Rituals for Starting Work: medieval construction, coal mining, printing presses

Detailed 3D model of castle, church, moat and outbuildings. Schloss Horst Museum, Gelsenkirchen, Germany.
Model of medieval construction workers building Schloss Horst.

Over the weekend, I visited a castle, the Schloss Horst Museum in Gelsenkirchen, a printing press, the Historische Druckwerkstatt that offered a trip to the age of lead, and a coal mine, Bergbaustollen Nordsternpark.

Schloss Horst turned out to be a museum that drops you into the everyday life of the past. Animal sound effects, dust, sand, realistic puddles, and holes in the fence for the medieval supervisors to judge their workers’ industriousness completed the medieval construction site. There was also slate-chipping to try, medieval clothes to try on, and a room-sized model of the village as it must have been.

We walked by the table where the workers were paid. Each worker had a split stick–one half was his receipt and the other have belonged to the paymaster. Grooves cut across the stick showed how many hours had been worked.

Our tour guide showed us how to use a wooden table as a visual adding machine and money conversion tool. He was so fast laying down coins and moving them to the next marking on the table, I couldn’t take any pictures. He said people of the time would’ve been much faster. Personally, I would find a line of construction workers holding sticks to be highly motivational.

In the print shop, there was a newspaper article about the printers’ “Gautschfest” subtitled “Freisprechung der Lehrlinge” (literally: the ceremony of speaking the apprentices free) showing a stoic apprentice being doused in a barrel of water.

After our tour of the coal mine, our group leader was invited to don “an apron for the backside.” One coal miner then held a huge shovel behind her and the other struck the shovel with a hammer so it resounded like a gong.

Not sure why rituals give us something to push against. Maybe we feel like we belong, or feel a bit more in control when we know the proper response. A little bit of ridiculousness comforts us when we are set loose in the cold, dark world.

The coal miners had a greeting ritual before they went down in the mines: “Glück auf!” In English, the word “Glück” means something between gladness and luck, which is probably what it feels like when you come up from the mines at the end of your shift.

"Glück auf!" engraved in white on a black stone. Miners pre-shift greeting and mine shaft.
Best wishes for this week, whichever mines you work.

So I wish you “Glück auf!” on this Monday morning.

 

Looking for adventure for a young reader?

Adventure Awaits. Click here to enter your e-mail. See behind the scenes of THE WOUNDED BOOK.

Past Adventures: Stories of Immigration

Double-masted sailing ship in Bremerhaven harbor
For many people, Bremerhaven was the gateway to a new life in the new world. © Laurel Decher, 2015.

Last week, my family and I visited the German Emigration Museum in northern Germany. The museum is in Bremerhaven, literally “Bremen’s harbor”, so there are ships, a complicated harbor lock, and lighthouses. From the outside, the museum is big and square, but the inside is much more like a Disney experience.

At the ticket counter, we were each given a passport with a key card and a person’s name and invited to follow that person’s story through the museum. We waited on the wharf at night, boarded the huge ship and got to see the accommodations for each era of immigration–most were pretty terrifying. Then we “arrived” at immigration and eventually at Grand Central Station in New York City.

Having made this trip many times ourselves, it was really, really easy to imagine ourselves in the plight of our relatives. Would we have cleared immigration in those days? Would we have had all the right answers to the border crossing questions?

My husband’s aunt emigrated to the U.S. and my great-grandparents on both sides did too. The museum provides laptops so you can find out what ships your own relatives traveled on, what ports they left from, and other interesting details. It’s a surprisingly fun detective activity to do with your kids.

You can research your past even if you can’t get to Bremerhaven using a free trial membership for 14 days on Ancestry.com or with the free Ellis Island passenger search.

Within the frame of a museum, their hardship looks like a grand adventure. It helped us frame our own adventure, in the opposite direction, when we immigrated to Germany three years ago. It makes me want to write a story with time-travel.

 

Looking for adventure for a young reader?

Adventure Awaits. Click here to enter your e-mail. See behind the scenes of THE WOUNDED BOOK.

