When my friend Liz lived in Germany, she and I would go exploring. One lovely spring day she suggested a trip to the nearby town of Weinstadt. It lies in the Rems Valley, a region known for vinyards and orchards. Weinstadt has charming villages, wooded hills, wine and sculptures… all mixed together.Weinstadt is actually five towns that joined together in 1975: Beutelsbach, Endersbach, Großheppach, Schnait and Strümpfelbach. We walked through the streets and the Sculpture Trails in the latter two (Strümpfelbach and Schnait).Weinstadt’s slogan is „Kultur trifft Natur“ or “Art Meets Nature”. A family with three (3!) generations of artists reside in Weinstadt. It is their art that decorates this already gorgeous area.Bronze and stone sculptures are tucked into bushes and vinyards, yards and walls.Professor Karl Ulrich Nuss first started the Scupture Route initiative. Karl is in the middle of the art dynasty that includes his father Professor Fritz Nuss (1907-1999), and two grandchildren of Fritz: Christoph Traub (born in 1964) and Felix Engelhardt (born in 1970).
Liz and I wandered through the vinyard’s sloped hills with our cameras.
Spring was running riot with blooming trees and flowers everywhere. The flowering Nature made the perfect backdrop to the artwork …
or was it the other way around?
Amongst other places, Fritz Nuss’s work is displayed in the British Museum and the Liederhalle in Stuttgart.
When we talk about salt, we talk most often of sodium chloride. This is NaCl, consisting of the elements sodium and chlorine.
There is a charming tradition in Germany of bringing a loaf of bread and salt to friends when they move into a new home. The saying is that if you have those two items in your house you’ll always survive. Bread and salt are still ceremoniously served to guests in parts of northern and eastern Europe.
Mark Kurlansky writes, “Loyalty and friendship are sealed with salt because its essence does not change. In both Islam and Judaism, salt seals a bargain because it is immutable… In Christianity, salt is associated not only with longevity and permanence but, by extension, wth truth and wisdom. The Catholic Church dispenses not only holy water but holy salt, Sal Sapientia, the salt of wisdom.” 
Seeing the hard way salt is won from pits changed forever the way I think about this simple condiment.
We were staying for only a few days in Vientiane, the capitol of Laos, and spent a day with a guide and a driver to see a bit of the area. One of the spots we toured was a traditional salt harvesting town. A little settlement lives at and from the pits (and has burned down numerous times). Each time, they rebuild right next to the pits.
Salty waters are brought up from deep underground
and then boiled in open metal pans. Their burning fires glowed and sent off intense heat. The briny steam that rose felt like being in some strange circle of Dante’s Purgatory.
Once the water has boiled away the salt is gathered in baskets, weighed, and stored in a barn.
Workers then bag and tag the salt, preparing it for market.
Salt is a serious business. The salt from this mine is sent to the north where people still suffer endemic goiters.
I thought of the pits of hell, of work so demanding and hot that it left scars. Just being tied to a spot like this must bake you and make you hard. Or so I thought. Instead, I met workers doing their jobs in neatly ironed clothing. The women all had on jewelry. A group of little children trailed us everywhere, laughing and mugging as children do.
Since that day salt has tasted both sweeter and bitterer, or herber as the Germans say. And in that small word I hear the echo of the coming season, Herbst, Autumn. The summer is burning away and fall is coming. May your harvest tables everywhere include bread and salt.
NOTES:  Mark Kurlansky, Salt: A World History (Vintage Books, 2002), p. 7.
(All photographs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)
“Jesus, cancer!” Rick shuddered in his chair at the mental image of watching a loved one waste away, or bearing witness to a beloved person’s features distort with pain. “Maybe my life style as a Good time Charlie was actually good protection. It always worked pretty well, as long as I wanted it to. Well.” He looked away to the back wall of the bar, refocused on the present and the woman listening carefully at the other side of the small table. “And you? How did you survive those years in the jungle?”
