More than 600 years ago, a wealthy Regensburger hid 624 golden coins in some containers, and never came back for them. It was a prosperous time in Regensburg, but also a time of war between citizens and princes, when a wealthy merchant might hide his gold to be used in more stable times.  But there it stayed, through the destruction of the Jewish Quarter in 1519, through the 30 Years’ War and the Napoleonic wars, World Wars I and II, and the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Did the merchant have an inkling, even then, that it would be the last time he’d see his money, his home, his city? Better not  to know.

We leave here in two weeks, and the certainty of that deadline is tough knowledge. “This may be the last time we….” (ride this trail, play on this playground, eat this ice cream, sit in the cool, hard silence of this church).  This is the hard part of leaving a place we’ve called home. If we’d been here a week, there would have been the bright excitement of one-time-only. But because the streets and rivers and playgrounds and grocery stores of Regensburg have become routine, it’s never-again-will-we.  It makes me think about growing old, and the inevitability of things and people and places going on without us.

I suspect that my love for doing history has something to do with the sadness of lost things and last times, the distress of a moment going unremarked for all time.  Last letters, lost photographs, fleeting meetings that turn out to be life changers. One of the points of our work is to reconnect things with the stories that gave them meaning, and to make the lost, last moments alive with the feelings and desires and fears that, in the larger scheme of things, they symbolize.

Regensburg is full of these little pieces of left-behind.  Inscriptions on walls, mysterious carvings over doors, exposed foundations of old houses at a construction site down by the river. These frozen-in-time moments make it a fascinating city.  But also, at times, a little creepy. One of my favorite churches here, the St. Emmeram’s Basilika, features the skeletal remains of some departed bishops, still dressed up and reclining  dustily in their finery. Perhaps it’s just the Protestant in me speaking, but I’d prefer to remember the good works rather than dressing up the bones.

Yesterday we visited the city of Kallmünz, a picturesque city with an imposing castle ruin and lovely bridges over the confluence of the Naab and Vils rivers.  We’d been there before, climbed to the ruin before,  swam in the river before.  And all I could think, as I jumped in the same river with my three children, was that the pleasure was all in the change. How could the same river have room for these three new beings? The thrill of the difference was as pleasing as the shock of the cold water of the Vils where it flowed into the Naab.

I’m infinitely lucky to have returned to a place I loved so much. I’m sorry to leave it again; no doubt when we walk out of this little apartment, we’ll leave behind bits of ourselves (a map, a Lego block, a chocolate wrapper, a tooth, surely some socks). The next tenants will find our socks and teeth and Legos, and feel sad that we travel sockless and toothless through this world. But we’ll have moved on, bought new socks, grown new teeth.

I’m sorry that the merchant never retrieved his gold. I hope he lived. If he did, I hope he didn’t spend all his life thinking about his goldschatz, and instead, thought fondly of the life he lived here, bought new socks, and moved on.





A week ago, I took a bike ride, alone, up on a hill overlooking Regensburg from across the Donau. It is a long way up, and the view is spectacular.  I stood there by my bike and tried really hard to feel the feeling of being there, even as my eyes started to prickle.  You will not remember this. 

I knew I wouldn’t remember it for precisely this reason: I’d made that same ride before, and I didn’t remember. I remember seeing the city, of course, and I remembered, roughly, the road up. But I didn’t remember the feeling – how it felt to be on that hill, the smell of dirt and rapeseed, the sense that I had climbed that high above the river, the sense that the Altstadt looks just like a map of itself.  I couldn’t remember, because you can’t remember that.  You can only do it.

In the last two weeks, my classes have been discussing tourism in the American West, and the idea we all keep coming back to is authenticity.  We read part of Leah Dilworth’s book Imagining Indians,  in which she explores Euro-American tourism in the Southwest in the early 20th century as a search for the “authentic” Indian  – the product of longing for a purity that, most whites thought, could be found among the Hopi and Navajo people (and pottery and jewelry and rugs) they encountered there. But there’s a catch:  what they sought in the tourist experience had to remain unattainable, separated by (imagined) time or space or culture, in order to satisfy the longing for an “authentic” primitivity that never existed outside the tourist industry itself. You could buy a souvenir, and another, and another, but you’d never fill up the space of your longing.

