Pilgrimage: Augustiner Stadt Museum for Art

What I learned at the Museum of Art in Freiburg (old art, new art is next on the list):

1.) Vampires cannot enter here because there exist too many crosses. Most of which are made completely of gold.

2.) Flemish master artists typically enjoy painting four things: Bible stories, shipwrecks, fruit, and dead birds.

3.) I would love to have a pocket-sundial made of gold, just to carry around, pop out, angle in the sun, and figure out perhaps the celestial time and date at any given moment.

4.) The entire museum is a retro-fitted church and a very cool place for the architecture alone. Climb to the top and you can see the rafters above.

5.) Worth the trip for the organ alone. I’ll post a pic on Facebook later.

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Pilgrimage: Bus Ride into Freiburg

We’re late, but I’ve got nowhere to be. Planning on staying at a youth hostel tonight, maybe next two nights, as I explore the Black Forest. Reminds me of some mysterious forest in a fantasy novel—take your pick. But this ain’t exaggeration. As the bus trundles through uneven hills, forest spreading out on either side of the highway like gateways to some prehistoric scene of nature, one must remember these trees inspired the Brothers Grimm to pen blood-splattered fairy tales. Here, where Hansel and Gretel wandered into the woods and got cooked alive in a witch’s easy-bake oven. Here, where Little Red Riding Hood got disemboweled by a wolf that appeared very little like Johnny Depp.

Black-Forest-21                Look out the window and it’s like a million Christmas trees sprang up in every direction, Christmas trees God forgot to cut down, so they kept growing, growing, growing until they’re towering high above snow-laden villages. Here, a church burdened by downy white.  Or someone’s snow shoveled into piles, the un-melted snow mixed with dirt and resulting in brown sludge. Everything’s melting now, the sun like the lamp in a dentist’s office, peering down at us from the ether of storm-gray clouds. And before us, the hills only larger—you could start calling them mountains, depending on your definition.

Pass a village, the red-clay roofs outfitted with solar panels. Medieval meets modern, ancient meets updated. But here, you feel something preternatural, something magical maybe that causes the trees to space themselves so evenly apart.

Once you get the lay of the land, everything’s sprawled out underneath you. You’re sliding through the sky, an angel or anything more sinister. The whole world’s white and smooth as glass. Then you’re back in thick of it again, forests enclosing around you like a tunnel.

If you peer through their entwined branches, you begin to see the forest and then only darkness. You see little patches of light, the snow ablaze like goblin’s silver, but then nothing. Then just a quiet, blank space. Then just a shrouded secret.

Pilgrimage: Restroom Graffiti Culture

Sitting upon a toilet at a German university—a toilet much cleaner than the typical American university toilet—one reads also superior graffiti. No paltry gang warfare. No jokes about sex with your mother. No homophobic or racist slurs. Instead, radical social and political commentary.

In broad red font: The American dollar is the origin of modern imperialism.

Below this, an argument over the comparable importance of revolutionary theory against revolutionary action (after much back-and-forth, the proponent of theory convinces the proponent of action that both are equally dependent on the other).

An Obey sticker featuring Rachel Carson cuddling with a pug instead of Andre the Giant’s fearsome face.

Below this, a sage quote: When you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die.

I stand up from my throne and depart from this quiet kingdom.

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Pilgrimage: Toddler Speak

Cold here, yet the city flirts with Spring. In the park where I sit, purple-white blooms poke their dainty heads through the soil. A flock of pigeons nip at breadcrumbs that a crew of elderly ladies feed them, the flock spotted with a few stealthy blackbirds. In the old town, where the uneven cobblestone avenues rival the ruined streets of Charleston, violins, squabbles, tourists. A world of noise disrupting the afternoon air. I stop to eat schnitzel at a pub and struggle through a children’s book written in German.

In the park near the river, two toddlers meet each other (tiny humans, these) and bestow fits to one another (stick, then flower). Though they are strangers, the retain some deep knowledge of the other. I grieve for the loss of instinctual intelligence we held as toddlers (ice cream good! falling down bad! ants bad! must destroy ants!). Craving a return to the primal, the immediate, I wish not to feel so distant.

Today, then, I have become a toddler. I wander with no sense of direction and latch to whatever joy idles by. Turns out, there’s much joy to grasp. Turns out, blackbirds mimic pigeons to coax bread crumbs from elderly ladies. Turns out, you can pretend to become anything so that your mind or gut might be fed.

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Pilgrimage: Cigarette Culture and the Seven Rings of Bureaucratic Hell

DSCN0015Today I woke at 7am—unheard of in my life as writer, student, and professional slacker. Usually I wake early only if someone promises free pancakes or perhaps a magic genie lamp (though, much to my chagrin, this has yet to occur). But today I have agreed to matriculate in the University of Tuebingen, despite not fully understanding what the phrase “matriculation” actually means. I think it must be a medieval word for torture, something that the Catholic Church did to heathens during the Inquisition. Imagine hanging by your pinky toes upside down when a staunch vaguely-European voice threatens to matriculate you. Truly scary stuff, I swear.

