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Yes, Zig Has Written About our Bavaria Trip!

Georgia & Zig

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By Zig and Georgia from Kentucky, Spring 2010
Trip Description: Spring of 2010, Zig and Georgia travel to Zurich, Maria Laach, Oberammergau for a Passion play, Salzburg, Vienna, Munich and more!

This trip report was originally posted on SlowTrav.

Thursday May 13 - Lexington to Atlanta to Zurich

We’re starting to get this packing routine down pretty well. Georgia pulled a 20 lb carry-on, and I tugged a 27 lb one. But Georgia also had an 11 lb flight bag, so we were toting pretty much the same weight. It was still more than we needed but we were going to two operas and one concert so that meant some dressy clothes.

May and June in southern Germany, Austria and Switzerland are notorious for temperatures all over the place. Layers, thinsulate, long underwear, that’s what you need. And I stuck with my one-pair-of-shoes rule (plus flip-flops for the shower). That cuts weight and my new black walking shoes could double as dress shoes. I took a heavier jacket than last time and wished I’d had my light blue “Members Only” windbreaker instead. It’s light and waterproof and rolls up into a tight ball for saving space. The jacket I took is more dressy but more bulky too. I hope it enjoyed this trip because it won’t be going with us again. Can’t believe we forgot the opera glasses and compass. I wanted to kick myself several times for forgetting that compass — maps are great but it’s awfully hard to orient yourself without knowing which way is north. Sigh.

Jenny, our lawyer daughter, gave us a ride to the Bluegrass Airport about noon for our 2:20 flight. Georgia managed to look suspicious again and get herself frisked. I stood in front of the mirror practicing my innocent look. Took advantage of the airport bar’s liquid fortification as always. The flight to Atlanta was wonderful. Quite a thrill taking off on Ascension Thursday. We pierced the clouds like an arrow and settled back to Earth in Atlanta smoothly.

We did have one adventure trying to navigate the mile-long up-escalator on Atlanta’s E-Concourse. Somehow, Georgia got on a step but didn’t manage to get the wheeled carry-on on one. As it started to topple over, rather than let go, Georgia decided to topple over with it. I was ahead of her on the steps and could only watch. It looked like she was planning to tumble all the way back to Lexington. We were very lucky that there was a man standing right behind her who managed to catch her and the bag. He got them both righted without losing control of his own bag. Very impressive. I mouthed a thank you and he looked pleased and blushed. A kind man who was glad, I think, for the opportunity to really be of service. Isn’t that just the way? “Thank you for the opportunity to serve.”

The Delta flight from Atlanta to Zurich was terrific. Excellent cabin crew. Enjoyable snacks. Nice booze. Okay food. The pasta was al dente if you have very weak teeth. Watched the movie “Leap Year” and laughed out loud, even though we were listening through ear buds. Slept an hour or two.

Landed in Zurich about 9:30am local time. Everything at the airport was shiny and new and chrome covered. With so little sleep, I knew it was going to be a long and exhausting day. The secret to minimizing jet lag is to land at your destination in the late afternoon local time so you can get something to eat and drink then take a shower and head off to bed. That knocks jet lag in the head. Landing in the morning local time is a disaster.

We bought our train and tram tickets after a passing stranger showed us that we were trying to buy train tickets from a bus kiosk. After getting the right machine it was easy; they’ve set up the ticket machines to work in several different languages, and they have ticket agents at the larger stations. We didn’t have any Swiss francs and didn’t see an automatic teller—though they probably had 10 of them. We just used our credit card to buy the tickets for Einsiedeln and three-day passes for the local trams and buses. The ride from the airport to downtown Zurich took about 20 minutes. In Zurich it seems like everything runs like a – like a Swiss watch!

The lady who owned the B&B where we were staying told us to take Tram 14 to the stop near her home. It was drizzling and we didn’t have umbrellas but we did put on our handy-dandy fold-up cellophane-thin ponchos. Unfortunately I had stuffed my Kodak digital camera in my coat pocket and when I stood up to get off the tram with our luggage the camera must have fallen out of my pocket. I never felt it. Next thing I knew I was standing on the tram platform trying to see which way to walk and a middle-aged man in blue denim work-pants and a two or three-day growth of gray whiskers jumped off the tram just as it was starting to move. He grabbed my arm and said something in hurried German and tried to hand me something. I, being the worldly traveler I am, know that you just don’t accept packages from strangers. They warn us about that kind of stuff at every airport in the world. But I looked down to see what he was offering. It was my camera. So I decided I might make an exception in this case. He smiled and motioned as though he’d seen it on the seat when I stood up. And now he’d missed his tram and would have to wait for the next one. According to the electronic sign it was due in about 8 minutes. His smile reminded me of the man on the escalator. I tried to thank him with my non-existent German. It really looked like this trip was going to be liberally sprinkled with help from strangers.

The Bed and Breakfast (Da Ciccio's B&B) was about four blocks away in a residential neighborhood. We had to circle around lots of roadwork. Looked like they were working on the underground utilities all over Zurich. The houses in our neighborhood were all two stories with basements. The front yards were just patios or parking pads surrounded by lovely flowerbeds, bushes, heavily pruned hazel-nut trees, or graceful fir trees. Three or four houses in a line shared end-walls but had their own entrances. Each house also had its own beautiful back garden. The lilacs were in full bloom, as were the bearded irises and sloppy red peonies. It must have been 40 degrees but there was lovely pastel wisteria weaving in and out of wooden trellises attached to the sides of the brick houses. There were even a few blown tulip blossoms dangling from withering stems.

Our landlady’s daughter was supposed to meet us at eleven as we were forty-five minutes early, so we parked our bags under the glass-topped patio table and went searching for a supermarket. Because so many people live in lovely little communities in the middle of the city there are supermarkets everywhere. Coop, Aldis, Hofer. Those are the names we looked for. And they always look small from the outside. But like Dr Who’s Tardis they are always bigger on the inside. You see, the entrance is at street level and you go downstairs to the basement where most of the food is displayed, or the store winds around behind adjoining boutique stores.

Because we had no Swiss francs we tried our credit card. The store wouldn’t accept it. It costs them too much. That didn’t look good. But they did accept “cash-cards” so we used our bankcard to buy our hard cider, stinky cheese, chocolate, apples, canned tuna, mayo, and Dijon mustard but not the bread. I don’t understand why, but the bread in Zurich is always sold at separate counters outside the normal checkout line. We still had no francs and didn’t want to use the cash-card to buy two francs worth of bread so we headed back to the B&B and thought we’d get bread later.

The daughter, Ava, had arrived with her six-month-old daughter Nina. She just stared at these strangers who looked normal but made the oddest sounds. We told her that our granddaughter was also a Nina. She looked dubious. Her three-year-old brother Marcus was taking a nap.

We put our food in the little refrigerator in the basement. There was also a toilet and little kitchenette, a washer and dryer, and an exercise room with its own large shower. Our bedroom was bright and airy with light-colored fir paneling. It was large with a nice little table and two chairs. There were lots of books (in German, of course) on built-in bookshelves and a small television. The two transom windows high up on the wall were, in fact, at ground level out front. The two single beds met in the corner of the room like a capital “L.” Odd thing, though: the beds had pillows and fitted sheets over the mattress but no top-sheet or blanket. There was, instead, a down-filled comforter completely encased in its own giant pillowcase and then folded in half in the center of each bed. That was all the cover there was. Georgia was ready to go ask for a top sheet, but decided against it. We’d try covering ourselves with the giant pillow for at least one night.

Ava told us where to find the bancomat and it could display instructions in English too. She also told us which Tram to catch to the center of town along the waterway. We got our money — no problem — and headed out for the big churches and museums. We were looking for the world-famous Kunst Haus, one of the world’s premier museums. The three-day ticket we bought at the airport not only got us to downtown, but also paid for unlimited tram travels for three days as well as getting us reduced or free admission to all kinds of museums and church exhibits. Is that a good deal or what? We took Tram 14 to another station where we caught a tram to the center of town, at the Limmat River where it comes out of the Zurichsee (Lake Zurich). It was beautiful, even in the drizzle. Visited the Fraumunster Kirche (Catholic), and the Grossmunster Kirche (Lutheran), right across the river from each other, and the St. Peter Kirche, (originally Catholic—now Presbyterian)the oldest church in Zurich.

The Grossmunster had some interesting windows made by a man named Sigmar Polke—born in 1941 and living in Cologne. One was made out of thinly sliced agate, leaded together as you would glass. There are some who think that this is the way “stained glass” windows began — with pieces of alabaster leaded together just this way. He’d also made some windows of fused glass panels—depicting “The Son of Man,” “The Prophet Elijah,” “King David,” “Isaac’s Sacrifice,” and “Scapegoat,” in generally crude and abstract figures — almost “folkart.” Interesting modern treatment for a church this old.

But the reason we came to Zurich was to see the Marc Chagall Windows in the Fraumunster Kirche. And they were worth the trip. My first Chagall Windows were in Reim’s Cathedral in 2008. The power of his glass is unsurpassed. They are very bold, and generally each one is only in one color with other colors only as highlights. That is so gutsy — and the figures are painted in jet black on the colored glass. They are so exuberant and full of life. They too, have a sort of “folk art” quality but I could never bring myself to call them crude. They are elegant.

The church sold a little booklet showing close-ups of the windows (they wouldn’t let me make my own pictures) but I would have bought the booklet anyway. The paper cover is a horizontal shot of the 80-year-old Chagall painting on the glass. The front cover shows his hand and the brush and the glass; the back cover shows his face. Oh, that face. It brings tears to my eyes. His head is tilted slightly back so he can look through the bottom of his bifocals, his gray hair is wild (what there is of it on top). He has a magnificent nose and a friendly open face. But most of all his mouth is open in concentration and he has such a look of joy it captures for me the what God must have felt at the creation — that same joy he lends to artists from time to time.

There was another interesting window in Fraumunster. It was by an artist whose name was familiar but whose glass work I’ve never seen, Giacometti. It was electric in its placing intense blues and reds side by side but they were so high up I couldn’t make out any detail at all. There was supposed to be more of his work at the Kunst Haus so it was there that we wanted to head next.

I would have thought that such an important museum would be right downtown but we found it on the map listed as Kunst Halle. Whoever “Kunst” was, you’d think that people as efficient as the Swiss would get the name right on their own tourist map. But you don’t argue with a map. The tram we caught seemed to be heading into an industrial area but you don’t argue with a map. The nearest tram stop seemed to be a couple blocks away from the museum. That was odd, I suppose, but you don’t argue with a map. So we set off walking. At least the drizzle had stopped for a while.

The tram dropped us off in an industrial area about a block or two from the building. Sure didn’t look like a tourist mecca. More like a re-conditioned warehouse. Inside the metal door we found a tiny souvenir/gift shop with a bored young man sitting behind the counter chatting with an equally bored friend. There was a gallery across the hallway. The art seemed more intended to shock than anything. A trip up the metal staircase to the next floor was no more promising. After looking around for 30 minutes or so and taking a photo of a heavily starched white lab-coat splattered with paint and hanging from a coat hanger I deduced that we were not in the right museum. Hadn’t seen anything even remotely resembling Van Gogh, Cezanne, or Monet — I catch on quick!

We asked a young woman in one of the galleries displaying “sofas” made out of painted plywood where the Monet paintings were. I’ve now discovered that when a beautiful young woman gives you the fish eye it hurts more: “That eez the Kunst HAUS, not the Kunst HALLE. She clicked her tongue. “Who was Mr Kunst?” I asked. “Kunst—painter,” she said, and added rolling of the eyes to tongue clicking. OK, I got it. “This 'Kunst' fellow must have been some sort of local painter?” That left her speechless. She motioned to see our tickets. I showed her the three-day tram pass. She sighed. Apparently afraid that I might say something even more embarrassing she showed us the KunstHAUS on the map. Her KunstHALLE specialized in contemporary art. The sculptor Henry Moore seemed to be the most ancient artist here. And most of the work seemed right on the bleeding edge of today. The KunstHAUS was right next to the Grossmunster Kirche where we saw the agate window. Sigh. As we headed back to the center of town it began to drizzle again.

Did I mention that the trams are enormous? The roads are really very narrow and shared with bicycles, cars, delivery vans, and the odd pedestrian. “Odd,” because any pedestrian who tries to cross Zurich’s streets has to be odd! The doors of the trams are only on the right-hand side so you often find tram stops in the center of the road rather than the edges, and the tracks are actually set to go into the oncoming left lane so that they can drop people off at these center stops. Cars don’t argue the point. And bicycle lanes are part of the sidewalk. They have center stripes too. It is very important that you remember you are sharing the sidewalk with bicycles whizzing in both directions on both sides of the street. I lost count of the number of times we forgot that truth only to be reminded with the little “ping” of a bicycle bells and the whoosh of a speeding bicycle at our elbow.

When you cross a Zurich street you have to cross two lanes of car traffic, four lanes of bicycle traffic, and two sets of tram tracks. And all of this on a road no bigger than you would find in a typical American city. And then there is the occasional bus, delivery van and helicopter flying overhead!

But everyone prefers the trams. As I said, they are enormous — enormously long that is — and narrow. On the old trams each car is separate. It’s like riding a skinny boxcar through a bustling town. But the newer trams are completely open front to back so you can see from the last car all the way to the first. That makes them 50 or 100 yards long and segmented so they can go around corners. On the new trams it’s like riding inside a hinged soda straw. Or a hollow centipede. You can watch the people up ahead snaking around each corner. Very cool. Each car-junction has a circular turntable that permits the cars to turn independently, and little kids love to stand on these turntables when the trams go around the corners.

Our particular hollow centipede dropped us right in front of the Kunst Haus. Our heart sank as we saw a long line waiting to enter. But rule one in foreign countries. If you see a long line, get in it. It’s like the lines used to be in the Soviet Union. Get in any line you see — there’s going to be something at the other end you want. This time it was a special exhibit of paintings by Cezanne, Monet, and Van Gogh.

