Germania

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!

Triathletes, Unite!

I did the Stoneman Triathlon in Springfield today, and even though my legs are gonna be recovering for a couple of days, it was nice to have a challenge met and conquered.  The fastest triathlete finished in 57m47s minutes, and my time was 1h34s.  Not great, but I think I could certainly improve for next year…

The most difficult part was the swimming, without doubt.  Swimming 500 meters is an accomplishment for someone who has no access to a pool, but it’s your skills as a fighter that contribute to your success.  Dodging the dozens of swiftly kicking legs and sweeping hands of the school of humans was what made swimming hard for me, but I feel like I evened the score with a couple of glancing blows to the people swimming near me.

Bicycling was fun.  I received alot of praise, but not because I was smashing records.  In my case, it was my bicycle- having a mountain bike in a race dominated by street/racing bikes is apparently considered a serious handicap.  My friend Andy also used his mountain bike, and reported similar results.

The running was fine; my new shoes held up and carried me there and back again.  My legs, on the contrary, were and are still on the verge of mutiny.

A Sultry Solstice

Hurray for the longest day of 2009!  It was a steamy Midwestern day- the kind where the tar bubbles on the country roads.  Nevertheless, we got up to Springfield and went for a nice motorcycle ride with my folks. Lunch was had at a new, untested restaurant in Lincoln, followed by a couple of hours in the pool.  The food was ok, the water was first-class.

After a 100 Years of Solitude season of rainy weather, it’s nice to finally have a chance to enjoy some outdoors time, even if it means sweating while sitting still.

Driving through Corn country

I’ve been on the road alot lately.  Last weekend I went to a small-town wedding, which gave me the opportunity to see the pleasures of small-town life, like driving your lawn mower into the gas station for lunch, and parking your horse trailer next to your mobile home.  The reception was in Burlington, Iowa- a railroad town, if anything, but with a number of pleasant surprises.  Ape and I stayed at the Squirrel’s Nest Inn, a B&B overlooking the muddy Mississipp.  The room was comfy, but the fresh-baked cookies put this place over the top.  Stay there if you get the chance!

This trip stood in sharp contrast to the next journey, which was a work trip to Dublin, Ohio.  On the way to Burlington, we took two-lane roads that shamboled through pastures and fields.  The road to Dublin was straight, narrow, and dull.  It was, however, fast.  I covered 400 miles in about 6.5 hours, stopping only once for some nourishment.  I pulled off in Mt. Comfort, Indiana, and found that the restaurants available to me were Burger King, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Subway.  Since none of these meet my criteria for nourishment, I bought some granola bars in the gas station and motored on.

Dublin rests in the northwest corner of Columbus, and feels like a small town in spite of it’s surroundings.  Highly recommended eats include La Chatelaine, a french restaurant, and Jeni’s, an ice cream place.  It’s worth mentioning that Jeni’s can be ordered online, and the Pistachio & Honey ice cream is superb.

What’s really fun about driving in the Midwest is the town names- I can truthfully say I saw London, Paris, Dublin, New Dehli, and I was near Troy, Venice, and hope to get to Athens when I go see my folks.  Beat that, Carmen SanDiego.