A Tramp in Heidelberg

“Deutschland im Sommer sei der Gipfel an Schönheit…” — Germany, in the summer, is the perfection of the beautiful— this exclamation, found in the Bild Atlas issue on the Odenwald (where we live), happened to be written by a fellow countryman, Mark Twain, in 1878, as he sailed from Heilbronn to Heidelberg, some 50km south of here. “But nobody has understood,” the writer continued, “and realized, and enjoyed the utmost possibilities of this soft and peaceful beauty unless he has voyaged down the Neckar on a raft.”

Perhaps the pen of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, who had grown up along the banks of the Mississippi, found a touching reverberation of his childhood in one of Germany’s most charming waterways.

In any case, the notes and sketches Mark Twain made of his Teutonic stay were eventually condensed into a travelogue, A Tramp Abroad (or Bummel durch Europa in German), amusing to expatriates and locals alike. Its contents will undoubtedly find their way time and again into this blog, but I will simply content myself for now with his ode to Heidelberg. When many years ago on a summer day, I first set sight on this city, I sneezed my nose red from its pollen and I too fell under the spell, as Twain had, of its charm.

Heidelberg lies at the mouth of a narrow gorge—a gorge the shape of a shepherd's crook; if one looks up it he perceives that it is about straight, for a mile and a half, then makes a sharp curve to the right and disappears. This gorge—along whose bottom pours the swift Neckar—is confined between (or cloven through) a couple of long, steep ridges, a thousand feet high and densely wooded clear to their summits, with the exception of one section which has been shaved and put under cultivation. These ridges are chopped off at the mouth of the gorge and form two bold and conspicuous headlands, with Heidelberg nestling between them; from their bases spreads away the vast dim expanse of the Rhine valley, and into this expanse the Neckar goes wandering in shining curves and is presently lost to view.
From the north cage one looks up the Neckar gorge; from the west one he looks down it. This last affords the most extensive view, and it is one of the loveliest that can be imagined, too. Out of a billowy upheaval of vivid green foliage, a rifle-shot removed, rises the huge ruin of Heidelberg Castle, (….) with empty window arches, ivy-mailed battlements, moldering towers—the Lear of inanimate nature—deserted, discrowned, beaten by the storms, but royal still, and beautiful. It is a fine sight to see the evening sunlight suddenly strike the leafy declivity at the Castle's base and dash up it and drench it as with a luminous spray, while the adjacent groves are in deep shadow.

— Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, 1880 (available in its entirety on Project Gutenberg)
Engraving from 1880 edition
Heidelberg Castle, 2011 photostill vivid green foliage, summer 2011

Albrecht Dürer's dream vision

"In the year 1525, between Wednesday and Thursday after Whitsunday during the night, I saw this appearance in my sleep, how many great waters fell from heaven. The first struck the earth about four miles away from me with a terrific force, with tremendous clamor and clash, drowning the whole land. I was so sore afraid that I awoke from it before the other waters fell. And the waters which had fallen were very abundant. Some of them fell further away, some nearer, and they came down from a great height that they all seemed to fall with equal slowness. But when the first water, which hit the earth, was almost approaching, it fell with such swiftness, wind and roaring, that I was so frightened when I awoke that my whole body trembled and for a long while I could not come to myself. So when I arose in the morning, I painted above as I had seen it. God turn all things to the best."

Albrecht Dürer

Translated in A. Rosenthal, "Dürer’s dream of 1525," Burlington Magazine 69, August 1936.

of herb and forest spirals...

Herb spiral, Kräuterspirale, 2011 watercolor sketch
Walking around town one summer day, my friend and I stumbled upon a curious mound of rubble in the courtyard of a primary school. Upon closer inspection, I perceived that the pile was dirt contained by natural stones arranged in a spiral from which weeds had sprouted and flourished. My friend, a native, enlightened my notion by explaining that it was a Kräuterspirale, an herb spiral, that children had built as a school project. One finds these spirals in gardens, private and public, and they are quite popular here.

Hundertwasser's Waldspirale, 2011 watercolor sketch
Its larger cousin, the Waldspirale (Forest Spiral), designed by (grownup) Austrian architect Hundertwasser (A hundred waters), right in Darmstadt's backyard!

The idea is that one can grow a variety of herbs from different climates in a relatively small space by placing them at different levels in the spiral. A whole herb community can thus be cultivated.

