Sunday, March 29, 2009

Swept Away

Aye, I have given myself up to the o'erwhelming tide and joined Facebook.

I held out until this past Thursday, when, at the board meeting of a group I'm up to my neck in, it was confirmed that our electronic newsletter was going to be abolished in favor of our group's Facebook presence.

The printed newsletter will still come out, but that's quarterly, only.

So I signed up on Friday, and blew a lot of yesterday and much of today adding my real-world friends as Facebook friends.

And doing up my profile, photos, and so on and so forth.

I'd been reluctant to join, because there you are, exposed for the world to see. I mean, what if I said or posted something awkward and a pastoral search committee saw it?

But I suppose the question answers itself. It'd be easy, sitting alone at my computer in the serene privacy of my study, to think whatever I post on Facebook (or my blogs, for that matter), is a private communication.

Not hardly. Facebook is not my diary, a phone call to a friend, or even a personal letter or email. What goes there is for all the world to see. And if I have to be careful and create a persona that I'm willing to submit for public inspection, so be it. We're not totally, wholly, marvellously, abysmally "ourselves" to anybody but God.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

My Cut-Rate Grand Tour: Day Twenty-four

Thursday, 29 December, 1988
From Florence to Ravenna and on to Austria

Got up to catch the 6:40 train to Ravenna. I should do so well at home.

We got above the fog for a time on the way there but plunged in again as the train approached the sea. There’s a parable there . . . the clouds can be so oppressive and all encompassing, but if one can find a way of rising higher, one can find the sun still shining there above . . . and once the sun is seen the clouds no longer matter.

Definitely cold and cloudy in
Ravenna. Consulted the maps posted in the train station and blundered my way to the tourist office. There they gave me a city map of my own (in French, I discover) and I walked the short distance over to the basilica of San Vitale.

mosaics there are definitely worth the trip even with the inevitable scaffolding. They’re all in the chancel and the apse (barring those on the floor). The clever Ravennese have installed a coin operated box where you can drop in 200 lire and so turn the spotlights on. A definite improvement over the Uffizi.

The iconography of the ensemble places its emphases on the Old Testament forerunners of Christ, like Abel and Melchezedek (the first sacerdotal figures), and Abraham with the three "angelic" visitors, and the sacrifice of Isaac. There were prophets, too, in the covered up portion, but the theme seemed to be that of the Lamb of God, slain for the sins of the world. And then in the half-dome of the apse you see Christ triumphant with angels. It’s thoroughly glorious.

I noticed something interesting in the basilica. There is a baptistery pool opposite and to one side of the apse. It has water in it and people had thrown in coins. Two Italian girls there did the same. Now, Americans do that, too, throw coins in fountains (though this was not the place for me to do so), but the French do not. So do we follow the Italian tradition in the States?

tomb of Galla Placidia is in the same compound. There, too, you feed in coins for illumination but here I could take advantage of the presence of a group of Japanese visitors (I wonder what they thought of it all?) whose guide provided the money.

The mosaics here, too, continue the Agnus Dei theme, with the evangelists and the martyrdom of St. Laurence. The pattern work is magnificent.
Keble Chapel is nothing to it.

After Galla Placidia (where I had to make myself remember there’re people buried there) I went out the gate and across to what I’m sure was a tourist trap shop for some postcards. I was after all limited on time. Bought an art guide to the Byzantine churches of Ravenna and several postcards. Going through the rack, I noticed that the Sant'Apollinare with the
mosaics is the new one,† in town, not the other one in Classae.‡ Well, good thing I didn’t go out there the minute I got into town, even if it is more architecturally significant. Would have run out of time for anything else.

In my spastic Italian I clarified which Sant'Apollinare was which with the non-English speaking proprietress. She seemed to be telling me I’d better hurry, because the church closed at noon (11:45 then). As I was hurriedly getting my cameras and purse slung back over my shoulder, she raised her hands to heaven and exclaimed, "Inghlesi! Mama mia!" Hilarious!

I’m not sure what she was trying to tell me would be closed, but it wasn’t
Sant'Apollinare Nuovo. The apse has the usual scaffolding but the rest of it, the nave at least, was open to be seen.

That double row of saints is amazing. All of them (except for St. Laurence, whose robe is gold) are dressed in nearly identical white garments for the men and purple and gold for the women and there are no iconographic identifications. Very considerately, then, the artist worked each saint’s name in mosaic above his or her head. On one side of the nave they carry their palms and their crowns to offer Christ in majesty and, on the other, to the Baby Jesus with the Virgin Mary. The interesting thing is that the female saints all seem to be processing out of the old church in Classae.

Above them and up to the wooden coffered ceiling is more marvellous mosaic work with scenes from the lives of Christ and the saints. I don’t care what Renaissance chauvinists say. The Byzantine artists knew exactly what they were doing.

Dante’s tomb after that . . . funny, but Lukas’s* father was sure that was in Florence. As I contemplated it I noted a sight typical in this country-- a stunningly-groomed, high-class Italian woman in a blonde fur coat buzzing past on a tiny little Vespa scooter. It doesn't fit, but it does, if you know what I mean.

Then I wandered around trying to find something to eat. Odd, that in this perfectly good Italian town I couldn’t find anything that didn’t look like it came out of the vending machines at [the office building where I worked in Kansas City]. Finally located some by-the-slice pizza with some guts to it at a place near the station; bought some and a can of Italian orange soda and hustled over to retrieve my bags and catch the train for Ferrara.

Needn’t have bothered. Stupid train from Rimini was forty minutes late. The Italians are almost as efficient as the Americans where it comes to trains. Then when it came it wasn’t marked, so I had to take it on faith that it was going where I wanted.

