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Travels with Georgia and zig
Overseas Trips

Episode 6—Wednesday 5/19/10: On the way to Cologne, Switzerland, Austria, Bavaria 2010

We arrived at the station early. Our train was scheduled for 9:27, but that was 9:27 yesterday. We saw that there was also an 8:27 train today. Since we had the wrong dayanyway there didn’t seem to be any reason to hang around the platform for another hour just to be exactly 24 hours late. Might as well settle for 23 hours late. The train was obviously a commuter with overhead bins designed for small backpacks and briefcases. We had to wedge our carryons under our seats. I can’t imagine what someone would do with steamer trunks. The conductor took a look at our tickets, started to say something, looked at our bags—obviously those of crazy tourists—then shut his mouth with a snap and clipped out tickets. “Danke shoen,” I said. “Bitte shoen,” he replied with a wry smile and walked on up the aisle.
 
We blazed through the town of Remagen on the Rhine and I looked for the famous bridge where Tom Hanks met his death in “Saving Private Ryan.” Couldn’t see it. The river there was as wide as the Mississippi. You’d think you’d be able to see a bridge. I didn’t. But I did see plenty of container ships and tug boats.
 
And then we were in Cologne. As we left the train concourse I wondered how we would find the Cathedral. As we entered the main station with its soaring roof I started looking around for a city map. I hated to have to buy one for a trip that was only going to last an hour or so. Georgia elbowed my ribs and pointed to the enormous clear windows at the front of the station. They must have been 60 or 70 feet high. And through the glass we could see a broad flight of steps leading up and to the left from the plaza toward a stone structure soaring far, far, far up out of sight. “I don’t think we’re going to have a hard time finding the Cathedral,” she said. 

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There were automated storage lockers there in the station. You put in a euro and a little door would open. You stuff your luggage in the hole and push a little red button. The door closes and the machine spits out a little receipt—much like a parking stub with a magnetic strip. Our luggage was gone! Hard to believe. The machine itself couldn’t have been much bigger than a walk-in freezer. There must be caverns under the station full of luggage. What could possibly go wrong? That’s my motto.
 
The Cathedral was much larger than I expected. The mosaics on the floor date from the 8th and 9th century. There were windows there from every age, and in many styles, from the 12th to the 21st century. I tried to photograph everything. It wasn’t possible. Cologne is a gothic cathedral, basically plain on the inside with the stained glass providing color as it reflects off the stones. These stones were smudged black with centuries of dirt and smoke. They were in the process of being cleaned and I know they will be amazing, but now it was just dark and un-photographable. The cathedral is SO huge that it even swallowed up my camera flash. The images I took from a distance just looked like pinpricks of light in sea of blackness. The only image I retain is more in my mind than in my camera. There was a group of young teenagers there on a fieldtrip of some sort. The kids were all goofing around in the cold. One young girl, probably 13 or 14 turned away and took a step toward one of the many altars fronted by racks and racks of glowing candles. The others ignored her. She used a candle to light a candle and then stood there silently, head bowed, warming her hands over the little light. Somehow it was all very poignant.
 
The finest stained glass, in my humble opinion, looks wonderful from it’s “reading” distance—which in a space like Cologne’s Cathedral is several hundred feet, but also invites you to come up close as well. I guess that’s why I especially liked Marc Chagall’s windows in Zurich. That has not always been achieved. One of the 20th century windows in Cologne was a particular disappointment. It was just squares—a few inches across—and in many pastel colors. I could imagine many wonderful ways the concept could be used—like the pixels in a digital picture it could have been used to make a gigantic image. But this enormous window, probably 60 feet wide and 150 feet tall, looked more like the kind of “snow,” or static we used to get on our TV screen when a station was off the air. It didn’t look good from far away, and it was even more boring up close. What a terrible waste of stained glass canvas. I have to think the “artist” was ashamed of the result. 

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Most, if not all cathedrals would spend a king’s ransom during the middle ages to acquire fabulous relics. Cologne’s principal relics are the earthly remains of the three magi, or astrologers who followed the miraculous star that pointed out the location of the newborn King of the Jews. They are kept in magnificent reliquaries behind the high altar. The magi, themselves, also brought magnificent gifts to the infant king: Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. What if their gifts had not been welcomed? Or not deemed appropriate?
 
