Category Archives: History

Dressed to the Elevens

I know we’re already several days into the throes of Lenten sacrifice, but I still feel some (admittedly belated) explanation of Carnival season is in order.

Halloween was doable – Pagan roots aside, most Halloween-related things here are just borrowed from contemporary American traditions anyway, only sans candy corn.  Christmas, too, was manageable.  Sure, they’ve got Knecht Ruprecht, bringer of coal lumps to naughty children, but it still translates transatlantically, and besides, Germany at Christmastime is how we love to imagine our own Christmases – snow-covered timbered houses, villagers gathering around drinking mulled beverages, the smell of gingerbread and cinnamon on the air.

But this?  This time of  year was simply bewildering.  Mardi Gras aside, Carnival always seemed so foreign, so exotic, so European; it seems I’m at a loss when a holiday hasn’t been reclaimed by American traditions.  The name alone is grounds for confusion – what’s Mardi Gras back home (or Pancake Day in England) is Carnival, Karneval, Fastnacht, Fasching, Fassenacht, Fasnet here; for the sake of clarity, I use these terms arbitrarily and interchangeably throughout this post, for which you’re welcome.  Where we Americans outside of New Orleans celebrate maybe with a king cake and, if we’re feeling especially festive, a few beads around our neck on a certain Tuesday forty days before Easter, here, it’s a season that lasts an inexplicably huge chunk of the year, topped off by a week of drunken costumed revelry and parading, and the whole thing seems an inextricable mess of religious/political/end-of-winter entanglements.  Even the colors are different.  I didn’t know what to make of it.

But, as luck would have it, I find myself in the very heartland of German Carnival celebration, and so I feel I have to take it upon myself to, to the extent that I am able, wrap my little Mardi-Gras-means-King-Cake-and-Zydeco-centric mind around this apparently inexplicable and inextricable season.  So let’s unpack:

I think we’re familiar enough with the idea that this time period is one last chance to eat our weight in sweets and meats before somber ol’ Lent settles in (the word “Carnival” itself stems from the Latin for “see you on the flip side, meat!”), so I won’t go into that bit, so I’ll start here: the main idea behind all of this is that Carnival celebrates an overturning of all forms of hierarchy – political, religious, gendered; hierarchies which are expected to return on Ash Wednesday, pronto.

Dating back to the Middle Ages, common folk established their own government, under the protection of masks and costumes, to mock their own none-too-beloved rulers, celebrating with displays of excess, just as their own darling courts were so wont to do.  Royalty themselves joined in, drawing new roles at random, and the court was turned upside down, the prince elector becoming the cup-bearer.  The jester ruled the court, and this idea continues today: a Carnival Prince and Princess are elected (in some places, even “ruling” from the town hall).  The Mainz parade is especially political, with many of its floats serving as sort of grotesque rolling political cartoons, and throughout the season, there are a series of Sitzungen, meetings that provide a platform for comedians to poke fun at all things political.

One such politically-motivated floats, and one of the only ones I could understand. There's no flashing for beads at Fastnacht, but that doesn't mean there's no flashing.

French rule in the 19th century just meant someone new to mock, and the parade continues to be a celebration of freedom from foreign rule: the Carnival colors (blue, white, red, and yellow) are a bastardization of the bleu-blanc-rouge, and even now, parade participants and onlookers alike dress like French royalty and military – just with flowers stuffed down the barrels of their guns.

French and German stereotypes collide in incredible ways at Fastnacht.

The French came into play in another significant way: not only did they (unwittingly) supply their national colors to this chaos, they also lent their national motto.  Carnival season officially begins on November 11 at 11:11, which is cute, sure, but also (of course) symbolic.  For one, it’s St. Martin’s Day.  For two, eleven, in German, is Elf, a word which conveniently also serves as an acronym for égalité, liberté, and fraternité, the rallying cry of the masses during the French Revolution.  To complicate matters further, November 11 is also Armistice Day, which is also commemorated at 11 a.m.  I’m sure more surmises regarding power relations could be drawn here, but frankly, I’m getting exhausted researching this (if only you could see how many browser tabs I have open.  To give you an idea, it’s more than eleven).  So! Many! Layers! Mind! Exploding!

