Beer, Bombs and Bones

A token representation of the 11,000 VirginsEdith, Bob and I are in Cologne. Yesterday we went to another brewery, strictly for research purposes, of course. The Pfeffen kölsch served there was very different there from the kölsch at Fruh– fruitier and more like an ale– a bit like Fuller’s Discovery, but with a creamier head, more carbonation and served much colder. I drank it with the seasonal dish– asparagus with Holländische sauce, potatoes and salad. It was delish.

We also went to the Roman museum whose impressive collection is mainly gleaned from the 1941 discovery of a Roman settlement adjacent to the Dom. The site was discovered while digging to build an air raid shelter.

I was particularly fascinated with the delicate and almost ephemeral Hellenistic gold work as well as the “local deities”– Celtic & Germanic goddesses whose names are unmentioned. They resemble the Ursuline virgins in the Ursulaplatz with their benevolent smiles and diadem coiffures. Like the virgins, these goddesses are now decorative objects. Moon-headed, they sit in threes on little couches, the triple goddess present as trifling objects next to the monumental columns of Jupiter’s temple, souvenirs from a forgotten destination.

Three impressive floor mosaics are almost entirely preserved. One features a pattern of swastikas. One can only imagine the sense of vindication the Nazis might have felt uncovering this, even as they were burrowing for shelter from the bombs that would eventually destroy the city.

The souvenir shops are full of black and white postcards depicting the city in ruins. Here is an image of the damage Köln endured in WWII. The Dom remains standing, and the smog-blackened facade greets you as you leave the train station. No matter where you are in Köln, you can find your way via the spires of the Dom.

Cologne is a city that wears its scars proudly, incorporating fragments of the old, pre-war buildings in the modern restoration. Even the cobblestone streets were laid by hand again in the 1950s, giving the town a kind of postmodern melancholy.

Today we also visited the Ursulaplatz, the main reason why I was excited about visiting Köln. Many years ago I wrote a poem based on the story of Saint Ursula in the Golden Legend. The whole thing is quite grisly, as are most of the women saints’ deaths in that book. More popular than the bible at the time it was written, The Golden Legend was a kind of compiled oral hagiography. Many of the female saints in the book are almost superheroes, despite their grizly deaths, or maybe because of them. Ursula is no exception. I love the suggestive number of her entourage– 11,000– and the gory depictions of mass slaughter. Campy blood and guts! Even the doors of the Ursulaplatz feature the headless bodies of the virgins piled atop one another. The story of Ursula has always suggested to me an “open” space in the patriarchal medieval church– a willful woman would leading an army of girls down the Rhine– it suggests many subversive possibilities. I’m sure I’m not the first to imagine the story another way, and maybe this is the reason for the sadistic deaths of many of the female saints in the Golden Legend. A strong woman is safer dead, rewarded and silent in heaven– but I digress.The Ossuary of Ursulaplatz
Above shelves of Reliquaries, the bones spell out latin words. (photo by Edith Abeyta)

The impressive ossuary in the Ursulaplatz supposedly contains the bones of the virgin martyrs. However, history seems to suggest these bones were from a mass grave of some sort, and in order to explain the multitudes, the story was embroidered. One version has monks digging the bones up and putting them back together so that some of the virgins actually materialize again in Frankensteinian fashion. Whatever fable one attaches to this morbid spectacle, it is impossible to not see it as a kind of percursor to the modern horror movie, but it also transcends this facile comparison and becomes something more: a consoling attempt to make whole a brutal array of fragments– a poetic display of remains, not unlike Cologne itself.

On the run in Central Europe

When I arrived in the Netherlands over a week ago, I stayed in a massive building which was first a 16th century cloister, and after the dissolution of the Catholic Church here, it became an orphanage. My friend Edie was doing an art piece there and when she told me about it and said, “Think The Shining” I thought she was joking, but it’s pretty right on.

