The Bone House of Sedlec

Some places on this Earth resemble the setting of a Magic Realist novel. Visiting you are invited into their fictions. But where is the magic in the Bone Church of the Sedlec in Kutna Hora, Czech Republic? For over 700 years Sedlec has been a sacred place of burial. It’s crowded. Renovations over the centuries have disturbed the mass burials there. In the 16th century a half-blind monk was set the task of ordering the remains of over 40,000 dead– many from the Black Plague and Hussite wars. You can see it can’t you? The old fellow bent over the disordered mounds, labuoring myopically–the stuff of a Tarkovsky film or Monty Python sketch. I believe the four mounds of bones in each corner date from this time, but am uncertain. These structures are oddly reassuring, resembling bone ovens or wombs.

Centuries later the Swarzenberg family bought the property and hired the local woodcutter to continue this work of ordering the dead. This detail of the “local woodcutter” is repeated in texts about the bone house, but without elaboration. This “woodcutter” has taken on fairy tale proportions in my imagination. In my mind, he becomes the same woodcutter who slices out Grandmother from the sleeping wolf’s tummy in Perault’s version of Little Red Riding Hood. Performer of strange cesarians, interior decorator of tombs. He arranged the bones into fantastic garlands, monstrances and a giant chandelier as well as the Swarzenberg coat of arms .  His signature in bones, “Rint 1870” adorns a spare grey space on the wall.

Unlike other ossuaries I have visited, this one is more spectacular, but also lonely despite the throngs of tourists (happily absent when we visited) and the thousands of empty eye sockets staring out at you from various decorative arrangements. Other bone churches you sense a literal extension of the medieval belief that to be buried on Church grounds or in the church would make it easier for God to find you on Judgement Day. In the Ursuline chapel in Cologne or the Capuchin Ossuary in Rome, you sense the remains have become part of the church. Not merely decoration, they have come home. The are home. Not so in Sedlec.

The ossuary has supposedly inspired many modern serial killer fictions, and one can see why.  In these stories its always one man making some perverse plans for the suffering or bodies of others. The ego of the woodcutter, and the Swarzenberg family give form to the chaos of death. The Sedlec ossuary is not a quiet grave. The dead here have been shuffled and reshuffled like sticklebricks and finally arranged in the 19th century in this sculptural fantasy that resembles obsessive outsider art.

Looking closely, one can see many of the skulls bear graffiti, which is the strangest gesture of all. The longer you stay in this cold, dizzying space, the more you understand the whole ashes to ashes thing. All are the same in death. Perhaps the writing of a name– on the skull of another long dead– is a way these impostors trick themselves into thinking they are the exception?

Mike and I found ourselves drunk on the darkness of the place, we giggled nervously like children who had been scolded. We indulged in taking photos. Why did I hate myself for taking them? It seemed all I could do in the space, having given myself up to the enormity of its morbid kitsch. I was surprised at how photogenic the structures were– they convey a kind of uber-wonder-cabinet feeling that is completely missing from the in-person experience.

Seeing the Jan Švankmajer short redeemed the space for me. The visual rhymes of the snail in its shell, the collections of buttons and even the paving stones, all reveal a tenderness that is missing from the space itself. I was not able to find a copy of the banned version of the film which contains the tour guide narrative. The jazz poem version, which is what replaced the original until the Velvet Revolution, is the only one available on youtube, though it is available in the Complete Short Films on DVD.  An English translation of the song-text is available on youtube here. This local website has a poetic take on the  history of the bone church. It’s worth reading: we, the “living scaffolds” behold in the bone house the “x-rays of eternity”.

To see other jewellery designs inspired by charnal houses, please visit my Etsy shop.

You can see more pictures of the Ossuary on my Flickr feed here.

East Berlin TimeFall

A rose left in a fragment of the Berlin Wall

On our first night in Berlin, M and I spied a translation of Philip K. Dick in the window of a bookshop: Marsianischer Zeitsturz.  We were consumed with laughter.  Zeitsturz, time slip/fall/stumble…that’s exactly what it felt like to be here twenty years to the day after the wall  had come down.  We were time travelers dropped from space, come from the future to witness the past.

The view from our flat on Karl Marx Allee; typical Stalinist "wedding cake" apartments

East Berlin’s wide avenues and Stalinist urban planning mark out much of the city.  What I thought would be grim, mid-twentieth century modernity turned out to be soothingly elegant.  The clean, brightly tiled U-bahn stations and the grand “wedding cake” style apartment buildings on Karl Marx Allee provide a stately backdrop to everyday life, making the smallest things seem like part of a grander narrative.  In this respect, if it is at all possible to separate the dire human rights in the GDR, the planning wins at dignifying the mundane.   Ostalgie, or nostalgia for the aesthetics of the GDR-era East, makes a weird kind of sense.

A fragment of the wall

But all that is changing.  The city is busy reinventing itself yet again.  Most of the “death strip” of the wall has been built over and turned into parks.  A public installation about the wall claims that even locals can’t make out the scale of the original border.