FERRARA-- I’ll say this for the Italian railways: At least originating trains start out on time-- regardless. The train from Ferrara to Venice had pulled out ten minutes before the one from Ravenna got in, and that was that till 5:17 PM. So there.

So I used the time seeing if I could get a berth reservation for Vienna tomorrow night from Venice. No, booked full. So I asked about sleeping cars. They were full, too, and it wouldn’t’ve mattered if they hadn’t been because they run to the ghastly sum of 123,000 lire, or around $100. You have got to be kidding. Just wondering, I asked about tonight, too. Same conditions. There was 2nd class seating but they’d make no reservations for that.

Well. Damn.

Found the WC (this one had paper, unlike that in Ravenna), then had a very good cup of hot chocolate at the station bar. Then returned to the waiting room to consider the options. If I'd caught the connection I wanted I would've been in Venice by 4:00. But now, I won't get there till after 7:00.

I'll decide what I want to do when I get there.

VENICE--Was able to sit in 1st class to Venice, thank God. The train from Ferrara was only ten minutes late.

Once I got here, just in case I checked to see if anyone had cancelled their berth. No such luck. But, the man told me, I could get on the train to Vienna an hour before departure (half hour from then) and reserve myself a seat.

I needed to make a decision. Do I stay or do I go? I marched to the front door of the station and stepped outside to peer into the darkness. The fog was so thick you couldn’t even see the sidewalk, let alone the street.†† I made up my mind: If I was going to sleep sitting up all night and come into Wien exhausted, better I should do it now and have another day to recover. I know San Marco has wonderful mosaics of its own but I’d rather see them under better conditions.

So I spent the last change I had on postcards and the time till 7:35 writing them. Then I found myself a seat in a second class compartment and then, hoping nothing would happen to my luggage, went back to the station for some water at least.

In the wonderfully intricate Italian system you have to decide what you want and pay for it at the cashier’s before you approach the counter. I realized it was such a place and got my ticket, then stood at the counter for ages being ignored before I was finally served. Then they have the cheek to tell me the little plastic cup is extra and I have to pay for it at the cashier’s and come back. At that point I could’ve made a famous Italian gesture but it wouldn’t’ve been Christian and it would’ve gotten me into a lot of trouble besides. So I decided to be a barbarian like everyone else here and drink my water out of the bottle.

ON THE VENICE TO VIENNA TRAIN-- I made it back to the train, ten minutes to spare. Thing started up and it came to me to see if the vestigal 1st class car had anything unreserved, now that the lights were on and I could see.

Oh, good, there was room. I settled into one compartment with an Italian family, but moved when a couple came along and asked if I’d change to a single two compartments down and let them have the two seats where I was.

The people in the other 1st class compartment were all young Americans, with one Canadian. Like me, they were all travelling on Eurail passes. We didn’t converse but still shared a mild laugh when the Italian customs man came in at the border. Only two of us had just started to hand him our American passports, but he said in Italian, "Oh, you’re all Australian," and left. One girl hadn’t even gotten hers out yet! It was the same with the passes.

The Austrians, a few minutes later, were a little more efficient. They saw and inspected everybody’s.

Worked on the journal and listened to Beethoven, Berlioz, and Schubert till after the border crossing. I seem to have lost my Extra Fine Straight Osmiroid pen. I had it with me when I went to the WC just after I changed compartments. So someone either pinched it from the car-- or it went to the Bad Place.

Skies clear and starry in Austria. Ist gut.
†"New" to refer to its rededication to Saint Apollinare in A.D. 856. It was originally dedicated in A.D. 504 to "Christ the Redeemer"-- if an Arian Christ can be said to be a Redeemer at all . . .
‡About four miles southeast of Ravenna.

††The fact that I couldn't see that the Santa Lucia train station in Venice fronts on a canal shows you just how blindingly foggy it was.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

I Wonder

I preached this morning for the first time since early January.

Don't know what the lack of engagements is about. I worked nearly half the Sundays last year. Maybe with the economy the way it is, churches without pastors are getting one of their elders to preach for free, to save the expense of an ordained pulpit supply preacher.

Anyway, about this morning and other Sunday mornings when I've stood at the door shaking hands after the benediction: What do people mean when they come up to you smiling and say they "enjoyed" your sermon?

That it entertained them?

That it said everything they expected it to say, so their Sabbath day ease went undisturbed?

That it gave them something interesting to think about?

Or maybe, just maybe, do they mean your preaching raised them up to a higher and stronger knowledge of and relationship with Jesus Christ, our crucified and risen Lord? And that's the best way they can describe their experience?

One can only hope.

But if I'd just had the death of the Law and the life of the Gospel lobbed at me from the pulpit, I'm not sure "enjoy" is the word I'd use.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

My Cut-Rate Grand Tour: Day Twenty-three

Wednesday, 28 December, 1988
Firenze [Florence]

Tired, so I slept till nearly 10:00. Got up, hit a pastry shop/snack bar for some breakfast (Italian pastries aren’t as good as French ones) then a bank for some Italian currency for some traveller’s cheques.

Then, since my main personal reason for coming to Firenze (apart from the external feeling that I "ought" to see it) was to do a bit of shopping, I hit the open market.

After about three hours of wandering up and down the Via dell’Ariento I came away with a brown leather belt for 15,000 lire (the man put a different buckle on for me), some four-button-length silk-lined black leather gloves for around 22,000 lire (to replace the pair I lost the left hand to in Lyon), a dark wine red leather dress purse for 35,000 lire, and a large (120 cm square) wool navy, gray, and red scarf for 27,000 lire.†

The young man who sold me that might be going to Philadelphia in the next year-- to study at Wharton. Ye gods. That’s where Mort Levi* [one of our best architecture clients back in the States] went. He’s not sure he wants to leave his friends and family, though, since he feels that if he goes to America he goes for good.