While waiting in line we took turns going to examine Rodin’s statue “The Gates of Hell.” A very disturbing work. It must be more than 25 feet tall and 20 feet wide and solid black. The photographs we took don’t capture how eerie it was to stand in front of it. I was dwarfed by the size, and as I looked up through the naked writhing figures frozen in hideous poses I could see Rodin’s famous “Thinker” sitting above the partially open doors on the lintel. I always thought the Thinker was looking down at the floor lost in thought. Oh no. He was sitting up there looking down at me — weighing my soul. I don’t think he was much impressed. Georgia said she was most disturbed by the many infants. They weren’t tormented — but they were certainly part of the tableaux. Rodin was trying to capture the spirit of Dante’s Gates of Hell in the Divine Comedy. I think these infants were the unbaptized infants in “limbo.”

The line was moving fast and soon we were inside where our three-day pass got us free admission to the permanent exhibition. We opted for that. There was still a long line of people trying to get into the special exhibit. We’ve done the heel-to-toe shuffle-shuffle before. It’s not really very much fun or very enlightening. And we saw wonderful exhibits of Cezanne, Monet, and VanGogh in Paris in 2008. I suspected that many of these paintings were borrowed from there.

The museum itself was made of a warm-colored limestone. Very inviting and neutral. I like museums that don’t compete with the works they display. Unfortunately I’d no sooner climbed the stairs than it seemed I was walking around in a dream. Georgia must have gotten more sleep than I did because she was the Energizer Museum Bunny. I was bumping into things. She sprinted up the stairs to find the Marc Chagall paintings. I stumbled down the same staircase looking for someplace to sit down and wait for her. Of course there were several thousand of our closest friends also waiting downstairs for their spouses, so I decided to hang out on the Mezzanine figuring she’d be bound to see me as she breezed past.

There was an interesting little dark gallery right near by. It had busts and scissors and lamps and stuffed animals and books and clocks and birdcages and just all kinds of things mounted on turntables and on a little electric train going round and round. Spotlights threw shadows up on the wall and the shadow-figures would grow or shrink as the objects themselves moved toward or away from the light. Socrates would have loved it. Very much like his “Allegory of the Cave” where people have to judge what something is by looking at its shadow.

Unfortunately such an exhibit is also hypnotic. “I think I’ll just rest my eyes for a minute. . .” Someone walked by. I shook myself awake and went out to stand guard on the Mezzanine again. I was alone with this really odd figure. It must have been about eight feet tall and thin beyond belief. I couldn’t imagine how they’d even managed to cast a bronze figure like that with pencil-thin arms and legs and over-sized hands and feet. It was frozen forever in a purposeful stride. I slumped nearly comatose. Jet lag had landed. I shook my heavy head again and went to see who had made the stick-man. Son of a gun. It was Giacometti again. Not just stained glass, but also these gigantic bronze sculptures. What an mind.

Don’t know if you know this about me, but I’m a borderline narcoleptic. When I start to fall asleep there is virtually nothing I can do about it. It drives poor Georgia crazy. When we go to bed she likes to chat. I’m asleep before my head hits the pillow. I was soon going to be a bundle of rags for the stick-man to step over.

Luckily she came back down the stairs as I slowly subsided. She hustled me down to the café in the lobby where we drank some coffee and shared a wonderful Linzertorte (German raspberry pie). She forced me. I couldn’t resist her. And the caffeine and sugar gave me new life. Even so, I told her we were going to have to head for the room unless I could curl up somewhere. She decided that someone would think I was an exhibit and put a guard-rope around me.

Back at the room I turned on the TV while she was getting ready for bed. The last thing I remember was trying to make sense of The Simpsons speaking German in voices that were all wrong.


In train station in Zurich
Saturday May 15 - to Einsiedeln

Woke up in the middle of the night. It must have been about 3am local time. That would make it 9pm Lexington time. Next trip I’m going to remember to bring one of those tiny little battery powered book lights! It would have been perfect for reading or making notes in the notebook. As it was I could only lie there and know that if I woke Georgia up to ask if she was asleep she would hand me my head.

Managed to fall back asleep eventually and woke up at 9am local time. We went exploring and found a great “Reform Produkt Backerei” at the Goldbrunnerplatz. That’s a bakery where they use only organic products. Bought some wonderfully strong coffee, gorgeous little ruddy apples with a sweet-tartness I love, Apfel struddle as well, and more Linzertorte just in case we should happen to need a little smackerel of something before lunch. Mmmm. Cost 13 Swiss francs, about $10. Delicious, but a little pricey. We may be eating out of the supermarkets a lot, but we won’t starve.

Looked like another day of drizzle. Even so, the train ride to Einsiedeln was magical. As we climbed further and further up in the mountains we passed dark green stands of fir and open meadows of grass and wildflowers. For the most part we shared a narrow mountain valley with a two-lane road and swift-flowing mountain stream. There was a lot of road construction that left the cars at a standstill. I was glad to be on the train. I’ve not had the nerve to rent a car in Europe yet. And except for the time we couldn’t get the 50 miles from Vezelay to the Cathedral at Bourges without taking a train 250 miles up and back to Paris, I’ve never regretted relying solely on European trains and buses.

As we climbed higher the steady drizzle was turning into a cold rain.

The little town of Einsiedeln grew up around the monastery. The monastery grew up around the hermitage of a holy monk in the ninth century. Robbers believed that St Meinrad had amassed a treasure from the many pilgrims who came to see him at his remote cabin 20 miles or so south of Zurich. On January 21, 861, they murdered him and would have gotten away but for two ravens, evidently friends of St. Meinrad, who followed them squawking and scolding to such an extent that the local peasants had to investigate.

In 940 other monks converted Meinrad’s hermitage into a small chapel and installed the beautiful statue of the Madonna and child that the saint had venerated. The Black Madonna is now coal black—perhaps from 12 or 13 centuries of candle smoke. A replica is also found at the daughter monastery of St Meinrad in southern Indiana. That’s also Benedictine and a seminary where most of the teachers who lead our diaconal formation came from. Both monasteries are lovely peaceful places.

The drizzle had turned into a cold rain. I sure wished that we’d had an umbrella but our cellophane ponchos were doing an adequate job, and it was really too cold to be outside for long. Inside the basilica we saw a little gate off to the left “for worshipers only” and went through just in time for Mass. We sat halfway down on the left-hand side behind a group of 15 or 20 Italian nuns, who, like us were never quite sure when to stand, kneel, or sit. There is obviously a good bit of variation between dioceses and sees. Einsiedeln has more than 200,000 pilgrims a year.

There was a 30-something priest presiding with a deacon and acolyte who were about the same age. We picked up one of the missals and the page numbers were projected on the wall behind them. Contra Rodin, the church itself was sort of a “Gates of Heaven” with a riot of cherubs and exuberant saints praising God. And all of it covered with gold! The choir stalls were filled with monks and the plainchant brought tears to my eyes for its beauty and simplicity. We sang along. What a joy to have a part in that heavenly song in that heavenly space.

After mass we visited the gift shop where there was lovely glass fused using frit. Holes had been drilled for the hangers before the fusing so that they were nice and smooth. One especially lovely cross had a tree superimposed on it. It could have had red apples symbolizing the wounds of Christ. I think I’ll try to design one.

We really wanted to walk through the mountain meadows whistling “The Hills are Alive . . .” toward the wooded peaks but it was just too cold and rainy. While Georgia waited in the abbey church I made a quick circuit around the grounds. Since the middle ages Einsiedeln has bred its own horses. There were 25 or 30 “stabled” in a paved courtyard behind the monastery. Some were lovely draft animals and others were for riding, I’m sure. Through the arched gateway I could see a lumber mill. There were enormous quantities of rough-cut lumber and a wide gravel path leading up the mountain. I followed it for 100 yards or so and saw a life-sized stations-of-the-cross. I was so sad that the weather was bad; but that gives us an excuse to come back again. On my left and behind the sawmill I could see a mountain meadow rising up at a 45 degree angle disappearing into the clouds. The grass was a glorious spring green—lush with all the moisture. I bet the horses love to be released into that pasture.

I sat with Georgia for a while in front of the Black Madonna. Mary and the infant king were dressed in amazingly decorated vestments based on the liturgical colors. They were all in white when we saw them with real pearls sewed into the fabric and the cloth finished with gold thread. There were school field-trips touring the abbey and we fell in line with one of them. The brother leading the group carried the class “behind the scenes” to the monk’s confessional. Beautifully carved rich wooden stalls. We pretended we knew what we were doing. I’ve found that it’s sometimes easier to get forgiveness than permission. The brother asked (in German) what we were doing back there. I told him honestly that I didn’t speak German and I’m happy to say that he didn’t speak English. I don’t think I wanted to hear what he wanted to say! As it was, he just looked exasperated and muttered something that probably reflected on the apparent intelligence of tourists.

It was now 1:30 and our stomachs gave us to understand that we’d not yet had anything to eat. There seemed to be a lot of restaurants but one in particular caught our eye because it seemed to be removed from the others — right at the base of one of those mountain horse pastures. We went in and the waitress greeted us with a statement. I had no idea what she said and assumed that she was just welcoming us so I asked where we should sit. She said the same phrase again, motioning toward the kitchen, which we could see behind the counter. The chef was watching us with interest. I couldn’t believe they wanted us to sit in the kitchen, so I motioned toward one of the tables and shrugged. The waitress had that same look the brother had. She had a hurried conversation with the chef and now he had that same look as well. Our German may be deficient but we were getting quite fluent in “exasperating the locals.” That’s something, I suppose. In desperation she appealed to another party in the dining room. She asked if anyone spoke English. One nice man stood up and in a British accent said to me “She’s trying to tell you that the kitchen is closed.”

Oh, I thought. I can see why that could be a problem. Then the man asked the waitress a question in German. I understood the word “suppe,” “soup.” The waitress nodded. “They could fix you some soup and bread, if you like.” Definitely, we like! “Oh yes,” I told him, “We’d like that.” She smiled broadly and motioned for us to sit down under a lovely woodcut telling us “Gegen alle krank und pest is der rote wein das best.” Agreeing completely that “the best way to deal with all illness and pestilence is with a glass of red wine,” we ordered a carafe.

And just to be on the safe side we also ordered a carafe of white wine. A plate of crusty German peasant bread also arrived. We sat and looked through the lace curtains at the rain and waited for our “suppe.” It was a chicken broth with rice, and with the bread it made a delicious light lunch. With coffee for dessert we waited out the rain in comfort. Pricey, but comfortable. The bill came to 38 Swiss francs — about 35 dollars. That seemed like a lot to me, but the meal we were going to have tomorrow would end up costing almost ten times that amount.

We stopped at a gelateria on our way back to the train station. Yum.

Back in Zurich we had to just stop and look at the mass of humanity hurrying to and fro through the central train station. It is really amazing. Must be what Grand Central Station used to be like at the height of American train-travel. We even saw some live cartoon characters. Manga, or Anime characters. Four Swiss teenagers dressed like Japanese cartoon characters. Amazing. I asked if I could take their picture 'cause I knew no one back home would believe it otherwise.' They were thrilled to pose for us. I learned later that hanging out like that in a very public space is called “Cosplay,” for “Costume Play.” The whole point is to attract attention. Of course they’d love to be photographed. Oh, to be young again.

Outside the station we caught a tram to the Kunsthaus to try to see all the things we’d been too tired to see yesterday. The Chagall drawings and paintings were glorious, but it was the medieval art that took my breath away. The odd Rembrant, Monet, Cezanne, and Van Gogh were pretty good too. Fully awake, I had to agree that the Kunsthaus deserved the wonderful reputation it had. And it was still free with our three-day tram pass!

I had a great time also window-shopping at the art galleries along the road back to the tram stop. There is some wonderful art being made in Switzerland. Bought a pretzel. There are some wonderful pretzels being made in Switzerland too!

Our Swiss Friends

About tomorrow’s dinner you need a little background:

In 2005 we flew from Milan to Athens Greece and caught a puddle-jumper out to the island of Patmos off the Turkish coast. (See Slowtrav.com, trip-report 1204) We wanted to see the monastery founded on the site of St John’s cave of the apocalypse — where he wrote the Bible’s book of Revelation. As we were coming back down the mountain we saw a nice-looking couple trying to wheel a baby buggy down the rocky path. The path was hard enough to walk on, but rolling a sleeping a baby down in a buggy? Insane. I handed the camera to Georgia and told her that I was going to try to help. I stopped them and motioned that I should lift up the front end of the buggy while the father lifted up with the handle. It worked. The two of us could carry the sleeping baby pretty easily. It was, however, a long mountain path and we had plenty of time to visit along the way. The family was from Switzerland: Dejan, Yvonne, and little Melina, who never awakened. They were from one of the German-speaking cantons but Yvonne spoke English fluently. So did Dejan, though his English was a bit more rusty.

We hit it off well and had the best time swapping international jokes. I persuaded them of my thesis that you can tell a lot about a people by their jokes. What makes people laugh, and what makes them angry — those are two important cultural markers. I told them the joke I’d heard from a man from China: “A grandfather punished his grandson for some infraction and that made the boy’s father so angry he decided to punish the grandfather’s son to get even. So he went outside and stood in the hot sun without a hat.” In China, where family relations are so important that one must be a real knee-slapper. I told them the Swedish couple we’d met in Italy. They thought and thought for 15 or 20 minutes and couldn’t come up with a single joke. I thought that pretty illuminating too.

