FR-DE 2019 recap

This is a recap of my recent trip to France and Germany; I don’t expect anyone to read this.

3/12

Flew from MCI > DFW > CDG. I’ve never been so happy to have my paper mask along, my seatmate from DFW > CDG was a very nice texan who smelled strongly of stale cigarettes and cologne. Weirdly looked a lot like my grandpa, Papa Harris, too.

3/13

Arrived at CDG. Killed an hour at the TGV station, then caught my trains for the day: a nice TGV from CDG > Lyon Part Deux, then a twenty minute change to a much crappier TGV to Marseilles. I didn’t know they made crappy TGVs! Did a bunch of work and also read the beginning of the Count of Monte Cristo - I didn’t know that it had settings in Marseilles! It was kind of incredible to read about Dantes tunneling in the Chateau D’if, the alcatraz-like island prison, and then LOOK OUT MY TRAIN WINDOW AND SEE IT. Pretty great.

Had 30 minutes in Marseilles, and just walked around a bit - that looks like an incredible city!

Then regional train to Aix-en-Provence. The region here looks a bit like southern California - rugged dry and rocky terrain, but still stuff growing everywhere. There’s a thick layer of white chalky rock that forms outcroppings and small mountains, it’s really picturesque.

Got an Uber up to the Abbaye de Jouques, a 40-minute very pretty drive thru little downs along the Durance river. The abbey is way up the hillside, and is a modern complex of buildings built in the 70s. I said hi to the team here so far - John, Fabio, Enrique, and a visiting journalist Theresa - and then we pretty much immediately sat down in the chapel for Vespers. That was great! Following along in the different liturgical handbooks they had was like doing a crossword puzzle: flipping back and forth between these booklets, listening to the sisters sing in weird church latin, and tracking that latin and a french translation and trying to parse out the meaning, much of which are Psalms.

Then got to my room, had dinner with all the guests (there’s our team here and six older French who know each other, I don’t know what their deal is yet). It was good! A nice lentil soup with bread, then a flaky cheese-filled pastry with a cold beet salad, and cookies and pudding for dessert.

Then the team just hung out and talked for a few more hours, and now I’m getting my jetlagged butt to bed.

3/14

Got maybe four hours of sleep? and spent four hours in bed awake, although at one point I gave up and read some very exciting adventures of Monte Cristo. Up at 6.30 for a short run around the grounds here (lovely) then breakfast. Baguettes and jam and coffee. Then 8:30am for the Tierce and Mass service (they’re combined), which was about an hour. It was beautiful! I’m a sucker for communion, and after quietly thinking about the lives of the sisters here, the service comes to an emotional crescendo at communion, and then pow: it’s over.

THEN I got a 2-hour bootcamp by Sister Maria Dolores (john’s aunt) about the liturgy they follow. The short answer is that it is much, much more complicated than I thought. I knew it was pretty complicated, but I had a strand of hope that it could be managed and we could program something here to generate the day’s service. That strand was snapped. But we definitely have a path forward!

Then a visit to the abbey store to pick up some souvenirs, then some email and lunch. A shredded carrot salad with black olives, and yellow hot-dog-like wursts with lentils, and more of the delicious lentil soup from yesterday, and fruit for dessert. Are we serving lentils because it’s Lent?

Then John presented the project to all the sisters - this was a small room where we all crammed enough chairs together - the sisters in concentric semicircles and we five (enrique, fabio, john, theresa and I) in a row at the front. They were very enthusiastic and bubbly, and I can understand a lot of John’s simple french.

Then a break to do some computery work until Dinner, and John and Enrique and I reviewed Neumz so far and made a plan to move forward when Dominique & Alberto arrive tomorrow.

Dinner (tomato soup, then a dish of sliced baked potatoes in an onion & bacon sauce, very much like an au gratin I guess), then a yogurt w jam and cookies. We hustled immediatly over to the church building again to be screened a new movie (premiering next week) about the sisters life here, and it was slow and beautiful. It made them all look glamorous. Trailer here!

10.51pm now and off to bed, thinking about trying the full run of services for one day, just to say I’ve done it.

3/15

Ah, how young I was! I got up at 4.30 and went to Matins at 5am; I was the only guest and maybe 1/3 of the sisters weren’t there either, so it was a pretty intimate environment. Matins turns out to be mostly chanting scripture passages in latin recto tono which means MONOTONE. It was long, but settled into something like a comfortable longness. I was officed OUT after that, so I did not go to other services. So much for that plan.