Maricela took a deliberate slow swallow from her non-alcoholic beer. “I would go out dancing on weekends, with my friends.” She looked away, her gaze on somewhere in the past. “I drank,” she answered quietly. “I went on short term binges. I didn’t really have relationships, or if I did, they sure were fluid ones. All high-percentage based.”
She gave him a wry smile and raised the near beer in a toast. “I had one black out too many. Finally I figured out I could get the smallest of buzzes from a near beer and it tastes just close enough to the real thing. Most people thing women drink these because they’re trying to avoid the calories.”
Maricela laughed softly; Rick thought she sounded sad. “I don’t judge you,” he was prepared to say, wanting to comfort her. He was shocked when she turned her face to him and he saw she was grinning.
“Holy shit! I was such a wild thing. I had fun, that’s for sure! I only regret I can’t remember more of it.”
Maricela’s utter candor and what sounded like a total lack of shame were attractive. She had no idea how sexy it was, the unfolding mystery of her past – her honesty about it – and the acceptance of both who she was now and what she had been like. She had no idea of the affect this had.
They sat in a bar and grill, perhaps an odd place given Maricela’s most recent story. But when he looked across the table at her she seemed at peace, happy to be with him eating lunch. Maricela talked on, unconcerned. “My friends, the women anyway, sit around and do the ‘Woulda coulda shoulda’ game. Where it went wrong, why it might have gone wrong, how they should have been stronger, or more assertive in their careers, or better mommies, or more giving to their ex-husband. Or rather most of the time, how they should have been less giving to the s.o.b.! In the end it’s all the same.
“Not me.” Maricela pierced Rick with a look. “Regretting the past doesn’t make it go away, or erase the mistakes. As nice as that would be… It’s mental masturbation. You root around in old dirt and feel guilty or bad about yourself over, and over, and over again.
“At first there was no way I was going to do a 12 steps program. Who needs to go into critical self-analysis when you can grow up Catholic? The gift that goes on giving: guilt. When I finally decided to stop drinking, I got a year of therapy to help me figure out why I liked drinking so much.”
She laughed out loud again and the sound was truly joyous. “Well, it’s the reason I still drink non-alcoholic beer. I like the taste! I like beer! When I drank, I drank too much. There were no big revelations, which might have been the biggest revelation of all. We go hunting for deep answers, if my father had been more affectionate, if my mother only praised me more. I drank because I worked so hard. And since I weigh 130 pounds, it didn’t take much to help me unwind. I don’t have any buried family trauma, and I don’t have tendencies to be drug dependent. I never even smoked cigarettes, so I didn’t like smoking pot. When I tried smoking a joint it just tore out my lungs.
“But now I am sorry, I’m blathering on suddenly about all this! It’s old history, it’s really ancient. I haven’t gotten drunk in over a decade! It’s no big deal, Rick, I’m not a heroine or anything; I just got a little smarter about how I was living my life and what I want from it. One of the major things though, is I decided, if I met someone I wanted to see again, I have to be up front about who I am and who I’m not. And I am definitely not a drinker any more.”
“Yo, I’ve done some drinking in my time too. Not to worry. I think it goes with the territory of being young and getting older and wiser.” Inside he exulted.
They sat silent for a few minutes and Maricela resumed eating her cooling food. The silence wasn’t awkward; she really did seem at peace with herself and with the long speech she’d just given him. Rick waited until she finished eating and her hands were back in her lap before he reached over and, taking her left hand in his, silently raised it to his cheek. It was dated, the gesture: but Rick meant it.
Much later, Rick woke to feel Maricela’s presence in his bed beside him. She lay curled on her left side, the hand he’d held to his cheek earlier at lunch brushing against him.
– from my short story “Speed Dating” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available in paperback or eBook at amazon.com,amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere.
On July 4th, Germany made soccer history. They are the first country to ever make it to four World Cup Semi-Finals in a row. I’m back in the US for a visit, and watched that game early in the morning on my friend’s couch with the German flag in face paint on my cheeks and a German lei draped around my neck.
