Three views of a chalet

Doing a deep dive into my archives, I came across photos of a trip to the Harz. This is a rugged part of Germany at an elevation of a little more than one kilometer above sea level, which lies inside a trapezoid with corners at Gottingen, Brunswick, Magdeburg, and Halle. It had snowed heavily in February of 2006. When a plan was being formed to go skiing for a weekend, I decided to join in. It was more than fifteen years since I’d done any skiing, but I figured that its like riding a bicycle or swimming. Your muscles don’t forget how to do it.

This is absolutely true. You need to add though, that the level of skill which comes back depends a lot on how you have treated your muscles. In those years I’d let my muscles go slack. Two of my colleagues were Finns, who’d been on cross country skis since they were children. The other was a very fit German, who, although new to the sport, picked up the basic skills very fast. So, early on the first day, I told them to not hang around waiting for me to catch up. Soon I was alone in that wonderful terrain: all snow and sky, covering what looked, in this season, like rolling hills.

The chalet that we stayed in for those three nights was nicely isolated, and stood under a stand of spruce trees. As the light changed during the day, the look of the place changed quite dramatically. The featured photo was taken in the evening, as the light began to turn red. The green of the spruce looked almost black in this light. The next photo was from mid-morning. I liked the extreme purity of the snow in the white band across the bottom of the photo. That final photo of the door to the chalet was taken in the blue hour.

A summer memory

A single photo brought back a memory of a leisurely summer afternoon in Germany almost exactly a decade ago. This was at the house of a friend since my university days. I spent many pleasant days at his place, a home away from home. There were leisurely Christmas days, hectic weddings, and then long, warm, pleasant afternoons in the garden. Cakes, kuchen, are something special in Germany, and my friend’s mother had a special touch. This is one of the many cakes I remember trying not to eat all of. It was perhaps the only one I took a photo of before I bit into a slice.

My first walk with a digital camera

I realize that I’ve been using a digital camera for fifteen years now. I was in Germany, and The Family was supposed to join me at Christmas, which we would spend in Vienna. We had all our bookings done, including tickets for concerts and shows. Her bag, with her passport, was stolen before we left Duesseldorf airport. That’s when we realized that the old borders of EU were not really forgotten. We were not allowed to fly without a passport. So we tried to cancel whatever we could and changed our Christmas plans. On the 23rd of December we decided to make a day trip to Bremen. The featured photo shows a pub sign which incorporates the fairy tale characters of the town musicians of Bremen, one of the stories collected by the Grimm brothers.

The weather was grim when we got off the train, cloudy and a temperature just above freezing. We walked to the old town, past the town hall, the square where the Christmas market surrounded the sculpture of the four musicians which was a local landmark, and on to the picturesque region of Schnoor. Bremen has been an important port since the middle ages, and therefore seen a lot of wars. It was pretty heavily bombed in the second World War, but the old town still had a few medieval timber-frame houses standing. They were fitted with pretty modern doors and windows though (I guess bombs must have blown out all the glass even if the structure was not damaged). The quaint houses stood out against the brick walls of the buildings that were put up at the beginning of the German recovery.

Bremen is considered a little special in Germany: a member of the Hansa trading league, then after the end of the first World War a Socialist republic for less than a month, later a holdout against Nazism until it was brutally taken over, and even now more working class, Green, and left-wing than much of Germany. Still, it is Germany after all, pretty prosperous and orderly, a pleasure to walk through, stop for coffees and beers, and the hearty lunches that make so much sense in that weather. I had still not got the hang of digital photography: the idea that you take an enormous number of photos and preserve them forever.

Around the world in two hundred days

I woke up dreaming of a trip around the world in container ships. How long would it take? It seems that container ships prefer to travel at speeds of 6 to 8 knots. At this speed they’ll cover about 300 kilometers in a day. If you travel around the equator in such a ship it might take you 110 to 150 days. Add in port calls (the featured photo is of Hamburg port), it might take you about 200 days. I’ve spent half that time sitting at home already. To think that I could easily have gone halfway around the world in this time!

Wandering through museums

There is something refreshing about the blank spaces of museums. On an otherwise hectic day, you might enter a museum, walk through galleries full of bright paintings hung on dull coloured walls, and emerge with a new view on the bustle outside. A museum’s galleries are designed not to call attention to themselves. These photos were taken in Duesseldorf’s K20, built in 1986. I took these photos soon after the architects, Dissing+Weitling of Copenhagen, became famous for their design of the Oresund bridge. They capture my experience of walking through any modern museum: long views through doorway after doorway, the enveloping quietness.

The long sight lines are part of the design, making a museum guard’s job easier. It is not an easy job; having to stand for hours, keeping an eye on all visitors. Now and then, when I enter a museum at an off-peak time, I can see one sitting down, perhaps to read a newspaper. Otherwise they are usually on their beat, perhaps occasionally exchanging a few words with a colleague. It wasn’t a dangerous job till now.

The center of Muenster

When we arrived at the vast marketplace in front of Muenster’s catherdral, two things were on my mind: there would probably be a Christmas market here in a few weeks, and there is probably a farmer’s market here on Saturdays. I said as much to The Family, and she said “Too bad then. This is just a Sunday in November.” The cathedral is also huge: more than a hundred meters in length. Every meter seems to be well documented in its Wikipedia page.

We entered through the narthex called Paradise, and found that the morning service was in progress. We waited for a while and looked at the Old Choir, which is in the Romanesque part of the church. I like the name “God’s rotary dial” which is sometimes used to refer to the small windows above the Baroque altar here. After a while we left, wandered across the stream called Aa which runs nearby, and came back much later.

