When I was in Europe I spent half the time with family, half the time alone. It was a good mixture. Too much of one without the other can make you go crazy… some Buddhists believe in a two-directional type of solitude, whereby you go off and be alone in order to come back and be more fully present to the people in your life. I abide by that entirely. Especially with travel.
On one leg of the journey, I was with family in Bavaria, a large state in southern Germany. Bavaria is a distinct region of Germany, almost its own country. It’s the land of beer and lederhosen, the Catholic Church, BMW and Audi. It’s also where the Nazi party originated in the 1920s, in the loud and frothy beer halls of Munich.*
In many ways, Bavaria reminds me of Texas. Bavarians call themselves Bavarian first, then German, much in the same way that Texans belong to The Lonestar State. Actually, many Bavarians identify on even more of a micro-level, since each village has its own dialect- a dialect that might as well be a different language to someone living only 10 or 15 miles away. Neither Texas nor Bavaria is exactly cosmopolitan, either, despite having several major cities.** Their politics are conservative, reflecting their rural, hinterland backdrop.
My mom’s dad’s dad came from a small town in Bavaria called Obermässing about 30 miles south of Nuremberg. Great-grandpa Karl Kremel was a blacksmith and served during WWI (for the Germans) taking care of horses. Later he emigrated to Milwaukee. One story his son, my grandfather, likes to tell is how when Karl was living in America and heard about the GI Bill and all the benefits it provided to veterans, he applied. A few weeks later, he received a courteous yet frank letter from Uncle Sam, stating that the GI Bill applied only to soldiers who fought for the United States.
Today, Obermässing has 738 inhabitants, about 38 of whom are my distant relatives. When my family and I came to visit them, they gave us coffee and cake, a tour of the town, and dinner at a beer hall with live Bavarian folk music and steady currents of cold beer. I had a conversation over the long wooden table with Albert, who wore glasses, resembled one of my cousins back in the States, and was one of the few residents who left Obermässing for Cologne, studying to get a PhD. (Southern Germany, somewhat anachronistically, still practices primogeniture; Albert is the second son to his brother Stefan.)***
He asked me why I was recording everything. I told him about my blog. He asked me why I did my blog, who was I doing it for. I said it was its own reward. He was baffled. He asked if a lot of people in the States do things for the hell of it without anyone telling them to. I said some people do, but not everyone. He asked if I was ever going to stop. I said it was an ongoing process of indeterminate nature, that I am committed to every step of the Way, while simultaneously questioning the entire endeavor.
I said it’s like a relationship or job- you keep going with faith despite the fact that you know one day you may not. He asked if a lot of people in America see things that way. I said no, I guess not, people think something has to last forever or it can’t be meaningful at all. Why else balk at atheism?
* This is not an overstatement. In 1923, Hitler and the nascent Nazi Party tried to seize power in a coup that started, like many of their meetings, in a beer hall. Hence the ‘Beer Hall Putsch‘.
**San Antonio, Dallas and Houston all have populations in the millions. Likewise for Nuremberg and Munich. Additionally, both states have a lot of cash, due to oil and the automobile industry, respectively.
***Primogeniture: The right of the eldest child, especially the eldest son, to inherit the entire estate of one or both parents.
You’re only truly dead when you’re forgotten
-Some Dead Guy
In the States we have something called ‘perpetual care’. Pay enough money and a team of landscapers will keep your grave free of long grass and detritus until the end of time- even if nobody’s alive to visit you. Some day in the distant future, archaeologists may look upon the weed wacker as the all-important bridge to the afterlife in the same way we view the mummies and sarcophagi of Ancient Egypt.
While in Germany I visited three cemeteries*, and observed a much different practice. Instead of teams of anonymous men zooming around on lawn mowers, there are wells and watering cans available for the public to plant gardens over their family grave sites.** Whereas we throw flowers on the surface of the Earth, they plant flowers inside the Earth.
