one-week trip to Jena, Germany
for the annual Melton
14: Arrival -- September
15: Organs -- September
16: Contemporary History
September 18: Medieval Days
-- September 19: Identity
-- September 20: Screw That
-- September 21: On the
September 14, 2003: Arrival
Two cars, two planes, two trains, a ten-minute walk
to the hotel, and I have arrived safely in Jena. Traveling to a
European country is always fascinating in that one focuses on the
similarities first. Here is a town with Western amenities, foods
one is familiar with, perhaps even places one has visited before.
(For example -- I flew through the Frankfurt airport on the way
here, as I did when I was 22. That other time was just 24 hours
after my first boyfriend brutally broke my heart, and I saw very
little of the airport since it took too much effort not to burst
into tears. Actually, that is a lie -- I completely failed at not
crying. I was a hysterical mess the entire time. Kids fled from
the sight of me. Try getting help from a German information desk
while sobbing sometime -- had I not been so miserable it would have
been damn amusing.)
Apparently bananas were next to impossible to get during the
communist regime and they became the ultimate forbidden fruit, the
symbol of unfulfilled desires. "Why are bananas curved?"
"So they can make it around East Germany." A girlfriend
of mine here was 14 when the Berlin wall came down. One week later,
she went to West Germany for the first time. It was the sight of so
many bananas in the grocery store that pushed her into tears.
Mom on one of our train rides.
the initial similarities are often a feint. Within a very
short while the interesting cultural differences begin to
show up. I am here for a symposium of the Melton Foundation
at Frederick Schiller University, so I am lucky enough to
have lots of local friends to help with instant immersion
into Germany. For one thing, I am in the eastern part of
Germany. The people I am visiting, of course, all remember
the recent Soviet-led government vividly. And it comes up
-- "Jena has been rebuilt beautifully in the last few
years" is the response to complimenting the picturasque
town. "The socialist educations reforms in 1967 were
devastating to the humanities programs" is included
in a discussion of the University's 450-year history. And
there are banana jokes.
original university building, a convent before it became the
school in 1548.
But it is not just the recent history that captures
my attention -- it's that there's somuch history in general. I mean,
did I mention that the University is 450 years old? Founded in 1548,
FSU also owes a great debt to Goethe, who was the town's minister
of education in the 18th century. Prince Albert of Monaco attended
my college, as did President Calvin Coolidge -- but Goethe kind
of beats them both hands down.
I learned about the university today during the opening
ceremony for the symposium. The symposium brings together students
from India, China, Chile, Germany, and the U.S. and every year it
is hosted by a different country. It was in the ceremony where I
really took delight in the subtle differences between the different
cultures. Each country's national anthem is sung during the opening.
Last year at Dillard University in New Orleans, each campus was
asked to march in, singing their anthem, carrying their flag. This
year -- some 50 miles from where Robert Schumann was born, in the
land of Bach and Beethoven -- a statuesque woman in black sat at
the piano and played each anthem like a sonata. This was right before
the Lord Mayor of Jena ("Lord Mayor"!!) spoke and before
a blond-haired, blue-eyed 12-year-old boy played a Bach Invention
in D. The whole ceremony was lovely -- and such a perfect mix of
familiar, yet. . . quite simply not American.