The Catholic Church is also not immune to ridicule, especially considering its role in, oh, every aspect of life during the Middle Ages, and in fact, it’s not even immune to that ubiquitous eleven.  It’s said that the eleven, in religious terms, refers to the little-known eleventh Commandment, “Thou shalt have a good time” – the Germans’ own Laissez les bon temps rouler.

Real quick, but worth a mention, gender roles also make the big fliperoo.  The Thursday before Ash Wednesday is a day called Weiberfastnacht – Women’s Fastnacht – or Altweiberfastnacht – Old Women’s Fastnacht (gee thanks), wherein women are allowed to destroy that symbol of chauvinism and glass ceilings and bread winning and injustice to the fairer of the sexes etcetera etcetera etcetera, the tie.  Men, always a step ahead, often wear their older, crappier ties in anticipation of getting them cut in half by feminists, or something like them.

I suppose, though, that’s the most complicated aspect of this whole ordeal: jesters become the ruling class, the middle class ridicules the aristocracy, otherwise observing Catholics celebrate the hedonistic lifestyle, paisley feels the wrath of women with scissors, hierarchy everywhere seems upturned and chaos reigns – but only because the hierarchy, with a wink and a nod, allows it to happen.  The masses rebel, but within expected parameters, and so it only functions as one more means of control, and that’s the craziest phenomenon of all.

Well, that, and the phenomenon of black face, which is somehow still an accepted – and popular – costume in these parts.

Not a picture of black face, true, but still - can you DO this?

Or for that matter, this?

And, just when you thought this post was wrapping up, I find I can’t stop.  But this time, factoids will come with bullet points, so you know there’s no thesis to go along with this trivia.

  • The parade in Mainz came with its own German flair; some floats flung candy, sure, but there was also a good share of pretzel, cheese, and sausage tossing.
  • There’s also a definite regional difference in Fastnacht celebrations within Germany.  The Mainz celebrations tend to be more political; the ones in Cologne tend more towards humor.  Additionally, being in the wine region, many of the floats were wine-themed, and, yes, poured out wine instead of throwing candy.
  • Every year, the Fastnacht season has a new designated slogan.  This year’s:

Egal was kommt
Egal was ist,
Der Mainzer Narr
bleibt Optimist!

or

It doesn’t matter what comes,
It doesn’t matter what is,
The fool from Mainz
remains an optimist!

  • In the absence of high school marching bands (and what an absence that is), the parade is awash in Guggemusik.  Each band is dressed all scary-like, for which I  have no explanation.
  • The Mainz parade always ends with a giant duck float, which is a play on the German word for duck, Ente, and end, Ende.  In that spirit:


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Some Songs, Some News, and a Story

Maybe I shouldn’t put my reputation on the line again so soon after my last weepy post, but at the risk of sounding folksy and romantic, I am here to tell you: I love rivers (and trains).  I love spending lazy days floating downstream, Fat Tire in hand and a flotilla of friends bobbing around me; I love the Buffalo

Floating down the White River

for its underdog story of how a grassroots movement kept the river one of the longest free-flowing rivers in the States; I love the White River for the weekends I’ve spent eating good food and listening to 70s folk at my friend’s cabin there; I love the Mississippi for all the Mark Twain-y Delta Bluesy imagery it conjures.  I love rivers for the place in mythology they hold, and  I love what rivers can do to  language, for all the “Old Man River” epithets and the “You can’t stand in the same river twice” proverbs they inspire, and how it’s still okay to use slightly out-dated and sentimental phrasing like “ancient waters” and “down by the riverside” and “lonesome banks” when talking and telling stories and singing songs about them.  I am, in short, hokey.

