Tag Archives: Berlin

Thistle or artichoke?

17 Sep Schloss Oranienburg - photo by Freddie

During Freddie’s recent visit to Berlin, we spent a night at my friend Margareth’s garden house to get away from the hustle and bustle of the big city. The small house is on a plot of land in a kleingarten community in Oranienburg, a town on the outskirts of Berlin accessible by a short train ride. Walking from the train station, we passed the Schloss Oranienburg, the oldest example of a Baroque palace in the district of Brandenburg, according to my hasty spoken translation of the sign for Freddie’s benefit.

Schloss Oranienburg - photo by Freddie Chillin' out back - photo by Freddie

It was built in the Dutch style by Frederick William, Elector of Brandenburg, from 1650-52 as a gift to his wife, Countess Louise Henrietta of Orange-Nassau (or Oranien-Nassau in German), who apparently loved the region. I suppose the utter flatness of the landscape reminded her of her Dutch homeland. Having grown up in Denver, Colorado, forever watched over by the mountains to the west, I can’t get next to that, but different strokes. Freddie (the Elector of Brandenburg, not my girlfriend) named the castle Oranienburg, something like Orange Castle, in the Countess’ honor, and changed the name of the town too not long after.

It was lovely, the garden home. We cooked some food, went for a walk or three, read books, tried to get the television to work to watch some presumably bad German TV. Mostly we relaxed. Life is slower out there, in the garden.

photo by Freddie photo by Freddie

Sometimes we wandered through the extensive garden itself, pointing out this or that plant. “What is this plant, Ian?” “It’s a, um, I’ve heard the German word before, but I can’t think of it right now. Hagebutte maybe? I don’t even know if there is an English word.” “Isn’t it rose hips?” “Oh, right.”

I pointed out what I thought was a thistle, which Freddie identified as an artichoke plant. “Really? I had no idea artichokes grow like that.” Turns out we were both right! Wikipedia says that “[t]he globe artichoke … is a variety of a species of thistle cultivated as a food.” I won’t link to the article because it could change at any moment.

by me

Thistle or artichoke? This file photo shows neither.

Thinking of thistles got me thinking of history, and the connection between history and the present. In a couple weeks, I thought at the time, Scotland, a nation which has long used the thistle as a symbol, will vote on whether it would like independence from England. The roots of the two countries’ entanglement go back centuries, with decades of relative peace broken by many episodes of anger, unrest, war, changes in the balance of power.

Around the time Freddie (the Elector) was having the Oranienburg castle built, he and the Countess Louise got a new nephew, born in her hometown, the Hague. Almost 40 years later this nephew, William of Orange, assumed the throne of England, Scotland, and Ireland. In what some people called the Bloodless Revolution (many Scots would disagree), the English Parliament invited Billy to invade their country because they didn’t like the king, a Scot named James (II or VII, depending on who you asked) of the house of Stuart. It was essentially a religious disagreement, as most political conflicts are. James was Catholic with French ties, Parliament and England were largely Anglican, which was essentially the same thing so who gives a fuck? A lot of people. Both sides said the other was intolerant, everyone tried to stir up public support by appealing to their own side, and James did not manage to play this game so well.

James escaped to France where he raised a couple generations of entitled royals sans land or people. Bored with court life, they longed for their rightful place on the throne of Scotland, welcomed by all Scots as the true Stuart king. Meanwhile Billy, or William III as he was more properly known, got to work trying to rule England. There were all sorts of dealings with Parliament, acts of official religious tolerance and of exclusion, and a lot more stuff that’s complicated and I don’t really understand. It was tough dealing with a large legislative body in a largely foreign country with many conflicting interests. Perhaps, as Mark E. Smith said, “[he] used to think [he] could do what [he] wanted to,” but was instead in the “wrong place, right time.”

“Can’t dance can’t sing / Cursed forever is William of Oranj”

A couple monarchical reigns later, Great Britain was ruled by a series of Georges of Hanover. A lot of Scots were still not happy with this foreign rule and were suffering under perceived hardships — taxation and lack of access to food, according to songs written by the still extant followers of James, known as Jacobites. In “Welcome Royal Cherlie,” we hear:

We daurnae brew a peck o’ maut

Or German Geordie finds a faut

And for our kail we’ve scarce got saut

I’m no expert on the Scots dialect, but I think it means something like, “We dare not brew even a small amount of malt, or German George will find a fault with us. And we hardly have any salt for our kale.” This song was written on the occasion of the second (or third, or fourth, depending on how you count it) Jacobite rebellion since James II/VII was forced out some 50 years before, leaving “a dighty German” to “rule us all.” In 1745 his grandson Bonnie Prince Charlie, affectionately known to followers as Cherlie, left his comfortable digs in France to attempt a takeover of the British crown.

