Monday, July 11, 2011

How to jubilate with propriety

I'm back in the U.S. but still have Wadlstrumpf blogging to catch up with. Allow me to begin with some observations about the proper pace of jubilating in Germany.

The discussion will focus on the opening hymn of the wedding mass the other week, "Erfreue dich Himmel, erfreue dich Erde."

If you were a Jewish American organist music-theorist who played for a small southern U.S. Lutheran church, you might note the dancing lilt of the 6/4 melody and, considering also the text ("Rejoice, Heaven; rejoice, Earth"), opt for a cheerful upbeat tempo such as this (please note I self-identify as a keyboardist, not a singer):

Germans, however, understand that because God is very far away, you must sing very slowly and very clearly in order for him to hear you. Joyous hymns, therefore, should be sung ponderously, while solemn hymns (given their solemnity) should be sung very very ponderously. "No--slower, slower," was the advice I received from my musician collaborators in the organ loft, "and don't forget to leave time for people to breathe at the breath marks here and here," thusly:

"I actually thought the hymns were a little fast," observed one relative after the ceremony. Seriously?, wonders the foreign Gastmusikerin, who was brought up in the U.S. on German classical music and doesn't remember joyfulness ever being so restrained.

A little research on youtube reveals that German organists apparently also feel the festive tug of this melody and find opportunities to push the tempo before settling into the lugubrious pious pace of the sung word.

As you watch the following video, listen to the peppiness of the improvised organ introduction; then observe the aural brick wall encountered just before the congregation begins singing (around 1:00-1:05). Note that the organist leaves lots of time for the singers to breathe and that the singers want to take an even slower tempo, which the organist gradually accommodates over the three verses.

I returned to the U.S. on Saturday, in time for work on Sunday morning. "Your sub did fine," people told me, "but he played too slowly." Oh, it's good to be home.

Friday, July 8, 2011


Elias has been enthusiastically trying to catch women's world cup soccer games on TV, so we surprised him on Tuesday with a trip to Augsburg to see Japan play England. Our original plan was to pick up the tickets, go hang out in old town Augsburg for a bit, then go to the game; but when we arrived at the stadium 2.5 hours before kickoff, the parking lot was already filling up. We skipped Augsburg altogether and people-watched instead.

Some folks were rooting for Japan,
and others were rooting for England.
Some were rooting for Germany (playing against France further north in Moenchengladbach later that evening).
It was a very friendly crowd,
and pretty much everyone cheered whenever either team displayed finesse, but Japan was clearly the crowd favorite. This might have been because Japan was #4 in the FIFA rankings, vs. England at #10, or because Japan was playing so well despite the devastating earthquake and tsunami earlier this year. After the game, Japan thanked the world for its post-tsunami support, and England's players joined in the banner march to show solidarity.
With 20,777 attendees, the relatively small stadium still had room for another 2,000 or so; but 20,777 is a lot of people when it comes to clearing out parking lots and walking to mass transit stops. Both teams would go on to the quarter finals regardless of who won. England surprised everyone and won the game 2:0. Toooooooooooooor!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A vegetarian abroad

When I first started coming to Bavaria with Stefan 21 years ago, it was a challenge to find vegetarian fare in restaurants. Times have changed, however, and it's much easier now to find at least an ovo-lacto option such as Käsespätzle mit gerösteten Zwiebeln und Blattsalat (little boiled egg dumplings, pan fried with cheese, served with fried onions and a side leaf salad), or a Gemüse Teller mit Spiegelei (plate of cooked vegetables with a fried egg). Salads have also undergone significant changes, shifting away from arrangements of potato salad, cooked cabbage, and corn kernels, toward a variety of green leafies. Still, as in the U.S., the vegetarian in Bayern occasionally faces limited options*:
and has an excuse to cobble together a tasty if questionable complete protein.
(The beverage pictured above is Mineralwasser mit Kohlensäure, of course, because fizzy water is always available in this cultured society.)

*You'd think the carnivore has limited options here too, as all there is to eat other than french fries is Wurst--but the Wurst connoisseur understands the differences between grilled pork sausage, beef 'n'pork sausage, white pork sausage, and hot dog chunks in curry sauce.

