All Hallows Week: The Ghosts of Wartimes Past

creepy halloweenThe pumpkin sits, uncarved, on the front steps, and the massive bowl of Halloween candy sits undisturbed near the door–so, surely, it’s too early in the season to invoke Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol.

But here I go–because it’s never wrong to call on  Dickens (!), and because Europe is a haunted continent.  At Halloween, on Christmas, or any given day, its history is rich and messy, and its ghosts,  like Jacob Marley, won’t be silenced.  In our experience, these specters whisper at you from around each corner.

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In a nearby town  there is an odd sign designating a speed limit for tanks.  I occasionally pass this, and I always laugh and cringe at the same time.   I assume it is a remnant of  Cold War times, although this is just a guess. Maybe troop movements around here are frequent enough that this is still warranted?  Either way, I find the sign both amusing and jarring.  Do I need to be worried about tanks rolling through the city center?  Probably not, but it does make me think of the citizens of Ukraine, where the everyday reality is more raw; and it also conjures a not so distant past in this historically complicated country.

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In Metz, France–the city that brought us a war hero in the unlikely guise of the baker Harelle (see post “The Bread is Mightier than the Sword”)–you can’t help but see the ghosts of the past on each block, beginning with the chapel  of the Knights Templar (to the right)DSC_0775 and running up through the Second World War and the present day streets honoring the likes of Winston Churchill.

I’m always stunned by my ability in Europe to walk a city block in space  and feel that I’ve walked a thousand years through time and history.   William Faulkner may have had the American South in mind when he wrote, “The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past,” but his words seem to reverberate off the stone streets of Europe.  We tread on hallowed ground and haunted ground–and I couldn’t tell you were the one starts and the other stops.   Especially regarding the somber ghosts of the Second World War.

I find myself pulling against visiting the concentration camps, at the same time that my conscience keeps telling me that this is something I need to do.  I can’t imagine setting foot on those grounds and not feeling physically ill,  possessed of the anguish of the souls who were tortured there. But those anguished souls need us to remember, don’t they?  We owe it to them.   I can tell you, my own Marley-esque specters are visiting me on this one.

Not all ghosts are war-torn and tortured souls, however.   Our historical imps deserve to be noticed too.

So, as a sidenote on Dickens and his ghosts, here’s a travel tip for London:  The George Inn in Southwick.  It sits on the south bank of the Thames, is an old (400 years old, give or take) pub that’s been in business all these long years.

The George Inn, Southwark London
The George Inn, Southwark London

We stumbled on this pub in 2010.  Although we didn’t stumble, really–I dragged my family out of their way to have lunch here, and it was a very good call.

Why make a grand effort to eat at this pub in a city full of pubs?  Partly because of its general history–in business since the 1600’s; still boasting a gallery of balconies where plays and concerts used to take place, it is reported to be the last remaining galleried inn in London; and (here’s the kicker) an old favorite of Charles Dickens.  The food here was great; I had a grilled goat cheese salad that I remember 4 years later! Granted, our waitress was less “waitress” and more “table wench” in attitude–but, if nothing else, it added a Dickensian touch to the meal.  And our inquiries about the history of the inn and its famous patrons lead to a journey behind the bar, where there is a framed document bearing Charles Dickens’s signature.  If my rusty memory serves, it was a copy of his Last Will that he gave to the Inn owner (knowing it would have some value), in lieu of actually paying his bar tab.

In the style of a worthy “old haunt,” this speaks of both mischief and misfortune.  Our Charles Dickens was both debtor and darling, making him the perfect drinking buddy for anyone who might find themselves at the bar here and lifting a glass to old Charlie’s Last Will.  Talented as he was, his life wasn’t perfect.  Nor was it infinite:  so raise a pint and lean in toward the framed document, and I’ll wager that you’ll hear him whispering, “Cheers and carpe diem!”

(Lore has it that Shakespeare may also have been a customer–his Globe theater was close by–but the veracity of this is lost to the haze of time gone by.)

Some ghosts loom large (the scars of a world war);  some ghosts are more personal (unpaid debts).  But in this season of hauntings, it’s best to give them all their due.

Happy Halloween!

Boo!

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Frankenstein Rocks, Nigella Bites, and I Have Trouble Staying Focused

frankensteinI’ve picked up Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, after stumbling upon Frankenstein village last week.  I believe in the seemingly random “suggestions” that life whispers in your ear.  So why not play the card that life pitched my way?  We’re having a bout of cold, gloomy Gothic weather anyway—so the stage is set.

