Thursday, July 03, 2014


I've been to Germany and back, only I'm not quite back.

It's 6:00 a.m. and I've been awake since 4:30. My home feels strangely quiet and comforting after the packed plazas and tiny hotel rooms of Cologne and Munich. But I'm numb, hitting the on switch only when it's necessary to talk.  After two and a half days of being back, I'm still out of sync with the clock and with my usual self.

Did I spend too much time staring at ecclesiastical art? At Virgin Mothers with oddly proportioned, small-headed infants in their arms? (Did medieval artists not notice that babies' heads are huge relative to their bodies? Or did they see Jesus strictly as a mini adult?) Too many relief carvings of Jesus being taken off the cross, with a Middle Ages Mary Magdalene caring tenderly for his body? Too much time breathing the air of Catholic cathedrals and Romanesque Reformed churches, air rarefied by the vault of the ceiling--ancient roofs, restored after the bombings of World War II?

All these things--the churches, the organs, the arches--have American counterparts. Our great-grandparents built places of worship that imitated European originals. They criticized the 19th century German state church they left behind, but the familiar buildings were so closely associated with their faith that they built them again in America. I drove through Oak Park yesterday noticing churches, all imitations of European originals.  In Germany churches fell into three categories: Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque. The church I grew up in is Romanesque, the church I attend is neo-Gothic, and some of the Catholic churches I've been in at least aspire to Baroque. (Frank Lloyd Wright's Unity Temple here in Oak Park might be the exception, but its boxy shape reminds me of a European synagogue.)

Which cathedral? Speyer, I think. 
Excavated wall of a medieval synagogue in Speyer

I know just enough German to be confused by it, just enough that trying to read German museum labels or German brochures shuts down my thinking in English. But I don't have the necessary vocabulary to actually think in German, so the voice in my head--the one that narrates my life to me in stories told in English--was muted. My memories of my trip are visual--which makes sense, but yo! like, language! How do I know what I think without a story to tell in my head?

Where Luther translated the New Testament into German in the Wartburg, Language!

I had my son Kurt to talk to in Germany. He is a good talker, but he is an abstract thinker and a writer who keeps his ideas close. I read a book in English on my trip--re-read "Mansfield Park"--the familiar English of Jane Austen, but her darkest, oddest book, with questions about moral values and their foundation in authority.

Castles were also part of the awe of Germany: Heidelberg Schloss, Wartburg Schloss, and Schloss Nymphenburg in Munich--the first two astonishingly ancient, the last astonishingly, elaborately, and so lightfully Baroque. They were seats of power as well as homes to people whose lives seem like those of another species yet also familiar. What was it like to be set above so many ordinary people, simply because of your birth? To live in those elaborate rooms? To look out on ancient hills and forests, where German people had lived for thousands of years?

Mosaic inside the Wartburg, c. 1900. 
And then there's Heidelberg's Hauptstrasse, the longest pedestrian street in Germany, dedicated from beginning to end to shopping. It's exciting to walk down the Hauptstrasse, at least the first couple of times. But the materialism high wears off quickly, the excitement of all those people going somewhere, seeking something superficial--students, families, tourists--is just plain wearing.

It's good to find a place to sit and order a pils, and just look out at the world. But it's still breakfast time here in the U.S., too early for a beer.

Time to catch up--but with what?