Dejan said he had one: There were these three men in a sauna. They were all high-tech businessmen. Suddenly they heard a phone ring, but none of them were wearing any clothes. One man smiled and peeled back a flap of skin on his chest and pulled out a little cell phone. “I needed open-heart surgery and figured I’d just have them put a phone jack in there too.” The other two nodded. Then another phone rang and the second man flipped up his towel and opened a flap on his hip: “I needed a hip-replacement and did the same thing.” The third man excused himself saying he had to go to the toilet. When he came back there was paper dangling from between the cheeks of his butt. “You’ve gotten toilet paper stuck,” one friend said. “No, that’s just a fax coming in.” The joke was funny but the real humor came from listening to Dejan searching for the right words. All of us tried to help him. This one was a real group effort. By the time he finished we were sitting in a bar beside the bay watching the little fishing boats bobbing up and down. And we laughed and laughed. That’s the real joy of international traveling. Meeting the people. That’s why Georgia and I avoid traveling in groups. That makes it virtually impossible that you will meet anyone else.

We exchanged addresses and promised to keep in touch. And we did, sending seasonal emails. It gave us the chance to watch little Melina grow and then we got to welcome her little sister Lorena. We saw their house in Switzerland on Google Earth near the German border. When we started planning for this trip we contacted them to say that we’d love to see them again, and made arrangements to visit on our trip from Zurich to the Black Forest just over the Swiss border. They said they’d love to see us too and would show us around their village, Beringen, near Stauffhousen where the Falls of the Rhine were located.

Unfortunately we hadn’t reckoned with the difficulty of using foreign telephones and not having a dependable Internet connection. We were supposed to see them sometime tomorrow but we’d never finalized the plans. Back at the Bed and Breakfast we were sitting at our little table sipping a nice Einseidln wine and wondering how to contact them when “Bam, bam, bam!” I thought I’d been shot! Someone was knocking on the window above my head.

Bam; Bam; Bam! “Sind sie Herr Zeigler?” Bam! Bam! Bam! “Sind sie Herr Zeigler?!?” Oh great! I’m busted. I tried to tell Georgia that it was just wrong to to smuggle apfel strudel across canton lines for immoral purposes but she wouldn’t listen. “No one will notice,” she said. “People do it all the time!” she said. I told her eating the Swiss chocolate was going to lead to the hard stuff — Oh my gosh! What if the authorities call our kids and they have to come bail us out of some strudel tank? Oh the shame! Oh durn, we are so busted. She looked in the window — nowhere to hide. Oh those Swiss undercover police look just like sweet little old gray-haired hausfraus, but I’m not fooled. Maybe we can deny that we are “Zeiglers.” That’s it. “Zeiglers?” “Zeiglers?” “I knew a Zimmerman once.” “Really great poet.” “Knew a Zickenfoose too.” “I went to ‘Apfel Hills High School’ with her in - I mean "Oak Hills High School" in Cinnamoncinati –I mean Cincinnati.” “Apfel’s?” “I don’t smell Apfels. Do you smell Apfels?” “I’m sure any Apfels you might smell would be local apfels. . .”

We needed to get our story straight but Georgia had already bolted up the stairs to open the front door. I couldn’t believe it! And now I could hear them talking. I decided to go up and face the music. What? She was the next-door neighbor? What? She’d gotten a call from someone named “Yvonne” who wanted us to call her back about tomorrow. What? No, we didn’t know how to use the phone. What? Come over next door and you’ll dial the phone for us? What? What kind of place are we visiting?

Did I ever tell you my definition of “civilization?” It’s a communal way of life where complete strangers are not only not a threat to you, but actually go out of their way to help you. And by my definition, Zurich is a very civilized city. So far, I would rather be a stranger in Zurich than in any other city I’ve ever visited. I struggled to tell the neighbor how very grateful we were. She acted as if she couldn’t understand why I was making such a big deal out of such a little thing. There wasn’t anything unusual about getting a phone call from someone she didn’t know asking her to go next door through the drizzle to deliver a message to someone else she doesn’t know. What’s strange about that?

Yvonne, it seems, had been frantic — even going so far as making an overseas call to my studio in Lexington Kentucky to try to get a message to us! She couldn’t reach our landlady either (who was out of town for a couple of days) so she’d started looking through the Zurich telephone book for another house on the same street! Our good Samaritan lived right next door. Amazing. No, not amazing, civilized.


Zig with his favorite food
Sunday May 16 - Neuhausen, Schaffhausen, Beringen, and the Falls of the Rhine

Ten o’clock on the dot Yvonne was out front on the little parking pad. We were going to meet Dejan, Melina, and Lorena in Neuhausen at a little “train station” where we were going to catch a kiddie train down the hillside to the edge of the Rhine Falls. We were going to see the falls, up close and personal, riding a tour boat out to a 70-80 foot pedestal right in the middle of the cataract. Then we were going to disembark on the other side of the river below a castle built in 1456 and climb up a nature trail along the cliff then back down in a 2k circuit to the river’s edge to have lunch at a very swanky restaurant with a perfect view of everything. Then we were going to have a walking tour of Schaffhausen, their county seat, then have supper at their house in Beringen — was there anything else we’d like to do? I couldn’t think of a thing. In the immortal words of Meg Ryan in “Joe vs. the Volcano,” “My mind is a blank.”

And it all did happen just as she said. The train ride was fun; six or seven little cars pulled by a diesel tractor dressed up like a locomotive, complete with bell. Melina is all grown up now at five or six and sparkling; Lorena was absolutely fascinated at the strange sounds coming out of our mouths. Dejan’s and Yvonne’s English is now excellent. I am so jealous when someone can switch so easily from one language to another.

The boat ride was fun, and not too wet. The pedestal in the center of the falls is a natural wonder protected with some underwater concrete baffles to keep it from being knocked over. There is a lot of water going by and Dejan said that the current flow is only “average.” The falls are about 60 feet tall but more than 400 feet wide. It’s the largest (but not the tallest) waterfall in Switzerland.

The castle was built here because the falls formed a natural barrier for all river traffic. You would have to disembark and port any cargo. The castle meant you were going to have to pay tribute. The town of Neuhausen grew up like an inland seaport — much like Louisville on the falls of the Ohio. Brown-water sailors get thirsty and lonely too. From the castle we walked across the Rhine on a railroad trestle. Wouldn’t you know it? Just as we reached the center a train came barreling over the river.

EEEEEWWWhooooooshhhhe! What a blast! Yvonne said she missed the great clattering trains she knew as a child. There’s nostalgia everywhere. We sauntered along the path on the other side chatting and letting the fast walkers play through. Melina let me carry her on my shoulders. Lorena was, of course, completely smitten by Georgia.

But the lunch. The restaurant was called Schlossli Worth, and it was right on the river with a perfect view of the falls and our table was right at the window where we could see the boats ferrying people back and forth. Really people. I have eaten lunch in many nice places — in many nice cities, in many nice countries, but I have never had a meal to equal this one. I’m not kidding. This was the best restaurant meal I’ve ever had. Yvonne and Dejan’s know the managers and said they always use this restaurant for their special meals. One of the special things was that when the children get antsy there is a supervised playroom for them upstairs.

We had a salad of mixed vegetables and mozzarella cheese with tomato salsa and thin crispy focaccia. The main course was “Rindsfilet” (beef) cooked to perfection and served with Spatzel and asparagus. There was both green and white asparagus. Oh my goodness. I loved it so much they brought me another plate of the white! The dessert was a banana parfait with fresh exotic fruit. There was the wine with the meal of course, with coffee and liquor afterwards. I had to have limoncello. Mmm. I didn’t see the bill, but I know it was a lot. But whatever it was I have to say that it was worth it.

We rode the kiddie train back to the parking lot where the cars were located then spent the afternoon in Schaffhausen where Yvonne grew up. I waddled around the town and up and down the mountains. Everywhere I looked was another perfect post-card shot. Is it any wonder that we came home with 2000 photos? The castle at the top of the mountain was surrounded by a small vineyard and we bought a bottle of the local wine and dodged rain showers. Back at their apartment Dejan prepared a salad and a cheese and tomato fondue for supper. Haven’t had a fondue since 1973! It was delicious served over boiled potatoes and the bread we dipped was crusty and amazing!

It is very expensive to live in Switzerland. We told them that our house is not near as nice and modern as theirs but it is larger and we have about 1/4 acre. They have a garden plot with the other people in the community but I know they’d like to have their own yard. They could buy our house two or three times. Switzerland is a small country and land is really precious. I can’t imagine them polluting any of their available real estate. Sometimes I think we may be a little spoiled with the idea that if we mess up this piece of land we can just move somewhere else.

We brought the children some little stuffed horses (what else?) from Keeneland. They enjoyed them and Yvonne has told us that Melina won’t go to sleep without her little “Lisa.” They’ve had evenings of turning the living room upside down looking for it! Dejan and Yvonne are strict with the children but they are loving and secure and well-adjusted. I’m very impressed with them all, and very thankful that a moment’s kindness on a Greek Island’s footpath started what promises to be a life-long friendship. I can’t wait for them to come to Lexington so we can show them around!

We took the train back to Zurich and it took less than half the time it took to drive. That’s the way to do mass transit!

Impressions of Zurich: As I said, it’s now my favorite city to be a “stranger” in. There is a lot of graffiti along the train tracks but the city is much cleaner than Rome or Milan. It really doesn’t feel like a big city. It has a population of about 1 million I think. The entire country only has 6 millions — not that many more than the state of Kentucky. The people are reserved, but friendly and “good.” I can feel how this is my heritage through the Koenigs. The roads and cities are laid out with intelligence but less passion than Italy. But that means there is also less chaos. The young always welcome novelty but not us old farts. We begin to value stability above all and distrust novelty — change is just as likely to be bad as be good. The tram system (with the trains and buses) has two purposes — to move large numbers of people smoothly and without fuss, and also reduce the number of automobiles on the streets. At least half the street surface is taken up with tram tracks. The traffic signs are unintelligible with some black signs having three white dots in various configurations. Who knows what that means.


Our favorite meal, at the Falls!
Monday May 17 - On the way to Maria Laach Abbey

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 five 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.

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.

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 three meters out the window. It was a little nerve wracking.

Father Timothy, our guest-master, 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 over-sized pillow each morning. We’d just settled in when vespers, evening prayer, began.

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 adviser. 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.


In the guesthouse
Tuesday May 18 - 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 candle-stands 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.

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.

Maria Laach is an ancient volcanic crater and almost perfectly round. We walked the three or four-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.

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.

The 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.


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.
Wednesday May 19 - Maria Laach to Cologne to Lindau

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 to blast through German forests and through glorious farmlands at nose-bleed speeds.

And then we discovered that our train tickets were for yesterday!

On the Way to Cologne, Then Lindau

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 day anyway 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 carry-ons 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.

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 field-trip 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.

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 square windows who is 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 airplane 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.

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 eight foot 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.

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 sauerkraut, but creamy and not at all like the stuff US hot-dog vendors use. Bodansee kraut is to canned sauerkraut 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 sauerkraut.

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.


Lindau harbor in the rain
Thursday May 20 - Lindau and then to Fussen

Herr Dandruff (pun intended) had told us the night before that Mass began at 9am. Breakfast at the Gasthaus was going to be served at 8am. That presented a challenge. It was only a five-minute walk to the church but we Catholics have this requirement that we should take communion on an empty stomach. You are supposed to be physically as well as spiritually hungry, so nothing to eat for an hour before communion. That lead to a bit of casuistry: “Father, does that mean an hour before the service begins? Or an hour before communion begins?" We decided that for today it was going to be the latter, so assuming that the liturgy of the word would take half and hour, the liturgy of the table would begin about 9:30. We needed to be finished with breakfast by 8:20 to give us a ten-minute margin of safety. No wonder catholic theology produces so many logicians and philosophers.

But truly, the breakfast was worth a bit of casuistry. Our hausfrau was wonderful. She must have been in her mid to late sixties. With only a smattering of English she spoke most eloquently with her hands and with her ready smile. She kept patting us, and was so excited to meet people from “Kain-Tuck-Kee.” Her hair was unnaturally dark (except the roots) and her hands were about the size of two sides of beef. She must have been a lumberjack before opening the Gasthaus Ladine in der Gruss.

She sat us down beside a small window and brought us coffee. Germans do seem to put a lot of effort into having variety at breakfast: on the buffet table there were at least three kinds of bread, three kinds of cheese, and three or four kinds of meat plus cream cheese, yogurt and fruit. On our table there were soft-boiled eggs in cute little eggcups. It had been a very long time since I decapitated an egg but luckily I remembered how to use my egg knife and egg spoon without getting too much shell. The bread was especially delicious with cream cheese and jam. I think it must have come from the bakery right next door. The soft-boiled egg was an additional treat.

Eating much too fast we finished at 8:15, but lingered over the coffee, reasoning that coffee didn’t really count as “food.” Brushed our teeth then walked to the church under gray and threatening clouds. The sanctuary was like a small glorious confection - full of gold, silver, and carved pink, gray, and white marble. There was a middle-aged man with a leather breviary making the somber stations of the cross, and Herr Dandruff was obviously the sacristan - shuffling back and forth setting up the altar and credence table with the sacred vessels and lighting the candles. It looked like he was wearing the same clothes as last night though the rain might have washed his shoulders off a bit.

As the five-minute bells sounded the last of our 20 or so communicants filed in. Most were elderly women - but 20 isn’t bad for a daily mass on a rainy day. The priest looked like Ted Baxter, the newsman on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. He had the same sweptback gray hair and booming voice.

After mass we went to gather our bags and leave our landlady a postcard. She exclaimed and waved her arms and almost hugged us but patted us instead. Then she hurried off to show the card from “Kain-Tuck-Kee” to everyone in the breakfast room.

There was a sewing shop across the street. Had to buy a lovely tablecloth of stitched daisies. It was just the perfect size for our round oak table. Bought foccacia and pastries from the bakery and coffee at the train station. The train rocketed through evergreen forests on its way to Fussen. I hope to see them in the snow someday.