At one cemetery, I watched widows buzzing around with watering buckets, trowels and clippers, tending to their husband’s graves as if they were were enjoying a relaxing Sunday in their garden. They were enjoying a relaxing Sunday in their garden. It just happened to be in a cemetery, above their husband’s decomposed bodies.
Oh yeah, that’s another difference between US and German burial practices- rather than bury you in a gigantic, impermeable soda can, the Germans simply bury your body in the ground so that you may rot and become the nutrient-rich soil that fuels the flowers your loved ones cultivate above. Beautiful, right? Organic, symbolic of renewal and everlasting life.
But what happens when your wife dies, too? The kids take care of the grave, sure- but they won’t spend as much time pruning and transplanting the daisies you continue pushing up. And what happens when they die, and their children die, etc.?
You start wishing you paid a group of landscapers to take care of your grave forever, that’s what. Because what happens is eventually nobody’s around to maintain the grave site, and it becomes overgrown.
At one cemetery I saw this in clear progression.*** In one section were the vivacious women buzzing around. In another section were the skeletons of hedges and whatever perennials continued to bloom- unsystematically. Then, in the oldest section of the cemetery, things had been so neglected that it was basically a forest with headstones hidden in the underbrush. This was the most eery part; I felt like I was in a haunted woods. A few of the tombstones were hundreds of years old, but others were only a couple of generations.
“You’re only dead when you’re forgotten”. In other words, you’re only dead when people cease the lawncare around your grave site. While in the States we have the illusion of perpetual care, it’s actually vapid, because who cares if your grave site is impeccable if nobody comes to visit? Nobody, that’s who.
German burial practices- while perhaps depressing and decrepit- are actually more authentic and true to experience. The fact is after enough time everyone will be forgotten. But look: a healthy forest!
*One cemetery was actually in Austria, but for all intents and purposes, in a german-speaking country
**Plots also tend not to be for a single individual, but an entire family. Under one tomb stone you may have several family members decomposed, mingling together.
*** This was in Schwerin, Germany. Schwerin, part of former East Germany, is poorer than most cities. This perhaps made the lack-of-care more pronounced than is typical.
[This post includes an audio file. If you are a subscriber and receiving this post by e-mail, please click to enter the site. For Quality Purposes, it is advised that you do not listen with a cell phone]
All it takes to become a Copenhagener is time
-The Copenhagen Museum
The longest conversation I had with a real ‘Copenhagener’ was with a young man named Mehdi. He worked at a cafe owned by his aunt who, like his parents, emigrated from Morocco years ago. For about an hour he leaned over my table, marking spots on my map, indicating where I should and should not go while in town. He had loads to share about the history of each attraction, from the original city walls to Christiana, to the cemetery in which Kierkegaard is buried.
I thought of Mehdi the next day while visiting the Copenhagen Museum (which, as you might guess, is a museum dedicated to the history of the city); the opening gallery is devoted entirely to the immigrants of Copenhagen, then and now: every day Muslims, Romanians during the 20th century, and Germans from the 16th and 17th centuries. One line read, “All it takes to become a Copenhagener is time”.
But that’s not how a lot of Europeans see it. From Germans resenting their large Turkish population to the Swiss and Italians fearing the influx of refugees from North Africa, many Europeans are terrified of and hostile toward (isn’t it usually the case that one follows the other?) “non-European” immigrants. I can’t prove this statistically; it’s simply a conversation I had again and again during my three week stay in Europe.
For all the ways Europe excels the US (and there are many, from universal healthcare to labor laws to respect for the environment) they seem to be, on this particular issue, as far back as Arizona, which in recent years has legalized racial profiling.
Similarly, Denmark has passed “tough” immigration policy in the last decade- and has since come under heat. This is why, I believe, the museum has decided to consciously voice the acceptance of people like Mehdi, to counteract the knee-jerk, xenophobic reaction against immigrants found throughout the rest of Europe.
Personally, I believe it requires no backbone to blame the poorest, most marginalized section of the population for your economic woes. Europe (and America) were OK colonizing countries like Morocco, but now can’t (under)stand the chickens coming home to roost.