Dilworth is not the only one, or the first, to articulate this phenomenon. Walker Percy, in “The Loss of the Creature,” (The Message in a Bottle, 1975) reminds us that most of our experiences get buried under an avalanche of expectations. Edward Abbey, in Industrial Tourism,” (Desert Solitaire, 1968) bemoans the plan to build a road into Arches National Park – not just because the roads would destroy the environment, but because riding in the car would destroy the immersion in a weird and stunning and sometimes brutal landscape that is experience itself.  Way before Percy or Abbey, Margaret Fuller, in Summer on the Lakes, in 1843 complained of the same problem. Already, in 1843, Niagara Falls just looked like it was supposed to look – a picture of itself, an experience waiting to be had. The only people who really knew Niagara Falls were the ones who plunged over it, embracing the danger and the weirdness, and they didn’t often live to tale the tale.

One of the critics my students like best is Paul Chaat Smith,  a Comanche artist and critic who writes about the American obsession with “Indianness” with frankness and wit. “Authenticity for Indians,” he writes, “is a brutal measuring device that says we are only Indian as long as we are authentic” (“Luna Remembers”).  Authenticity doesn’t allow Black Elk to be a Catholic named Nick, or for Geronimo to drive a car. The real histories of Native American people,  he tells us, are way crazier, way more brutal, way more filled with intersections between cultures and technologies and economies, way more interesting, than you ever imagined. They’re just not easy to buy on a postcard.

I wonder what I will bring home from this time in Regensburg. What salty pretzel crumbs or detergent smells or children’s songs or arguments or bloodstains will seep into my memory? What will I choose to remember through the pictures I take and the souvenirs I buy, and what will stay, probably unnoticed most of the time, in my muscles and brain cells, only to be jerked back into my being on some foggy day that smells like woodsmoke?

I will not remember this, but I will do it again.

Die ganze Welt ist ein Verein

Last week, the Maidult began – a carnival held each year on one of Regensburg’s islands in the Donau. It’s got the usual carny stuff- games not worth the money, spinny rides, beer – and the unusual – roasted fish on sticks, really good beer, and Trachten. Lots and lots of Trachten.

“Trachten” is the name for traditional German clothing: lederhosen, dirndls, checkered shirts and sweaters with metal buttons shaped like edelweiss. The lederhosen come not only in brown, but in dark green, dark brown, black, and the hot-pant kind that my daughter calls “ladyhosen,” worn by women and sometimes in colors like red and hot pink. Likewise the dirndls: not the frumpy calf-length practical skirts and aprons worn by the Von Trapp family before Maria got to them, but satiny numbers worn boldly with stilettos (on cobblestones!) and with the occasional felt fascinator.  Some are in full attire, while others combine the lederhosen with T-shirts and sneakers.

According to our friends here, this is a new-ish phenomenon, confirming our suspicions. We went to the Dult 11 years ago, and lederhosen were not uncommon, but rare enough to turn our heads. But now most young people own them, a national costume turned party wear. Folks we’ve talked to aren’t sure to what change in Zeitgeist they should attribute the return to Trachten.  One woman told us that her mother wore dirndls, and that she associated interest in Trachten, forebodingly, with the 1930s.

But the spirit in which Trachten is worn doesn’t smack of scary nationalism. It reminds me a little of the handmade hat I bought in Canada once – Labatt’s beer can labels worked together into a sun hat by way of crochet.  Happy, kitschy, Canadian.  Or the great Raygun T-shirts they sell in my hometown in Iowa:  “Iowa: 75% Vowels, 100% Awesome.” Only, in the case of some of the dirndls, a lil’ bit sexier, like somebody’s fantasy milkmaid.  Happy, kitschy, sexy, Bavarian.

