Wiesbaden: The Riddle Solved

German Fire

I boil my coffee under the cooker hood. Even the slightest maneuvers in the stove area must happen under its humming. A runaway whiff stirs up the whole neighbourhood, fire alarms start screaming, accompanied by fire engine sirens. Firemen are quick to respond and accustomed to the ride, which is usually concluded by my signature and their Schönen Tag noch! Politely fined for much noise about nothing. Usually the German fire hoses just slumber, all twisted and lazy: Deutschland is an orderly land, here the fire element seems well-bred and civilized, without choleric deviations or hobbies.

Or maybe German fire is lazy, yawning and quiet only here, in Wiesbaden? Having nothing to worry or fret about, it slides under the Earth’s blanket and starts raging, producing geysers and hot fountains, cooking healthy effervescent sulfur waters, powering geothermal springs, which during the World War II was a local man’s soup, holding together his hair, teeth and nails, preventing them from falling during the years of malnutrition and bombing.

While drinking my quietly, without publicity, brewed coffee, I listen to the LRT radio broadcast on the Internet. Some murder shook the province and some JSCs went bankrupt. My window overlooks sharp Neo-Gothic towers of Marktkirche, emerging from the morning fog like horns of some elegant creature with crown-like antennas, asking for a more refined prey. I switch the waves: here, catch the BBC News. (On November 13th night my remotely powered dragon had a meaty feast.)

Fluxus Geysers

George Maciunas (born in Lithuania as Jurgis Mačiūnas), cursed with perpetual poverty and fatal mishappenings with bailiffs, in 1961 decided to close his New York AG Gallery, which he co-owned with Almantas Šalčius, and moved to Wiesbaden.

I wonder if he had to taste the local healing water, when he came here to work as a graphic designer for US Air Force? Guess not. However, I suspect that George’s accomplice Alison Knowles 54 years ago gulped down more than one liter of this mineral brine. The famous Fluxus artist, now an old lady, is still performing her Identical Lunch, again and again stuffing participants’ faces with tuna sandwiches accompanied by a glass of buttermilk. Still stuffing, still shoving – what a lively, energetic little old lady she is: perhaps in 1962 in Wiesbaden, during the first Fluxus festival, between smashing pianos and double basses, and soaking her hair in ink, Alison found time to drink plenty of Heilwasser. The fact that Wiesbaden is considered the official, historical birthplace of Fluxus movement seems like a joke, like a smart artist’s trick, like an integral part of this (anti) art movement, or maybe plain irony – considering Maciunas’s weak health.

These days on every corner you stumble upon organic boutiques, farmers markets, smoothie and juice bars, psychotherapists’ offices, massage, acupuncture and acupressure stands; mature fitness freaks go running in parks, then later dine with each other in French restaurants, celebrating neverending 60-Plus Valentine’s Day; even ducks in the ponds look fat and satisfied – a full-bellied, gaggling embodiment of Valentine’s Day dinner. 

I wish I could take some pliers and hammers and smash a piano: not out of conceptual considerations, but more out of desire to leave some holes in this veil of order and substantial tranquility surrounding Wiesbaden, which so generously shares Koschei the Deathless powers with its guests and especially residents.

Minerals of Spa Woodstock 

As soon as I unpack, I call the number found in the promotional thermal baths brochure, intrigued by monthly excursions around the historic Kaiser-Friedrich-Therme kingdom. At 8:30 an eager guy named Thomas shows the Germans and us, the Americans (I’m too reserved for an American – no audible wows and amazings) all the saunas, pools, luminariums, mud baths, steam rooms and ice showers; he tells us how his office sometimes get flooded and how people swarm around cosmetic oil (which is free), and that the Asians splash around in black goggles. 

Decorative lion cubs are rhythmically spitting Mendeleev’s table characters into the authentic swimming pool, built in the early 20th century, waiting for steam-heated nudes gathering from all kinds of saunas – Finnish, Russian, steamy, rocky, aromatic, light therapy. 

The health mansion has a bar, which offers juice and green cocktails to recover your sweated out potassium. From 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. fitness lovers of all shapes and races are encouraged to teleport to the world of chemical elements and salts.

Immediately after the theoretical part I get myself some slippers, pick some towels, arrange the soaps and head for the practice at Spa Woodstock.

During the practice I realize that my relaxation is diluted with stress. What am I doing here anyway – fixing my health or irritating my nerves? Maybe it’s just my post-Soviet mentality: too strange to share a four square meters massage pool with other nudes of all ages, male and female (the former outweighing the latter); it turns even stranger when the same body of water is taken up by a new Adam – our guide Thomas. Finally I find a rational way to resolve the squabbling between recreation and comic discomfort: I go to the thermal baths on Tuesday, which is a Ladies day.

