Melanie Spiller & Coloratura Consulting
A Tonic for Ramshackle Wordsmiths
Copyright Melanie Spiller 2011. Do not copy without permission.
Tales of Hildegard: Hitching a Ride
Hildegard von Bingen was born in Bermersheim bei Alzey in 1098. She was the tenth child of an aristocratic landowner, and as such, she was to be tithed to the church at age eight. As it happens, she’d been having visions from about age four, which she interpreted in a religious way, and she was quite eager to spend her life living the life of a nun and studying.
After the tithing ceremony in Trier with the Bishop of Mainz, she went to live in Disibodenburg. (See the Tea with the Baroness story in the Tales of Hildegard section of Completely Off Topic for more details.) The descendants of her family (there were about fourteen children in the end, at least eight of whom survived to adulthood. Four became priests or nuns), and the descendants of her father’s servants still live in the little farm community.
In the last week of my trip, I went to see the birthplace. Now, Alzey is the nearest large town, but it’s pretty small, maybe 15,000 people. Anja, my friend in Hattingen, had never heard of it, although the travel agent had, and I was able to purchase my train ticket in advance.
I got on the train, transferred twice, and at last, three hours of very pleasant countryside later, I got off at the very end of the tracks, in Alzey. I asked the station master how to get to Bermersheim. He’d never heard of it. He also didn’t know if Alzey or this imaginary Bermersheim had a hotel. I could see that the town of Alzey did have restaurants and things (some towns are too small to have restaurants…), so I left my luggage with the station master and went for an exploratory walk.
In the station, which was having its road dug up and later became a very unpleasant place to try to move heavy luggage in 90-degree heat, there was a travel agent. This fellow was a lot more interested in solving the problem of finding Bermersheim, but he too had never heard of it. (I think he also liked practicing his English with this odd lady from San Francisco.) We’d agreed that the sign in the train station about the Bishop of Mainz coming to Bermersheim the following weekend was probably a good indication that the smaller town was not far. He directed me, in the end, to a hotel and the information office.
I lugged my luggage to the little hotel, which was a little cheesy, but quiet and safe, and inexpensive. After checking in, and changing into less warm clothes, I set off for the museum in which the information office was located, arriving tidily ten minutes after it closed for the day. This seemed to be a real trend during the course of my stay in Germany, so I didn’t find it annoying. I just went for a walk around the town. I was rather delighted to find a fully operational castle, several nice restaurants that bragged about their asparagus (hooray! Vegetables!), and some ruins that looked to be Roman. I was going to enjoy this town, even if it were built on top of Bermersheim.
In the morning, I made my way to the information office. The elderly woman inside understood exactly why I was there, and drew me a little map of the way to Bermersheim. We had a short discussion about the town of Alzey’s history (her accent was nearly unintelligible, and I had to ask her to repeat a lot. She did, and it was really getting quite loud in the information office). At last, both happy with the exchange, I was about to depart, when she said, “You have a car, of course” (in German). When I said that I was on foot, she looked horrified. I said that I believed it to be about three kilometers (1.5 miles) which she confirmed. “No problem,” I said. I thanked her, and set off.
At first there were sidewalks. Then there was only a shoulder. Then, after passing under the train tracks, there was just road. Cars were zipping past at about 45 miles per hour. I climbed down into a drainage ditch to prevent my own demise. Because the day was really warm, I had on my museum-going sandals, the ones with the nice clunky heels, and a loose, comfortable dress. After five or ten minutes, I found the ditch rather ankle-twisting, so I climbed over a small barrier and into the freshly plowed field. This was also a little rickety, but at least here, if I took a spill, it wouldn’t be into traffic.
After about twenty-five minutes, I came to the first landmark. The information lady had said that I would come to a fork in the road with a sign that listed two towns in one direction and several other towns in the other. There was a sign, but the two towns were listed in opposite directions, there were no other towns listed, and of course, Bermersheim was not among the possibilities. I could hardly go wrong, I thought. Even if I pick the wrong direction, I could call a cab or take a bus. (Why hadn’t the information lady told me that there was a bus?) So I set off. In a few minutes, I realized that the fields were higher than the road, and that I might be able to see one or both of the two towns and perhaps figure out where Bermersheim was. So up I climbed. (My dress and sandals were starting to look a little the worse for all this clambering and ditch treading. But I was having an adventure.)