And rivers make me think of home.  When I get lonesome fer the green, green grass of home, I listen to the sappiest and the Southernest of music: Johnny Cash, bluegrass, Delta blues (it’s funny, the way getting taken out of the South only makes you more of  a Southerner).  And 9 times out of 10 (there’s an exaggeration), these songs are about rivers (or trains), and these songs run the musical genre gamut (by which I mean bluegrass, folk, blues, and classic rock, because that’s what I listen to, but a quick search through my iTunes did reveal one song by M.I.A. which begins “When it’s really hot we go to the river and swim/ When we go fishin’ we catchin’ the brim”… so I assume there’s more of a gamut to run than my limited and questionable tastes might suggest).  And while we’re talking about gamut running, these river songs cover an array of topics and moods, from laments to romps, from murder ballads to gospel, and I’m happy to report that the completely archaic sentiments expressed by completely contemporary artists (Joe Purdy sings about his desire to be a riverboat captain, and Old Crow Medicine Show asks “Where’s a boatman to go?” after his job is made obsolete by train moving in) make my admittedly ridiculous notions of rivers (and trains) seem positively au courant.

I’m thinking about this, though, only because the other role rivers can play: a wealth of songs and stories and cities grow up around them, yes, but also, they flood, people die.  And this happened here, just a few days ago.  I live at the confluence of the Nahe and Rhine rivers, and it’s quite apparent how much of a lifeline the Rhine still is: barges, tourist cruises, and passenger and car ferries are  a constant.  The thing is, I live slightly upriver from a famous point in the

The Loreley, the cliff on the right. Photo cred: Joe.

Rhine, the Loreley.  This is a sheer cliff marking the narrowest part and a particularly windy portion of the Rhine, which has proved itself to be one of the most dangerous bits for river traffic.  I thought, somehow, that this danger had long been sorted out since, oh, I don’t know, the Middle Ages or so.  But, we were reminded that the Rhine does still pose a threat just two days ago, when a barge shipping sulphuric acid capsized near the Loreley.  Two of the crew members were saved; two still haven’t been found.  The river is closed to traffic while authorities try to prevent the sulphuric acid from leaking and search for the lost crew members, an effort made nearly impossible by the river’s current high level.

And, not to lessen this tragedy or chalk it up to mythology, but I thought I might take this opportunity to tell you a bit more area lore, since it’s suddenly nosing its way into the news.  This river, like any other river, has its own crop of stories, as the story of Hatto II and the Maeuseturm suggests.  And today, here’s  a new and, unfortunately, timely one.

This rock causes both a dangerous eddy in the river and (before the noise of urban development overpowered it) a mesmerizing murmuring echo (the word “Loreley” may or may not come from the Celtic word ley, or rock, and the Old German word for murmuring, loreln).  That irresistible combination of danger and beauty spawned the myth of Loreley, who, as the legend goes, was a beautiful siren/mermaid/daughter of a ruined king/ghost/enchantress/nymph/probably virgin because don’t these figures tend to be virgins?  who sat atop this aforementioned cliff, combing her golden hair with a golden comb, singing a song with a golden melody, a melody so alluring that it lured sailors to their deaths.  Perhaps she threw herself off the rock when her lover-sailor never returned.  Perhaps she was condemned by the church as a witch because every man who fell in love with her died.  Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps (aren’t legends lovely?).  This melancholy story has not only made this rock a sort of a tourist destination, but has also been made the subject of German poetry (including the most famous by Heinrich Heine, written in 1824, found in translation below), paintings, and songs (as all good river stories and myths about virginal beautiful women should be).  As luck should have it, it’s also been written about by names more familiar to our ears: Mark Twain, Paul McCartney, Eagle Eye Cherry (bet it’s been about a decade since you’ve thought about them), and, yes, Sylvia Plath (wouldn’t she just).

The Loreley
Heinrich Heine
Translated by Ernst Feise

I do not know what haunts me,
What saddened my mind all day;
An age-old tale confounds me,
A spell I cannot allay.

The air is cool and in twilight
The Rhine’s dark waters flow;
The peak of the mountain in highlight
Reflects the evening glow.