Couldn’t get back to sleep after, so was up early for breakfast, and then mostly coordinated and worked with John and Enrique planning out their tech projects thru the day.

We got a tour of a small museum they have on campus here; six rooms dedicated to Mere Genevieve Gallois (1894 - 1964). She was a promising young painter who was moderately successful - working with Toulouse-Lautrec in Paris even - before finding her vocation and joining the order. As a young woman she did really beautiful impressionist portraits of her family, then moved to a bold caricature style and did large, gestural poster drawings - these were great. After she joined up she abandoned painting for a dozen years, and then took it up again and mostly made work about the monastic life. Although she was largely cut off from the artistic world, she re-engaged in a pretty expressionist style, and worked in smaller forms: watercolor drawings, small engravings, etc. She did design the stained glass windows here at the abbey’s main chapel.

In the late afternoon/evening I went for a run, down the long winding road down to the canal, and back. I think it was ~ 5k? It was early sunset, and beautiful. I sat on the bluffs that look down on the river & canal afterwards, and then came back to shower, wash some socks, and get dressed for dinner. Caught up on work while we wait for a later dinner with new arrivals Alberto, Dominique, and John’s mom & brother (Mary and Alex). Alberto and Dominique are clearly supergeeks about gregorian, and they brought the RECEIPTS right away; we talked about chant for 2+ hours after dinner.

Also, food continues to be delicious homemade fare. Lunch was grapefruit, then a tuna/potato casserole thing (pureed finely with cheese toasted on top I think) served with bowtie farfalle pasta and stewed eggplant, and fruit for desert. Dinner was a thick yellow soup, no idea what it was, and then a quiche (only eggs and crust) and salad, followed by stewed peaches & those cookies that are like freeze dried coconut marshmallows. Macaroons? Not the sandwich kind.

3/16 Samedi!

Continuing at ND de Fidelite in Jouques. Up for breakfast, then Lauds service with the whole crew. Then meetings with Dominique, Alberto, Mere Jean-Bosco (that can’t be how it’s spelled) to discuss liturgy and our development plans. Made a ton of progress, and the other three went deeeeep into the weeds about Gregorian matters. I have listened to a LOT of French today.

It’s funny how when the a conversation strays into technical matters, it gets easier to understand - the domain-specific words happen more (in this case they’re Latin) and the other bits get simpler. I can really follow a lot in French this way.

We only broke for meals and services: today I went to 2 of the 6 possible offices, Lauds and Vespers. By Vespers - the early evening service - I understood almost all of what was happening, which feels like a real achievement when the service is in Latin, the instruction sheets are in french, and the guidebooks - you need at least 4 to follow the text - are in both.

Food: so much! Breakfast is the same everyday: baguettes with jam. There’s been some UHT milk on the table everyday, but the new french people that arrived were the first to use it - they poured a good serving into a BOWL, microwaved it, and then added some coffee powder to make a kind of cafe au lait, and then dipped their baguettes into it. Weird! Lunch was a simple salad (just lettuce and a mustard vineagrette), then a lamb chop (so much for Lent!) with really delicious baked artichokes(?) with cheese. Served with macaroni pasta, unsauced. But the artichokes and lamb had enough liquid to work. Dinner was… oh, some kind of delicious green soup, and then a dish of baked vegetables - carrots, potatoes, onions, maybe some broccoli - baked into a casserole thing; they were very soft and delicious. Add enough time and butter / cream, and it makes any vegetable good I guess. Then an orange-flavored pudding with brioche bread to eat it with.

With Alberto’s help, ordered a taxi for tomorrow (it took five tries to find one that would come get me!), and off to get ready for bed.

3/17

Sunday! Breakfast and chitchat with fellow young pilgrims (a family with young daughter from Marseilles, a history teacher from Aix). Then some emergency tech troubleshooting with Mere Jean-Bosco before la Messe. I sat outside in the sunshine by the olive trees, smelling the almond blossoms, and waited for my taxi. The pile of backpacks I saw yesterday turned out to belong to a group of high school girls, who were in some kind of uniforms halfway between girl scouts and catholic school uniforms. They had on fancier versions on their way to Mass, with coulottes(?) and - I kid you not - berets. Still halfway between Scout and School, though.

Taxi ride with Taxi David to Meyrargue - a tiny town with a one-platform station, pronounced roughly Mehr-argghhh. Waited in ignorance for 30 minutes; the station waiting area was closed, not a single sign of life besides the neighborhood cats, and no signage anywhere: but the train showed up on time as promised by the internet.