The service had concluded, but we found that sections of the church were closed. A famous astronomical clock that we wanted to see could not be accessed. We walked around the huge church admiring the wooden statuary which is so common in these parts of Germany. The elaborate Epitaphs were not a patch on them. But I think what both of us liked was the doorbell in the shape of a dove; not terribly well made, but interesting.

The odd corner where the modern world was born

Even today, the basic laws of the modern world sound very radical: that states have the right to determine the system they live under, that minorities are protected within each state, and that states are sovereign. The small building called the Ratskammer (town hall) in Muenster looks similar to those around it, perhaps a few more decorative curlicues than the ones around it. Maybe a touch more gold. But in the mid 17th century the building in the featured photo was where diplomats representing 194 different European sovereigns gathered to hammer out a detailed treaty based on these principles.

We entered the building and saw many little groups speaking Dutch scattered about the long vestibule. We bought our tickets and walked into a little chamber at the end of the hall. The richly carved wood paneling was the only indication that this room was so important in history. A muted recording looped over a description of the historical events that happened in this room: the haphazard gathering of diplomats, the negotiations, and the signing of two treaties, one of which gave rise to The Netherlands.

I’d been here once more than thirty years back. Then, as now, I had a sense of alienation. Could the rules which govern the modern world have really been negotiated in such a small place? The Family walked around quite bemused. I busied myself taking photos of the wooden panels. Below them were hard wooden benches. I wondered whether the delegates brought their own cushions. Did they also bring their own food? The countryside around here must have been ravaged by a generation-long war. The room did look like the one in the painting by Gerard ter Borch, but that did not give the correct sense of size.

Two of the walls were covered with portraits of the diplomats at the peace conference. I saw many Dutch names, some Spanish, some French, and others whom I could not map on to a modern country. I’m not a historian, after all. We looked at the portraits and tried to imagine the people behind them. I must report utter failure; these were people from a different world who could see that something new was needed, but never lived in the world that they created. What political compromises did they have to make?

Over the centuries a place like this collects other things. One case contained a golden cockerel which predates the negotiations. Apparently it can hold about one bottle of wine. This was offered to important guests of the city as an honour. Muenster was a Hansa town, and could presumably afford these small indulgences.

The really weird stuff was in a different case: one of a pair of slippers and a severed hand. There are no real explanations about why they are there, just a bunch of stories. Eventually you figure out that they are there because no one can make a decision to move them elsewhere. They just make the room look a little more odd. To think that absolutely revolutionary changes were made in a room where such small decisions cannot be made!

The church across the water

The Uberwasserkirche in Muenster translates very simply to the church over the water. The name comes from the fact that the cathedral and this church face each other across the stream called Aa. The churches around here are old. This one was first consecrated in 1040 CE. The present building is from 1340. The tower took a long time to build, and was probably first completed in the 15th century. The post-war restoration of the church was completed in 1972, but the restoration of the tower was still in progress when we arrived there.

The featured photo is of a very impressive looking doorway, but it is not the main portal. That was covered up by the ongoing restoration work. I looked more closely at the doors here and found that the design was very modern. The figures seemed to refer to the history of the church as an abbey where aristocratic women came to study.

When you walk into a church in this area you see immediately who lost the war. All of this part was heavily bombed. While the structures of the churches have been restored, the insides are often bare. This large church had very few decorations, but what it had were these two fascinating sculptures in wood. They are really worth looking at in detail.

Two streams

We walked through the wonderfully restored center of Muenster, past the cathedral and came to the little stream called Aa which winds through the town. At this spot the banks were built up and planted with flowering bushes. Low brick houses lined the banks. The short path along the bank curved around the center of town and quickly reached a road full of traffic.

We turned back, and came again to an interesting building hanging over the river, probably an old mill. The timber frame was filled in with brick. That is not so common, I’ve mostly seen timber frame and plaster as the traditional building material around here. Perhaps this was a newly built house; I’d seen advertisements by builders who would build you a wood frame house.

The mild drizzle and the flat landscape threaded by this thin stream reminded me of a different time and place. A few months earlier we’d spent a weekend in the flat land between the Western Ghats and the sea, a little south of Mumbai. During the monsoon this area is criss-crossed by little streams (one in the photo above) which join up into seasonal rivers which flow fast enough for rafting. There are no towns around, so most of these small streams have no names. It is interesting how the same landforms arise again and again across the planet.

Just another medieval house

We wandered about Prinzipalmarkt in Muenster looking at the pretty buildings. Muenster had been a German army headquarters during the 1940s, and was heavily bombed by the US Air Force in 1943. So most of what we saw was rebuilt. The style is of the gabled houses common in this region from the 15th century CE onwards.

The ridge line of the gables is perpendicular to the street, and the end that faces the street is built up over the roof into a high decorative front. We stopped at the building which you see in the photo above. The upper three stories are clearly post-war reconstruction, but below that was the exuberance of a town flush with Hanseatic trade. Look at the lion heads at hip-height, supporting the front columns! The featured photo is a close-up of the columns: a mermaid and a merman, over whose heads hang carved flowers and fruits.

The heads which decorate the lintel above the tall windows on the ground floor are also very interesting. They probably show how well-off people of that time dressed. Interestingly they follow a convention which you can see on TV news shows even today. When a man and a woman appear together, conventionally the man looks out at the world, whereas the woman looks at the man. How hard it is to evolve out of that convention.