On Foreign Ground

The Einsiedeln Abbey.

The Einsiedeln Abbey, Switzerland.

Yes, it is a very cold summer indeed, I thought when crossing a grass field early this morning while the rain came and went, forcing me to wrap my scarf around my head in a way that could be applied to various kinds of religions. From where I stood, I could behold the Einsiedeln abbey from a distance. Surrounded by clouded hilltops, it was silent, enclosed, fortresslike. I have a strong inclination for claustrophobia, and it seems rather etymologically correct that monasteries and cloisters often produce this feeling in me, rather than conveying an atmosphere of seclusion and pious, scholarly peace. I saw the majestic abbey buildings from a distance, an outsider and stranger alone in the morning rain, and thought about that in a couple of hours, we would enter the monastery library to do what we came for; to examine the manuscript no. 326, for centuries protected from the world by stone walls and misty mountains.

The day before, we had arrived in the village of Einsiedeln in a cacophony of sound. Outside the railway station, a group of street organ players in folkloristic clothes were playing and singing; as we rolled our suitcases over the cobblestones of the Hauptstrasse, it sounded like a thunderstorm, and when we had checked in at our hotel at the Klosterplatz, immediately in front of the gigantic façade of the abbey church, the bells started to ring, as they would do every second hour and during such a long time that the sound almost became paralyzing.

Our research project, Topos and Topography, has guidebooks as its special focus. New ones, old ones, used ones; works of various periods from the Middle Ages and onward with one aim: to help the poor stranger, lost in a foreign place, with no idea about how to behave, where to go, what to see and how to get there. It is out of this need, this emergency situation, when the travellers just have started to wonder why on earth they did not stay at home, and what the use of travel really is, that the guidebook tries to come to their aid with all its seemingly dull and dry descriptions and prescriptions.

When we entered the Einsiedeln abbey church yesterday afternoon, we did so without guidebooks. Thus, we almost missed the very centre of attention inside the church, the chapel to Our Lady of the Dark Forest; we had no clue about when the salmon pink stucco decorations were made, or where the little door to the left of the choir may lead, or when next mass would take place, or whether Christ and all the angels really assisted at the consecration of the church in 10th century or not. Eventually, some of us bought guidebooks to the church at the entrance, but did not get much wiser from that since they were written in a very densely composed German. Just as in a rather boring museum, I started to feel that my feet were a little sore, and began thinking about whether to buy some Kräuterlikör in the cloister shop or not. My body protested to the situation with tiredness and ache, and my mind typically tried to solve its anguish with thoughts of shopping.

The madonna of Einsiedeln.

The madonna of Einsiedeln.

When time had come for dinner, we did not know where to go. Almost every restaurant seemed either too expensive or too bad. When we decided for a place, the Swiss specialities on the menu and their names were both problematic and hilariously funny, AND expensive. We did not get any napkins, and noone knew what napkin is called in German. Food and wine arrived, and our first Einsiedeln evening together became as nice as ever when we get together – only that this time, we were not on our home ground, Rome, a place we all know very well from years of visits and various research projects; we were on foreign ground. We were strangers. We were tourists! We were a group of tourists.

When the church bells started to roar again at 05.30, I seriously asked myself why we had come to Einsiedeln. The hotel could not in any way be described as nice; late in the evening before water had started to come UP from the shower sewer rather than the other way around, Internet was not working, though the receptionist said it worked, and dizzy from the long train journey from Sweden I felt that the whole building was swaying, while the bells rang and rang. So when I got up and went for my desperate walk over the rainy fields outside the village, I wondered if this detour of ours really would prove to be worthwhile. But when we met outside the Hofpforte at ten o’clock, I knew that today would be different. Today, we would not be strangers. We would be insiders…

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