Storks and Clocks in Strasbourg

stork on cathedralOn the 6th day of our Viking River Cruise we crossed the Rhine and spent a morning in France, touring the beautiful town of Strasbourg. There are many things to love about this historic town, but my mind was on babies when we visited. Or really, just one baby. We have friends who are in the process of adopting a little girl, and while we were in Strasbourg we learned about the storks that come there and build nests every year—like this one on top of the Strasbourg Cathedral de Notre Dame. Inside the Cathedral, I prayed for this child and the family she would become part of. And I loved all the stork-related art all over town.

stork art

So WHY do the storks come to this area of Alsace every year? The geography of Alsace—in the plain of the Rhine with abundant marshland (at least before the canalisation of the Rhine after the second world war) made it a good feeding ground for storks. The area was also within reach of their winter migration areas in North Africa. North Africa! Can you imagine that they fly that far every year?

CathedralBut back to the cathedral. The first version of the church was begun in 1015, but fire destroyed most of the original Romanesque building. By the time that cathedral was being renovated (at the end of the 12th century, this time with red stones carried from the nearby mountains of Vosges), the gothic architectural style has reached Alsace and the future cathedral was starting to develop all characteristics of gothic aesthetics.

There is much to admire inside. I love these reflections by Victor Hugo:

“The church portals are beautiful, particularly the Roman portal; there are truly superb figures on horseback, the rose-window is noble and well-cut, the entire front of the church is a clever poem. But the true triumph of this Cathedral is the spire. It is a veritable tiara of stone with its crown and its cross. It is a gigantic and delicate marvel.”

astronomical clockOne of the most fascinating features of the church is the astronomical clock. A principal work of the Renaissance, this mechanical astronomical clock is an invention put together by various artists, mathematicians and technicians. Swiss watchmakers, sculptors, painters and creators of automatons all worked together to build this amazing automate. The present mechanism dates from 1842 and is especially attractive for the work of its automatons, which, every day at 12.30 pm, all start their show. We were fortunate to be there for one of its movements. It was too tall to capture in a video, but I got a few stills.

IMG_3041The astronomical clock offers you a view of the different stages of life, which are personified by a child, a teenager, an adult and an old man, who pass before Death. Above this are the apostles who walk before Christ. Their passage is punctuated by the beatings of wings and the song of a large rooster. In front of the clock is the marvelous Pillar of Angels, which, in a very original manner, represents the Last Judgment.

cellistAfter touring the cathedral and walking around the cobblestone streets window-shopping (we didn’t really have time for real shopping) we enjoyed gelato at an outdoor café right in front of the cathedral. And an impromptu cello concert. Another magical day.

Orthodox ChurchOh, and I had read that All Saints Russian Orthodox Church was being built in Strasbourg, and we drove past it on our tour bus but it wasn’t close enough for us to walk back to see it close up later. Here’s the shot I snapped through the bus window. Stay tuned for our next day’s excursion to the medieval village of Colmar, our final destination before arriving in Basel to fly home. Thanks for joining me!

(I’ll close with a few more photos in Strasbourg.)

bike scene

 

river scene 3

 

river scene

 

Heidelberg, Mark Twain, and Worms

1982 at the Heidelberg Castle

1982 at the Heidelberg Castle

The first time I went to Europe, about 36 years ago, my husband and I stayed in a small village on the Neckar River, about 50 miles from Heidelberg. This was in around 1982. We were there for a symposium my husband was part of, and they had us tucked away in a remote little village. I remember playing tennis with a French girl on courts that overlooked the Neckar River. And opening our windows every morning to story-book scenes of milk being delivered outside our castle-like hotel. Our only site-seeing excursion during the symposium was to Heidelberg.

 Bill Susan castleThirty six years later we returned, on Day 5 of our Viking Rhine River Cruise. Heidelberg is Germany’s oldest university town, known as the cradle of the German Romantic movement. It’s most famous example of baroque architecture, the Heidelberg Castle is a magnificent red standstone ruin perched 330 feet above the river. It was partially destroyed by fire in the 17th century.