While I sit at a bus stop hacking my lungs out, waiting to return to my underground apartment after undergoing the absurdly difficult process of matriculation, I observe two boys (12, 13) smoking cigarettes. Both strike the same pose, the ubiquitous pose of youthful boredom as popular in Germany as Macklemore haircuts. The older boy rolls a cigarette on his lap with an open canister of tobacco (brand: unknown) and surreptitiously accepts a shared lit cigarette into his mouth from his friend. He inhales deeply and then allows his friend to pluck the cigarette from between his lips to take a few puffs himself.

Because they are young, perhaps they cannot afford each their own cigarettes. Perhaps they enjoy sharing because Germany seems to be a country on the verge of embracing socialism (public transport that actually works! taxes that provide for public schools! retirement benefits!). But naturally they must hide the cigarette in case someone reproaches them. Though underage smoking is illegal, no police will approach, no; police only come when called and barely make rounds except in large train stations and even there they drive hilariously cute automobiles with calming sirens. When a German police car passes blaring its siren and flashing its light, one might mistake this for an ice cream truck.

I ignore the boys for awhile and cough heartily into my scarf. I am sick after walking for hours, lost, in search of the city offices where I might apply for a residence permit. In a few weeks, when I begin my German classes, they promised to guide us through matriculation, and I regret now not waiting, for I need a guide. I need a Virgil to guide me (Dante in this metaphor) through the Seven Rings of German Bureaucratic Hell. I’m seeing a long-form poem already writing itself—rather than The Inferno, I will call this poem The Büro, the journey of one man through the impossible difficulties of German paperwork. If I wanted to be so harassed for coming to a place I would have worn an Obama HOPE t-shirt to a Texas rodeo.

But the sludge through offices is over and my fingers may rest from clutching pen after pen after endless pen, and I may now sit watching these young boys smoke a cigarette together. Once they finish the first, they immediately light up the second. Strange, I think, to be addicted so young, but in Germany this is the most popular vice (after perhaps wefeheisen beer and techno clubs). Almost everyone I have so far met smokes cigarettes. These are no casual smokers, no, not one-a-day smokers or evening smokers, but honest-to-Angela-Merkl cigarette addicts. Everyone on the bus is jouncy to leap off the bus at the nearest stop so they can light up the next cigarette. In bars and clubs, smoking is completely allowed. Smoke fills nearly every room. I learned last night I am allowed even to smoke in my apartment as long as I open the tiny window near the ceiling.

I find this all hilarious, but I do not try to judge. Let be, I think. Let them have their tobacco and smoke it too. Being an American, I try to act very laissez-faire about the entire affair. But I learn quickly that perhaps Americans are not so live-let-live as Germans, at least on the issue of smoking. In America , for example, long ago did lobbies manage to outlaw smoking in restaurants, in the vicinity of restaurants, on public transport, and nearly everywhere else, while in Germany, despite the government wielding a large amount of control over personal life (one must recycle, one must pay various taxes for healthcare, one must go through wildly complicated registration processes), any person can smoke almost anywhere. Despite this idea, on each pack of cigarettes reads the warning: Smoking can be deadly.

But in Germany, smoking can only be deadly cool. The absolute most popular death (save perhaps heart attack after consuming too many sausages).

The sooner a German smokes, the better. So here stand two boys (12, 13) smoking at the bus stop with fervent passion. The bus arrives a moment later, and one boy  smothers the cigarette with the bottom of his shoe before boarding the bus. I sit in the seat in front of them, coughing still into my scarf. And then a mighty sneeze builds in my chest, exploding up my throat until—aah, aah, achooo! I sneeze into my scarf. One boy leans forward and says quite genuinely, “Gesundheit,” which is the German version of “Bless you.”

I tell him, thanks. At least the youth of Germany care about their health.

Pilgrimage: Introduction to Night Life

The bar would be cramped on any other night, but tonight there sit only a few students, refugees floating upon wooden detritus in the aftermath of exam shipwreck. I sit down with a group of three Germans who claim to study law and later on, two Americans from Sacramento. They paint their lives in vivid colors and broad strokes, and I listen, nursing a Tom Collins. The conversation floats toward the future and films and far-out imaginings.

Above me, the speakers leak a lullaby of nineties grunge songs—all the tunes you might have listened to in middle school in order to feel superior and dangerous—and I’m rocking my head lightly as my skull flushes out. Become Mr. Lighthead.

Three drinks later, the bar is a tilt-a-whirl of colors and faces. I must hold each new name on my tongue like a secret, whispering over and over these incantations so that tomorrow I might remember the right words. Though students crowd inside,  there still remain many places where one can sit down.