I stood there looking at two towns in opposite directions, both too large and too new to be Bermersheim. Just as I was about to pick one and head for it, I noticed a dust cloud approaching. “Aha!” I thought. “I’ll flag down the tractor and ask.”
The tractor was headed my way anyway, so I walked toward the tiny tractor and waved. The driver was a nice sturdy-looking fellow with a fluffy mustache. The tractor was pretty dusty, one of those small ones with a metal frame and thick plastic sheets for shelter from the rain. I asked for Bermersheim. I was quite surprised to hear the voice of a woman responding. (Upon closer inspection, some of the mustache was dirt, and some other details revealed that the driver was indeed a woman.)
We had a humorous exchange about being from San Francisco, and coming to see Hildegard’s birthplace, with lots of hand gestures—my limited vocabulary and her lack of exposure to Hildegardians from the US made the conversation quite entertaining, but only slightly informative. At last, when she discovered that I had no car, she looked horrified, said that it was way too far, pointed to the back of the tractor, and said (auf Deutsch) “Hop on!”
I went around the back, but it was very greasy and nasty. She was surprised by my sandals and skirt, so around to the front I returned. Tractors are seldom used to transport people, and this was a very small tractor, so I bunched my skirt up around my knees, put one foot on either side of the gear shift levers (there was a small forest of them), and linked both arms between the plastic sheeting and various metal supports. (I probably looked a little like a can-can girl enjoying being crucified inside a very toasty-warm tractor.)
And so, we set off, both of us laughing like girls at a slumber party. We bounced down the side of the field and onto the road. We bounced along on the road (not in the direction I had originally chosen, naturally), laughing and pointing to things. It was way too loud to try to talk. This was the best amusement park ride ever, although the drivers trapped behind us on the road did not seem amused. About three miles (!) later, we came to the road into Bermersheim (all neatly marked, in preparation for the Bishop’s visit). She turned the tractor around, allowed me to take her photograph (the mustache hardly shows) and waving her dusty hand at a very sweaty and dusty me, off to her lunch she bounced.
The town of Bermersheim is very small, but they clearly understood and honored the significance of the church. They had paved the roads on the other streets, but the clear signs and the cobbled roads led me through the little town to the church where HvB was christened. I have to admit that I continued to chuckle the whole way about my arrival.
The little church was freshly painted, and was not of a particularly distinctive style. The doors were locked (the information lady had led me to believe that there would be a priest in attendance), but it was lunch time, so I thought I’d check out the graveyard and the outside of the church and wait until the priest came back after lunch. I was pretty sure that it was a reconstructed church because the grounds and building were in excellent condition, and none of the gravestones were older than 1740 or so.
After about an hour, the bells began to chime (one of Germany’s greatest charms), and the rhythm was a little uneven, so I thought there must be someone pulling the rope. But when I knocked, there was still no answer. Thinking to give the fellow a chance to remove earplugs, or wander around to the front doors, I waited another ten minutes before knocking on the doors again. (I managed to entertain myself by playing peek-a-boo with a small black and white cat.)
At last, I figured, no one was there. I was just letting myself out through the gate when an elderly couple came up the lane from the fields. They were clearly coming back from some hard work out in the sun. I flagged them down, explained my mission, and asked if the priest was around. They were excited to be talking to someone from San Francisco (I had long since stopped laughing to myself about the tractor ride, too), and so the woman rushed off to get the key to the church from the chambermaid.
The man explained that they had no regular priest (the bells were automatic), and that the entire population of the town (360) attended this church. It looked new because it had been in continual use, and had simply been well maintained. (I don’t know about older graves. Maybe there was another graveyard?) At last the woman returned with the key, and I got a very personal tour of the church. They knew which pew belonged to HvB’s family, the age of the organ (no organist, only for special occasions), and pointed out some HvB icons and a relic (her fingernail).
At last, having had my fill, I asked for a bus stop. I explained the ride in the tractor (I think I managed to be funny about it), and said that I didn’t want to get hit by a car now that one of my dreams had come true. They insisted on giving me a ride. Now, these are farm people, so I was thinking that I was in for another tractor ride or a carriage and horse—I didn’t know what to expect. I followed them to their home, which was a long narrow affair with a shed at one end. The woman disappeared into the shed.
I have to admit that it’s not as much fun to ride in a new purple Ford Escort as it is to ride in a tractor, but it’s much cleaner and much more comfortable.