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Travels with Georgia and zig
Overseas Trips

Episode 17: Passau, Switzerland, Austria, Bavaria 2010

Episode 17—May 31, 2010: Passau

Her name is Diana and she works at the Republic State Bank on Euclid Avenue in Lexington Kentucky. I would like to publicly thank her! Before leaving Lexington I gave her our itinerary and told her that if I had banking problems I would send her an email. And I did. When we left the ATM machine we immediately headed for an Internet café. They are everywhere in Europe. You pay one or two euros for an hour or so on a good machine. I told her the banks were spitting our cards back at us. Was there some problem with the account back home? After sending the message we decided to try one more time and only ask for 60 euros. It worked!  FanTAStic! I seem to remember that we had this problem in a little town in Italy once before. Maybe small towns are just less willing to give large sums of money. Diana will know.

Stopped at “Subway” and bought a veggie delight. It tasted exactly the same as in the states—even including the iceberg lettuce (ick) and the tasteless olives. What gives? Surely they could have better veggies produced close to home. We also noticed that there seemed to be a large number of chubby teenagers here in Passau. And there seemed to be more fast-food and “snack” outlets here than in the bigger cities. At least more per capita. They seem to be super-sizing themselves just as in the states. Oh, the boredom of teenage years and the lure of sugary and salty “foods.” Consumerist culture is penetrating the backwoods of Europe. We saw huge advertising campaigns for bikini tops in Zurich, Salzburg, Vienna, and even little Wels and Passau. Perhaps a consumerist culture is especially penetrating in the backwoods of Europe, just as drug abuse seems more rampant in the backwoods of Kentucky. In the small towns, boredom is especially hard on the young. They feel like they are missing out on what everyone else is enjoying. It’s a lie, of course, but then advertisers have never been particularly interested in telling potential customers “the truth:” “These cigarettes are poison.” “These potato chips taste great but will clog up your arteries.” “These clothes are going to look ridiculous on you.” “These shoes are going to give you bunions.” “You won’t be any more popular when you drink this carbonated sugar water—and you will get cavities to boot.” Macdonalds, Burger King, and Subway restaurants are everywhere. Haven’t seen a Walmarts, but Wolfgang (on the train) told us that Hofers, Aldi and Billa are using American-style commercialist tactics to drive prices down—forcing suppliers to meet their prices or be blackballed. These artificially low prices are killing the small shops that were once the backbone of Europe’s food economy. We may be among the last travelers to be able to revel in the wonderfully made breads, artisan cheeses, olives, and fruits.
But then, many years ago I remember reading a story called “Quality,” about two cobbler brothers and their custom-made shoes and boots. The customer would stand bare-foot on a piece of leather and the brothers would get down on their hands and knees and trace the exact shape of the foot. That led to absolutely perfectly fitting boots and shoes that would wear almost forever. One faithful customer, pressed for time, went and bought a pair of “ready-mades” instead, and when they wore out bought another pair, etc. And then one day he realized it had been years since he had seen the brothers. He decided to stop and say “hi.” As he entered the shop the friendly smell of fresh leather and shoe wax greeted him like an old friend. But he wasn’t a friend—he had betrayed the brothers. One of them had died and as the other got down on his hands and knees to measure his foot, he said with a hint of sadness: “These are not our shoes.” “No,” the man said with some embarrassment and tried to make an excuse. The old man held up his hand, “No matter. Your boots will be ready in one month.”
And they were, but when he came to pick them up the shop had changed. There were now ready-made shoes in the window and a young man stood behind the counter. “Where is Herr Muller?” the man asked. “Herr Muller has died, I’m afraid, but I’m his nephew.” “You are going to sell ready-mades?” “Oh yes,” the young man said, “My poor uncles—they never could keep up with the times.”
The man left with his precious package. These would be the last pair of custom-made shoes he would ever have. They were warm brown riding boots, as supple as a pair of fine kid gloves. The soles were firm, but flexible, and he knew that they would fit perfectly. And he knew in his heart that it wasn’t his fault the world had lost another fine craftsman, but then why did he feel so bad?