This city is funny for the language. I’ll be struggling along in Italian and the Florentine will inform me he or she speaks English-- and so they do, often better than I.

Bought some dates and some black olives in the adjacent covered market. Interesting thing about that place. I’ve seen nudie posters in machine shops and car repair garages, but I’d never thought to see a picture of an all but naked woman hung up as an inducement to buy vegetables. Maybe I’m silly but I gave such stands no consideration.

My shopping accomplished, I went over to the Duomo and went inside. Very much a tourist church, though some people were managing to pray in a side chapel or two.

Paid the fee to go up Brunelleschi’s dome. The inside of it was covered with the omnipresent scaffolding so I have no idea how it’s supposed to look from the floor of the cathedral. But you can go up to a gallery around the springing point and then on up over the dome itself (someone had chalked on the upper surface of the inner dome, in English, "BRUNELLESCHI IS GOD") then up and outside onto a deck around the cupola.

Damned shame it was so blasted foggy today. The view must be magnificent when it’s clear.

I’d gone through most of my Italian currency at the markets and I still had to pay the hotel for tonight. So I went back, paid the lady, dropped off my purchases, and got more traveller’s cheques out of the money belt. Changed those at a different bank than before. Better exchange rate at the second. Oh well! Bought a very good hot proscuitto ham and mushroom sandwich at a snack bar and ate it on the way there.

Went by Santa Maria Novello to look at the façade but didn’t go in. Headed down to the Arno to look at the river from the Ponte S. Trinita. Ponte Vecchio to the east there, all lined with shops. Went and half-crossed it as well. This place is unbelievable like Toulouse and Paris. Jewelry and fashion and other high priced shops all crammed in one after another. Who buys all this stuff?

The Piazza Signoria next. And the woman at the lecture last night was right (not the Canadian I spoke to, but another Toronto native who either works for or lives with or is married to-- or all three!-- Mr. von Durer)-- the place is dripping with scaffolding. You can just see Cellini’s Perseus standing above it in the southern arcade. Nevertheless, this was the artistic reason I’d come to Firenze. Berlioz stood here, about where I was standing, and saw that statue. He was inspired by it and by the memoirs of its sculptor to compose his opera Benevenuto Cellini. He saw all this, that I was seeing (sans scaffolding), and he gazed on these very buildings and sculptures-- oh God!

OK, then, time to go home!

No, at least one museum had to be done and I chose the Uffizi. Saw everything there (that wasn’t being cleaned). I love the way they can afford to let all these Roman copies of Greek sculptures just sit out unlabelled in a dimly-lit corridor. Hell, they’ve got more where those came from.

When I was still in the early period galleries a girl came up and asked me if I spoke English. I said yes and she said, "Are you Blogwen*-- I forget your last name." I looked and it was Melissa* from the program in Oxford. Well.

We stood and talked for awhile. She’s travelling with Lucy*, another of the OOSC people, and is heading for Greece tonight. She, too, was in Paris the 18th and saw Darrell* and Harriet* [two more of our Oxford American contingent and fellow-lodgers at Coverdale College*] at the Louvre. They were looking for the Impressionist paintings . . . †† And if I think I’ve been having problems with French, they were really in difficulties. Melissa told me they knew none at all.

It was nice to see a familiar face like that. Very encouraging.

She'd been at the Uffizi for awhile already and was getting ready to leave. Me, I still had a lot to see. And so, dutifully, I did. I know it’s blasphemy to say it but, on this trip at least, I find myself unmoved by great paintings per se. Oh, it was nice seeing all the famous art history slide subjects in person, such as the Giottos from last night and the Botticellis and then the Raphaels and the Titians. But after awhile my eyes just glaze over. I got a pounding headache from staring at things and playing the intellectual. I ought to be more heart-stirred by these but . . . I don’t know. I did enjoy them, yes, but after awhile it’s like ticking off a checklist.

There was a Visitation scene that impressed me, by Mario-- damn, now I can’t recall his name; begins with an "A," I think‡-- anyway, I liked it for the originality of the facial expressions of the two women, neither hyper-humanistic nor "unco gude." Mary looks as if she’s wordlessly saying, "Oh, cousin, it’s all too wonderful for me, I don’t know how I can express it or even bear up under it!" And Elizabeth’s expression replies, "That’s all right, little one, you don’t have to try to tell me, I know!" This Mary looks as if she has an appreciation of the long centuries of Jewish prophecy leading up to this moment that now find their fulfillment through her. She has a happy lack of that sense of being herself the pivot of history so obnoxiously present in so many pictures of the Virgin Mary. I’ll admit the effect was more 19th Century Romantic than 16th Century classical Renaissance, but that’s the Renaissance’s problem.

I still can't get over how badly-lit the art is in that place. What with that, sensory overload, and maybe my feat of Alpinism earlier at the Duomo, by the time I left the Uffizi I had a raging headache. I’d thought I’d find a restaurant and sit down for a meal, but no way. I bought some cheese at a shop and ate it for supper with the olives and dates and more of a chocolate bar I bought in Dijon.
†As far as I can figure it, the exchange rate was around 1,230 lire to the dollar.
‡Mariotto Albertinelli.
††Oh, dear. Those had all been moved to the Quai d'Orsay.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Kirk von Durer, Art Historian: A Memorial

These past few years I've come to notice that just about anybody and anything can be found on the Internet. Conversely, it now seems that if something or somebody can't be found on the Web, it's as if they've never existed at all.

In my post of March 8th, I reproduce a travel journal entry of late December 1988, wherein I write of being in Florence, Italy, and going to a lecture on early Renaissance art given by an American art historian and gallery owner named Kirk von Durer. I had thought it would be nice to link to something about him. But when I Googled his name, nothing came up other than a reference to a poster on his lectures tipped into a book on art in the Uffizi that some dealer has for sale.

