A Grand Birthday Tour

I have a hard time with my birthday. It is in January, probably the worst month of the year. I am never sure how I should respond to everyone’s well wishes. I am usually pretty grumpy.

This year, I resolved to take things in hand and order up a perfect day. I made a request for a special meal to be shared with just a small few. I decided that the best birthday treat would be to spend a day reading by the fire and watching dinner being made.

Our son Lewis is living with us right now. He has worked as a cook in a number of restaurants. He loves to work with food, and spending a day cooking is his idea of heaven. So I asked him to make me a special birthday meal, with Tim as sommelier and assistant. I didn’t ask about what we were going to have. I just waited for it to unfold.

I stretched out in my oversized rocking chair by a cheery fire, reading Wuthering Heights – something to transport me out of 2013. As I read, Lewis prepped and I watched out of the corner of my eye as ingredients transmogrified.

A dinner requires good food and good company to make it work. I decided on a small guest list: My mother Laurie Lewis, a writer, who has a vested interest in my birthday and was just about to leave for Mexico; our friend Jack Hurd, a musician, who had just returned from hiking the Camino and was heading off for a month in Tuscany; and our friend Jan Irwin, a writer and director, who spent last March with us in Devon and is in the midst of contemplating her next trip. And of course Tim, my favourite writer, gourmand and travelling companion, who has shared the past 38 birthdays with me.

Our kitchen is in the centre of the house, and the cook is at centre stage.

Lewis prepping centre stage
Lewis prepping centre stage

The guests assembled and, after preliminary drinks by the fire, Lewis called us to the table.

#1

A tower of rounds of brown Kumato tomato and mozzarella, with finely sliced basil. Drizzled with blood orange olive oil and chocolate balsamic vinegar.

“A taste of summer,” said Lewis. And it was. The blood orange olive oil and chocolate balsamic elevated it to one of those very special summer days. It told us that this was not going to be an ordinary birthday dinner.

#2

Sushi rice with grated carrot, topped with a slice of avocado, red pepper and spears of tempura aubergine. With dollops of Wasabi, Thai sweet chili garlic sauce, and Cucumber relish with lime, Uma plum vinegar and red jalapeno.

2nd Course. A riot of colour and taste. Sushi rice, carrot, avocado, red pepper, aubergine spears
2nd Course. A riot of colour and taste. Sushi rice, carrot, avocado, red pepper, aubergine spears

Presented on a bright blue and gold Japanese plate, the colours bounced energetically. There is a distinct lack of colour in our part of the world in January. The course gave us colour therapy and food therapy. The surprise hit was the cucumber relish, which was salty and tangy, with a zip of hot.

#3

Baby Portobello stuffed with chevrè, cream cheese and roasted garlic. On a bed of arugula with reduced balsamic.

Lewis explained that if you cook chevrè, you need to add cream cheese to it to keep it smooth. Otherwise it goes grainy. This was like a creamy pillow, the sweet roast garlic keeping you alert for more surprises.

#4

Homemade fettuccini with Oregon smoked salmon, with thin slices of Parma cheese and black truffle

4th Course, pasta, salmon, truffle, parma cheese
4th Course, pasta, salmon, truffle, parma cheese

There is really nothing like homemade pasta. I had seen Lewis pressing dough through the pasta machine earlier in the day. He hung it out on a horizontally inverted broomstick to dry. I couldn’t wait to see what he was going to do with it. Turns out it was a kind of collaborative offering. Tim had been given a huge piece of smoked salmon from Oregon. Our son Xan had given us a few truffles for Christmas – I’ve never had thinly shaved truffle. Its musty nuttiness perfectly paired with the soft smoke of the salmon. Topped with thinly shaved Parma cheese, and served in pasta bowls from Positano, it was amazing.

#5

Seared filet of sirloin with Tamarillo on a bed of chicory with thinly sliced radish, drizzled with honey and horseradish vinaigrette.

I am a big fan of steak salad. This took it to a whole new level, playing the sweetness of the Tamarillo (like Passion fruit) with the bitter of the chicory and radish. The sweet honey danced with the horseradish, all supporting the succulence of the steak.

#6

Roast pork tenderloin with grapefruit glaze on a bed of sweet potato puree with curry and chipotle. Served with spears of asparagus wrapped in prosciutto.

