The tiny chapel in the woods behind our house in Germany: I find myself missing it today in the metropolitan hum of suburban DC with the tiniest of snow flurries falling. What I wouldn’t give for a German Christmas Market, a dusting of snow, and a tiny chapel behind my stone house.
Wishing you each a season that is merry and bright!
Today, September 15, is Battle of Britain Day, marking the date in 1940 when the German Luftwaffe launched an enormous attack on London and South East England, but the Royal Air Force pushed back victorious and turned the tides in the larger “Battle of Britain”- a nearly 4 month long campaign.
I know this, not because I am a WWII fanatic. I know this because it streamed across my computer this morning. The universe handed me this nugget not so much as a random byte of information, it seems to me, but as a beautiful gesture of syncronicity, an acknowledgment of battles we face.
My parents grew up during WWII. They took form, in character and outlook, from the struggles and victories of that era. If their lives have a soundtrack, it is generously sprinkled with Big Band music, Ella Fitzgerald, and the tappity-tap-tap of my mother tap dancing her way through a recording of “The Boogie Woogie Buggle Boy from Company B.” It may not be my generation’s music, but I do find that my heart swells when I hear it because it so pulses through the veins of my parents in their youthful moments.
It will come as no surprise that my dad has always been a student of WWII era aircraft. He indulged that love of Spitfires and Corsairs, poured over books about them and history magazines that featured WWII battles, and built model airplanes with my brother when we were young.
I observed this and, although I never shared the obsession or built the model airplanes, I loved his love of the history and of the forms of flight and defenders of freedom that these metal birds represented. Because I love my dad.
There was one way in which my dad and I shared his love of WWII history and aircraft, and I suspect he doesn’t know this. In fact, I never thought about it until this week– it’s one of those memories of childhood that doesn’t get fully processed until some time later in life. It’s like a shiny pebble you pick up and put in your treasure box as a child, just because it delights you. Years later, you open the box to have a nostalgic look at those simple prizes of childhood, only to realize that you have pocketed a gold nugget.
This is one of those nuggets:
In the 1970’s, my dad would often man the P.A. (public address) system at our church on Sunday mornings. The control board was a large metal tower of dials and toggle switches that had to be monitored for volume and switched at the right moment, to turn on and off microphones that were placed around the sanctuary. Was someone reading a lesson from the lecturn? Was the minister stepping up to the pulpit to deliver a long and learned sermon? Wherever the action was, there the microphone should be turned on. Wherever the action wasn’t, it should be shut off to avoid buzz and background noise.
The fellow in the pulpit may have the figurative spotlight for a speech, but if the PA system wasn’t properly aligned, the whole morning fizzled.
Manning the PA system was important, but it wasn’t exciting. You sat in a small room behind the sanctuary, armed with a church bulletin and notes on where each “act” of the service would take place. You stared at a large metal tower set into a recess of the wall, and you navigated the service while you listened in on the giant aviator-style headphones that were provided.
Yes indeed, you navigated the service in your aviator headphones. So it seemed to me. You see, my dad would occasionally let me join him when he manned the PA system. From his perspective, it was probably just a chance to spend a little more time with his children. Or maybe he knew my fascination with aviator headphones. Either way, on the rare occassion, I was his co-pilot in this cockpit.
When I was lucky enough to join my dad, it was a big deal to me. I liked the headphones, and I marveled at the dials and switches, while sitting on a metal chair with my feet dangling above the ground. If I fidgeted and squirmed, it was only between moments of staring, enrapt, at the towering cockpit and keeping an eye on my dad’s deft piloting of the apparatus.
I wasn’t old enough to see it then– I loved the experience, but wasn’t self-aware enough to know why. Today, it is crystal clear to me. In these moments, I was flying a Spitfire over the skies of London. I was piloting a Corsair over the English Channel. I was a green co-pilot to my dad’s flying ace, and I loved every moment. Sure, we got off easy: when Dr. Joe Mullin stepped to the pulpit for a long sermon, we’d flip on his mic, then leave our post and scramble down to the kitchen for donuts. But we’d always be back in place before Joe finished, and we’d fly that service back into a safe and smooth landing before shutting down the cockpit and hanging up our headphones for the day.
We were a great aviatorial team, my dad and me. The best.