As a person interested in culture and the turning of history, though, I’m fairly certain that there’s something to the Trachten-phenomenon.  There are reasons why we search for roots, for place, even in places where we’ve more recently landed.  Last week, too, I attended at talk at the University here by Elena Bryan, U.S. Senior Trade representative to the EU. Students here (and Germans in general) are worried about the effects that the TTIP might have on the EU, and on German values in particular. They are worried about GMOs, and about fracking, and about the power that big U.S. corporations might wield over decisions that affect drugs, food, the environment, the contents of their clothes.

It occurred to me that these kids in lederhosen and satin dirndls have grown up knowing only a Germany that is part of the European Union, part of an economic and political system in which borders are permeable. Yet another shift in the meaning of nation. A mega-nation, a global world, can be a lonely, more rootless place. No wonder, in a time in which it’s hard NOT to think about the constant flow of stuff and ideas and culture across borders, we tend to think about who we are, and seek solace in what we think we’ve always been. Maybe that’s why I have a painting of the Mississippi River and an old map of my city on the walls of my dining room; why I tore up the nondescript conifers in my front yard and planted prairie grasses and native flowers; why we buy Wapsipinicon Peach tomato seeds every spring. I’m not from Iowa originally, but my mother is, and most of us need to know we are from somewhere, especially when our clothes are made in Cambodia and end up in Haiti.

One of the concepts I teach in my first year course  is Benedict Anderson’s “imagined community” – the idea that nations and nationalisms arise primarily through a creative process in which we imagine that we are linked to others like ourselves though we will likely never see the fellow-members of our nation.  Rituals, pageants, and print and electronic media, facilitate these ways of imagining community.  And, of course, as our current political scene tells us, ethnic communities CAN fracture nation when their imagining becomes strong enough to turn violent.  So I suppose in that sense, Trachten smacks a bit of Bavarian nationalism.

But these young people are, still, flowing together into the carnival atmosphere of the Dult, where they will, no doubt, er, run into each other, and recognize each other as Bavarian, at least for the night. I suppose it’s a way to forget the bigger, scarier meanings of what it might mean to be EU, or German, or Turkish, or American, or Chinese, in the coming decades.  In the big tent at the Dult, I suspect they’re not thinking about the EU when they’re singing the nutty drinking song by die Kolibris:

Fühltst Du dich manchmal auch so allein (if you sometimes feel so alone)
Glaub mir das brauchte gar nicht zu sein  (Believe me, it doesn’t have to be that way)
Denn heute abend, gehn wir feiern (Because tonight, we’re going to celebrate)
Die ganze Welt ist ein Verein (The whole world is a community)

They’re thinking about how nice that guy (or girl) looks in his (or her) lederhosen, and how good the beer tastes.

Und dann die Hände zum Himmel (Put your hands in the air)
Komm lasst uns fröhlich sein (Come on, let’s be happy)
Wir klatschen zusammen und keiner ist allein (We’re clapping together and no one is alone)
Und dann die Hände zum Himmel (And then hands in the air)
Komm lasst uns fröhlich sein (Come on, let’s be happy)
Wir klatschen zusammen und keiner ist allein. (We’re clapping together and no one is alone)




Ersatz German

This morning I stopped in at one of the shops in Regensburg that caters to tourists–it’s near the river, where the Danube cruise boats begin to stop in the spring, and is festooned with the usual racks of postcards, Bavarian flags, T-shirts that say “Germany” instead of “Deutschland.”  A couple was peering at something in the doorway, blocking my way, and I said, “Entschuldigung.” (Excuse me).

“Oh, SORRY!” the woman exclaimed, in abrasive American. “Do you want to get in?” I hesitated. Should I answer in English, or fake it? “Danke,” I said, edging by, feeling like an imposter, but somehow not wanting to associate myself with these older-than-middle-age tourists. The woman working behind the desk asked me in German if I needed help, and I answered in German. Still pretending. (Do real Germans buy earrings that look like pretzels? I wondered, looking at the kitsch.)

I find myself in this dilemma with some frequency. Do I pretend to blend in while I’m here, wearing neck scarves and orange pants and trying to disguise my American accent? When I’m out with my kids, who talk loudly in English, should I answer them in German, knowing that I’m not fooling anyone (and that, increasingly, they understand)? I know enough German, and I know the city well enough, to pass–but I’ll never BE German.