Our reservations at Oberammergau were for tomorrow so we needed to find overnight lodging in Fussen - with luck, somewhere close to where we would have to catch the bus. The trip from Lindau to Fussen took about two hours. We didn’t see the tourist office at first, but Georgia had printed out the addresses of some places that looked promising. So we set off in search of them, pulling our little carry-ons behind us. They were either too expensive or they didn’t want to rent to us for just one night. Seems like Oberammergau presents the surrounding countryside with a tourist bonanza. We found the tourist information office and located some inexpensive hotels. For the first (and only) time the office wouldn’t call and make the reservation for us. They just gave us the address of a place that was very close to the bus station. And so we headed back pulling our little carry-ons behind us.Couldn’t find the address. The house number was 8 1/2 . What kind of number was that? All we could find was “8” and that was a bakery/coffee shop.

When we asked the girl at the counter she said to wait outside and the owner would come gather us up to show us the rooms. Sounded very mysterious and slightly seedy. We stood under the awning in the drizzle and watched the (mainly) middle-eastern clientele come and go. In about 10 minutes a swarthy, burly young wheeler/dealer sidled up to us: “You looking for a room?” We admitted that we were. He said, “Follow me, the room’s up there,” pointing above the bakery, “but the entrance is around back.” We walked down the street, turned left at the corner, then left again in the alley behind the bakery, into a small parking lot.

Dodging rain-puddles we stood beside a solid metal security door. “Here’s the key to the outside door, and here’s the key to the room.” Opening the door he paused and pointed at another door: “That’s the back door to the bakery. In the morning you knock on that door and tell them what you want for breakfast. They will bag it up and bring it back to you.” Then he lead us up two flights of wide stairs to a hotel hallway. Opening one of the doors he showed us the room proudly. It was something he should have been proud of. It was obvious that the room had been completely refurbished with all new floors and windows and a new bathroom. He was especially proud of the windows. The room was loud with street noises. “When we close the windows, the noise, she goes away,” he said closing the window. He was right! The windows must have been sound-proofed. There was also a nice little wardrobe kitchenette and a small TV. No credit card. Cash only. Fifty-nine euros.

I guess I’m not surprised the tourist office wouldn’t make the reservation for us - the landlord didn’t seem to have a regular “office.” And it did seem slightly disreputable but it looks to me like a lot of middle-eastern families (from Turkey?) are moving into Germany and Austria looking for greater opportunities. They seem to be buying up derelict properties and sinking their life savings into them. Seems like I’ve seen the same thing with independently owned motels in the US bought by Pakistanis looking for opportunities as well. God speed to them all.

We unpacked and took off to see the sights in Fussen. First stop was an Internet café where we saw a “YouTube video” of my grandson Eli taking his first steps from the table to the TV. I commented that he’d quit doing that as soon as learned how to work the remote. Walked up some steep steps leading toward a castle we could see on the top of the mountain. Turns out it was the Hohes Schloss medieval castle complex. Turns out it had been converted into a museum. On the driveway through the portcullis it really wasn’t that easy to tell what the building was: private residence, hotel, or public building. It’s another example of local people not really being able to see their own resources through the eyes of visitors. What’s clear to locals is very mysterious to us. Everyplace needs more “Welcome, come in” signs.

Since the museum was closing in 20 minutes the lady only charged us half-price (€2) and told us how to find the tower. That was evidently the most popular stop. I asked if there was any old stained glass in the castle and showed her my business card. She said there was but that it was in a restricted part of the building. But, since I was a “glass-mahler” she would show it to us. There were five or six exquisite little panels from the 1500s painted with silver nitrate. In the 1500s that was cutting edge. Before 1500 the glass was always uniformly colored. If it was painted it was painted with metallic oxides mixed with powdered glass and then fired. This “paint” blocked out the light. It was generally used to paint faces and hands and add decorative details to colored glass. But in the 1500s someone discovered that if you painted clear glass with silver nitrate and fired it the silver nitrate would actually “stain” the glass bright yellow or orange. This permitted creating windows using the black “paints” for hands and faces and adding beautiful touches like yellow-gold crowns or hair without having to introduce lead lines holding another piece of yellow glass. It was very liberating and artists rushed to incorporate this new technology. I’d come to Europe on a similar mission to learn the latest new thing: laminating glass.

When the museum closed we walked through the park looking for another way down to the river. We saw a sign on the path pointing to a swimming area 40 minutes away. I opined that there had to be other paths down to the water before we would get that far. Georgia disagreed. That made me wonder aloud if a man expressed an opinion in a forest and there was no woman to hear it would he still be wrong? That comment occasioned a rather heated discussion about which of us had the better sense of direction. It seems to be the opinion of one of us (I won’t say which) that the male half of our partnership couldn’t find his posterior with a detailed map and a flashlight. Turns out that neither of us deserve the appellation “path-finder,” but after wandering around for a while we did find the river just outside town. You could tell that it had been harnessed by stone walls for more than 100 years so they could use part of the river valley for buildings but that girdle made the river god cranky. The river was about 30 yards wide at this point with some very impressive rapids.

Walking along the river toward town we came upon the back of the Cathedral but couldn’t go in. They were preparing for an Italian/Bavarian festival. We took some pictures of people in period costumes and wished that it had begun today. Looked like it was going to be a lot of fun.

We found a “Kebap” stand for supper and had currywurst and french fries. Didn’t need ketchup. The tomato-curry was delicious. Hurried home through the rain and crashed.

Tomorrow we go to the Passion Play at Oberammergau. It’s been put on every 10 years for four hundred years. I have no idea what to expect.


Church in Fussen
Friday May 21 - Off to Oberammergau

Early to bed, early to rise. Nice breakfast of bread and sliced meats and cheeses with coffee. The clerk gave us so much we made a picnic lunch with the leftovers. It was less than a block to the bus station. We told the driver (who didn’t speak English) where we wanted to go. As we were idling at one of the little intermediate stops the driver pointed out another bus, telling us that it was going to Oberammergau as well, and by a more direct route. We switched buses. I swear there are the nicest people in Bavaria and Austria.

Arriving in Oberammergau we found the youth hostel on the map and I quickly got us marching along the footpath beside the creek in the wrong direction. I promise I will never forget my compass again! If I do, I’m buying one overseas. After pulling the carry-ons about 100 yards over gravel we got turned around and found the hostel right at the base of the mountain called “Ammergau.” The little town called “Oberammergau” means “Upper Ammergau.” There is also an “Uberammergau,” meaning (you guessed it!) lower Ammergau.

In the early 1600s this entire mountain valley was decimated by plague. The residents of Oberammergau met in their Catholic church and made a solemn vow. If they were spared they would enact a play about the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. They were spared, and true to their vow they spent a year writing a play, setting up scenes, and practicing. In 1633 they put on their first Passionsspiele and have renewed their vow every 10 years since then. This year’s play had more than 2000 parts and they only use local actors. Some of today’s performers started as children, then teenagers, then young adults, taking a part every 10 years throughout their life. This kind of commitment shows. There were no “hams” on stage, and no one “phoned in” a performance. From the smallest child in arms to the most elderly “beggar” everyone was sensitive to staging, and movement, and those nuances that make an excellent performance a magnificent one. But I get ahead of myself. First we had to get ourselves settled in the youth hostel.

I had my doubts about this youth hostel thing. I pictured a rickety building with graffiti covered walls and mattresses on the floor. Not my idea of a good time. But I was in for a very pleasant surprise. When we arrived we were greeted by what looked to be a 1960s two-story college dormitory. The walkway was guarded by a chainsaw-sculpture bear sitting on a log. He was charming and kindly let us pass. There were picnic tables on the wide front porch (complete with ash trays) and a lobby packed with a busload of Korean tourists also well past the “youth” stage of life. You couldn’t stir them with a spoon. I headed for a computer that could be “rented” with a €2 coin to check my email. Georgia is much skinnier than I am and wriggled her way to the check-in desk. We had to pick up our own sheets and towels. We put fitted sheets on the mattress and covered ourselves with duvets - those giant pillows we were given in Zurich. We had them everywhere. I like ’em.

I though we’d have separate rooms - a boy’s dorm and a girl’s dorm, but no! This dorm was co-ed. Georgia got the lower bunk and I got the upper! The bathrooms were co-ed too, with no urinals but lots of private stalls. I wasn’t really looking forward to getting to know our busload of Korean tourists all that well but then Georgia discovered some dedicated men's and women’s toilets in the basement. I still took a pretty quick shower in the morning but felt a bit more secure.

We arrived just in time for lunch. It was delicious. There were three-inch long cigar-shaped potato dumplings with green peas and a meat-gravy. Several different kinds of bread, of course, with tossed salad, and lemon pudding for dessert. We plunked down at a table next to two pretty college girls from Frankfort and Hamburg. One was studying mechanical engineering. Her friend had dropped out to earn travel money before she sunk beneath the waves of higher education. She’d saved up enough for this trip to Oberammergau and then was flying to Jerusalem. Her friend seemed torn, wanting to go along on the adventure, but feeling like she needed to be “steady” and stick with the schoolwork. It’s a hard call I know, but if I had it to do over I would want to see the world before college. But then, when I was that age my Uncle Sam was sending all the rambling young-uns on an all-expense paid trip to Southeast Asia. He even supplied the armament you’d need. He gave me a grenade launcher so I could defend General Abrams’ swimming pool. The Viet Cong never took it (the swimming pool).

The walk over to the theater was pleasant. Turns out our guardian bear was not the only lovely carving in this town. In between Passion Plays the town lives on woodcarving and alpine pursuits. From our front yard we could see hang-gliders drifting lazily down from the surrounding peaks. The valley floor was flat as a griddle, and there were no gradual “hills” before you got to the mountain peaks. Perfect for hang gliding or hiking along the ridges. You just take a chair-lift to the top and either grab a walking stick and take off at a brisk clip, or grab a hang glider and step off a sheer cliff. I’m sure we would have been game for either activity but, after all, we had tickets for the show and you certainly wouldn’t want to miss a play that only comes around every ten years just so you could step off a cliff while hanging onto a brightly colored triangular umbrella!

The Passionspiele was to be performed in a modern building, clean and functional, but hardly luxurious. It was about 100 yards long and 75 or 80 yards wide. The stage was open to the sky but the rest of the building was under roof. It was threatening rain so they had arranged some triangular “sails” over the stage to direct any moisture away from the actors. Our seats were in the second row on the far left of the theater. Talk about close. The set was very simple. It looked like the central plaza of an ancient village ringed by terra-cotta buildings. There were three main action centers separated by archways depicting alleys that allowed actors to enter and exit the stage easily. The left and the right areas could represent either private or public buildings. The larger center space had a more formal feel and seemed to be a roman temple. The “floor” of this temple was steeply slanted to face the audience and could be closed off by a curtain. From time to time, this curtain would draw back to reveal actors frozen in portrayal of an episode from the Old Testament prefiguring something about to happen on-stage. And this overall stage was enormous - almost the entire width of the theatre. There were easily 1000 actors on stage during the crowd scenes. There was no way it could be curtained.

Acts and scene changes were indicated by changes in lighting and movement as people shifted from left to right and back again. Once the play began the only pause in the action came from the chorus filing on-stage to tell you what was about to happen. And oh, that chorus. I think there must have been about 80 unisex choristers, dressed in beige head to foot with robes, capes, and a soft medieval hat that completely encased their hair. They were all arranged according to height standing shoulder to shoulder in a single line from far left to far right, at the very front of the stage. The cantor was located at the exact center and dressed all in black. The shortest singers were located about half way down each “wing” and at the wingtips. This placement produced two lovely sine curves and the intonation of the singers was perfect. It was both visually stunning and musically lovely.

From our seats on the far left we couldn’t see to the back of the central proscenium. It would have been nice to have more central seats but our tickets came as a package deal with the youth hostel, and they were a good bit cheaper than the more central seats. I was very glad, though, to be close to the stage. I loved watching the expressions on the actor’s faces - even the bit actors. I know I keep saying it, but there were no slackers. These productions are little Oberammergau’s gift to the world. It gives me chill bumps to think of a tiny Bavarian mountain-valley village touching so many lives for so many centuries.

At first the stage was completely empty. Then a few children waving palm fronds came running down the “alley” on the right side of the central proscenium, across the center and up the alley on the other side. Then two disciples followed, leading a donkey. Then the chorus comes out for the first time to welcome us and announce that this Holy One will lift the burdens off Eve’s poor children. They then form two long lines leading toward the proscenium where the curtain pulls back to reveal a tableau vivant portraying Adam and Eve being banished from the Garden of Eden by an Angel wielding a flaming sword.

When the curtain closes the chorus files off. There is music and laughter as crowds come down the alleys and spill out onto the stage, completely filling it. There are even “villagers” on the roofs of the buildings looking down on the plaza. There must have been a thousand people. It could have been just chaos but the first thing that struck me was how the director had used color to organize the melee. The Jews were dressed in yellow and white. The temple officials were dressed in black and white. The disciples were in earth tones. The citizens were dressed in blue, and the beggars were in black. And right in the center of this traffic jam was Jesus, dressed all in white and sitting on the back of a little donkey. (During the play there would also be horses and sheep and even camels on stage.) And movement! There was constant movement. But not random. The groups would move kaleidoscopically. The blues and yellows and blacks would swirl and mix in new and different combinations with only the white center of attention remaining relatively fixed.

Rather than leap immediately into the “cleansing of the temple” this newest production set up the action by having Jesus deliver the Sermon on the Mount to this crowd. And the sermon was delivered in counter-point as though it was a public argument with the temple officials who hate the Romans. Jesus agreed that they should resist the Romans but says “do it this way: If he slaps you on the right cheek, then offer him the other one as well!” It’s startling to hear the actors’ raucous laughter. And when he says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God,” he stoops over to pick up a little child. And holding the child Jesus looked out over the crowd on stage as well as the audience. You could have heard a pin drop. Jesus tells Caiaphas that if he had faith he could call on the mountains to arise and they would obey: “Nothing will be impossible for you.” The chief priest accuses Jesus of being a dreamer, and all the officials laugh. Jesus doesn’t understand power politics. Quickly we hear Jesus questioned about paying taxes to Caesar, and whether the woman taken in adultery should be stoned to death. And through it all there is this counterpoint between Jesus’ sayings and Caiaphas’ understanding of what is required to get along in the world. It’s an argument that’s been going on now for two thousand years, but I felt as if I was seeing how it began.

