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.