This student bar, not a flashy place by any stretch of the imagination, no special light show or dramatic flair: a few cheap bottles of spirits, a lazy bartender consumed with playing cards and taking shots, nostalgic music floating through the air like midday church bells, beers priced far lower than what one might call cheap, viola, a student bar where many twenty-something’s living in close vicinity might squeeze together into a small space. A final space where closing time becomes a joke, where consciousness becomes a myth, and I become a cartoon awash in an ocean of conversation bubbles.

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Pilgrimage: Boredom Too Is a Landscape We Must Sculpt Anew

I am consumed too often by boredom, residing now in a great yawning giant’s gut. Like the pit of an apricot, I snuggle into layers of fatty flesh, content for now to be inert. To be the eight ball untouched. To be the husk of not what once was, but rather of what will soon be: a harbinger of action, a foreshadowing of  a grandiose scheme that has yet to unfold. The problem, of course, is that inaction becomes the norm. I live with a status quo of zero, the only expectation a complete lack of expectation. As if to do nothing at all should be considerably commendable, as if the dice in the air should remain forever aloft and never land on a single number, no choice made, no fate achieved. Just the constancy of incomplete longing, the nagging feeling that you live on the edge, teetering against gravity’s lust, while remaining too perfectly poised on that strange, motionless precipice.

I want nothing more than to plummet or back away, to crash-land or soar into clouds, to make up my mind already. But I’m too comfortable at the crossroads. I have made a home for myself at every fork in the road, as if one could live forever without ever truly growing up. That’s the name we give indecision: Neverland. A place we’re not really supposed to visit, only in dreams perhaps, and yet here I have built an entire civilization upon this terra forma of adolescence, molded for myself the culture of indecision. We even have our own music, which is the crescendo of any symphony that must sustain fermata forever, a build-up without sufficient conclusion. We have too our own dance, which is the moment one leaps into the air and never lands. We have too our own language, full of umms and errs and ahhs without proper words, speech that signifies nothing more than a lack of meaning.

That’s what it means to be bored, no? To lack meaning, perhaps. To be perpetually on the threshold of creating a meaning for oneself. To fail again and again in that foolish endeavor.

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Pilgrimage: Train Ride into Heilbronn

After riding the U-Bahn from Stuttgart airport into the main train station (often named the Hauptbahnhof), we wonder through the train station searching for our correct train which we will ride into Heilbronn. A small bird hops on the platform, a black bird, which I find strange to see underground. Element of air trapped under Earth. When we ascend to the above metro station, a dozen or more birds flit past my head. After navigating the station, which is under construction, my Opa and I must dash down the length of the platform to catch the train before it leaves.

Once onboard, we may relax. With my bags stacked next to me in a seat, I press face to glass and watch sunlight paint Stuttgart. We pass through a series of tunnels, each decorated with crude graffiti. If you pay attention, one notices similar tags appearing again on the sides of buildings later. We pass through the city, a corridor of banks, tall buildings, and beer gardens. Then into the suburbs. The houses in Germany appear very similar in form and style, their red roofs slanted and shingled. Very Old World feel, these houses which appear in sparser patches as we inch out of Stuttgart.

Soon the train glides through the countryside. One sees stretches of pasture, geometrically parceled along the ridges of each sloping knoll. Like an extremely well-played game of Tetris, these agricultural tapestries stitch together into the scene of rural Germany. Later on, as we Heilbronn draws closer, we pass the stratified vineyards. The Romans rose the grape vines on various platforms to trap heat in various areas, and the Germans have adopted this step design. Like shelves built into each hillside.

dsc005311                We drive now through my mother’s childhood hometown. Named Laufen. There’s a tunnel there my mother once told me about during a trip to Germany five years ago. They nickname this place The Suicide Tunnel, for when trains burst into the light, they cannot see whether a person stands next to a track, making it easy for an individual to throw oneself in front of the train. I remember years ago I found this place incredibly morbid, a place famous for its suicides. A place made holy through death. But now, an older version of myself reconsiders. Not so strange to find a place disturbing or special, for any place could become this place if a person dies in that place. There is a housing complex back home where a friend died, and still I cannot easily pass this neighborhood without a strange shiver.

Any house may become haunted. Any train track may become doomed. Any graveyard can be made holy for the family and friends of those whom are there interred.

Pilgrimage: Touching Down in Munich

We cruise two thousand feet about an endless fabric of cloud, lumped below us like dried mashed potatoes a toddler has chucked to the floor in a fit of rage. In the distance, the volcanic plume of a nuclear power plant slithers into the sky, beyond that the Alps. The Alps with peaks nearly high as our plane, they tower in the distance. Monstrous craggy silhouettes with a back-light bathed the pink of sunrise.

As our plane descends toward the airport in Munich, we slip beneath the blanket of clouds. The horizon blinks and blinds us. Plane touches down and seventy middle school students on a field trip bust into cliche, which is to say, burst into applause.