I came to soccer late. It wasn’t until after I moved to Europe in 1992 that I realized how exciting the World Cup is. The globe takes its soccer pretty seriously (understatement of the century!); I first became a fan out of a need to share in the experience or miss out on life for weeks at a time. When Germany hosted the World Cup in 2006, I became a fan for real. What great matches! What a party!
So here I am in 2014, cheering on everyone. I’ve cajoled my friends into going to pubs and restaurants with wide screen televisions, or watching at home. I was happy to see the USA make it through the elimination round in Group G (the Group of Death), ironically up against Ghana, Portugal, – and Germany. I rooted for both even as I knew Germany would take it.
During the next round I watched the Argentina-Belgium match on a Spanish speaking station. I had the volume turned low, but I love hearing the cheering and chanting of fans in the stands.
The sounds suddenly reminded me of Pink Floyd, of all things. I was 16 when Dark Side of the Moon was released, and if you know me that fact explains everything. But Floyd’s earlier album (and that’s a word that really dates me) Meddle contains the song “Fearless” with a background of singing Liverpool F.C. fans. At the time I didn’t know from soccer. I was sure the sound had to be religious chanting, like the noise of saffron robed Indians on a hillside in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Remember the scene in Dharmsala where they sing out notes and point at the sky? I somehow made a connection between religion, and Pink Floyd, and joyous tones.
It was decades later that I moved to Europe. When I heard the chants of fans in the stadiums I realized with a start that it’s really about soccer.
So it’s all come full circle. I’m back for a visit in the wonderful country of my birth; I’m watching the land I currently call home kick butt and take names as they make sports history; and it’s all accompanied by a soundtrack that returns to me to one of the happiest times of my life.
GO TEAM !!!
A shout out to Mark O’Brien and American Dream Pizza for opening up the bar early so we could watch Germany make more history as they beat Brazil. 7-1, baby! http://www.adpizza.com/
Soccer ball image courtesy http://www.dreamstime.com. Cover art work for Pink Floyd’s Meddle, image courtesy of Wikipedia. Music video courtesy of YouTube.
Most of our time in New Zealand I felt the landscape was alive. Especially on the North Island, I had the eerie sensation of standing on a very active volcano. The ground steams in places, thanks to the underground hot springs everywhere.
Three things remain fresh in my memory: Maori culture and architecture; the crisp Sauvignon Blancs that were all we drank; and the utter alive-ness of the nature.
The charming city of Rotorua contains all three.
We could view the wharenui (meeting house) of the Māori people from outside. I was taken by the use of local materials, symbolism, and the symmetry and beauty of every traditional building.
The Kiwis make great wine. When it comes to bottled grapes, I’m amused by the jargon. My own descriptions used to run to statements like, “A naughty little vintage. If this was a small child, I’d spank it and send it to bed without supper.” I loved it when I discovered that New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blancs are described as releasing a heavy whiff of cat pee when you first open the bottle. (I’m not making this up. Wine expert Jancis Robinson remarks, “Indeed one branded Sauvignon Blanc on sale in Britain is actually sold under the brand name Cat’s Pee on a Gooseberry Bush.”)* Yuck! If that’s the first impression you get from a wine, what could make anyone want to go past just opening the dang thing?
It was worth the adventure to try one.
We bought a bottle and opened it in our hotel room. Phew-ee! Sure enough, there was a heady stink of feral cat which thankfully faded immediately. I dared to fill a glass, took a sip… and was greeted by an explosion of quince, green apples, citrus fruits, kiwis and gooseberries. Those Sauvignon Blancs are so delicious that I never even bothered trying any other grape varietal while we were there. Why mess with kitty litter box perfection?
And then there is the natural world.
We visited parks where everything burbled, bubbled, exploded or engulfed us in clouds of steam. We did all of the hiking loops and were wowed by the spectacle of shooting geysers, blubbering springs, and mineral ponds containing colors I had no idea normally appear in Nature.
In one park gift shop I purchased mud for facials that someone dipped out of a pond on the park grounds. No small feat as most of the park waters are at boiling point!
