Category Archives: Pilgrimage Vignettes
I step out of the student secretary office into the sun and cross the street to the library in order to sit down and write my final thoughts on Tuebingen. I am leaving soon, spending the night at a friend’s flat before flying home tomorrow morning. As I pass across the street, I nearly stumble into The Naked Man.
The Naked Man stands in the park every day and has done so for the past few months, often half-naked. People say he’s crazy. He is a homeless man who dresses either in grass-streaked tidy-whities or a full suit. His favorite hobbies include snapping the branches off trees, assuming fighting stances, drinking beer, and laughing at strangers. He often walks toward strangers in order to laugh at them. That’s so strange, so unnverving.
When I bump into The Naked Man, he gives me a queer look, a cocktail mixture of anger and curiosity. And so I ask in German, “Hey, man, I’ve been watching you for some time now. Why do you do the things you do? I mean, it doesn’t make sense. You stand there and kick the air or talk with strangers? Why do you approach random groups of people to laugh at them?”
And that’s all I want to know, the underlying absurdity of his actions. A reason. A meaningful reason.
The Naked Man stares at me, his mouth breaking into a grin.
And he laughs. And laughs. And says nothing more.
Today I am practicing joy, allowed myself the grace and naivety of a child. I no longer want to feel self-conscious for child-like wonder; I seek to exorcise shame, to scrape clean my palette for awe where too long cynicism has calcified like plaque. Today I feel refreshed, the way characters in a Coca-Cola commercial appear. I am determined in the same way fictional athletes seem in inspiring sports films the morning of the big race or big fight or big race.
Recently, I have forgotten too simply the purpose of joy. Having allowed self-indulgent misery to conquer my mood, I have moped through my break, alone too often in the dingy dorm underground. For a week, I have been sequestered in my subterranean single room by torrential downpours. But today the rain stopped, and the sun peeked out its head. Emancipated from late May storms, I traveled with my mother and Oma across the state of Baden-Würtemburg to an ancient Danube-neighboring city. Ulm.
Standing under the neo-gothic spires and buttresses of the Ulm Munster, a sense of awe dawned. There exists perhaps a limit to one’s ability to experience wonder, and lately, I’ve felt as if I reached that limit. Small joys, luscious landscapes, and even stark coffee failed to inspired in my the unnamable intensity for which I craved. Instead, I have betrayed my curious adventurous nature in service of irrational fear. I have spent too many bright afternoons working, subsisting on cream cheese and jazz. I am afraid of something, though of what, I’m unsure.
So I must re-establish my purpose, an unknown direction, to experience each droplet of experience, to lick the dew of life from each blade of grass. Lately, I have been a man abandoned on an island housing the last block of ice, and I have watched the ice become a puddle.
But today I tasted joy. I balanced on the spine of the Ulm wall as we searched for food. The wall slithers beside the wide river, a twin artery, one red and the other a greenish-blue. The sun came out to massage our necks we stared across the Danube into Bayern. Swans soared above the water’s surface, wide wing flaps slapping the river. In that moment, I too recalled what it meant to feel wonder, to look upon something for the first time.
Moment arrive again and again when we must re-affirm our faith in the beauty of living. This is a religion with no holy book other than the days we inhale. We must be reminded often that life is worthy of our presence—our conscious presence—our sense of being in the now, now, now.
I do not wish to imply that I must be constantly astonished to escape doldrums, but rather that I search for meaning in the quiet moments. This may mean the boring-in-between, the train ride, the wait at the bus stop, the long afternoons eating and drinking, but, if we wish, we may reclaim these moments as grandiose. We may experience even the familiar as new. In the mind-frame of now, there exists no nostalgia for any time frame other than the present.
There is always time for joy, which stares refreshing like a sliver of ice on a sultry summer day. But joy is no feeling, like happiness; it is instead a practice, a habit that must each day be reinforced. So today I am practicing joy, even if I’m writing emails inside, even if I’m doing laundry, or even if I’m experiencing the myriad dull rituals of the day; I will look back to yesterday and recall wonder, and I must think, it’s that simple. It’s really that simple, to wait and appreciate, and know I will feel this awe again.
