It occurs to me that I never exploited the opportunity to talk about my trip to Germany this past summer. Like Tacitus before me, Germany and its inhabitants made quite an impression on me.

To recount the trip chronologically would be to discount the really amazing experiences; as humans we have no choice but to experience life chronologically, but our minds recollect the highs and lows of an experience, and tend to cut out the tedious passage of time.  In that spirit, I’ll try to cut out the tedious parts.

The lasting impression I have of that trip is the sense of belonging.  Totally contrary to the fact that my family left Germany over a hundred years ago, and little mention is made of it among my family, I felt as if I had grown up there, and I was as much a part of Germany as it was of me.

Of course, there are the more ephemeral day to day experiences that I can only now recall through photos.  Even if it’s only a snapshot of Charlemagne’s chapel, all of my senses remember the moment I took this picture.706 The glittering mosaic inside, the musty air, my fingers tracing the 1300 year old stones, worn smooth by 13 centuries of curious visitors just like me.  It’s not just the place that looms large; it’s the feeling of closeness to an ancient European monarch whose accomplishments shaped the modern world in ways I never thought possible.

Maybe that’s why I feel a closeness with Germany- 5 years of studying German language and literature grants me a more profound understanding of Germany than my own country.  My studies began with Germania, a text by the Roman historian Tacitus (mentioned above).  His goal was to understand the Germanic tribes, while his contemporary Romans wanted to conquer them.  Both Tacitus and Roman generals found the Germans to be worthy enemies, and to this day the score still stands Germanic Tribes 1, Roman Empire 0.

Next, the Oaths of Strasbourg, a document from 842 whose historical importance can’t be overstated.  The oaths taken were between the grandsons of Charlemagne, specifically two jerkwads who happened to rule what is modern day France and Germany respectively.  They agreed that they should kick the crap out of Lothair, who ruled the territory between France and Germany, now called Alsace-Lorraine.  Brotherly feuds aside, the Oaths are the earliest written example of three distinct European languages: Early French, Early German, and Latin.  The two conspiratorial brothers vowed in each other’s language to protect one another and gang up on Lothair using exactly the same vow, which had the result of three different languages presented alongside one another for future linguists to drool over.

Fast forward to the Middle Ages, a period of great literary development, despite the undeserved moniker of the ‘Dark Ages’ (their age being no less dark than our own).  German folk tales and cautionary stories are at once witty and gruesome, my favorite example being Till Eulenspiegel, noted for farting, stealing shoes, and skinning dogs alive to trade their fur to the blind owner of an inn.  Of course, he always got his just desserts, usually in the form of some public humiliation.

A couple hundred years later, the Reformation happened.  Reformationist literature is extremely interesting, not only for its strong arguments against the Catholic church, but particularly for being wildly anti-semitic (looking at you, Martin Luther).

Then, the nationalist period began to pervade the literature of the 18th and 19th centuries.  A little known fact about Germany is that it didn’t officially become a country until 1871, almost 100 years after the American colonies declared their independence from Great Britain.  Up until that time, it was a loose coalition of kingdoms, fiefdoms, and other sorts of doms.  Thus, there was a pervasive feeling of inferiority; neighbouring lands like France, England, Spain, and even Russia had been unified for hundreds of years; Germany was a day late and a dollar short.  Unfortunately, this led to a super-charged nationalism that would start two World Wars and drastically alter the course of human civilisation.

The literature of 20th century Germany is immensely depressing.  It reanimates the suffering and grief of those who lived and died during both World Wars, and the uncertainty between them, with chilling clarity.  I think anyone who reads and comprehends the stories of this time would be a lifelong pacifist.  In many ways, reading from this time period is like a hallucinogenic drug- a little is safe, and can conjure up thoughts and emotions beyond your own experience.  Too much, however, can be poison and alter your reality permanently.  A favorite of mine is Der Gute Mensch von Sezuan, by Bertolt Brecht.

Covering 13 centuries of German literature is only a beginning to understanding Germany- it took me five years, and I’ve only dipped my toe in.  If you’d like to learn more about German Lit, consult your local librarian!

The Black Friday Extra

Of the many fruits of capitalism, the sweetest might be Black Friday.  I wasn’t sure what to expect from this year’s festivities: amidst the perfect storm of a weakened dollar, high unemployment, and most importantly, the lack of a really killer toy, I didn’t have high expectations.  This fear was confirmed by seeing a single lonely shopper camped out in front of Best Buy on Thanksgiving Day.  Still, April was at the door of Kohl’s at 3am among a throng of shoppers, which makes me glad that the day wasn’t a total wash.

Even I couldn’t resist the thrill of spending on Black Friday- I bought some magnets from Radio Shack, and some industrial-strength Velcro from Home Depot. With that disclosure, I’ll add that greed is not my sin.

This is merely the sale-studded beginning to the month-long orgy that climaxes in Christmas.  For my own part, it marks the beginning of a month-long binge, though with different set of indulgences: sugar and booze, which would likely be considered the sin of gluttony.

It’s remarkably similar to the Saturnalia of yesteryear; a month of parties and liquor-fueled cheer, from the lowliest bourbon ball to the bottle of Absinthe waiting under the tree.  It’s a much more tangible problem than the vague notion of ‘holiday stress’ which seems to mainly afflict the perpetually stressed, and I have to wonder how my liver will handle it this year.

Frankly, I think that sugar is greater enemy.  My wiry physique usually keeps me from getting too drunk, simply because it only takes a few drinks to make my head feel lighter.  With sugar, however, my appetite outstrips my self-control.  The variety of textures and tastes on display at the dessert table usually leads me to some quick, ill-conceived rationalizations about the rarity of getting to eat some favorite treats, as well as the enticing prospect of finding new favorites.

Thus, I slowly and carefully stuff myself with sweet treats.  Stomach pain usually follows pretty quickly, accompanied by self-loathing.

This perennial routine is very familiar to me, but I still haven’t devised how to circumvent it, or at least minimize the negative side-effects.  Until I figure it out or get Diabetes, I’ll probably remain a glutton.