The park had to post signs warning people not to step in the springs. I say, let Darwin’s theory of natural selection and Nature take their course…
I’ve belonged to a writers’ group for two years. How did I survive so long without the company of my crazy peers and fellow wordsmiths? I have no idea what I did before I hooked up with these people.
In my group you find: Short stories. Essays. Erotic (really erotic) poetry. Autobiographies. Journalism. Novels. Urban fantasy. Flash fiction. Song lyrics. Wistful thinking (this is how a member explains what he writes, and I love his description).
We come together to share and critique works-in-progress. We use writing exercises to loosen up our creative muscles. And we’re committed to public readings.
A little café named Wir Sind Babel was one venue. A brightly lit coffee house with marble floors and comfy chairs was another. And the last one…. well, that venue gets a blog post all its own.
An Irish pub I’ll call The Blarney Stone seemed like the ideal spot. The bar’s slowest weeknight was the perfect time.
We could use a side room for our event. The space looked like a library room filled with bookcases, a perfect setting for our brilliant words. Even better, the owner promised us if we could total 50 people we’d get the main room – and he had a microphone we could use! They often feature live musical acts and the entire bar was already wired to hear us. Sweet!
A Toast Master offered to be our MC. He’d read short bios to introduce each reader. We printed up fliers for the tables and info sheets to hand out ahead of time. It was all perfect…
Doesn’t this sound too good to be true?
That Tuesday we arrived with high expectations. The bar was packed. Our side room grew too small for all our friends and guests, but the main room had filled with patrons who, sadly, were not there for our earthshaking literary creations.
Every chair was taken and people sat and stood everywhere. Waiters and waitresses had to slither their way with plates and drinks through the crowds. Then we realized our side room had no door, and that meant no barriers against the noise levels that kept increasing.
No worries. We were as cool as the collective cucumber, because we had the ultimate secret weapon: the microphone. The first reader began to recite her piece.
And then the m crophone we were loan d began sh rt ng out w th ever sec nd sente ce and nex with ev ry thi d word. It g t wors . The m ke beg n to let o t awf l and ear splitt ng sccccrrre eee ee ech hhhhiiiing fee eeedb ck. We checked that the batteries were fresh and the wiring solid. We tried holding the mike in different parts of the room, closer to our lips, away from our mouths, up in the air. We recited louder, and then more quietly; none of it made a difference.
At that point every writer in the room knew we’d been rat f cked. Without saying much (not that we could have heard one another anyway over the noise in the pub) we had that group moment of grokking that this evening would not be the literary triumph we’d all awaited.
The first reader gamely made it through her piece. The second reader performed in a different corner of the room. By the time it was my turn to read I lay the mike down on the pult and basically yelled out my piece, observing every pause, emphasis and careful nuance I’d practiced.No one heard a word over the pub din.
But I am so very proud of all of us. We observed grace under pressure. We went forward despite impossible conditions (and false promises made to us). We made the best out of the debacle… and it really brought us together as fellow failed performers.
The pub owner got more than fifty extra paying guests on what was his slowest night of the week! I’d like to say he bought us a round of drinks to make up for it. I’d really like to say that our words triumphed over noise decibels. But no, that night the gift of gab got stuck in a malfunctioning microphone.
Our next public reading is in a month, and it will not be held in an Irish pub. The first moral of the story? To get over stage fright, sometimes you have to scream. The second moral to the story? Don’t mess with writers, because at some point we will write about you and what you did.
We’ll be back at the newly renovated Wir Sind Babel. The date is Thursday, May 22. Doors open at 1900. Hope to see you all there!
Many people feel Berlin is now the cultural heart of Europe. Creative impulses come from Germany’s capitol and spread from there. One of the quirkiest is the Buddy Bears.
The Buddy Bears creators were inspired by the cow parades in New York and Zurich. Eva and Klaus Herlitz of Berlin wanted to initiate a similar street art project. The bear is the icon of Berlin, and thus in 2001, the Herlitzes created the first bear with a sculptor named Roman Strobl.