We’ve been trying to watch German-made films while we’re here, and two of the most recent we watched were, in different ways, about passing. Dani Levy’s 2004 “Alles Auf Zucker!” was hailed as the first Jewish comedy since WWII. It’s about two brothers–estranged by the division of Germany and by one’s renunciation of his Judaism–who attempt to reconcile in order to get an inheritance.  The protagonist, Zucker, has made an effort to NOT to be Jewish, while his wife tries to take on Judaism to appease the visiting relatives.  Are Jewish people just passing as Germans, or has Germany really embraced them?  How deep does the reconciliation between Jews and Germany, East and West, really go? In the other, “Sommer in Orange” (2011), Lili, a girl from Berlin who, with her mother and brother, is a member of a Bhagwan commune who finds the group transplanted to a farm in Bavaria. She wants nothing more than to be part of village life–wearing a dirndl and playing in an oom-pah band at the annual Dorffest. Both have happy endings–the brothers are reconciled (sort of) and the uptight Bavarians come to embrace some of the Bhagwanis’ freewheeling ways. But the point of both films is that a person stays what she is: Zucker reconciles with his brother (and with the West?), but he’s still a con man. Lili gets to play in the band, but she’s a Bhagwani at heart.

Even the city itself has a history of disguise. One of the main town squares in Regensburg is the Neupfarrplatz, on which a Protestant Church now stands. Until 1519, though, there was a Synagogue there, in the middle of the Jewish quarter. When the Jews were forced out in 1519, the town tore down the synagogue and started work on a Catholic church, just to make a point. When a worker claimed that the Virgin Mary saved his life, it became a pilgrimage site. But the point didn’t last long–the Reformation came along, and by 1542, Regensburg had turned Protestant, so the church finally built there was a Protestant one.  It seems disingenuous that a community could shuck entire faith systems within a few decades, clothing itself so quickly in something new, something deemed more appropriate to the times and conditions, even if it involved violence to others and destruction of the fabric of the very community. Who were those Regensburgers, really, at heart?

I admit that I’ve sought authenticity here: if I buy a shirt, I want German words on it, and not English ones. It’s Germany–or maybe, more precisely, this city–that I want to be a part of, and to wear like it’s something more than a costume.

After I left the tourist shop (without the pretzel earrings, though I may go back), I stopped in front of the shop next door, peering at the pottery in the window. “Don’t be shy!” a woman told me, in German. “Come in!” I did. She was one of a group of artists that make the items they sell, and take turns working in the shop.  I complimented her on the lovely stuff–lithographs, pottery, felted wool. She told me how she made some of the wooden pieces. We had one of the longer conversations I’ve had in German since I’ve been here, and she was interested in what I was doing here, my family, what sort of work I did. We talked about my daughter’s love of reading. Somewhere near the start of the conversation, she asked me if I was a tourist. I hesitated. “Not really,” I said. “I’m from the U.S., but I’m living in Regensburg now.” It was the most honest answer I could give, and the most interesting. We kept right on talking in German–an American giving it her best effort, and a German willing to meet me there.

Back in the Saddle

Until last week, the last time I taught was a million years ago, in February, in the vortex-y midwestern winter. I was in high gear, teaching an overload, two courses, four times a week each. I’d taught the class before, but was experimenting a little, and was in the groove: teaching felt good, and right.

Once I got here, though, I clicked out of teaching mode. Instead of being in front of the class,  I was the ignorant one, trying to figure out library and bank accounts, how to tip, and how to wash clothes for 5 people with the efficient but extremely slow appliances in the basement (you should come to Germany just to watch the spin cycle).  Feeling a bit like a first-year student again, I questioned whether I was actually fit to teach people, let alone my first crop of masters students. I couldn’t even get my office printer to work, and I’ve yet to try the copy machine. I was sitting in the back of the class, wondering how to log on.

