Our cathedral in Aachen (or Aix-la-Chapelle as the French and English would have it) shares its major traits with other gothic cathedrals.
The exterior is all verticality, from the pointed arches of windows, doorways, and other architectural features, to the high thrust of the steeple rising from its smaller fellow points.
The exterior as a whole, especially from a distance, brings the eye across the social plain and points all the world’s grandeur upwards, from the hierarchies of the medieval social structure to the vanishing point atop the steeple, teasing the eye still further home into the heavens.
The interior houses, among other things, the richly-colored stained glass walls that fill the apse and frame the altar.
Arguably, the stained glass in all gothic cathedrals serves at least two symbolic functions in addition to the narrative function of transmitting sacred history to an illiterate congregation: (1) they create an illusion of the world’s most massive structures being held up by pure light, just as the entire material world is held up by the Word of God and the light of Christ’s sacrifice; and (2) they signify the light passing through the walls of Mary’s womb in the Christian mythos’s moment of greatest mystery.
But what keeps me coming back is the detail – the little unique spots and patches of aesthetic beauty in this massive canon of gothic symbolism — from the octagon that remains from Charlemagne’s 8th century original structure
to the exterior features of the facade that seem unique, at least to my amateur eye
to the quirky details of the interior
I don’t even know what to call these spots and patches. They point back to the gothic canon, the symbolic template that the Dom here in Aachen shares with the larger gothic traditions, but they are also little aesthetic chips in their own right, separable from the mother building and marvelous for their random beauty. In this sense, you can see them through the lens of Jung’s synchronicity. As opposed to the causal aspect of apprehension (in this case, the gothic structure that determines the details), synchronicity focuses on the chance aspect of what is before the eye, the random beauty that emerges best when the object is stripped from the external causal nexus and viewed in its own right. It’s a little bit like moving from traditional art to abstract art, where the idiosyncratic arrangement forces you to find, or create, a new register of intelligibility.
It’s not always worth it – this sort of move from traditional to abstract – this move away from the causal frame of reference into something more like vertigo. But to me, it’s always worth it when it comes to gothic cathedrals. Unlike modern and contemporary artists, who cover the whole range from profound to puerile, gothic cathedrals never disappoint. It doesn’t take a shred of true religious belief to feel, as one approaches and enters these architectural wonders, that no artist or movement of artists of any period has created such powerful, holistic, and all-encompassing moods as those who built these magnificent structures 1000 years ago.
You can hardly call it hitchhiking, really. I’d scoped out a great place to hitchhike out of Aachen – the Europaplatz – but then thought I’d try the ride-sharing site on line. Someone was going past the Frankfurt airport at 6:30 a.m. tomorrow, so I figured I’d meet him at the Stadtpark, take the ride ($14 for 250 km or 155 miles), and hitchhike to Mainz from there. It was a guy from Syria. He’d studied in Würzburg and was now a trauma surgeon at the hospital in Aachen. He had only one sister left in Syria – his parents and other siblings had come to Aachen – but she did not want to leave home. I couldn’t tell how fast he was going on the autobahn, but he definitely lived up to the German reputation for high-speed driving.
There were two places to hop out and head for Mainz. The country road would be better for scenery and long rides, but would be worse for getting stuck with no place to stand and no place to duck in for coffee. Still, if it weren’t for the dearth of pullover spots in Germany, I’d take the country road. I’m convinced that the Germans would find a way to help out a stranger. But no, I want to get to my friends in the village near Mainz, so I take the more populated route. Ataya, my driver, goes out of his way to find me a spot. Hwy 43 would run all the way to the west bank of the Rhine in Mainz, from which I could probably walk a bridge to the altstadt.