True, I hadn't expected anything current. Maybe six or seven years ago I was reading that entry in my handwritten journal and did a Web search for Mr. von Durer. But I came up with only a remembrance written by a friend of his: he had died suddenly, of cancer or some other disease, in the early or mid-1990s.

But by now, even that webpage has disappeared.

So in my small way on my small blog, I'm going to perpetuate the memory and existence of a unique person.

I know of Kirk von Durer little more than I put in my last entry. He was an American national resident in Florence for I don't know how long. Certainly long enough to become an institution. He was thoroughly trained in the history and aesthetics of Italian Renaissance art. He pitched his lectures to the interested amateur, using humor and liveliness as his vehicle, so that, when the visitor stood in front of the actual work of art the next day, she would know and appreciate what she was looking at.

Kirk von Durer loved his subject and he loved to communicate on it. Constantly, in the best sense of the term-- with constancy. His effort and energy were astounding. As I recall, he gave his lectures on Italian Renaissance art every single night at 8:30 PM. Maybe not on weekends, but even so, every single weekday night any interested English-speaking visitor could climb the stairs to his flat at the top of No. 20 Borgo San Lorenzo and for little or no charge could drink his Chianti, admire his view of the Duomo, and partake of his slides and his knowledge.

Kirk von Durer was a fixture in Florence in the late 1980s, and could have been for many more years, had he been spared to us. I doubt he could have been older than his late 40s when I met him; I certainly was shocked when I read that he'd died.

I haven't returned to Florence these past twenty years, but if in the future I do, it will be odd knowing that Mr. von Durer is not still there giving his witty and informative lectures.

Though maybe, like so many other things that linger in the atmosphere of that ancient and storied city, in some ghostly way he still is, and he still does.

Kirk von Durer, requiescat in pacem. And if any others who knew you or your work should come across this inadequate memorial, I urge them to post their own fuller, more accurate accounts, and keep your name alive in cyberspace. Because these days, that seems to be the place it really matters.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

My Cut-Rate Grand Tour: Day Twenty-Two

Tuesday, 27 December, 1988
Löhenthal* to Firenze [Florence]

10:36 train from Olten. Frau Renzberger* packed me a nice lunch and Lukas* took me to the station. He was gracious enough to wait with me till the train came but it seemed a real strain for both of us. I’ve been trying to figure out what I could’ve done to make him act like this and can come up with zip. But something’s happened to make him act like a вопреки and it’s really too bad. I need to make some good friends at Coverdale* this next term and I’d thought he’d be one. But apparently not. I’d thought we’d get to know one another better on this visit, but now he seems like a permanent stranger.

This was so frustrating and depressing I could’ve cried right there in the compartment. But instead I wrote a long letter to Janie*. Had cause in the course of it to think about Nigel* and that made me feel a lot better.

The Alps were quite lovely. Sun came out and showed them up beautifully. And I enjoyed looking at the little Tuscan churches in the Italian part of Switzerland.

Funny thing at the border crossing. Italian customs man came in and asked the guy opposite me a question in Italian. He answered, and then the official addressed me. Out of habit I said, "Pardon?" in French. At which the customs man rolled his eyes, lifted his hands towards heaven, and departed, without asking for passports or anything.

Train change in Milan. Found a first class compartment this time. Second is supposed to be so much more atmospheric and authentic; I just found it tiring. Seats are too shallow.

Hit the closest Frommer selection for places to stay in
Florence. Unfortunately the city was pretty thick with students on holiday, like me, and I ended up renting a double room for around $24 a night. Couldn’t deal with schlepping bags any farther. So the Locanda Marcella it was.

In the Frommer book I’d read of a nightly lecture on Renaissance art given by a American art historian in Florence. It’s being on for this evening was confirmed by a poster in the railroad station, so as soon as I’d dropped my bags in the room on the Via Faenza, I headed over to the Borgo San Lorenzo.

Paid my respects to the
Duomo first-- what I could see of it in the fog.

Streets of Florence are frequently narrow, darkish (yet people are on them anyway), and have very narrow sidewalks. The pavement is blocks of stone, cut rectangular maybe 12" x 15", and laid diagonally. Sidewalks usually have cars parked halfway on them, making it quite a game to walk along, what with the cars coming, and especially with the motorscooters whizzing by.

Quite a few people around the cathedral (at 8:00 PM) but still I didn’t feel comfortable going around back of the chevet. Too dark.

The Borgo San Lorenzo was lined with black men, apparently North African, selling belts, jewelry, and other souvenirs off mats and blankets spread out on the pavement. I wondered that they don’t worry about the motorcyclists coming along and destroying their goods.

There were also a lot of different languages to be heard there, including American English. Seemed quite odd, after France.

Waited for 8:30 and time for the lecture. It’s at the top of the house at No. 20 and given by a Kirk von Durer, who also runs a gallery at that address.

It was worthwhile going, more from a social than from an art historical standpoint. There was Chianti on the deck (view of Duomo) beforehand and I talked with a couple from Toronto, also students on Christmas break, about travels in France (she’s a student in Grenoble) and other things . . .

They mentioned it and I’ve become conscious of it, too, that my accent (English) has changed and become less "American." I honestly think that has intensified since last weekend with Lukas’s family. I knew they'd learned British English so I felt I should modify my speech with them so I could be understood (Lukas told me that at Coverdale he could understand me almost all the time and ditto Sam* [another compatriot in our year abroad program], despite his broad Oklahoma accent, because he speaks so slowly. It’s Darla* he could never make out. This surprised me as she seemed the most cosmopolitan of any of us. And now I can’t listen to her and discover what he means, because she’s returned to America).