I later discovered that it was an Australian, Bill Mollison, who had come up with the idea, as part of his “permaculture design”. Some years ago, the word “permaculture” had so captivated my imagination that I was ready to set off for farms in Wales and Japan to study it (the word permaculture comes from permanent, or sustainable cultivation of the earth). In particular, I had read about a Japanese farmer by the name of Masanobu Fukuoka who had published a book in the seventies called One Straw Revolution. It was essentially a manual of techniques Mr Fukuoka had distilled from thirty years of “natural” farming— that is, farming that rejected industrial techniques of heavy machinery or the use of herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers. It was, in short, the antithesis of the so-called “green revolutions” that promoted modern industrial agricultural techniques in developing countries such as India in the 1960s.

At the dawn of its independence, an India suffering from famine turned to the United States for food aid. In 1960, 92% of the aid that the US provided to India was alimentary in nature. It was then that the Green Revolution was launched, supported by the American Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, and India was able to considerably increase its cereal production (from 70 million tons in 1954 to 220 million today). However, the price India paid was heavy: dried-up canals and underground waterbeds, soil salinization, soaring personal debt of farmers (more than 100,000 among them committed suicide in less than a decade), an alarming rise in cancer rates in the countryside. And that without mentioning the grave repercussions at the political and social level. Many considered the Green Revolution as a major factor that led to the secessionist revolt in Punjab in the 1980s, a movement during which Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh guards in 1984, following the assault by the Indian army of the Golden Temple, a Sikh sacred site, where the insurgents had taken refuge.1

Back to Fukuoka… one of his most cherished projects was combatting desertification through “plant irrigation,” that is, by spreading the most water-hardy plants throughout the desert first, and then using their network of roots to accumulate and hold ground water. He envisioned forests eventually engulfing the desert, although not in his lifetime.

An herb spiral is similarly concerned with water irrigation in its distribution of plants at different levels. Below are instructions on how to build an herb spiral, taken from a gardening book found in a café in Heidelberg.

Plants in an herb spiral

The upper level of the herb spiral is ideal for Mediterranean plants such as oregano, lavender, winter savory, sage, rosemary and thyme. The middle level is good for culinary herbs from the continent, such as marjoram, hyssop, basil, chives, parsley and burnet. And finally, on the lowest level of the spiral are moisture-loving plants, such as peppermint, lemon balm and watercress.

Constructing the spiral

The spiral is made out of natural stones, like a dry wall. Draw out the spiral at the location desired with a spade or stick. For the first stones, dig a foundation about 10 cm deep. From this foundation, the next levels will be built. The maximum height of the spiral should be around 50-60 cm, with the sides sloping gradually until the edges.
The space between the stones should preferably be filled with rubble. This chalky and permeable material is ideal for herbs. The rubble should then be covered with about a 10cm thick layer of earth. A good mixture would be two parts garden soil and 1 part sand.
Fill the outermost sections of the spiral with good garden soil. At the end of the spiral, one can create a small pond that collects water. Just make a hollow and line with film or simply install a plastic tub inside.

(1) Mira Kamdar, “L’Inde résiste à la séduction de l’agroalimentaire américain,” Le Monde diplomatique, March 2010.

Bertolt Brecht and his musicians

Bertolt Brecht

This post is my translation of Bernard Banoun’s “Bertolt Brecht: Inspirateur de talents.”
Cité musiques nº64 sept-déc 2010: Les utopies.

Bertolt Brecht: the Spark of Talents

A politically active playwright who revolutionized theatre while fighting for the Marxist cause, Bertolt Brecht was surrounded by musicians such as Kurt Weill, Paul Dessau and Hanns Eisler.

Author of The Spirit of Utopia and of The Principle of Hope, philosopher Ernst Bloch believed he heard one of the key moments in the history of opera in The Pirate Song, from The Three Penny Opera by Brecht and Weill. For him, Polly’s song carried a vision that was capable of suspending the fatal turn of dramatic and historical events. In his Bequest of This Time (1935), Bloch had underlined the fact that under the song’s pop hit allure was an “oblique gaze.” The philosopher praised the self-contradictory voice of Lotte Lenya, “suave, shrill, feathery, dangerous, cold,” as ideal for a pirate’s fiancée who sang about revolution while washing bar glasses.