Monday, July 4, 2011


Look, some charming little cherubs are playing stringed instruments in the clouds:
Their heavenly compatriots play brass and drums! What relaxed embouchures!
Meanwhile, smack dab in the middle of the music loft ceiling at Bavaria's wee country Blumenthaler Marienkirche, a wingless keyboard player (an earth-bound human?) accompanies a choir of cherubs under the experienced baton of Frau Engel.
See those lines radiating from the organist's head? Do not be fooled--they are not a halo. They are wisps of perspiration, for when the organist agreed to play for her nephew's wedding, she did not know the organ was actually an antique harmonium, nor that it possessed a mere two pedals, both of which had to be pumped continuously in order for music to sound.
On the bright side, pumping added some pleasant challenges to playing Pachelbel's Canon in D, a piece that, I'm sorry to report, has finally made it across the Atlantic as a wedding processional. The two singers and the violinist performing with me insisted that, despite being in the business for a long time, they had never once heard the Canon used for a wedding processional. German organists have much to look forward to.

In any case, the organist was delighted to offer her services to the happy couple, and, during the lovely wedding mass, to get in a good workout.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Back in Bayern

We left SamfaylYOUdayGWEEshoals early Thursday morning and flew from Barcelona to Munich. Oh Bavaria, how I had forgotten I missed you so--your rolling farmland, your afternoon coffee and cake, your Brezeln and Semmeln, your solar farms, your roll-up-your-sleeves enthusiasm for tidiness manifested by swept sidewalks and invariant village house colors, your incomprehensible fondness for thick white asparagus rather than tender green, and your Mineralwasser. If anything epitomizes the difference between Germany and the rest of the world, it's Mineralwasser.

In Barcelona, you need walk no more than a few blocks to find a very small, slightly grungy, well organized, supremely friendly family-run grocery store where you can buy fruit and vegetables and, if you're lucky, score a bottle of Vichy Catalan (Catalan's self-proclaimed finest healing mineral water, apparently most healthful when served cold). In the Munich airport, you need walk no more than half a terminal to find at least two large, well-polished, impersonal corporate-owned grocery stores, where you can buy fruit and vegetables and at least five brands of mineral water with four different varieties each (high fizz, medium fizz, low fizz, no fizz). I'm not sure who goes to the airport to buy fennel and beets, but surely every frequent flier can use a liter of medium-fizz seltzer, and it's good to have choices.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Sant Feliu de Guixols

From Sunday midday until Thursday morning, we were in Sant Feliu de Guixols on the Costa Brava. Despite spending nearly four days there and hearing native speakers say it multiple times, we still don't understand how to pronounce the name of the town. Sam fay-LOU day GWEE-shoals? Sant FAY-lee-you day ghee-SHOALS? Fail-YOU day ghee-SHOAL? Catalan and Spanish are related but independent languages. The Catalan x is pronounced sh after i, but that's about as far as we were able to match phonemes with spelling. Our knowledge of French kept intruding too, in our effort to process that x, so our de kept sounding like deux instead of day, which didn't help.

Sant Feliu de Guixols saw major development post-WWII, when Germans started flocking to the Spanish coast and the Spanish coast responded by building great swaths of hotels and high rises. One hears as much German as English in Sant Feliu (sam fay-LOU day GWEE-shoal?), when one isn't hearing Catalan or Spanish.

Stefan left Elias and me on our own while he attended a European Science Foundation conference. What to do, what to do? Elias was in heaven after all the boring hiking we had done: the hotel had a swimming pool, we could walk to the beach down the hill, and our room had a TV with a channel broadcasting FIFA Women's World Cup games. Because I am about as far from being a "beach person" as is humanly possible, I was grateful that there were two soccer games to watch every afternoon, as they were the only thing that could compel Elias (a beach person if there ever was one) to abandon the sand and pebbles.

On Wednesday, conference participants had the afternoon off, so we drove to Figueres to see the Teatre-Museu Dalí (Dalí Theatre-Museum), the third most visited museum in Spain. Adding to the bizarre art was the industriousness and determination with which most of the huge crowd took photos of the collection. Say "patata," Galatea of the Spheres!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


Last Friday, Stefan engaged in one of his favorite vacation activities: minor home repairs for nice people. After crossing back over the Pyrenees to Spain from Niaux (yes, more curvy mountain roads, but only for a brief while), we happened into a sweet rural pension, made all the more cozy by the leisurely outdoor evening chat that quadrilingual Stefan enjoyed in Spanish and a little Catalan with the owners and other guests. So when one of the ceiling lights in our room didn’t work, instead of letting the proprietors know, Stefan got out his trusty Swiss Army knife (always be prepared), dismantled the fixture, and rewired the circuit. The next morning, he rebalanced the washing machine in the common kitchen.

