…just don’t mention the war…

Two weeks in Bavaria was definitely not part of the original plan, but things have conspired against us. Through the generosity of our friend Nicky, we have a place to crash in Munich and he’s been showing us around, driving to many Bavarian breweries where I’ve been sampling all the dunkles I can find.

But I must admit I’m weary of sitting around with people who are eating pig knuckles and roasted baby animals. It’s meat, meat meat at every meal. Sometimes meat is the lightest option available on the menu, as the vegetarian stuff is full of butter and cheese. I’ve been living on salty pretzels and beer and now my extremities are swollen from water retention.

Edie is back in the Netherlands, trying to get some work done on the Something’s Brewing piece at the University of Utrecht. Bob and I will be joining her in less than a week. Apparently on her way to Utrecht via train someone threw themselves in front of the tracks. As she was in the first car right behind the driver, she saw the driver go into shock. This must happen a lot, as when M and I were traveling to Vienna someone threw themselves on the tracks and I felt it go “bump”. When this whole piece of Edie’s comes off, in whatever form it takes, it will be an heroic piece of art making, no lie.

Earlier in the week, we trudged up the mountain to Neuschwanstein, the castle which inspired Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” castle in the heart of Disneyland. I’d already been there and I preferred it last time as the winter fog softened its plastic-looking, 19th century edges. There were so many tourists, I bailed on the tour. While everyone else went inside I waited and watched the stream of humans going in and out, many of them American or Japanese tourists in bright, casual clothes that made them look like children– engaging in a second-hand fantasy. All aberrations removed from the fairy tale in favor of the most mundane of happy endings.

Stern conformity still hangs heavy over Munich, despite locals’ insistence that “the past is history” and that Bavaria is part of a tolerant, modern EU state. The uneasy pact with the past is all too present. And this brutal history is all too similar to what it is happening in my own country. In school, history always seemed to stop at the Nazi invasion of Poland– the summer would come before we ever got Korea or Viet Nam.

One person my age I’ve met here said she was too young to remember the war, so why talk about it all the time? But how can I not think about it when my own government cynically uses the holocaust and the “good war” as a metaphor for their bloody and bankrupt foreign policy?

At the start of our visit to Bavaria, were in the little house in Rieder, in the countryside, with my friend Nicky. After the war, this house sheltered men coming home from the front, wanderers lost in the chaos after surrender. We cooked on the wood burning stove and watched a cat stalking through the grass. Everything was green and lush outside. Cows luxuriated in the fields, their bells ringing. Poppies nodded in the wind and I still thought of war. It was impossible to be there and not feel the surreality of peace. I wonder about the ambiguity of this place, so near Dachau– idyllic and terrible at the same time. Nicky is full of stories from the woman, his mother-in-law, who grew up in the country house. She said that after the war you would see all these children running around wearing red trousers. Their mothers had cut up the Nazi flags. Got to use them for something.

Before Edie left, we went to the Haus der Kunst and I was amazed by the architecture– the old glass building was rebuilt in a heavy neoclassical style by Paul Ludwig Troost, according to Hitlers vision (himself a mediocre painter). The iron doors and massive columns support the roof’s clean, soulless planes. Some buildings give themselves away, and insist on the past even through present reinvention– the Haus der Kunst is such a place. Ivy has tried to grow over the surface, leaving dead veins to mark the cold stone– which resembles more a giant mausoleum rather than an art museum. The pictures of the Degenerate Art Show, hung in a corridor by the toiletten, revealed the Nazi’s mythopoesis of hatred. Perhaps one of my fascinations with WWII is that it always seems so shockingly allegorical.

The Haus der Kunst was currently showing Georg Petel’s Baroque sculptures of crucifixions and meaty Saint Sebastians. I peeked at the catalogue and the stuff seemed Mannerist in its purposeful distortions and risks. I would assume he was working from corpses as the tortured bodies of his sculptures were obsessively rendered. I’ve had enough in-your-face-meat to last me for a while, so I skipped out on that and instead sat watching the Gilbert & George video, a preview of their upcoming show which is now at the Tate. It was in English, and as I listened to them finishing each other’s sentences, I was surprised at their sincerity. Why had I thought they would be ironic and distant, speaking in riddles? Gilbert is Italian but has been with George in Spitalfields for 40 years now. They are Londoners, and I understand their work now, more than before, because now I am a Londoner, too. Unlike Munich, London makes room for the passionate eccentric, the willful iconoclast. How I miss it.

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.