Category Archives: Harry Potter references

The Perks of Being a Fulbrighter

Back in September, when I was but a wee fledgling Fulbrighter (a barely-brighter), I met the other just-arrived dewy-eyed ‘brighters for orientation outside of Cologne.  That half-week is now just a blur of workshops, talent shows, and “networking” (still no idea how people actually do that), and when I replay it in my head it sounds a lot like this: wah wah cultural understanding wah wah wah English instruction wah prestigious opportunity wah wah Winter Ball wah wa – wha?  Winter Ball?  My mind jumped immediately to visions of dress robes and dancing with Viktor Krum to the melodious strains of The Weird Sisters, but then I realized with no small amount of disappointment, as so often happens here, that Europe is not Hogsmeade, even though there are castles here.

But as the hope that we’d dance in an enchanted hall alongside giants and wizards began to fade, a new realization began to dawn: I’d have to dance.  And all I know is the Electric Slide and the box-step to a waltz.  Crap.

I arrived in Heidelberg for the weekend, met up with a long-lost friend (by sheer chance, we shared a hostel room together in Cologne lo’ those many months ago, and decided this weekend would be a good opportunity to relive

Not exactly Harry, Ron, and Hermione, but it'll do.

our hostel-sharing glory days), and got a bit more familiar with the city.  The night of the ball, our hostel was a flurry of too many girls to a mirror, sharing curling irons, and me begging for reassurance that no, my shoes don’t look dumb with my dress.  Even though the night started out promisingly enough, I realized upon our fashionably late arrival to the Heidelberg Town Hall that this was no senior prom.  There was a dinner with courses.  And I may not have been at the Yule Ball, but I was definitely in the company of giants and wizards of a different sort: these people were neuroscientists.  PhD candidates.  Artists.  The sorts of people who are consulted as experts and publish and speak and are presidents of boards and organize fancy-pants events like this one.

I’m a girl from Arkansas with a B.A. in English and extensive knowledge mainly of the Electric Slide.  Crap.

The music started, and I stood respectfully (awkwardly) to one side of the dance floor as people infinitely smarter and more accomplished than myself glided gracefully around to “Que Sera, Sera.”  With the next few songs, more people joined in, as did I when those happy sounds of “The Twist” began to play (hey! I can do this!).  The bad thing about “The Twist,” though, is that it ends, and as the DJ begins again to play songs without dance instructions embedded in the lyrics, I’m soon reduced again to aimless arm-flailing, trying to figure out which muscle to flex to move my legs to the beat.


Then I heard it.

come on donga bonga donga shake that conga

That beat.

music rhythms bonga donga gettin’ stronga

Those lyrics.  Three words infiltrated my mind: That. My. Jam.  (Actually, this is a song I’ve hated ever since this).  Then three more: Must. Lead. Conga.

And so it was.  For a few ridiculous minutes, I found myself leading some of the most intelligent, innovative people in Germany.  No, not in research, not in inventive approaches to enhancing cultural understanding, not in outreach initiatives or scholarly journal publications.  In a conga line.

I’m sure there’s something symbolic in there somewhere, but I really don’t want dwell too much on what it might mean.

longa bonga donga donga feel that bonga…


Bingen: A History

Excuse this Halloween-themed post when you all have turkey on the mind.  You can blame it on the difference in time zones.

This Halloween, Beth and I dressed as Bingen mice (see fig. 1).  Sure, you may think it’s easy enough to strap ears fashioned out of paper plates onto your head and call it a costume, but if you know me at all, you know I am always more than willing to exert a considerable amount of effort and self-examination, and not to mention subject myself to a bit of humiliation, when designing my costumes (see fig. 2).

Figure 1: Fulbrighters stand in solidarity with woodland creatures

Figure 2: I stand in solidarity with sorority sisters

So why the drawn-on whiskers this year?  Because it’s just so dang easy to color  your nose pink?  Heck no!  Because, of course, of the profound cultural significance!

You may have noticed by now that Bingen is not exactly a bustling cosmopolitan metropolis.  Its glory days as a strategically-located trading center are long gone, and now it hangs on by its wine and by being “that town across from Ruedesheim,” a strategically-located tourist hot spot.  Still, that doesn’t mean that Bingen’s story isn’t an interesting one, speckled with Celts and Romans and plagues, so today, I’m taking it upon myself to introduce you to a bit of area mythology.

You see, walking around Bingen, you might begin to notice a certain motif emerge:

The Binger Kaufhaus, where the chili peppers on the sign make only slightly more sense than the actual goods sold in store. Which is to say, none at all.