It’s not just food of course. Consumerist culture is so popular everywhere. The entire world seems to have a love/hate relationship with it. I think that’s one of the reasons the disputes are so sharp right now between the Muslim world and the West. So many Muslims now live in the west and the Internet has brought western culture into every backwater and village on the planet. I heard a father in Tehran explain to an interviewer why Iran hated us so much: “We don’t want our daughters to be like Brittany Spears.” I don’t think he realizes that I don’t want that either—and neither do the other American fathers I know.
As if these thoughts weren’t gloomy enough what should we see but two young fresh-faced, and well-clad young Mormons pushing bikes along the pedestrian walkway. As we watched, they stopped a group of young men and women heavily tattooed, dressed in black leather and multi-studded. America’s custom-made “non-conformists” being proselytized by America’s custom-made “religion.” In the backwoods of Bavaria. Sigh.
June 1, 2010: Passau

No word from Diana yet. But when the local bank opened I found a teller who spoke English and learned that indeed, it was the bank’s policy to limit overseas withdrawals to 60 euros. We managed to find another bank that let us withdraw 300. Went back to the Internet café and found a message from Diana saying there was no problem with our account. I explained what I’d learned and told her I’d bring her a present—silky-smooth German chocolates. A banker is a good friend to have when you are overseas!
Visited the Cathedral and learned that there was to be an organ recital on the largest organ in Europe (the organ at the Mormon Tabernacle is larger!) and the largest organ in any Catholic Church in the world. There were 126 registers and 18,000 pipes, 3 manuals, and a pedal. The introductory remarks were special. I wished the social workers we met could have been there to listen.

He said, “Passau became an important town in Roman times because it was at the confluence of three rivers. The church was founded there in the fifth century. By 800 there was a bishop and cathedral. In 982 a second, larger cathedral was built on the same spot. In the 1600s, the second cathedral was destroyed by a catastrophic fire. The present building was completely rebuilt by German and Italian craftsmen.” He finished with the statement that “Many, many centuries of people have given their very best to glorify our creator.” He didn’t want the audience to separate these treasures from the Creator they were meant to glorify.
And yet, times are tough for ancient cathedrals. We joined the secular audience and paid our four euros apiece to hear a 30-minute concert on the largest organ in Europe. We heard Bach, and Caesar Frank, and the famous Toccata and Fugue: three treasures of the Church, played on another treasure of the Church. The sound filled that enormous space in a way that no one could possible capture in words, and yet—in all honesty, I found it disappointing. The church was packed. The music was enormous. . .  and yet . . .  the organist had probably played these same three pieces, every day at 12-noon for months. I don’t think his heart was in it. It was certainly competent—but not inspired. But then the problem may also have been with the audience. I remember someone once saying that if you had a problem with your church choir, or the organist, or the priest, the first thing you should do is pray for them fervently. Nothing will turn a lukewarm priest, or teacher, or music program into a ball of fire faster than a fervent congregation. The same, I think, is true at organ concerts. This audience was a dud. They sat on their hands.  And I even saw people get up and start wandering around taking pictures and chatting during the music. At the end, Georgia and I were afraid everyone was just going to get up and walk out so we started the clapping. It was sad. Like trying to start a fire with wet matches. The tepid applause died out quickly and the audience filed out chatting, or hung around to take pictures proving that they’d heard the largest organ in Europe. Big whoop.

 Do you see? This church was trying to do what our social workers recommended: sell the treasures of the church to the secular world. Know what? The secular world didn’t want them. They didn’t appreciate them. Trying to make ends meet by selling the treasures of the church is like Esau selling his birthright for bowl of lentil soup.
There was a little fair going on outside the church where we bought a bag of noodles from a local farmer. Mistook the 2 euro coin for a 1 euro coin so gave the man 4 euros for a bag of 1 euro, 50-cent noodles. He gave me the noodles and one of the 2 euros coins plus 50 cents in change. He smiled and said the German equivalent of, “Silly tourist, you gave me too much.” I love it! There are wonderful people everywhere.

After lunch Georgia went to visit a glass museum, and I headed off on a walking tour. Ended up on the campus of the University of Passau and saw the students and buildings. Right on the Inn River across the promenade from the Danube. Lovely spot. Saw a pedestrian bridge over the grossly swollen river. Even the sidewalks alongside the river were flooded. Wandered aimlessly through medieval streets. Saw a Roman Museum and medieval castle walls then a sign for the Marianhelf monastery.

