The Tone in Dresden, Part IV

“How on earth do you know they are going to Pirna?” To say I was skeptical is an understatement.

“The license plate, dummy.” She sweetly explained. It ends in ‘PRN’. I bet that stands for Pirna. Car plates in Germany tell you where the car is registered and that one’s registered in the city we can’t find. We’ll just follow it and see where it takes us.” Zen navigation. I like it.

We bumped along, chasing our unsuspecting pathfinder through rotaries and turn offs. We were actually having fun with this. Tailing our randomly picked car through the dark and drizzle coated streets of former East Germany, it felt like shadows of the secret police were driving with us. After a relatively short time, we started recognizing landmarks again. We were delivered to our destination and we let our scout car break free into the night. A short wobble up the stairs and we collapsed into various bunk beds to sleep off the night’s adventures.

My companions woke first and spent the early morning sitting by the window chatting and watching as gliders took off and landed in the field behind the youth hostel. Gliding has always been popular in Germany and it was nice to see that the sport continues. Once I managed to rouse my self out of bed I headed off to the highly questionable shower. About eight centimeters of water filled the large communal shower basin as four or five showerheads did their best to flood out the floors below. With only a brief pause I stepped in, flip fops still on and did my best to clean up.

We wasted no time getting back to the old city, this time taking careful note of the way back. We found a car park near the city center and moved out on foot. Two things stood out to me. First was the decay. There were still a lot of scars from WWII here. Some buildings that had burned in the bombing of 1945 still showed streaks of black above each and every window. The back alleys and smaller roads looked neglected. What was once a city park now covered in waist high grass with a massive black gas pipe cutting it in half, gates locked to the public.

The second thing that you could not escape seeing were the cranes. Cranes were everywhere and they thrust up from the city skyline like church steeples of construction. Dresden was being rebuilt. That was message that rang out from building site to building site. Things were finally changing and they were changing fast.

After we met up with Carla again we set out to see the town. There was a lot to pick from. Though it was a bit of a whirlwind tour, there are a few things that stand apart. The first was an old man playing an ancient hurdy-gurdy, complete with monkey and tin cup. The instrument looked rather worse for wear, but the sound was unmistakable and briefly enjoyable. A bit like bagpipes are. They make you smile, and then you retreat to a safe distance, well out of earshot.

In the days of the DDR, soft coal was used extensively for heating, and the city showed its effects. Massive stone edifices, having been bathed in the cinders of thousands of coal furnaces, were black and disfigured. One of these black smeared giants was the Katholische Hofkirche, the catholic cathedral that is one of Dresden’s unmistakable landmarks. We walked around to the front door and stepped inside. My breath was taken away. From the filth that clung to the exterior of the church, I was ready to see a somber and dark space within. Not so. Gleaming white walls and golden angelic statuary towered over us as we respectfully kept our silence so as not to disturb the service in progress. The effect of this dazzling open space made it feel as though you were stepping from a gloomy room and into the bright day, when in fact you had stepped from the outside to in. It was amazing to behold and gave you hope for the city’s reconstruction.

The next stop was the Zwinger Palace. This massive complex was ordered constructed by Augustus the Strong in 1689 to house his incredible art collection. The buildings surround a large central plaza and is a perfect example of royal excess. The majority of the structure was destroyed and burned out on the night of February 14, 1945 in the massive Allied bombing raid. After the war, in an uncharacteristically thoughtful move, the communist government decided to rebuild it exactly as it had stood prior to that terrible night. Oddly enough, due to the air pollution that had plagued the region, the new Zwinger looks as though it had stood there, unmolested for the last four hundred years. Inside was the art and we spent much of the day there. It was a day well spent. About half way through the museum palace, I rounded a corner to find an oversized painting of Mary, holding the infant Jesus while being gazed at reverently by some hangers on. What stopped me in my tracks were the cherubs at the bottom. Not just any cherubs, but THE cherubs. Those two little fat kids with wings that have somehow caught on across the U.S. and are immediately recognizable to anyone who’s been inside a Pier 1 Imports or any greetings card shop.