Quick ride to Aix, then checked into my hotel at Les Quatre Dauphins, which is indeed right around the corner from the fountain of the same name. Dropped my things, walked around the neighborhood and got lunch on the main drag, Cours Mirableau. Fancy beef tartare and frites, salad and bread, glass of localish red wine. Stray observations: the black motorcycle jacket is THE current official uniform for stylish French women. Also, in addition to greeting everyone with ‘bonjour’, all the locals are ending their interactions with ‘Bon Dimanche.’

Across from the bisto where I had lunch there was a tiny place with a cool logo and a line of hipsters - so I of course went over. Maison Nosh was a sehr petite coffeeshop and bakery, which had the precise global look of such places: all white interior, letterboard menu, houseplants, millenial pink furniture. I got a double espresso which had the same bright, lemony roast that I dislike from the hipster coffeeshop in my own neighborhood.

Then a walk and uber to Fondation Vasarely, a bonkers building of hexagonal rooms, founded by Victor Vasarely of course, who makes cool op-art that is MUCH cooler when it is in-person and GIGANTE. Several rooms of his giant work, one piece that covers a 30-foot tall wall in each wall of each hexagon. Then smaller rooms of rotating exhibit and smaller works. It was super cool.

Uber back to hotel, where I reset for the evening. Bought some fresh food for the zug reise tomorrow, then wandered the city center. Walked past the Hotel de Ville, up to the big old cathedral which is indeed Big and Old. A concert had just started with the organ and cello, so I settled in for an hour and listened - it was really great, and they ended on a super lovely elegie by G. Faure: look this up later, Matt. Explored the cathedral a bit afterwards, and on the History teacher’s recommendation found my way to the cloister walk, which has very cool old carved pillars all the way around.

Then a stroll back to the hotel, stopping to laugh at the irish bars full of St Patrick revelers, get a VERY delicious kebab classique at KEBAB KING - which included fries and a spicy sweet sauce. Closeted myself at the hotel to do 3-4 hrs of work and then to sleep.

3/18

Early to bed, early to rise: checked out by 7.30, uber to Aix TGV, and now am on my marathon train day: Aix > Avignon > Lyon > etc > Strasbourg > Baden Baden > etc > Frankfurt, then changing to Frankfurt > Wurzburg! Catching up on more email and settling in to do some work for la voyage. It’s fun to start to hear more and more german around me as we get closer to the border, and the landscape and architecture is already looking more german and much less mediterranean by the time we get north of Lyon.

Stray observations: older lady next to me got off at Lyon, but first she pulled up the Lime app to find scooters nearby. In france a Danish - the pastry - is called an Anglaise.

Changed at Frankfurt Hbf which was HOPPING, people running all over. It was fun. Got my next train to Würzburg, which was a really nice ICE train; I wish I had spent all day on that one. The hour+ between Frankfurt and Wzbg was really pretty - thru pine forests and rolling hills, as the sun was getting low and golden. Arrived Wbz and walked thru the city center to my airbnb, which is on the back side of the Rezidenz, a gigantic palace that the Prince-Bishops built. It’s super baroque and ridiculous. There’s a large walled garden which is gorgeous but also cuts this neighborhood off from the city center. There’s a ring park that also wraps around that area. It would be incredible if the ring park and the Rezidenz gardens connected, instead of being separated by a giant wall.

Checked into my airbnb and then went out to explore the city after dark; it’s a hike, maybe ~1.5 miles(?), but found my way to the old Rathaus, got my bearings for the Tilman landmarks I want to see tomorrow, and then met up with the Nacht Wåchtman tour - an old guy in an early Renaissance cloak and three-cornered hat, carrying a candle and a HALBERD. They give nightly walking tours, promising history and ‘characteristic Franconian humor.’ This was auf Deutsch, so I only understood … a quarter of it? But it was interesting although awkward. Then walked back home, answered email and did some work, and bed.

3/19

My first Tilman day! I’m here in Würzburg because it’s the home of Tilman Riemenschneider, an extremely underrated sculptor of the late medeival / early renaissance. He was a big deal here; he was Mayor during his lifetime, and there is stuff named after him everywhere. There are his work scattered around the city, he’s featured on a fountain at the Rezidenz, even the window of my airbnb looks down onto Riemenschneiderstrasse.