Scaffolding rises around the obelisk, frames of metal bars spider-webbed to provide support for the crumbling monument. Seated below on a patch of iridescent green grass, I tilt my head to better discern the meaning and image depicted on the grotesque statue above. The recent attempts to fix the statue, likely after wear from weather, obfuscate my view of the statue itself, whether that be a person or animal or tomato with glasses (no one knows at this point). In this way, one can often obscure history through the revisions we make in the present.
In Germany this year, one witnesses an era of reinvention, whether that be for better or worse. One sees construction cranes as often as buttered pretzels. With each skyline marred by the machinery of renovation, it seems as if the entire country is receiving a face lift.
One of the largest renovation projects in Germany today is called Stuttgart 21, which is a joint initiative between the state of Baden-Württemberg, the federal government, and the Deutsch Bahn (DB) to expand railroads through the state as well as build a state-of-the-art Hauptbahnhof (fancy German word for main train station). When one stands in today’s Hauptbahnhof, its massiveness is undercut by the intense renovation going on outside its walls; to even reach the main train platforms, one must travel through a specially-designed temporary walkway, which offers a glimpse of the massive destruction and reconstruction of the train station.
For many outsiders, the construction project seems like a non-issue; when I first heard about the project from my grandparents, I simply shrugged my shoulders and mumbled, “Cool,” in the same way someone might react to any calamity removed from their personal experiences. Due to the immense costs of the project, however, many people are incredibly unhappy with the idea, especially since the project has exceeded his budget by more than €2 billion euro as of 2013 (source: http://www.spiegel.de/international/business/berlin-alarmed-at-cost-overruns-of-stuttgart-21-station-project-a-880112.html). In fact, the project has received critical backlash ever since the idea’s inception in the mid 1980’s.
In 2010, the German government began in earnest to move forward with the building project, though since then they have encountered major delays and budgetary underestimations. At this point, several critics wonder whether the dream of a futuristic train station will ever truly become reality. The misanalysis of budget have risen questions among Berlin politicians concerning from where future funds will come.
But I don’t want to get bogged down in the specifics of the project itself, but would instead like to highlight its politics. In the wake of the final announcement that the Stuttgart train station project would indeed move forward, German citizens flooded the street to protest. What begins as a peaceful though passionate protest becomes later a violent clash between protestors and police; the police responded by shooting water cannons at the protesters. On one particular day (1 October 2010), the police helped protest construction crews as they cut down several trees in the Schlossgarten (very near the train station) in order to make room for the renovations. In the protest and subsequent backlash from police, more than a hundred people ended up injured. It is important, here, to note the incredible panache of German protestors standing up for what they believe. They marched against the renovations, citing the ever-climbing budget and the imminent destruction of both nature and culture. Because the project will include new rail lines through Baden-Württemberg’s countryside, one assumes that several more trees will fall before the project’s completion.
Because I cannot describe so well in words the spectacle of the protests, I will include a few pictures below (culled from the internet):
What interests me most about the Stuttgart 21 project is the ways in which both sides of an argument construct their narrative. On one hand, Angela Merkl and other proponents speak triumphantly of a doorway into the future, of the grand and efficient railway systems Germany will enjoy in just a few years. In the eyes of the proponents, no one is really destroying anything, but rather one is building a better future. Meanwhile, the opponents construct a narrative of wasteful spending and unnecessary destruction.
“Building the future” seems to be a good term for the ambitions of the project, but what I think is more appropriate is the term “building the past.” We write the future’s history in the present. Depending on what stories we tell about our motivations, our values, and our dreams, we manage to influence how history will view us. We shape the biases of tomorrow when we spin the right story.
The question, then, remains: is the Stuttgart 21 project truly helpful or more harmful? Will the project ever be completed, and more importantly, will those who protested be thankful for new facilities or remain resentful of the destruction and waste the project has yielded? Which side will claim victory in the hallowed halls of history?
When visiting the Kunst Museum in Stuttgart today, I encountered the art of Joseph Kosuth, an American conceptual artist who came to prominence in the 1960s. Much of his art questions the value and restrictions of art, expressed through neon letterings, physical books, and copy-printed definitions of words such as “meaning” or “idea.” Today at the museum, I spent an insane amount of time trying to translate the text of six books at wooden desks, each under a clock indicating different times. This piece creates an interesting thematic comment on the effect of time, how the time and space in which a text is read changes the meaning of the text. All of Kosuth’s art installations evoke a similar form of communication, asking the audience to react or comment upon his ideas.