 

Hotel where Mark Twain stayed

Hotel where Mark Twain stayed

 

 

 

 

As our tour bus ascended to the castle, I snapped a picture of one of the hotels where Mark Twain stayed in the summer of 1878, Hotel Schrieder, now a Crowne Plaza. Of Heidelberg Twain said the city was “the last possibility of the beautiful.” In 1880 he published “A Tramp Abroad,” which includes the story of a raft journey down the river. graf w Red Ox InnThis was published several years before “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Many people in Heidelberg believe, therefore, that the Neckar was as influential as the Mississippi to Twain’s writing.

 Later we walked past this graffiti piece, which featured the Red Ox Inn, where Twain spent much of his leisure time. The guide didn’t point the graffiti out, but I’m always on the watch for street art and was thrilled to see the Red Ox Inn included.

 

The castle moat and grounds were fascinating, but the views of the Old City and river and buildings across the river from the castle were my favorite part of the tour.

view

moat

 

Our boat actually docked at Speyer for our Heidelberg tour, on the west bank of the Rhine. There was a beautiful park there, and lots of local art.

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Protestant Church at Speyer

Protestant Church at Speyer

 

We took an informal walk into town without the group and into the “Memorial Church of the Protestation” a historic Luthern and Reformed church built between 1893 and 1904, to commemorate the Diet of Speyer.

 church inerior

 

The term “protestant” originated in Speyer in 1529 at the Diet of Speyer, when 14 free cities of Germany and six Lutheran princes protested the Edict of Worms that had banned the writings of Martin Luther and labeled him a heretic and enemy of the state. I grew up Presbyterian and was a huge fan of Martin Luther, but I never thought about why it was called the Edict of Worms until we cruised alongside Worms headed into Speyer. So much history all around us on this amazing trip.

 

Stay tuned for my next post where we head across the Rhine and dip our toes into France for one day….

The Spitting Boy and Cable Cars

IMG_2791On the morning of Day 4 of our cruise we took a walking tour of Koblenz, Germany, a 2000-year-old trading settlement situated where the Rhine and Moselle Rivers meet. In fact, there’s a small peninsula jutting out into the confluence of these rivers with a public park called Deutsches Eck, the city’s famed German Corner. The park features a large equestrian statue of Emperor Wilheim I.

From there we took a cable car ride up to Braubach, where the 13th-century Marksburg Castle watches over the town. We didn’t take the tour of the castle, but it was fun to see the medieval fair that was taking place on the grounds on this beautiful Saturday morning.

IMG_2798Back down in Koblenz, we toured the Old Town and the baroque City Hall, with so many influences from ancient Rome, the Middle Ages, and the Napoleonic era. In touching distance of the Deutsches Eck are the pointed Romanesque towers of the oldest church in Koblenz. Once attached to a monastery, the Basilica of St. Castor is part of that UNESCO World Heritage Site for the epochal events that have taken place since its foundation 1,200 years ago. It was at this place in 842 that 110 representatives negotiated the division of the Frankish Empire. Most of the architecture is from the 12th century and although the church did take damage in the Second World War, this was reparable.

Our guide warned us not to stand in front of "The Spitting Boy"

Our guide warned us not to stand in front of “The Spitting Boy”

The citizens of Koblenz are especially fond of their children. We loved this statue of “The Spitting Boy,” which playfully spits water out at admirers every two minutes.

IMG_2815They also love ducks, like this one we passed on our walk. And this statue of a little girl with ducks in Old Town.

IMG_2814What a lovely way to spend a morning. Back on the ship we cruised the Middle Rhine all afternoon—the most scenic part of the cruise with a multitude of castles, so stay tuned for my next post! Meanwhile, enjoy a few more pictures from Koblenz!

Between the cobblestone streets and the ancient architecture, Koblenz is a lush, green village.

Between the cobblestone streets and the ancient architecture, Koblenz is a lush, green village.

More fun... an artist is going around Germany painting a banana on the outside of museums that he approves of, like this one in Koblenz.

More fun… an artist is going around Germany painting a banana on the outside of museums that he approves of, like this one in Koblenz.

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In the courtyard of a museum, an artist installed a statue of his thumb. I guess he was giving Koblenz a thumbs up!

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On the cable car ride….