SO: up and out, got two pastries and a coffee (should’ve reversed that) on the walk over to Kiliandom, aka Würzburger Cathedral, aka the Dom. I underestimated how BIG this church was going to be. I underestimated how big EVERYTHING in Wurzburg was going to be, actually. I sat down for the tail end of Mass (I’m in the habit now, I guess, but at least this was has cool digital boards to let you know what page the hymns were on), and realized I was a few rows away from one of my favorite sculptures. After mass I got photos and a real close look at the TR work in the Dom, and sat down and drew them for ~ 1.5 hrs. Then over a few blocks away to another big church, Marienkapelle. TR did some really important sculptures in and outside of this one, but most of them have been taken to the big musuem across the river, and replaced by replicas. Then a ‘frankische bratwurst’ snack, at the market plaza by the Marienkapelle, then walked halfway over the river just to see it in the daytime.

Got a taxi to the Mainfrankische Museum, which is the main event: they have a LOT of Riemenschneider work there, and it turns out it’s all in ONE gallery, so I spent 3+ hours there like a weirdo, looking closely at every sculpture and taking photos of everything and doing drawings of all the interesting stuff. The Museum is attached to the Festung Marienburg, a HUGE fortress at the top of a tall hill looking down on the river, the old Mainbrucke, and the city center. It’s REALLY high up; this area is cool because the city is in a deep valley, and in some directions you look in between the buildings and you see just a weirdly vertical wall of green - they’re steep hills that are covered in vineyards. Closed out the museum, walked down to the old bridge and then hunted down the Neumünster, which is another big absurd church covered in gross baroque (Rococco?) decoration (like, there was a sale on roccoco or something) and sculptures. They have a big TR madonna there and three wooden busts that were destroyed in WW2 but have replicas in place. And my google research points to another memorial stone there that sure LOOKS like TR, but isn’t marked in the church guides. Who knows?

Then some shopping for the folks back home, then joined the throng that chills on the Mainbrucke with a glass of wine; had an aperol sprizz. Then caught the Tram (is it an s-bahn here?) over to the train station, got a DELICIOUS doner kebab, and picked up my rental car. Got upgraded to an Audi SUV. It’s weird how fancy it is, I am vaguely alarmed at all the bells and whistles. Took it back to my airbnb and now to do work, and go to bed!

3/20

Second Tilman day: a whirlwind, sort of. Today: drive around and see TRs that are installed in churches. Up and out early, drove to nearby town Rimpar, a little town on the outskirts of Würzburg, just past the IKEA. Walked into the parish church there. A few old folks had just started saying the mass together - a bit eerie actually without an officiant - and I quietly wandered around trying to find the “Knight’s Chapel”, which turns out to be just an adjoining room in the back. It has grave markers from the 14-and 15-00s, and also a modern tabletop diorama of the middle east. Weird! The TR piece there is supposedly the earliest known piece, and it looks it.

Then drove a kilometer or so away to Maidbronn, which is continuous with Rimpar more or less. The St Afra chapel there was unlocked, and so I just wandered around by myself - it’s all white and gray sandstone inside, and the big altar at the front is also gray sandstone. It was chilly and beaufiful.

Then coffee to go, and a 45-min drive to the parish church in Hassfurt. This is one where I knew the church wasn’t scheduled to be open. Carola and I had emailed someone there but they had stopped responding to my inquiries about time, so I nearly skipped it. But! As soon as I reached for the door of the church, I heard a ‘Herr Kirkland?’ behind me, and voila, there was the pastor ready to meet me. I don’t know if he was just waiting all morning for me or what, but his English and my Deutsch weren’t good enough to make that clear. There’s a great John the Baptist there, and very good Madonna, and a painted altar that’s done with the Workshop I think. But he was an enthusiastic guide, and also insisted on taking me a few blocks away to to a much bigger church also called the Knight’s Chapel, or Ritterkapelle. It was also impressive, and I enjoyed my little tour.

THEN back to the car and drove to Bamberg, which is a bigger city and has an altstadt on top of a hill, and a giant cathedral. Made it inside, saw the very impressive tomb-momunent there, but it was sadly roped off so you couldn’t get very close. The other piece is a relief carving on a side altar, but it was roped off for cleaning and I couldn’t talk my way past the cleaning crew to get a good look. I tried though! But I guess it wouldn’t be a trip to Germany without being screwed by a dumb German rule. Well: shook the dust of Bamberg from my feet and drove on to Rothenburg ob den Tauber.

The route there was fun: a mix of the autobahn, and then little country roads, some of which were only barely big enough let two cars pass each other. It’s a cycle of 100km/hr and 50km/hr as you go thru little town after little town, which definitely all blur together in their cuteness.