It was all very affecting and I found myself wondering how it would come out.

(to be continued)


In front of the hostel
Friday May 21 - Oberammergau (continued)

Power vs. Weakness. Which is stronger? The movers and shakers of the world or the dreamers? The chorus tells us “Those in power are plotting an act of violence. But without fear Jesus goes his way. He puts his trust in the Lord as did Moses who escaped from Pharaoh’s warriors.” And the tableau vivant shows us the parting of the Red Sea. After a miracle it all seems understandable, if not inevitable, but standing on the shore beforehand, looking at the water, it’s hard for people to have. The Chorus pleads on our behalf: “When we cannot see your goals, let us have faith in your guidance!”

Act 2 shows Jesus in Bethany at the home of Martha and Mary and their brother Lazarus. They are excited at the prospect of Jesus being crowned king of the Jews. He’ll throw out the Romans. Jesus tries to tell them that it’s not going to be that way. He’s going to be handed over to the priests and killed. They don’t want to hear that. They start to worry about what’s going to become of them if Jesus is killed. “Such concerns trouble the godless! Seek first the kingdom of God, and everything else will be given to you.” Judas is especially worried because the cash-box will be empty if Jesus is gone: “Make provisions to cover our future expenses!” Then he complains that the oil poured out by Mary Magdalene could have been sold to support the poor. “Such expensive oil! What a waste!”

I lost track of the play at this point, because the theatre was getting darker as the sun set and I couldn’t read the libretto as well, but also because I make stained glass windows for a living and this is an argument I often hear. Churches are always faced with deciding between “beautification” and “serving the poor.” Jesus speaks for the ages when he says, “Why do you criticize something done for love? She has done a good work for me.” Feeding the poor or beautifying the church - either one, done in love - is a good work “done for me.”

In this production even Judas is portrayed with sympathy: “Why should I follow you? I don’t much feel like it.” He was first attracted to Jesus by the great deeds but they have come to nothing. “You are not grasping the opportunities that offer themselves to you. Now you talk of leaving and dying and give us empty promises in mysterious words of a future that for me is too far off.”

Judas is tired of believing and hoping. He doesn’t see anything to come except more poverty and degradation. Instead of sharing in Jesus’ reign, all he can foresee is persecution and imprisonment. Peter is shocked by his disbelief, but Judas closes the act with the haunting words: “Who feels like bearing those? I don’t. I don’t.”

The next act’s tableau is the Golden Calf, where Moses shouted, “Whoever belongs to the Lord, come over and stand with me!” At crunch time, we must vote with our feet. There is no neutrality. And circumstances make it harder and harder for the disciples in this act. They must either embrace him or abandon him. One by one they leave and those in power conspire to crush the dreamer. Caiaphas speaks for all the “practical” leaders of the world: “It is better that one man should die than an entire nation should perish.”

Judas agrees to betray Jesus, accepting the fig-leaf that the High Priest only wants to talk with him.

Act Four’s tableau is the Paschal meal before the Exodus. Jesus offers himself as the Paschal lamb and gives himself in the bread and wine. It is a beautiful act with wonderful exchanges between Jesus and the disciples during the foot-washing, and exchanges among Jesus, Peter, and Judas. Very moving and subdued. And as Jesus says “This is my commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you; no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for others,” Judas leaves.

Act Five in the Garden of Gethsemane was also very moving. There is a tension in the staging and a sense that events are spinning out of control. There is the normal cast of heroes and villains, but the play introduces a new character simply called “Angel.” Angel laments the Prince of Heaven being struck and mocked and laughed-at by his own creation. No one can see him except Jesus who watches silently as Angel kneels and writes on the ground, recalling the gesture Jesus made when the crowd wanted to stone the woman taken in adultery.

The disciples, exhausted, fall asleep as Jesus agonizes alone: “Father! Do not abandon me! Sins, humanity’s sins! You crush me! My Father! Father! Your son!” Angel, who has remained squatting now rises and walks ever so slowly toward the prostrate Jesus. He lays his hand on Jesus’ shoulder and carries the Father’s message: “Take on the pain! Allow yourself to be pierced by their crimes and crushed by their sins. Heal them through your wounds!” Jesus replies “Yes, Father, your will be done!”

And that was the end of the first part.

The intermission lasted three hours. We walked back to the youth hostel for supper and then walked around the village some more, visiting the woodcarver’s museum. We mainly talked about the play of course, and agreed that it was surprising how quickly it seemed to be going. We talked about the debate between “beautifying the church” and “feeding the poor.” The dichotomy troubled me but I couldn’t explain why. After the museum we meandered back to the theater.

The second part began with the trial before Annas when Judas discovers he’s been fooled. The high priest doesn’t want to talk with Jesus; he wants to kill him. The exchanges between Jesus and the priests come faster and faster until they reach their climax with Caiaphas imploring, “In the name of the living God! Speak! Are you the Messiah, the Son of God who is highly praised?” Jesus replies, “You say it - I AM,” speaking the tetragrammaton YHWH, standing for the name of God that was never to be spoken. Caiaphas tears his robes at the blasphemy and the die is cast. They are going to find a way to kill him.

In Act Seven, Peter denies Jesus, and the play compares his betrayal with Judas’. Peter begs forgiveness and John tells him that Jesus looked on him with love. Peter promises, “Nothing will ever separate me from you again!” Judas tries to redeem himself by giving the 30 pieces of silver back. The priests just laugh at him. He despairs of ever being forgiven and the act ends with him making a hangman’s noose, “Come, you serpent, coil yourself around my throat! Strangle the traitor!”

Act eight shows Jesus before Pilate and Herod. The living tableau presents Moses expelled by Pharaoh before the exodus. The rulers of the world don’t like to be told they don’t have the final say. They don’t like to be reminded that they, too, are subject to a higher law. They always seem to assume that you can kill a dream by killing the dreamer, or kill an idea by killing the thinker, or kill God by killing His messenger - even if the messenger is His Son. They flog Jesus and crown him with thorns and in act nine Pilate washes his hands of the matter and condemns Jesus to death.

Act ten is the Way of the Cross, with the Tableau presenting the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, when God provided a sheep for His own sacrifice. In a way Mary is the central figure of this act. It is through her eyes that we see the crucifixion and it’s terrible sadness. In the beginning of the act she laments what is happening much as any mother might lament the terrible things that are being done to her son. But standing at the foot of the cross Mary realizes that the suffering is part of his mission: “What shall I say? And what can I tell you, since you yourself have done this? Lord, my God, I am suffering agony! Be with me!” And when the centurion pierces Jesus’ heart with a spear, she screams.

Taken down dead from the cross, Jesus is laid in her arms. John, the beloved disciple, says “See Mother, peace rests on his face!” and she replies in perhaps the most beautiful speech of the play: “Peace is also returning to my heart. See, humanity, the light came into the world, but you loved darkness more than the light. God sent him to you, to liberate the world through him. For God so loved the world that he gave his Son! So that everyone who believes in him might never perish.”

Much of act eleven, the final act, takes place inside the proscenium and because of our seat we could not see it directly. But we could see the dramatic lighting indicating the resurrection. In some way perhaps that indirection closely represents the life of faith, where the glory of God can never be seen directly in this life and is always seen only in reflection. And Mary Magdalena, finding the empty tomb is sent by the Angel as a missionary to the apostles, and has the last word: “He is with us all the days until the end of the world! Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices! Oh, could I proclaim it throughout all the world, so that the mountains and cliffs and heaven and earth should re-echo with the words: Halleluja! He is risen!”

And thus, little Oberammergau was also raised from the plague to something more grand and more glorious than ever could have been expected by those villagers huddled together in fear 400 years ago. They wanted to do something beautiful for him, and I think he has greatly blessed it. Should the money have been better spent on the poor?

We stopped for coffee and Schnapps and red wine after the play. It was a lovely warm little quarter-timbered restaurant with a buxom Bavarian waitress wearing a starched white apron over a low-cut black and white peasant’s dress with puffed sleeves. There was a cheerful fire in the fireplace and it was gray and rainy outside.


Slept soundly in our little bunk bed and didn’t fall out even once.


picture of actors
Saturday May 22 - On the Way to Salzburg

After breakfast of bread, cheese, meat, yogurt and coffee we said goodbye to our dinner companions and wished them pleasant journeys. Walked to the tiny train station along the gravel path beside the creek. It was a cloudy day, but not raining. Bought a ticket to Salzburg via Munich. Two very muscular men from Jordan were having a terrible time buying their tickets from the outdoor ticket kiosk. I tried to help and gave up when the train arrived. I told them to just buy their ticket from the engineer or conductor.

They were going to Munich for the day. We sat across the aisle from each other. They were attending the NATO school nearby. Easy to believe. They looked very military, even in their expensive civvies. They said they were returning to Oberammergau that evening to see the play. One was saying his prayers with prayer beads. I assume they were Muslim, though I guess it was possible they were Coptic Christians. I should have asked, but overseas it’s easy to be unintentionally rude and we try to be especially careful. I wonder what they thought of the Passionsspiele.

Had to change trains in Munich. It was a long hike from one gleis to another. About half way along Georgia got nervous and started jogging! I couldn’t believe it, and tried to stay up with her but started falling back - I’d been given the job of pulling the suitcases, after all. We got to the train with about 15 minutes to spare, and sat there feeling sort of foolish as people we’d passed on the platform sauntered on board cool as cucumbers. It’s hard to act casual as you are gasping for breath.

The train rolled through lovely fertile farmland covered with a lush green winter crop of grass. We ate the sandwiches we had made in Fussen and were glad to have them. Shared the lemon cookies we’d bought with an elegantly dressed older woman sitting across from us, and with a college student sitting next to me.

There were two college girls sitting a few rows ahead of us. One was a lovely redhead with uncombed hair. She looked longingly at the cookies and I offered to toss her a little pack. She looked surprised, blushed, and shook her head. Even “worldly” 18-year-olds are afraid to accept sweets from strangers, I guess. Two cute boys, getting off the train later, walked past the girls without paying them any mind. The girls exchanged glances and sighed. The redhead absentmindedly traced her collarbone and toyed with the top button of her blouse. Ah, young unrequited longing!

Salzburg is an ancient city with a “salty” attitude.

The Banhauf is under construction and our walk to the bus terminal took us along a hundred yards of caution tape and excavation. Georgia had printed out directions to the youth hostel and got us on the right bus with no trouble. How in the world could I possibly manage without her? I couldn’t! But even on the right bus our hostel was still quite a haul from the bus stop. Especially when pulling carry-ons along the cobbled streets.

Round behind the cathedral, past statues remembering the city’s favorite son, Wolfgang Mozart, the hostel was in a house dating from the fourteenth century. How cool is that? The woodwork and door hardware were amazing. I estimate that the outside wall at 15” thick with two sets of windows - one on the outside of the building and one on the inside. Early “thermal panes” I guess. Nice clean room with a sink and shower. The water closet was just around the corner on the same floor.

There was interesting heraldic glass in the window at the end of the hall. I noticed that somewhere over the centuries one of the windows has been re-installed backwards. The painted side was facing out, though I guess it doesn’t matter since the exterior glass keeps it from weather damage.

While resting in the room the bells started ringing: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15... I thought of the third-grade joke: “What time is it when your clock strikes 13? Answer: Time to get a new clock. We had to see what was going on, and hurried out to sit at the fountain in front of the Cathedral. And still the bells kept ringing. We were engulfed in sound from all the surrounding churches. Light rippling bells, melodic alto bells, tenor bells, and one huge sonorous base tolling out a sound so deep I swear the fountain was vibrating in sympathy. It was 3 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon and all the churches in the old city remembered the day and hour tradition says Jesus died. The ringing lasted for 15 full minutes.

We looked in the Cathedral afterward but there was no stained glass to speak of just simple lozenge windows with six-sided panes. It looked like honeycomb in glass. We decided to take a look at the other churches. None had any art glass. Happened on St. Blaise’s Church where there was some sort of “Life Teen” or youth celebration in the crypt beneath the sanctuary. We stood at the back and saw that all the pews were full, and most of the floor as well. Two large-screen TVs up front and eight flat-screen TVs attached to the ancient pillars let people see what was going on. There was only one entrance through an ancient iron grille at the back. Kids were pouring in. I’ve never seen anything like it. The floor continued to fill while a band on the “stage” warmed up. Surely the fire marshal wouldn’t let this many kids in here. There wasn’t room to stand let alone leave a fire aisle. And only one door!

The emcee came on the loud speaker from time to time obviously asking the kids to scoot around to leave a walking path down the “aisles.” They tried, but as soon as anyone cleared some space, someone else came along to sit. The band started playing, and the kids got all excited, stood up and started bobbing and hopping to the music. “There’s no God like Jehovah” became “There’s no one like Jesus!” and still the kids poured in until there was absolutely no room on the floor. We couldn’t see a lot because the pillars were so huge, but I would guess there were 100-150 kids shoulder to shoulder, wall to wall, and 70 or 80 “rows” plus the pews. There must have been about 7,500 kids in this space that was probably 60-70 feet square. The energy was amazing. Three teenaged boys got up from their pew and made their way over to where we were sitting against the grille. I have no idea what they asked. When they realized that we spoke English they got into an animated conversation with each other and struggled to tell us that they wanted us to take their seats on the pew. How charming! I thanked them but declined. As I age it’s easy to distrust the young, but isn’t it just the way that the wheat and the tares, all flourishing together, wait for the harvest when they will be separated.