Cologne, Cathedrals, and Beer

My SinMy mother’s favorite cologne was My Sin by Lanvin. When she was born in 1928, My Sin had only been available for four years. As far as I can remember, this was her only fragrance. I was thinking about it yesterday, as I commemorated the second anniversary of her death. I always loved the way she smelled. When I was young I wore Youth Dew by Estee Lauder. It came out in 1953, when I was only two years old. I remember wearing it in high school and college, but in my young married years (starting in 1970) I somehow lost interested in fragrances. My husband, who wore British Sterling and English Leather like everyone else in the 1960s and 70s, also lost his taste for colognes early. I’m not sure why we both did this. But recently I’ve wondered if I might want to try something again. The commercials are enticing—like Gabrielle, by Chanel. “Before creating the House of Chanel, Coco was Gabrielle. A rebel at heart…passionate and free.” When I was younger I considered myself a rebel. Sometimes I still do. So, I was sorry we didn’t have much free time on our walking tour of Cologne, to sample the local fragrances.

IMG_2703Yes, Day 3 of our Viking River Cruise included a walking tour of the city of Cologne, Germany, in the morning and “bar hopping” to three brew houses in the evening—quite a contrast in cultures in this beautiful city. From across the Rhine, where our boat was docked, we could see the twin spires of Kölner Dom, the Catholic Cathedral Church of Saint Peter, the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe. Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, it was begun in 1248 and was finally “completed” in 1880, but as our tour guide pointed out, it’s always under construction, renovation, or repair.

IMG_2730The architecture all around the Old City was a mix of Gothic and Roman. Storybook images surrounded us at every turn.

 

And of course I always love the street art—like these two sidewalk pieces.

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In the evening we walked along the cobblestone streets and stopped at three Kolsch brew houses. Kolsch is a light, crisp beer, brewed only in Cologne. Brauhaus servers, known as kobe, bring the Kolsche from the barrel to the table in small 7-ounce glasses, so that the beer stays cold while you’re drinking it. I’ve never been a beer drinker (even when I was a drinker) so this part of the outing was lost on me, but I enjoyed the traditional dinner at Brauhaus zur Malzmuhle, one of the most popular brauhaus restaurants in Cologne since 1858. Our young guide and his charming fiancé made the evening even more fun, as did the views of the cathedral from across the river.

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Back on the boat at the end of the day music and trivia games were going on in the lounge. One night my husband and I won the music trivia game, and every night there was music, dancing, and games of some sort. Going through the locks was also an adventure, and one night we even went up on the upstairs deck to experience the adventure up close. Even on our state room balcony, we could reach out and touch the (slimy) walls of the locks as our boat ascended to the next level in the river.

VIew from the top deck of our boat, as I was reading and relaxing after the morning tour of Cologne, with a view of the Cathedral just across the river.

VIew from the top deck of our boat, as I was reading and relaxing after the morning tour of Cologne, with a view of the Cathedral just across the river.

We always slept well, looking forward to opening the curtains to see where we had landed during the night and what adventures awaited us the next day.

The Cat and the Cradle

IMG_2599Another excursion that I was surprised by on our Rhine River cruise was also in the small town of Kinderdijk, where we visited the cheese-making farm. Again, I’m a city girl, and I rarely find joy in rural settings, but the history and culture and charm of these historic windmills was something I didn’t expect.

 

IMG_2649The windmills in Kinderdijk—the largest concentration of windmills in the Netherlands—are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These 19 windmills are a feast for the eyes, and their story is fascinating.

 

The families who lived—and continue to live—in them keep them working, and they are called “millers.” When I first heard our tour guide use the term, I thought she was talking about people who mill grain. But no, they are people who keep the windmills working.

 

IMG_2646The windmills were erected in the 1600s to drain the Alblasserwaard polders, which had suffered floods since the 13th century. One such flood, the Saint Elizabeth Flood of 1421, is both the source of the name Kinderdijk and of the associated fairy tale, “The Cat and the Cradle”: after the storm, a wooden cradle was spotted on the flood waters, in which a cat jumped to and fro to keep the cradle afloat.