So today we honor those brave souls who fought The Battle of Britain, and my dad is still the best pilot any co-pilot could have. He’s fighting his own battle with cancer now. It’s very difficult and grueling. Some days, it’s just a wing and a prayer. But no matter that– today is a day to lift up the brave, and, although my dad was just a school boy at the time, he’s my favorite WWII hero.
On the border of France and Germany, in the enchanting region of Alsace, sits the ancient town of Strasbourg. She’s the sort of beauty that can bring tears to your eyes– really. The ancient cathedral that pops up like a startled giant as you turn the corner of a tight, wending alley; the rustic half-timbered houses that are painted in cheery colors as a brace against the moody fog of winter mornings in Europe; the myriad small, exquisite restaurants nestled into the tiny crannies of the old town; and the thriving modern art that pulses of youth and energy. This is the town of Strasbourg to me. A fairytale town, both in and out of time– existing somehow as a real, brick and mortar (or wattle and daub) city, but also, so clearly, a space of literal enchantment where you are transported back to a different time, a different world, both fabulous and fierce.
And this is one of the reasons why the terror attack this past week, on the edge of the Strasbourg Christmas market, strikes hard with a poignancy and earthy tragedy. It shouldn’t happen in such a beautiful place. Senseless violence in a fairytale city. It shouldn’t happen.
But it has happened before in this place and others of its ilk. Because what is the stuff of fairytales, anyway? Dire cruelty always runs through their marrow: just after the achingly beautiful characters capture our hearts, just before we convince ourselves that there is a happily ever after, we get to the bones of the story. And, there at the core, we find violence, malevolence, jealousy. Ugliness.
Strasbourg has known its share of ugliness over the centuries: famine, border wars, plague, the German occupation of WWII. There was even The Dancing Plague of 1518– in true fairytale fashion, a plague that was by equal measures farcical and grotesque. (Honestly, look it up– it’s a bizarre episode that has zombie-overtones and a possible psychogenic explanation.)
What I can’t decide today, my heart aching for Strasbourg (and for all of us in a world marred by cruelty), is whether this fairytale cycle of ugliness and hope, of cruelty and resilience, lifts me up in a moment of sadness or deflates my sense that our better angels will ever truly win out.
All I know is, while hope doesn’t prevent the ugliness, the cut to the bone, it refuses to end the narrative there.
We try to be normal. We really do. But every straight line we draw canters just a little to the side–and so, in travel (as in everything else), our lives run a little diagonally.
This truth was on full display a few years ago in Mirabell Gardens, Salzburg:
The thing for Americans to do here, besides wander and take in the beauty, is to stage photos that resemble scenes from The Sound of Music. (The song, Do Re Mi was partly filmed here.) Ideally, these photos look a little like this:
This is the top gate at Mirabell. (Notice the fortress, Hohensalzburg, on the hill in the background–it’s really a fantastic shot of the gardens and the city behind.) We spent some time here. We took some photos here. But none looked like this.
What did they look like? Well, look to your right. This is my son, sleeping (while being serenaded by an accordion player) on those same steps at the Mirabell Gardens. Why is he sleeping, you ask? He’s tired from sightseeing, but especially from running through the gardens. Singing Do-Re-Mi? Oh no. No. This child was reinacting some “American Ninja in Salzburg” screenplay known only to him. My favorite scene from that movie, below. (Clearly the people around him are a little surprised and amused by the sight.)
I’ve been thinking about our quirky travels this past weekend while in Chicago with my daughter. In another year, she’ll be heading off to college. And my son, the masked ninja, begins high school in August. They’ve grown up fast, and our travel adventures with them are changing. I already miss the visits to “knight schools” and castles, the nativity plays we attended with dishtowels on their heads, and their absolute inability to stand still for photos.
Ein Konig und ein Hirte– a wise king and a shepherd at Ripon Cathedral some years ago (2008?)
Still, I imagine our “diagonal” travels will continue into the future. After all, they started before our children were born. In Turkey, we were just two people with little dog garnering stares as we drove by in an old Volvo wagon. On it’s own, that doesn’t sound so strange, but we stuck out like a sore thumb. In Turkey, it wasn’t unusual to count 7 people on a motorcycle and sidecar. So when we made our way through the streets– streets that might find two lanes stuffed with five “lanes,” including cars, giant trucks, mopeds, buses, and donkeys– our long wagon, carrying only two people and a tiny dog, was the thing outside of the norm. Why waste such a long vehicle on so few travelers? Why bother with a dog too small to herd sheep? And why crawl slowly through the melee of a Turkish traffic jam instead of throwing yourself into the mix full throttle while laying on the horn? Clearly, we were the nuts who didn’t understand the rules of the game.