Marianhelf3.JPG  Marianhelf4JPG.JPG
It was an unbelievably steep climb. A girl passed me on her bicycle but she was huffing and puffing along only slightly faster than I was walking so we commiserated with each other in pantomime. At the entrance to the Marianhelf they had a “stations of Mary” made of lovely Lambert's glass laminated with silicone to half-inch thick plate glass. What a great idea for showing off Lambert’s exquisite glass. We will be visiting their factory toward the end of our trip.

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I found the entrance to the chapel. It quickly turned into a LOOOONNNNNGGGGG descending staircase to a life-sized crucifix. The stairway was hundreds of steps long with windows all along the way and thousands and thousands of mementos left in honor of Mary’s help attached to the walls and resting on the window sills. They reached about half way down. I’m sure the petitioners got tired half way down and left their thanks then started back up. I wanted to see the crucifix up close, but was a little bit nervous at the prospect of having to turn around and start back up from all the way at the bottom. The crucifix really was lovely, and I gave thanks for all the blessings poured out on my family and turned to start back up. And then I saw another doorway. It opened out at the river. A secret passage! How cool is that?

Walked back to the glass museum to wait for Georgia. The museum was an old hotel, the Wilderman, where Empress Elizabeth II stayed when she was in Passau. Her bedroom was still kept as if she would be arriving again any day. There were 5 floors, with the top three now a museum. Georgia said she got lost in the maze of rooms and stairways and saw all kinds of glass from buttons, goblets, birdcages and huge pedestals of glass topped with vases of glass flowers. She said the Art Deco glass with paintings of goldfish, birds, flowers and designs were her favorites.
We ate our picnic supper in the reclining man’s “bread-basket.” Bread, champignon-flavored bologna, with cookies, milk and German chocolate plus red wine and hard little sausages that tasted like foot-long pieces of 7/11 beef jerky. But it was all wunderbar! The bread was a two-foot baguette, crusty on the outside, chewy and silky smooth on the inside with pea-sized yeasty holes—perfect for trapping bits of cheese and German mayo. With those little beef-jerky thingeys they made the best hotdog buns you could ever sink your tooth in.

It was raining hard after supper so we bagged it. I worked on the journal and Georgia watched some German TV. A German bicyclist and his friend stopped to say hello and told us about his visit to the US on a “rolling tour” from Washington DC to Key West Florida. This weird hotel we were staying in, Rotel Hotel sponsors them and provides a bus to follow the cyclists carrying luggage and providing sleeping quarters along the route. He said he loved the trip and couldn’t decide whether he liked Miami, or Key West better. I’ve never been either place.
An interesting man. Didn’t know that tomorrow we’d be meeting a gypsy and her daughter and a pony-tailed, would-be cowboy on the train to Munich . . .

 (to be continued)
Episode 16: Lohengrin and the trip to Passau,Switzerland, Austria, Bavaria 2010
Episode 16—May 30, 2010: Lohengrin and Passau



Went to the Vienna Opera. Wow! The chandelier must have three tons of crystal. And the proscenium had the strangest curtain painting I’ve ever seen. Three nudes: one of them standing on his head. Must mean something. Those crazy Austrians. The Opera was Lohengrin, Wagner’s masterpiece, that most Teutonic of Teutonic operas. The bridal hymn, “Here comes the Bride,” is the most famous set piece in it. But it’s not an easy story to encapsulate. Else is the heroine who has been falsely accused of murder. She begs for a champion to fight for her honor. A mysterious knight sails up on the back of a giant swan. (Is that mysterious enough for you?) After proving her innocence with his sword he proposes marriage but requires that she not ask his name. You know how thathowhow THAT is going to work out. The bad guy, Telramund, who accused her in the first place, and his really wicked wife, the red-haired witch Ortrud, who put him up to it plant suspicions in her mind. Why would this new husband put such conditions on her? He must have something really bad to hide. She can’t see that she’s being manipulated.
In this particular production Else is not just metaphorically blind—she is really blind. She can’t live on “faith.” She has to “know,” and asking the forbidden question brings catastrophe. It turns out that her husband’s name is Lohengrin, one of the knights of the Holy Grail—the chalice that caught the blood and water from Jesus’ side. Else dies of grief thinking she precipitated the catastrophe, but it was really Ortrud who tempted both Else and Telramund. Ortrud is evil and Wagner sees eevil and darkness as powerful forces that must be powerfully opposed. Else and her Lohengrin represent what might be called Christian good, and tellingly, Lohengrin did not even kill Telramund when he had the opportunity. Christianity is weak. Loving your enemies and doing good to those who harm you is a morality for slaves. The old German Gods dealt with evil in a much more satisfying way: Kick butt and take names. Rambo, Dirty Harry, and Dick Chaney all would understand this morality.
It’s a hard call for me. But St Augustine would say that such a view ascribes to evil a strength it does not have. Evil is the absence of good like a shadow is the absence of sunlight. You oppose and “destroy” shadows with light, not with kicking butt and taking names. 
We’d hoped to return to the Shoenbrunn Gardens after the opera but it didn’t end until 10:30pm. FIVE HOURS OF TEUTONIC OPERA!  Gott in Himmel! Luckily there were three intermissions. Some champagne and strolls around the roof of the Opera House made it all bearable. The Viennese skyline at dusk has to be seen to be believed. And sipping champagne helps one believe.
May 31, 2010: Leaving Vienna for Passau and Linz