 

When the cradle approached the dry land of the dyke, the locals discovered a baby inside—hence the name Kinderdijk, Dutch for “children’s dyke. “

 

IMG_2648The one windmill that we were allowed to go inside had pictures of the family who lived there years ago, with their 15 children! The sad story is that one of the toddlers was running towards the blades of the windmill and the mother rushed to stop her, saving her child, but losing her own life.

 

 

IMG_2654When I put pictures of the inside of the windmill on Facebook, my Goddaughter Katherine, who has three teenagers, commented that her kids wanted to live in a windmill! (They love adventure.) The quarters were so small that I can’t imagine where everyone slept. The beds were tiny, and I heard that the adults slept sitting up. It would take a hardy bunch to want to live there and keep the windmill working!

 

Stay tuned as I move into the city of Cologne, Germany, in my next post.

 

The millers have some big shoes to fill....

The millers have some big shoes to fill….

Cat in Kinderdijk

Cat in Kinderdijk

 

Cows and Cheese in the Netherlands

IMG_2579I’m 67 years old, and as far as I can remember, I had never touched a cow (or even been on a working farm) until last week. We flew into Amsterdam, and after a brief tour, we boarded our Viking long boat for a cruise down the Rhine River, which would end a week later in Basel, Switzerland. You can see the whole itinerary on the Viking web site if you’re interested. (I highly recommend the trip!) Meanwhile, I’m going to write reflections on each stop along the way here on my blog, so if you’d like to see more than just the photos and captions I shared on Facebook and

Shot this from our bus en route to the dairy farm.

Shot this from our bus en route to the dairy farm.

Instagram last week, follow along here for a couple of weeks.

Our boat arrived in Kinderdijk, Netherlands, on May 10 while we were sleeping, and it was magical to wake up in such a beautiful place. I’m surprised to say that our tour of a Dutch cheese/dairy farm was one of this city girl’s favorite events of the week.

IMG_2572The Kuiper Farm is currently owned by a fifth generation farmer, who gave us a tour of the barn, where I petted a cow for the first time I can ever remember. We learned about the personalities of the cows—how #93 was the leader—and so my friend Deb started calling me #93 for the rest of the trip.

 The cows have to stay inside the barn all winter and on the spring day when they are finally let out to graze in the pastures they go running and leaping joyfully, celebrating their freedom. You can watch this on several You Tube videos, like this one, of the “dancing cows.”

Desiree showing us how cheese is made.

Desiree showing us how cheese is made.

The farmer’s daughter, Desiree, showed us how cheese was made and we sampled the best gouda I’ve ever tasted. (And yes, we brought some home.) And the good news is that the farmer’s 21-year-old son has agreed to buy the farm and keep it in the family as his dad retires… and his fiancé wants to learn to make cheese.

 

Love her glasses!

Love her glasses!

The farmer’s wife makes the cheese, and they sell it in their shop to tourists and locals. I wondered what their lives are like, on a farm where the cows must be milked twice a day and the production of cheese is almost a 24/7 process. There must be something rewarding about this life, since so far five generations have stayed “down on the farm.” Maybe they’ve never seen Paris….

My hubby holding a 25-pound gouda!

My hubby holding a 25-pound gouda!

The locals line up for what they call “grass cheese” every spring, when the first batch of cheese is made after the cows have been grazing the fresh grass rather than the dried hay they eat all winter. Who knew that “grass cheese” was a thing? And you can even get it in Georgia!

 one-good-mama-boneAs I spent time with these cows, I thought about my friend Bren McClain’s novel, One Good Mama Bone, and the inspiration that “Mama Red” is to the protagonist in the story. I appreciate her book so much more after being in touch with the cows at the Kuiper Farm, although the cows in her story are raised for beef rather than dairy.

 Our next excursion was to visit the Kinderdijk windmills—another “first” for this city gal! Stay tuned!

The Mutual UFO Network—Short Stories (and advice) from Lee Martin

Mutural UFO CoverPulitzer Prize finalist Lee Martin has a new short story collection coming out on June 12—The Mutual UFO Network. I’ve been a fan of Lee’s work since I first met him, five years ago when he was on the faculty for the 2013 Creative Nonfiction Conference, which I helped Neil White organize in Oxford, Mississippi. We invited Lee because of his three memoirs (it was a CNF conference, after all) but it was his fiction that got him to the finals for the Pulitzer. And it’s his short stories that are capturing my attention now, especially since I’m in the process of revising my first collection of shorts, Friends of the Library.