A completely different atmosphere: women focused on themselves and minerals; they are sad, even depressed, tearful. 

Koschei’s Investigation Results

Outside, the already naked branches of platan trees are occupied with frolicing turquoise and chartreuse parrots – they are twittering and fighting among themselves. I rub my eyes in disbelief. For a second I consider the side effect of healing baths, the possibility of mineral abuse, the chemical elements hangover. My mind, holding to the traditional attributes of the gloomy season – All Soul’s Day candles, rain, crows and ravens – is pleasantly stricken. 

Crows, the quintessential element of November landscape, have been cut out from Wiesbaden’s picture. This colourful, noisy parrot market is a happy manifestation of freedom, a cloud-like autonomic treetop-travelling republic. The temperamental birds must have forgotten their difficult beginnings. Later I found out that Wiesbaden parrots are the direct descendants of a zoo refugees couple, rebel ancestors, who dared to throw off the shackles. The former prisoners came to like the mild climate of the resort, ant the resort apparently succumbed to the charms of this invasive species and allowed its legalization.

Wiesbaden climate is really gentle and gracious. Each time I climb to Sonnenberg, I rather avoid the castle ruins and go straight to the top, the sunlit summit overlooking the vineyards and tomato incubators – naturally existing greenhouses, still prosperous at the end of the autumn, maintained by invisible gardeners. The grass on the hilltop is always fresh and perky. The elderly people are grasping mouthfuls of power and life. They move slowly, ambling with their artificial nanojoints, humming with their wheelchairs, chattering with their false, brighter than sun teeth. We say our hellos as we pass. The elderly smell like pearls, eucalyptus mouthwash, decomposing flesh and expensive perfume: its molecules cling to an old human body, leaving an obnoxious odour – the result of the inappropriate union between Eau de Parfum and the Reaper. These Sonnberg villas residents even have their private streets, where strangers are prohibited. I can see a luxurious probably-SUV of unfamiliar variety wheeling into a driveway, an apple-sized millionaire lady in the driver’s seat – all I can see is the ends of oxygen hoses, moving like a beetle’s moustache (the driver is slumped in the seat, her drips and oxygen tanks are obviously not an obstacle to pilot a car). 

Again and again I experience a panic attack, being the youngest in this town. 

I must look strange to the Sonnenberg cemetery visitors. The neat Lutherans: watering pots hung on hooks, each with its own lock (I guess no one ever tries to break the lock after the pot’s owner dies, and the rust simply do not breed because the climate is so mild). I read the names inscribed in gravestones, admiring their sound and Gothic fonts – acoustic and visual harmony. I take my phone to use the calculator, I have this habit to inventory, to archive, to fill in the statistics. The results of my audit, the findings of my investigation are these: Wiesbaden climate is really gentle and beneficial for the health. Here is the proof: the average age of those eternally resting is 101.

Parrots, depending on the type, can live between 15 and 80 years. Wiesbaden microclimate probably doubles or even triples the duration of their potential existence. 

I wonder if the biographical fact that I have resided in Wiesbaden for a month will have any effect on my life expectancy?

Etudes on Pedagogy

Once upon a time my coordinator Mr Hartmuth, an expert and keen lover of Lithuanian culture, whom I befriended during the month of my residence, took me in his black Jaguar to Albert Einstein Gymnasium, which is not far from Frankfurt. 

As soon as I arrived I was asked if I don’t mind that before the lecture we will have lunch with a Russian author. I just shrugged: why should ethnicity imply hostility and block any possibility of communication? Sitting beside the elderly Moscovian I asked what he was doing here. The fellow offered me his knowledge and contacts with Lithuania: Eduardas Mieželaitis, Brazauskas – notorious Lithuanian communists. The cucumber sandwich got stuck in my throat.

I told the teenagers about hares and ducks that surrounded me on my way through the park, while I was returning from the Kaiser baths yesterday. I showed them the video, they giggled and bravely asked questions.

I wonder how should I answer – without getting into historical and cultural thickets – a teenage girl’s inquiry about my feelings about Germany and its differences from Lithuania. Exciting shops? Better welfare? Racial diversity? I noticed that when I really want to feel “abroad”, I go to the Turkish district. At least here you can hear breaking plates and see moustache dripping with baklava: exotic, although probably bogus exotic, like a worn off doll, dismantled to the bones.

After the meeting we went back to the teachers’ room, to the same plate with sandwiches. The teachers eagerly went on about the museums of the victims of the Soviet regime they visited in Vilnius, the horrors of the camps, the KGB interrogations. They spoke in low voices, with obvious compassion. Of course, I am very pleased that these people are well aware of the history and even have read the book by D. Grinkevičiūtė. And still, however: is the sore post-Soviet (extremely exotic, obviously) discourse the only one possible?