So THAT’S where they were from! As an artist and art teacher, I was embarrassed that it had never occurred to me that there was more to the painting than just the two pudgy angel babies. Who knew?

As the day wound down, we headed to a movie house where I was introduced to the concept of eating good food and drinking beer, all while enjoying a movie. It was the perfect way to end the day. Mountain Man and I were leaving our friends Carla and Laura from here. We would be traveling on to Salzburg on our own while they both needed to head off home. After good byes and addresses were exchanged, we watched them both disappear into the evening. The night was still young and our train wasn’t due for hours so with out hesitation, Mountain Man and I set out to find some fun. We found it in the form of a bit of ruined wall gradually rising from the ground. It was a fragment of the old palace foundation, left over after the post war clean up. In the middle of the wall was an open door way leading to a long and steep set of stairs that disappeared under the city. A neon sign balanced over the entry was twisted into the shape of a yellow trumpet. Below that was just one word, “Tonne”.

In we went.

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House hold gods

Having been raised a Roman Catholic and attending a grand total of eleven years of Catholic school, I pretty much feel like I’ve already gotten in enough organized religion in my life to last me until I slip my particular surly bonds. I’m no longer what my Grandmother called “in the Church”. In actuality, I can’t say that I can even see it back over the horizon any more. It would be impressive and tough sounding of me to say that I had some sort of major “get me out of here!” moment with organized faith. Something where I tell them all to hang, put on my headphones and strode defiantly out the door and snarkily strode down Damnation Alley but it didn’t happen like that for me. It was more like I noticed the sun filtering trough a crack in the half open door and caught a glimpse of the trees and fields just out side and as everyone else bowed their heads, I edged out into the fresh air. I’ve never really looked back and have always been happy with my choice. I’m also not much of a joiner. That didn’t hurt either.

Since the organized religion thing isn’t my cup of tea, I’ve sort of found my own way over the years. I consider my self to be a fairly spiritual person and being a sort of arm chair student of history, I’ve enjoyed doing my own study of religious beliefs and customs as I’ve gone along. When you look at belief systems and religious myths from around the world with (what I hope is) a unbiased eye, no one’s practices or belief structures are any more unbelievable than any one else’s. On the face of it, they are all somewhat… odd to believe in from any out sider’s point of view, and some can seem very odd if from a radically different culture.

Some beliefs or rituals though, even if thousands of years out of date can really resonate with us even now. Or at least, they can with me. We visited a friend of ours in France some time ago and had a lovely trip. His house is in the Ardèche, just above the more famous Provence. This region is very dry, scrubby and chocked full of Roman ruins. While we were there, It got me thinking a lot of what it must have been like to live there as a citizen of the Roman Empire and what their lives were like, specifically at home. This started me thinking about House Gods.

Every house had many small shrines for various gods and offerings and thanks were brought to them often.
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It kept the house safe and in harmony, so they believed, and I for one have no reason to deride them for their beliefs. My particular religious ancestors didn’t do so well with the Romans for quite a long time, unless you include them in the entertainment industry. Even still, Colosseum work wasn’t exactly a career. Still though, I really do like the idea of the House Hold Gods. It’s… quaint, homespun, private; and that appeals to me greatly. One of the reasons I “left” the Church all those years ago was that it seemed remote and secretive. I also chafed at being told what exactly to believe. If you thought otherwise, you were bad. Not much fun really. The idea of a smaller house god, a god that you could get miffed at and have it out with, appeals directly to my Libertarian streak. A god that you could bargain with appeals to my logical side. I also think it made people far more respectful of their dwellings and how they were kept. Not a bad thing at all.

I think were missing out with the loss of our little house gods. How often have you tried to cajole your car keys out of their hiding place or bargained with an appliance to work again. Just think. If you had your house gods, at least you’d know who to talk to about the problem. And if they ever seemed uncooperative… they wouldn’t say “no” to a slice of that cheese cake you’ve got in the fridge.

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