There sits a lovely maiden
Above so wondrous fair,
With shining jewels laden,
She combs her golden hair

It falls through her comb in a shower,
And over the valley rings
A song of mysterious power
That lovely maiden sings.

The boatman in his small skiff is
Seized by a turbulent love,
No longer he marks where the cliff is,
He looks to the mountain above.

I think the waves must fling him
Against the reefs nearby,
And that did with her singing,
The lovely Loreley.

 

A 1904 depiction of the lady of the hour by Ottmar Zieher.

(A nice collection of poetry and paintings of Loreley can be found here; the site’s in German, but I’m sure Google Translate would gladly do the dirty work for you.)

(One last factoid before I go: Despite Heine being a Jew, the Third Reich couldn’t entirely outlaw his poem due simply to its popularity.)


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.

All Roads Lead to Mainz

In light of recent elections, the teachers have been asking me to teach a lot of American history lessons – I guess they’re hoping I’ll be able to lend some perspective and context to what America is and why that’s so, as though the ye olde Tea Party can explain, well, the Tea Party.

But something about the quick-and-dirty timeline I’ve been passing out to the students seems, somehow, increasingly more laughable with each copy I make.  Sure, that’s partly because it starts with Columbus, as though America just materialized from the European imagination there on the Atlantic horizon, and sure, it skips from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War, wham, bam, thank you ma’am – but when you’re allotted the time I have and allotted the attention spans I’ve been given, well, I had to make some editing decisions, or butchering decisions, call them what you will.

But that’s not the reason, not entirely.  Mostly, looking over this silly little timeline, it makes me realize how… how… cute our history is*.  It’s so little!  I jush wanna pinch its wittle cheeks!  Awaska hashn’t losht its wittle bay-by fat!

…ugh, I suddenly hate blogging.

My point is this: in Mainz (neighboring town of that’s-where-I-bring-my-laundry-to fame) is built on Roman ruins.  So much so, in fact, that there’s a conflict between preservation and development efforts – builders are afraid to build for fear of striking gold, by which I mean a Roman bath or mosaic or  what-have-you, because this means halting construction while archeologists do their nit-picking through ancient ship remains.  Sometimes this unearthing is incorporated (like the  monument erected to Roman general Drusus, surrounded nesting-doll style by a 17th-century citadel), sometimes it is compromised (like the temple preserved underneath a shopping mall), sometimes it goes ignored entirely (like that time the railroad plowed through the middle of a theater).

So the effect is this city built like a parfait, except not so stratified, so not really like a parfait at all: a Roman crust, a creamy layer of the Middle Ages, some Renaissance fudge, a hearty helping of 1960’s post-war fruit that you sort of scoot to one side so you can get to the chocolate, a dollop of Rococo whip cream, and a Marc Chagall cherry on top.  And, of course, if you want to overextend this metaphor, let’s not forget a spoon of a war that dug through it all and left a sad trail behind:

The shell of St. Christophskirche - which, just to add to this medley of history-upon-history, was where Gutenberg was baptized

So what am I getting at?  That American history/architecture/parfaits can’t hold a (Roman) candle?  No.  I guess all I’m saying is that an American city simply can’t attain the sort of aesthetic you find in a city like Mainz where ancient abuts the modern in a very livable way, and you probably wouldn’t trip over  an aqueduct poking out of the ground like a tree root.  In other words… places are different.  Travel highlights that.

So much for my grand conclusion.  I guess that’s the danger of musing on something like Roman ruins: essentially, you always just wind up at some derivation of “wow, that’s old.”

*Despite my blatant use of the word “cute” and my subsequent baby talk to America, I don’t actually mean to trivialize American history. Really.  I love it too.