Their projected expanded, and in 2002 it went international. They had a bear created for every country the UN acknowledges, all designed by artists native to each country. To date 148 2-meter high fiberglass United Buddy Bears have been painted. The bears have their arms raised as if they’re holding hands. (This can also be described as the laughing Buddha pose.)
The first display took place in a circle around Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. One and a half million people saw the exhibit, always free of charge. The circle symbolizes the Art of Tolerance. Since then, they’ve toured 5 continents and stood in an alphabetical circle in the centers of 17 host cities.*
In 2008 the Buddy Bears came to the Schlossplatz in downtown Stuttgart. (Read my post The Year the World Came to Party about how the 2006 Soccer World Cup transformed Germany. The Schlossplatz is where Uwe and I went each night with friends to watch the games on big screens.)
The United Buddy Bears send a message about peace, understanding, love and tolerance among the world’s nations, cultures and religions. Each bear is painted with images of the culture, history, landscape, economy, art and music of its country.
When new bears are commissioned, the older ones are auctioned off. All monies go to UNICEF and other childrens’ charities. To date (December 2013), over 2 million Euros have been raised for charities such as Eva Herlitz’s Buddy Bear Help!
Over 240 artists have been involved in the project, and more than 30 million visitors have seen the United Buddy Bears. A smaller circle of United Buddy Bears-The Minis (1 meter high) also tours.
The United Buddy Bears exhibitions are always opened by national and foreign dignitaries. They even have a Special Ambassador: the actress Dennenesch Zoudé. After he saw the bears in Berlin, actor Jackie Chan made sure the bears came to Hong Kong. UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Sir Peter Ustinov saw them and he insisted that Iraq be represented.
There is one very special grey and white bear, a polar bear. He has the image of Albert Einstein and the following quote: ‘Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding’.
NOTE: * It’s fascinating to consider that United Buddy Bears change their order as they travel. The circle is always organized in the language of the host country. Buddy Bears may suddenly hold hands with distant or hostile neighbors…
We’ve come to Paris for a quick getaway, and Stuttgart is less than 4 hours by direct fast train. As we think about what we want to do and see, we realize neither of us have ever visited Chartres.
Uwe and I go out of our way to see sacred places around the globe. (See my posts The Cult of Bà Chúa Xứ or The Music of the Heavenly Spheres for some photos and tales from other sacred spots.) Energies gather in some unlikely places. Sometimes I stand in famous spots and am disappointed, while a place less known for religion makes me feel the presence of the divine.
Chartres. I’ve been trying for days – weeks, actually – to summarize the “facts” about this site. It was built 1140-1260 and the labyrinth was laid in the first decade of the 13th century. I wonder what to mention about Chartres’ 1,000 years as a pilgrimage destination, or the female energies of the cathedral and their tenderness. Mary’s tunic, the Sancta Camisia worn at the birth of Jesus Christ, was brought here by Charlemagne. The king in turn had been given the relic as a gift during a trip to Jerusalem.
When the earlier church building burned on June 10, 1194, the Sancta Camisia miraculously survived. Chartres remains an important Marian pilgrimage center, and the faithful still come from around the world over to honor it.
Chartres is one of the most impressive Gothic cathedrals on Earth. Back in my college days at the University of Oregon, Professor James Boren in his Chaucer and Medieval Literature classes explained Chartres as literally turning the architectural form inside out. For the first time the ribs holding up the entire structure had been placed outside, allowing the inside heart of the structure to soar up into the Heavens, seemingly without limits. The support of flying buttresses was necessary because of the unprecedented size and heights of the stained glass windows and the nave. Professor Boren’s face glowed; this stern and learned man radiated as he lectured about a place that he said changed him when he saw it. That lecture and the look on his face stayed with me. Chartres: someday I would see it.
Chartres Cathedral contains one of the few remaining medieval labyrinths. It’s large with a circumference of 131 feet, almost exactly the same size as the West Rose window.