That’s probably the most frustrating part of being a stained glass artist. Your “canvas” cannot be bought at any store. It has to be supplied by a customer’s need. You cannot make your art and, like Van Gogh, put it in a closet in the hopes that they will be discovered and appreciated by future ages. The magi could not have carried their gifts to just anyone—they only became appropriate with the needs of the birth of a king. Architectural windows require architects and patrons and people willing to share a grand vision or permit the individual artist to imagine on a huge scale. When you end up with a mistake like the squares-windows who to blame? The person who built the window may not be the one who designed it. The one who “designed it” may not have been given free rein. Or they may not have been up to the opportunity. Who knows? Whatever the cause, it’s very humbling to see a bad window on this scale, and that makes Chagall’s magnificent gifts even more miraculous. There are so many ways they could have gone wrong.
 
Georgia just had to buy some “cologne” from Cologne. I went into a convenience store for more substantial supplies: butter cookies and chocolate. I can’t help but observe that Georgia was more interested in eating my cookies and chocolate than I was in wearing her cologne.
 
We said a little prayer and stuck our little luggage parking ticket back in the slot. Whirring and clicking softly a little screen told us to be patient. After about 80 or 90 seconds the same little door opened and mirabile dictu, our bags appeared. It was like watching a robotic magician pull my own pet bunny out of a mechanical top hat!
 
The train left 20 minutes late and made up time by goosing it a little. There was a monitor that showed the train’s speed and position—much like the one we had on our airplane. And the train was actually traveling at air-plane speeds: 297 kilometer’s per hour! The pressure differential was such that our ears would pop when we entered and exited tunnels at this speed. Whew! For part of the trip we paralleled a six-lane autobahn. We were passing the speeding cars and trucks as if they were standing still. The tracks were steeply banked in the turns. They’d have to be at that speed. 

 

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The countryside swam by in a blur of lush green and bright yellow punctuated by occasional assemblages of red tiled roofs sinking astern with sharp church steeples last to submerge. Rain tried to fall on our windows but could find no purchase at this speed.
 
We made up the time and pulled into Ulm right on time. Our next train blasted off after a six-minute layover. We sat across from a nice lady from a town outside Zurich who was heading home from a class-reunion in Stuttgart.  She told us about the hiking and biking trails in the woods that rimmed Zurich. There is opposition from developers but the city is making a concerted effort to be more attractive to tourists and they are banking on a growing attraction of “eco-tourism.” We had an interesting conversation about different German dialects (none of which I can either pronounce or understand). She taught English and French and loves English literature and French crime novels. We talked about graffiti, and she said that it had been invented, self-consciously, in Cologne by an artist, who was an artist, desperate for public canvases. I told her I had the same problem. She said he decided to just appropriate other people’s blank walls for his own use. The authorities were not amused, but the underground “artists” thought it was a spectacular idea and it caught on like wildfire. The spray-paint companies didn’t seem to mind. She hated modern graffiti and was surprised that I praised some of the use of color we’d seen and said that some of the places we’d visited could easily put on “Graffiti tours.” She was traveling through Lindau on Lake Constance (the Bodansee) because it was such a scenic trip. Other trains would have been faster.
 
It was lovely farmland, with acres and acres of 8’ fruit trees strung together along wire clothes lines. Lindau was pretty as well with pastel houses topped by brown roof tiles rather than that the orange variety we’d seen almost everywhere else. Have I told you that “Zeigler” is a variant of “Ziegler” meaning someone who makes roof tiles? It’s the German equivalent of the English occupational name “Tyler.” No wonder it’s such a common name in Switzerland, Bavaria and Austria. They needed a lot of zieglers around here.