A Starbucks sits at the foot of the old symbol of East Berlin, the Fernsehturm, like a flag on the moon. The deafening sound of industry– jackhammers and drills– follows you everywhere, even through the Topography of Terror exhibition.  This “open wound at the heart of the city” is an outdoor exhibition exhaustively documenting the orgy of sadism that was the Third Reich.  It was unseasonably cold as I made my way from panel to panel mounted on the chain-link fence.  Numbed physically and emotionally, I reached the end where a group of teenage girls huddled together singing brazenly at tasteless volume, Whitney Houston’s hit from 1987, “I Want to Dance with Somebody.” Their hair peroxided beyond Aryan-ness, their eyes darkened with too much kohl, they dressed in the over-sized layers of the mid 80s, a style from before they were born, before the wall had fallen.  Zeitsturz indeed.

Dusk at the Holocaust Memorial

My friend Carolyn said that when she went to the Holocaust Memorial, German teenagers were displaying similarly disrespectful behavior, playing hide-and-seek amongst the gargantuan plinths.  We went at twilight, when only the dimmest of lights illuminated the maze of sarcophagi which grow as you enter, the cobblestones at your feet slanting and dipping.  Before we got too deep M said to me, “If we lose each other, where should we meet?” which seemed poignant, imbuing the monument with a metaphoric, empathetic narrative.  Walking the structure you glimpse others passing by, and then they vanish in the claustrophobic space.

Display case in Alexanderplatz

It is difficult not to dwell on the wounds of the city, though to do so risks a ghoulish curiosity.  Or is it bearing witness?  Because I couldn’t answer this question I did not go to any of the prison or concentration camp sites, though I considered it, I was more interested in signs of life. They are everywhere.  Alexanderplatz features glass cases of mimeograph machines, children’s stamp sets and silkscreens used to make illegal zines before the Mauerfall.  I remember these machines from my childhood,  their pungent smell and rhythmic sound. Here they were used for something much more risky and important than my multiplication tables. Though through my cold war childhood I learned to be terrified of my own government, its senile leader. Fresh ink on worksheets for Social Studies, defining Mutually Assured Distruction.  This was not some remote history.  Looking at the photo murals in the square of people climbing the wall in 1989, people who looked just like my friends and me at the time– young, determined and maybe a little crazy; I was reduced to tears.

Another Country, a bookstore specializing in English language used books, operates as a kind of lending library and gathering place for the vibrant ex-pat community in Berlin.  Every month they have dinner and a movie there for a fiver, and the place is packed with English speakers catching up with each other.  There I met this warm man with the round, lazy vowels of a SoCal native.  He was, of course, from El Monte.  He explained the why if not the how of being there, “Berlin chooses you, not the other way around.”

SoCal followed us around Berlin, in fact.  At White Trash Fast Food, over our amazing veggie burgers and chili fries (Just like famous Tommy Burger’s but vegetarian), we marveled at the DJ’s selections in this uber-cool rockabilly bar– the first song was White Girl by X, and then the selections grew increasingly obscure, focusing on early SoCal punk rock.  The crazy thing is that maybe for the Germans this was pastiche Americana but to the expats in the place, it was the home you could no longer find at home. So to speak.

Another American badgered me at the Tacheles, an artists’ squat in a bombed-out department store.  The New Yorker insisted I looked “scared,” and decried my cursory glance at his mediocre paintings, “What’s with you? You come to an art show but don’t look at the art?” Nothing else that I could see was much better, but the space itself was marvelous it its apocalyptic grandeur.  In the past the art must have been better.  It would have had to have been.

Americans have flocked here it seems. Perhaps because this place offers a glimpse of what our country is supposedly famous for: freedom.  Here, it’s been hard won, though to see that you would have to look past the tourists posing with a “border guard” at the reconstructed Checkpoint Charlie, or past the stalls selling Russian kitsch in front of the Brandenburg gate.

Here is a list of more favourite places:

La Mano Verde, Weisbadener Str. 79, posh vegan eatery, a bit expensive but worth it.  I had the raw beet ravioli and farmer’s nuggets in jus with German potato salad and divine chocolate mousse.  Comfort food extraordinaire, but done lightly.  The service was attentive but unfussy.

G for Goulash— this intimate eatery only has two tables and a bar, and it only serves Goulash– but it’s veggie heaven.  They will make their delish stew with seitan if you don’t eat meat– absolutely amazing.  They also do takeaway, serving the stew in a pretty, re-useable glass jar.

Chagall Cafe on Schonhauser Str– a dark, candle-lit cafe with chipped walls and wooden benches, perfect  for a tryst if you’ve got one planned. They specialize in Russian food– while we were there everyone was bent intently over their steaming bowls of borscht.  They have many vegetarian options.  We went with the vat of garlic cream and bread, drinking many beers here.  The service here was warm, welcoming and exceptional.

Hops and Barley microbrewery–Wühlischstr 22/23. This is a small brewery run by two wonderful guys who really care about beer.  When I was in they had an amber on that was gorgeous, and their cider was a quite tart but not too dry– dangerously drinkable.  Every beer I had there was a winner, and they play Old School (SoCal) punk rock on the stereo.