Four Paintings for Writers in Cologne’s Wallraf Museum

P1050122
“The Art of Poetry” by Jean Baptiste Camille Corot. Wallraf Museum. Cologne.
Man lost in book in a big, green chair with feet propped up on books.
“Don Quichote” by Adolf Schrödter. Wallraf Museum, Cologne.
Letters with red sealing wax, a comb, other things you might find on a dressing table.
“Quodlibet” by Cornelis Norbertus Gijsbrechts. Wallraf Museum, Cologne.

Painting of Snowwhite asleep in a glass case in the forest. Wallraf Museum, Cologne.
“Schneewittchen” [Snow White] by Marianne Stokes. Wallraf Museum, Cologne.
The magical inscription on this painting reads: “We cannot lay her in the dark earth,” said the dwarfs and so they had a transparent glass coffin made so that she could be seen from every side laid her in it and wrote on it her name and that she was a kings daughter. Then they carried the coffin into the wood and some of them always watched her and the birds also came and bewailed Snowdrop. First an owl. Then a raven and lastli a dove. So Snowdrop lay a long long time in her coffin looking as though she were asleep. –GRIMM”

The “lastli” pleases me greatli.

 

Looking for adventure for a young reader?

Adventure Awaits. Click here to enter your e-mail. See behind the scenes of THE WOUNDED BOOK.

25 Possibly Erroneous and Surprising Things I’ve Learned About Life in Germany

Summer farmhouse and tree making shade in Sauerland, Germany.
Borders don’t have to have barbed wire. ©Laurel Decher, 2015.

After three years in Germany as an American ex-pat, here’s my list of what I’ve learned so far:

1. Germans value sharing public spaces. This makes for a lot of conditional traffic laws. For example: “If there is a bicycle in this bicycle lane, you may not drive your car in it. But if there isn’t, you may.”

2. Saving energy is valued more than convenience. For example: the train and store air conditioning goes out whenever it gets hot enough to need it.

3. Plastic packaging is a big deal. There’s so much of it that it gets its own trash can in every household.

4. Our neighbors value walking in the woods as much as we do.

5. The whole country is full of pyromaniacs. I’ve never seen so many fireworks.

6. Volunteering is the way to find yourself inside a society instead of outside.

7. There are rules for everything and the response to overwhelming complexity is sometimes: “Es geht nicht anders” meaning: “I had to break at least one rule, there was no other way to do it.”

8. The trains and public transportation system sometimes set impossible standards for themselves. For example: the doors on the newest trains open too slowly and destroy the schedule. Solving problems with more complexity seems to be the way things develop. Maybe not unexpected in a land of engineers.

9. Public libraries are an American legacy.

10. Southwestern flavors–salsa and tortillas that aren’t sweet, green chili peppers, enchiladas–have not arrived here.

11. Creamy must be important because palm oil is in Nutella and is added to every kind of roasted peanut butter I can find.

12. Natural medicine is big because people can’t afford medical care here either.

13. Grown-ups live in apartments. I’m still struggling with this one.

14. People commute here as a lifestyle. Children start commuting very young and don’t ever seem to stop. This promotes bookstores and e-readers and magazines. I don’t know what it does to the accident statistics.

15. Chocolate cannot solve things, no matter how large a quantity is available.

16. Cake is consumed on a regular basis, not just for birthdays. Cookies are for Christmas. A chewy chocolate chip cookie is not possible or even necessarily desirable.

17. Pursuing things other than money is quite acceptable.

18. Houses from 1905 with outdoor latrines, gas stoves, single-pane windows and wood floors are still available on the market. All other houses seem to be four times the price.

19. Germans drive cars just as much as Americans and more than many Vermonters.

20. Bikes are regularly ridden without helmets and in the pouring rain. Corollary: Light rain is considered “good weather”.

21. Many Germans value liverwurst, blood sausage, and salami for breakfast. (See any hotel review website.)

22. Bakery bread is whole grain–you get to choose how much of each grain you want. 25% wheat and 75% rye, or the other way around? On the other hand, white flatbread with flavored cream cheese is popular party food.

23. Books from other countries (i.e. translations) seem to be preferred in bookstores and libraries. There seem to be few or no creative writing programs in this country.