The song and this particular interpretation attained such world renown that when Bloch fled Europe and emigrated to the United States, Adorno wrote to Walter Benjamin on August 28, 1938, “Bloch has disembarked. Possibly from a ship with eight sails,” an allusion to the refrain of the song, “the ship with eight sails and fifty canons” that enters the harbor, fires on the city, before stealing the young woman away from her seedy hotel.

read further here

Die Moritat von Mackie Messer

Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht, 1928

Und der Haifisch, der hat Zähne
und die trägt er im Gesicht
und Macheath, der hat ein Messer
doch das Messer sieht man nicht.

An 'nem schönen blauen Sonntag
liegt ein toter Mann am Strand
und ein Mensch geht um die Ecke
den man Mackie Messer nennt.

Jenny Towler war gefunden
mit 'nem Messer in der Brust
und am Kai geht Mackie Messer
der von allem nichts gewußt.

Und Schmul Meier bleibt verschwunden
Und so mancher reiche Mann
Und sein Geld hat Mackie Messer
Dem man nichts beweisen kann

Und das große Feuer in Soho
sieben Kinder und ein Greis -
in der Menge Mackie Messer, den
man nicht fragt und der nichts weiss.

Und die minderjährige Witwe
deren Namen jeder weiß
wachte auf und war geschändet -
Mackie, welches war dein Preis?
Wachte auf und war geschändet -
Mackie, welches war dein Preis?

interpreted by Ute Lemper


The Ballad of Mack the Knife

And the shark has teeth like razors
All can read his open face
And Macheath has got a flick-knife, but
Not in such an obvious place

On a beautiful blue Sunday
There's a corpse stretched in the Strand
And a man goes round the corner
Mackie's friends will understand

Jenny Towler was discovered
With a knife stuck in her bowels
Mack the Knifes goes down the quayside
He ain't seen or heard a soul

Samuel Meyer has gone missing
Along with several wealthy men
Mack the Knife has got his money
Try to prove it if you can

There's a major fire in Soho
Seven kids, a down-and-out
In the crowd is Mack the Knife
Who no-one questions;
Don't know nowt!

And the lonely teenage widow
Known to all the local guys
She was raped and cut to ribbons
Mackie, how much was your price?

And the final verse Brecht added in the 1930 film:

Denn die einen sind im Dunkeln
Und die andern sind im Licht.
Und man siehet die im Lichte
Die im Dunkeln sieht man nicht.

There are some who are in darkness
And the others are in light
And you see the ones in brightness
Those in darkness drop from sight

I also love the English version by Louis Armstrong:

Kakania or k. & k.

KuK Kaffeehaus, 2011 watercolor

There, in Kakania, that misunderstood State that has since vanished, which was in so many things a model, though all unacknowledged, there was speed too, of course; but not too much speed. Whenever one thought of that country from some place abroad, the memory that hovered before the eyes was of wide, white, prosperous roads dating from the age of foot-travellers and mail-coaches, roads leading in all directions like rivers of established order, streaking the countryside like ribbons of bright military twill, the paper-white arm of government holding the provinces in firm embrace. And what provinces! There were glaciers and the sea, the Carso and the cornfields of Bohemia, nights by the Adriatic restless with the chirping of cicadas, and Slovakian villages where the smoke rose from the chimneys as from upturned nostrils, the village curled up between two little hills as though the earth had parted its lips to warm its child between them. (…) Here one was in the centre of Europe, at the focal point of world's old axes; the words 'colony' and 'overseas' had the ring of something as yet utterly untried and remote. (…) The administration of this country was carried out in an enlightened, hardly perceptible manner (…) by the best bureaucracy in Europe, which could be accused of only one defect: it could not help regarding genius and enterprise of genius in private persons, unless privileged by high birth or State appointment, as ostentation, indeed presumption. (…)And besides, in Kakania it was only that a genius was always regarded as a lout, but never, as sometimes happened elsewhere, that a mere lout was regarded as a genius.

— Robert Musil, A Man Without Qualities (Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften), tr. by Wilkins/Kaiser

There is a lingering of a perfume from a world of yesterday, a world that has since vanished, concentrated in certain coffeehouses of the most emblematic cities of Mitteleuropa, Vienna-Prague-Budapest. By some curious will, it has wafted its way even to places it never originally occupied, to the far-flung Hessian city of Darmstadt, where it has revived the initials k. u. k. (pronounced “Ka und Ka”), or kaiserlich und königlich. Those initials that once gilded all the workings of the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy now grace the front of a conscious-looking café just behind the city’s transport hub, Luisenplatz.

