Tuesday, February 16, 2010

My German Life: Karneval in Köln

It's the fifth season in Germany: the time for revelry, the time when we shake off our winter's sleep and comfort each other with a kiss, a promise, that Spring will come again and this snow on our hearts won't last forever.

Americans have very little familiarity with carneval, unless they've read about it in The Count of Monte Cristo or visited New Orleans for Mardi Gras. I grew up very near New Orleans but we always avoided visiting during Mardi Gras due to its reputation for wildness. When we planned to go to Cologne (Köln is the German spelling) for Carneval, or "Fasching" as it is called here in Baden-Württemburg, we worried this would not be a kid-friendly celebration. We weren't too keen on the idea of our children being exposed to breast-flashing or all-out mob debauchery. I am happy to say we were pleasantly surprised; Cologne's pre-Lenten celebration is exactly what it should be: a colorful light-hearted salute to culture and tradition. Carneval is similar here to the festivals in Italy, where revelers wear costumes and party hard before the fasting season of Lent arrives. Not being Catholic, I enjoyed the partying without having to worry about the fasting! Cologne was filled with fresh brew on tap, the local specialty being Kölsch, which is one of the best beers I've tasted in Europe. Street vendors sold us hot kartoffel salat (potato salad) and bratwurst and pommes frites, typical German food that hits the spot. Everyone, and I do mean, EVERYONE, was in costume. If you weren't, you looked like a tourist who accidentally got off the train at the wrong place. We bought some random wigs, hats, face-paint and accoutrements from street vendors and joined in the fun. Fasching begins a week before Ash Wednesday, so by the time we arrived on Sunday, festivities were in full swing. The main event in Cologne is the parade on Rosenmontag (Rose Monday), though we stumbled upon a smaller parade replete with candy and flower-throwing on Sunday when we arrived by train. Sunday night the pubs were wonderfully jolly, filled with revelers singing German songs and dancing when the mood struck. We loved the happy atmosphere which was surprisingly free of any sort of violence or indecency; these were merely very happy drunken Germans. We never feared for our kids at the amazingly LONG parade on Monday, the locals allowed our kids to push to the front of the line and enjoy an unimpeded view of the floats and bands. They would help our kids catch candy and then stuff it into the hoods, pockets and fronts of our kids coats! (Mental note: always bring a bag to hold all the candy, toys and flowers thrown to the crowd) After a while, the kids tired of the craziness and biting cold and we were forced to retreat to a cafe for cappucinos and gelato. Large amounts of alcohol are a necessity to sustain persons when standing outside in zero degree (Celsius) weather; our kids were definitely feeling the cold of the inches of snow piled up everywhere. The revelers wore a lot of clothing or very little, it mattered not, they were happy, they were scaring away the Schaiachperchten, or evil winter spirits, and saying goodbye to the Rauhnächte (rough winter nights).

We highly recommend carneval to all, unless you are offended by public drunkenness or anxious in large crowds! We were glad we went, though going sans children would be ideal. Thankfully, our friend, "Uncle" Larry was along for the ride and he helped us navigate the craziness and not lose any kiddos or bags!

Traveling back to Heidelberg by train, I stared out at sleepy snow covered fields and marveled at the beauty. Travel by train is such a romantic experience. Maybe I feel this way because I grew up watching films like Murder on the Orient Express and Night Train to Kathmandu, or as an adult, seeing Trans-Siberian. Scary things happen on trains, but magical things happen too, and I encourage everyone to travel by train some, for it gives you a perspective of the countryside that is hard to get any other way. Our train snaked along the Rhine for many miles, giving us stunning views of snow capped castles perched above the famous river. I felt transported; literally and figuratively :) The Rauhnächte was becoming lovely to me, finding its way into my heart, and I didn't wish to be anywhere else, Spring could come when it pleased.