In style the lecture, which was on the late Gothic/early Renaissance Florentine and Siennese painters, such as
Massaccio and Giotto, was kin to Ed Eglinski’s Art History for Non-Art Majors at KU, but with even more of the stand-up comedy. I felt von Durer could have done with rather more content but I’m coming from an art historian’s viewpoint.

Not that I didn’t appreciate the humor; I did. When showing Giotto’s painting of the
Stigmatization of St. Francis, he quipped, "For living such a holy life, St. Francis received the same wound marks that Christ had on the cross. Wouldn’t you rather have a Ferrari!?" "Well," think I, "only if Tom Selleck is driving it!"

The greatest thing I got out of it substantially was a realization first of how Italy was ripe for the Renaissance style, its Gothic being largely held-over Byzantine, and then of where many of the trademarks of the
"Pre-Raphaelite" movement style came from. For here were the original preRaphaelites whose work inspired it.

The lecture got out at about 10:45 and I thought, I’ve heard this town is not too big on nightlife and no telling what the streets are like this time of night. So let us get back to the hotel presto.

So I set off walking very fast in what I thought was the right direction. But after awhile I realized that I’d walked for much longer than I had coming over and was nowhere that I recognised. I was using the map torn out of the Frommer book and couldn’t find the street I was on listed. And up ahead was a group of young guys who may’ve been perfectly innocent but I wasn’t taking any chances.

So I cut over to the right (after backtracking at a run) and came to a street called after St. Catherine d’Alessandria. Started heading up it, trying to get to the Via Nazionale, but decided maybe I should ask the desk clerk in a nearby hotel for his advice.

I ducked into the lobby and inquired where I was in my limited Italian: "Dove io sono?" He said something obviously contemptuous about the map I had and pulled out a better one. Turns out I hadn’t taken the radial layout of Florentine streets into consideration and was an appreciable distance away from where I wanted to be. He gave me to know I could keep the map-- grazie-- and I hoofed it back to the hotel, allowing the effect of two glasses of wine on no dinner to deceive me into thinking I could do that much running. Made it back safely but the experience was a little

Friday, March 06, 2009

So How Did It Go?

. . . Living without a computer for over two weeks?

It felt like the kind of vacation you take when you decide not to go anywhere; no, you're going to stay home and Get a Lot of Things Done. And a day goes by, and another, and another, and you realize time is passing and you're not getting all that much done.

So you put your back into it and start some serious work on the project you were looking forward to. You find yourself dreading the time when your vacation will be over, because then you'll have to go back to the office and when you'll really be able to get back to your home project you have no idea.

What I was working on I'll be talking about on my house blog. But that's how it was. I wanted the computer to stay away as long as possible.

The only time I really yearned for it was when some wallpaper samples arrived from the UK and one of them wasn't quite the color I'd expected. I wanted to go on the website right away to see what they might have instead.

But funny, my processor arrived back on Tuesday, I didn't unpack it and hook it back up till today, and I still haven't gone back on that site to order another sample.

I admit I wasn't totally computer abstinent these past sixteen days. I went to the local library two or three times to check my email. And found out that their pr0n filter is so strong it wouldn't let me log into Blogger to check my own blogs. I acquired a Pittsburgh Carnegie Library system card specifically so I could use one of their computers to update something on my house blog and respond to a comment or two on this one-- I figured their filter wouldn't be so strict and I was right. And I surreptitiously logged on on a laptop at Circuit City last Sunday and made another quick blog update and verified that my scheduled posts were appearing all right.

But other than that, I found being computerless to be rather liberating. It was nice not to feel obligated to plow through reams of junk email every evening. It was charmingly decadent to read four or more mystery novels instead of browsing random websites; I would've consumed more if I hadn't been stripping woodwork so industriously. I went back to faithfully keeping my handwritten journal (up to last Sunday). Hey, I got to bed at a decent hour!

I can't give the bloody thing up completely, of course. Not even if I wanted to. It's expected that you'll be connected these days. And I did miss communicating with you, my readers. But maybe, maybe, I can learn to be a bit more prudent with the device? Like keeping it my servant, instead of me being its?

Thursday, March 05, 2009

My Cut-Rate Grand Tour: Day Twenty-one

Monday, 26 December, 1988
St. Stephen’s Day

Löhenthal* to Hapsburg to Königsfelden to Zürich to Löhenthal

I’d intended to take off for Florence this morning but it didn’t seem time yet to go. And Lukas’s* parents suggested a trip along a scenic route in the process of returning Frau Heimdorfer* to Zürich.

So we visited the castle which is the actual first seat of the Hapsburg family (who were originally from Alsace-Lorraine, it turns out) and then a church where one of the later Hapsburgs was assassinated,† Königsfelden. It was closed and we couldn’t go in.

After dropping Granny off, Herr Renzberger* took us up to a restaurant overlooking Zürich for coffee and cake. Unfortunately yesterday was much nicer; today’s fog rather obscured the view, a fact Lukas’s mother continued to apologise for.

Thereafter we drove around the city of Zürich a bit, looking at their Christmas decorations.

Then we headed back to Löhenthal. A couple times Max* got a little spacy at the wheel and let the car drift over the righthand white line. "Achtung, Max!" says Greti*, and each time he insists he’s awake . . .

That's right, Herr Renzberger, keep the car on the road . . . I may have been getting more and more depressed today but it would not be a good day to die. Any way you look at it, I couldn’t and wouldn’t choose Lukas for my leading man in a tragic and romantic death scene, especially the way he was behaving. It’d be absurd.

On our return I got out my train schedule and began to figure out what’s happening in the next week and a half. I’ve decided to go back to Oxford the 6th. My train pass ends that day anyway.

They asked me when I was leaving and seemed surprised when I said tomorrow. But I think it’s a good idea. If I stay any longer I’m liable to allow myself to blow up at Lukas when he says or does (or doesn’t do) some little thing, just to try to get some interaction out of him.