24. Melted cheese to Germans doesn’t mean the same thing as melted cheese to Americans. German melted cheese usually involves potatoes. Or isn’t hot when served.

25. The preferred method for giving official information in a broad range of categories is a one-on-one appointment.

Do any of these resonate? Or sound off?

 

Looking for adventure for a young reader?

Adventure Awaits. Click here to enter your e-mail. See behind the scenes of THE WOUNDED BOOK.

Exploring: A word in favor of happy bees

Blooming sage with bee in windowbox
A blurry bee is a happy bee

In graduate school, my major professor, Dr. Sandra Melnick, gave me some good advice about moving to a new place:

“You have to find out what you can do there that you can’t do anywhere else. And then try it out.”

How do we thrive here? This advice is as true for gardening and writing as it is for exploring a new home. What thrives in this soil and this climate? What parts of my life hum along better here? What does this manuscript have that is new?

My balcony is an in-between place, an incubator. Our balcony is like a giant concrete bathtub with a red racing stripe. The balcony above protects us from the rain. There’s nothing remotely natural about it. It’s for a table and chairs, coffee and cake, Rhine wine and olives.

But little by little, the earth came to our balcony. First we hung up windowboxes, then insects came, then a few weeds, and the birds that dig up big clumps of dirt and chuck them over the side. Deep purple pansies transplanted themselves from the upstairs neighbor’s window boxes.

The other day I found a big, fat, caterpillar, a gift from one of the birds. Too heavy to take home to the kids? Uh, thanks.

Maybe this year is the year. We have a small peach tree in a pot and it’s making peaches again. Will they make it to peachdom this year or will they fall off like last year? A real peach would be a prize.

My daughter started 14 lemon trees from seed. There’s a world heritage site, Brühl palace near here, modelled after Versailles. Maybe they could use some lemon trees.

My tomato plants are full of promise. Their deep green leaves and stocky stems comfort me.

And so do the happy bees: I like the way their work absorbs them. They enjoy each flower on the sage. They stop in mid-flight and zigzag back to one they missed. They climb into each flower as if it were a cave full of treasure, which I suppose it is.

And the humming. Humming while you work is a good sign. Although they only hum between flowers. They also fly a little drunkenly. Are they really working? Or does the pollen load ruin their aerodynamics? It’s hard to look elegant when you have a lot to carry or a lot to learn.

Large black Wood Bee and sweet pea flowers in windowbox
A Wood Bee: even the bees are bigger in the North.

Last year, I had sweet peas in my window boxes and this Wood Bee visited often. It was so big and black I felt skittish around them, even when they were doing the happy bee thing. I thought they were some kind of GMO bee or Chernobyl bee, but they aren’t.

This year, we have different flowers so we have different bees. We live in a different place and culture and are learning to thrive. It gives me hope to see the blurry, buzzing bees on our balcony. Three are out there right now, exploring every flower they pass.

What can you do where you are that you can’t do anywhere else? What can you do with this novel, this project, this family, this class, these friends, this museum, this library, this forest that you can’t do with anyone or anything else?

Exploring: Hatzenport to Eltz Castle on the Path of Dreams

Grassy trail above Germany's Mosel river valley in a little bit of characteristic mist
Grassy trail above Mosel river valley in Germany.

One morning, in early spring, my husband and I decided to walk to Burg Eltz (Eltz castle) from the tiny village of Hatzenport. We had asked the innkeeper if he thought Burg Eltz was do-able and he said, “Why shouldn’t it be? It’s only 2 1/2 hours.” Oddly enough, that reassured me.

It was an unexpectedly sunny day with a cool breeze, miraculous after weeks of rain and gray skies. We set out on little goat trails and followed the course of the Mosel river, far below. We barely needed our topographic map because everything was so well labeled. That’s how many people live in this part of the world. The trail was called “Traumpfad”, the path of dreams.
We traversed the vineyards on a tractor-wide track, feeling like Heidi and Peter. A sign said goats were used to clear out overgrown vineyards when someone wanted to begin again. Abandoned, overgrown vineyards were called “Brazils” after their owners left for Brazil to start a new life.