Medallion Conspiracy

Frankfurt am Main is buzzing (to use the media cliché ) with the largest Christmas Fair in Hessen. The Germans are drinking Glühwein, riding carousels, peeling cocoa skin from chocolate reindeers, munching marzipan sausages, chatting in groups gathered around frosted tables, are broadcasting their message to the world, proclaiming their victory over fear. The potential threat of terrorist attacks and prevailing insecurity will not change their habits, will not stop the joy, will not affect the annual tradition. Ramunė and I share a similar approach to the capitalist festive repression of jingle bells: we gallop through the crowd with the speed of a hound, never stopping to admire the garlands and dainty kiosks. 

Pina Bausch, who once performed in Frankfurt, thought that a young and somewhat arrogant photographer, a former actress from Lithuania, was trying to shoot her dancers. The Soviet photographic equipment was never ashamed of its decibels – their acoustic expression was similar to the sound of Kalashnikov.

Ramunė, a photographer, is crazy about antique stuff and utensils. Family photographs from the last century, the long gone people seem sweet and close to her heart: “… you know, the dead children – a brother and a sister. Hair so tangled, they look like two owlets – you would think they have beaks instead of faces. There is an inscription at the back of the photo, that this document should be kept by Theresa. What a cow – she sold it!” And so Ramunė becomes the new guardian Theresa. Antiques never cause her allergies, former owners never show at night to strangle or threaten her, to moan behind the door and make her sweat. The only wrong antique is a hand embroidered medallion: “You know, I just can’t work with it, can’t wear it. It doesn’t suit me!“ I receive that pendant as a gift.

I sit in the car holding the pendant, while Ramunė is talking to her photo developer’s wife. I start feeling anxious, my joints get cold, my temples sting. The little thingy is burning my hand. Just like in B movies, I see an accident happening in front of my eyes. When Ramunė returns, we throw the pendant into the hole meant to hold a coffee cup. The former keeper wraps the medallion in used paper tissues – the capturing filter proves effective. We both agree that the best way to get rid of this devil is to drive it astray in Spielbank – historical casino of Wiesbaden, where Dostoyevsky once lost all his money. 

Spielbank Elves, Euros, and Roulette

Waiting for the appointed casino session, we start feeling really anxious. We call each other every day. Ramunė is worried about the dress code. She promises to get me a flesh coloured dress with a cut out back. In the evening, when it’s already dark and Kurpark is alive with ducks and rabbits, I walk in circles around the gambling kingdom, watching incoming and outgoing patrons.

Conclusions of the monitoring study: the twenty first century embraces eclecticism, nobody penalizes you for jeans, the fleshy dress is really unnecessary. 

Entering the enormous neo-classical style Kurhaus, our hearts start to race. The staff – cloakroom attendants, receptionists checking our passports – all dressed in neat tailcoats, they act friendly, eagerly reply to our silly questions. Ramunė makes friends with all the chip vendors and gaming halls administrators. The end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth – a unique section of history, seized by the hump of the interior and showered with an invisible embalming fluid reveals all its aura: candelabra, wooden walls, carpets, graceful floor lamps, smart fortune hunters. 

Poker tables are surrounded with deeply focused men – all handsome, straight-out-of-catalogue; there are a few women, too. Pushing, placing some tokens. Strictly no emotions: such is the law of poker face

We buy a handful of the cheapest tokens and wade our way to the roulette. Some elegant “servants” with special “rakes” (my vocabulary lacks the right words so I use agrarian terms) are pushing the chips; another one, a watchman with paranormal memory, is closely watching – even after two hours he could indicate, without hesitation, which players bet and which numbers they selected. An Austrian man (Ramunė recognizes his accent) with an unbuttoned shirt – a whiff of perfume, a silver crucifix – doesn’t notice that his white Lana wool scarf is dangling in disarray, somewhat twisted. Stefan’s eyes have a frantic look, yet his face is calm like marble. The expression doesn’t change when he wins 1 000 euros, it remains the same when he loses 2 050. The air is heavy with dramas, tragedies and breaking destinies. A woman from Serbia, or any other post-communist Balkan country (this time I guess the nationality myself), keeps losing, yet sits straight. From her bottomless handbag she pulls and pulls handfuls of the cheapest tokens for 2 euros. Arianna’s movements are supposedly dignified, but why she keeps on pulling her long earrings, why she keeps on fixing and scratching her sticky jackdaw’s bun? Are these blood droplets, oozing from her bitten lips?