6th Course. Sweet potato mash, pork loin roast, asparagus spears with procuitto
6th Course. Sweet potato mash, pork loin roast, asparagus spears with procuitto

It’s amazing what a bit of smoky chipotle can do to a sweet potato mash. It lifts the tuber’s richness to a whole new place. The roast pork was incredibly tender and the combined tastes were buttery and dark. The asparagus counterbalanced with its bright colour, crisp snap, and salty zing of the prosciutto.

#7

Scone with honey glaze served with dollops of pear comfit, peach comfit and Devon cream.

“I don’t bake,” said Lewis, as he put a warm scone in front of each of us. What he meant was that he doesn’t bake cake. The soft, honey-sweet scone was “dessert” – plain and simple after a meal of complexity. The perfect dessert course. The tiny dollop of Devon cream a reminder of the rich green fields of the emerald Isle.

#8

Cheese plate. Featuring herbed Cheveè, St. Agur, Aged Gouda, Double Cream Rondoux, Shropshire Blue

Admittedly, this was probably overkill. But birthdays are about excess. I had asked for a cheese course which, when matched with port, is the best way to end a special meal.

The meal didn’t really end there, though. The food ended, but we sat for many more hours, talking, sharing secrets, hopes and dreams. With my mother and Jack just about to head off to other climes, we talked of travel past, and journeys to come.

Last year, our extraordinary year of travel, was one of the best of my life, and it’s been hard to come down. But with this birthday extravaganza, I realize that while I am not literally on the road any more, I can still go on a journey with travelling companions and cook Lewis as tour guide.

Happy fellow travellers Laurie Lewis, Jack Hurd, Amanda, Jan Irwin, Tim Wynne-Jones
Happy fellow travellers Laurie Lewis, Jack Hurd, Amanda, Jan Irwin, Tim Wynne-Jones

Keeping Christmas

I have often wondered if we moved to the country because of Christmas.

The first winter that we lived in Brooke Valley, we went out into the woods with our three small children and cut down a very scraggly, Charlie Brown-ish tree. The snow came down in lazy, fat flakes as we brought our treasure into the house. We hung soggy mittens by the fire and cupped our hands around steaming mugs of hot chocolate. We were living in the middle of a Christmas card.

Since then, we’ve had as many green Christmases as white, some treacherous with ice, some grey and sodden. Our Christmas trees have always been naturally wild and wispy (“Your tree has great negative space,” said our most optimistic friend). Over the years, Lewis grew to be our primary tree finder and cutter. He took to enhancing nature by drilling holes in the trunk and inserting extra branches to fill out the shape. But whatever the shortcomings of the tree, the house has been filled with Christmas spirit – the smell of good food, the warmth of a fire, and days of laughter.

Last year was our first non-Canadian Christmas. We discovered new foods and new traditions in La Spezia, Italy. Sitting on a sun-drenched patio, drinking Prosecco while munching on delicious Italian cheeses and breads made up for the lack of snow, tree and fireplace. Funny, we didn’t miss any of the usual trappings.

But back home in Canada for Christmas this year, Tim & I dug out ornaments and fell into familiar patterns. Everything seemed all the more special for having been tucked away for 2 years. I carefully unwrapped the special, gold-rimmed Christmas glasses, purchased by my parents in New York over 50 years ago. Tim unrolled the felt advent calendar to find a few additional mouse holes along the edge. (The story of our mouse-chewed advent calendar is one he wrote as “The Mouse in the Manger”, many years ago. Sentiment keeps me from repairing the felt.)

Mouse eaten Advent Calendar
Mouse eaten Advent Calendar

Lewis set off to find a tree. We have 76 acres, and there are a lot to chose from, but finding something that works, a tree that is full and thick, is always a challenge. Determined to bring in something impressive, he felled a 35-foot spruce using only a dull cross cut saw. He cut off the top 10 feet and hefted it home the day before our first big snowfall.

Lewis and this year's tree
Lewis and this year’s tree

When the plate-sized flakes began to fall, we were surprisingly excited.

Nighttime snowfall in Brooke Valley
Nighttime snowfall in Brooke Valley

The first snow of the year was heavy and wet – perfect packing snow. Perfect snow lady material.

Amanda, Maddy & the Snow Lady
Amanda, Maddy & the Snow Lady

Over the next few days, the temperature dropped. As it did, the snow quality changed. There were smaller, lighter flakes, not good for packing at all. But we were assured of a white Christmas.