So why was the mouse?  I’ll spare you the suspense; I, for one, am not the giant cliff hanger that was Harry Potter 7 Number 1.  It is because of this:

Do you see it?  No, no, not that swirly doodle sculpture in the foreground.  Look a bit farther back.  No, not that castle ruin on the hill.  The thing in the river.  No, not that tourist cruise either.  See that speck back there?  Here, I’ll zoom in a bit:

There.  That’s as far as my camera zoom gets us.  This little guy is the Maeuseturm, the Mouse Tower, the pride, joy, and defining image of Bingen, the thing that makes it onto all its souvenirs and the inspiration behind the BBS logo.  This is their Razorback.

The structure itself is not terribly old: the tower as it stands dates from the mid 19th century, although the foundations stretch back a thousand years, and the plaster barely predates me.  And probably it has nothing to do with mice at all, but with the word Maut, or toll, which is just what this tower (and lots of other structures along the Rhine like this one) were used for.  Back in the day (you know, the 800 AD to 1800 AD day), these stations were controlled by feudal lords and bishops, licensed by the Holy Roman Emperor to collect taxes from passing cargo ships.  Often they’d stretch chains across the river to keep ships from passing without paying up.

But that’s boring.

Here’s the story I prefer, as it makes my mouse costume a bit less cute and bit more relevant, not to mention horrifying.  It goes like this:

Back in the day (by which I now mean the late 900’s), Hatto II was the Archbishop of Mainz.  He was a cruel bishop, considered by many a historian to be the original Trogdor, as he was so prone to oppressing, even burninating the peasants.  One fine day in the midst of a famine, the starving townspeople stormed the palace, demanding their share of grain.  Hatto, understandably, got real sick of their belly-achin’ (literally), and lured the lot of them into a granary, which he then set on fire.  As his charges went up in smoke, he is said to have said, “Listen to the mice squeak!”

And squeak they did.  As soon as he returned to his palace and his bounty of food, thousands of mice arose from the ashes, and chased the hapless Hatto to the river.  He climbed into a rowboat, and thinking he could outsmart the swarm of starved and charred townspeople-cum-rodents intent on revenge, he rowed all the way to Bingen and out to the island upon which the Mouse Tower is perched and barricaded himself there.  The mice, not to be outdone, swam to the island, swarmed the tower, and devoured old Hatto.

A 16th century illustration of everyone's favorite bishop

And they lived happily ever after, mostly on collectible thimbles, spoons, and teacups.

And perhaps now you’ll take my costume a bit more seriously.

Beth, I’m so sorry.

Bacharach of Ages

Several months ago, when I was still stateside and still perfectly competent in the language being spoken around me, my friends and I (shout out!) took a little day trip through the  Ozarks, stopping at the usual sites: Mystic Caverns, a roadside diner, a medieval fortress construction site.

And now, a plug for my favorite roadside attraction: overlooking the fact that present-day Arkansas is neither Europe nor medieval, the Ozark Medieval Fortress is as authentic an experiment as we can get in medieval construction

The potter leads a horse to pasture, which is euphemistic for absolutely nothing.

techniques, from carpentry to pottery to, um, quarrery, plus contemporary safety measures, minus serfs.  It’s an (almost) self-sufficient little family-friendly village, if you keep Junior away from the forger’s fire, that appeals to the Harry Potter fanatic and the Ren Fair frequenter buried within us all, and I’d really encourage you to stop and take a look around if you’re ever in the area, and chances are, you’ll be close enough to justify a visit at some point during the project’s duration.  Projected build time?  Twenty years.

So, flash forward a few months, and I find myself come full circle: from a fake castle being authentically built, to a real castle fallen into authentic decay (isn’t history funny?).  I am, after all, stationed along the Rhine in an area known particularly for being dotted with castle ruins (a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I might add), so yesterday, I coughed up the 2 Euro train ticket, weathered the twenty-minute train ride, and found myself in St. Goar, home of Burg Rheinfels, the largest and most well-preserved ruin (if a ruin can be said to be well-preserved) on the Rhine.

