church calls its secret garden, a little space walled off from the graveyard proper, with flowering shrubs, tombstones, and the memorial on a wall.

The memorial is two pieces of sculpture, a gray plaque of granite with sparkling bits, depicting water and fishes, an inscription commemorating the dead buried in unmarked graves. Beneath is a beautiful red sandstone piece showing us a tree with roots exposed. As we looked at the sculpture at Cramond (a fish shaped from a light granite with a beautiful rose streak running through it), Ian told us the fish and water motif in the South Leith memorial echoes an ancient Assyrian carving.

Margaret told us the need for this memorial became apparent as work began recently to run a tramline beside the graveyard. The work began to uncover bones, and the congregation were reminded that a part of the old graveyard once extended beyond its present boundaries in the direction of the tramline.

Then back to Ian and Donna’s house for a rest, followed by a dinner in anticipation of the Sunday event. Guests included Avril, the session clerk and a Leither; Fiona, a nurse and aromatherapist who grew up in Essex but has Fifeshire roots on her mother’s side; Dawn, a Yorkshire woman who’s a librarian; and Louise, the assistant pastor, with her husband Derrick, a religion teacher from Ayrshire.

A wonderful meal prepared by Donna and their daughter Gillian. Appetizers of haggis, bruschetta, sun-dried tomatoes or peppers in puff pastry, a wonderful smoked salmon on tiny pancakes with sour cream. A co-worker of Donna’s had caught and cured the salmon with sugar and smoke. These appetizers with champagne.

Then boeuf bourgignon, mixed vegetables (sugar snap peas and baby corn), and salad. Desserts a marvelous key lime pie in our honor (an American dish), and a pavlova with strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and the obligatory (and always mysterious) kiwi.

At dinner Donna asked us to share something of our story (others had done so), and I made a spectacle of myself by mentioning Simpson’s death (the 26th would have been his 58th birthday), and then bursting into tears. Avril and Louise looked very sympathetic, which made me feel slightly less horrible about making a proper fool of myself and discomfiting an entire table full of strange folks.

We seldom have any idea of the deep rivers of feeling that run beneath the surface—the brittle surface—of what we call our selves.

Edinburgh 28.6.09 (1): Dignitaries Hither, Divines Yon

Fanfare now over and done with, Deo gratias. The 400th anniversary event was today. Dignitaries hither, divines yon. The service was moving, especially the communion, celebrated by the assistant pastor Louise Duncan, an Ulsterwoman. Huge shining goblets of inscribed silver filled with port wine, aromatic in the still air of the church, silver platters of bread.

All welcome. Louise emphasized that South Leith is a parish that invites everyone—young, old, everyone—to the table. The opening song was Marty Haugen’s “All Are Welcome in This Place.”

Several older men in kilts. A Mr. Lindsay, a high constable of Leith (if I heard correctly), spoke to me afterwards, twinkling blue eyes and sharp nose like my grandfather’s. Florid complexion. There’s no way we can’t be related, somewhere back in history.

Yesterday, we went with Ian to the church to see if we could help people set up for the celebration. A member of the congregation, Margaret B., gave us a tour, showing us cabinets of old communion tokens in the vestry, which had a Raeburn pointing of a former minister above them (or perhaps Raeburn did only the face).

I particularly liked going to the gallery and looking out at the beautiful carved hammerbeam wooden ceiling with its interlacing woodwork and angels with texts. Margaret told us her family’s pew had been in the gallery when she was a girl, and it bothered her when she realized people were walking to the gallery steps over gravestones each Sunday—and thus wearing down the ancient stones with their inscriptions, on the church floor.

So she got a friend of hers who was with an historical preservation group to photograph the stones. She also told she had an ah-ha moment when she looked down one day as a girl and saw the phrase, Hic iacet. She said to herself (drawing herself up and raising her brows as she told us this), “Ah ha! Hic iacet.

And I had no idea in the world of the point of that story, no idea about why the inscription suddenly struck her as meaningful. Had she suddenly realized she could read and understand the inscriptions in Latin?

After the tour, we helped a bit setting up the communion things and tables for cake and champagne. Margaret was apparently for years the head of the communion committee and has just been removed from it, which, Ian told us, explained why, when he asked her to give us a tour, she replied, “Oh, but I believed you considered me dispensable.”

We ended the tour with Margaret sitting in the vestry in a venerable old chair made and reserved for the clergy, with us across the table from her on wee elders’ chairs. I had to imagine she knew full well the dignity she was assuming in choosing the dignitary’s seat, since she had tsked-tsked in another room that someone had placed a box on an old stool made to hold a coffin at a funeral and said, “I believe these old objects should be reserved for their proper use or otherwise kept from use.”

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Edinburgh 26.6.09: Skating Parsons and Spinach Gnocchi

Now in Leith with the Gilmours. Such lovely people. A Zambian friend, Albert, is with them, to graduate shortly from a university in Glasgow. The South Leith congregation assists him and the school at which he teaches.

Still jet-lagged. We slept long last night, 12 hours, but I still feel tired. Feet and hands terribly swollen. I begin to wonder if I’m reaching a point in my life when travel will become too arduous.

In the entryway of their house, Donna has put a vase of lilies, which are so fragrant that their scent fills the whole house. I woke in the night and got up and could smell them fragrancing the upstairs. I remember just the same variety of lilies, with the same beautiful scent, in Lennoxlove House in Haddington on our last visit to Scotland.