A White Christmas
A White Christmas

The unpredictability of the weather at this time of year can easily destroy festive plans, but luck was with us. Timing was perfect as family and friends arrived in various stages. But the snow accumulation grew and grew until eventually it was impassable. The day after Boxing Day, we abandoned all thoughts of driving and hunkered down to await the eventual arrival of snowplows.

Snowed in
Snowed in

There is a blissful and deep quiet that comes with a large snowfall.

And so we have once again celebrated the season in a Christmas card world. We’ve walked the snowy roads under moonlight and sighted Jupiter, shining brightly. We’ve filled the house with lights and familiar ornaments, and flamed the plum pudding. We’ve watched deer and ravens enjoying bits of composted leftovers. We’ve reveled in memories of Christmases gone by, and toasted absent friends. And we’ve boosted and fortified ourselves to be able to face the long cold winter ahead. As Dickens instructs, we’ll “keep Christmas in our hearts throughout the year”.

A Christmas Carol
A Christmas Carol

Coming Home

Writing a final chapter to my Stepping Off the Treadmill blog has been hard. It is taking time to acclimatize to being back, and I suspect that we will be assimilating the experiences of the last 9 ½ months for a very long time.

What I can say is that it has been wonderful to come back to such an outpouring of love from family and friends. It has been especially important, because my father died 5 days after we landed back in Canada. I was lucky to have been able to see him and talk to him before he died, and to be with my mother at this difficult time. Our homecoming has been bittersweet, and all in all, very discombobulated. So we have been grateful to come back to our welcoming community of friends and family.

Our house, when we finally arrived home, seemed big and quiet. While away, we were always living with other people. We couldn’t help feeling that our house was a bit empty. Even our cat, when she came home, seemed quieter than usual.

Of course there has been a lot of business to attend to. We waded through 9 ½ months of mail. We did our taxes. We made appointments with dentists. We raged at our internet service providers. But we haven’t really unpacked. Every now and then we open up some of the boxes that we packed up 10 months ago, but we are surprisingly uninterested in whatever they contain. I guess we are still travelling light.

People ask if it is wonderful to be home. I can say that we seem to have chosen exactly the right moment – we left a London that had been rainy and cold for weeks and arrived to a sunny Ontario heat wave. We’re enjoying meals on our back deck and finding opportunities for lots of therapeutic gardening. We had a dinner party within days of being home, and loved re-discovering our own pots and pans. We’ve been to a vernissage at our local gallery in Perth, the Riverguild, where we saw a wonderful exhibit of new watercolours by our friend Franc van Oort. And we went to an opening of a play at the Great Canadian Theatre Company in Ottawa where we schmoozed with the cream of the Ottawa theatre community. Tim is heavily into a second draft of a new book, and I am chomping at the bit to get back to my writing as well.

But I am at my happiest when I can talk about where we have been, who we have met, and what we have done since August 1, 2011. Every time we tell a story from the trip, it becomes more real. Tim and I look at each other and say, “this actually happened.”

I know that our future will contain more adventures. But for now, we have stories to tell, narratives to create, and meaning to discover. To those of you who have shared directly in the adventure – thank you for making it so extraordinary. You have, each of you, changed our lives and made them fundamentally better. To those who have been armchair travellers – thank you for coming along. You too, by being observers and commentators, are part of the experience.

“My personal conviction is that we are not changed by our experiences as common wisdom has it. What changes us are the stories we tell about our experiences. Until we have re-formed our lives into story-structured words we cannot find and contemplate the meaning of our lived experiences. Till then they remain in the realm of beastly knowledge. Only by turning the raw material of life into story – by putting it into a pattern of words we call narrative – can beastly knowledge be creatively transformed and given meaning. It is storying that changes us, not events.” –Aidan Chambers

Home in Brooke Valley

Saying Goodbye, part two

Saying goodbye to London means saying goodbye to our favourite dance company, Tempered Body Dance Theatre. We were able to go to one last “Cha-Cha-Cha”, an evening of scratch performances by three companies, including Tempered Body, at Chisenhale Dance Studio. We got to see more of Tempered Body’s new piece “Stand-By”, an exploration of physical and emotional dependency.