Mysterious old men, unprecedented winners, appear from nowhere and disappear silently, like cheetahs; they crawl out of some invisible holes, scoop their money and dissolve into thin air. Chthonic gnomes, using their own nails to dig underground tunnels into Spielbank. There is also a hundred year-old señora, who must have stepped out of Márquez books, and some big-nosed gentlemen, clearly possessing psychic powers. We are out of luck, but that doesn’t affect our excitement – I’m ready to spend my entire literary scholarship, i.e. what’s left of it. Our brains still work and warn us that we may see Arianna’s fate, however “if the spirit has passed through a great many sensations, possibly it can no longer be sated with them, but grows more excited, and demands more sensations, and stronger and stronger ones, until at length it falls exhausted.” (F. Dostoyevsky, “The Gambler”)

The Austrian rushes about like a wounded bird, the Serbian keeps on pulling her earrings, the big-nosed gentlemen together with the gnomes quietly, rhythmically get richer and richer. But everyone cools down with the appearance of a new character. 

A young woman, or more precisely – an emanation of prehistoric Venus sculpture with botulinum-filled lips in black close-fitting tracksuit, coming from, I dare guess, the United Arab Emirates – throws a 500-euro banknote, as if it was a used, despicable handkerchief, and then she throws one more. She receives a mountain of chips and places them on every number. Such dishonesty irritates Ramunė, but to me this bold, nose-wiping Venus’s gesture seems rational and admirable. 

We sit down to rest. While we talk, I “accidentally” drop my medallion – the necklace gets lost in the softness of the carpet, our operation is successfully executed!

Old Hag’s Hut is Neat and Tidy

Apparently, in Germany parents before the theatre performance take their kids to the blacksmith to pull out their little tongues. Or maybe the little ones leave them in special cloakrooms, the tonguerooms, where they hang neatly. There is no other way I can explain such quietness of the children during the performance.

The little Germans gathering to see the opera Hänsel und Gretel were all nicely dressed, with binoculars, some of them in national costumes. The neighbours of my loge – two blond kids, a sister and a brother – during the suspence (will the Old Hag shove Hänsel and Gretel in the oven or not?) were clearly nervous; they squirmed in their seats, while their whitened lips whispered: Hexen! Hexen!

I was laying across all four seats of a private Literaturhaus loge, when in the middle of the first action a perfumed lady with a hyperactive daughter stepped into my VIP balcony. Apparently the girl was never treated by a blacksmith and probably had bitten some devil. She kicked, screamed, whined, discussed with the characters, bit mother’s hand and gossiped about me, sitting in the back.

The performance was tasteful, without any silly baby talk – a Gothic forest, a full moon, an alcoholic daddy, a neurotic Mutter (which, as I understood, was simply overstressed and accidentally forced the children into the woods), a choir of reindeers with starched collars, a beautiful interior of the Hexen’s home: a cage, some cakes, an oven, photos of the children she had eaten. The Hag herself is no dirty slob, but a charming androgynous, who wouldn’t look out of place in LGBT parade.

The lady who sings Gretel’s part, also sings Eurydice’s part in another opera; her colleague, disguised as Hänsel, also works as Orpheus. During the breaks people rush to the buffet to savour simple rustic bagels instead of posh meringue cakes. Homemade dough, quality saltiness. Rhymes with the Old Hag’s hut, constructed of gingerbread and confectionary. 

TV screens in the lobby keep repeating the text: Refugees Welcome! The performance starts 4 p.m. sharp, ends twelve past six. 3-5 minutes for the applause and then all go schlafen, nach Hause.

Ordnung ist Ordnung – for children as well as for the hags. 

The Riddle Solved

Cultural tourists, especially Russians, come to Wiesbaden following in the footsteps of Alexej von Jawlensky. The member of The Blue Rider group, expressionist, Kandinsky’s and Emil Nolde’s buddy, lover of bold colors and strokes spent the last decades of his life in this town, so beneficial for his arthritis. Goethe, Brahms, Wagner, Stravinsky, Bunin, Turgenev, Gogol, Nabokov with his mother – all of them went to Wiesbaden seeking better health. On the hilltop of Neroberg stands the Russian Orthodox Church of Saint Elizabeth, built by Duke Adolf of Nassau on the occasion of the failed delivery of his wife, the young Russian princess Elizabeth. Duchess’s death determined the emergence of the Russian cemetery. Unfortunately, the sleeping district of Slavs is fenced and strictly locked. The church custodian is also strict: nosing out that I’m not an Orthodox, she charges my visit and prohibits to light a candle. Evil Lena’s (a relative, generic name) opponent, a Neroberg tree – an actor playing Vascular System – is standing tall, entirely covered in colourful parrots. Finally I understand: these are the same old crows, rolled in Jawlensky’s palette, the same ravens, only expressively relaxed – so much they shedded their uniforms.

Published in cultural weekly
“Šiaurės Atėnai”, 2016

Translaited by Emilija Ferdmanaitė