Germany 28 Dec-7 Jan
Over the New Year I went on a writers’ retreat in Germany with some friends – well, when I say ‘retreat’, it was more like an ‘advance’… When one travels abroad it is a very ‘yang’ act in a way – in effect, penetrating the world, when my natural inclination at this time of year is what I call the ‘inward spiral’. I crave for hibernation and a hermit-like existence… but being an ‘introvert in the body of an extrovert’ I find my legs carrying me to distant lands and my brain setting up all sorts of stress-inducing scenarios! Having just organised a big Winter Solstice event in my hometown (Midnight Sun) which involved co-ordinating a double-book launch and several artistes, what do I go and do … organise another event in another country! Initially intended as a Writers’ Retreat and my ‘Escape from Christmas’ plan, it turned out to be extremely social, festive and expansive.
Although not the quiet, chilled out time I was hoping for (and needing) it was nevertheless a very stimulating and rewarding experience. We were guests of my friend Ola’s mother – who was away in India and generously allowed us to stay in her capacious and stylish house in Rheinbach, a small town in NW Germany – within an hour of Bonn and Cologne.
Typical of me, I intended to make the most of my ‘holiday’ – by writing a script for a TV pilot and contributing to a two-hour bilingual storytelling performance, so I was asking for it really! But they say a change is as good as a rest, and it felt good to forget all my other projects and commitments and focus purely on writing a completely new idea; and the opportunity of performing in another country was too good to miss. Initially, it was just going to be a little talk about my new book – but when I struck upon the idea of holding it on Twelfth Night, January 5th (the traditional end of Christmas) it started to grow into something else. How about an evening of tales celebrating the Wheel of the Year? Ola could offer a tale in German and provide the local link. When fellow Fire Springs member Anthony agreed to join us it suddenly looked like we had a promising night. Ola secured a venue – Bonn Central Library no less – and when her partner Mark joined us, with his fine voice and musical skills, we had a good evening’s entertainment to offer. At Ola’s house we had a couple of nights of rehearsal and feedback – and then, we were on!
Ola introduced the evening in her native tongue; then I introduced the book with three anecdotes – about how we often celebrate the turning the wheel with food and drink: I opted for pork, cider and beer, guessing this would be something the locals could relate to! My first tale was from Oxford, twinned with Bonn as it happens, so the links were there and the bridges already built – all we had to do was cross them. After this temporal ‘forecourt’, Mark led the audience into the ‘sacred’ part of the evening with a splendid song about the wheel of the year.
Ola followed with a fine rendition of story of Baldur and the Golden Bough in German; then Anthony concluded the first half with his popular Gawain and the Green Knight. It was wonderful seeing the German audience respond to our material. The themes of the tales are universal. All stories are ultimately about the Human Condition. I love finding commonalities – links between our lands, between the tales, the teller, the listener. After the break I started the second half after Mark’s flute with a folk tale from Oxfordshire – which I’m currently collecting for a forthcoming book from The History Press; Mark told his distinctive Native American winter fable ‘Shinglebliss’, accompanying himself with his music to atmospheric effect; then Anthony concluded with Gawain and Lady Ragnall, which brought the house down. Mark rounded things off with his circle song, then we all got up and took a bow. Job done!
After, we held a Q&A session – after the audience got warmed up they asked some intelligent questions. When they dried, I asked them a question: How do they celebrate the turning of the wheel? Initially, they seemed at a loss, but then a teacher in the front row talked about the Cologne carnival and it’s extraordinary traditions. Another mentioned the birch tree given to sweethearts at May. Fascinating. Finally, the evening drew to a close and after we packed everything away we repaired to a hostelry: the ‘James Joyce Irish Pub’, which was actually more authentic than it sounds, in an old Bonn building with real atmosphere. The tall glass of Maiser Weisse Dunkel I had went down a treat, as did the wedges we finally procured from the ‘shut’ kitchen. We had a pleasant chat with Roland and Anna – two locals. The natives are definitely friendly! The Germans I have met on my travels are warm-hearted and sincere. I love their love of nature, literature, beer and bread!
While guests of what I think of as ‘Castle Schroder’ (after the lovely house-cat, whom everyone fell in love with) we went on several excursions to sites of interest in the Rhine area: the Matronae; Drachenfels; the home of Hildegard of Bingen; Bonn; and the Cologne galleries. It was a cultural feast as dense as German ryebread and perhaps I’ll share more in further dispatches from the Rhineland – once I’ve refilled my Humpen.