Rothenburg turns out to be a real Disney version of a medieval german city, and was busy with tourists even though it was the off-season when a lot of things were closed. I went straight to be main attraction, the Holy Blood altar at St Jakobskirche and found… the whole church was closed for an unscheduled cleaning for two days. Bummer. But wandered around, got a doner, walked around the city walls which still wrap around the old part of the city, tried to eavesdrop on a chinese tour group.

Then met Hr. Peter Noack, who I was scheduled for a tour of two other churches which were closed for the season. He showed me the polychromed altar at the Franziskaner church there - an early work which is a little clumsy and to me also seems clumsier by the polychroming. But it was great: Peter used to be a priest that worked in all the churches in the neighborhood, and let me walk right past the little rope by the altar, go right up to it and TOUCH it a bit. That was amazing.

Then into Peter’s car, which was just behind as he actually lives across an alley from the church, and drove a few minutes away to the tiny village of Dettwang, which is just a kilometer down into the Tauber valley. There’s a little church there that has an INCREDIBLE altarpiece there; all wood and pure, and again Peter just opened it up and we had the place to ourselves. I got up close and personal, and this little church - all by itself at the edge of a tiny village in the woods in a valley - seemed so remote and quiet. It was amazing. The altarpiece was actually somewhere else first, but the Dettwang parish asked if they could have this after another church closed, and they actually cut it down a bit by removing some middle pieces to make it fit. This was really amazing to see it so closely, and in such a great environment.

THEN. Peter also had the keys to St Jakobskirche, which has the showstopper piece that was closed. Usually this would be full of tourists like the rest of the old city center. But Peter let us in, just the two of us, in this giant church, and we discovered that there was scaffolding set up around the high altar, which is maybe 40 feet tall? That was a bummer not to see it in its full glory, but I was thankful for what I could get. But then Peter said I could CLIMB THE SCAFFOLDING TO GET A BETTER LOOK. So I monkeyed right up to the top.

The thing about these big altars is that you can never really see the top parts well or closely; they are too high and too far away to appreciate the details you get when something is at eye-level. But not today! I just climbed up around it, and got eye-to-eye with the pieces that are usually WAY up there. It was an incredible opportunity. Peter also clearly appreciated my enthusiasm, and then we went over to a roped-off balcony that looks out into the main nave area, and he sung a short hymn auf Deutsch just to hear the reverb.

With that high, I just walked around a bit more in town, and then got in my car and went back to Würzburg. Walked aver to the Mainbrucke one more time, and then had dinner at recommended restaurant that was a little cluster of four rooms, one of which was only lit by candles, and had some truly boring schnitzel. No regrets. Then back to airbnb to work and to bed.

3/21

With all the great TRs I’d seen yesterday, I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to push for a completist experience or not. But there’s another really big / famous altarpiece - the Creglinger - near Würzburg, kind of on my way to Munich, that seemed worth a try. It wasn’t scheduled to be open, but I figured why not? And it turned out: definitely closed. Oh well.

A long suprisingly tiring drive back to Munich, then dropped my car off at the airport, and took the U-Bahn to the city center where my hotel was. Checked in, went a few blocks north to see the TRs at the Bayerische Nationalmuseum. They definitely have a crop of incredible pieces there, all in one room like at the Festung in Würzburg.

Then did some shopping for the folks at home, and then met Jed Sundwall for a very good doner on the street. Then he wanted to go to a nearby ‘dive bar’ he’d wanted to try, which turned out to be a little place in a food court under the Ubahn station. But it was a little world unto itself: Kay’s Champagneria, all red and pink and full of doilies, and full of sloshed old ladies. We got a beer and chatted with the old ladies a bit, then got seats at the bar and it was a trip: talking about Jed’s expat life while the ladies around us kept drunkenly interrupting to try out their very bad english. It was amazing. The bartender, who was definitely Kay, was also pretty drunk. The bar closed at 8pm.

After that just back to the hotel to work and sleep.

3/22

Slept late til 8, had a good breakfast at the hotel, then Tram > Ubahn > airport > plane. Writing this now from the delayed plane, but oh man, I forgot to prepare myself for being surrounded by Americans again.

The delayed plane turned into a mechanical problem, which got routed back to Munich. Then we stood in line for 4 hours to get rebooked, and then shuffled off to an aiport hotel. 12 hours after I got to the munich airport (standing in lines a majority of that time) I was back checked into a hotel near the airport.

3/23

Same schedule, let’s try it again! 12:10pm MUC > PHL! Breakfast at the hotel, then shuttle to the airport, and then just a long travel day MUC > PHL, PHL > MCI. Home again!