Situated on Carree 1 with a view of Darmstadt’s Central Station, Café KuK seeks to recreate the Imperial and Royal of its initials to the letter. Its walls, painted the yellow of Schönbrunn, are adorned with framed prints of flowers and 19th century vistas, women in petticoats with gloved hands, purse and parasol. They hang in their prettiness above its wall-length mirrors. Among the ornaments, an engraving of Sissi l’impératrice in all her petulant grandeur. The sheltered interior is doubly warmed by numerous modest but bright chandeliers. Hot chocolate served in porcelain teacups as well as coffee with orange liqueur and whipped cream, known as the Maria Theresa, are the beverages of choice, especially on such overcast wintry days.

The café ignores Herr Musil, who was rather hard on everything that was k.k. or k. & k. Rather, its muse is a certain A. Polgar, urbanite and wit of Viennese society and lover of its cafés. His fond observations on coffeehouses (or rather, a certain Café Central), are sprinkled all across the menu’s pages, some of which I will reproduce here:

Das Kaffeehaus ist eine Weltanschauung, und zwar eine, deren innerster Inhalt es ist, die Welt nicht anzuschauen. Was sieht man da schon!

The coffeehouse is a worldview and one, to be sure, whose innermost essence is not to observe the world at all. What does one see in it anyway?

Die Bewohner des Kaffeehauses sind Menschen, die allein sein wollen, aber dazu Gesellschaft brauchen.

The inhabitants of coffeehouses are people who want to be alone, but need companionship for the purpose.

Teilhaftig der eigentlichen Reize dieses wunderlichen Kaffeehauses wird allein der, der dort nichts will als dort sein. Zwecklosigkeit heiligt den Aufenthalt.

The only person who partakes of the most essential charm of this splendid coffeehouse is he who wants nothing there but to be there. Purposelessness sanctifies the stay.
KuK Kaffeehaus patrons, Darmstadt, 2011 watercolor sketch

How true these notes are of KuK’s clientele, and of the café itself, we shall verify at present. For the most part, the patrons of this smug little corner in the city of science and art nouveau are those approaching or in their autumn years. They make their entrance in fur coats, felt hats, abundant scarves, canes or wheelchairs, and settle in their favorite spots after a drawn-out peeling ritual (although the felt hat is often kept on). Half arrive alone and sit alone, the other half join a table of senior friends. They ostensibly occupy themselves with their cake and Sudoku puzzles, chat discreetly with their neighbors, perhaps after a morning of aquatic exercises at the Jugendstilbad.

A silver-haired gentleman in tweed sits a table down from me, a glass of König Ludwig Weissbier in one hand and the Frankfurter Allgemeine in the other. He frequently peers over his paper and spectacles, shifting his eyes now right, now left, at the waitresses shuffling to and fro in black vests and long white aprons.

Of course, such a pretender to the atmosphere of Habsburg glory would not be complete without a choice selection of newspapers, international preferably, for its clientele. Indeed, by the entrance next to the coat racks and baby carriages, one finds fresh copies of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), Die Zeit, Die Süddeutsche Zeitung, Der Spiegel, and selections from the NY Times. Here, one can spend hours poring over its pages without the slightest disturbance. The service is brisk, but friendly, and never attempts to shoo away a client who dallies after long finishing his Hawelka-Becher sundae, despite the rarity of an unoccupied table.

Although we barely tipped the median age of the café dwellers, I would not say that Café KuK is unpleasant for young people. On the contrary, from half past two to half past four in the afternoon, there was never a dearth of company, such that one has only to observe the world of the café.

And although the charm of the antiquated is Café KuK’s aim, it nevertheless has evolved a progressive view of the meaning of k.&k.:

Kunde und König       Client and King
Kunst und Kultur       Art and Culture
Kaffee und Kuchen       Coffee and Cake
Kellner und Koch       Waiter and Chef

Some practical information:

Kaffeehaus KuK
Im Carree 1
64273 Darmstadt

Opening hours
Monday - Saturday 09.00 - 22.00
Sundays & Holidays 10.00 - 22.00
Monday - Saturday 09.00 - 21.00
Sundays & Holidays 10.00 - 21.00

Lunch served from 12.00

de "l'amour de voyage" au "Spießbürger calme de la forêt"

To the girl back then, traversing the lands of Europe was a grand affair of love and travel. Roses thrown from ship decks in dramatic farewells, trains departing in billowing smoke, platforms of waving handkerchiefs. Flushed cheeks, banner unfurled, the bare-breasted Marianne leading the people to their Destiny. An excess to occupy.