Tempered Body Dance Theatre in rehearsal

“As active or non-active feminists of the 21st Century we are taught to be independent. Dependence on other people is accepted as weak and lacking courage. Same too with dependence on substances. Are we really saying these two categories of dependence are similarly devastating? When is independence destructive?” Maddy Wynne-Jones on “Stand-By”

The show premiers in June, after we’ve gone. It has been a privilege to watch these dancers at work, a thrill to watch Maddy creating this piece.

Saying goodbye to London means saying goodbye to the West End, so we decided to splurge on a couple of shows. Trying to decide which shows to go to has been hard. As Sondheim fanatics, Sweeney Todd with Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton was an obvious choice – I had seen the original production on Broadway and this was every bit as wonderful. Michael Ball was a sympathetic and socially conscious Sweeney. Imelda Staunton was funny, sexy and brilliant.

Globe to Globe, part of the Shakespeare World Festival, was also something we wanted to see. 40 plays from 40 countries. We could only see one – the Palestinian production of Richard 2. Funny, angry, provocative. We met up with fellow Ottawan Jessica Ruano after the show, stopping for a drink to talk about art, politics and how to produce theatre that matters. It was hard to walk away from the other 39 shows…

The musical hit of the West End is Matilda, winner of 7 Olivier Awards. It is riotously outrageous, with the wickedly funny Bertie Carvel as Miss Trunchbull. I am in the business of working with children on stage, and I know what they are capable of. But I was floored by these young performers. A fabulous show, and an amazing adaptation of the book by Roald Dahl. Jaw dropping design. Rude, irreverent. What’s not to love about a show that has the biggest belch that ever existed?

We also went to listen to the brilliant playwright Michael Frayn who has two shows on in London: “Noises Off”, the toast of the town, which we saw (Celia Imrie as Dotty!) and could hardly breathe for laughing; and “Here”, which we didn’t get to see, much to our regret. He is also launching a new book, Skios, a blend of farce, satire and romance. Is there anyone who has such a variety of approaches in their work?

We made a dash out this week to see the amazing Bauhaus show at the Barbican. The Bauhaus school was a 14-year exploration of the arts that that changed the way we see things. When it was closed down by the Nazis, proponents of the movement fled to other countries and their design ideas spread throughout the world. I had been very affected by Bauhaus design and philosophy in my youth and it was incredibly inspiring to see the work assembled and thoughtfully chronicled.

Tim making notes at the Barbican

But the hardest thing right now is having to say good bye to family. It means tears and laughter, and last suppers. This week, Maddy made an amazing dinner for Peta, Bryan, Jo and Amanda. It was her “thank you” to them for putting us up (putting up with us). She created a meal of 4 courses, each dedicated to a country that we had stayed in for at least a week.

Starters (Spain) we had: Spanish Chorizo sausage sautéed with butter beans and shrimp on a bed of lettuce.

Mains (England): Individual Beef Wellingtons, garlic mash, roasted squash, green beans with almonds, mushrooms sauce and gravy sauce.

Dessert (France): Prune Clafoutis with custard.

Afters (Italy): Italian dessert wine (brought from our time in La Spezia) with cardamom biscotti.

It was an amazing feast, a fabulous and noisy night with family. It is impossible to think that we will be leaving, heartbreaking to try and say goodbye.

Maddy, Amanda, Jo, Bryan, Peta, Amanda & Tim at the farewell feast

Saying Goodbye, Part one

Right now, the harshest lesson for Tim and I to learn is that there is never enough time. There will always be more to discover. So much we haven’t seen. Around every corner, a new world waiting. Posters in the tube announcing new shows opening the day after we leave. Family events we’ll miss. We have to let it go. We have to learn how to say goodbye. Goodbye to London. Goodbye to family.

We are filling our last days in London with adventures and one of our most unique experiences was Tim’s raising of the Tower Bridge.

Tim was given one of the best gifts ever. He was given the opportunity to be the man behind the mechanism, the man to move 2,500 tons of steel to allow a boat to pass unimpeded down the Thames.

Tim looking at Tower Bridge

The Bridge, built in 1886, originally worked with a marvelous Victorian hydraulic system to lift the bascules (from the French word for “see-saw”, the moveable section of the bridge road) so that ships could pass through to the Port of London. Ships today still have a right of way along the river and, with 24 hours notice, the Bridge must be raised to allow passage through. On a rainy London morning in early May, Tim was the man who made that happen.