After the songs we all sat on the floor again, or at least tried to sit on the floor again, but it takes more floor space to sit than it does to stand. A lovely young woman stepped up to the microphone. She must have been 23 or 24 and began giving a testimony. I don’t know German but this being the vigil of Pentecost I could understand the heart of her message. She’d always been a “good” girl - a “Charlie Brown” she said, who’d led a boring life, and went to church because Mommy and Daddy did, but felt nothing in her heart ‘til she met a nun named Katherine who was really cool. She took Katherine home to meet her family. Her brother said “You’re really cool; why do you want to hang out with my sister?” That got a good laugh. She had the crowd in the palm of her hand. Heart speaking to heart. The kids identified with the family issues. But then she started talking about her decision to become a nun herself and I saw lots of kids start to squirm. They could identify with the problems she faced, but not with the solution she chose. Most wanted something less radical. They wanted family, jobs, pleasure, whatever. But it was clear they did admire her and so they accepted the “nun-thing” as a viable, if not immediately attractive option.

We left after the testimony as the music started to heat up again. The space behind the grille was also packed. When we got outside we found people standing 15-20 deep outside the door. It was all very heartening for me. I guess I’m a pessimist at heart seeing signs of impending collapse wherever I look. It feels so good to see signs that the world is not spinning out of control. A little glimpse of heaven, I’ve heard it called.

Walked up the mountain to the Augustiner Brau Haus for supper. Monks running a brewpub. How neat is that? I like Salzburg - attitude and all. I picked up two one-liter beer steins and rinsed them in a very cold fountain then handed them to the Monk who was working the tap. Wonderful foamy head, and pale amber liquid gold! We went out to find a table in the garden. Ate crème horns, BBQ ribs, sauerkraut, baked potato with sour cream and chives. Mmm. Balanced diet! It started to rain but they had a covered porch. After supper and another beer we caught a bus on the corner and it dropped us off near the Hostel. We crashed into bed like twin meteorites.


in the Salzburg cathedral
Sunday May 23 - Pentecost in Salzburg

We woke up early. I get ready quickly in the morning and decided to head over to the Cathedral for the 8:30 Mass while Georgia took her time getting ready. I wasn’t planning on receiving communion at this Mass but wanted to see the church before the crowd arrived at 10am. At that service there was to be a Haydn high Mass with the organ Mozart played on, a full orchestra, chorus, and soloists. I expected that there would be a crowd. For this earlier service there were maybe 100-150 people. But the interior of the Cathedral was so huge we rattled around like B-Bs in a box car.

About halfway through the first reading one fairly well dressed young man in a brown coat, nice hat, and a neatly trimmed beard strolled down the center aisle looking around as though he were a tourist. He carried one of those large beer bottles they sell in Salzburg. Every few steps he would stop and take a healthy pull on it, then stroll on. Eventually he reached the altar, where he stood, swaying slightly and staring at the Priest reading the gospel. I was close enough that I could hear him mutter under his breath. It was very disquieting, and all eyes of course were riveted on him.

The well-dressed young man cradled the huge bottle of beer in the crook of his arm like an amber-colored baby, and no baby ever received more solicitous attention from its devoted parent. I don’t believe there was any homily at all. The young man staggered over to the first pew and sat down heavily. The collection was taken up, and I noticed that the usher pointedly did not ask him for a donation. That seemed to be a mistake. The poor should not be automatically discounted though I’m not really sure that this young man was poor - at least in any monetary sense. His clothes looked expensive, and his beard was neatly trimmed. His poverty seemed to be of a different sort.

It reminded me of the early church when the doorman, or porter, was an instituted office, like an acolyte. The church then, as now, was often the object of scorn and abuse and the porter was there to keep people out who meant the church harm. If you were not recognized as a member you had to be accompanied by a sponsor. Otherwise you were not admitted. I wondered if this man would have a sponsor.

He got up during the Eucharistic prayer and started wandering around the church. Sometimes I just know that I am going to have to do something I really don’t want to do. I keep hoping that circumstances will intervene but they never do. This was one of those times. And the impulse seemed particularly ridiculous: he was drunk; I spoke no German; and the message I had for him that God had created him to be so much more than a drunk would be completely unintelligible.

But wouldn’t you know it, he walked right through the pew behind me at the very moment the priest invited us to “offer each other some sign of peace.” Sigh. Sometimes God’s instructions are really not very subtle. People say they don’t know what God wants them to do. I’ve not really found that to be a problem in my case. My problem has always been having the nerve to do what I know he wants me to do. We all want to be called to some large important purpose - curing cancer, producing world peace - something like that. But I keep being given such small tasks, like offering the sign of peace to a drunken young man obviously both attracted to, and repulsed by the Church. His longing for transcendence was palpable to me.

I got up and walked over to where he was looking at an amazing painting hung on one of the cathedral pillars at the end of my pew. He was bleary eyed and staring; rocking slightly to keep his balance. I touched his shoulder and he turned his head very slowly to keep from falling down. I had my hand outstretched and said “Peace.” I don’t even know the German word for “peace.” He stared at my hand without comprehension. He sort of leaned back against the pillar, still cradling his liquid baby against his chest. His breath was terrible, so terrible in fact that it momentarily disconcerted me. But I kept my hand outstretched. “Peace,” I repeated. He smiled the most beatific smile I’ve ever seen outside a Fra Angelico painting, and took my hand. “Peace,” he said. He was quite short, perhaps 5’ 8” or so, and very thin. I’m sure he would have been extraordinarily handsome if sober. His hand was tiny, like a child’s hand really, and I did feel peace.

And then began the “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi; miserere nobis” Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world; have mercy on us. Then we make the heart-breakingly beautiful admission: “I am not worthy to receive you; only say the word and I shall be healed,” and shuffled forward. I saw him get in line and I wondered what would happen when he reached the priest. But he disappeared. There’s just no other word for it. One moment I saw him and the next moment he was gone. I can’t help it, I instantly thought of the angels that God sends from time to time as his personal messenger and I got chill bumps. I wish I could say that he stayed disappeared like the child who asked St Christopher for a ride on his back across the swollen river, but my “child” reappeared in a few moments off to the side silently scanning the proceedings and swaying drunkenly.

I lost track of him completely after Mass as I hurried to gather Georgia before the concert that was to take place at 10am. People were already picking out the choice seats for Hayden’s Oratorio. When we returned about 20 minutes before Mass the nave was already half full, and people were just streaming in. We found good seats just in front of one of the main pillars. The Archbishop of Salzburg, who is also a cardinal, would preside. In the procession he was preceded by one of the city officials carrying the mace of office and dressed in formal medieval garb. He was attended by two young con-celebrating priests, a gray-bearded deacon carrying the gospel, and five grown instituted acolytes, one of whom seemed to be a large dwarf.

Things went fine through the introduction. The music was stunning and echoed and re-echoed in that vast sound chamber. The archbishop had a resonant voice, even though he was obviously suffering from a cold. The deacon spoke in a rich and powerful baritone and led the archbishop skillfully through the choreography with subtle nods and hand gestures. He was obviously also the Master of Ceremonies.

And then my drunk returned, this time with reinforcements. A tall young man, dressed all in black, leaned insolently against the pillar behind me, while my drunk led a terribly thin and sickly young companion down to the altar rail muttering soto voce during the readings. One of the acolytes hurried down and spoke sharply to him. A whispered argument broke out, and the acolyte hurried away to secure his own reinforcements from the sacristy. A worried-looking, slightly puffy usher appeared in a security uniform. He looked none-too-happy about confronting a fit young drunk with a large brown beer bottle right in the center aisle - not ten feet from the altar rail - but he did his duty and the argument became slightly more forceful. More muttering than whispering, but no pushing or hitting. Somehow the usher ended up with the beer bottle and carried it to the sacristy. Without his mace of office, my drunk seemed to lose confidence and wandered stage left to where his very sickly friend seemed embarrassed by the entire drama. Perhaps “farce” is a better word. Though all during these petty squabbles over beer bottles and precedence the music of Haydn soared like an angel.

I saw these two leave as the homily began. “That’s that,” I thought, but I’d forgotten the man in black - a wild-haired young drunk lounging against the pillar. He began a counter point of “hmmphs,” and “pffts,” and muttered retorts to the archbishop’s homiletic points. People all around us shushed the young man. Others turned to glare. This, of course, just excited and emboldened him, and his asides aimed at his detractors just got louder and louder. I was afraid that the puffy usher was going to be called again. This young man, however, didn’t seem to be carrying any bottle providing a power source that could be easily unplugged. He obviously had an internal combustion engine.

Then the homily ended and the credo began. That amazing statement of faith written in the year 325 at the council of Nicea. And glorious Haydn put it all to music. It soared and swelled and the multitude of disappointments and anger and jealousy and shortcomings melted away. I heard the young man mutter a few more times but it was hopeless. “Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast,” the poet says. I don’t know whether or not his breast was soothed, but the muttering certainly died down. Music this glorious just swept up all our mutterings and whimperings and sighs and wove them into a tapestry of faith: God made us, and loves us so much that he sent his only Son to redeem us when we nearly destroyed ourselves with that self-inflicted wound called “sin.”

As the last echoes of the music died out and I saw that the angry young men had gone, the rest of us knelt and prayed to become more like that God who humbled himself to be born of woman, made his living as a carpenter, and hung out with angry young men in bars. I wish I could have overheard the conversations they had.

After Mass we went to the cathedral museum. At the top of the stairs we were immediately struck by two glories: an enormous piece of stained glass, probably from the 15th or 16th century and a painting by Hieronymous Bosch: The Temptation of St Anthony. I didn’t know what to look at first! The Bosch wasn’t even protected by glass. You could see each tiny brush stroke. No photographs allowed of the painting so I tried to commit it all to memory. The demons hatching from rotten eggs, the half animal-half mechanical bird/fish. And there in the center was Anthony fixed solid and stable before an altar, surrounded by a fabulous fantastic landscape threatening to erupt into a nightmare.

The museum was also exhibiting a huge collection of amulets with an extended discussion of how devotional material can lapse into superstition. Very interesting. The crucial thing seems to be focusing on the “power” you are hoping for in the physical object hung around your neck. I guess the difference between their situation and ours is the reliance on blind, verifiable tests that either support or refute medical hypotheses. Such tests pretty conclusively undercut the medicinal properties of armadillo tails hung around your neck.

As we were crossing from one side of the museum to the other through the balcony, where Mozart’s organ was located, a soprano began singing “Panis Angelicum” (another Mass had begun after the concert). What a joy it must be to sing in such a space! I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to write music specifically for such a space and for such a organ.

We ate a lunch of sausage at the fountain hoping for another 15-minute bell concert. Not on Sunday, I guess. So we walked up to Stift Nonnberg convent (where Maria von Trapp was going to be a nun) and looked out over the south side of Salzburg. It looked as large as the northern “old city.” Who knew it was even there?

Came back down the never-ending flights of stairs, crossed over the river on a footbridge, and walked up the never-ending flights of stairs to visit the Franciscan Monastery and churches over there. The monastery was a bust. They wouldn’t let us in to look around, but we got plenty of exercise. And there were fascinating cemeteries with skulls everywhere, some of the graffiti artists seem to be just as interested in these memento mori. The Loretto church was quiet and peaceful with a lovely vesper service going on. I can see why so many people want to get out of the bustle and just relax there.

Back at the room we got ready for the opera. The only tickets we could afford were up in the nose-bleed section and they cost us €40 each (about $50 a piece). With each flight of stairs an usher would look at our tickets and say, “yes again,” and up we would go. Finally, when we ran out of stairs and lightheaded from the altitude a pretty little usher motioned for us to tip-toe single file out onto a gang plank with chairs. They laughingly called it a balcony.

Then Riccardo Muti made his way briskly through the orchestra, briefly acknowledged the applause, and launched into “Betulia Liberata,” written when Mozart was just 15 years old. It is the story of Judith giving Holofernes a very close shave (if you know what I mean) and thus lifting the siege of Betulia and liberating the Jews who would otherwise have been enslaved.

The most famous part of the opera is the recitative that takes place between Osias, the leader of the Jews, who argues that they should wait for this God to rescue them with a miracle, and Achior, Prince of the Ammonites who admires the God of the Hebrews but can’t see a reason to give up his traditional gods. Their discussion waxes philosophical and they try to prove that in a world of causes there has to be one un-caused cause that everyone acknowledges as God. And if there are any gods, there must be only one of them - creator of all the created things - and without any imperfections.

Mozart didn’t write the libretto, but did condense the speeches and eliminated all but the essential line of the argument. A wonderful elderly lady named Mrs. Sommerfield, who was staying at the same guest house as we were, told me with tears in her eyes that his were the finest sentences ever written in German. But more about that conversation later.

In the performance itself, though the music was glorious the wordiness made the whole opera seem kind of “preachy” to me. The high point, of course, is Holofernes losing his head over Judith, and we didn’t even get to see that. We only heard it talked about. I’m not surprised it’s not performed often.

But still, there are issues that haunt me: “Fear is lack of faith in divine mercy.” And the women plead that it is better to surrender immediately and hope for mercy from Holofernes, than endure the siege and hope for deliverance from God. Is that true? Osiras tries to find a compromise: “We’ll give God five days to work a miracle.” Judith, our heroine, reams out both positions: One shows a lack of faith and the other shows arrogance, putting God to the test. It’s better to pray and listen for God’s instructions than follow either horn of the dilemma. I think I could hear where Mozart’s heart was in the matter. I’m not sure where my heart is in the matter.

After the opera we stopped for delicious ginger ale and French fries with a schnitzel sandwich at a little food kiosk in the square. Yum Yum. Crash!


beautiful Salzburg
Monday May 24 - The Trip to Hallstadt

After breakfast we headed to the train and bus station for a day-trip to the tourist sight of Hallstadt. Couldn’t find a bus ticket office with a human being so we had to deal with one of those automatic ticket machines. These bus ones didn’t offer any English translations so it was a little bit dicey. Sort of figured it out; we were going to have to change busses in Bad Issl, which wasn’t some sort of moral condemnation like Bad Dog! But rather an indication that at some time in the past there had been medicinal baths (like hot springs) there.

When we got on the bus the driver told us we’d paid too much; we should have just bought the tickets from him. Sigh. So much to learn. Everything is different in a foreign land. You just have to be willing to make mistakes. With luck, you only make each one once!