Bienvenue en province!

Hotel Waldesruch, Pichlers Restaurant, 2011 watercolor sketch

Now in this provincial corner of Europa, there is nothing to occupy but the well-cushioned seat in Hotel Waldesruh (Forest calm), like a good Spießbürger, at the edge of a foggy meadow.

adieu automne

Martinsviertel, Darmstadt, 2011 watercolor
«Martinsviertel», 2011 (watercolor)

Martinsviertel, a charming quarter of Darmstadt northeast of the city's green grounds, Herrngarten. The streets bear quaint names such as Pankratiusstraße (Pancras St), Gardistenstraße (Guardsmen St), Löffelstraße (Spoon St), Liebfrauenstraße (Our Lady St), all meandering around Kantplatz (Kant Square). A little more than three centuries ago, the philosopher from Königsberg wrote before his routine afternoon walk, "Sapere aude! Dare to know. Have the courage to use your reason," in his essay What is Enlightenment? Apparently, the only time he failed to accomplish his beloved daily ritual was when he was awaiting news of the French Revolution a few years later...

Painted in the early days of October.

In the afternoon, the children of the house come out and play with the big fat cat with white paws.

Je me révolte, donc nous sommes

Occupy Frankfurt, 2011 watercolorOccupy Frankfurt

Arab Spring, Asmaa Mahfouz, 2011 aquatint study
«Printemps arabe - Asmaa Mahfouz», 2011 (aquatint study)

May 1968
Mai 68

In keeping with the two-month anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street Movements (as of Nov 17), here is food for thought from Al Jazeera's Pepe Escobar: The West's Tragedy of Capital

an autumnal procession

It was a week ago, -- when all the French (the sensible or lucky ones) were spending their last three-day weekend holiday before Christmas season dipping themselves in the Mediterranean, sipping pastis 51 by the Vieux Port of Marseille in oblivious content, and while I donned on earmuffs, gloves, two scarves and a winter coat for the icy journey to Frankfurt-- at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, that exactly 93 years had passed since the cease fire on the Western Front.

Before leaving the house, I glanced at a news photo of Julian Assange in front of the London courthouse with the red poppy of Remembrance on his lapel.

In the sundry lands where I have lived, the eleventh of November is remembered in different ways. I think of the scene in the whimsical Czech film Postřižiny where the wife of the brewery manager cuts her golden hair at news of the armistice, in an exuberant gesture towards Czechoslovak independence. Just days before, I had received an email from the American Embassy in Warsaw cautioning its addressees to avoid the plac Konstytucji, where both right and leftwing demonstrators could potentially clash on the anniversary of Polish independence-- although I could only recall the peaceful celebratory events from last year. And finally winding back to the days in the Midi, when earth, sea, sky were blue even as the calendar raced towards mid-November.

In these parts (Val de Moulin etc), what seems like a more charming, quainter version of Halloween takes place on the evening of 11.11. On Martinstag, or Martinmas and the feast of Martin le Miséricordieux, groups of children carry paper lanterns and candles in an autumnal procession through their towns and villages, singing songs about Saint Martin. And, since the nights here are cold, the children are buried under caps and mittens and woolen sweathers, rounding even more their little forms.

St Martin de Tours cutting a piece of his cloak for a shivering beggar

What exactly this has to do with St Martin, I am not sure. The Catholic Church of St. Elisabeth north of Herrngarten did arrange a horse, on which the saint is often depicted astride, to greet the children after their round about the neighborhood. And there was a jolly bonfire on St Martin's eve on Riegerplatz in Darmstadt's Martinsviertel.

Here is one of the songs the children sing:

Laterne, Laterne,
St Martin's Day owl lantern, watercolor
Sonne, Mond und Sterne,
brenne auf mein Licht,
brenne auf mein Licht,
aber nur meine liebe Laterne nicht.

Lantern, lantern,
Sun, Moon and stars,
Burn my light,
Burn my light,
but please not my lantern bright.

We've come a long way

Prague, mon amour«Prague, mon amour», view from Letna, 2008

From Prague to the former lands of the dukes of Hesse via Albion and baroque Mazovia, we wonder where this bohemian life of ours will take us next.
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