Friday, January 10
Up early and on the bus by 8:15. It takes about 1¾ hours to get from Roggenburg to the two castles ~ the Hohenschaungau Castle and Neuschwanstein set on opposite hills in an area that Ludvig described as “sacred” and “inaccessible.”
The drive was spectacular: snow-covered mountains in the distance, the vivid green of the fields and pines stretching out over the hills, sheep grazing near the highway. All lovely, except for a few of us who fell asleep looking at happy sheep eating green grass only to wake up and see… snow. There were some ugly flashbacks to last Sunday and Monday in Wisconsin.
Anyway, when we arrived at our destination it was drizzling, not snowing.
A bit of history: Ludvig II had grown up spending summers in Hohenschaungau, the Bavarian kings’ hunting lodge and summer home. Neuschwansteinwas was his own creation: a breathtaking, phantasmagoric castle whose white spires reach up through the mist of the forested Bavarian mountains. Ludvig was deeply affected by Richard Wagner, both the man and his music, and Neuschwanstein pays homage to him and to the sagas of Parzival and the Holy Grail, Tristan and Isolde, Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin. Ludvig’s wealth and power allowed him to design and begin construction on an absolutely idiosyncratic, theatrical, and visually stunning castle. Neuschwanstein remains unfinished; the Bavarian government, concerned about his lack of economy, had Ludvig declared insane; he was deposed and died shortly afterwards.
I got a bit weary of the guides’ (and guide books’) line, “he died under mysterious circumstances.” Well, Ludvig was deposed, whisked away to a different castle near Munich, where he met with the psychiatrist who had declared him incompetent – without ever having examined him. Ludvig and the psychiatrist went for a walk down to the lakeshore; they were later found dead in the lake. Official verdict: death by drowning. Well, I guess there are at least two obvious possibilities: Ludvig threw himself into the lake, the psychiatrist tried to rescue him, and they both drowned. Or (and more likely in my detective-novel-nourished brain), Ludvig threw the doctor into the lake, and the good doctor dragged him along. Or, the deposed monarch hit the doctor over the head, threw him in the lake, and then, despondent, took his own life. Or…
Group highlights: Fr. Sal triumphed, climbing all the way up to both castles and then up countless steps; Hannah actually looked at the weather and brought an umbrella; Brennan bought an apron and put it on over his jacket (it was a very special apron); Devin offered up an intriguing theory about the design of Neuschwanstein (you’ll have to ask him); and several of us stood staring at swords and daggers displayed in gift shops with deep admiration and a bit of blade-envy. To the best of my knowledge, no one purchased one.
Anyway, beautiful views, fascinating history, lots and lots of walking. At 3:00, we headed back to Roggenburg and supper.
Thursday, January 9
A beautiful drive to Roggenburg. The mixed forest, rolling landscape, and dark soil between Munich and Roggenburg are so reminiscent of western Wisconsin that I think of all the German immigrants who settled in our corner of the world in part because it reminded them of home. I wonder what they thought after their first winter!
The Roggenburg Norbertines embody radical hospitality. Fr. Jay and Fr. Sal have been here many times, know the confrères well, and naturally feel quite at home. I’ve only been here once before, on a Heritage Tour, and yet already feel like I’m returning to a familiar, comfortable “home.” Fathers Gilbert, Stefan, and Ulrich were at the Gasthaus to welcome us. Ulrich was our tour guide as we visited the church, listened to Stefan play the organ, and visited the refectory and library. The church is Bavarian baroque. Absolutely astonishing – and I’m at a loss for how to describe it. Ulrich says that the first time he saw it, the sun was shining in through the windows, the white and gold of the walls seemed to float and move, and the cherubs looked like they were flying. He says he fell in love at first sight.
Highlights? The woodwork in the library; the statue of Mary in the chapter room – a breathtaking example of the Italian baroque; sculpture; the ceiling paintings in the refectory – all depicting biblical scenes of people sharing food; the tiny brass animal figures on the doors to the refectory; and the notation “20 – C-M-B – 14” written in chalk on the confrères doors by children during the celebration of the Three Kings. But those are just my top few; I’m sure every one of us has a different list.