In the control centre for Tower Bridge

Tim met with the Chief Bridge Technician in the control tower of the Tower Bridge. The mechanization is electronic nowadays. But although the system has been modernized, the actual workings of the bridge remain the same. Huge amounts of steel are see-sawed up and down in a very short amount of time. A computer screen shows the inner workings. Buttons must be pushed in sequence. A level must be carefully pulled.

40,000 people cross Tower Bridge every day. This means that the first thing that must happen, when raising the bridge, is to stop the traffic. A push of a button, a communication with the outside patrol, and cars, pedestrians and cyclists came to a halt. Needless to say, this gave Tim an incredible sense of power.

The barriers in place, the traffic stopped, Tim pulls the lever to raise the bascules to 40°.

Tim pulls the lever

It is as though the city holds its breath. The bridge rises and the computer screen shows Tim the changing angle of the bascules. 40° achieved, the awaiting boat glides through.

The bridge raised

When the boat clears the bridge the bascules are lowered, everything is locked back in place and the cyclists race to get back on the road before the barriers are removed. Tim’s moment of glory is over, but he is presented with a certificate to mark the occasion and we are taken on a tour of the mechanisms far below the surface of the water. A secret world.

Tim gets his certificate of Bridge Raising

“The Thames is liquid history”, said John Burns in 1929. A few days later, we decided to go out and explore more of the history of the Thames and took a commuter boat down the river to Greenwich, another on our list of World Heritage Sites.

Greenwich is renowned for its maritime history. The newly restored Cutty Sark has just been “launched” in the dry dock beside the main pier. Built in 1869, the ship was one of the last tea clippers built and one of the fastest ships of her time.

The Cutty Sark, resting on its glass house. A picture not just for a blended Scotch.

It now sits atop a glass museum, held suspended so that you can walk beneath it. On a grey day, the ship seems full of the history of the sea.

The Maritime Museum is also in Greenwich, as is the oldest Royal Park in London. Greenwich Park was created in 1433 and is home to the Royal Observatory, which is where Greenwich Mean Time is centered.

The Royal Observatory

John Flamsteed was the first Royal Astronomer, by decree of King Charles 2, and his rooms and observation room are still in tact. The Octagon Room, where the regularity of the Earth’s rotation was tested, was designed by Inigo Jones.

The Octagon Room

The hill that the Observatory sits on affords a spectacular view of London, the O2 arena, and the new the Olympic Equestrian Events arena.

The view from Observatory Hill

The dark skies cleared (a bit — it has been the coldest and darkest May here since 1698!), as we ruminated on the foundation of time in place. By measuring longitude, we measure the earth’s rotation and use this to fix our concept of time. I stood on the meridian line, one foot officially in the west, one foot officially in the east. But our sense of time is elastic. Ten months ago, the time of our journey seemed endless. Now all we can say is, where has the time gone?

One foot in the west, one foot in the east

A journey along the Rhine

Just across the river from Mainz is the city of Wiesbaden, one of the oldest spa towns in Europe. The healing qualities of the hot springs here have been enjoyed for over 2,000 years. In the 19th century, Wiesbaden became the unofficial summer residence for Kaiser Wilhem II, and the town was much beloved by the Russian nobility and the wealthy. It continues to be a city of prosperity. We headed to Wiesbaden to see “Magisches Kaleidoskop”, an evening of contemporary dance pieces by Stephen Thoss and Jiří Kylián at the Hessisches Staatstheater. The theatre, like the theatre in Mainz, has dedicated dance, theatre, opera and symphonic companies and an extensive and impressive season.

The Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden was built in 1864 on behalf of Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Amanda in the Hessisches Staatstheater.

It isn’t often you get to have pre-theatre drinks in a room like this. Magic Kaleidoscope was filled with fabulous thought-provoking and funny pieces. At least we thought they were funny. How can an audience not laugh at men dancing Mozart in large funny dresses?

Back in Mainz, the next morning was market day. We were thrilled. A market is a great bond between people, and whenever we have been in a town on a market day, we’ve felt a strong kinship with the locals. A shared love of food.

Eggs for sale at the Mainz market

The Mainz market was full of the huge lettuces we’d come to love in France and Italy, mounds of cheeses, sausages, breads and pastries. There were piles and piles of white asparagus, just in season. We had some delicious coffee and made a few purchases – a rhubarb pastry, a couple of buns, cheeses, a sausage, freshly marinated artichoke hearts – creating an impromptu picnic lunch.