I went to his room this morning and talked to him about his thesis paper on pastoral counselling. He didn’t invite me in and we conducted the conversation with me standing in the doorway. Still, happily, I got him to do the talking. But it felt more like an interview than a conversation.

And I discovered he’s not the person to ask when trying to find out how he knows he has a call to the ministry. That sort of thing apparently isn’t Done in the Reformed church. They seem more hyper-intellectual than a pile of bleeding Presbyterians.

Maybe I’ll ask Nigel*. It’s important, because I’m looking for that sort of certainty for myself.

Did something decadent after everyone went to bed. Pulled out one of Lukas’s English language books and read it through. A work of fiction, not all that well written, but still I needed something of the sort.

Yeah, I know that sounds strange. I don't mean I needed a badly-written book; what I needed what something in English that gave me something to think about besides Lukas's inexplicable behaviour and how uncomfortable it's making me.

It was an older book called In His Steps by a guy named Charles Sheldon. It starts out all right, with a pastor and some of his church members resolving to live their lives according to the maxim, "What would Jesus do?" But the author has everyone in the town eventually jumping on board and the whole town being gloriously transformed and the movement eventually spreading to Chicago and points beyond. Sure, it'd be nice, but is it real? I mean, even if some people could be consistent about keeping this up, is it really believable that there would be no hold-outs at all?

By the time I finished it, it was making me uncomfortable in its own way. If you can think of God as the Author of human history, it's almost like Sheldon is standing there confronting the Lord with his hands on his hips, saying, "Hey, God, I can make my characters be totally virtuous and godly-- why can't You?"

But as I say, it was a change.
†I've learned subsequently that the Habsburg in question wasn't actually murdered in the church building. King Albert I was killed on that particular spot in 1308, and the church was later erected over the site in his honor.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

My Cut-Rate Grand Tour: Day Twenty

Sunday, 25 December, 1988
Christmas Day

I figured out this morning why I feel so resentful about the missing clothes. If you base your life upon the idea that one of the chief aims is to cause no one else any trouble, naturally if they force you to cause them trouble by asking them for things only they can give and which are essential (like access to your clean underwear), they’ve caused you to commit a major sin. And that is intolerable.

Now, if they do things for you voluntarily, without having been asked, or if you’re paying for them to do whatever, that’s different.

Decided this must be ridiculous from a Christian standpoint so got mostly dressed and went up and asked Frau Renzberger*, rather stumblingly, I’m afraid, about the unmentionables.

I was up a little earlier, relatively-speaking, than yesterday. Lukas* was only just stirring himself.

The main feature of breakfast was a traditional bread called a Topf,† braided in a large round. Frau Renzberger makes hers without eggs, so it will keep longer, and it doesn’t have as much sugar in as my egg bread recipe. Had it with the rose hip butter (Hagenbutter) one of the neighbors brought over Friday.

Frau Renzberger (ok, Greti*) admired my dress and was amazed to find I’d made it. She pointed this out to Lukas, saying, "She can do everything!" In any other situation, you’d think she Meant something by it. But as things developed, no . . .

Lukas, his father, and I were the only ones who went to church. It was a beautiful blue sunny day and a pleasant walk to the little white Reformed church with its landmark steeple. Built in the 1500's, I think, and nicely restored.

No choir this morning, though they did have an ensemble of recorders that played in the intervals. And the organ. None of the hymns were what you’d call Christmas warhorses from American standards, though the tune of the last one was Sicilian Mariners. I was told at dinner that it just wouldn’t be Christmas without that one.

I understood the Gospel reading, the gist of the words to the hymns, and the Scripture references in the sermon. The minister preached from the first chapter of John’s gospel and brought in other Christological themes from the same book. But I couldn’t tell you what the exegesis was or if I would’ve been willing to add my Amen had I heard it in English. Still, when the minister ended by bringing in something about Hoffnung-- hope-- the very concept brought tears to my eyes. Yes, hope, that someday all this will be behind me and that my greatest cross will not be my own personality.

At Communion time, the minister consecrates the elements, then two of the church council help him distribute. The people went forward, two rows at a time. The minister gave each one of the Bread, and then the Cup is passed from hand to hand. I received it from Lukas then passed it to his father. Then the pastor pronounced the declaration from Isaiah that "the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light," adding, "Alleluia, amen." And we took our seats and the next group came up. The organist played "Wachet Auf" during this; not the Bach chorale version, though.

On the way home we saw a duck in the stream and a horsedrawn carriage out for a drive (Don’t I sound like a three year old?) and discussed preaching styles and theological education. Lukas is appalled that in England (America, too) you can qualify for the ministry after only three years of divinity school. In Switzerland and Germany, they can’t be ministers till after they’ve studied theology for seven years. I refrained from pointing out that maybe that’s why so much goofy doctrine and outright heresy comes out of those two countries. The ministers become too ivory tower and too much removed from the actual practice of the gospel. "Another damned theologian comes grunting out of the Black Forest"‡ is a quotation that came to mind, though not to the lips . . .

Lukas and I had our inevitable theological argument back home before dinner. We were discussing the service and the style of giving Communion and he said that the elements in his church are just like any other bread and wine anywhere, no symbological value whatsoever . . . In fact, he said, a pint of beer and a ploughman’s lunch at the local pub is just as much Communion as what we did in church this morning.

I said, well, what do you do with the verse in I Corinthians that says whoever eats and drinks the Communion elements without recognising the body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ eats and drinks condemnation on himself?

And he said, oh, his church doesn’t put as much weight on the epistles of Paul, rather on the Gospels.

(Ye gods.) OK, say I, what about Jesus saying, "This is my body, do this in remembrance of Me?"