For this reason, I scrawled a stick figure in pencil on the blank wall of the art museum next to one of Kosuth’s installations. The guard there (a kind older woman) asked me what I was doing. I told her that I was claiming this space as my own or rather inviting the question of ownership. She didn’t stop me, though I’m sure they will wash away the stick man I drew under Kosuth’s neon message.
Visual Space Has Essentially No Owner.
This piece struck me for some reason. He questions, within the context of a gallery, the sanctity of the gallery. Where art exhibits express that the viewer should not touch or disturb the art, one must also confront the relationship of viewer and art. One view of art, anyways, insists that art cannot exist without the viewer’s eye, since sight itself evokes an image. Without an eye to perceive the art, the art cannot truly exist. This is, of course, debatable. In the same way, art might mean nothing without people to comment upon the art. What does a painting or installation mean without an audience?
If visual space has no owner and the “art museum” is a space for art, then does not the evocation of this idea invite people to draw on the walls? To perform trumpet in the halls of the art museum? To dance, to become art or make art themselves? To reclaim the spaces we have deemed holy, not only the streets but the museums, the galleries? If art must exist in galleries, then why ask the gate-keepers for permission? Why not thrust your voice into the conversation, for the sake of being heard? Claim not ownership but autonomy, because no one’s really stopping you.
And when an a museum guard taps you on the shoulder to ask what the hell you’re doing, answer, “Art.”
She might smile and comment, “I was wondering when someone would finally try that.”
In the past two days, I have paid approximately ten euros to use the restroom. Until now I have not long contemplated the strange and cruel practice of paying to use the toilet; up until now, I laughed off the practice as “European” and “culturally important,” though these terms lose their punch when one considers the scalding hypocrisy that pay-to-pee toilets represent. In a continent renowned for being at the forefront of human rights, one must pay to use the restroom. At some places, the pay is “suggested,” some old and grandmotherly woman stationed just outside the restroom with a plate (always empty, the coins swiped into her pocket). If one fails to pay here, one might dash past this woman and avoid an admonishing rant. In other places, however, the sentry is far more sinister. They will block your path until exacting the toll for bowel-evacuation.
The problem here is multi-faceted: while I understand the need for businesses to control who uses their restrooms, these practices carry over into public toilets. One must usually pay fifty-cents to push through a turnstile and then use the restroom whether it be in a train station or shopping center.
Urinating is a basic human right, a need just as much as eating or drinking or sleeping or love. The laws that allow public restrooms to charge to urinate or defecate disenfranchise those who cannot afford the yearly expenses; it forces those people to do their business in public. This becomes after further analysis also a feminist issue, since women more than men require a “private place” to use the restroom, whether that be urinating or changing tampons.
These sort of issues carry too into the classroom (who holds autonomy over our bodily functions?), but interestingly in Germany this affects adults too. I have often wondered whether one truly needs to pay; I have never tried not to pay. When given the choice, I will pay twenty or fifty cents. This morning at an art museum, I had to pay a full euro to use the restroom. The argument, of course, is that European toilets are much cleaner; there is usually a person stationed to clean the toilet and keep paper stocked. Of course this is important, but to what extent do customers subsidize restaurants and department store chains so that someone will earn money for cleaning? Why is it the burden of the customer or public to pay these people rather than the individual companies (it’s not like these companies are not making absolute bank)?
It’s a question of both economics and human rights: is the price worth the clean restroom? Most would say, yes. After experiencing the perpetually disgusting restrooms of the USA, one tends to appreciate a sparkling-clean commode. What bothers me, however, is the compulsion to pay; when asked to pay something, I would donate. But certainly one euro is too high a price for a little tinkle, no?
Overall, I understand the trend toward pay-toilets but do not want to see the trend extend toward the USA. Because when you really need to go, who has time to count out coins?