A storm blowing in outside my window.
A storm blowing in outside my window.

The book was sitting on my own bookshelf, but where, exactly, I wasn’t sure.  Three months in a new house and only my daily- and weekly-use possessions are in obvious places.  The rarely used objects in my life still take a full-on three day manhunt to find.

And I was going to the library anyway.  (There’s an American library close by—you know my German falls far short of Dr. Seuss at the moment, much less Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.)

So I went looking for Frankenstein, but found myself, instead, in the cookbook aisle.  This will surprise no one who knows me—I’m easily distractible.   But this was different, I thought—another whispering in my ear.  Some days we are more ripe for some experiences than others, and this was one of those days when something  solid and sensual was needed to catch my attentions.  The seasons are beginning to turn in Germany: the light is swinging away from us, there’s a damp chill creeping into the air, and my body is registering this on many levels.  It’s dark before 7 pm, and I’m growing sleepy far too early.  Birds are migrating, and my own psyche is being tugged at by that hibernation reaction—I want to cozy in already.  And my stomach is whispering its own suggestions: time for soup, time for autumn foods, and nearly time for holiday cakes and ale.

When my stomach speaks, I listen.

It began whispering a week or two ago, and I pulled a Julia Child book off my bookshelf.  I’m totally lacking in the sort of culinary ambition that led to “The Julie and Julia Project,” but I told myself that I’d cook whatever I happened to open the page to.  It would be a delicious adventure.

I closed my eyes and opened the book.

To the chapter entitled “Mayonnaise.”

I closed the book quickly and resolved to serve leftovers for dinner.

But yesterday my stomach was speaking again, and this time with a back up chorus:  all the senses were alive and singing.  “It’s autumn– we want the tastes, the outrageous  spiced aromas, the feeling of being held close and warm.”  There’s no denying the call.   I was on a mission.

And I found my helpmate in Nigella Lawson.  I already have many of her cookbooks on my own bookshelf, but I picked up the library’s copy of  Nigella Bites and tucked it under my arm for the trip home.

Once my kids were home from school and had enveloped themselves in that quiet hour they often take—to nibble on snacks, to relish their private “cone of silence” after a day of overstimulation—I picked up my book and fell into a comfy chair for my own moment  of communion  with Nigella.

The moment didn’t disappoint.

In describing the cream she uses in a Ginger-Jam Bread and Butter Pudding, the author says, “nothing creates so well that tender-bellied swell of softly set custard.”   And toward the end of her chapter entitled “Trashy,” she asserts that “Trashy is a state of mind, a game of mood: the food itself deserves, demands, to be served and eaten—unsmirkingly, unapologetically and with voluptuous and exquisite pleasure.”

THIS is a feast of the senses.  And, if Nigella has built her fame on being a bit of a strumpet, the truth is that she’s dead-on right about the comforts and sensuality of food.  And she’s as good  a reading companion as she is a cook.  (Nigella’s Christmas cookbook was my first foray into her vast library, and, although I have cooked some recipes from it with great success, I love it even more for the witty, intelligent read that it provides.)

Anyhoo, back to the senses.

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Picking apples in Helmut’s orchard

We were apple picking in our landlord’s orchard last weekend   and brought home wine crates full of apples, so cakes and cobblers have been flying out of our oven.  It’s time now for a shift to something savory.  I’ve scanned Nigella Bites, and, aside from some lovely desserts,  I’ve dog-eared a recipe called  “Granny Lawson’s Lunch Dish.”  An inauspicious name, but the recipe was speaking to me nonetheless.   Yum–spicy beef, savory smells, flaky pastry–oh, oh, wait a minute,  I know!  What I really want is a steak and ale pie–a really, really good one.  And I have just the recipe. . .somewhere in my house.  I haven’t found some of my recipe files yet.  That will take a three day man hunt, of course. (Grrr.)  But  I have  started looking for those recipes.

They haven’t turned up yet, but the good news is that Frankenstein finally jumped off my bookshelf at me.  I think that must be the universe whispering to me (again)  that I’m supposed to be reading Shelley’s book.  So I’ll just relax, read the complicated Gothic tale now and worry about savory pies later.

Unless, of course, I get distracted again.

I really do need to go out and rake the back yard. . .

