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Travels with Georgia and zig
Overseas Trips

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!
pas2.JPG  pas1.JPG

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)