Support of the Jacobite cause was not so monolithic as the songs make it out to be. Quite a few Highland clans were with Cherlie and he had early successes in battle, but as he marched south towards lower Scotland and England it became harder to muster troops and supplies. It probably didn’t help that he was essentially holding cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow against the will of much of the population, demanding food and provisions under threat of force. My own ancestors, the lowland Clan Douglas, who some 400 years earlier gained massive pro-Scotland cred by fighting against the English alongside King Robert the Bruce and then carrying his heart to the Holy Land, by this time had risen a bit in the British aristocratic ranks and were quite comfortable, thank you very much. Cherlie’s troops burned Castle Douglas on their way somewhere.

Long story short, the bonnie prince didn’t make it. Not enough local support, allies in France and England didn’t make good on promises for more troops, and Cherlie had to sneak away dressed as a maiden, as immortalized in the “Skye Boat Song,” written over 100 years later. That was that! Who knows what kind of king the man would have been, anyway. He had no more connection to the land than the German-born ruler he sought to depose, and no experience with running a country.

But the songs from the Jacobite uprisings are great. The lyrics are nasty and specific in their anti-Englishness, proud in their proclamation of Scottish self-rule. “Johnnie Cope” tells of the cowardice of the titular English commander, who apparently, when confronted by the “din” of the highland bagpipes, would run away.

I wondered who was writing these songs. Most are called “traditional,” so it’s hard to say. Did they issue from the pens of proletariat rabble-rousers? From former aristocrats left without land and title for supporting the wrong side in a previous debacle, vying now for popular support for relatively selfish reasons? Anyway, there were more plants to look at in the garden, including several varieties of mint and lots of chard.


On Eliane Radigue’s PSI 847

30 Mar

I was at a bookstore today flipping through Leaving the Atocha Station, a new book by Ben Lerner that I’d heard from the internet was supposed to be good. As the novel begins, the narrator/protagonist, a young American poet living in Spain on an academic fellowship, describes his routine on a typical day, which involves imbibing a hippie speedball and going to the Prado to spend some time sitting in front of a particular painting by van der Weyden or some other Flemish master. One day, he arrives to find another man sitting in his usual seat. The man begins crying. The narrator is surprised — did the man bring these intense feelings in with him, or was he having a profoundly emotional response to the painting? This leads to a self-examination of his responses to art over time. I myself, he tells the reader, do not have such strong reactions, in fact I distrust people who say that this or that song or book “changed my life” — I knew them before and after the supposed life-changing experience and they don’t seem to have changed.

I know where the narrator is coming from. Sometimes I look at (listen to/read/whatever) a work of art and feel like i’m having an authentic aesthetic experience. Other times I view the same work and, while I still recognize that I like it, don’t feel that… feeling from before. What has changed? Was my deep experience false? Has my relationship to the work shifted? Was it mostly my state of mind that caused the deep feelings, and the work merely a lens or mirror or inkblot?

But anyway, so what? To feel that my life has changed, it doesn’t have to appear different from the outside. This isn’t a movie. My life, my attitude towards it and myself in it and the world around me and the people I know, is constantly changing. A week ago I went with some friends to hear Eliane Radigue’s PSI 847 in concert. The piece is an 80-some minute electronic work created on an ARP synthesizer and played back from tapes that were recorded in the early 1970s. Like most of her music, it develops slowly over time. Because things happen so slowly, the listener is free to hear and explore different aspects of the sounds. The level of detail at any one time is astonishing. Within what sometimes, on the surface, resembles the sounds of idling household machinery, can be heard a world of elements working in subtly but constantly changing relationships. Perhaps halfway through the piece, something resembling a very slow melody appears, and you just don’t know what to do with it. But these are all cliches of writing about Radigue’s music, and the actual content and experience exists in that place that writers are afraid to deal with, a place outside of words.

After the concert I felt very strange. The consensus among my friends was that we felt high, but as with one’s first time being high on something (marijuana, alcohol, coffee, love), we couldn’t place these strong feelings. On a somewhat regular basis I come away from a concert feeling ecstatic, excited. This was different. I was turned inward. I thought about things about myself. I couldn’t put words to these thoughts, except to say that the music had deeply moved me. A quote from C.S. Lewis that I read in a Zizek book seems apposite: “Without words and (I think) almost without images, a fact about myself was somehow presented to me.”