When you travel, people always tell you to try to fit in– obey the customs, don’t be too awkward or too obvious. It’s safer and more respectful to conform to the norm as best you can.
They tell us to try to fit in, but who does that, honestly?
Sometimes you just have to embrace the diagonal. What else can you do?
Tonight marks Twelfth Night– the eve of Epiphany, the end of the 12 days of Christmas. It’s considered very bad form, and bad luck, to keep Christmas decorations up any longer than this.
This, I think, is a plot hatched by type A neatniks to push type B malingerers into a tidy-up already. Not a bad ploy; I get it. However, this time last year, I decided to keep my tree up another week or two, until my corner of Germany got some snow. When the snow finally made its appearance, I snuggled under a blanket with a book and some hot chocolate while the tree lights twinkled. No bad luck in that.
This year, I’m baffled by what to do. Family and friends to my north are expecting freezing weather and snow storms in two days. I feel like I should leave my tree up as a sign of solidarity– I can read by its twinkling lights, turn on a fan, and pretend that I’m looking out my window at a foot of snow. But I’ll be looking at this:
Good stuff, but not a winter wonderland.
Or I could be industrious and take it all down and give up on winter ever coming to Florida. (I’d be tidy and efficient, but kind of a quitter too. It’s a quandry.)
In the States, we don’t pay much attention to the “12 days” of Christmas. (Christmas day until Epiphany, January 6th.) It’s more of an Old World concept. But it lends more structure, and a greater sense of traditional festival, to the holiday than our modern sprawl (which is more like the 12 weeks of Christmas, starting before–or at, if we are very lucky– Halloween).
Twelfth Night offers a chance to wallow in Christmas traditions for one more night– to eat heartily (and include a King’s Cake on the table) and drink wassail. It’s also the night when you finally allow the yule log to die out– that log that you started burning on Christmas Day and kept going until now. The yule log is said to bring luck for the coming year, and, if you’ve kept a fire burning around the clock for the last 12 days and your house is still standing, then I’d say you’re pretty lucky! We didn’t do that at my house. We did, however, bake a yule log (a buche de Noel) and gobble up every crumb. Hopefully that imparts luck and not just extra pounds.
From our experiences in Germany, it’s obvious that Twelfth Night doesn’t just mark an ending of a season– it is also the beginning of the carnival season that leads up to Mardi Gras. We’ve seen this in Bavaria and the Black Forest, where Christmas season seems to be dipped at both ends with a dollop of menace. On the front end of Christmas, Krampus came for bad children around December 6th (Nikolaustag), and now at the holiday’s closing bell, masked demons parade in the streets as the carnival season gets underway.
Two years ago, in January, we took a trip to the Black Forest. We spent the night in Triberg, and the snow was falling fast and starting to accumulate. We tucked the kids and dogs into the hotel in the early evening and told them we’d go find a restaurant in town and bring dinner back to them.
When we got down the hill and into town, we turned toward a restaurant we’d seen earlier in the day, and ran headlong into a merry band of demons parading the streets. But, you know, these things happen in the Black Forest. We laughed, but didn’t think much of it until the next day when we were talking to Oliver Zinapold in his Triberg woodworking and clock shop. We talked cuckoo clocks at great length, and even bought a lovely clock from him, and before we left we spotted a devil’s mask up on the wall. I asked about it.
“Oh, it’s a good thing you came today,” he said. “Tomorrow, I close up shop and go to Switzerland for a few days to be in the Carnival.” He showed us his hand carved mask, and pulled out a sketch book of other masks (and clock faces) he’d made. And suddenly the merry band of devils we’d seen in Triberg made perfect sense.
So, don’t mourn the passing of Christmas time at Twelfth Night . . . just realize that thirteenth night marks the beginning of another lively season. And more than a little mischief.
I’ll leave you with a short video of Oliver Zinapold’s workshop– Oli’s Schnitzstube. The video is in German, but if you are drinking your Twelfth Night wassail, I expect you’ll understand every word of it. And even if you don’t, it’s worth seeing the lovely clocks and (an added treat) one of his devil masks can be seen hanging on the wall at about 22 seconds into the video.