In its last manifestation, the place was a mis-managed and ill used art space. For several years students had abused it as studio space. There were four of us in this massive building. The place is so large that the first time I went to take a shower I went through 5 hallways and down one flight of stairs and up another, through 7 other rooms and I still didn’t find it and instead ended up right back in front of my own room.

I say was because the place is no more. There was talk of the potential remodeling, but no one could give Edie or Bob, who was brewing the beer for her art piece, any information about when it would start. The people who run the artspace (and I use the term loosely) were suspiciously out of the country while all this was going down and their line was that the work would be minor and contained in one far wing of the building. This is most ridiculous and hostile “artist residency” I have ever come across. I am furious, dismayed and depressed at the treatment of my friend Edith Abetya, whose work deserves an international audience and whose treatment here has been criminal.

Tuesday arrived, as did the developers who began at the main entrance, shattering the glass-walled foyer and tearing out the dry wall. They were going to gut all the internal walls and remove the shower and front entrance, and yet the people running the residency insisted Edie and Bob continue to stay there. It has a certain Kafkaesque absurdity to it. We had to flee, as Edie pointed out, like the nuns centuries ago. We left Hotel Mariakapel in a cloud of dust and showers of broken glass.

My initial intention was help Edie with the installation, to write a bit, research potential agents/publishing options for the completed novel and kick around ideas for the next project. But what’s happened instead is a kind of whirlwind tour. We took off to Cologne to drink beer and try to relax and maybe find a way to laugh about it all. That’s where I am now.

Before arriving in Cologne, we spent a few days in Amsterdam, wandering around, eating space cakes and dodging bicycles. It was pretty heavenly. It felt a lot like a kind of ancient San Francisco, or maybe I should say I felt the same way about Amsterdam as I did about SF when I visited it as a teenager– with a wide, happy hope– someday I will live here— Maybe it is a cliche to be an American falling in love with Amsterdam, but it is a bustling place scored by water, softened by the drift of pot smoke. We avoided the red light district so the city seemed to me relaxed, civilized and whimsical. So unlike London. That I should land in a place like London and not Amsterdam is evidence that the universe thought I needed a kind of tough love. And I suppose the Labyrinth still has lessons to teach me. The challenge of London is not just to love it, but to get it to love you, and with all humility, I may be winning at that.

But I’m relieved to be in Germany now. I can’t really generalize about the Netherlands from one little town, but Hoorn was a drag. The people of Hoorn are starers. Stop-in-their-tracks, turn-around-as-you-walk-by, jaws-agape starers. For some stupid reason I thougth a lot of the Dutch countryside would be like England’s– full of friendly eccentrics or bemused urban transplants. Or, hell, I thought the villages would be hippie enclaves where Lengendary Pink Dots type bands were squatting in old farm houses. Instead, it feels a lot more like Door County, Wisconsin circa 1985. Except Door County had tourists.

As we were leaving Amsterdam several days ago, we walked toward the train station, stopping in a small market to pick up some snacks for the train ride back to Hoorn. In the doorway behind me, a kind of junkie version of Neil Gaiman stood, cradling a black cat in his arms. He said something to me that I didn’t understand, squeezed past me and I watched him put the cat, heavily pregnant, down in the back of the store, slap some money on the counter and leave. The cat wandered slowly out and looked for him, but he had vanished. She sat down and waited patiently, and I looked around for him. He had abandoned her. She let Edie pet her and for a moment we entertained the idea of taking her back to Hoorn with us. She looked us over, eyes like big green beads, knowing on some primal level that we were plotting to take her to a god-forsaken village in the wet countryside, and she was an Amsterdam kitty, bastard master or no. Her tail straight and flicking at us, she took off.

I’ve been thinking about her. About the narrative I imposed on her to make it bearable: the paradox of a restless soul with a willful love of place, and the blessing of feral fecundity in a careless world.

The bells of the Dom call the hour.