Entenrennen (Duck Run) & German festival life


Every weekend in Wolfenbüttel there seems to be a celebration. For Maifest (May Fest) during the weekend of May 21, the Entenrennen–translated as “duck run”–celebrated the arrival of spring, and, as a charity event, helped fund a children’s hospice in town. Naturally, my friends and I had to participate. How this worked: we paid 2 Euros for a rubber duck, and when it was time for the race to begin, we released our ducks into the Oker River. You could put your duck into a big plastic box, which would be dumped into the river all at one time. Or you could throw your duck as far as you can. I chose the latter, though, thinking about it later, I realized my throwing arm wasn’t strong enough to gain much distance. But at least it hit the river, unlike some unlucky ducks that were stuck on the bank.


The first five rubber ducks to reach the finish line (a big net) about 30 minutes later down the river won some choice prizes, such as a helicopter ride and movie tickets. The rest of the ducks were gathered for random drawings of 30 or so smaller prizes for children (rubber ball, frisbee, kleenex–apparently, the best prize of the smaller prizes!–and so forth). It was rather fantastic to be part of the community, walking along the banks of the river, following the ducks as they made their way down. Of course my concern was what would the real ducks think of these rubber ducks? Would they be confused? They’re probably smarter than that. After all, our rubber ducks were Lessing ducks.


Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was a writer, philosopher, poet, and art critic in the Enlightenment period. From 1770-1781, he was the librarian for Duke August the Younger of Brunswick-Lüneburg, at what is now the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel. Lessing wore a powdered wig, like most of the folks in the Enlightenment period. These ducks had permanent wigs, books, and horses (part of Wolfenbüttel’s logo), and so of course, they were Lessing ducks. Some of them even contemplated the meaning of life…


Not only did Maifest bring rubber ducks, but it also ushered food trucks into Wolfenbüttel. So many different food options available. I chose a crepe egg wrap from Uganda, in which a fraction of the cost of the wrap went toward helping to fund water resources in Uganda.



The food truck festival in Wolfenbüttel was like a German Bacardi advertisement: cool trucks, lawn chairs, grass placed on cobblestone in the middle of the Stadtmarkt, surrounded by beautiful German buildings from the 17th century. In particular, the Wolfenbüttel Rathaus (Town Hall) right behind the food truck was constructed in 1602.


On Sunday, I will take part in further community festivities as I cheer on big burly men in the annual Bus Pulling Competition. Awww yeah, that’s right. Five-man teams will pull a gigantic bus. I’ll have more tales to tell after this weekend.


The Harz and Goslar!

Panoramic view from the Brocken
At the top of the Brocken


I don’t know why, but when I see the name Goslar, I say it with an exclamation point. Goslar! Maybe it should even be GOSLAR! In any case, last weekend’s daytrip to Goslar(!) was full of medieval history, fun, and witches.

“Witches? Did she actually say ‘witches’?” Why yes. Goslar is part of the Harz, a mountain range famous for its Brocken, the highest peak in Northern Germany where, according to legend, witches held their annual gathering on April 30.

In Goethe’s Faust, the devil took Faust to the Brocken on Walpurgis Night (April 30):

Now to the Brocken the witches ride;
The stubble is gold and the corn is green;
There is the carnival crew to be seen,
And Squire Urianus will come to preside.
So over the valleys our company floats,
With witches a-farting on stinking old goats.

Hans Baldung Grien, Witches Sabbath, 1510. Woodcut toned print. Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg.

And who could forget Black Sabbath’s ode to the Brocken with their song “Walpurgis“?

Ah, but today, Goslar and the Brocken have more friendly witches, more of the Bewitched-type or the Witch Hazel (a là Bugs Bunny)-type.

It’s quaint, it’s almost comedic. But then you see something haggard almost leap out at you from BEHIND glass. No, that’s not funny at all. NOT AT ALL.


The Kaiserpfalz

Goslar has much more than witches, of course. It was a favored town of emperors. The imperial palace (Kaiserpfalz) served as a seat of power when the emperor came to town. The other iron throne, so to speak.



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The Alt Stadt and the Mines of Rammelsberg here are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. And, fun fact, part of Monuments Men was filmed in Goslar.