As confusing as it all was for us, we met a young Japanese woman traveling on her own. Her only means of communication with the local people was to hope she could find someone who could understand her broken English. But she asked lots of questions from the people around her and thus was able to do quite nicely, I guess. No fear there. And great faith in the people who crossed her path.

In Bad Issl we found where our bus was supposed to be but couldn’t find any mention of it on the scrolling bus schedule. Our Japanese friend said she was going on to Hallstadt on the train. Our tickets didn’t say anything about a train but when a train pulled in at the station we figured it was better to catch whatever conveyance was heading where we wanted to go so we jumped on too. When the conductor came by I handed him my bus tickets and said nothing. He stamped them with a pleasant “Danke,” so I guess we did right.

Hallstadt was a lovely village at the edge of a lake completely hemmed in by Alpine mountains. Some of them still showed patches of snow. The sun was playing peek-a-boo with the clouds and the water was clear and serene. The train stop was just that, only a siding with no other buildings at all. It was directly across the lake from the town. But there were trails heading around the lake and one trail heading down to the edge of the water where we found a ferry dock.

Everyone (except the bicyclists) was taking the ferry. The ride across the lake gave some beautiful views. The town and mountains reflecting in the lake doubled all the grandeur. In the town itself it seemed like every building had a banner stretched between windows. They seemed to be protesting something. I asked the “skipper.” He said that since Hallstatd had been made a world heritage site the government wanted to institute zoning restrictions on what could and what could not be built or remodeled. (I could already see where large commercial development was moving in - large hotels) but the local people, like local people everywhere, didn’t like outsiders trying to run their affairs. The local people have been preserving their heritage for 7,000 years all by themselves and they didn’t see any reason to change that practice.

Lovely windows and alters in the Catholic Church. The town is built right along the margin of the lake and then up a lung-busting flights of stairs to the front doors of many houses. A tunnel has been built as well so there was one pretty impressive traffic intersection where they were building the hotel. In all this peaceful spot that was the one bit of pandemonium.

We had a nice meal of sausage and French fries plus a great local beer. Who would have thought that the sausage and French fries and beer would be so good in Germany and Austria? Ha! We met a nice couple at the dock who live in Vienna and work at the U.N. headquarters. He is retiring in a few years and plans to move back to the San Antonio hill country. Quite a bit different from Austria and Germany.

Back in Bad Issl on the return trip we had a 45-minute layover so walked into town and found another church with lovely Lamberts glass fused and laminated into “furniture.” The ambo, the altar, the confessional door and the Baptistry were all made of such lovely glass.

Asked for iced coffee at a Kontintorei and got a coffee float! It was yummy. We saw young couples everywhere who couldn’t keep their hands off each other, and even younger teens still at the age of tormenting each other. How cute. And how quickly that will change.

Back in Salzburg we visited an outside WC in Mirabell Garten (where Maria and the kids danced around the fountain) that required €.50. Georgia had only a €1 coin so she put it in a machine she thought would give her change. Instead of change, out popped a non-descript little box with the strangest label on it. I’m not sure Maria ever saw anything like it.

(to be continued)


Monday May 24 - Georgia’s Cracker Jack’s Surprise

As I was saying: Georgia needed change for the WC after we got back to Salzburg so she took my €1 coin and slipped into the slot she thought would give her change. Push the handle in and then pull it back and Voila! There was a little plain brown box about the size of Cracker Jacks. We kids always loved the little prizes inside. This little box had a prize inside as well. There was some very utilitarian writing with words I didn’t understand. But one phrase seemed pretty clear: “TO STOP AIDS.” We laughed and figured we’d just bought a box full of condoms and planned to bring them back to the states in our luggage as an exotic souvenir. Decided, though that we’d better check first. That was a good idea. The box did contain a condom but also contained three hypodermic needles, a little bag of white powder (!) and an information sheet detailing where drug addicts could get help. I wouldn’t have wanted to explain these items to the guy who runs the airport x-ray system! I doubt they would have seen the humor.

We went to the Augustiner Brau Haus for supper again, this time strolling along the river past a hundreds of booths selling meats, pretzels, knick-knacks, gee-gaws, but practiced our sales resistance and arrived at the pub at the top of the hill empty-handed. There were two couples on the street out front asking a passerby what kind of place the “Augustiner” was. From the outside it certainly didn’t look like a great place to eat. It looked like a huge rambling Monastery. But then, that’s what it is! We assured them that it was terrific and offered to pretend we were experts because we had eaten there the day before. We’d show them the ropes. We showed them the food stalls and how to order beer, and then we all sat together and had a very nice visit. They were from Philly and had just arrived in Salzburg. We suggested some other places to see and told them we were just leaving Salzburg for Vienna.

Our waiter was named “Bernard,” but told us in excellent English to call him “Bernie.” He worked at the Augustiner, but was not a monk. He was studying theology, however, and said he hoped to be a deacon. There are not, as yet, anywhere near as many deacons in Europe as there are in the US. That’s funny, too, because the American bishops at Vatican II were opposed to re-forming the permanent diaconate. It was at Dachau where so many priests had been internees that the idea to resurrect the permanent diaconate was hatched. They thought that if the Church had not become so separated from society - so insulated - the Nazis would never have been able to come to power. It could have warned the people of the danger. They thought that with a permanent diaconate the Church would again have one foot firmly planted in “the work-a-day world.” Bernie said he knew about the requirement of being 35 years old, and he also knew that if you were single you could not marry. He said that he had a girlfriend but she has a house somewhere she didn’t want to leave. I suggested that love wasn’t easy and he agreed that it was certainly hard in his case. Like so many people in Europe, he admired Thomas Merton and said he wanted to visit Kentucky one day so he could see the Monastery of Gethsemani where Merton was known as Father Louis.


no title needed
Tuesday May 25 - Mrs. Sommerfield

When we were visiting Oberammergau there was an American girl, about 12 years old, sitting right in front of us. She kept looking all around for other kids her age. I heard her complain to her mother that she couldn’t see any. I told her that was OK, “In heaven we will all be the same age.” I’m not sure she believed me. But this was reinforced for me on our last morning in Salzburg. At breakfast we met the absolutely captivating Mrs Sommerfield. She must have been somewhere in her mid to upper-eighties, thin and slightly stooped, but with twinkling eyes and a smile that could melt a glacier. We’d seen her other mornings speaking with the German-speaking guests, but I’d never had the nerve to try to start up a conversation with her. I guess I thought it would be too much trouble to converse across our language divide. I think we must miss some of the best friends we never have out of such fears.

But this morning, we three were the only ones in the dining room and so we said “hello,” as you most certainly must do when you are traveling in Europe. She asked if we were visiting Salzburg and we said that we had been but that now we were on our way to Vienna. I asked if she often visited Salzburg. She said that she came several times a year to visit family and friends. She didn’t, however want to stay with any of them. She wanted to be able to come and go as she pleased. We asked if she’d like to join us at our table. She thanked us, but said, “No.” “You want to keep your independence,” I said, smiling. Her eyes twinkled, and she laughed so prettily.

I know so little about Austria I decided to take the liberty of asking her questions. She was so open and relaxed we must have talked for 30 or 40 minutes. Georgia excused herself to go get packed, but I couldn’t bear to leave my new friend. She said that she’d always lived in Salzburg though now she lived in Munich, or Hamburg, (I forget which) where she taught economics. With my brief foray into university teaching we swapped stories about students around the world. Grade-grubbing is evidently not a purely American thing. Europe also has its share of students more interested in a grade than in knowledge.

I asked her what Salzburg was like after the war. She said it was bad, very strict rationing and many deprivations, but they were very lucky to have had Americans as their occupiers. Nearby towns had been occupied by the Russians and the retaliations were very brutal. I didn’t mention the awful things the Germans did to the peasants when they invaded Russia. But I thought to myself that the dogs of war are very bloodthirsty: it’s fine, perhaps, when you are holding the leash, but it’s not so good when they have you by the throat.

I’d been disappointed by the lack of interesting stained glass. I asked if that was because of extensive destruction during the war. Bombing, perhaps? She said she didn’t think so; she didn’t remember there ever being much stained glass, even when she was a girl.

I told her about our seeing Betulia Liberata at the opera house. She was the one who told me Mozart had only been 15 when he wrote the score, and that the famous recitative libretto had been personally worked and polished and condensed by him. Her eyes teared up as she told me “they were some of the finest sentences ever written in the German language.” I wish I could appreciate them. I can certainly see how the issue would be paramount to a young genius. Can one extrapolate from our common world full of imperfection to the existence of a God imbued with all perfections? Which would be more amazing? That there was an author of all this world’s wounded beauty, or that there was not such an author. We still wrestle with the question.

Somehow I knew she would understand my confused thoughts about the three angry young men trying to disrupt the Pentecost services at the Cathedral and how the music had silenced them. Music can touch, if not overpower us, in ways rational argument never can. I told her about St Lawrence (whose statue we saw in the Cathedral museum) and how when the emperor demanded the riches of the church presented him with a crowd of poor people: “Here is the treasure of the church, your excellency!” I wondered out loud what he could have meant. How are the poor, the drunks, the cripples, the “needy,” the treasure of the church? As Dorothy Day said, “They smell bad; they’re dirty; and they are difficult to deal with.” How are they a treasure? She said that she had a friend who’d been at the service and who’d been frightened because she didn’t know what they were going to do. I agreed. Those three presented a very strange treasure.

I complimented her English. She said she’d visited the States many times. I gave her one of my cards and wrote a note on the back for her: “For my dear Mrs. Sommerfield, whose conversation and brief friendship I have so much enjoyed.” I told her I was very hopeful that our paths would cross again. Her eyes filled up with tears, and she said that she would call me one day - I shouldn’t be surprised to hear from her. I told her the easiest way to reach me was by email, but she said that regrettably, she did not use email.

Have you ever met someone briefly, and known that you could have been absolutely smashing friends? I have, and someday I expect we’ll meet again, if not here, then in that place where these all-to-obvious worldly imperfections are completely forgotten. And there, where time is not an issue, and perfection is all around us, we will get to know each other perfectly.
Tuesday May 25th (continued) - On the Train to Vienna

On the train to Vienna we shared a coach booth with a nine-year old girl, her mother, and a university student named Wolfgang, studying statistics. I embarrassed the little girl mightily by asking if she was studying English in school. She admitted that she was. I asked if there was anything she wanted to ask me in English? She was mortified. I asked if she knew any American songs. She did but wouldn’t sing any for me. “How about ‘Happy Birthday?’” I asked. Even little Melina knew that one. Her mother said it was her 10th birthday in a month so I sang happy birthday to her. She wondered what planet I’d come from.

To give her a break I asked Wolfgang what he was reading. It was a graphic novel called “Manga.” They come in a set of 20 or 30 books. He couldn’t wait to get them all. We talked a little about fantasy literature in general and science fiction as well. He liked the movies made about the Lord of the Rings, but didn’t like the books.

I asked if Manga had a story line. He said it didn’t. It was just a series of battles. I told him I found it hard to believe that 20 or 30 books could be sustained without some sort of unifying “story.” Perhaps the battles presented a very long “Quest” narrative? Maybe like a 21st century Japanese Canterbury Tales, or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight? He didn’t think so, but said that the characters we’d seen in the train station were dressed in Manga costumes. I told him it looked like they were having a great time. He said it’s common. In fact, the public acting out of Manga themes is called “Cosplay,” for Costume Play. Oh to be young again.

When we arrived in Vienna we promptly got on the wrong tram, or rode the right tram in the wrong direction, or the right tram too far, or something. Anyway we ended up way out too far, and had to walk back toward our convent guesthouse: “Stephen Haus.” It looked like an old 1950s style apartment building but just a couple of blocks from the city center. We had to wait in the lobby for the office to open at 5pm. The nun who appeared was dressed in old-order Amish clothing. She looked very severe and humorless. I’m pretty sure their cosmetics budget would have starved a church mouse. But boy, the room was great! It was clean and sunny, with a balcony overlooking a parking lot. We washed clothes and hung them out to dry.

After that we went walking toward the center of town. As we walked through small alleys and along broad streets I was amazed at the number of pedestrians. The city was truly bustling, but as we approached the main plaza it looked like there had been some sort of accident. There were dozens of people sprawled on the sidewalk beside this enormous building. But the people weren’t just sprawled. They were sitting or reclining on carpet squares and staring up at this gigantic screen. It looked like some sort of a pedestrian “drive-in movie.” And glorious music was playing.

(to be continued)


In Vienna
Tuesday Evening May 25 - Vienna

We were standing on the sidewalk outside the Vienna Opera House. They were simulcasting Mozart’s “The Italian in Algiers” on a huge jumbotron on the sidewalk. There was a liveried usher handing out carpet squares for us to sit on. The plastic chairs were already filled. I had the best time surreptitiously photographing pedestrians walking past the screen. One little boy in particular was hilarious. He was so excited by the music, bouncing around and dancing to the music. He must have been on an adrenaline high because shortly after sitting down he crashed on the sidewalk sound asleep!


outside the opera house
Wednesday May 26th - Vienna

We rode the Ring Tram, which shares the roadway with bicycles, cars, taxis and buses on a wide tree-lined boulevard circling Vienna. Recorded tours give you the chance to orient yourself. We got off at a spectacular Art Deco Museum, called “The Secession House.” Inside there was a mural by the artist Gustav Klimt and some blown glass. Except for that, and for the architecture of the building itself, I thought it was a bust. There were several contemporary “installations” that seemed insufferably pretentious and self-absorbed. It’s art that is all about the artist. I find good graffiti less offensive - it, at least, exults in color. Art should be about something other than itself. Solipsism isn’t only boring, it’s lonely.

We visited five or six churches and took pictures of a fair amount of stained glass. Much of it from the eighteenth and nineteenth century. It was pretty standard. There are fashions in stained glass too. The work from the 20th century was more “primitive,” but also more interesting. One in particular showed concentration-camp inmates following behind Jesus as He walked the Via Dolorosa.

