In which our heroines play dress-ups, listen to music, dance, and generally have an absolutely wonderful time.
And then, they go home.
Saturday, October 30th – Gotha
Today was the first day of the Barockfest, and it was wonderful. Like a cross between an SCA feast, a classical performing arts festival and a craft market – with fireworks. Words cannot describe my delight. I think my friend was vastly entertained by the way her other friend and I kept bouncing up and down on either side of her going “Oooh! Look at that! Ooh! So cool! Ooh! Costume! Ooh!”.
We were both pretty excited.
The costumes really were amazing – 18th century and late 17th century garb is complicated, and requires wigs and corsetry and underpinnings and lace and brocades, and a large number of people had clearly gone to great efforts to make their costumes as authentic and gorgeous as possible. It was stunning.
There was a group of three men dressed as dandies in the French style (one of the funnier things about this festival for me was that because all things French were terribly fashionable in the baroque era, there was a lot of Frenchness in my environment. With heavy German accents, which was extremely cute to my ear), complete with makeup and patches and shoes with red heels (something I have only previously encountered in Georgette Heyer novels) – and personalities to match!
The rest of the crowd included a handful of medieval folk, a number of escapees from the American Civil War, a healthy sprinkling of Goths, and a lot of people in jeans and T-shirts and such.
The stallholders were mostly in garb, and we had a lengthy conversation with a ‘Perfumer and Mixer of Poisons’, who spent some time explaining to us which people had got their costumes right and which had not, in tones which reminded me forcibly of SCA Laurels (though I saw a lot of hidden zips in the changerooms that would have given the average Laurel conniptions in my time). He also told us a lengthy story about how his family was from France, and how one particular perfume had been a favourite of Marie Antoinette herself. We honestly couldn’t tell whether he was reciting genuine family history, or whether this was simply the character he was playing…
There were costumes for hire, both the gorgeous and the more peasant-ish, and once we saw this, we absolutely had to hire some garb for ourselves. My friend, as always, managed to look utterly elegant – her garb made her look as though she had stepped out of a portrait. Her friend and I, being of more buxom build, wound up in the standard uniform of misbehaving maidservants from every era – chemise, vest, and long, full skirt that nonetheless showed a *shocking* degree of ankle if we walked fast. My friend looked so proper in comparison – we were clearly the bad influences.
The fun part about wandering around a festival like this in a basic costume (aside from the intrinsic fun of wearing something with big swooshy skirts) is of course the fact that you become part of the scenery yourself, but in a local colour sort of way. So men bow to you, and women nod politely, but nobody stops you for photos. This is about perfect for me.
The festival was held in Friedenstein Castle, a baroque palace built by Duke Ernst I of Saxe-Gotha. While the main part of the festival was in the central courtyard, there were also performances of religious music every half hour in the chapel, and performances of theatre and dance in the Ekhoff theatre. There were also events in the palace itself and in the orangery, and people firing cannons outside on the balcony.
The courtyard had food and craft stalls, a hurdy gurdy, a carousel, and a stage that housed an incredible variety of acts, from a quartet of musicians specialising in French drinking songs to a brass quintet; from a magician to the local orchestra. The acts ranged in quality from talented amateurs to professional standard and were all very good. I loved the French songs the best, even though they gave me Language Soup Syndrome – and I must find out what lyrics they were singing to the song I know as ‘Masters in this Hall”. All I could discern was that they were both French and bawdy.
(One of the more amusing aspects of listening to this act was that I was berating myself for not being able to understand the French – certainly, being in Germany and thinking in German does tend to mess with my French language skills, but I should have been able to do better! And then they sang a song in English, and I couldn’t understand that, either, at which point I realised that the problem might not lie with me…)
We wandered into the Chapel to watch a violinist and harpsichordist play a sonata by (I think) Ernst Carl Gottfried Bach – certainly one member of this family (apparently, the Bach family was so prolific and so replete with musicians, that in some parts of Germany, the word Bach became the word for a musician), which was rather good. I loved the way that every time the violinist got to the end of an especially coloraturarific section, he’d grin that grin I know from my own face when I finish a particularly ornate run perfectly.
In the Ekhoff Theatre, which is stunning, incidentally, we watched a rather opaque allegorical dance performance to baroque music. With costumes. The dancer who played the devil was especially good.
And then came the really fun part, where we got to go into the palace and dance ourselves! Up in the castle, there was a ballroom setup, and they were playing the famous dance music from the BBC Pride and Prejudice, always a nice touch. They announced that the men were to choose partners, and my friends and I looked at each other sadly, figuring that we were out of luck. My friend didn’t mind, because her feet were hurting, but her friend is an excellent dancer and had really wanted a go. We accordingly took up stations in different corners of the ballroom from which we could gaze longingly at the dancers being taught their steps. My friend’s friend was co-opted to be a gentleman in the dance for a mother with two children who wanted to play, but I figured I was destined to be a wallflower (though it must be said that I was casting my very best mournful looks in every direction whenever I could muster the gall to do so).
And then – a very gorgeously dressed older gentleman, in full brocade and wig, came over to where I was standing with a group of other women and announced that he was seeking a dance partner. For once, my German was fast enough, and I shamelessly cried “Ja, bitte!”, and then went bright red with embarrassment at my own forwardness. But it turns out that on this occasion, the overly-enthusiastic bird is the one that gets the worm, because the gentleman in question smiled indulgently, and led me into the group of dancers.
I am fairly sure that he, and those around me, all thought I was much younger than I was, because there were a lot of kindly smiles all round.
If I am sounding all 19th-century-aflutter here, there’s a reason for it. Never in my life have I felt so much like a Jane Austen character. There is definitely something of the time-travelling nature about standing around, trying to look appealing in the hope that a Man (without whom one cannot possibly function) will offer you a dance. It takes one back at least two centuries, and probably more.