Lunch was in the cafeteria. We shared the space with a large group of school children who were in awe of Nelson’s height and David’s hair. Stacey and I snapped pictures of Nelson in line at the buffet, little heads bobbing along in front and in back of him, all coming up to about his waist. Lots of waves and smiles when we left.
We had planned a visit to the ancient university town of Ulm in the afternoon. It’s the birthplace of Albert Einstein, the Lutheran church at the center of the city boasts the tallest spire in the world, and it also lays claim to the most crooked house in the world. BUT. For us, it was first and foremost where we were to finally meet up with Holly. We knew her plane was supposed to get into Munich about 10:00 a.m., and that she would then take a train to Ulm. We had little idea when she would get to Ulm, or how we’d would find her when she did. An unsettling situation for all. Stacey, Steve, and I went to the station to take a look at the train schedule, while the rest of the group headed to the city center.
Holly was standing just inside the doors to the station. She had arrived just 15 minutes earlier! We felt incredibly fortunate. She’d had quite the trip (and quite the start to her study-abroad experience).
When we got back to the church, we met up with some exceedingly tired students. They’d climbed to the top of the spire: 768 steps. Kudos to Fr. Jay who also made it to the top. Nelson’s round, stuffed sheep, cleverly named “Ball Sheep,” now holds the record for being the only sheep to have ever reached the summit of that structure. Pictures were taken.
Back to Roggenburg for supper and a discussion with the confrères. I just have to brag on our students a bit… When we were at Dachau, the guide told us how impressed she was with the group: their attentiveness, their questions, and their respect for the memorial. They displayed these same qualities when meeting with the Roggenburg Norbertines.
Tomorrow, on the bus by 8:15 for our trip to Ludvig’s castles.
Wednesday, January 8
At the bus by 9:00 – and off to Dachau: a somber way to begin our tour.
We were first struck by the natural beauty of the setting, an ironic context for a place associated with such horror.
We met our guide, a lawyer from Northern Germany who lives in the village of Dachau. She’d originally begun working at the memorial because it offered her – the mother of four – more flexibility than than the practice of law. Once her children were older, she’d continued at the memorial instead of going back to the practice of law because, she related, after Dachau no other job or career seemed nearly as important as her role at the camp. We spent 2 ½ hours with her, going through the exhibit, the roll-call grounds, the prison (yep, a prison in a concentration camp), and the gas chamber and crematorium. We spent another 1½ hours on our own, watching a video, visiting the religious memorials, going through the barracks, and meditating. Back at the hotel, we gathered as a group to reflect on the experience.
Some of our thoughts and questions:
*How could any human being become so desensitized to suffering that they could participate in this horror? *Are we all capable of treating other humans with such abject cruelty? *We need to be vigilant and critical of what we read, of the news we hear, and of the explanations that are offered us by those in authority. *Do we adequately question our government’s narrative? *We’d seen the photos of the prisoners when they were liberated: emaciated, ill, and barely alive. Seeing pictures of them taken before they were imprisoned were deeply moving: muscled union workers with open, smiling faces; fathers and mothers picnicking with their children and pets, solemn professionals in suits and ties. *The Holocaust is infamous for its efficiency, the files kept, and the sheer number of deaths. But we mustn’t forget that the violence was also intimate, one-on-one. Individuals with names and faces and families deliberately chose to injure and kill others with names and faces and families. *There was an altar in the prison cell of a priest. Somehow, there were prisoners who held on to their faith, who continued to believe in God and love and goodness. *Who held on and who gave up? Could we have fought to live and carry on while surrounded with the death of our friends and our families? *Some of us were most moved by the Jewish memorial: a structure that evoked the tomb or the ovens. It was a stone structure that rose up dark and close, but was pierced at the top by an circular opening. Looking up out of the darkness, we could see light and blue sky; a few steps closer, and we could see that the opening was crowned with a menorah. *Others responded profoundly to the roll-call field. Standing alone, they recalled those who had to drag themselves and others to the field in the cold and in the heat, trying to appear healthy while being starved, beaten, and taunted. “It almost brought me to my knees,” said one of us. *The prisoners themselves were forced to build the gas chamber and crematorium. Inside this building, we walked through the small waiting area, the disrobing room, the “shower” room, and into the crematorium. Each oven only held between 2-4 bodies: again we were reminded of the intimacy of these crimes. And, in the back of the crematorium, a sink! That detail recalled Hannah Arendt’s phrase: “The banality of evil.” *We asked: what goes on today that reminds us of this? Who are the people being persecuted in our time? *What can any one person do? *We talked about the importance of civility. We considered the violence we do with words and actions, and how we are called to be gentle with one another, to respect one another, and to be mindful of the power we have to hurt others. We saw and heard myriad examples of how the Nazis dehumanized their victims, and we reminded ourselves that whenever we categorize people, we are reducing them and refusing to admit their wholeness.