And some of my favorite medieval beings were found here…


Augsburg: the Fuggerei and graffiti art

As a Fulbright Fellow in Germany, I am determined to visit as many towns as possible in Deutschland during my time here. Earlier this month, I went on a whirlwind 1-1/2 week tour of northern and southern cities, including Augsburg. Located about an hour northwest of Munich, Augsburg was a free imperial city favored by Emperor Charles V. Or, to be more precise, Charles V and his entourage took over the town during many Imperial Diets.

However, it is Augsburg’s history as a city with powerful dynastic merchant families, such as the Fuggers and the Welsers, which captured my interest. The Fuggers were one of the merchant families in Southern Germany that bankrolled the activities of emperors, dukes, and the papacy during the 16th century. Much literature may be found on the Fuggers and their patronage of the arts. One of their more humanitarian contributions–which continues to be operational today–exists in the form of the Fuggerei.

Jakob Fugger the Rich founded the Fuggerei, a housing complex for needy Catholic citizens of Augsburg. Built between 1516 and 1523, it was donated to the city in 1521. The annual rent from the beginning of its inception was one Rhenish guilder, and that same amount–translated to today’s monetary terms of 0.88 €/yr–remains today. Let me repeat, the rent in the Fuggerei is 88 CENT EURO PER YEAR. This is incredible; it was incredibly generous then, and it certainly is unheard of today. That the Fugger family can still maintain their support, and had done so for the last 500 years, is also quite amazing. Of course, there are certain criteria that must be met: one must be Catholic, one must be below a certain income level, one must pray three times per day for the salvation of the Fugger family at the on-site church of St. Markus, and one must observe a curfew of 10 p.m. lest be subject to a fine. No, I don’t think you can sneak back into the complex as there is an actual city wall with a controlled gate that closes at 10 p.m. Sixty-seven houses holding 142 apartments, a museum, and a 16th-century reconstructed apartment with “old” interiors remain extant at the Fuggerei.

The legendary folks who lived here included Franz Mozart, mason and great-grandfather of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; and the first victim of witch hunts in Augsburg, Dorothea Braun who was accused of being a witch by her own 11-year old daughter. Whoops.

I was also impressed by Augsburg’s contemporary graffiti art. In many cases, it rivals Berlin (*she says as she ducks for cover*).

Art-full weekend in Berlin

Living in northern Germany for the time being, I thought, “Hey, why not do my birthday in Berlin?” Why the hell not, right? It was impromptu and perfect, consisting of museums and food. Since I haven’t written about art in a while, my post here is on the state museums of Berlin.

I arrived on a Saturday afternoon, dropped my bags off, and went straight to the Bode Museum for architecture, medieval altarpieces, and sculptures. Here I saw some of the most fascinating altarpieces and small carved ivories. I was floored by the room with a mosaic apse from Ravenna. I’m not sure if the mosaic is from the Basilica of San Vitale where one of the most famous mosaics of Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora reside, so if anyone knows, please chime in. I think this is what’s great about art and art history: you think you know the art object, but you still have many, many questions.

Mosaic apse from Ravenna, Italy, year 545.
Mosaic apse from Ravenna, Italy, year 545.
Ivory panel, looks like The Last Judgment.
Ivory panel, possibly representing The Last Judgment.
Bird (peacock?) made with gold and a bezoar stone. Kunstkammer-worthy!
Bird made from a bezoar stone set in gold. Kunstkammer-worthy.

On Sunday, I visited the Brandenburger Tor, the Pergamon Museum, and the Gemäldegalerie (Painting Gallery). So many great monuments and paintings seen. Since I can’t write about them all, I want to focus on the biggest surprise for me, which was the Pergamon Museum.

First thing’s first. It’s called the Pergamon Museum because it houses the 2nd century B.C.E. Pergamon Altar from Hellenistic Greece. Unfortunately, the museum is under construction and the altar itself is not on view, and won’t be on display again until 2019.