Up early for our last breakfast at the guesthouse: Vienna sausages that don’t come in little tins like the “pig’s lips” I loved as a child, several kinds of crusty bread, butter, honey, café mit shaum, and raspberry jam. Said goodbye and thanks to the nun who welcomed us in her old-order Amish-like black and white habit. This time she smiled at me. And it was a beautiful smile—people should smile more.
Bought tickets for Linz and Wels though we shouldn’t have—we could have used our German rail pass even in Austria. It would have saved us 57 euros—about $60-70 dollars.
The Linz Cathedral had mostly ninetheeth century stained glass made by the Mayer Studio of Munich. I’m looking forward to visiting them. I’ve seen their windows all over the U.S.—with some especially fine ones in the Cathedral of Covington, Kentucky. They are enormous.

In Linz there are also twelve new windows made between 1992-1994 by Karl Martin Hartmann. They are composed of thousands of small squares arranged in electric color combinations. They are quite lovely though they don’t seem to hold any particular religious significance.
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Then we went on to Wels, about 20 minutes away, to visit the church our train acquaintance had recommended. It was a walk of several blocks from the station. We asked a nun where the church was and she could only wave vaguely “that way.” We pulled our carry-ons over broken sidewalks and rough pavement in that general direction hoping we’d stumble on it. I remembered that Wolfgang had said it had an onion dome. Luckily the dome was taller than the surrounding shops and we found it down a little side street. And the church was open. Inside, there were some early twentieth  century windows and some from 1956 but the crown jewels were two twelfth and thirteenth century windows behind the altar. Absolute treasures!
Then we caught the train to Passau. This is big sky country. You can see for miles across the green fields dotted with little homesteads and villages nestled among the low hills. Red tile roofs, of course, were everywhere. And each little village had their own May tree—a 90-meter spruce tree stripped of all the bark and branches except for the top 10-20 feet. In this section there are usually 5 rings carved in the bark then the branches are undisturbed for the last 8 feet or so. It looks like a normal-sized Christmas tree perched atop an unbelievably tall telephone pole. Each village has its own version, with variations in the rings and garlands and wreaths attached to it. We asked the waitress in Klosterneuburg what the tree meant and it started quite a lively discussion among the staff and patrons. The upshot of the discussion was that they were put up on May First and they’ve done that for a long, long time. One man at the bar opined that they had something to do with the “Liberty Trees” that sprung up after the French Revolution. The waitress scoffed. That’s the way it is with traditions. We may not always know how the tradition started, but we always know why we continue it—because it’s a tradition!