Today’s audio piece is an amalgam of sound collected in Copenhagen: two street performers (one accordionist, one magician), Danish television, and the voices of Arab-Copenhageners protesting at a rally against the Israel occupation of Gaza. This I have never seen in the States (thanks PATRIOT Act). The only down side, from my perspective, is that the string of protestors had two halves: men in front, women and children in back… this is too complicated for a single blog post… I’m open to feedback via comments or e-mail.
[For Quality Purposes, please refrain from using a cellphone to listen to the songs in this piece]
The Danube River, or Donau, as it’s called auf deutsch, is an ancient and mighty river that begins in the Black Forest in Germany and empties into the Black Sea, connecting such cities as Passau, Vienna, Budapest and Belgrade. It also flows 15km south of Putzleinsdorf, my ancestral homeland in Upper Austria.
Last month I was there for a family reunion, reconnecting with family from both sides of the Atlantic. One of the planned events was a boat-trip along the Donau. Pretty typical, many oohs-and-ahhs at the glorious green hills rising above the river. Then a few of my relatives, Tomasso Huber and his partner Clarigna Kueng, began to yodel. Singing credits also to the bubbly Lisi Past.
Below: The best thing I brought home from Europe
Below: Two songs, one song harmonic, the other mournful
Above: a yodel about the Danube, the river we were actually floating on (meta)
Below: a contrast in style- Swiss yodeling
Above: two duets
Below: “kennst du?”
And lastly, above and below: “Putzleinsdorf” with lyrics by Johannes Huber
Thanks to everyone who made this boat ride nothing short of a spiritual experience. And thanks to all of my Austrian cousins for making me feel at home.
One more for kicks:
Photos by Peter Taschler
I lap up the last drops of existence
and wipe my mouth of essence
Since childhood I
Nauseous in the clothing department
Now I’m in a big city
and everyone is walking by overflowing
with their present selves
The saber-toothed tiger
as a species
its teeth were sharpest
just before going extinct
I think it sad how
the simple senses
of sound and light
smell and taste
go passing by unappreciated
The most useless phenomena are the most significant
to the dying man and his seconds of pleasure.
(what would Walt Whitman do?)
What makes Live Lit so intriguing from a performer’s standpoint is that- because it’s a young art-form- there aren’t any rules yet.
Be funny. Be sad. Be serious. Be thoughtful. Be absurd… the list goes on and on. Unlike a comedian you don’t have to make people laugh. Unlike a story-teller, you don’t have to tell a story.
Live Lit also avails a wide birth to be either conversational or highly literary. Different shows have different expectations. Guts & Glory, arguably Chicago’s best Live Lit show, has performers read directly off the script. Other shows allow you to speak off the top of your head/directly from the heart.
Each method has its own (dis)advantages. On the one hand, having things scripted leads to a more concise, non-bullshit performance. On the other hand, not having everything written down allows more room for inspiration and the ability to feed off the audience. Most of us land somewhere in-between, depending.
Here’s my crack at the conversational variety at a small show hosted by Metropolis Coffee known as ‘Live Lunar Lit’. OK I host the damn thing too. Everyone’s welcome, every full moon.
Nearly every day of the year you can walk down State St. in the loop and find tourists, shoppers, corporate employees on their smoke break, and a “preacher” who shouts non-stop into his microphone about how we’re all going to hell unless we give up “fornication, weed-smoking, homosexuality and accept Jesus Christ”. Jesus.
Many stop, amazed. Others stop and shout back, challenging his message, but it never seems to work. I took out my recorder and held it up to his amplifier thinking maybe he’d get self-conscious and stop. Nope. But one of the challengers did come up to me and share his opinion.
Also on State St. is a drummer, a street performer. Mixing it all together to make this week’s sound collage.
Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare
Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare
Thank you to the young devotees of Krishna for allowing me to record their chant. Cheers to all the lost souls disappointed by the spiritual menu of the West.
why are we alive?
you’re what happens when two substances collide
and by all accounts you really should’ve died