Apprehensive about Sunday. Ian told us today Queen Elizabeth had been invited and apparently wanted to be at the event, but some mix-up may have occurred in her schedule. Then he said that I will replace her. Though he was being facetious, of course, the thought alarmed me. I do have friends who would find that observation—Bill Lindsey as queen—hilarious.

Ian took us for a wonderful driving tour today past Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Craig. Wonderful views—soft Scottish colors (browns, blues, greens, grays) spread in pleasing panorama below the highest places. We looked down on Duddingston church with its loch where Reverend Robert Walker famously skated in the Raeburn painting.

And then he took us to the National Gallery, where the Turner exhibit we had hoped to see was gone. So we had lunch in the café attached to the museum—Steve gnocchi in a spinach-tomato sauce, I a salad of broad beans, ricotta, and nut crumble. The menu promised olives and tomatoes, but none were to be found in the salad.

Monday, July 20, 2009

En Route to Edinburgh 24.6.09: Stars in Liberty's Crown, Kicks in the Kidneys

In the plane in NY, waiting to take off for Edinburgh. Our trip began early today in Little Rock, then to Atlanta and NY, and now overseas.

When we got onto the plane in Little Rock, they announced the air conditioning was not working. And oh by the way, we’ll be delayed due to a malfunction of our computer system that requires us to do all the paperwork by hand.

Then, as we take off: and oh by the way, the bathroom is broken. Inauspicious omens for the start of a trip!

In Atlanta, we prepare to get into the queue for take-off, and an announcement comes. Please keep your seats, ladies and gents. We can’t go further as long as you’re not seated.

After a few minutes, a chunky woman in a burqa comes sauntering down the aisle. She had evidently chosen to go to the restroom just as the plane began backing out of its gate. And then we land and are taxiing to the gate, and again she bounces up and walks to the front of the plane, causing the pilot to do a sharp halt and forcing us to sit on the runway until she had been directed once again to sit down.

I now find I’m seated in front of a little Italian boy who’s 1) kicking me in the kidneys, 2) singing, 3) shouting Mama! Questa Londra? La torre de Pisa? And now pummeling the tack of my seat at shoulder level with rude kinetic little fists. Che gioia!
And then: Quando se muove? And, Che dolore partiamo. And a series of questions to his papa about whether we’d fly over the Statue of Liberty by night and see her crown and stars.

At least, I thought I heard all of that. I don’t really speak Italian, though I can often puzzle some of its meaning out, when I look at an Italian text. But somehow I understood pretty much all that the little boy was saying. Perhaps a swift kick in the kidneys bestows linguistic connection that would otherwise be lacking.

+ + + + +

And now just reaching the southwest corner of Ireland, according to the little map screen in front of me, though all is thickly clouded over and I can’t see land. Well, now that I look at the map, we turn and fly north of Dublin, coming to Ireland someplace more like Donegal than the southeast corner of the island.

Just finished Nicholas Kilmer’s account of his family’s home in Normandy, as we flew from New York. A bit tedious, though the repartee with his wife could be amusing at times.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Belmont, North Carolina 4.9.91: Sun Spots and Dogwood Berries

Steve successfully defended his dissertation yesterday. I’ve noticed since he has been away that, fittingly, one of Mr. Bickham’s rose cuttings on which we had given up has sprouted: new life out of the old.

As I sit on the back porch, the glass thingamabob that causes the wind chimes to work swings and catches the sun, throwing sun spots on the rail of the porch. For awhile, I couldn’t figure out where the light originated—my glasses? Now I know, as much as anyone knows about where the light comes from, because one source leads to another, and then . . . .

Down in the foliage of the sloping dell beneath the porch, a spot of sun pickes out one sole dogwood berry at the tip of a branch, a crimson jewel in a green setting, like some promise that the darkness contains fiery lights, hidden riches.

And I think about receptivity, the need to meet each person I meet as one capable of revealing hidden depths. I’m not good at this, and I become less so as I struggle with the panic that always wants to choke me, and drives me to frenzied work.

I believe so little in moralizing, anymore. What’s left? Grace, I reckon.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Belmont, North Carolina 22.8.91: Nacreous Skies and Calls to Listen

What’s closest to our heart is usually the most difficult thing to write about—not because of the inadequacy of language to express deep thought, but because we rarely even see what’s closest to us. Can I see my own nose, the expression of my own face? I don’t know what to write about, except here, now.

I sit on this back porch canopied by late summer green. Sun’s not exactly gilding the sky—more turning the pearl gray of cloud to nacreous. I sit. Hummingbirds come and go and won’t feed if I make the slightest move. Some lesson there . . . . Something about things coming not when we demand, but when we’ve achieved the right balance, equipoise, so that our own compulsions won’t unbalance and send spinning to futility the promise they bring.

But, Lord, what promise? I suppose unconsciously I ask the same old semester-beginning questions: how will I teach? How will I be myself, teach what I know in my inmost being, a being the church denies and denies me the right even to speak, and engage students?

I’m not sure there is an answer, other than patience, apprenticeship: in face of life’s biggest challenges (e.g, learning, teaching) one will always be the disciple. Obsculta, o filii . . . .

Monday, July 13, 2009

Eastern North Carolina 30.7.9: The Outer Banks and Decline and Fall

After Edenton, we went to the Outer Banks. If Edenton was decline, the Outer Banks are fall. Once one crosses the sound going to Edenton, one begins to leave North Carolina behind.