We walked through the old town of Mainz, through squares surrounded by half timbered houses.

The old town in Mainz

One of the landmarks that we wanted to see in Mainz was St. Stephen’s church. Originally built in 990 atop the highest hill in the city, the current church was completed in 1340. In 1978, the artist Marc Chagall created 9 new stained glass windows for the church. The windows depict scenes from the Old Testament and were created as an attempt at German/Jewish reconciliation. The whole church is bathed in soft, mottled, luminous blue light.

Chagall’s stained glass windows in St. Stephen’s Church

It was a very holy space.

Although there was still lots to discover in Mainz, we decided to investigate a couple of nearby towns along the Rhine. A short train ride took us to the town of Bingen, a small working town on the edge of the River.

Bingen am Rhein

The name range a bell with us because of its connection to the 11thcentury mystic Hildegard von Bingen. Hildegard established several monasteries in the area and did some of her most important work here. There is a good museum in Bingen dedicated to her and her works. We took a quick walk around to town to see the castle, the Basilica of St. Martin, and the “Mouse Tower” (Mäuseturm) on an island in the river where, legend has it, the cruel Archbishop of Mainz, Hatto 2, was eaten by mice. Just like a Grimm’s fairy tale.

The “Mouse Tower”

From Bingen we took a short ferry ride across the Rhine to Rüdesheim, a wine-making town recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Rüdesheim is apparently one of the largest tourist draws in Germany and even on a dull and rainy day, the town was filled with tourists, mostly Korean and Chinese, stocking up on Rhine wine. A sign on a wine distributor’s shop told us (in English and Chinese) that they could ship their wines to your door in China from their Chinese factory.

Rüdesheim

Rüdesheim is a pretty town with cobbled streets and a funicular to take you up the hillside to the Niederwalddenkmal monument. The monument, commemorated in 1883, represents the unity of all Germans. At 38 meters high, it towers over the surrounding vineyards.

The Niederwalddenkmal monument, overlooking the vineyards

We didn’t journey up the hill. We could see from a distance that the monument was covered up for restoration. It would be worth the trip on a sunny day, when you could enjoy walking on the surrounding forest paths.

The Niederwalddenkmal monument, covered for restoration

From Rüdesheim we continued our trip down the Rhine, heading back to Mainz by boat. Seated out on the deck in the drizzle, we enjoyed wine made from the vines we were passing.

Tim, travelling along the Rhine

The world slowed down as the loud speakers on the boat played a bit of oompah and muzak. Towns along the Rhine glided past.

We arrived back in Mainz to be greeted by Trish and Alex, on their bikes. We tucked ourselves into a very local Weinstube (wine bar), the Weinstube Specht, where we ate huge and generous plates of schnitzel, potatoes, herring and fresh apple strudel. We sat talking late into the night, wishing we could stay longer. It had been a whirlwind tour of a small corner of Germany, one in which our eyes and taste buds were opened.

Trish and Alex, celebrating by candlelight

Arts and Letters in Mainz

Tim’s niece Patricia Roach is an opera singer with the Staatstheater Mainz, Germany.  This spring, she has been performing the role of Amando in “Le Grand Macabre”, an absurdist opera by Gyorgy Ligeti. It was a great reason to go and visit.

We arrived in Mainz, via Frankfort, a simple 20-minute train ride from the airport. Trish met us at the train station, on her bike, coming straight from a rehearsal of Cosi Fan Tutti. She directed us onto a city bus to go to her apartment, and she followed behind on her bike.

Trisha’s apartment is a quiet oasis sitting tucked into trees and parkland. We were greeted by her partner Alex, a wonderful German man who proceeded to make us a delicious pasta with smoked salmon. Try out: Alex’s Pasta Mit Lachs-Tomaten-Sahne. It’s a fast and delicious meal. We launched comfortably into a discussion about EU politics, German guilt and pride, contemporary opera and support for the arts as we tucked into steaming bowls of pasta.

After a suitable period of digestion, Trish headed off for her makeup call at the theatre, and Tim and I headed into town to have a glass of wine before the show. With the lyrics from Joni Mitchell’s song “Anima Rising” stuck in my head (“Seventeen glasses, Rhine wine”) we began our adventure of tasting excellent dry Rieslings. Turns out the Germans know a thing or two about making great wine.