In earlier times, wagons must have collected the grapes from the rows of vines. A rusty winch in one village must have been used to pull heavy loads of grapes up and down the steep slopes. In another, a tower near the Mosel supported the cables to run a ferry across. The ferry needed no power other than the river current.

At some point, we left the Mosel to turn into another valley. The path climbed gently until we found ourselves on a high plain. The Mosel cut a valley into the plain, so that the river bed was actually in a canyon. The broad meadow was just as inviting as the earlier paths and the sun was just as delightful. There was a ring of standing stones, either old or modern, in the distance. It was almost unreal.

A group of eight deer leapt across the meadow in front of us to cross a road in the distance. Seven made it across but the last one was spooked by a car and couldn’t find his way. He bounded back to the safety of the forest. The others didn’t come back for him, so maybe that was the beginning of his own adventure.

An older pair of hikers passed us. They didn’t seem to be going fast but they were soon in the distance ahead of us. We saw them much later, having a picnic by the trail side, just before we got to a lot of boring pavement. Experience must help people pick out picnic spots. Role models for adventure pop up in surprising places.

By the time we had walked a few hours, we had gotten less tired or had found our stride or felt virtuous because we didn’t need parking, because we felt we could walk forever. When I was 10, I used to explore with my brother in the same way. A peanut butter sandwich in a backpack, a walking stick, and eyes to see what is in front of you.

Burg Eltz actually has a longish–by American standards–hiking trail from the parking lot to the castle. On the trail, three miniature knights came toward us brandishing wooden swords and painted wooden shields. A baby in a stroller was teething on a wooden sword. We were getting close.

Stone castle on a hill surrounded by the river Eltz and more hills near the Mosel valley in Germany.
The Eltz castle

The castle gift shop was full of swords and shields and castle-related memorabilia. A hearty soup lunch at the castle and we were ready to continue down the valley. Here the trail looks down on the river Eltz below—a gray, green, glacier-colored river—but I think the color comes from algae, but not in a bad way.

We hiked down to the village and took the train back to the tiny village of Hatzenport. It was a dreamy day of talking, walking, taking things in, and spending time together becoming whole.

The next morning, I took a walk in our own neighborhood. At the far meadow, a black and white horse whinnied and trotted, then pounded the grass with his hooves and galloped the perimeters of electric fence. Was he going to leap over it? Did the sunny, cool weather make him long for wide spaces and adventure?

Then a shaggy, brown horse appeared on the trail and the black and white nodded his big black head up and down emphatically. He had been calling this friend.

My day with my husband was perfect for me. The weather and the availability of food made it a very convenient adventure, but not one I will forget. A perfect life is an adventure with a friend.

Exploring: the vineyard-covered Ahr valley

Vineyards in Mayschoß, GermanyThe village of Mayschoß in Germany’s lovely Ahr valley says “spring” all over. The name of the village means “lap of May” and even though it’s only April, you can see why.

It’s easy to imagine an earlier era. On top of the hill nearest the church tower is a ruined castle. One vineyard advertises horse-drawn wagon rides through the vineyards. My daughter told me they have to muzzle the horses to keep them from eating the grapes during harvest. I never thought about a horse eating grapes before.

Blast from the past in the National Park

Wear a hat and long-sleeved shirt against ticks and sunburn and cover your skin against frostbite. Don’t leave your toothpaste or bacon out where the black bears can smell it. Leaves of three, let me be. Stinging nettle. Geothermal activity–stay on the boardwalks. These are the dangers and adventures I associate with wilderness.

This sign in the Dreiborn area of the Eifel National Park made me think.

This sign says: "Risk of loss of life! Walking outside of the marked trails is absolutely forbidden. Vogelsang was used for military exercises until 2005.
This sign says: “Risk of loss of life! Walking outside of the marked trails is absolutely forbidden! This area was used for military exercises until 2005.

My husband’s parents played in the forest in Germany as children and found old tank parts and unexploded grenades. It felt very different to find one myself. I never understood what war on your own soil means.

An unexploded grenade lying on leaves in the forest in Eifel National Park