Lukas says, it’s only a remembrance.

I wasn’t about to accept this "only" but I wanted him to see what he was overlooking even in the little that he was allowing Holy Communion to be. Yes, I said, but it is a remembrance, something that doesn’t necessarily happen at a normal meal.

He wasn’t moved. The root of his argument seemed to be the urge towards inclusiveness, that no one, not even non-Christians, should be left out of what he seems to see as a token fellowship meal (as opposed to a sign of the Christian's special relationship with God through Jesus Christ).

He’s telling me his point of view and smiling as if to say, "Surely you see I’m right!" And I’m thinking, God, I wish he were, he’s such a sweetheart, I wish I could honestly agree with him-- but I can’t. As I see it, he and his church as a whole are still reacting against that horribly erroneous trend in Roman Catholicism in which the mysteries of the faith were reserved only for the initiated few, the clergy. But the Swiss Reformed have really gone crazy with it, it seems to me, not only saying that the mysteries of the faith are available to all, but also that there are no mysteries.

I tried to compromise with him, saying I could see his point of view if he meant that Christians should have the same sacramental attitude to food outside the church as they do to that given within it . . . but still, I think we could have had a good bang up argument if his father hadn’t called us to dinner. I was trying to see his point of view without prostituting what I see as the truth on this, but he was making no effort to do likewise. Most frustrating.

Happily for the preservation of the Christmas peace, the only explosion this afternoon was from the cork of the bottle of Champagne I brought. Herr Max Renzberger* opened it just before dinner. The cork flew out the open french windows into the yard, who knows where. Bringing that seems definitely to have been a good move.

Christmas dinner was interesting. It did not focus around a major meat dish like turkey or a roast. Rather, it was raclette, a traditional Swiss dish in which each person melts a certain kind of cheese in individual dishes in a special heating unit brought to the table, and drips the cheese over boiled potatoes, mushrooms, onions, olives, artichokes, and other such items. There was wine with this, and Christmas cookies after.

At the end of dinner Lukas declared that if I wanted to go for a walk after supper, I’d have to go with his father, he was tired and was going to bed. I did not express a desire to follow either of their examples; neither of these options, a walk with Herr Renzberger* Senior nor a nap, seemed like a particularly fun way to spend an already short day.

Not that I spent it any more usefully. I looked at a cathedral book that’d been gotten out for me, then tackled my French version of Hector’s Mémoires. Have to confess it’s more fun in English, where I can just read through, but I’ll get the French eventually.

So the afternoon passed quite quietly (no football games around here), only broken up by the general farewell to Thaddeaus* when his father made ready to drive him home.

At 6:30 or so everyone left was ready for a walk, so shoes were changed and we all went for a tour of Löhenthal under the stars. First time I’ve seen the Big Dipper since I’ve been in the Eastern Hemisphere.

I’m impressed with the solicitous care Lukas took of his grandmother, supporting her on his arm. Me, I found it awkward, because if I hung back to be with them it would look deliberate. And somehow it seemed essential I not appear to have any ulterior motives towards him. So I tended to walk with his parents, holding back every so often when it seemed we were getting too far ahead. Still, I found it disconcerting that when I did rejoin him and Granny he never engaged me in conversation, only talked with his grandmother in German.

Back at the house, there were the leftovers from last night’s charcuterie and more cookies and wine.

They were kind enough to let me call Mom in Houston to wish her a Merry Christmas . . . Got her right away. Nothing much earthshaking said, only that Leila* [my 17-year-old niece] wasn’t going to be there for Christmas dinner, she actually has a job, in a movie theater. Shock. Hope it goes well.

I couldn’t tell Mom much, not having the time at international rates and also because I was feeling more than a little subdued. It had occurred to me that Lukas really hadn’t spoken to me since before dinner, though it couldn’t’ve been the theological discussion, we’ve had those at Coverdale* and it’s never bothered him before. But I’d noticed that if anyone addressed me in English, it was his parents. And my ability to find sufficient enjoyment simply in the sound of him speaking Swiss German was beginning to wear off.

Another awkwardness at bedtime this evening. Greti had taken not only my shirts to be ironed but also my nightgown. I had to go to the master bedroom to inquire in usual tongue-tied fashion after its whereabouts after she and Max had already started getting ready for bed. The thing was sitting in their bathtub . . . It was rather difficult trying to make her understand I do not need an ironed nightgown, I need something to sleep in. Especially difficult saying so in front of Max.
†Seems I misunderstood and it's actually called a Zopf, and it's usually formed as a braid.
‡The saying is by the writer Wilfrid Sheed, and I probably got it from an article by Cullen Murphy in the December 1986 Atlantic Monthly. So far (Feb. 2009) I am unable to discover in what context Mr. Sheed first said or published it.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

My Cut-Rate Grand Tour: Day Nineteen

Saturday, 24 December, 1988
Christmas Eve
Löhenthal*, Switzerland

As for what transpired today, I got up around 9:00, took a shower, and appeared upstairs. Everyone else had already eaten but Mrs. Renzberger* produced breakfast for me. Instant guilt, even though she’d said for me to sleep as long as I liked.

The family put up the Christmas tree today. Lukas* and I did the decorating. He put on the red candles in their clip-on holders and showed me how they also use these hanging fireworks-like sparklers that one can light just for fun. I started in on the ornaments. They were, characteristically, heavy clear stained glass balls, each of all one color; though some had designs and textures molded or blown into them, most were smooth. I’m afraid I left a memorial to myself behind-- I shortened up most of the strings on the balls I hung, to keep them from sitting on branches below.

There were also a few handmade decorations and contributions from family friends, which Lukas told me the story of. And a contribution of a red-orange tail feather from Kapten Blood*, the West African parrot.