But that’s okay, because I still was able to see and experience the Ishtar Gate and Processional Way from BABYLON, the roman Market Gate of Miletus, and best of all, the intricate Umayyad Mshatta Façade possibly from the palace of caliph Al Walid II (8th century). (Museum link for photos.)

I felt as if I was in some sort of historical stroll through different lands and time periods, when giant lions forewarned foreign visitors the strength of their city. Think Midnight in Paris, but much earlier and less of Owen Wilson griping about how he just wants to disappear into the 1920s. When I came face to face with the Ishtar Gate and walked along the length of the Processional Way, I was bowled over by the enormity and ferocity of the architecture. We talk about architecture today, but I think sometimes we may forget that architecture guides us with its physical structure as well as its images. In this case, the Ishtar Gate and Processional Way still embody strength and power, and one can see how they demanded, from visiting dignitaries to the ancient city of Babylon, respect and acquiescence.

IMG_9005 IMG_9013 IMG_9028 From ancient Babylon to ancient Rome…

Heads contemplating in the Market of Miletus.
Heads contemplating in the Market of Miletus.
“Omg, she’s touching the ancient marbles!”

My final moments at the Pergamon Museum were spent in the Islamic art and architecture area looking at, among other objects, a mihrab (prayer niche) of beautiful faience mosaics, calligraphic script and patterns from the Beyhekim Mosque (13th century)…and an intricate wooden cupola from Palacio del Partal of Alhambra, Spain.

IMG_9082 IMG_9086

The pièce de résistance of the entire museum whirlwind weekend, from my perspective, was the Mshatta Facade. I’ve only seen and studied the facade in art history survey books and google images, so it was astounding to see this Umayyad creation in person. You have to look at it from afar first to see its grand size, but then must come close to the wall to see the detailed stone carving. Yes, likely a team of artists and artisans used tools to create mystical animals and luscious vegetal motif in a stone wall.


So grand. Here I am, happy as can be on my birthday weekend.


German adventures


My office/library.
Zeughaus library at Wolfenbüttel.

I’ve just begun my research year abroad in Germany. It’s been about a week and a half, and it’s been a period of mostly highs and…well, not exactly lows, but let’s just say humbling experiences.

My German speaking and German hearing are far from awesome. In fact, I always warn Germans I encounter with my standard opening line, “Entschuldigen, mein Deutsch-sprechen ist nicht so gut,” which translates to “Excuse me/I’m sorry, my German speaking is not so good.” They always say, “Nein, es ist gut!” They’re very kind and I don’t believe them, of course. The folks I’ve met at the library and in the town of Wolfenbüttel in the Lower Saxony region have been super helpful and, oddly enough, quite funny. I think jokes about German humor are definitely not applicable here, because I’ve had a laugh with almost every single local I’ve met. One thing though, I’m hesitant to pet their dogs. Do Germans care if strangers come running up to their puppies? I have no idea, but I’m tempted every time I see a dog.

About those humbling experiences… two days ago I did laundry. Yes, seemingly an easy thing to do with a washer and dryer. Well, not so easy when you don’t have the full capacity of the language. Now I understand how my mom feels in America. I had to look up the words imprinted on the washer to determine which was the most appropriate cycle. For instance, the word “Fein/Wolle” is simple enough — “fine/wool,” but I couldn’t even begin to guess the meaning of the word “Pflegeleicht”. Even after I punched it into my App on the iPhone (“oh, it means ‘easy-care’, okay”), I’m still left wondering, “Wait, does that mean I can combine jeans and knits together? What does Schnell/Mixt mean? How do I wash only in cold?” So confusing. So basically I stared at the washer, willing it to give me answers for a good twenty minutes, hoping somebody would wander by to help me.

Everyday comes with a challenge. But once I’m able to overcome a few more challenges, I’ll really be ready to do some washing!

Of course I’ve found some good food. What’s the point of traveling when you don’t eat well? Even in the small town of Wolfenbüttel, there are some very good Italian (Sicilian to be exact) cucina. It’s so good that I went to the same Italian restaurant twice in one week, and ate enough burrata for the month.

Mezzaluna (crescent-shaped homemade pasta) with tuna inside.
Capellini with prawns.
Capellini with prawns.
Cassata gelato
Cassata gelato