Last week, after being here for seven weeks, I stood in front of a class again. I was worried; I’d been warned that German students were quiet, would expect me to lecture. But guess what? They talked! They were animated the first day! They laughed at my jokes! It was, dare I say, a lot like teaching at home. And most importantly, I seem to have remembered how to teach.  I knew what I was talking about, and the students had perceptive comments to make, but were eager to learn more.  It felt good, and the technology was even on my side. I remembered that you can do a lot of planning in advance, making schedules and rubrics and handouts and lists of goals, but when it comes down to it, a fair bit of teaching is feeling your way, knowing how to respond to the vibes in the classroom, and some confidence that what you have to say is interesting and important.

The day before, I led some visiting friends on a bike ride from Regensburg to Adlersberg, where there’s a brewery–a former cloister–perched on a hill.  I’d made the trek before, but it was more than a decade ago, and I wasn’t sure about my bearings. We left in the rain, our hands freezing and our jeans already sticking to our legs. We found ourselves in a cemetery that seemed to have no way out, climbed a steep gravel path that pitched mud onto our backs, avoided a 23% grade downhill in favor of another rocky climb.  They were never going to forgive me for this, I thought. We got to the top of the ridge, and the view was spectacular. We set out across a field of rapeseed in the ruts of a tractor path, and then I saw the church tower of the cloister across the hills. Trust me, I told them, we’re almost there. And they did, even when we plummeted down a washed-out path through the forest, our brakes squealing. And guess what? We made it, the sun came out, the view was glorious, and the beer was dark and 7.5%.  We made it home, feeling triumphant, our bikes and map spritzed with trophy mud.

As it turns out, it’s been good to get a bit of mud on the map and feel the thrill of uncertainty. But it’s also a pleasant surprise to find that, having been there before and gaining my bearings, I can trust my instincts and enjoy the surprising washouts and slopes. And when my companions are up for some risks, they’ll come along for the ride.


Historical Artifact

So, my husband pointed out to me that my last post mentioned that BOTH times I went to Berlin in the past, there was something I wanted desperately, but couldn’t have. But I only talked about the one. Here’s the other: the second time, I wanted a baby, and had been wanting one for more than a year.

In Berlin, we were disappointed again. I remember trudging back from the Jewish Museum to Alexanderplatz (with the wrong shoes on; my feet hurt, too), feeling a bit overwhelmed by Holocaust and Babywunsch.  It felt like punishment for past sins: maybe there are some violences you visit on your body or your body politic that you just can’t recover from.

I probably should have gotten a hint from the skyscrapers rising up from the former No-Man’s-Land of the Potsdamer Platz, from the cranes in the former East Berlin, from the exuberance we saw in a city delighted to offer boat rides along the full urban length of the river Spree. Divided nation over; full speed ahead.  Today, the longs spans of cranes are still ranging over Berlin like giant metal robo-storks and there are banks and clothing stores all over the former East.  Berlin is considering building thousands of houses on the former Tempelhof airport, the arts scene has reclaimed its former glory, and some neighborhoods are gentrifying groups right out of their ethnic enclaves. Berlin Mitte felt teeming, booming, energetic, demanding.

And this time, we were there with our three children, negotiating the S-Bahn and thronging buffet lines at the hotel (thank you, Fulbright Kommission!). Together, we went to the west side of Berlin, to Schloss Charlottenburg, and the Naturkunde Museum–places I’d never been before.  We held them tightly by the hand, instructed them to jump quickly onto trains and tried to juggle holding their plates of food and our own, their Fantas and our beers (thank you, Fulbright Kommission!).

After my kids and spouse went home, I was on my own in Berlin for two full days.  I went to the Museum of German history and stayed for hours, looking at two-handed swords and Biedermeyer furniture and stark, angsty Weimar-era posters.  I walked from the west end of the Tiergarten all the way back to Alexanderplatz, and visited the DDR-museum where you can sit in a Trabant and check out DDR canned goods. I ran to Prenzlauer Berg and wandered a bit off the beaten path.  The time alone felt luxurious, but a little lonely. I talked to myself.