As I was finishing reading my advance readers copy of The Mutual UFO Network this morning, I read Lee’s blog post, “Three Principles for Short Story Writers.” Lots of wisdom in this short piece, like these words:

… a short story writer has to understand that there’s always a second story going on beneath the narrative arc of the surface story. That submerged story, located more within character relationships, is always working its way to the top through the pressures applied to it by the narrative events. To access that submerged story, a writer has to be a careful observer of people.

I’m going to go back and be sure each of my stories has this kind of depth. And I know I’m just learning to be a careful observer of people—like the people I met at those eight libraries in small towns in Mississippi last year.  So, here are Lee’s three principles for short story authors:

  1.  Start with the habitual and let a moment outside the ordinary be the inciting episode for the narrative to follow.

  2.  Create a causal chain of events that connect to the inciting episode and allows for its further exploration.

  3.  Let the pressure of that causal chain lead to a telling moment, when characters reveal something about themselves not ordinarily on display.

LeeMartinBioPage-167x250Lee certainly practices what he preaches, as evidenced by the depth of the characters and the scope of the narrative arcs in his stories in The Mutual UFO Network. Stories like “Across the Street,” and “Love Field,” which feature interactions among neighbors and involve human drama fueled by schizophrenia, a lonely old woman, and a baby’s drowning. When the mother of a son with schizophrenia asks her mentally unstable husband why he taped paper over the bottom half of their upstairs windows, here’s how their conversation went:

 

 

“I don’t want anyone looking in.”

“What are you afraid they’ll see?”

“My heart. The inside of my head. My soul. They can’t have that, Mother. I won’t let them.”

Most of the characters that people these stories are wounded and trying to find their way through what one of them—Benny, a sober drunk who at one time rigged a bar stool to a frame and a lawn mower engine and wrecked it—wished he had said to his one-eyed friend Wink:

I know the extremes we’ll go to so we don’t have to face the truth, particularly when the truth is the ugliness of our own living.

In “The Last Civilized House,” a story of “love in ruins,” Ancil and his wife Lucy live with regret and anger fueled by a decades old affair and an abortion.  Other stories feature a crippled ventriloquist who offers compassion to an abused bully, a Chinese woman whose memories are haunted by what Mao did to her parents and brings that pain into her relationship with her black neighbors (Miss Shabazz Shabazz and her mixed-race daughter) and her ex-husband and his new wife.

9781496202024-Perfect.inddLee’s embrace of the bizarre reminds me of Flannery O’Connor’s stories. And his prose is just as vibrant and seamless. One forgets that he’s from Illinois and sets his stories in the Midwest. He can hold his own with a host of southern writers with whom I spend most of my reading hours. The Mutual UFO Network is a must-read for lovers of good literature of any genre. Watch for its release on June 12! (Buy it from your local indie booksellers or pre-order NOW from Amazon!)

And for more wisdom on writing, get Lee’s book Telling Stories: The Craft of Stories and the Writing Life (just released in October 2017).

I’m off on a European riverboat cruise up (down?) the Rhine River tomorrow, so watch for pictures on Instagram and Facebook. Not sure if I’ll be blogging or not, as this is a real vacation for both of us. (My husband isn’t speaking at any medical meetings while we’re there!) Haven’t decided what book(s) to take for the voyage, but maybe they’ll end up in a review here eventually. Bon voyage!

Memento Mori, Orthodox Theology, Tattoos, and Flannery O’Connor

Jon tattooI had never heard the Latin phrase, “memento mori,”until a couple of weeks ago when we were in New Orleans, having dinner with our son Jonathan one night. He showed us his new tattoo (see photo at right), which has the phrase at the bottom of the picture. I asked him what it meant, and he said it was an Army thing…. Something from Caesar that meant “remember you will die,” or something similar. Jon spent twelve years in the army, flying helicopters for two of his three tours in the middle east, often facing death up close and personal.