And that train ride was worth it.  You know when you tour something, the most interesting bits are always roped off?  Like, take Graceland – you’re not actually

I know you wouldn't think so to look at me here, but during the taking of this picture, Monica (shout out!) had to physically restrain me from launching myself over the paneled wall into the room beyond.

content just looking at the Jungle Room while your audio guide explains the significance of that green carpeted ceiling.  That is far too sanitized an approach to something so atrocious!  You want to feel your feet sink in that shag carpet yourself; you want to experience sitting your own bottom on that tiki-inspired leopard-print barstool (or whatever); you want to be more than the voyeur judging Elvis’ terrible taste – you want to know what it’s like to be the bearer of such terrible taste yourself: you want to be Elvis.

Well, I mean, I do.

But Burg Rheinfels is no Jungle Room.  For one, it doesn’t look like great-grandma’s living room reimagined by Rudyard Kipling.  For two, you’re not kept at a frustrating distance with all those other ogling tourists who just don’t

Burg Rheinfels

understand; you’re given the freedom to wander, and wander you do (with handy explanations courtesy of my man Rick Steves): through courtyards and a slaughterhouse, through a dungeon and an echoing warehouse of a wine cellar, through a moat and through a winding, claustrophobia-inducing McDonald’s PlayPlace of tunnels, dug to store weapons and the soldiers who used them – and through tunnels that once housed little but explosives, a minefield meant to be detonated when ransacked by those pesky French.  It’s nothing but one-fifth of its original size now, being used over time as a quarry of stone to build the town below, and is now in large part reclaimed by nature; in places, it’s difficult to tell what is castle, what is mountain, what is grassy courtyard, what is moss and ivy growing back over this huge outcrop of human effort and human history.

Rheinfels, regrown

After this excursion, Beth and I stopped into another nearby town, Bacharach (pronounced, wonderfully, bock-uh-rock, which inspired astute commentary like, “If I had a backup band, it would totally be called The Bacharachers”), which may or may not have ties to my man Bacchus.  Actually, it’s probably Celtic.  But there’s still lots of wine.  So, this city has all the charm Eureka Springs wishes it had, all the authenticity Disney World wants, all the timbered houses an American imagines when he imagines Germany, all the tourist shops a spoon collector could hope for.  Bacharach, not to be outdone by St. Goar, sports its own castle, but this one is converted into a youth hostel, and sits above the town, lit up at night like Hogwarts keeping watch over Hogsmeade.

The hostel atop Bacharach

So, as if that’s not enough to recommend Bacharach, we also had the good luck to stumble smack-dab into a St. Martin’s Day Parade.  St. Martin’s Day is a holiday celebrated here, part harvest celebration, part feast day to commemorate a St. Martin, a Roman soldier who gave half his cloak to a beggar in the snow.  It’s marked by a week of sugary pretzels and man-shaped pastries and parades, in which the children of the town carry colored lanterns through the streets singing songs, until, often, they all end up at a bonfire – and this bonfire was the single biggest bonfire I’ve ever laid eyes on.  It was astounding.

No, that kid is not being sacrificed. Note the butterfly lantern in the foreground.

My parents and my man Joe (shout out!) spent the weekend camping together, which makes me both incredibly happy and incredibly jealous.  But, I’m happy to say, I at least have them beat on the campfire front.

The St. Martin’s Day bonfire

Speaking of Joe, just a short five weeks until he gets here, which means – yes, you guessed it – I’m reappropriating the purpose of this blog from account of my experiences to countdown calendar.  You’re welcome.

Ob er aber über Oberammergau

I was going to continue my trend of writing on utterly boring subjects by sharing my recent episode with German bed slats, but then…

I had an adventure.

Beth, one of the other two teaching assistants in Bingen without whom I would frankly be kind of lonely and miserable, and I decided last week that it would behoove us to get the heck out of Bingen for a couple of days, but instead of heading to somewhere sensible like Frankfurt or Cologne, we unanimously agreed that Bavaria would be a far better choice.  Oberammergau, specifically.  More specific yet, to see the Oberammergau Passion Play.

This may seem a bit extreme, taking a last-minute trip across the country to see one more retelling of the story I’ve heard most in my life, but let me clarify: this is not the “crucify him. crucify him.” version that we’re subjected to every Easter Vigil.  No no, a far cry from it.  For one, it’s in German (“kreuzige ihn. kreuzige ihn.”).  For two, it’s a fully-orchestrated, five-hour-long event that features half of Oberammergau’s 4,000 residents and verges unabashedly on  the epic with Greek-myth-style choruses between scenes.  Five thousand people flock to each of the year’s one hundred performances (that’s half a million people per year (I just did math!)), and oh, it’s performed only once every ten years, and has been since 1634.