To Virginia

You want to be more than the sum of your parts,
For your pain to be art and your thoughts, revelations,
O but Virginia, you are not! You are not!
You want to rise above the dunes and the common colors
And see what others do not see, translate it to poetry
Yet every word is the product of you: queer, depressive,
Bitter and guarded. It's not that you didn't fly away
From your pain for some hours, some few.
Dedalus-like you gave your vision shape, but like him
The migration was seasonal, doomed for a fall,
For a river and rocks, for a slow bubbling dress
And the note for Leonard. God save him! He was good to you.
It wasn't enough, no one can say why.
As your body disentangled itself from your will,
swam for the surface and your thoughts were suddenly
still, I wonder: was there a God waiting to receive you?
Would that relieve you?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Unbearable Lightness

Friend, you are asking me if what you've done is all right:
To hold her and love her flesh as if it is life's last air
But to have her heart wrapped around you only for one night?
And I'm stumbling to an answer in my own heart
I'm hem-hawing between the see-saw of wrong and right.

Meanwhile, I've got a kitchen to clean and boys to feed,
And my son's blankie to launder before the dark night.
When I hand him the warm rag he clasps it tight and thanks me.
He doesn't know it's my heart wrapped in that clean lovey.

Some day, when he's a man, I hope we can talk. Honestly.
I hope when he holds a woman that he'll know he can ask me
About the things he can't distinguish in her eyes.
I hope he will understand when I tell him the truth about one night.

She might taste like the last drop, she might take you out of yourself
And fly you out of your desert place for clean air, for forever.
She might be your one and only taste of heaven.

O Friend, you are asking me, but I don't think you want the answer.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Travel Logs: Prague

People keep asking me, "Are you writing about your travels?" The answer is no. I haven't been writing it all down, sealing it into the vault of memory and leaving a record for posterity. The truth is, I suck at disciplined writing. When asked what my inspiration is for poetry, what style I am imitating, or what diction I am seeking to reproduce, I have no answer. The answer is only, "I write whatever comes out." This is not a good answer for anyone who has writerly aspirations, for the professional author knows that good writing takes discipline and practice.

I suppose that is mostly what this blog is about for me: a discipline, a pattern of creative recording that will hopefully yield some fruit. So I am enacting "The Travel Logs," a category of essays on trips I take to other places besides Germany. This past week I had the privilege, nay, LUXURY, of traveling to Prague, Czech Republic with three other women. No children involved (for which I gratefully raise a glass to my brother-in-law, Thomas, long-suffering and selfless: PROST!). One of the girls was my middle sister, which gave us the chance to catch up and just be girls together once more, a talent largely forgotten in the chaos of marriage and child-rearing. One of the girls was a Czech national, which made travel a breeze, as she shepherded us around and fielded all the Czech questions from the locals. We really did not have to think at all, it was fantastic being led around and translated for; I probably said "Betka, where do we go now?" too many times (sorry Beti!).

As to Prague: It's fabulous, People. I just can't find words to describe it; Pristine, Intact, Old-world, Ornate, are a few that come to mind. It is truly one of the most, if not THE MOST beautiful cities in Europe, filled with spires, amazing architecture and opulent relics of the past. It's so untouched because it was not bombed during the World Wars. The city is also quite hilly, creating layer upon layer of buildings, which lit at night create something I can only describe as "magic" for the tourist. The Charles Bridge is the perfect vantage point on top of the river at night. Make sure to visit Prague Castle and St. Vitus' Cathedral which are also fabulous. See the Jewish quarter and marvel at the pathetic heap of tombstones, a reminder of the injustice of anti-Semitism. Eat lunch at the Slavia Cafe and enjoy the best view of the old town in the city (sitting under photos of the famous who've enjoyed it too...we were under a picture of Hillary Clinton during her visit). Enjoy Bohemian Dumplings, they are scrumptious, as are the uber cheap micro-brews available in the city. Seriously, I paid about 1.25 euro for a half liter of beer...that's cheap as dirt over here, you can't even buy still water for that price.

I think the thing that impressed me most, and I mean by "impressed" that it affected me most, was the post-Soviet harshness that still rears its head. There is the sense that people have had it tougher; there is no Western European luxury to be seen. Though Prague is far more beautiful than many cities in the West, even more than Paris, there is this patina of crumminess that keeps it from being modern or flashy. I have to say, I like it all the better for this. It is real. You feel it. There is nothing sanitized or suburban about this place; you feel closer to the way humanity has lived for centuries. This quality of genuineness is beautiful.