In the Middle Ages, French church labyrinths were the sites of Easter dances involving clergy and the tossing of a leather ball. Sadly, the labyrinths were destroyed, covered over, or hidden by Church authorities suspicious of their powers and pagan beginnings. (Labyrinths, including Chartres’, traditionally had an disk or placque of Theseus and Ariadne and the Minotaur at their centers. In fact, another name for a cathedral that contained a labyrinth was the “Domus Daedali” [House of Daedalus], a nod to antiquity’s Daedalus, designer of the labyrinth that held the Minotaur in Knossos.) *
But, Chartres’ labyrinth survived. I learn that while it’s covered by chairs most of the time, the labyrinth is made free for visitors to enter on Fridays. My one request to Uwe for our trip becomes, “Please let’s go to Chartres on Friday!”
So here we are, entering one of the holy pilgrimage destinations in Christianity.
Chartres. Once inside, the cathedral’s beauty immediately takes my breath away. I am so deeply moved that in the next moment I’m close to tears. Whatever I expected, this sacred soaring space is beyond all imagination. Light streams in through the windows and illuminates the visitors, pilgrims, and the simply curious. All of us are suffused in colors.
For a while I just walk around. Uwe’s already moved off with his camera, ready as always to use his art with photography to capture in images what my brain grapples with in words.
As the minutes pass I grow more and more stunned. And I remain dangerously, or is that gorgeously, close to breaking into tears. There is an energy to this place, a sense of the holy and the really, really blessed, that I have seldom felt anywhere.
The Schwedagon Pagoda in Burma comes to mind. It is the most important pagoda in the country, and I felt the top of my head buzz like it was going to blow off from the concentration of religious energies. Or a back pond in the Adirondacks with only my family as fellow witnesses: loons with a pair of chicks calling in low cries to one another as they eyed us but didn’t swim away. Or a tiny Greek Orthodox church in Thessaloniki, supposedly built on the site where Apostle Paul preached. I attended on Sunday with my friend Cynthia and our Greek host Fotis, who led us up to an altar surrounded by burning, hand-dipped wax tapers. Fotis insisted we take bread from the common basket. Tears streamed on both our faces; I finally felt the deeper meaning of breaking bread in fellowship.
All of these places’ sacred energies are present in Chartres. It is so much more than I deserve or had awaited. I take a deep breath to center myself, and move forward to stand poised at the entry to the labyrinth.
“A labyrinth is an ancient symbol that relates to wholeness. It combines the imagery of the circle and the spiral into a meandering but purposeful path. …
“A labyrinth is an archetype with which we can have a direct experience. … It is a metaphor for life’s journey. It is a symbol that creates a sacred space and place and takes us out of our ego to “That Which Is Within.” At its most basic level the labyrinth is a metaphor for the journey to the center of your deepest self and back out into the world with a broadened understanding of who you are. …
“A labyrinth is not a maze. A maze is like a puzzle to be solved. It has twists, turns, and blind alleys. It is a left brain task that requires logical, sequential, analytical activity to find the correct path into the maze and out. A labyrinth has only one path. It is unicursal. The way in is the way out. There are no blind alleys. The path leads you on a circuitous path to the center and out again.
“A labyrinth is a right brain task. It involves intuition, creativity, and imagery. With a maze many choices must be made and an active mind is needed to solve the problem of finding the center. With a labyrinth there is only one choice to be made. The choice is to enter or not. A more passive, receptive mindset is needed. The choice is whether or not to walk a spiritual path.” – Dan Johnston, Ph.D. at www.lessons4living.com
While I walk the labyrinth and contemplate the mystery of the sacred**, Uwe photographs me. When I see his photos later I’m surprised, and glad.
NOTES: * Another name for the eleven-circuit labyrinth is the “Chemin de Jerusalem” or Road of Jerusalem. Walking the labyrinth in Chartres or other places could be made instead of making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
** I haven’t even tried to talk about the lunations of the labyrinth. Their meaning is still debated. A celestial calendar? Esoteric design of the deeper mysteries?
Walking a Sacred Path. Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Tool. Dr. Lauren Artress, Riverhead Books, 1995.