The train to Passau stopped at every little station along the way and school kids and commuters got on and off. Kids are so full of life and mischief the world over. I love ‘em! We saw children I think would have been bullied in the U.S. Children who are obviously “different.” But they seem more accepted here. Even in the Vienna underground the people seemed amazingly tolerant. I only saw one example where a woman got off an underground car to avoid someone “strange.” It was that crippled girl with her leg bending backwards. But she was hard to take. A hundred years ago she could have made a living in a circus freak show.
As we rode between towns there were always lovely little villages on the horizon and gently rolling hills. And between towns there were elegant “wind farms” with dozens of gigantic 3-bladed windmills generating power. And high over all there was a crystal blue sky with billowing cumulous clouds. Cooler today, but no rain, I hope.
And then we saw dark, dark, rain clouds on the horizon dead ahead. Drat.
This was now Bavaria.  There were occasional stands of trees beside the fields of green wheat. And the churches had extremely tall pointed steeples with no overhang at all—like a grain silo wearing a dunce hat. And other churches with onion domes also had dunce hats perched on top. And we saw walkers carrying ski poles with rubber tips on them right beside the railroad tracks. They’d push off with each step and use their arms to help them move along. It probably keeps them in shape for skiing too. We saw solar water heating collectors on the house roofs. And then we rode along the banks of a swollen river as it rushed through the forested hills. Passau is known as the Venice of Bavaria because it was built at the confluence of five different rivers.
We arrived right at 5pm without a reservation and rushed out of the train station looking for the tourist information kiosk. The lady was just switching the sign from “open” to “closed.” I panicked and tried to get her to open up again for just a few minutes. She was adamantly closed. Wanted to go home for supper I suppose. She pointed at a little brochure carrousel outside the door and shut the door firmly. We found some hotel listings that looked affordable and managed to screw up enough courage to try calling on the telephone. Georgia did fine with the first one but was told they were full. The second call prompted a response she couldn’t understand and that was the end of it. Telephones in foreign lands are hopeless. You can’t see anyone’s face and pantomime just doesn’t work at all. So we walked across the street to this swanky hotel beside the train station. Our brochure said they had a room for 2 people for 69 euros. That was more than we wanted to pay but it would have to do. The desk clerk said they didn’t have that room any more. It was now 119 euros. Georgia was deeply offended and said we’d find something else. She stomped off. I told the girl we’d probably be back.
Outside I asked where she was planning on finding this “other” room. We checked the book again and found a place on the banks of the Danube not far from the train station. There was no telephone listed and it was only open from April through September. We started walking along the river road and came to the hotel sign right at the entrance to a seedy-looking graffiti-filled tunnel under the road. We could see the river through the tunnel. Taking a deep breath and swinging our arms to bat down spider webs we entered the tunnel. We came out on the other side on a bike path. The tunnel, in fact, was for bike traffic! And just to our left only yards from the river was the strangest building I’ve ever seen. It resembled a reclining man. The glass doors in front formed the pillow for his head and opened into an entrance way that was only about 10’ wide but 25-30 feet tall all painted in graffiti.
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It was obviously by the same artist who did the bike-path tunnel. We asked the desk clerk if they had a vacancy. She said that they did. I asked how much. She said it was 25 euros per person per night but the room was “very small.” “Small is ok,” Georgia said. The breakfast was extra but if we wanted it we could buy it in the dining room. Georgia complimented her on the cheerful red, white, and blue paint of the building. “You’ll see more colors inside,” she said, and we did. Yellows and greens and blacks and all of them vivid. Avant gaarde design everywhere. The doors weren’t even perfect rectangles. More like lopsided trapezoids. The breakfast room was located in the mid-section of the reclining man (of course!) The entire hotel was only about 30-40 feet wide and the breakfast room took up the entire width. The room was probably 120 feet long with huge picture windows along the entire length facing the swollen Danube.
Once we were through the dining room we were in the sleeping sections. For the most part the sleeping quarters were on the right and the matching bathroom was on the left of the hall. Very odd. We unlocked our door and I couldn’t believe my eyes. She said “small,” but this was SMALL! Our room was only about 10 feet deep and only about 5 feet wide! It was only just wide enough for a wall-to-wall bed with a little window facing the river like a porthole. I was captivated. The bathroom across the hall had a nice shower and toilet. So, alle is gut!
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Except . . . It was a cash-only hotel so we went out looking for a Banc-o-mat. Found one easily and asked for our normal 300 or 400 euros. The little screen proudly announced Transaction cannot be completed and popped our little card back out at us. I must have put in the wrong pin number or something. I very carefully entered the number and the screen cheerfully said “Transaction cannot be completed” and popped our little card back out again. The hotel only takes cash—which we have in serious short supply and it’s after 5pm—the banks are closed. And every time your little card is rejected it starts an “I wonder if this is a stolen card” file in the bowels of some financial institution somewhere.
If our cards are no good anymore . . . This could be bad. . . .
 (to be continued)