I could go on – we could have gone on – for hours.
Later in the day we went in different directions. Some of us walked back to Marienplatz, and from there down to the open-air market. The stalls and shops were a emphatic affirmation of life and its pleasures: sausages of all shapes and sizes, vegetables and fruits carefully arranged, a tiny store filled with jars of honey – thyme honey, lemon honey, truffle honey, mango honey. Cheese stalls, wine and beer bars, mountains of bread, potato stalls with at least ten different kinds of potatoes – blue fingerlings, white fingerlings, baking potatoes, small baby reds. Flower shops and stalls, candy stalls, and pesto bars. We soaked it in, a powerful tonic after our visit to Dachau.
Some went out to the Hofbrauhaus, others to bed, and some just kept walking through the city.
Tomorrow, it’s breakfast at the hotel, at the bus by 8:45, and off to Roggenburg.
Tuesday, January 7
We were delayed at O’Hare, but got off safely (the final delay for our plane occurred because a piece of equipment was frozen onto the runway and they had to get a truck over to pull it off). For anyone reading this who has NOT experienced -40 degree wind chill – it was so cold that we could see our breath inside the gate. Then, as we began to board, the United representative warned us to wear our coats as we boarded the plane because of the extreme cold in the jet way. Hmmm, I thought. Really? She was correct – in fact there was snow (drifts of snow, not flakes of snow) in the jet way that had blown in through the seams or joins.
The good news is that we all made it by dinnertime (or mid-dinner) except for Holly Nickerson who won’t be able to fly out until Wednesday. An absolutely beautiful day in Munich, around 55 degrees (we started peeling off layers in the airport). Great walking weather. Many of us walked from the hotel to Marienplatz, sampling food all along the way: roasted chestnuts, sugared almonds, and – of course – sausage. We then staked our claim to a couple of tables in a café and admired the beauty all around us.
Bavarian food for all at our opening dinner – and early to bed for me.
Monday, January 6
Wow! We haven’t even boarded the plane and it’s been an exciting trip already. Sub-zero weather, snowstorms across the Midwest and Eastern seaboard, most in and out of Chicago flights cancelled, and all flights out of Austin Straubel and Outagamie airports cancelled. Some of us take a bus from Austin Straubel down to O’Hare, others drive (and a car breaks down en route), one student is stranded in Indiana… But so far, those of us leaving from O’Hare are good to go. Even Fr. Sal and Brennan are here – and they had planned to leave from Philadelphia. Fingers crossed for Brady Ament who’s somewhere near Newark, and Colton, who’s flying standby. Fr. Jay is – we think – flying through London. I’m thankful that Steve and and I made went to our yoga class this a.m. before leaving; I wisely put my mat right behind Howard Ebert so that I (a true beginner) could learn from a master.
Stacey says, “Is it too soon to be wishing that we were already there?” No, but it won’t change the fact that we’ve got a long (and hopefully uneventful) flight ahead of us. Good news – weather in Munich looks positively tropical compared to home: 52 degrees.
Will update you all!