In any case, my very courtly partner led me to the dance floor as I apologised in bad German for not knowing the dance figures (we had, by now, missed the practice rounds). My German evidently has an accent, though I’ve been told it isn’t an English one, particularly, so we spent a little time discussing where I was from. The fact that I had come *all the way from Australia* to participate in a baroque festival was a matter of considerable wonder and pride, and probably the reason why, when everyone was asked to change partners at the end of the dance, I was permitted to stay in.
In fact, my partner was a very good dancer, and also rather proud of his English, so he talked me through the figures and told me who I was supposed to be dancing with at any given moment, as well as introducing me up and down the dance line as we went as his Australian dance partner. I am exotic! By the end of the set, I really did very nearly know what I was doing, and I have to say, it was absolutely marvellous fun.
At the end, he insisted on escorting me back to me friends, in best, correct 18th century style, and asked to be introduced, before bowing and departing. Very, very courtly!
I must say, I loved every minute of it, but I am incredibly glad that this is a holiday and not for real. The idea that I am a fragile, helpless female who must be guarded carefully and then returned to her friends is… not one I am comfortable with at all, really. My friend commented that she is too much of a democrat for all this show – I suspect I am too much of a feminist for it. But, oh, it was wonderful!
After the dancing, we went in search of dinner, and then came back for the fireworks display. And this, too, was wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.
I love fireworks, and don’t see them very often, and these ones were not merely fireworks, but fireworks in a baroque palace, to the accompaniment of Handel’s Firework Music, played by a very good orchestra.
I nearly cried again.
It was the perfect end to the day.
We walked back to our Pension, with my friend in the middle, and the two of us skipping on either side of her, singing bits of dance music and giggling and going “Das war so toll!” all the way home…
Sunday, August 31st – Gotha
We had had all these plans for visiting the museum or going further afield on Sunday, but after the joy of the dancing, and all the other wonderful things going on, we decided to go straight back to the festival. We didn’t want to miss a moment of it! We packed our luggage into the car, and then found ourselves following a horse and carriage to the palace. Since we were all in costume, the occupants of the carriage all bowed gravely and removed their hats, which was delightful, but got a bit awkward because it was a ten-minute ride, and really, what do you do next?
We arrived just in time for the military review, followed by the firing of more cannons of different sizes. This was fun. Also very, very loud.
We decided to give more allegorical dance a go, this time with Telemann, and this time it was really a lot of fun – half dance, half play, and also half old-fashioned German and half French – with that lovely East German accent that has been causing me so much trouble these last two days! Despite the general unintelligibility of the dialogue, at least to me, it was actually very funny, largely because the woman playing the bride had a fantastic way with gesture and sly looks at the audience – though all the dancer/actors were marvellous.
There was a wonderful exhibition on the central stage, in which they brought forward different people, and explained not only how their costumes were made and put on, but what they were called and what the material and style said about one’s status. (Short version: the more material, and the more brocade, the wealthier the wearer.)
My language soup was now complete, as I discovered when I was looking at the craft stalls and one of the stallholders asked me to do an Australian accent – and I couldn’t. My accent isn’t strong, and I have to reach for an Australian accent at the best of time, but with so much French and German in my ears, I simply couldn’t find it.
I went back to the centre stage for more French drinking songs and was amused to find myself singing along to “What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor”, not a song I had ever anticipated singing in this context, and then retreated out of the way because court was in session, and there was a huge procession about to begin.
The various nobility and officials came out, looking very grand and very efficient, and right at the end of the procession, where the important people were, who should it be but my dance partner of the night before. It turns out that I had been dancing with the Duke! (This might explain why nobody else spoke up as fast as I did when he asked for a dance partner – I was the only barbarian Ausländer too uncultivated to realise his status and be duly awed…)
Jane Austen, eat your heart out.
We had lunch and explored the festival some more, but by now it was getting to mid-afternoon, and we had a long drive ahead of us, so we finally – reluctantly – changed into our ordinary clothes and – even more reluctantly – left the festival.
As I think I mentioned a few days ago, Gotha is in the throes of election fever, and there were signs everywhere.
Sadly, all too many of them were from a new conservative party, and the slogans were all too familiar.
Another party, which I understand to be occupying the same ecological niche as the Australian Democrats, had the rather unfortunate slogan ‘Wir sind noch mal da’, which apparently carries the meaning ‘we are already gone’, or something to that effect. I understand that this is, in fact, the case, but I find it mind-boggling that someone would use this as a rallying cry.
There were also a lot of neo-Nazi signs, which had, pleasingly, attracted a fair bit of rude commentary.
And then we drove home, through an endless series of traffic-jams (one of which was, apparently, swan-related), dropped in so that I could say my goodbyes to my friend’s mother, and went home to sleep.
Monday, September 1st – On a plane above East Germany
This morning, we got up rather later than we had meant to, but still decided that we needed a walk – my friend lives right on the edge of the village, so three minutes takes you into the countryside. We had a pleasant walk past farms and orchards – a final leg-stretch before the long flight.
And then it was time for farewells. This had us both in tears – we’ve never spent so long in each other’s company before and there really aren’t too many people with whom one can go on a holiday involving glacier climbs, cycling, historical monuments, opera, costumes and theology – with equal enthusiasm! I do wish we lived closer together.
I am happy to be going home to my Andrew and my cats and my own bed – to not be living out of a suitcase anymore. But this holiday has been something quite special – almost a holiday from being me. I felt free to ignore the news, not check my work emails, not think about bills or grants or the state of the kitchen. I can’t remember when I last felt so light. Hopefully, I can hold on to this feeling of freedom and find a way to meet my responsibilities without letting them consume me.
And so ends my journey.