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Unfortunately it was drizzling pretty steadily when we got off the train. The information office booked us a room in the center of the old town and it was a pretty long pull from the train station. We were on the third floor (that means fourth floor you know). Our landlord showed us the room and even carried Georgia’s bag up the narrow flights of stairs. He looked like Gabby Hayes with teeth but without the crushed hat. We asked him to recommend a restaurant and he suggested one just around the corner called “the Angel” specializing in local fish from the Bodansee. Couldn’t find it where he said it was, but did see a restaurant called “Engle” and figured that must be it. The restaurant was on the first floor, which means we walked up to it. Found a door filled with clear leaded glass. As we swung it open we were greeted by soft voices, tinkling glassware, and wonderful smells.
 
We were also met by a slim and tanned 50-year old waitress. She was dressed in a tight black skirt and a crisp white blouse that accented her sun-tanned mahogany skin. I wondered if they talked about the dangers of sun-exposure around here. We had noticed that even in the rain there were a lot of sailboats out on the lake. If this lady hadn’t spent a lot of her time on the water I’d mizzen her jib or lower her boom or whatever. We pantomimed our request that she suggest local specialties. Her suggestions were spot on! Georgia had trout from the Bodansee with potatoes and butter and white asparagus. I had my new favorite food, Spaetzel, with white cabbage. It was like sour kraut, but creamy and not at all like the stuff US hot-dog vendors use. Bodansee kraut is to canned sour kraut as German bauen brot is to Wonderbread. We splashed it down with a local Riesling, followed by a local dark bier and topped it all off with a local fruit schnaps. I died and went to Heaven. Few people know that the ambrosia we get served in Heaven will taste suspiciously like German dumplings and creamy sour kraut.

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What’s the perfect end to a meal like that? Coffee and Apfel Streudel mit Eis under a canopy by the bay watching the sail boats putter around. So that’s where we went, and that’s what we ordered. Because it was chilly the owner brought us a lap blanket. How cool is that? We took the long circuit back to our Gastehaus stopping at the Catholic Church. It was locked when we tried the door and a dumpy little man dressed all in black (except for the crusty white dandruff on his shoulders) poked his head out of the house next door and told us unpleasantly that the church was closed!
 
I thought I was going to have to stick my foot in the door to ask him a question.
 
 (to be continued)

Episode 5—Monday 5/17/10: On the way to Maria Laach Abbey, Switzerland, Austria, Bavaria 2010

Up early to catch the train. Our hosts had returned from their weekend trip and prepared a very nice breakfast for us. The husband spoke only German and Italian. The wife spoke German, Italian, and a very rusty English. We managed to communicate picking and choosing our words carefully, pointing a lot and playing charades. It’s no wonder the Europeans love mime so much—it’s part of their everyday experience!
 
In the train station I tried again to speak some German to the young ticket agent, though his English was obviously better than my German. We were going to Maria Laach, a volcanic crater-lake about 35 miles south of Cologne, Germany. He was patient and very helpful in directing us to the right track and printing our schedule, even though we’d bought the tickets at the automat booth. In appreciation I tried to thank him using the peculiar Swiss-German pronunciation of the terminal “e” in “danke.” It should have been something like “dan-KAY” “or “dan-KEH” but came out “don-KEY.” He pfftted and sniggered and did just about everything except swallow his necktie trying to keep from laughing out loud. If he’d been drinking milk it would have squirted out his nose. I lit up like a tail-light. What a linguist I am.
 
Our high-speed train was delayed because the preceding train was 20 minutes late. That meant our train had to idle outside town somewhere—probably in a bar. Bars always have rails, you know. When the late train finally arrived our train glided in right behind it, but on a different track from the printed schedule. The conductors were all in a tizzy—blowing whistles, answering anxious questions from confused travelers, and waving flags at each other. Many of them had multiple piercings and many tattoos. In Germany I think train conductor is an entry-level position for recovering Goths.
 