We were staying in Ribes de Freser to take one last mountain hike, from Núria (a somewhat over-developed ski resort that we reached via cog train from Queralbs) to the Coll de Noucreus.

The mountainsides were covered with fuchsia azaleas:
Above the trees and into the scree, we saw numerous grazing chamoises:
The trail became significantly steeper toward the end,
which was OK going up but had the acrophobe (me) wanting to clutch the hillside on the way down. It was a quick walk from the saddle
to the top.
The ridge line is the border between Spain
and France.
We paused both ascending and descending so Elias could play with snow.
No hike in the Pyrenees would be complete, of course, without numerous waterfalls,
and cows.
We spent so much time admiring the gorgeous late afternoon light on our descent that we almost missed the last cog train from Núria back down to Queralbs. Which reminds me to mention: the early summer sun doesn't set here until ~9:30pm--and June is still the "off season." It's brilliantly light at 6:30pm, so if you're a foreigner, you might not recognize that evening is upon you and you need to hurry up to catch your train. (Tourist trains and the sun both run later during high summer). Many businesses shut down for the afternoon, then open again for the evening; if you show up in a restaurant before 8:30 or 9:00pm, you might be the only person dining.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Crossing over to the other side

Clouds and rain moved in pre-dawn on Thursday, our last scheduled day in Vall de Boí, so instead of going on another hike, we went to France. We had not planned to go to France. We went because the drive from Barcelona to Vall de Boí had taken about eight hours, twice as long as we had expected thanks to our taking "the scenic route." (Stefan, who had done all the driving, thought being in the car on curvy mountain roads for several hours was the bees knees. This made me think of all the how-far-can-you-drive-in-how-little-time vacations my family took when I was a kid, and reminded me again of the many ways in which I seem to have married my dad.) Elias and I nixed the idea of spending another long day as passengers on winding mountain roads, and our topo-maps indicated that just north of the Pyrenees, France was pretty flat and the highways pretty straight. The route was longer, but we figured it would be quicker. Thus we found ourselves in the glorious empire of highway roundabouts.

Our sojourn was limited to the Ariège valley, where medieval castles, ruins, monasteries, and cloisters abound. It was in Ariège that the pacifist, anti-materialist Cathars set up camp in the 12th century and made a heroic effort to survive the 13th before being quashed and massacred by fed-up allegiance-demanding materialist feudal lords and the Catholic Church.

The highpoint of our day was a stop in Saint Lizier. Reigning over the top of the town's highest hill is the medieval Palais des Évêques (Bishop's Palace), the walls of which enclose the church Notre-Dame de la Sède. When the bishopric of Couserans was terminated in 1801, the palace variously served as a prison, workhouse, and lunatic asylum. A relatively recent restoration of the church revealed, beneath 19th-century woodwork, a stunning spread of 15th-century paintings on the vaulted ceiling and on many of the walls. The paintings borrow the Sybils of ancient Greece to prophecy the family tree of--and thus the coming of--Christ.

Down the hill from the Palais is the 12th century Cathédrale Saint-Lizier, named for Saint Lizier's 6th-century proselytizing bishop. A stately adjacent cloister lets only a little loose with its virtuosic carved column capitals--apparently the standard way for Romanesque cloisters to keep up with the Joneses.

We stopped for the night in Foix, a town dominated by the hill-top Château de Foix. The Château's first tower was built around 1000 CE, the third tower about 400 years after that. The castle served as home to generations of counts of Foix, including Henri III of Navarre, who graduated from counthood to become France’s King Henri IV, and local hero Gaston Fébus. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the castle was used as a prison. Perhaps a prisoner was responsible for this coq graffiti in one of the tower stairwells:

Incidentally, the English-language Wikipedia entry on Foix, written perhaps by a prickly native Foixian tired of all the tourists, somewhat petulantly lists but one local point of interest: the botanical garden, with its collection of cacti succulents. The French entry, in contrasts, skips the garden and goes for the Château.