More than a century before the good ol’ US of A was even a twinkle in our founding fathers’ eyes, this play made its debut, as a promise to God that if Oberammergau was spared from the bubonic plague, they would perform it every ten years.  The town survived, and as it happens, so did the play.

That’s the story of the play.  Now for the story of the teaching assistants.

Beth and I finalized our plans on Friday, which basically boiled down to: Take night train.  Buy tickets.  See play.  Take night train back.  Pretty solid plans, except, oh, the website advertised that only twenty tickets remained for Saturday, the second-to-last production of the decade.  Twenty?  Out of five thousand?  (Or, for a more dramatic statistic: Twenty out of 2010’s half million?)  Spurred on mostly by a feeling that if this were a movie, we’d get tickets, we decided to give it a go.

I’ll spare you the details of the sleepless 9-hour journey to Bavaria (although, I must say, there is nothing like seeing the sun rise over an Alpine lake), and skip to the rolling into Oberammergau at 8 in the morning bit.  We were in line for tickets by 8:30; roughly twenty people were in front of us.  We were too close and too delirious to give up now; maybe the people in front of us were just jokin’ around about wanting tickets.

So close. So far.

So we stood.  And stood.  And the line got longer.  And longer.  And our conversation dwindled mostly to lines that began with “Well, it would be worse if…” and “Beeeeth, what are we doing?”  Hawkers came and sold their wares, shortening the line, giving us hope.  Hawkers’ ticket prices sounded more and more reasonable (300 euro per ticket?  Why yes!) A worker came out and, in the true spirit of the Passion, mumbled loudly about how these tickets have been on sale for two years, so what are these idiots doing trying to buy them the day of the almost-last-show, which sent a pang of longing for American customer service through my heart (but German customer service deserves its own post some other day, I think).

Three hours later, the ticket counter opened.  A murmur went through the crowd.  A rumor of thirty tickets, rather than twenty.  A murmur went through the crowd.  The line grew shorter, person by person.  A murmur… never mind.  Beth and I reached the ticket counter, to find…

the last two tickets of the decade.

Okay, okay, there were four tickets, but because I’m on a roll with the italics this post and I want to keep a good thing going,

the last two tickets of the decade.

So excited. So delirious. So hungry.

The play was impressively executed and, I think, worth it – this is about as “once in a lifetime” as you can get, and the idea of participating in something so steeped in tradition gives me chills.  You wouldn’t have thought so had you seen me doze off a couple of times during the first part, but hey, I hadn’t slept in a long time.

The Theater

Speaking of which, the play was divided into two parts, in between which came a brief three-hour intermission.  I’ll pause here to let you double take.  So yes, for three hours, the entire crowd was loosed upon the hapless village of Oberammergau to wreak havoc in its souvenir shops (I have to admit, I almost fell prey to their sirenic calls when I spotted an apron with dancing Bavarians embroidered along the hem – it’s so kitschy! it’s so kitchen-y! it’s so me!).

This was not the apron I almost bought.

Don’t worry, didn’t buy it.  I couldn’t really justify having a backpack full of ridiculous souvenirs while watching the Passion, even if the town was counting on their temple being, well,  turned into a marketplace.

The play finished, and so began the return trip, which, in short, consisted of a train, a night bus (just like Harry Potter, kids), a barely-missed connection, despair at the realization that spending the night in podunk train stations might be our lot for the night, a bank-account-draining taxi ride, relief that I didn’t buy that apron after all, and Leberkäse at 3:30 in the morning.  And still, a feeling that all this was justified persisted.

We got into Munich in the wee hours to be greeted by a different sort of pilgrimage.  Oktoberfest was wrapping up this weekend, and, while I am a bit disappointed I wasn’t able to go, I think I saw enough of the sad, sick dregs of it to be okay with it.  Every train station we stopped at housed a couple of drunk Lederhosen-clad twenty-something-year-olds, teetering precariously and threatening to wet themselves at any moment, asking us for a light or to order their train ticket because they were too far gone to push the buttons.  This was nothing compared to the Munich train station.  Reeking of beer and smothered in be-Lederhosen’d and be-Dirndle’d revellers passed out in every feasible nook and cranny, it was weirdly, eerily apocalyptic.  The only survivors are wearing short pants and suspenders, and are going to have monster hangovers in the morning.

Anyway, I’m happy to report that Beth and I made it back to Bingen at 10 the next morning, exhausted and jubilant and running on fumes and a bag of gummi bears.

Oberammergau at Intermission

That’s a great thing about travelling: you always make it home again, which is, I’m happy to report, how Bingen felt in that moment.