Staatstheater Mainz

“Le Grand Macabre” is opera as you have never seen it. The music is incredibly difficult, atonal, dissonant, jagged and surprising. The plot is non-existent, the characters broad and bizarre. The theatre has a web site with a great trailer and photos. http://www.staatstheater-mainz.com/index.php?id=1333

It was fabulous. We loved it. We also thought there were lots of funny parts, but the rest of the audience wasn’t laughing so we tried to hold in our hilarity. Was there something we were missing by not speaking the language? No, Trish assured us, Germans just don’t laugh in the theatre. Cultural differences.

We went out for a light bite after the show. It was great going out with Trish. Not only does she speak fluent German, but the waiters know her. As an opera singer, she is a recognized personality in the city. We ordered some local specialty cheeses: Spundekäse, which is a puffy cream cheese and quark mixture served with chopped onion, paprika and a soft salty fresh pretzel; and Handkäse mit Musik, a semi-soft cheese that you pour salad dressing over. The “Musik” part of the name is because it apparently makes you fart musically. Or at least so Trish told us, but she is an opera singer so perhaps everything is about music.

Mainz is a city of 200,000 that sits on the Rhine river. Two thousand years ago it was a Roman fort that formed part of the northern edge of the Roman Empire. Just outside of town they are excavating the largest Roman amphitheater north of the Alps. It was a theatre that could seat 10,000 people.  Clearly, the tradition of theatre runs strong here. Today, the state theatre hosts an orchestra, as well as full time opera, ballet, theatre and youth companies. This in a small city of 200,000.

Mainz has gone through numerous sieges and occupations throughout the last millennium, and has been alternately a part of Rome, France, Prussia, the Rhineland republic and of course the German Third Reich. The city has always tolerated a combined population of Christians and Jews and during the Second World War, the Bishop of Mainz created an organization to help Jews to escape.

I have written elsewhere in my blog about visiting cities that were devastated during World War 2. In our travels we’ve gone to Plymouth, Exeter, Cardiff, Liverpool, and of course London – cities that had to do massive rebuilding. Sixty years on, we are fascinated by the architectural and cultural choices that were made. This was our first experience of the destruction in Germany. 80% of Mainz was destroyed in the war. Small bits of the old town have been cherished and fit into new buildings. There are wide pedestrian walkways.

Tim & Trish in front of the Mainz memorial

A vast open square in the centre of town preserves a part of the original 1,000-year old Cathedral, combining it with a memorial to Mainz Jews who died in the war and the burning of Mainz on February 27, 1945.

A 16th century tower nestles into modern buildings.

A 16th century tower amongst the 20th century buildings

The tower is all that remains of the workshop where Mainz’s most famous inhabitant, Johannes Gutenberg, and his partner Johann Fust printed the first bible and changed the world.

Gutenberg is the man who credited with the creation of moveable type and has been called the most influential man of the second millenium. We made our pilgrimage to the Gutenberg museum.

In the heart of the museum, on display in a locked vault, is one of the 49 remaining 42-line Gutenberg bibles. The books are large, (over 1200 pages and about 20 inches tall), the type is justified into two columns of 42-lines each, the columns tidy and clearly legible. The ornamentation is hand drawn and the effect sublime. This 2-volume set (Old and New Testament) required 6,000 goat skins to produce. Such a manuscript would have taken a scribe at least 3 years to execute. Gutenberg was able to make 150 a year. The revolution began.

The museum has a vast room dedicated to incunabula (the books printed in the first 50 years of printing presses) and you can easily see the profound effect. Scientists, mathematicians, geographers, physicians, philosophers could all have their ideas and theories disseminated at lightening speed with the result that there was an explosion in all fields of study and research.  I have studied all of this for years, but somehow seeing it so graphically represented in the museum was quite profound.

The museum also had exhibits on binding, papermaking, Asian printing and a fabulous contemporary exhibit called “Moving Types”, examining type animation in the age of computers.

Outside the museum are sculpted cubes representing various innovations and epochs in the development of letters.

Outside the Gutenberg Museum

A city in the middle of a wine growing region, that reveres typography and letterform, arts and culture – what took us so long to get here?

Tim in Mainz