Despite these delights, what actually drew us to Foix was some even older history: the late Paleolithic cave paintings in the nearby Grotte de Niaux. The oldest and youngest carbon-datable paintings (those containing charcoal) are ~13,800 and 12,800 years old; the paintings made with red iron oxide and manganese oxide are, alas, undatable. For reasons unknown, near the end of the last ice age, over a period of at least one thousand years, Magdelenian Cro-Magnons trekked with torches and oil lamps some 900 meters into the cave into a nicely symmetric vaulted cavern with amazing acoustics, where they then executed masterful drawings of bison, horses, ibexes, and stags. In another part of the cave, not viewable by the general public, there’s a drawing of a weasel--the only known weasel among all the prehistoric cave paintings in Europe. Because the paintings are rare, irreplaceable, and fragile, cavern tours are limited to groups of 25, led by a guide. A slippery 0.9 km later, at the opening of the "Salon Noir" (Black Room), everyone but the guide turns off and sets aside their individual flashlights, to limit the light shining on the paintings. Visits in the Black Room are limited to 25 minutes at a time, so as not to overload the walls with carbon dioxide.

I've been to Europe often enough to get used to seeing 1,000-year-old art; seeing 14,000-year-old art* took my breath away.

*"Art" or "craftsmanship"? The tour guide warned against projecting modern sensibilities on prehistoric images.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Romanesque churches

Vall de Boí had its heyday during the 11th and 12th centuries, when every thriving teeny town could afford to hire expert stonemasons from Lombardy to build elegant teeny Romanesque churches, usually on the outskirts of town. (Had the teeny towns not been so bustling, there would still have been room in the center of town for a church.) The original church frescoes are gone, as is the plaster and paint that apparently once covered the tidy masonry, but the beautiful stonework and bell towers remain, and the churches continue to be used for worship. UNESCO declared the valley a world heritage site in 2000.

When we weren't hiking, we were admiring the churches, including

Santa Eulalia in Erill la Vall; and

Sant Climent in Taüll. At Sant Climent we learned that the stones of the churches would have been stuccoed and painted; there is a trace of an exterior stucco-and-paint job (presumably not original) at the top of this window:

Changes in stonework suggest Sant Climent was built in multiple stages:

The valley's most charming village--the one with the most tumble-stacked densely-packed collection of old stone houses--is Durro. Looking down at Durro from the hermitage de Sant Quirc (and squinting to fuzz up the modern apartment blocks built for skiers), one can imagine the village as the model for a medieval woodcut.

Vall de Boí

I thought I was being only a little smug last week, when I wrote about how Spanish impediments to internet access supposedly pertain to government anti-terrorism measures. Yet I have to hand it to Spain: I'd be surprised if any foreign evil-doers here manage to check in with one another online more than once a week, and then only if they're hanging out at resort hotels or in cities large enough to have cell phone stores (and only if they have time to pull themselves away from their dastardly plots to make multiple return trips to said stores--though perhaps that's why one has minions). Fortunately for us, our vacation plans involved no government-toppling, and once we were reunited with our luggage (lost somewhere between Newark, Lisbon, Barcelona, and possibly London), the lack of access didn't hold us up.

Last Sunday, we survived harrowing cultural differences in behind-the-wheel boldness and successfully navigated our way out of Barcelona in a rental car. Stefan had plans for us to go hiking for a few days in the Vall de Boí, a rugged valley in the central Spanish Pyrenees, leading into the Aigüestortes-Sant Maurici National Park.

We stayed in tiny Erill la Vall and hiked and hiked and hiked some more. We had learned in Barcelona that signage in Spain is more for locals who already know their way around than for clueless out-of-towners, so on our first hike, along a "well signposted trail" severely lacking in formal signposts, we were grateful for the...
stone cairns (can you find them in the picture?) that led us...
up assorted rivulets and water falls to...
Estany (lake) del Pessó. On the way, we found this piece of...
prehistoric petrified toast, and saw great expanses of...

Our second hike followed the rocky edge of a dammed lake, the Embassament de Cavallers...
giant chunks of granite, up to a lovely green expanse full of...
cows. Deterred by...
the accumulating clouds, we skipped going all the way to Estany Negre de Boí and instead spent the afternoon doing a more sheltered hike along the Ribera de Sant Nicolau, to...
Estany de Llebreta. This third hike was by far the easiest, with the softest paths and least elevation gain (a mere 300 meters), but the combination of wildflowers, grassy valley, rolling river, and mountains brilliantly lit by afternoon sunlight (it didn't rain) made it the loveliest hike of all. Sometimes being knave of the valley beats being king of the hill.