We also found some ancient panels at St Rupert’s church down by the canal in the oldest part of the city, but by then it had been hours since we’d had any ice cream or gelato. Luckily there was a gelateria right near by in Morizin Platz. Someone had told us it was the best in town, and it was tremendous. It justified braving the crowds.
Thursday May 27 - Vienna

Surface transportation in Vienna is confusing. The buses and trams interact in ways only a Weiner could understand. The Underground makes more sense. There are six lines that cross each other at various marked stations. You only have to worry about which side of the platform you are standing on. One side goes one way and the other side goes the other way. Because the trains cross each other at different depths some stations’ lowest line must be somewhere close to the 4th Ring of Hell. Even Dante would be out of breath by the time he reached the surface at Landstrasse.

Kung Historishe Museum was magnificent, a smaller replica of the Louvre. The Brugels were stupendous and we saw some lovely Durers and Boschs and then we saw a painting of “Jacob Ziegler” with an interesting inscription. He had been a friend to Erasmus, “sympathetic to the Reformation but remained a faithful Catholic all his life.” Austria is heavily Catholic.

Walked our feet flat. Georgia especially liked the Egyptian and Greek collection. Their antiquity surprised her. She’d been thinking that the Greek culture didn’t flourish until after the time of Christ. She was surprised to hear that Christ came about midway between the birth of the Greek civilization and the fall of the Roman Empire. And then there were the Egyptians flourishing long before the Greeks.

When we left the museum it was raining hard; we gave up on going anywhere else. Bought our supper from the supermarket, The Billa, and ate it in front of the TV at Stephan’s Haus. And then off to bed.

Sorry, I want to talk about toilets for bit. Our immaculate room was on the sixth of seven floors in St. Stephan’s Haus. Twin beds, with a nice desk and a balcony, where we had hung our clothes to dry. Each floor had a shower and a WC with two stalls: for Herren und Damen. Austrian toilets are a little difficult to get used to. When you do “#2” there is a little platform above the water level. It catches your “doody” as it falls and gives you (apparently) the opportunity for a minute examination. If you linger, the stall gets pretty fragrant. I guess the Austrians quickly “Do their business; examine their business; then get back to business.” Me, I’m not really that interested in seeing the results of my eating habits. But it did remind me of the time when I was in the second grade and accidentally swallowed a nickel. Afterwards, my mother told me not to flush the potty. She wanted to flush it. In a couple of days she brought me back my nickel. It was pretty discolored. I took it to school to show my friends. They were grossed out. I didn’t keep it.

As I write this now, tomorrow is Mother’s Day. That small loving action has remained for me the image of Mother-love - giving baths, reading bedtime stories, wiping runny noses and dirty bottoms, and even checking little #2s for nickels in an age before rubber gloves. I love you Mom. I’d give anything to be able to hug you tomorrow.
Friday May 28 - Vienna, Prater, Cemetery & Churches All Night

Because yesterday had been such a tough day on our feet we decided on a day without museums. It turned out to be a great day. Cloudy, but there were times the clouds drifted away and blue sky shown through.

We took the underground out to the Prater - a public fairgrounds so old that it was a favorite with Mozart. Georgia got really irritated with me because I got bored. It wasn’t yet 9:00am and the grounds wouldn’t officially open until 10:00. We saw large groups of children in the Underground obviously coming to the Prater and I said we should take the underground to the center of the Park then walk to the river and by that time the Park would be open and bustling with people. Amusement parks without people are not amusing, if you know what I mean.

She reluctantly agreed but balked when we got to the Olympic Stadium stop where there was a lot of construction and high-rise office-type buildings. She wanted to turn around and go straight back. I told her that I’d meet her somewhere if she wanted, and she reluctantly agreed to mutter along beside me. Two blocks along a busy road brought us to the center of the park. We then walked a diagonal dirt path though some deep unkempt woods where people let their dogs run free. Unfortunately all the rain made the path pretty muddy. Georgia was not happy. The park, you see, is gigantic - it stretches for miles, nestled between the canal and the Danube.

Finally through the woods we came to real meadows with playgrounds and mothers with baby strollers. Georgia’s mood brightened considerably. One young mother was trying desperately to interest her toddler in playing ball with her. She had brought a small soccer ball. I don’t think the child could have been less interested in the ball. But, he was fascinated by the clumps of grass clippings left behind by yesterday’s grass mowers. He would pick up a double handful, hold his hands up and watch, fascinated, as the grass trickled through his fingers. It’s really hard being a mother, trying to plan wonderful outings in the park. You bring the ball you will need and little Johann only wants to let nasty grass clippings trickle through his pudgy fingers. I bet there’s a lesson there somewhere.

We ate a huge schnitzel with pomme frites and some lovely beer. Yum. Watched the Austrian grade-schoolers. They were charming on their “kiddie rides.”

After the Prater we rode the Underground and a bus to the huge cemetery outside Vienna where Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms are buried along with members of Mozart’s family. We found it and expected an entrance fee. Tried to give the guy at the gate €4. He looked at the money then at me like I was crazy. He said something to me and to the men standing nearby and handed the money back, motioning us through the gates.

There were some beautiful tombstones nestled among the mature trees and knee-high grass, but none of them were really as spectacular as the mosaic-covered stones we saw at the Cimiteria on the island of Murano or the tiny one-person stained glass chapels we saw in Florence. We strolled for hundreds of yards along a straight dirt road heading toward an enormous church that seemed to be in the center of the grounds. It was stupendous. Pure Art Deco. It must have been built around 1900. I took a bazillion photos and made sketches of the some of the interesting little design touches. And then we heard singing outside.

“Eyoo ar zee sonneshaine ov my laive!” The melody was familiar, but the words were a little odd. People were warming up for some local festival. There was free wine and sparkling water and interesting songs and music. We sat on the low stone fences around some of the grave sites and listened first to operatic arias, brass fanfares, folk quartets, duets, and left to wander the grounds before more “sonneshaine” broke out in my “laive.”

Close by the festival we found the graves of our immortals, each covered with fresh flowers. But, immediately behind Beethoven’s flower-strewn grave I found the grave of “Robert Weigl, 1852-1902.” Not so much as a dandelion on it. He must have once been famous, else why would he be buried among the immortals, but now I couldn’t even find him mentioned in the Britannica. Sic Transit Gloria.

From the cemetery we traveled back downtown to pick up our tickets for tomorrow’s concert and happened upon a series of church festivals called “Church all night.” As best I could tell all the churches were having an open house this evening. Saw a line forming inside one church to enter a small room off to the side. Figured that any line must go somewhere important. Unfortunately it was a lecture, in Austrian. We were all packed into this room like Japanese on the bullet trains. Luckily we stayed near the back and managed to open the door a crack and slip out. Found a bulletin board and saw that there were going to be concerts everywhere. Boy’s choir, organ concert, free wine (and clean restrooms), even an American Gospel choir in the Cathedral.

We took a pew in St Michaels Kirche. There was to be an organ concert later in the evening and we could see that the church was going to be packed. As we waited I studied the altar. It depicted the battle of Heaven with the Archangel Michael throwing Satan out. The concert itself featured Muffat, Johann Caspar Kerll, Johann Fux, but finished on a high point with Bach’s Fugue on the Magnificat. And it was truly Magnificat! On the organ he puts everyone else in the shade.

Each of the churches featured different treasures, and each was special in its own way. What with the free wine and snacks, and glorious concert after glorious concert I could feel myself starting to overload. We tried to move from church to church wending our way back toward St Stephan’s Haus. We arrived home late and sated. Somehow the room seemed to be spinning as I laid my head on the pillow. I don’t remember falling asleep.
Saturday May 29 - Klosterneuburg

Today we took a day-trip along the Danube to the ancient Abbey Church of Klosterneuburg. It, of course, was at the very top of a long(!) flight of stairs from the little bus station. Is it any wonder that we eat like pigs on these trips and come home weighing less?

The church and cloister are massive - built in the 11th century in a stark and severe Gothic style - but tempered by wonderfully warm limestone and green slate roof tiles. Stone bas-reliefs are carved right into the walls and the grounds have lovely plantings of flowers and trees. There was also an inviting stone patio with tables and chairs where waiters and waitresses in black slacks and crisp white shirts served sandwiches and coffee.

While waiting for our tour to form we went exploring in the surrounding out-buildings. One looked like it might have been a stable hundreds of years ago but was now enclosed to make a very charming chapel. The main part didn’t have stained glass, but there was a lovely swirling abstract panel mounted in a utility room wall on the opposite end of the building. I peeked into the room and saw a blue glow coming from behind a drawn screen. After a few minutes search I managed to find someone who could tell me its provenance. It had been removed from another chapel in the region that was being torn down. The glass was thought too lovely to smash, so Klosterneuburg rescued it. I hope they can someday find a better place to display it than a large broom closet. Lovely blues and browns, golds and yellows in a riotous swirl accentuated by painting done in tracing black.

We had signed up for the “sacred” tour and saw amazingly well preserved 12th century stained glass and a priceless 11th century gilded enameled altarpiece made of 50-something exquisite hand-crafted tiles depicting the entire plan of salvation. Hitler had “requested” the piece for his private collection. Somehow the monks managed to make it “disappear” behind a fake wall. Reminds me of “the Secret of Santa Vittoria,” but with a treasure more precious than wine.

As I said, the church was built in the 11th century as a Gothic masterpiece, but fashions change. In the 16th and 17th century Gothic was out and Baroque was in, so an absolutely staggering amount of money was spent to turn the inside of a Gothic Basilica into a stunning Baroque Basilica.

I personally prefer the Gothic cathedrals, like Notre Dame in Paris, or St Mark’s in Venice. They are magnificent in their relative simplicity and usually have amazing story-telling mosaics and stained glass windows glittering with vibrant colors. In the beginning, you see, it was difficult to produce clear glass. Too hard to find “pure” materials to work with. It was easier to produce colored glass because the raw materials naturally contained metals and minerals. Because of this lack of clear glass, Gothic Cathedrals are generally darker. And then you have those additional centuries of smoke deposited on the walls. That makes some people think of them as gloomy.

But, no one would ever call a Baroque or Rococco Cathedral “gloomy.” Those are the ones that look like whipped cream and egg white confections, gigantic wedding cakes. They are filled to overflowing with plaster and marble saints, cherubs, and enough gold to dazzle the eye of the most jaded viewer. It all took our breath away. Where to look first?

Recovering later in a charming outdoor café with a delicious Austrian beer we met a nice middle-aged couple on an eight-day bicycling trip across Germany and Austria. They rode along the Danube and were supplied with bicycles and an itinerary that gave them a nice distance to ride each day and a place to stay each night. As fellow countrymen do all around the world we began looking for people or attitudes we held in common. They were from California, as I recall, and we couldn’t locate any common friends or acquaintances. More than seven degrees separating us I suppose. And so, the lady turned to common attitudes. They loved the German wine country. So did we. And then she said, “I can’t believe all the gold in that church,” motioning towards the warm stone glistening in the afternoon sun. “We’re social workers; it should all be melted down and given to the poor.”

I’m not usually at a loss for words but this silenced me. All those centuries spent to produce these treasures. Those armies of craftsmen who gave their lives to make something beautiful. Those generations and generations of peasants who loved their church and gave their pennies to have a part in its construction. All that beauty. All that effort: up-loaded on e-bay and shipped off to the highest bidder? I knew I couldn’t say what first popped into my head, so I said nothing. “Hmmmmm?” was the most neutral reply I could manage. The conversation soon petered out and they remounted their two-seater and peddled off. We waved goodbye to each other.

The thought that had popped into my head was that we knew that Matthew was a tax collector; we knew that Peter, Andrew, and some of the other disciples were fishermen; and now I knew that Judas was probably a social worker. He shared their attitude that lavishing treasure at the feet of Christ was a terrible waste of resources. And Judas, carrying the communal purse, looked forward to “dispensing” these riches. Was he right? Is all this gilding and ivory wasted? Are the centuries of effort it took to build such stunning treasure-chests wasted just as surely as an afternoon spent building sandcastles? Time or tide will certainly wash both away. But, is the aim of life to just eat, drink, and try to pass on your genes? What place is there for voluntary poverty, discipline, and obedience in today’s world? In the age of the individual, what sense is there to “common” wealth? What’s the point of trying to leave something beautiful and lasting for posterity?

This brief, abortive, conversation left me depressed, alleviated only by the bus ride back to Vienna when we sat across from two giggling Austrian teenagers who tried hilariously to remember their English lessons. They tried vainly to tell us what they “wanted to be” someday. The future, at least, was real for them. How charming. And the Danube was lovely - reminding me, of course, of the mighty Mississippi, timelessly flowing unconcerned through human history - sometimes serenely - sometimes raging. And we stopped at Schwedenplatz for more ice-cream at the “Italienischen Eissalon.” It’s really hard to be depressed while licking a cone of blackberry ice cream.

When we got back to the room we dressed for the concert. It was the Lower Austrian Symphony Orchestra in the Grosser Musikvereinssaal. We were right on the front row, directly under the conductor. If you don’t believe me look at the photo. He hopped and stamped all through the music and during the most energetic passages almost went airborne. I swear I expected to have to catch him! Schumann and Stravinsky’s “Afternoon of the Faun.” The audience was so appreciative that they even called the orchestra back for an encore before the intermission! Those Wieners do love their music.

The trip back to the room carried us through the underground Karlsplatz at night. It was a different and somewhat creepy world in the dark. Obvious drug use from teens and young adults bored with the more socially acceptable ways of sedating oneself. I’m not sure that they thought they had a future at all. Perhaps we should sell a couple cherubs to give these kids some spending money. Wonder what they’d buy with it. Even if they don’t come from poor families, they are certainly poor in spirit, like the young drunks we saw in Salzburg Cathedral. Would our bicyclists think the problems of anomie solvable with money? I think of Mother Teresa’s adage that the worst poverty of all is that of being thought useless.


inside the church

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