Saints in the Sanctuary (Cathedral in Metz, France)

The cathedral in Metz is stunning.  Stunning.  And so are all of the saints and sinners gathered there.

“Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.”   I think Oscar Wilde said that, and I was reminded of it on a recent stroll through this cathedral.  From the saints in stone and glass, to the flesh and blood “man on fire” in the chapel, the capering kids in the sanctuary, the ponderous men, the caught-off-guard woman, and the industrious cleaning crew–it was a storied space.

Not to cast my nets on the wrong side of the boat, but I have to say that the stony saints left me a bit cold.  They were beautiful, but judgmental.  The saints in stained glass were warmer–the glow, the glint, the dancing of light in and through them–they were more dynamic, less rigid.

And the poor, scattered people, scurrying about the cathedral, or sitting in thought, or minding their own business and working diligently, or standing at the threshold of a fiery chapel–they were the stories in play, the ones the space exists for.  So I turned my camera on them.

Even the cathedral itself seemed to hint at its own impish personality as we left, the sun glinting through its windows for just a second–the unmistakable wink of a storyteller pleased with himself.

See for yourself:

 

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Man on fire

 

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cathedral wink

 

 

In Praise of the Random… or, How I stumbled on Frankenstein Castle

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Sometimes days don’t turn out quite the way you planned.  And those unexpected things that crop up…well, in Europe, they can take an interesting turn.

A few days ago we hopped in the car to head off to a wine festival just 50 minutes away.  We went early with kids in tow, expecting to catch a little wine and food and a few rides for the kids, but not the raucous, full-on wine lover’s equivalent of Oktoberfest.  “Fest-light” was our goal.

What we got was “Fest-Ultra-Light.”  It seems we arrived the morning after the big parade, and the morning before the evening’s concluding fireworks gala.  The place was a ghost town.  A few other early risers were taking in the food and drink, and we had the rides all to ourselves.  Sure, there are advantages to skipping the crowds, but it felt like we’d missed the party and showed up for the hangover.  Hmmm…

The fest was a bit of a wash for us.

But that didn’t matter to me  because on our way over the river and through the woods to the Fest that wasn’t, we drove through Frankenstein village.  Are you listening?  We drove through Frankenstein Village!   Who knew?DSC_1037 - Copy

This humble village lies on a winding road, cozied in tight between hills and streams, high trees, and old homes.  It is close to Durkheim and Speyer in the Palatinate Forest of Germany.   And as we drove through the Palatinate Forest, the fog just beginning to lift, the road twisting  us until we were dizzy, we saw a flash of sign reading “Frankenstein,” and then looked up to see this:

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If that isn’t a great October morning eye opener, then there’s no such thing!   You can keep your tootsie rolls, candy corn, and bit-o-honey–I’ve had my Halloween treat!!!!

(But I’d still take some wax lips, if you’re handing them out. . .)

Here are a few notes on Frankenstein Castle:

*It dates from the 12th century, and was under the administration of the von Frankensteins.

*It lies on a strategic outcropping, began as a fortified tower, and was added to and then damaged in many skirmishes from the 1200’s through the 1500’s.

*The castle is presently more of a ruin than a castle, but it’s now owned by the Rhineland-Palatinate state and some foundational restoration has been done.

**HERE’S THE THING: A lot of confusion arises because there is another, more intact, castle near Darmstadt (in Muhltal) that bills itself as Frankenstein Castle.  It seems likely that it was an inspiration for Mary Shelley’s story.  A man named Dippel was born in that castle, and stories surrounded Dippel and his claims to have created an oil that was an “elixir of life.”   An earlier owner of this house was the founder of the Barony of Frankenstein, but now this castle hosts Halloween parties and capitalizes on the Frankenstein tale.   Both castles, however, trace back to the Frankenstein name.

Ultimately, the name Frankenstein was chosen by Shelley for her fictional tale.  If it took these German rumors or atmosphere as its starting point, that’s great, but Shelley was the doctor who breathed  life into the story.

Maybe the inspiration struck her on the way home from a wine fest.   Maybe.

 

One more photo for you.  This has got to be one of my favorite sign-clusterings.  Ever.

DSC_1045 - Copy Frankenstein’s Castle.  

Cemetery.  

Protestant Church.  

Pedestrian Path.

Because what pedestrian wouldn’t want to walk past the church, the cemetery, and Frankenstein’s Castle ruins as dark falls?