After a few minutes standing in the cold, I risk my good spot to walk ahead to a gas station and warm my hands around a coffee. The counter person tells me I can catch an S-train (like a suburban subway but over ground) around the corner that goes all the way into Mainz. This is too easy. I’ll be damned if I’ll give up my hitchhiking trip that quickly merely because taking the S-train is the logical thing to do. I go straight back out, where I can hitchhike the road and pivot to accost those who stop for gas. The latter strategy works, and I hop into a van with three Russians. The woman speaks excellent English. She has been to New York and found the Americans pleasantly relaxed compared to the Germans. The two guys with her speak German but they too want to practice their English. They are really from Kazakhstan but identify as Russian. From their point of view, most of the former Soviet republics are comfortably allied to Russia, except for the Ukraine and Georgia. In the inevitable discussion of politics, they concede that Hillary Clinton is more knowledgeable than Trump, but the fact that Trump means less tension between Russian and America overrides all for them. I am so wrapped up in it that I am startled when they say “Aussteigen; this is Mainz, that way to the station.”
I start walking. I can tell I’m in the city proper and not the suburbs, but I’m not so sure of my direction. I call Sheila, my friend in the nearby village. As the phone rings, I get oriented suddenly. There it is: the metal sculpture of St. Martin by Albert Sous, near the little church with the Marc Chagall stained glass.
I’ve been to this very spot before. I am oriented.
Now I can walk leisurely through town to the station, taking a couple of pictures as I skim by.
Then the bus to the village of Stadecken-Elsheim.
So ride-sharing through websites where you can, and hitchhiking the last leg as needed, might be the way to go.
The bus to Maastricht crosses the border from Germany into the Netherlands as soon as you leave Aachen. Here are some fields along the way
and at Dreilanderpunkt where Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands meet. (OK, I took this picture earlier/greener in the season, but it’s along the way.)
Then Maastricht, from the images that capture the gist of the town
to the really weird stuff; e.g., I’ve never seen a urinal like this
or a bookstore like this
I have on some occasions seen an underground art scene like the one at Landhuis/Wasteland
For example, this would fit at The Farm in Tennessee or in the Bywater/Marigny/St. Claude area back in New Orleans, where a kind of free-spirited, low-budget, random exuberance knocks things out of the way and creates its own field of aesthetic play. Perhaps it might fit the industrial art scene of London. But this kind of spectacle is at first glance less visible in Germany, except maybe in Berlin or in some of the other eastern cities I’ve heard about like Leipzig and Dresden. This is a generalization, of course, not a universal truth, but the Germans seem a bit more inclined to color inside the lines and get things done. I’m still poking around though, making the most of my contacts with those Germans who break the boundaries and enjoying the kindness and generosity of Germans in general.
Oh yeah, and then there’s dope boats in Maastricht.
Sorry, though, the government has cracked down. No smoking weed on the dope boats without a Dutch passport — for now, anyway.
“People don’t hitchhike any more.”
“It’s harder to hitchhike these days.”
I started hearing these comments in the 1980s, but I never found them to be true. Until Jackson, Mississippi, two days ago. OK, I admit, I haven’t hitchhiked in the U.S. since the early 1990s, so there’s a gap in my data. But still, people really tuned me out in Jackson. It took me about 3 hours to get from New Orleans to the south side of Jackson. Then a 3 hour wait. Then a ride to north central Jackson. Then a half hour walk to find a spot and 5 hours in the beating sun with no ride. Sunset. Cheap hotel. The next morning, another 5 miles walking the shoulder and 3 hours burning sun before I finally got a ride out of town.
But first, before Jackson, the endless rows of debris from gutted houses after the Louisiana floods.
Then a few good rides out of Louisiana and into Mississippi. The country people — the less educated the better — helped me through. Blue collar guys going to construction sites, chain-smoking women with raspy voices and straw hair, the Pentecostal missionary. But Jackson, that was rough. Until a tattoo artist fresh out of prison finally picked me up and drove me into the pine forests between Jackson and Memphis.
A scrap metal dealer asked me how long it took me to hitchhike from Mississippi to Germany. Nice as could be, clueless, big on the second amendment, an avid voter, and not for Hillary Clinton. Who was I to argue? When he dropped me, he didn’t want to let go, but kept talking to me while I stood with the door open.
I couldn’t take the sun any more on my arms and neck. I harassed people at the truck stop. The truckers were sympathetic, but this was not the 1970s. Nowadays, insurance rules forbade them from taking on hitchhikers, and trucking companies had cameras in the cabs. The great age of trucker-hitchhiker camaraderie was gone. The manager kicked me off the property but not before an old guy offered to take me halfway to Memphis.