Melissa Conroy artI Googled the phrase later and the closest translation I found was similar—“Remember that you have to die.” I read more about its military origins, especially as it related to “Roman triumphs.”

A couple of days later, I discovered some art work Melissa Conroy (Pat Conroy’s daughter) posted on Instagram (see left) and couldn’t believe that it was also about memento mori. So, having never heard the phrase, now I was seeing it twice within a week or so. Was there a message there for me? Oh, but wait….

Confessions RIVERThe next day I started reading (an advance readers copy of) River Jordan’s upcoming book, Confessions of a Christian Mystic, (which is awesome and will be out in 2019) and, if you can believe this, the title of chapter 6 of her book is “Memento Mori”! How synchronistic—or maybe, how mystical!

When Jon first told me about the phrase, I thought about how the Church fathers often referred to something similar, encouraging Christians to keep their death before them at all times, so that they would live more godly lives. I found St. Ignatius Brianchaninov’s “On the Remembrance of Death,” and read part of it again. Written primarily for monks, it’s a bit more intense than I can embrace in my current lifestyle, but the concept of living as though one might die soon isn’t a bad thing.

Mom and Dad graveI had the opportunity to have my own death brought closer in my mind this past week, when I visited the graves of my mother, father, brother, and Goddaughter—all within a few feet of each other—at Natchez Trace Memorial Park in Madison, Mississippi. My mother Effie Johnson died two years ago May 22. My brother Mike Johnson died eleven years ago this past January. And this year I will commemorate the twenty-year anniversary of the deaths of my father Bill Johnson (July 9) and my Goddaughter, Mary Allison Callaway (September 18).

Mary Allison's graveAs I brushed the dirt off the grave markers and placed fresh flowers in the vases, I sang “The Angel Cried,” and shouted, “Christ is Risen! Indeed, He is Risen,” and then spent some time sitting on a bench under a beautiful tree near the graves. I talked to each of these four people I loved so much. And I also thought about my own death. I thanked God that He has allowed me to live my 67 years so far, and hasn’t taken me during times (days, weeks, months, or years) when I was angry, or when I was withholding forgiveness from others. With much joy I realized that I am more at peace now than I’ve ever been in my life, and for that I am so grateful. Maybe I’m beginning to learn to live like I am dying.

Mike's grave

Meanwhile, a few more reflections on tattoos. My husband doesn’t like them. Lots of folks don’t. I didn’t always, as my kids remember. But I do now. Maybe for the same reason that I like graffiti, when it’s done as art and not as a gang message. I can see how folks would like to use their skin as a canvas to share a message. About nine years ago a group of women got together for a Groupwtattoosgoing-away-party for my Goddaughter Julie Stanek (now Julie Stell) who was moving to Pennsylvania. Part of the fun included temporary tattoos—several of us, including Julie, were artists and it seemed a fitting way to remember the day. I did a couple of posts back when some of us were gathering at Julie’s to do art together. We called ourselves the “Mixed Bag Ladies.” Here’s another post about the group.

BreaktheSkin-cvr-768x1167As I was reading another advance readers copy this week—this time it’s Lee Martin’s upcoming short story collection, The Mutual UFO Network,—I remembered one of his earlier books, titled Break the Skin. I Googled the cover because I remembered that it had this haunting image of a woman with a beautiful tattoo. Its design reminds me of some of Mare’s graffiti in my novel Cherry Bomb. Lee is an amazing writer who was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his novel, The Bright Forever. More synchronicity….

parkersback1And finally, having just finished “launch week” for my new anthology, SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, I realized that at each of the three events—at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi, and Novel Books in Memphis—at least one panelist mentioned Flannery O’Connor. An inspiration to many southern writers and readers, her short story “Parker’s Back” involves a tattoo of a Byzantine icon of Christ on the back of one of the characters. The first time I read the story I loved how O’Connor tied her gritty southern character to Byzantine iconography, and I hoped to emulate her as characters in my novel and also in a short story I recently drafted are changed by icons. I’ll close with an interesting article I found today by an Orthodox priest Father James Coles, “Man is an Icon of God,” in which he talks about “Parker’s Back.” Thanks, always, for reading.

 

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