Our train left the station only one minute late. They had made up 20 minutes in about 5 minutes of frantic flag waving! We would be following the Rhine to the small city of Andernach just south of Cologne. From there we would have to take a bus or taxi inland to the Abbey located on the shores of Maria Laach. 
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 The ride was a pure joy. Perhaps not as perfectly smooth as the trains in Italy, but faster and more clean. We slipped along at 200 kilometers per hour, staring out our giant picture windows at the huge patchwork quilt of green wheat and bright yellow flax, grown to make bio-diesel. Along the Rhine itself, especially where the Mosel empties into it, there were also acres and acres of gray-green vineyards. There were very few bridges over the Rhine, but those few were stupendous. Magnificent soaring ribbons of steel girdling a river very much like the mighty Mississippi. It carried fleets of huge barges and container ships, and sported hundreds of little towns all along its banks—on both sides—picturesque and charming. Often the towns faced each other across the river, connected, I guess, by ferries. Our train, an inter-city, wasn’t going to stop anywhere. Someday, we’ll have to return and sample the local wines. 
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Andernach was a beautiful little city—catering to pedestrian traffic. We dragged our carry-ons all over the place looking for the church called the Mariendom. Why are beautiful old cathedrals located on tiny little cobblestone alleys? It did have some lovely stained glass windows. But, in case you were wondering: cobblestones are charming, but pulling rolling suitcases over them is a real pain in the patoot. The stained glass wasn’t that impressive. We snapped some quick pictures then clattered back over the same cobblestones to the train station to find a taxi.
 
Our driver was easily topping 100 kph on the winding road to the Laach. I guess if your taxicab is a brand new Mercedes Benz you simply have to floor it. The only thing that kept us from freaking out was the fact that 120 kph seemed pretty slow after riding a train that’s passing cars on the autobahn like they were stuck in second gear. But we were now blazing through forests of fir trees, lovely, dark, and deep, and only about 3 meters out the window. It was a little nerve wracking.
 
Father Timothy, our guestmaster, met us at the door with wonderful English. He’s been to Gethsemani outside Bardstown Kentucky and asked to be remembered to Father Benedict. Our room was clean and bright with one (hard) sofa-sleeper and one slightly larger (very soft) “twin-sized” bed. Georgia volunteered for the sleeper. I figured she could help extricate me from the oversized pillow each morning. We’d just settled in when vespers, evening prayer, began.
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The abbey church is ancient beyond words and made from warm-colored sandstone. The setting sun produced a mysterious gloom, punctuated by the pastel colors of the stained glass, and perfect accompaniment for the melancholy chants. The pews were hand-carved—each with it’s own unique design and polished by centuries of rubbing.
 
Supper began at 6:30 and we were seated at a table with five other retreatants: there were three nuns, one young and two in their 60s, and a middle-aged lay couple from Dortmund. None spoke English though the young nun tried gamely. She got both tickled and frustrated at her inability to find the right words for the ideas in her head. I could tell that she really had things she wanted to tell us, but did not have the words. We all had to fall back on the familiar game of “pick various words from various languages and augment them with hand-signals and mime.” It worked. There seemed to be a lot of laughter at the table, though we certainly couldn’t mime anything of consequence. Father Timothy dropped by from time to time to see how we were getting along and would provide translation for critical pronouncements like “Dortmund has a wonderful football team!” and “Yes, we certainly have been having a cold and rainy May!” I can’t tell you the number of times on our trips when I’ve thought of Kierkegaard’s pronouncement that one knight of faith will always be able to recognize another knight of faith even though they won’t be able to communicate. I could see in the young nun a hunger to embrace the path she was on, but a fear that it might be a mistake. I wished I could talk with her, and I could tell that she did too, but she was in the right place. I often saw her in deep conversation with one of the other guest masters who was also a spiritual advisor. I hope in heaven to be fluent in all the languages of the world, but here below I can’t even seem to master one of them.
 
The meal itself was a variety of thinly sliced meats and cheeses and bread that was somehow both crunchy and tender as a baby’s smile. Why is it impossible to get good bread in our grocery stores? The coffee and tea was sublime. There was also the local alcoholic apple-wine and delicious water (with or without carbonation). Compline, the last “hour” of the day was at 7:45. I yawned all through the brief prayers, and we crashed immediately afterwards.
 
Tuesday 5/18/10: Maria Laach
I wanted to go to morning prayers with the monks at 5:30. I was sure I’d hear the abbey bells. I didn’t. Luckily I’d set my wristwatch alarm as well. Between the two I clawed my way up toward consciousness and struggled out of the marshmallow I was sleeping in.
 