If you look at an object from two different angles, it’s still the same object. Maybe the different vantage point strongly changes your opinions on the object because you see some aspect that you couldn’t see from the first angle. Or maybe it looks almost the same, but either way it’s still different. Your relationship to the object has changed. I’m convinced these feelings were “real,” brought about by listening to the piece of music. If I heard it again, would I feel the same way? Hard to say and, really, probably not. But I did learn something about myself from going to this concert.

[I wrote most of this a year ago. It has languished in my fireproof file cabinet until now. PSI 847 just came out as a 2CD set on Oral Records. One CD is a digital transfer of the tapes, the other is a recording of the described concert. You should buy it; I will too as soon as I have money again.]

Meatball Melancholy — Musings on the eve of a second winter in Berlin

27 Oct

As summer changes dramatically to fall, we apprehend the imminence of winter, our thoughts gliding through a track worn smooth by centuries of ancestors who faced the move towards cold and darkness. Is there an inherent truth to the identification of winter with a turn inward, a time of self-examination, or is this merely a juxtaposition conveniently arrived at by us melancholic types? Regardless, we often find our thoughts, in these days, contemplating mortality–our own and that of others both loved and strange to us. A typical stack of books on the table might, in the middle of autumn, contain Urn Burial by Sir Thomas Browne, the just-published-in-English Suicide by Edouard Levé, and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, one of the few books at the library down the street that looked interesting. At other times, inexplicably, our minds are filled with one overriding sensory image:

the ideal

Perhaps it is the memory of the comforting warmth of a stomach stuffed with meatballs and marinara sauce to the point of indigestion, or fond recollections of the many occasions preceding or leading up to the devouring of such a treat. We try to analyze these thoughts, to trace them back to their source, but all such attempts fail sooner or later, stopped by memory’s recession as if into an impenetrable cloud of sweet-smelling smoke. Anyway, is it not better to savor the feeling in all it’s complexity, surrounded by sense-memories and scores of vague connections to other times and places, than to attempt to pin it down like the lonesome lepidopterist, left only with the husks of his beloved moths and none of the dusty movement-in-flight?

These twin ideas–the memento mori of the season and the wonder of the Subway Meatball Sub–played over our minds like the play of sunlight over a gently moving shallow pool. Days were spent in the kitchen, alternating endless games of solitaire with cooking all varieties of bachelor food as we moved zombie-like under the spell of this obsession. Yesterday, something happened. “Ian, I think today’s the day for tempeh meatball subs.” It took a moment for Jason’s words to sink in as I hadn’t yet had a cup of coffee, but I was soon in accord.

We had a plan, and it went something like this:

Grind up some fennel seeds with your mortar and pestle, mince a clove of garlic, squeeze the juice out of a lemon. Put these in a bowl with some oregano, thyme, salt, pepper, lots of soy sauce and maybe some warm water with veggie bouillon. Crumble a block of tempeh into this marinade and let it sit for a good long time, absorbing! Toast some of that super dense moist bread that’s been sitting on the counter in a vain attempt to dry it out, then crumble this. When crumbling proves fruitless, grind it up with a stab mixer!
crumbing bread through a hole in a cloth
Have Jason slowly add bread crumbs and then a beaten egg to the tempeh as you mix it all together with your hands to the right consistency. Meanwhile he’s been making a marinara sauce from a base of onion, garlic, carrot and celery, with a can of diced tomatoes thrown in a few minutes ago, and then all blended together with our friend the stab mixer. But you, now, should be forming Subway Meatball-sized balls out of the tempeh mix and getting them ready to bake for about ten minutes in the oven you preheated earlier. This, we’re pretty sure, helps them hold together better. Out of the oven, put them in the sauce so they soak up a little flavor and you’re almost there!
aren't they so cute in there
Slice up your little brotchen (bread roll) and get some meatballs in there. Don’t forget to ladle on extra sauce! Maybe you want a slice of cheese or some diced onion on your sandwich; perhaps you have a lot of arugula lying around that Aaron has been insisting you eat. Go ahead, don’t be afraid.

Yum yum. Now there’s nothing to worry about in that cold world.

Appetite temporarily sated, we accept that, ultimately, we live our lives alone and no amount of companionship can entirely bridge the gap between us and another. More sauce please!