When we were on a bus, traveling from Vienna to Prague (we took the train back, and I have to say I really preferred the train), a blind couple boarded and sat in front of my sister and I. We cringed; they smelled badly and were unkempt. They were not the first obviously physically deformed people I would see that day, there were more examples of this type of suffering (more than I am accustomed to seeing). They talked loudly and had their seeing-eye dog stuffed under their seats. When we exited the bus at our destination, I watched them make their way down the stairs, arm in arm. They reached the ground and got their bearings, mostly by putting hands on each other and making sure of each other. The man's unfocused eyeballs glared oddly at the sky and he grinned the widest grin. His girl was caressing his face. I promise you, there isn't a man on this planet more happy or more loved than this man without a clean hair on is head or an intact tooth in his mouth. In this world of darkness, these two had reached out a hand and found each other. It was enough.

O, the exquisite crumminess!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Travel Logs: Prague-The Swell Season

Every once in awhile, Art follows Life follows Art. For the poetic soul, I'm afraid there's such a fine line between the two that they become rather confused. I saw this played out on a live stage this week at The Swell Season concert in Prague. If you haven't yet seen the film "Once" then stop reading now, go rent the movie and watch it, and come back and finish this post. It won't make any sense to you without that context. The two main characters/actors are Markéta and Glen, who are also the heart of the group The Swell Season. I call them character/actors because they were not professionals when they made the movie and the love story that happens on-screen was also happening in real life. At the time, Glen was age 37 and Markéta 19, making their love story improbable, yet somehow an irresistible product of their musical collaboration. Glen said of that time, "There was definitely the feeling we were documenting something precious and private" (Entertainment Weekly, June 2007).

If the movie "Once" and the accompanying soundtrack were documentation of the couple's love story, their follow-up album "Strict Joy" is the painful documentation of their falling out of love. Going to see them in concert is like watching a broken heart get swept all over a stage and stomped on a few more times for theatrical purposes. Glen is, as ever, passionate and heart-rending in his delivery, and Markéta is, as in the film, restrained and ruminative. He parades his bruised heart for the crowd's entertainment, and she quietly gives pathos a melody on the piano. They are really stunning live performers, not just for their incredible musical gifting, but because they give voice to both delight and pain. Glen does an amazing job adapting his own songs so that they lead into covers familiar to the crowd; a couple of gorgeous examples were "Falling Slowly" devolving into U2's "With or Without You," and his whimsical "Star Star" leading into a violin solo of "Pure Imagination." These are the moments in the live concert experience that one is transported by. One of the incredibly gorgeous moments in this performance was the violin solo by former Frames now Swell Season member, Colm Mac Con Iomaire. He took me back to the cliffs of Ireland in my mind's eye.

Back to the train-wreck aspect of this concert: some moments made me wince with the freshness of the ache. Glen would give his trademark yelling/singing performance to the crowd, emphasizing lyrics such as "Your heart's not in it!" or "Her last words were 'I was only thinking of you, Babe.'" Markéta remained remarkably calm during these moments, though her expression seemed pained when he turned to her and belted out over and over, "I can't live, with or without you." It's amazing to me that the collaboration continues, and yet they are riding high on the success borne out of this pain.

Because somehow this heartbreak is beautiful. My friend, Sara, turned to me at the end of the concert, and sighed, "Music is so cathartic!" I agreed, because she is correct, giving voice to the painful things transforms them into Art, and then they have a life of their own. Glen says it this way in the song "Go with Happiness": "Because a love has grown, I had to leave it alone / And if you're gonna go / Go with happiness." Maybe Glen and Marketa have learned the fine art of releasing the pain. Or maybe they've gotten really good at acting.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Cremation: Day Seven

If I burn my own heart to ash,
No one will attend the ceremony.

No one helped me cut the twigs,
Form the tepee, cradle the flame,
Blow 'till it caused the organ
To leak blood and expand to explosion.
No one heard the sound it made.

I scoop up the ash obediently
And revel in the feel of so fine a dust.
Even divided, it pulses the same sound.

I stand alone, swaying cliff-side
and blow those ashes to ocean winds.