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.

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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.

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