Kneeling in the dark church listening to the Gregorian chant I found myself studying the carvings and stonework, and the candlestands and the chandeliers, and the stained glass, and the choir stalls and everything. So much effort put into even the insignificant things. How it all adds up to so much beauty. “Do small things with big love,” Mother Teresa said. She was so right. It is terribly profound: there are no insignificant things to God.
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Mass began at 7:30 and breakfast was at 8:30. I had cereal with fresh yogurt, bread, butter, jam, and coffee—wonderful glorious coffee! Went back to the church to get pictures of the windows as the sun rose. Ended up taking pictures of the statues and carvings, and the tombstones, and even the stone planters in the gardens. Amazing attention to detail.
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Maria Laach is an ancient volcanic crater and almost perfectly round. We walked the 3 or 4-mile path all the way around taking pictures of the trees and the wildflowers and the cows, and the monastery from across the water. Nearly got run down by the young nun who’d borrowed a bicycle from the abbey and was trying to set a new land speed record around the lake. It’s not often you hear the Doppler effect from a bicycling nun: “Helllll-oooooooow.” She sounded like a bullet train blowing through a little Italian train station.
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When we rounded the last “round” I felt in my pockets for my gloves and only managed to come up with one. I’d dropped the other somewhere along the way and turned back in a fruitless attempt to find it. Georgia continued back to get out of the cold but I walked halfway back around the lake looking for the glove. No luck. It had obviously been found by a one-handed hiker. Turned back toward the abbey again pretty pleased with myself for managing to make it around the lake twice. Missed supper, but Fr Timothy had set aside a plate of beef and spaetzle for me. Oh my goodness. I have a new favorite food: beef and spaetzle.
 
mlstein.JPGThe welcome center showed a film outlining the history of the Abbey at Maria Laach. It mentioned that St Benedicta of the Cross, (Edith Stein) had visited the Abbey in the 1930s and later died in the concentration camps. She’d been born Jewish, studied with the philosopher Heidegger, became quite a well-respected philosopher, converted to Catholicism, and then became a Carmelite nun. The film, as I said, mentioned her visit to the Laach, but was extremely sketchy about the role the Abbey played during the years 1939-1945. I don’t think it was one of the more glorious chapters in their history.
 
There are two chapels on the grounds. One is located in the monk’s graveyard and one is next to the patron’s graveyard. The former has the older stained glass windows—probably from the 1920s—in almost a Soviet Realism style with monumental figures and stable, balanced designs. Boooorrrring. The newer chapel has very modern windows in a “slap-dash” style. These are very interesting windows, if only because you don’t see things like this very often. To say that they were “sketchy” would be to give them more finish than they possess. But they are also strangely attractive with bold colors and suggestive figures. I’m proud of the abbey for installing such challenging windows.

Vespers and compline again then crashed.

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Wednesday 5/19/10: Maria Laach to Cologne
5:30 came early. I was the only visitor at morning prayer. The echoes dying away give you the illusion that there are centuries and centuries of monks singing along. You hear their voices emerge from the shadows all around you. I tried to memorize the wood carvings on the pews but they are just too intricate. You would need to make a rubbing.
 
The cabby was coming before breakfast but Fr Timothy said they’d have a little something waiting for us. In the dining room there were two places set with a sign saying “Mr.and Mrs. Zeigler” Small actions taken in great love again. Meat and cheese and apricot jam with butter and cream cheese with chives and Camembert and coffee. Wonderful glorious coffee. Three kinds of bread. The lady setting up the breakfast lit a very romantic candle for us. We ate our fill and even made sandwiches to wrap in paper napkins for the train. We walked over to the hotel next to the Abbey where the taxi was waiting for us. It was another beautiful Mercedes Benz and another frustrated NASCAR wannabe. It only cost us 25 euros to blast through German forests and through glorious farmlands at nose-bleed speeds.
 
 And then we discovered that our train tickets were for yesterday!  
 
 (to be continued)