Next stop. Skin baked. Butterflies on the side of the road.
I hovered by the gas station door and asked the first guy who pulled in with a pickup if he could help me with a ride to Memphis. He wasn’t thrilled, but let me in. In a half hour, we were fast friends. His wife had just got out of the national guard and was studying biology on the G.I. Bill. He had flunked English through high school and had barely gotten his GED. Now he and his brother had two trucks zigzagging around the country delivering trailer homes on recurring contracts. He took me all the way to Marston, Missouri. The lady working the truck stop counter there was chatty, supportive. Where the other manager had kicked me off the premises, she would have no doubt badgered every driver in sight to help me out. You never know what you’re going to get. But my plans had changed. Rachael was now on the way down from St. Louis, so she and my driver, Billy, and I met in Marston for coffee. Then Billy headed north to cross paths with his brother on I-57, and Rachael and I turned southward, back through the heart of the Bible Belt before we could reach the French Catholic swamplands of Louisiana and the lazy, humid, brass-band nights of New Orleans.
So do people hitchhike any more? Is it harder to hitchhhike? Flying in your own car would take 8 hours from New Orleans to Marston, Missouri. It took me 27 hours to go the first half and 4 hours to go the second half. Draw your own conclusions.
Hitchhiking out of Freiburg was a little chaotic today. On a tip from the hostel, I walked to the gas station to seek a ride instead of busing it to the autobahn. I tried both the street and the station door, but waited about two hours. Probably not aggressive enough at the door. Vocally asking for rides has never been my style, even in my 50,000 miles hitchhiking in my crazy, bohemian youth. And it turns out that really only the left lane went to the autobahn.
Just as a family picked me up going to Offenburg, the sun came out over the Black Forest.
Offenburg wasn’t as far I’d like, not Karlsruhe, but maybe a better spot. The father spoke better English than the mother or the teenage son. Or maybe the teenage son was just a teenager, too self-conscious to admit his own mastery.
They dropped me at an autobahn rest stop, where my only option was accosting people at the door. This time, I accosted in earnest, landing a ride in thirty minutes with a young wrestling champion (2nd in Germany, 5th in Europe) going home to milk the cows at his family farm. When he found out I was a wrestling captain in high school, he showed me a video of his finals match on his phone.
He went out of his way to find me a good spot between Karlsruhe and Stuttgart, but finally had to drop me. Hitchhiking in Germany is pleasant, wholesome even. Everyone is nice, no one is afraid, no one considers you morally questionable for hitchhiking. But there are damned few good spots, good shoulders, good ramps. I walked, praying that I wouldn’t have to walk for hours, and reached a decent spot – cars could pull over, albeit on the rural side of Pforzheim. A nice man about my age offered to bring me to a better spot on the other side of Pforzheim.
“Sure,” I said. Movement. Anything. But the new place was worse.
“There’s the ramp to Stuttgart,” he said. “Right there.” Big smile.
Yes, right there. With no shoulder at all, with Germans flying by at the death-wish speeds for which they are famous. Too rural for bus stops. I trudged through weeds back toward Pforzheim, looking for a shoulder or an intersection, anything. I finally came to a right turn lane where no one was turning right, and staked my claim. At least they could stop if they really wanted to.
In a spot like this, after an hour, one always wonders: “Is it an impossible spot and I’m just not seeing it? What are my options? Where’s the nearest gas station or bus stop?”
A light rain starts and then stops. Then a ride. A woman about my age (Kiki) takes me into Stuttgart. She had dreamed of traveling herself. She and her high school friend had planned a trip to Australia. Then she got pregnant. Twins. Then another kid. She never got out.
Almost 6 p.m. and I got an email. The Airbnb request I had put in yesterday for Stuttgart was rejected. More light rain. Kiki dropped me at a hostel. She gave me the address of a tiny jazz club (Kiste). She would try to meet me there later.
The hostel was booked, but I found a cheap hotel and walked the streets.
I would make it to Kiste – with some students I met while trying to tap the university’s free wifi. But I would not see Kiki again. You never know which on-the-road contact might stick for life, but most will always be just fleeting moments, leaving nothing but pleasant little traces behind.
Gary Gautier, author of Hippies