Walking through the DDR museum, I found myself wondering at how much they had there: toys, diaries, clothing, books, fashion magazines.  That people had saved all this! But then I thought–this is all from less than a lifetime ago. These were books and clothes from the era of my childhood–you could find stuff of this era in my parents’ basement. How long ago that time seemed; how strange that part of Germany should have closed itself off that way. The neckerchiefs and children’s books and songs seemed to have the quaint but slightly threatening quality of a fairy tale.

How odd that the present can turn into history so quickly. The things that we played with and wore and that occupied our every waking moment can suddenly appear in a glass case with an explanatory placard situating it in context. They look so different that way, aligned  with the artifacts that came before, and those that come after:  a can of beans becomes the despair of a nation and a cross-stitched wall hanging is a sign of revolution.

Here is my daughter, my oldest child, in her purple sweatshirt and blue Converse sneakers, smiling broadly and pumping her arms, running down the street to meet me on the day I returned from Berlin, March 27, 2014.

That Berlin

I’m leaving for Berlin on Saturday, and I have to make a confession: it’s hard for me not to think of Berlin in metaphorical terms. I’ve been there twice before–briefly, in late January of 1990 (consider your German history) and in March of 2002.  Both times I was there, I desperately wanted something I couldn’t have, and so I think of Berlin this way.

I was 18 when I went in 1990. Our college band had planned a trip to Sweden & Denmark, and when the wall came down, we managed to finagle a gig at a church in East Berlin.  We spent at least a day there, visiting the Pergamon museum and the Wall. It was January in northern Germany, and it was incredibly gray in East Berlin: the sky, the buildings, the monuments, the streets–all steely. I guess I had the vision that the wall falling would fill the East with light and sunshine. But it was gray, and depressing.

In contrast, we also visited the Europa Center, a West Berlin mall.  I saw a doll in a shop window, but the store was closing. For some reason, I wanted that doll. It was a beautiful doll, sweet and lifelike and probably handcrafted. I was 18–why did I want the doll? I left the Europa Center in a depression, because I would never have it. I couldn’t stop thinking about the doll.

I stayed depressed, on into the concert that evening, at a church whose stone was pockmarked by bullet holes, with posters advocating a free, unified Berlin still on the walls inside. We played John Williams and a hymn, and when we sang it the audience sang along. Afterwards, some of the band members cried, because it was so moving. I was close to tears, too, but not because I felt so honored to be there, not because the East Berliners were so grateful to hear our American music. I was close to tears because there was so much I wanted and couldn’t have, and wouldn’t let myself have.

Tonight, I shared a beer with a neighbor who grew up in Leipzig and was 11 when Germany reunified.  I thought about what it must have been like, moving from the East to the West at 11, what her mother must have wanted to make that move, and was ashamed all over again.


I did want that beautiful doll, but I know now that it was more than that. I wanted to be able to eat a chocolate bar like my friends were doing and not feel guilty. I wanted to eat a whole loaf of bread too, and cheese, and not feel sick about it. I wanted to consume so much that I organized my life around policing what I was allowed, and so my want consumed me.  It’s embarrassing to think how little I thought about where I was and what was happening around me, but I was too invested in my own wants and my own walls. I had stood and chopped at the Wall with a pickaxe and all I got was a tiny chip of concrete, and the sky and landscape stayed lead-heavy.

I think, though, my Berlin gave me just a tiny taste of what East Germans might have felt. In 2002, I read Thomas Brüssig’s 1999 novel Am kürzeren Ende der Sonnenallee, about a teenage boy whose desire to have the banned Rolling Stones album Exile on Main Street consumes him. His desire symbolizes longing for western culture on the part of East Germans–but while the novel makes clear that life in the shadow of the Wall was often depressing and brutal, it’s also nostalgic for the sense of community that got lost when everything else was won.

That Berlin was being hungry, afraid to taste what was sweet in case I couldn’t stop.  That Berlin was a community, singing hymns inside gray, cold, bullet-riddled walls, not knowing what opening up to the West might mean, and it was that doll in the window, sliding away from view as soon as I saw it.