The History of America in Half an Hour

This week, I was asked to present the history of America.  You know, all of it.  This is complicated for a number of obvious reasons: how do you make a lecture like this interactive? (My solution: you pass out Halloween candy beforehand and hope that counts).  How do you talk about the history of America when you yourself haven’t really learned it since 7th grade, and even then, you only made it up to the Industrial Revolution? (My solution: cramming like I was preparing for a high school civics exam).  How do you talk about the war period to German students without parroting your American History for Dummies book, which has this to say on the topic: “Sometimes a fight can’t be avoided, particularly when it seems half the world is being run by monsters.  (…) Americans respond magnificently”?  (My solution: assume they know the sitch, and after a short explanation, ask if they have any questions or comments they’d like to make about German-American relations.  Any suggestions from the peanut gallery on this one?).  And lastly and most bafflingly, how do you choose what’s pertinent between Indians and Afghanistan, while speaking to a group of teenagers with a low level of English comprehension, without presenting a spiel of simplified American mythology that sounds like “So these Pilgrims came and then they fought the British, but then the South was mad, so they fought the North, but the slaves were still mad and that’s why there was the Civil Rights Movement.  Also, there were hippies and a Dust Bowl”?  (My solution: you don’t).

America, explained.

Needless to say, I have a newfound respect for historians… and for the German education system.  The students knew about Christopher Columbus, sure, but I had students who also knew about plantations, about Rosa Parks, and about the Confederacy, which simultaneously impressed me and made me concerned about the popular perception of world history in America, which consists almost entirely of the Romans and Hitler.  And Communists, but only in the sense that Obama may or may not be one.  (Disclaimer: I’m kidding, not inviting political comments).

In our defense, the students didn’t know about several pressing issues in American culture; they were completely taken aback by Black Friday.  Let’s not dwell too long on how Black Friday managed its way into an American history lesson (it involved some well-developed thought process like pilgrims -> Thanksgiving -> Black Friday).

The funny thing, though, is the dichotomy between who I am in the classroom (large and in charge), and who I am in the teacher’s lounge (timid and… invalid?  Shouldn’t have attempted that one, I see in retrospect).  You see, it takes just as much effort to talk to me as it does for me to talk, my German being so inadequate, and so I’m naturally always a bit confused as to what, exactly, is going on.  This experience of being half-in, half-out of the know is an interesting one: it’s a challenge, it’s frustrating, and as I found out last night, it can be a bit lonely.

I went on a Wandertag yesterday with the teachers, sort of an after-school-teachers-only field trip, which was wonderful.  We traveled up the Rhine via boat for a bit, disembarked in this perfectly cozy town with the silliest of names, Assmannshausen, took a ski left up to the top of the

Assmannshausen

mountain, hiked through spectacularly-colored woods, stopped at a few overlooks with stunning views of Bingen, and ended up in Ruedesheim, the town opposite Bingen, for dinner and wine.  It was a great little excursion – the first time I’ve been able to cross the Rhine, which is something I’ve been wanting to do for quite a while now.  Sometimes I fancied myself as some provincial peasant who doesn’t have the means to leave her little village, and so spends her time wondering just what’s around that bend in the river – until yesterday.

In other words, sometimes I fancied myself as Belle.

Post-harvest Vineyards; Ruedesheim in the distance (Bingen's across the river)

But back to my point.

It was a great experience, but sitting around the dinner table with a group of teachers, watching them act like friends do around a dinner table, it hit me with all the weight of the schnitzel on my plate how much I miss being able to do that – to go out with a little group of people I know and love, to competently tell stories, to not have to think about words or pronunciation or tenses to convey an idea.  Also, it strikes me more and more how far I am from coming into my own here, and how formidable a task learning a language is.

But failing that, maybe I’ll set my sights on more do-able goals, like riding a bike like the Germans do.  To help me illustrate the obstacles encountered on a typical German bike ride, we see a return of the ever-popular Family Circus-style map:

“Whatever the heck these things are” symbolize, of course, a series of bars meant, I suppose, to deter motor vehicle-ists from entering the given bike path, and while the Germans whiz through them like they’re wizards at Platform 9 and 3 Quarters, these bars interrupt my bike ride, causing me to do some awkward teeter-totter-topple-wobble dance as I shimmy my way through.

But, failing that goal, maybe I’ll give up on besting those bike bars, and set my sights on a real German bike bar:

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.