No one, for the entire day in Germany, pinched me for not wearing Green. I’ve been waiting for this moment since 1st grade. Also, apparently it’s “a bit weird” to skip down the street with a joyous countenance as you listen to fantastic songs by the Wombats, feeling as if you’re in a movie and gliding straight through some fantastic adventure. They also seem a bit perturbed by someone sitting in a trance as they stream the new Kendrick Lamar album on Spotify. The Germans, I believe, can party, but they provide clear and definite borders to places of work and play. They are the living emodiment of the cliche-frat-honors-student-matra work hard, play hard. As seriously as do Germans take work, do they also take their play: a stern businessman might wander into the park, strip into the nude (pubic nudity is allowed in certain areas), and proceed to lay on his back and drink a beer, smoke a cigarette, to only ten minutes alter re-dress and return to work in some skyscraper, the austere mark of a German returning to his face.
Where these spaces of “play” and “work” become blurred: cafes, bars, where a professors of theology reads the Qur’ran aloud to himself beside a table of rowdy young students PROST!-ing for the fourth time in an hour, suds of hefeweizen splashing down their mugs. But not so mugs with green beer. Here, there exists on Irish Pub and exactly one Irish party this evening. This is to me surprising, because any chance to glorify binge drinking to social drinkers can make bars sees serious green (in this case: money). Otherwise, St. Patty’s has barely been mentioned (other than of course by me) asking others if they knew today was St. Patty’s Day.
Hong Kong: no.
Denmark: Yes, because they can drink.
Otherwise, the day passes on unmarked by puke puddles or garish green baby onesies. Today people sat in parks and spoke lightly (not nude, these imaginary people) of things other than cultural appropriation or how drunk they’re gonna get tonight. The sun winks at us from above, in on this cosmic joke. Below us, a swatch of green, green, green-as-shamrock-on-the-Lucky-Charms-Leprechaun green.
“This being human is a guest house.” – Rumi
First thought: it’s steeper than I imagined. So very like me to underestimate a mountain. A year ago, maybe two, some friends and I tackled the Appalachian mountains, just a leisurely 21-mile trek. By journey’s end, we were soaked and miserable.
But the Black Forest is more beautiful than the Appalachian mountains, and today’s hike will only stretch one or two miles (cannot really figure out kilometers yet). But the trees splay their gnarly fingers from black soil. The view stretches below, a city in miniature.
A fluffy corgi bounds toward me, its tongue flapping in the wind. Told you I smelled magic here.
I reach the crest of the mountain and climb next a look-out tower where I have a brief conversation with two girls from Michigan. The bird’s nest is a rickety structure, and I fear falling. Though it’s breath-taking, to tower so high, to look down and see birds gliding far beneath your feet. To feel something entirely transcendent.
But I begin my decent: getting dark and the altitude is making me feel sick.
On the way down, you notice the alternative routes rogue teens have tread. On the rocks, graffiti symbolism evoking death. At the path’s entrance, a witch misleading whomever dare enter the woods.
The locals have put their various special touches upon these paths to ensure they are especially creepy.
Back in the hostel now, chowing down on a few wurste. The Black Forest Hostel is a pleasant place, very homey, including a kitchen, a pool table, and cozy living quarters (which you share with 20 strangers).
On the second floor hangs a wooden plaque, painted with the following poem by Rumi:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
-Rumi, The Guest House-
Day 2: Mostly worked on fiction and went eventually to a poetry slam. The poetry slam occurred at the Rang Teng Teng, and I had the pleasure to speak with other Americans, some of whom bought me free drinks. Always wonderful to meet poets abroad.
Day 3, 8:05am
I sit above Freiburg, a monstrous buzz rising from the buildings far below.
This city is no landscape painting, cannot be captured like a photograph now or now or now or now. The city breathes, changing with each instance. The city grows, its limbs spiraling up mountainsides. You can never define this city but by its smallest moments.
So true also for the human, for we are not portraits. We change each moment. We grow. Identity is too fluid to pin down, an ever-changing magic word you cannot pronounce correctly. Each second is a deliberate reality, a conscious memorial of now, now, now. We may not be still, somewhere a small hum emanating always from our chests. Hear that? This is a song that never repeats the same notes, melody wild as dandelions, formless as campfire smoke.