The Medical History Museum, butting up against what used to be the “death strip” before the Mauerfall, is worth checking out. Gallstones like false dice are displayed in jewel cases.  Fetal anomalies, tattooed skin fragments, and surgical instruments on the third floor are humanized by the narrative displays on the fourth which feature stories of individual patients.  Objects from the collection are used to illustrate their “cases”, and these artifacts– from a crocheted bonnet, rusted bed or false nose, take the initial displays beyond side-show voyeurism.

Kathe Kollwitz Self Portrait

The Kathe Kollwitz Museum, an impressive collection of the artists major works, is housed in this rather posh shopping area in the west.  Her work was important to me as a teen.  After seeing her lithographs in high school, I majored in printmaking in college.  Seeing her familiar work again now, images I used to train my eye and hand, was like seeing an old friend who you’ve outgrown.  While the emotional urgency of the images of “War against War” seems exhausted to me now, it is essential in understanding Berlin, a place that resisted the Nazis even as they consumed the city, and a place that eventually ushered in this most modern of revolutions, the end of the Cold War.  In Goodbye to Berlin, Isherwood argues that even as the Nazis march through the streets of Berlin, the city doesn’t belong to them but to the workers, the people who sang out in defiance.  Looking at the room of Kollwitz’s self portraits one sees the face of a Berliner– earthy, candidly ironic and freedom-bent.

The gathering of the Elder Goths

Right over the town is the ruin of Whitby Abbey, which was sacked by the Danes…It is a most noble ruin, of immense size, and full of beautiful and romantic bits; there is a legend that a white lady is seen in one of the windows.  Between it and the town there is another church, the parish one, round which is a big graveyard all full of tombstones. This, to my mind, is the nicest spot in Whitby…

— Mina Harker in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Whitby, cliff-side graves with Abbey in the distance.
Whitby, cliff-side graves with Abbey in the distance.

When I said I don’t go on literary pilgrimages, I lied.  Since moving to the UK I have gone to Whitby almost every year, and have read Stoker’s Dracula numerous times.  It loses none of its uncanny terror and strangeness in multiple readings, despite the countless films and derivative fictions which threaten to steal its undead soul.  Part of this fortitude must be due to the novel’s structural rigor and the Stoker’s wonder at the clash of new technology and superstition or folklore which remains fresh and relevant over a hundred years later.

I have yet to find Lucy and Mina’s favourite “seat”– the grave of a suicide– though this is what I would most like to discover.  I have avoided any of the touristy “Dracula” tours and “Experiences”, hoping one day the “real thing” or some suitably fictional inspiration will make itself known to me.

I go every year for the Gothic Festival, where the pubs in town welcome the goths with Halloween decorations and pints of cider & black.  All the charity shops do up their window mannequins in tarty stretch velvet and fishnets, and put out special rails of black clothing.

The goth weekend has little to do with any literary pilgrimage.  Goths have gathered en masse here twice a year for a decade and a half now.  It’s more fancy dress than rock and roll, which is curious coming from the West Coast of the US, where the worst thing ever is to appear costumed or pretentious in any way.  Many goths that show up will claim to have been coming since the good old days when it was just a pub meet at the Elsinore, shortened to “The Elsi,” the facade of which is festooned with a banner that reads “Home of the Goths.”

In many ways Whitby does feel like home, this place where Dracula arrives on a ghost ship with a corpse tied to its helm.  It must be that the town owns a great deal of its notoriety to an infamous immigrant– Count Dracula.  All the locals are quite welcoming to the goths who often challenge modest rural norms with their sartorial choices. Everyone wants to know how far you have come to visit, as a point of pride.

The winding streets and cobbled alleyways are especially captivating at night.  Unlike Dracula‘s London locales, Whitby almost feels pristine. One can climb the countless steps up to the abbey, just as Mina might have, to witness the graves all blankly staring out to sea, the only sound the wind hissing through the grass.  The star-pricked sky above merges with the black sea in one great, silent mystery… full of the somnambulists and changelings of an aging sub-culture.

Hanwell Cinderella

If I leave Vagabonds (a goth club near London Bridge) after midnight these are my travel options according to Travel for London.  The last tube is a few minutes after midnight. For a cosmopolitan city, London really does shut up early.  Some clubs like Vagabonds are open until 3, but how do people get home?  I suppose they wander the streets for three hours until the first trains leave in the morning?  When I put in “show me routes with the fewest interchanges” the first return routes began at 5:30 in the morning, even though I put in midnight.  So basically TFL is telling me to stay in the club until 3am and then sit on the banks of the Thames, etc. until 6?  There aren’t even 24 hour diners in London where you can nurse some coffee and greasy eggs at 3am.  If you have a group of friends I suppose you could split a cab, (last time I shared a cab the ride to Hanwell was £75.)  Or brave the night buses as a posse, but as a woman traveling alone it’s just a bit impossible.  The last time I braved the night bus it never showed up.  I waited for over an hour in an abandoned Sloane Square at 2am for the N11 which never came.  I finally hailed a cab which cost me £28.

Better stay home.