Didn’t do anything terribly useful after that except look at a French Gothic book Lukas pulled off the shelf for me, till time to go fetch his maternal grandmother from her apartment at an old-age complex near Zürich.

I went with him and sat there in Granny's front room, feeling very dull, as if I hadn’t a great deal to say. But silence can be a virtue, can’t it?

(On the way over I did ask about his mother and he said don’t worry, I’m not being any trouble. Well, if you say so.)

His grandmother, Frau Heimdorfer*, treated us to coffee (tea) in the complex snack bar and then we drove back to Löhenthal. I sat in the back seat, contemplated the scenery, and idly let the German conversation in the front seat wash over me.

When we returned I had just enough time to wrap my present for the family before time for supper and time to meet Lukas’s middle brother Thaddeaus*.

Dinner was all sorts of charcuterie, better than what I had in France, despite Greti’s* constant concern that I wouldn’t like it. Table conversation started out in English and a little French but gradually went predominantly into Swiss German. It occurred to me I didn’t mind, greatly. It relieved me from the necessity of having to be clever myself. And it reminded me a lot of the Coverdale College* dining hall, where due to the noise I can’t understand anything being said around me anyway. I found I enjoyed the sound of Lukas speaking German. The Swiss do it more softly and gently than the Germans do and his voice in his native language is pleasant in itself.

I wasn’t totally left out, though. Talked about England a bit, since everyone there had been there.

After dinner the tree candles were lit and the family assembled in the living room. Lukas officiated and set the mood by having the "Pastoral Symphony" played on the stereo (Handel’s, from the Messiah). Then he read the Christmas story, according to Luke, through the annunciation to the shepherds, from the NIV out of consideration to moi-même. After that, we lit the candles we had been given, passing the flame and with it a wish for peace around the circle. Then each person put his or her candle on the tree.

Then, in a move designed to destroy my peace and everyone else’s, Lukas’ mother asked me to sing a carol or something else for Christmas. Oy vay. Seems dear Lukas had given his mother a proper buildup for my vocal abilities. And, she said, none of her Kinder will sing anymore. They did to a certain age but then refused. So I was elected.

Deciding it was appropriate after the text about the angels, I gave a verse of "Angels We Have Heard on High," to everyone’s seeming satisfaction.

But I wasn’t off the hook yet. Frau Renzberger declared that after she read the company a story I was to sing again. Panic!

Fortunately the story was long. In German, of course. I caught words here and there. As explained to me afterwards, it was about a former political prisoner who had the meaning of Christmas and freedom suddenly come together for him on simultaneously hearing Handel and being given a drink of warm milk. The homely comfort and the glory of it combined . . .

I’m not sure why I did what I did then. Yes, I do, too. Instead of a traditional American or British Christmas carol, I, after some preliminary fumbling around for the proper key (I couldn’t trust myself not to crack on the high f''), sang Schubert’s "Du Bist die Ruh’." I did it because it’s in German. And I did it especially because I remembered what Lily Michaels* [a little girl I used to babysit] once said, that it reminded her of Jesus. So it seemed more in the tone of the story just read than a conventional carol would have been.

I sang with my eyes shut to keep off the nerves (I know, Dr. Smith† said never do that) and only stumbled over the words once. Still, I’m no Dame Janet Baker and maybe I shouldn’t’ve tried it. One gets that feeling when the predominant response is, "Oh, we know how difficult it is to sing before people!"

These preliminaries over, it was time for presents. They told me that if the family is going to Christmas Eve service each person usually just opens one or two, often those given by friends they’ll be seeing at church. But tonight things were running late and Thaddeaus was taking the only car back to Neigendorf*, where he lives. That meant everyone would have to walk and Grandmother wasn’t up to it. Leaving her at home alone wouldn’t’ve done, either.

So church was punted for the evening and everything was opened. Lots of socks; Lukas and his brother gave each other calendars; the former brought all sorts of things from Oxford. And there were two gifts for me. One was a dark blue-black scarf with a-- what do you call it?--oil swirl design running through it. Turns out Lukas had suggested it and his mother had picked it out. Funny, because we’d been talking about the Oxford fashion for that sort of thing at dinner and Mr. L. Renzberger had not betrayed a clue. My other present was an assortment of Swiss chocolates. Good. I can serve them for tea in my room at Coverdale.

Mine for them was hiding under the tree and thus was one of the last opened. My drawing of the Hobbit House went over rather better than my singing did, I think. And it seems to be rather appropriate, since most of the walls of the house are hung with contributions from friends and family. I immediately told them I’d need to take it back to Oxford to get it framed, but Lukas’s father said no, no, they’d get it done.

Maybe that’s better anyway. They can choose the frame style and mat color to match their décor-- or maybe choose not to hang it at all.

After presents were all opened there was more wine and more cookies and playing with the bird, who’d been let out of his cage. Me, I did not venture to pet him. Would like to keep my fingers.

The household retired to bed around 11:00, whereupon I discovered something very awkward-- Lukas’s mother had been kind enough to wash all my dirty clothes today, but she doesn’t have a clothes dryer.‡ Therefore my flannel nightgown was still very wet and I had no idea where my cotton boatneck shirt, which would’ve done to sleep in, had been hung to dry, let alone the underwear which I would need in the morning.

I finally decided to make do sleeping in my bathrobe, not being comfortable sleeping in nothing, but it was a pis aller. I’m afraid I retired in a very uncomfortable state, especially inside me: I wish I were pretty, I wish I could sing properly, I wish now I were ten years younger and could go back and do everything right, I wish I never had to cause anyone any trouble . . .

†My voice teacher at KU
‡They had the typical European drying room, where wet or spin-dried semi-wet clothes could be hung on racks or laid flat on slatted wooden shelves and take advantage of the heat emanating from the not-highly-efficient, uninsulated furnace and water heater.